Microsoft is in the spotlight of the game industry this year and the company fully delivered with an epic E3 press conference Sunday, complete with a new console reveal, acquisition news, a surprise appearance by Keanu Reeves, and more.
This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo is, as has happened before, a transitional story. A lot of changes are in the pipeline, ones that could potentially change most of everything about how we purchase, interact with, and enjoy video games, but none of them are here yet. The ninth generation of consoles is still mostly over the horizon, Google Stadia won’t be out until November, other cloud strategies are playing it quiet, and this year’s triple-A release schedule has been surprisingly anemic overall, with at least one high-profile disaster.
Sony has opted to sit this year’s E3 out entirely, giving up the mic to its competitors (because, presumably, it’s the end of the eighth console generation and Sony’s presence at E3 would be 99 percent victory lap anyway), while Nintendo has a handful of high-profile Switch games to lean on, but nothing yet that’s truly seismic. Pokemon Sword & Shield will sell millions of copies, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is likely to get a lot of attention, but they won’t change the shape of the games industry. In fact, one of Nintendo’s biggest, most hyped releases for this year’s show is the Link’s Awakening remake, a current-gen remaster of an admittedly influential 26-year-old Game Boy title. (Nintendo’s Direct live stream, set for Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. PT, does promise a few exciting reveals like the next DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.)
E3 2019, then, by process of elimination, is Microsoft’s time to shine.
The last year or so has been full of big moves for the company, which appears to be out to disrupt the standard console marketplace. Microsoft All Access, the Xbox One S All Digital Edition, bringing the Game Pass to non-Microsoft platforms like the Switch, and now the Game Pass for PC are all steadily chipping away at many of the accepted tenets of how video game consoles tend to work, which in turn is bringing a lot of attention to what Microsoft’s next move will be.
Microsoft ended up in the spotlight this year, then, almost by accident, and took full advantage with one of the more impressive press conferences in recent memory. With the public debut of the long-rumored Project Scarlett, the first public demos of XCloud, the next projects for several newly-acquired studios, and a bevy of new and upcoming games, Microsoft fired the starting gun for 2020’s holiday season.
While the announcement of the upcoming next-generation Microsoft console, Project Scarlett, was the single biggest story of the E3 briefing, Microsoft had a lot more to show off than just that. According to Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, there are thousands of Xbox games in development right now, with 60 games in Microsoft’s lineup for E3 2019. Notably, many of them are actually Microsoft exclusives, which wasn’t the case last year.
This morning, in advance of Microsoft’s E3 press conference, it announced that its new Game Pass Ultimate and Game Pass for PC had both gone live on the Microsoft Store. Ultimate is a bundled subscription of Xbox Live Gold, which enables multiplayer, and the Xbox Game Pass for $14.99 a month, saving $5 over the price of both services purchased individually.
The Game Pass for PC, available for $9.99 a month and $1 for the first month, brings the subscription-based model of the Xbox Game Pass to the PC gaming marketplace. Your monthly fee gets you permanent access to a rotating list of games, made digitally available to you via the Microsoft Store. The current accessible version is an “open beta.”
The Verge currently has a list of all of the games that will eventually be available for the Game Pass for PC; today, should you sign up, you’ll get access to Microsoft’s Forza Horizon 5, Sea of Thieves, and State of Decay 2; the Kirkland, Wash.-based Studio Wildcard’s ARK: Survival Evolved; Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a BAFTA-award winning action game that also serves as a stark metaphor for coping with trauma; tinyBuild’s Hello Neighbor; and Compulsion Games’s extremely British, extremely weird action-adventure We Happy Few.
Notably, a lot of big ticket releases from Microsoft and some third-party publishers are on the upcoming schedule for the Xbox Game Pass for PC, such as Halo: The Master Chief Collection and the forthcoming Gears of War 5.
Side note: It really can’t be quite overstated how big a deal it is that Gears 5 is on the Game Pass for PC. Gears 5 is arguably the biggest exclusive on Microsoft’s 2019 schedule, and they’re willing to give a copy of it away for ten bucks in order to get you hooked on the Game Pass subscription. It’s a bold move that’s almost certain to cost Microsoft money in the short term.
According to Microsoft’s Sarah Bond, head of Xbox Partnerships, her team “travels the globe seeking out hidden gems, so you can discover your next favorite game.” Every Xbox Game Studios-branded title will be a day-one premiere on the Xbox Game Pass service. She also announced that Ultimate subscribers will receive the Xbox Game Pass for PC as an additional perk of membership for no additional cost. “We have curated over a hundred games just for the PC,” Bond said, and the Game Pass for PC will include over 100 games on its roster by August.
Bond also announced four new games for the current version of the Game Pass. As of today, subscribers can download Batman: Arkham Knight, Metro Exodus, Hollow Knight, and Borderlands: The Handsome Collection. The latter, in anticipation of the forthcoming Borderlands 3, comes with a new, free DLC called The Fight for Sanctuary, which serves as a bridge between the second and third Borderlands games.
