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War Never Changes

As we enter the next generation and are still confronted with an endless barrage of guns and cars, are we handing over money for old rope?

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

I'm taking a wild guess here, but this morning you won't be short of opinion pieces that are anti-Microsoft and pro-Sony. It is of course right that Sony's big announcements about used games, price and no region lock should garner all the praise in the world - though it does somewhat obscure the fact that, outside of this key battleground, both competitors offer much of the same when it comes to what really matters. The games.

What makes a phrase a cliché, like 'next generation' for example, is that most of the people using it rarely stop to think about what that means. The next generation is, in the context of consoles, the improved future, an evolutionary leap that offers experiences beyond those we know. Last night we saw the next generation of games from both parties, and the big surprise was the almost universal lack of ambition among them. It was Microsoft's show in particular that really made me worry and, as a rapidly-aging gaming obsessive, I wonder if the problem is on my side.

Except it's not. I love a good shooter. I enjoy driving games. And yet outside of a few noble and notable exceptions, the line-up that Microsoft are hoping will convince us to buy an Xbox One is astonishingly bereft of new ideas. There's very little we haven't seen before - and certainly, to my mind, nothing worth $499.

The Xbox One is basically Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, except it lacks all the charm and ladles on a lot of creepy dystopian crap to stop you using it.

Ryse is a genre piece that, despite having the incredible history and mythology of Rome to draw upon, is executed with all the flair of an empty bag of chips.

Let's look at Microsoft's lead-out for the Xbox One - ignoring Metal Gear Solid 5, a cross-platform title - the prime spot for an exclusive that was surely the focus of much internal debate. They went for Ryse, Crytek's Roman-themed hack-n-slash. It is a third-person game with a combat system based on timed parries and QTE finishers; you can tell exactly what this plays like by just looking at it. It's a naked attempt to give Xbox One a God of War. This is a next generation gaming experience, we are told, and the only response is simple. No, it is indisputably not.

Ryse is a genre piece that, despite having the incredible history and mythology of Rome to draw upon, is executed with all the flair of an empty bag of chips. And what about that arrow through the eye, eh? VISCERAL. I vividly recall when God of War 3 made me depress the thumbsticks to crush someone's eyes, and thinking that series had jumped the shark. My favourite games are third-person combat games, so I'm not shy of a bit of viscera - but this is merely torture porn. Here is the message of Ryse: Crytek can do QTEs, and gratuitous violence is cool. Knock yourselves out defending that as the next generation.

Or even better, think about what Microsoft thinks of you. Ryse is right up your alley. Right? The follow up to this was a free-to-play Killer Instinct reboot, and everyone who called for it should take a long and hard look at themselves. It is a reboot of a game that was crap in the first place. You asked for it.

I'm not going to go through the whole presser in detail, but it is worth reminding ourselves. Forza 5 at least had the 'Drivatar' (urgh!) feature to justify the always-online nonsense, though it seems like most of the dev team's time was spent on getting paint reflections accurate. Fair enough. Minecraft's Xbox One edition was a gimmie, because money. Dead Rising 3 was presented without a mankini in sight, the defining silliness of the series quietly hidden in a doomed attempt to ape a more serious apocalypse. Quantum Break and Halo showed nothing, while Crimson Dragon's basically an on-rails shooter familiar to Saturn owners. Sunset Overdrive was another shooter that at least promised a fresh take, visually, but chickened out with a CG trailer - and after Fuse, would you really trust Insomniac with guns?

"This is not a new generation, but a lick of paint on the same old rope - except this time, the seller keeps hold of one end."

Here smiles a man with death in his eyes. Urban legend has it that Don Mattrick requires two hours' charging time before a press conference, which is of course ridiculous.

Not the point anyway. The themes given overwhelming stage time were the old ones: shooting, and driving cars. Then you get something like Below by Capybara, a new take on the roguelike by a top-class developer. One-minute trailer, no-one from Capy on stage. Perhaps it was too beautiful and intriguing for a night of empty booms.

Then you get something like Below by Capybara, a new take on the roguelike by a top-class developer. One-minute trailer, no-one from Capy on stage.

I need to quickly remind you of that cliché 'next generation' before talking about Project Spark. This is perhaps the most unusual Xbox One title, and is fundamentally following what Sony and Media Molecule achieved in the current generation with LittleBigPlanet and its sequel. Sure voice commands are neat, and it's nice to see Kodu finally turning into something that might shift a few copies, but this is a slow reaction to the other side - and one that, crucially, cannot compete with Media Molecule's melange of visual styles. Another B-lister.

And it all ended with Titanfall. Wow. The first game from Respawn, formed by Infinity Ward's founders, will clearly be a finely tuned and responsive shooter. It also shows that this is a studio bereft of imagination and, indeed, any creativity beyond making things explode nicer. That's great, and there's surely a place for that, but is it the next generation? Or is it something we've already played a hundred times before, with the addition of a snazzy ejector seat for misanthropes like me? One wonders if the minds at Respawn are really going to spend the rest of their careers fiddling with variations on a theme. Presumably so.

I haven't mentioned the main battleground between Xbox One and PS4 because, quite honestly, my intentions were to buy both. Last night I realised I don't have to. Microsoft's exclusives have implications that gamers should pay serious attention to.

Well, at least the boxes are nice.

This software line-up was a slate borne of fear. A conviction at the very highest level of Microsoft management that the future is to be won by clutching tightly to the past, to tried-and-tested genres and the comforting projections they bring. This is not a new generation, but a lick of paint on the same old rope - except this time, the seller keeps hold of one end. It beggars belief that this can be sold as innovation.

More than anything else, last night was a reminder of what consoles are for and when the concept dates from. That is, they're a product of a bygone age - one where I didn't have a PC that's can play anything, plus a tablet and phone with superlative software libraries. In 2013 a console is more of a luxury item than ever before, and especially for its target audience.

So let's get down to it; after all, they want our cash. What did Microsoft show us? The same old tired nonsense: 18-rated games for 15-year-old boys. Don Mattrick has dead eyes for a reason. It's impossible to care about the software they're pushing. Ryse is old rope. Killer Instinct is old rope. Am I supposed to make an exception for Battlefield 4? Even stuff like Titanfall is old old old, shoot the bang with bells and whistles. When did the creatives in charge of so many big studios run out of ideas beyond 'give this guy a gun'?

As the medium of gaming matures, and the audience with it, hopefully console developers will too. Meantime we get press conferences like last night, where Microsoft executives act like their entire audience has a single-digit IQ and masturbates over assault rifles.

I have always fiercely defended gaming to those who don't understand, who think it's all about brainless violence. Last night, Microsoft made me wonder if they're right. Maybe gaming is just about guns and cars, plus a platform that treats players like criminals-in-waiting.

Or maybe that's only the view from Redmond. The respect Microsoft has for the specialist press - and, by extension, you - is easily read by the fact its management has pared back E3 interviews, and will be dodging the big questions. So it's not like they'll notice our opprobrium.

I was there for them though and I'm sure you were too, day one for Xbox and day one for 360. Good times. And over that decade I've matured, like all of the gaming audience, in ways that Microsoft doesn't recognize and cannot serve. It's sad saying goodbye to anything, never mind a companion you've outgrown. Things are always easier when they're black and white though. Xbox? Off.

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