Five Thoughts on Microsoft’s X14 Media Showcase

Sony and Microsoft’s holiday preview events have traditionally been showcases for third-party partners, a trait that sometimes imposed a tedious homogeneity on gaming as a medium. There’s little to distinguish one console from the other when both are advertised as vehicles for Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty.

Last week’s X14 media preview was a welcome reprieve from that kind of uniformity. Though space was allotted to Mortal Kombat and The Evil Within, other multiplatform franchises (including Call of Duty) were notably absent, giving smaller titles more room to breathe. Most of the floor was devoted to Xbox exclusives beyond the two-horse stable of Gears of War and Halo, making X14 far more compelling than prior galas. Even if I didn’t like every new game – and I liked most of them – I at least saw something different, and that’s reason enough to get excited.

Here are four more thoughts on Microsoft’s impressive X14 showing in Toronto.

Indie Ascendant

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The biggest beneficiaries of the limited triple-A presence were the independent developers that often get overshadowed. X14 included several that weren’t even on my radar.

Knight Squad, from Quebec developer Chainsawesome Games, is the most impressive newcomer. Riding a wave of local multiplayer titles with a similar scope, Knight Squad is a top-down capture the flag variant with the visual trappings of Towerfall: Ascension. Other standouts include Frima Studio’s Chariot, a puzzle-platformer in which you move a chariot over rough terrain, and Ori and the Blind Forest, a haunting 2D platformer from Moon Studios in the Metroidvania tradition with a save system borrowed from They Bleed Pixels.

Meanwhile, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime from Toronto’s Asteroid Base improves with every outing (the boss fights look spectacular). I hope the independent trend continues. The increased diversity indicates that Microsoft finally recognizes that there’s an audience for games beyond shooters. The more viable outlets there are soliciting content, the better it is for developers and the people that play their games.

 

History of Halo

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Deep down, there’s a part of me that knows that Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a cash grab. It wouldn’t exist if Microsoft didn’t expect to turn a profit.

But I have to respect the fact that The Master Chief Collection displays a genuine appreciation for gaming history while also finding a way to introduce that history to new audiences. More so than film or television, gaming has struggled to preserve its past, especially where online multiplayer is concerned. Once the servers go down, the game ceases to exist, as it did after the last stragglers logged out of Halo 2.

The Master Chief Collection may be the best attempt yet to restore not just the code, but the subjective experience that made a game so beloved. The ability to revisit favorite multiplayer maps – or to immediately switch from the updated HD artwork to the original artwork in Halo 2 – indicates that the older engine still has value, an important lesson for students of the medium. The Master Chief Collection is as much a history project as a rerelease, which is why it’s worth a look even if you’ve never cared much for Halo.

Is it worth it if you’ve already played all the Halo games? It’s tough to say, and it probably depends on your feelings about multiplayer. But there’s real value to be found in extra features like the mission playlists that double as Halo’s Greatest Hits, and I really can’t take issue with the packaging. Halo is one of gaming’s most iconic franchises, and I’d like to see more games get such a respectful treatment.

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Get Ur Freak On in G Major

 

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Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ is a great song. I’m glad we’re all in agreement. But it’s jarring to see it in something with Fantasia branding, and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it.

The argument in favor – as explained to me by Fantasia: Music Evolved Executive Producer Chris Nicholls – is that Fantasia was created to celebrate the classic music of its day, not necessarily classical music specifically. There were always supposed to be regular updates to reflect the latest trends in music and technology.

I’ve heard the story before, and for the most part I agree with the logic. Hip-hop is deserving of that kind of recognition and the interactive features of gaming have the potential to enhance our relationship to music. For instance, Music Evolved allows players to remix every track during gameplay and the process confers a greater understanding of composition and genre. It may be Guitar Hero for orchestra conductors, but Disney’s latest is still rooted in musicality and songs like ‘Seven Nation Army’ are elevated through their inclusion alongside classics like ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ (rather than vice versa).

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Yet while Music Evolved seems to be hitting the right notes, I still get the impression that the set list is trying too hard to generate commercial interest through pop music. Many of the songs – such as Lorde’s ‘Royals’ – are too young to be established classics, and despite the concessions I’m not convinced there’s a market for a Kinect exclusive now that the motion sensor is no longer packaged with every console.

As a game critic and a Fantasia nerd, I’d love to see the franchise translated for an interactive age. I’m just not sure the radio edit of ‘Forget You’ is the way to go about it.

 

Sunrise, Sunset

 

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At a glance, the bright neon and frenetic pace of Sunset Overdrive makes for a pleasant alternative to the drab military palettes to which we’ve become accustomed. The game is bursting with color, even if it is in service of routine kill-everything objectives.

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In that regard, Sunset Overdrive reminds me a lot of Vanquish, with a little bit of Bulletstorm mixed in for flavor. That’s also why I’m slightly apprehensive. Both Vanquish and Bulletstorm rank amongst the best shooters of their generation, but neither was particularly accessible. You couldn’t fully appreciate the intricacies of the gameplay systems until you’d spent hours mastering every layer of the mechanics.

I’m getting a similar vibe off Sunset Overdrive. In order to play the game properly, you have to keep moving, bouncing from walls to rails to rooftops while shooting mutants without ever touching the ground. That kind of ballistic all-offense gameplay is incredibly engaging when done right and Insomniac has the pedigree to pull it off. But it takes practice, and not everyone has that kind of time or patience.

There are so many unanswered questions that I don’t feel like I have a good positive or negative sense of how the game will play over time. I’m cautiously optimistic, but if Sunset Overdrive demands mastery, it will be interesting to see how Insomniac gets people over the learning curve. The AI in the media demo was scaled back to make it easier for newcomers. I doubt the finished game will be so forgiving, and it could make for a rough reception if too many people get discouraged.

 

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