Microsoft has acquired several notable independent developers over the last year, including inXile (Wasteland 2), Obsidian Entertainment (Pillars of Eternity), and Ninja Theory (Hellblade). All three studios had new projects discussed during the briefing, a couple of which made their official world premieres.
inXile’s Wasteland 3 brings the series’s joke-y, tactical post-apocalyptic action to the snowy mountains of Colorado, and Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds kicked off the entire show with a briefing and a release date: October 25. Ninja Theory’s Rahni Tucker came onstage to show off a project that her studio had in the works before its acquisition by Microsoft: a character-based, 4-on-4 action game called Bleeding Edge, where an eccentric cast of cyborg lunatics fight it out against a highly colorful backdrop.
The first big surprise of the show, however, came with the news that Microsoft has acquired Double Fine Productions. The San Francisco-based studio is known for making eccentric, critically-beloved games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, often with the assistance of crowdfunding. With the acquisition, Double Fine enters the family of Microsoft’s second-party studios, and its highly-anticipated Psychonauts 2 — a long-awaited sequel to the 2005 cult classic Psychonauts — will appear on Xbox One and the Microsoft Store.
Rod Ferguson, head of development at the Vancouver, B.C.-based studio the Collective, came onstage to discuss new information about the forthcoming Gears 5, set to debut in September. Gears 5, the latest entry in Microsoft’s exclusive over-the-top third-person tactical shooter franchise Gears of War, will debut September 10, with a versus mode multiplayer test in July and the public debut of its new “Horde mode” — where players team up to survive wave after wave of alien enemies — at the Gamescom show in August.
E3 will see the debut of a brand-new co-op mode for Gears 5, called Escape, where three new characters, “hivebusters,” fight their way into enemy territory. Called an “aggressive co-op gameplay experience,” players must watch each other’s backs to infiltrate the Swarm’s bases, plant bombs, then get out alive. Escape was shown off in a new, creepy fashion for those watching at home, as the camera zoomed suddenly into the maintenance tunnels under the Microsoft Theater main stage to show the monitors. Players will be able to build their own levels in Escape mode to challenge their friends with.
Tonight, three WWE wrestlers, including part-time video game YouTuber Xavier Woods, will be playing Escape mode together on stream for an exclusive reveal.
— Austin Creed ✈️ E3 (@XavierWoodsPhD) June 9, 2019
Players who pre-order Gears 5 will also receive a special bonus: a “character pack” that allows them to play with skins inspired by the forthcoming movie Terminator: Dark Fate.
Other big reveals at today’s E3 briefing included:
- Sega is publishing Phantasy Star Online 2 for the Xbox One in the spring of 2020. The popular Japanese free-to-play game features online combat with cross-play between console and PC. Reportedly, this has been in the works since 2017.
- Hidetaka Miyazaki, president of cult-favorite Japanese studio From Software, and George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, have collaborated for a new game called Elden Ring, which will be published for Xbox by Bandai Namco.
- Microsoft has partnered with the South Korean studio Smilegate to create a new game, Crossfire X, out as an Xbox exclusive in 2020. All that was shown at the briefing was a cinematic trailer, although the original Crossfire was a free-to-play tactical first-person shooter, and was the single highest-grossing online game of 2014.
- A new expansion of Microsoft’s zombie-apocalypse survival game, State of Decay 2, developed in Seattle by Undead Labs, is available today for Xbox Game Pass holders. Called Heartland, it offers a brand-new story with a choice between two playable characters, both of whom have come to a new town to find someone special to them. Its trailer calls this the biggest expansion yet for State of Decay 2.
- The Xbox Elite Controller has been redesigned from the ground up. The new “Series 2” edition features adjustable-tension thumbsticks, rubberized grips, new triggers, an internal rechargeable battery, its own detachable charging dock, and three custom profiles. It’s compatible with Windows PC via Bluetooth. This appears to be the rumored “Washburn” project that was discussed last year. The Series 2 controller will reportedly arrive in November, for a pricey $179.99.
- Most notably, Microsoft brought actor Keanu Reeves onstage by surprise, after he suddenly appeared in virtual form at the end of a trailer for the hotly-anticipated CRPG Cyberpunk 2077. The crowd roared as the movie star took the stage for “breathtaking” moment. Reeves, who will appear in the game as a non-player character, was there to announce Cyberpunk‘s release date: April 16, 2020.
I’ll go hands-on with Microsoft’s lineup during a booth tour on the E3 show floor this week in Los Angeles. Check back later this week for coverage of Microsoft’s upcoming games lineup for 2019, including a new Battletoads, a host of indie games, and the hand-drawn RPG Time: The Legend of Wright.