This is a big moment for the Xbox One. Microsoft has spent the better part of the last three years rebuilding its brand as a gamer-centric, consumer-friendly company willing to do whatever it takes to win back its lost loyalty. Now the console’s future is tied to a bold vision that players should be able to play games wherever they please, whether that be on a couch in the living room or with a mouse and keyboard.
Microsoft is walking a fine line here. The company wants to make itself as relevant to gamers as it was in the age of the Xbox 360, but it’s also trying to deemphasize hardware in favor of software by bridging the gap between Xbox and Windows 10. That may sound simple on the surface: just make every big console exclusive work across both platforms, right? However, Microsoft has to make sure gamers who prefer one platform over the other — or play both at the same time — don’t feel like they’re receiving the short end of the stick.
microsoft is trying to please both console and pc players
Whether Microsoft’s long-term strategy either starts clicking with consumers or proves too big a challenge depends entirely on whether it can please multiple audiences simultaneously with the same slate of new titles. At its spring showcase, the company brought out the games it hopes both exemplify this corporate vision and entice consumers by actually being fun to play, unique, and worth our time and money.
The good news: it’s an interesting time to be an Xbox owner and a PC player, and Microsoft doesn’t look like it’s backing down from its platform-agnostic promise any time soon. But we're still a long way from seeing the next Halo or Gears of War arriving on Windows 10. So Microsoft will have to move on from what's effectively a handful of experiments and follow through with its franchise titles if it wants to convince consumers it's truly serious about cross-platform gaming. We're beginning to see baby steps: Gears of War Ultimate Edition launched for Windows 10 today, and Microsoft also announced a new free-to-play version of Forza Motorsport 6 for PC.
Quantum Break is hard to wrap your head around, and I’m not talking about its theoretical physics-based plot line. Remedy Entertainment’s new action game, out on April 5th for Xbox One and PC, is also a live-action digital mini-series. Every character you see is an established actor that’s been brought to life inside Quantum Break through motion capture and also stars in four 20-minute online episodes of a companion TV show. Each episode will let players make choices that then influence what happens in the game.
Even casual TV viewers should recognize the faces. The game features Shawn Ashmore (Iceman from the X-Men series) as Jack Joyce, Dominic Monaghan (from LOTR and Lost) as Jack’s brother William Joyce, and Aidan Gillen (from Game of Thrones and The Wire) as villain Paul Serene. Both Jack Joyce and Serene have been imbued with time-altering superpowers through a wonky physics experiment gone haywire and players must guide the Joyce brothers through some good old reality-bending craziness.
Your investment in the game’s story will very much depend on how much you enjoy its purposeful appeal to Hollywood-quality narrative and linear gameplay. Similar to titles like Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, you have to accept that what you’re experiencing is more like a movie bent into the shape of a game than the other way around. Sometimes that works great, but it can easily stumble when a game is turned into a series of cutscenes with shooting slapped in between.
Fortunately for Quantum Break, the gunplay is fantastic. As Jack Joyce, you can stop the flow of time around you to dart across the map, aim your gun in slow motion, stop bullets, and even rip a hole in the fabric of reality to create a small explosion. Quantum Break lets you operate with the slick maneuverability of the Infamous games, while your superpowers let you enjoy a kind of Max Payne-style bullet time where everything slows down and you can make more precise shots. So while I only had a chance to play the first act of the game, it was polished enough to sell me on the whole experience. I can’t say the same for the TV show until we get a chance to see how it interacts with the game component.
Below is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. We don’t know much about the story behind Toronto-based Capybara Games’ newest indie title — and I can’t quite tell what’s going on yet even after playing it for a solid chunk of time last week. But it is a joy to look at and I can’t wait to sink more time into figuring out its mysteries.
The developers and artists at Capybara have employed a tilt-shift photography effect with Below. That means certain portions of the screen are blurred out, even those in the same plane, so as to amplify the small slice of the environment your tiny character is moving through at any given moment. It makes every scene look like a piece of modern digital art, and Below is easily the most visually captivating title I’ve seen since mobile puzzler Monument Valley.
Below is as enigmatic as it is beautiful
The gameplay involves moving your character, a hooded sword-wielder reminiscent of Zelda’s Link, through procedurally generated environments taking you deeper into the darkness of a mountain. There’s no release date set for Below, but it’s coming out on PC and Xbox One some time later this year. The game is a big win for Microsoft, which has seen a migration of indie talent flow to Sony’s platform since the launch of new consoles back in 2013.
Minecraft for the Oculus Rift
Minecraft is a big deal for Microsoft. With more than 70 million copies sold across nearly every platform imaginable, the pixel-art sandbox game is a perfect example of the possibilities in Microsoft’s play-anywhere philosophy. So it makes sense Minecraft would become a launch title for the Oculus Rift headset, which starts shipping March 28th with a Xbox One controller in the box. Without a VR headset of its own — the HoloLens is augmented reality — Microsoft wants to make sure it has a splashy franchise for VR when the technology starts really taking off.
Minecraft is different than most other Rift titles because it wasn't originally designed for VR. That means it will act as both a testament to how well a game can be converted from a traditional screen to the Rift, as well as a showcase for any potential downsides in that process. In my short time with the game, I can say that it was an strangely immersive experience for a title with such low-resolution graphics. Because Minecraft wasn’t trying to render something realistic-looking, it felt more more fluid and natural to move and look around than other VR games I’ve played.
That said, it left me feeling disoriented. At certain points, I felt like my brain was being rattled as I tried to reconcile my obviously unreal surroundings with the feeling of physically being inside a pixel-art world. It was also discombobulating having to use both my head and an Xbox One thumbstick to look around, as the game sometimes demands you to shift your field of view with the controller to avoid having to turn your whole body to look in a different direction.
The game includes a mode where you can exit the first-person VR viewer and play Minecraft on a virtual screen in a virtual living room. It’s a smooth transition to go from first-person VR to a cinema-like experience, and at times I actually preferred it. Microsoft plans to let Xbox One owners stream games to a VR theater to play using the Rift, and maybe that's how it should be for most traditional games. Minecraft is tolerable, but Halo 5 in VR would most definitely make you queasy.