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Entertainment & Arts

What Microsoft’s Xbox Series X preview does and doesn’t tell us about the future of gaming

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Explore England as a Viking raider in “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.”
(Ubisoft)

For a small, ever-so-brief moment, everything in video game land was back to normal. “It’s time to get hyped,” said Aaron Greenberg, key marketing exec at Xbox Games. Over the next 40 or so minutes, Microsoft was set to stream early looks at games coming to its new Xbox Series X console, the successor to the Xbox One due later this year.

But the hype levels never quite reached peak marketing extravagance. Blame the lack of the thrill on closely cropped footage on video conferencing services such as Zoom. Or point to the confusion over how to sell a sure-to-be-pricey new video game console in the age of coronavirus, when employment for many is fragile, at best, and a work-from-home lifestyle has thrown release dates of upcoming games into murky territory.

Microsoft has essentially taken a one-month-at-a-time approach. Today’s online event didn’t show anything from Microsoft-owned studios such as Obsidian or DoubleFine. And those wanting news on the company’s latest in the “Halo” franchise, from Microsoft’s 343 Industries, will need to return for an online event in July.

In the absence of a single video game gathering such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo, normally held each June in downtown Los Angeles, the industry is instead planning staggered online teases of upcoming games. These are hype events that are hyping not just upcoming games but future hype events.

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Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines 2
The long-awaited “Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines 2" is coming to Xbox Series X.
(Hardsuit Labs/Paradox Interactive)

Today, said Geoff Keighley, organizer of the Game Awards and the man behind Summer Game Fest, an online event intended to fill in for the canceled E3, felt more like “the first semester” of school. Speaking on his own livestream analyzing today’s reveals, Keighley preached patience, noting that this is the “first of many weeks” in which we will learn about new games and consoles and attempt to be sold on why we need both in our lives.

To be sure, Microsoft gave glimpses of 13 games, and while it was never really clear when we were seeing actual gameplay of the new Xbox Series X versus footage created in the game’s engine — the latter will always be more polished than anything rendered in real time — today’s event was notable in how it specifically seemed to downplay the hype. Rather than the big bang of digital explosions, recognizable franchises and over-the-top violence that is typical of an E3 event, there was a prevailing sense of “working with what we have” rather than selling the sizzle.

To wit: While the new Ubisoft title “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” was the largest mainstream draw, we instead saw games from smaller, more independent-minded teams — psychological horror game “The Medium,” set in Poland, featuring music from “Silent Hill"composer Akira Yamaoka, or the intriguing mix of vintage animation and futuristic imagery that was “Call of the Sea.”

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Looks inside these games were tiny and didn’t offer much to go on when it comes to story or how they may play, but there were still some key takeaways from this first day of summer school designed to sell the new era of gaming.

We asked game developers: What’s your go-to game in coronavirus quarantine? Makers behind ‘Doom Eternal,’ ‘The Last of Us’ ‘Watch Dogs,’ more answer

1. The next generation of games will feature lots of weather

The online event opened with a clip of “Bright Memory Infinite” from the relatively unknown FYQD-Studio in China. We were told by Microsoft that this game was created by a single individual (Zeng Xiancheng), and while it has been teased for the PC, what we saw today was a mix of first-person-shooting and vehicular combat that appeared to be designed specifically for the Xbox Series X.

But that’s not what impressed. Instead, this looked like a showcase for rain-soaked water effects, with light tracing the formation of puddles and foggy, cloudy surroundings obscuring our hero’s view. Out of the mist were medieval-style warriors and futuristic cars, but it largely looked like experiments in so-called ray-tracing, which helps render real-time, realistic lighting effects in games.

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In fact, nearly every clip shown by Microsoft today emphasized harsh environments (read: lots of rain, some lightning). In the racer “Dirt 5" from Codemasters we saw vehicles traversing New York’s frozen East River. And in “The Medium” we paused on a tear, and watched a knife fall to the ground on glistening, roan-soaked pavement.

When the Xbox Series X arrives, the weather may be gloomy but it will be pretty.

