E3: Microsoft Conference - Halo 4, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Lots of Sports, Xbox Music, SmartGlass, IE on 360

By Matt Bailey

The round of E3 press conferences began with a media and sports-focused effort from Microsoft, but they did at least open with one of their key releases of the year...

Halo 4

One game we could guarantee we would see at Microsoft's E3 conference was Halo 4, the first post-Bungie game for the main series with 343 Industries taking on the helm for what will become the second trilogy. For better or worse, the gameplay looks pretty much like Halo as you know it, but visually it seems to have taken a step up, with the new technology demonstrating the benefits of developing for a single console compared to other multi-platform first person shooters. We got to see some campaign action, including hints of the Forerunner story, as well as a demonstration of the combat. The only real surprise was that this turned out to be the only one of Microsoft's first-party games that received a gameplay demonstration, perhaps indicating how important the game is to the company's current strategy.

In-game image from the Halo 4 campaign

In-game image from the Halo 4 campaign

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

The first reveal of E3 went to Ubisoft's new entry in the action-stealth Splinter Cell series, with a game that mechanically seems to follow on from 2010's Conviction. Performance capture is being used here to improve the animation, but the bigger change is the Middle East location that was demoed on stage. Hopefully we'll see some other parts of the world too, otherwise the game will end up being caught up with the similar looking first person shooters.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist will keep the giant projected letters from Conviction

Splinter Cell: Blacklist will keep the giant projected letters from Conviction

American Sports Bonanza

While EA provided a bit of FIFA and Madden (now both Kinect enabled), most of the sports focus was actually on live coverage of the NHL, NFL and NBA. These brands are all bringing their services to the Xbox 360, which is great... if you're North American. Even if you're a European who follows these US and Canada-focussed events, then you're unlikely to be able to subscribe as they have historically not left those two nations. Right now you can't get ESPN either, so you'll be pleased to know they're expanding that service too in the home market alone. Essentially this portion of the conference wasn't for the people in the rest of the word.

Everyone's an athlete

Nike came on stage to make a presentation showing off a new Kinect game and the integration with their own "Nike Fuel" initiative. It might be an interesting gimmick, but the presentation on stage spent far too long talking up the company, and little time explaining what their new title really does different from existing offerings like Ubisoft's YourShape. There was also the ridiculous claim that "if you have a body, you're an athlete".

The Xbox SmartGlass app on the 360

The Xbox SmartGlass app on the 360

Xbox Music, SmartGlass and IE on 360

Xbox Music is a Zune Marketplace (well, the music bit, naturally) rebranding. That's pretty much all you need to know, although Microsoft spent far too long trying to spin this as something new and exciting. It's a new music store with cloud storage... a bit like the world's most popular digital music store, iTunes. Although not discussed on stage, the video part of the Zune Marketplace will get the equally original "Xbox Video" rebranding. Something Microsoft also spent a bit too long talking about was SmartGlass, although it was a first reveal for the company's new technology. This is their new way of integrating the 360, Windows 8 tablet, and Windows Phones with synchronisation so that stuff you're doing on one device can interact with the others. That can include things as simple as resuming music or films across devices (like you can do with Netflix today), or allowing one device to 'augment' the other, such as providing actor biographies on your tablet while watching a film. Because we really need more distractions. More interestingly was the game possibilities, including providing a Wii U-like extra in-game screen, or by allowing things like Halo 4 invites to be managed away from the console, although a web interface could handle this bit just as well. SmartGlass should also be coming to Android and iOS in addition to Windows devices, so your iPad or Galaxy S3 can join in the fun. To cap off the excitement of SmartGlass was the reveal that the company's declining and formerly dominant web browser Internet Explorer would finally be coming to the 360. While you can navigate with Kinect, the SmartGlass integration means you'll be able to navigate web pages using your touch screen portable device. According to Microsoft keyboards don't belong in the living room... unless they're virtual ones on your device, of course.

Internet Explorer on the Xbox 360

Internet Explorer on the Xbox 360

A glimmer of games

After all the marketing nonsense around SmartGlass in the presentation which seemed to drown out the good ideas it contains, it was up to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to provide comic relief. Coming on stage to talk about their new RPG based on the show, Trey asked the audience if they had ever thought while watching the show that they'd like to "watch this on my television, while hooked into my mobile device, which is controlled by my tablet device, which is hooked into my oven, all while sitting in the refrigerator". It's an important question, and one that may not have made Microsoft very happy... Not only did they amuse, but it was nice to see some games in the conference again. Crystal Dynamics had also earlier shown new footage of the new Tomb Raider which is looking rather like Uncharted but with lots of screaming instead of wise-cracking, and Microsoft decided to show a few bits of game footage. Before the show we knew Gears of War Judgement was going to be shown, but we only got a very short CGI clip with no details, and even Forza Horizon, which has been impressing on the show floor, got a short video which didn't even talk about its open world nature. There were also very short glimpses of some brand new games, but again details were very light. While there were some big games here, including an overly long segment of gameplay from Call of Duty: Black Ops II (a game which is better played than shown), it does feel like the main focus of the conference was to discuss Microsoft's further ambitions for the living room. "Xbox" is no longer just a gaming brand.

Usher

One last thing to mention is Microsoft's decision to put Usher on stage. While it's not surprising to see them roll out more stars, he could at least have been playing Dance Central 3, the game he was meant to be promoting, instead of putting on what essentially amounted to a 5 minute concert with no relevance to games.

Podcast Debate

For more discussion and debate around all the conferences, listen to the latest episode of the allaboutgames.co.uk Podcast.

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