For a press conference meant to set the tone for the next generation of Xbox, Microsoft spent a lot of time looking back. Way back.
It was an event that exhumed Crackdown; brought back ghosts of 2004 with Halo 2, and saw industry vet Ken Lobb take the stage to tease a reboot of Phantom Dust. It played almost like a greatest hits tape, reaching all the way back to the early days of the original Xbox. I honestly half-expected Project Gotham Racing to put in an appearance. (Man, that would have been sweeeeet -- Ed.)
For Microsoft, it was a performance that was both expected and little depressing. With the Xbox One lagging behind the PlayStation 4, they largely doubled down on the past, relying heavily on expected reveals of Halo, Forza, and Fable. Many of the third-party games were likewise the usual suspects from previous generations -- Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Dragon Age, and The Witcher among them.
Microsoft set the tone by leading with Call of Duty, a move that has paid off in previous years by heavily associating the Xbox brand with gaming's premier shooter. This year, Call of Duty looked old and creaky, trafficking heavily in military shooter clichés from years past. Not even the odd appearance of a giant mech or bionic arm was enough to elevate a series that is clearly beginning to show its age.
Later reveals weren't quite as dire as that of Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, but they nevertheless relied heavily on established brands and trends. Crackdown 3 and Phantom Dust are both blasts from Microsoft's past. Project Spark -- an interesting RPG Maker meets Minecraft build-a-game project -- featured a cameo by Conker of all characters, the foul-mouthed mascot that has long been a gaming punchline.
Where Microsoft showcased something new, they usually shined. Ori and Inside both featured memorable art. Though it got only a few seconds in an indie sizzle reel, Cuphead produced double takes with graphics that literally looked as if they had been ripped from a cartoon. The announcement that Platinum Games would be producing an all-new game exclusively for the Xbox One drew "oohs" from the audience. Demos for both Evolve and Sunset Overdrive were greeted warmly by fans and critics desperate for something original.
Assuming we remember Microsoft's press event in a month or two though, the moment that will most likely spring to mind will be the obligatory teabagging during the Halo 2 demo. During the event, I tweeted, "We're gonna party like 2004," and as it turned out, I was more right than I knew. Though there were sparks of originality here and there -- I really do think both Sunset Overdrive and Project Spark look fun -- there was a distinct sense of "business as usual" at the Microsoft press event. Content is obviously still king, but it feels like we've been playing most of this content for a decade now.
In some ways, it makes me wonder just what we're supposed to be expecting from this generation. At this time in 2007, we were getting our first taste of the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, BioShock, and Mass Effect -- all games that felt legitimately "next-gen" and pushed their respective genres forward in some way. If I wanted to sell someone on an Xbox 360, it was easy for me to point toward those games and say, "That's the future right there." Thus far, outside of maybe Titanfall, I haven't seen a lot of that from this generation.
The thing is, a Modern Warfare-style paradigm shift is probably still coming. Somewhere, I imagine that there's a game in development that will completely change our expectations for this generation. Unfortunately, that game was not at Microsoft's press conference, to their detriment.
In playing it as safe as possible, Microsoft's conference ended up distinctly last-gen -- hardly a good look for a platform holder looking to push the Xbox One as the console of the future. After leading the way for so much of the Xbox 360 generation, Microsoft seems content to rest on past hits. I'll happily buy games like Sunset Overdrive when they come out in the fall; but if this is what I should be expect from Microsoft for the next couple years, it'll be tough to recommend the Xbox One going forward.