Dirt 5
Race through New York and other locales in “Dirt 5.”
(Codemasters)

2. Be wary of those who work around the advantages of the Xbox Series X

Electronic Arts sneaked into today’s event with a brief look at its upcoming “Madden NFL 21.” The company largely played on our nostalgia of the franchise, with glimpses of its easy-to-play beginnings contrasting with its more realistic, overly busy look today.

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Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes introduced the game to fans, but there was one moment that should have given everyone pause. If you buy the game on your current Xbox One, Mahomes said, “You get it free on Xbox Series X.” This would seem to imply that “Madden” is a part of what Microsoft is calling its “Smart Delivery” program, but that’s not quite what this is.

Microsoft has made Smart Delivery a key selling point — a welcome selling point — of the Xbox Series X. Essentially, this means that for games and publishers that opt into the program, Microsoft’s tech will recognize which system you are using and then optimize the game for either the Xbox Series X or an earlier box. This encourages fans to buy into an ecosystem rather than a specific game console, and ensures that fans don’t have to buy multiple copies of a game, as the bulk of content released for new console generations usually also is available for the prior one.

Electronic Arts is going its own route. An FAQ on its site says that you need to purchase the new “Madden” by the end of the year to be eligible for the upgrade to Xbox Series X. Microsoft’s Smart Delivery is a consumer-friendly approach that gives fans the peace of mind to buy a game when they can, knowing it will work when or if they opt to upgrade to a new console. EA’s version is an upgrade program but with strings attached.

Second Extinction
If you like guns and dinosaurs, get excited for “Second Extinction.”
(Systemic Reaction)
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3. We’re going to be hearing lots about Vikings

The upcoming “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” received the largest segment at today’s event, and while this won’t be exclusive to any one platform or the next generation of gaming, we learned a bit more about how the new edition further upends the “Assassin’s Creed” formula. Creative director Ashraf Ismail pitched a game that extends far beyond the stealth roots of the franchise.

We will, said Ismail, take on the role of a Viking raider who is leaving Norway with the goal of settling England, a place of “broken kingdoms.” Players will be tasked with forging allegiances with kings and Vikings, and staging raids and attacks on large settlements. It will be a mix of land and sea battles.

Asked how the game takes advantage of the Xbox Series X, Ismail, like many of those speaking today, noted that the console essentially does away with loading times between game scenes. While this is a frustration of players who sit and wait for scenes to load, it remains to be seen if this a primary factor when it comes to buying into a new platform in its early days. Ismail promised the real-time loading and rendering will create lusher, more expansive worlds.

Fun fact: When not working on the new “Assassin’s Creed,” Ismail told us that his go-to game to de-stress during this moment is “Dead Cells.”

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Call of the Sea
“Call of the Sea” was a highlight of Microsoft’s look at Xbox Series X games.
(Raw Fury)

4. One lovely surprise!

We saw quick looks at the latest in the “Yakuza” series, “Like a Dragon,” and learned that the long-awaited “Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines 2" was coming to the Xbox Series X. The latter looked especially enticing and creepy, complete with a Christmas scene in which what appeared to be dead humans were hung like puppets. In development from Hardsuit Labs/Paradox Interactive, the clip today showed us multiple classes of vampires and how they survive.

More lighthearted was “Second Extinction,” a human-versus-dinosaur romp from Systemic Reaction, part of the Avalanche Studios Group. We didn’t see much but it’s safe to say this is a game that features lots of guns and lots of dinosaurs. More mysterious was “Scorn,” with an H.R. Giger-inspired look that made it feel akin to the “Alien” franchise. Then there was Deep Silver’s “Chorus,” a space-flight action game with a sinister underbelly, and the cyberpunk game “The Ascent,” bringing us the old video game standard of having to fight against an evil corporation.

Raw Fury’s “Call of the Sea,” however, stood out, offering a potential narrative that mixed old-school action-adventure with sci-fi elements.

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The art style looks a bit pulp, with a 1930s heroine who could be lifted from an alternate-take “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Norah is her name, and she sets off to find out what happened to her husband’s lost expedition. This brings her to a tropical island, where thatched buildings give way to underground caverns that look like they belong to an ancient yet advanced civilization. With its ghostly ships and vintage visions of a paradise lost, “Call of the Sea” is already setting up a mystery I’m eager to unravel.


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