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June 9, 2014 at 8:23 AM

E3: Microsoft reveals next phase of Xbox

LOS ANGELES — The eyes of the video game industry were on Microsoft this morning as the company presented an array of new games to boost its Xbox platform at a critical time.

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Sony’s PlayStation 4 took an early lead in the latest generation of console hardware that debuted last fall and investors have questioned whether the “new Microsoft” should be in the games business.

At the same time the industry is rebounding on the popularity of the PS4 and the Xbox One. As of mid-April, Sony had sold 7 million PS4s and Microsoft had sold 5 million Xbox Ones.

A physical manifestation of Microsoft’s importance to the industry was the line of thousands of game developers, retailers and journalists who converged on USC’s basketball arena today for the company’s big-budget press event revealing what’s next for the platform and opening the annual E3 game trade show.

Although E3 presentations are known for their boastfulness, Phil Spencer, the recently appointed head of Microsoft’s Xbox business, had a relatively humble tone and repeatedly thanked players for feedback that led to a number of changes since the console launched.

Those changes include the recent decision to offer a less-expensive model without a bundled Kinect sensor, an accessory that wasn’t talked up at all during today’s event.

“We will continue to listen to you, our community, and will continue to make Xbox for you,” he said.

Despite the need for tweaks, the new generation of consoles is off to the fastest start in history, Spencer said, and games are the fastest-growing form of entertainment.

Console sales grew 120 percent and gamers spent $1.1 billion on packaged and digital games in April, according to the most recent report from NPD.

Since the Xbox One launched in November, buyers have used the system an average of 5 hours per day and combined spent nearly 1.7 billion hours on the companion Xbox Live network, the company said.

Microsoft didn’t announce any new hardware and kept the focus just on gaming, with no discussion of the console’s TV, video and social-media capabilities. Instead Spencer showed off an array of games – from artsy independents to high-fidelity blockbusters — that are coming to the platform through the rest of 2014 and in 2015.

The breadth and striking realism of the games suggests that developers are finally getting their stride with the new game hardware. The pulsing music and theater-sized display of Microsoft’s presentation may skew perspectives, but Microsoft and its developer partners appear to be bringing the platform enough variety and unique experiences to keep selling $500 consoles and $60 games despite the prevalence of smartphones and tablets running low-cost games.

Following tradition, Activision’s “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” was first up in Microsoft’s show, with a play-through of a section in which futuristic soldiers in the hyper-realistic shooter blast through a dystopian version of Korea. Players were equipped with exoskeletons that let them jump from towers and use rockets to slow their descent.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Image from Activision.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Image from Activision.

Spencer said it’s been the best-selling franchise on Xbox, overtaking the Microsoft-exclusive “Halo” franchise, which gave the Xbox its early success with hard-core gamers.

Microsoft is trying again with “Halo” by releasing a new version, “Halo 5: Guardians,” next year. It’s also repackaging the first four editions in a box-set for the Xbox One called “Halo: The Master Chief Collection.” The set also includes access to a multiplayer beta test of “Halo 5″ and a live-action “Halo” video series.

The set, going on sale Nov. 11, is intended to “rekindle memories” and introduce a new generation of players to “Halo,” according to Dan Ayoub, executive producer.

During a demo, Ayoub showed how the games’ graphics have been updated to look crisper and more vivid on the new console.

Sequences from the different games can be mixed and matched into playlists, and all four are accessed from a single interface on the console.

"Halo 5" screenshot from Microsoft.

“Halo 5″ screenshot from Microsoft.

Microsoft is also updating its driving games. For “Forza 5″ players, Microsoft has digitally recreated the Nurburgring race track with “millimeter accuracy” and will make it available free today.  New in September is “Forza Horizon 2,” a new version of the company’s open-world driving game.

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Ubisoft came on stage to present “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” a version of the historic action game set in revolutionary France. It’s the first version of the hit franchise for next-generation consoles and lets players create four-person assassin teams with friends, so they can together help take down the monarchy.

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Adding some levity to the presentation was a demo of an entirely new open-world action game called “Sunset Overdrive,” which gives the zombie-blasting genre a new twist with comic-book style art and an irreverent tone. It’s launching Oct. 28 and is exclusive to the Xbox One.

The demo poked fun at the military-themed shooting games that dominate the consoles; it started with a sequence of a soldier who runs out of bullets fending off masked bad guys in a warehouse, only to be rescued by a tattooed skateboarder who swoops and leaps around the building, dispatching the villains with goofy weapons such as a crowbar and an oversized pistol.

With the clichéd drama of video game taglines, the antihero asks whether you’ll be able to “save Sunset City,” then gives the obvious answer:

“Of course you can — it’s a ***’ing video game,” he said.

"Sunset Overdrive." Microsoft image.

“Sunset Overdrive.” Microsoft image.

More casual games coming this holiday season include a new version of “Dance Central,” which will be distributed digitally, as a downloadable game instead of a disc. But Microsoft opted not to demonstrate the game or another Kinect title from the same developer, “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved.”

Here are some other new games coming to the platform:  

“Crackdown” (Dave Jones, Microsoft Studios):  The futuristic battle game for earlier Xboxes has been reworked and amped up for the Xbox One, letting players destroy a city of skyscrapers as they battle virtual bad guys or friends playing online.

“Fable Legends” (Lionhead Studios, Microsoft Studios): “Microsoft’s fantasy role-playing franchise is done over as a faster-paced action game, playable cooperatively with up to four friends. Players also can be the villain controlling battles. A multiplayer beta opens up this fall.

“Ori and the Blind Forest” (Moon Studios, Microsoft Studios). A great looking, indie-style scrolling adventure game that looks like a nice option for kids who aren’t old enough or jaded enough for the shooters. It’s launching on the Xbox One, 360 and PC.

“Phantom Dust” (Microsoft Studios): Another action-strategy game from the archives, redone for the Xbox One.

“Project Spark” (Team Dakota, Microsoft Studios): Microsoft’s game-creation game exits beta mode this fall and gets new content packs, a space mode and new characters.

“Rise of the Tomb Raider” (Crystal Dynamics, Square Enix): Finally, a less misogynistic version of the game that doesn’t focus on her physique. At least not in the demo video.

“Scalebound” (Platinum Games, Microsoft Studios): A dragon-themed fantasy action game with lots of spectacular dinosaurs and snake-like monsters.

“Super Ultra Dead Rising 3 Arcade Remix Hyper Edition” (Capcom Vancouver, Microsoft): A download available today that gives “Dead Rising 3″ a new, four-player, co-op arcade mode.

“Tom Clancy’s The Division” (Massive Entertainment, Ubisoft). A tech-heavy shooter in an urban setting where players draw on surveillance information, similar to the current “Watchdogs.”

“The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” (CD Projekt RED):  A fantasy role-playing game “focused on player choice, tactical combat and an immersive environment.” Plus a realistic and sometimes gory medieval setting.

RELATED:

Photos from E3 2014

Nintendo roars back with Wii U slate, Zelda, figurines

Sony touts Destiny, PlayStation lineup, GTA V, PS TV

New Xbox boss on beating Sony, virtual reality and the missing Kinect

Comments | Topics: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, e3, Halo 5

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