Microsoft’s shaky Xbox holiday strategy

At a glance, Microsoft had a decent E3. Their presser showcased a huge number of quality games, solid genre diversity, and decent pacing. Xbox head Phil Spencer remains a great ambassador for the brand. And the Xbox One X looks to be an engineering marvel, a cutting edge console in a svelte enclosure.

But Xbox doesn’t exist in isolation. Sony is well ahead in mindshare and sales. Nintendo surprised many (myself included) with the runaway success of the Switch. With E3 over, Microsoft has two chief questions to answer. Why should anyone buy an Xbox One X? And why invest in Xbox over the PS4?

Sadly, Microsoft stumbled on both questions. Like I wrote earlier, by leaning so heavily on 4K, Microsoft has put themselves into a weak position for the holidays.

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Spectre: uneven movie, great cinematography

With Roger Moore’s passing, I’ve been revisiting Bond movies. Catching up with Spectre wasn’t part of the plan. It’s overly long, with a convoluted plot, some slack action scenes, and a miscast villain. Yet in terms of camera work, Spectre is stellar. I’d rank it second only to Roger Deakins’ outing on Skyfall.

DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lensing gives the film a different look than other Bond films. Visually it’s romantic and elegant. Yet as with Van Hoytema’s other work (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar), Spectre has a dark tone. He deepens what’s an often lightweight picture with more thematic weight. (Mild spoilers for Spectre to follow.)

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Software means more to Xbox than Project Scorpio

Microsoft has bet big on Project Scorpio to generate Xbox sales and hype. Their PR cycle projects confidence: Scorpio is a large focus of their E3’s presser less than a month away. They also provided an extensive walkthrough of the hardware specs to Eurogamer weeks ago.

Yet Microsoft is kidding itself if it thinks the market for Scorpio is anything larger than a small niche. Raw horsepower won’t win a console war. In fact it’s the opposite: software, not hardware, would be transformative for Microsoft in the long run.

Scorpio, like the PS4 Pro, is a non-starter for the price sensitive casual market. A Project Scorpio will cost likely $500 or more, double the cost of a baseline PS4 or Xbox One. That’s too expensive, especially given both low and high end consoles share the same game library.

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Moonlight: personal, humanistic, and warm

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It’s easy to see why Moonlight is the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Everything just works as a complete package, with stellar acting, direction, and screenplay. Its humanistic story is memorable, emotionally complex, and subverts racial stereotypes.

Among such skill, it’s Moonlight‘s striking visuals that left the biggest impression on me. Though it has been months since my last viewing, I can recall certain shots as though I saw the film yesterday. With strong saturated colors and high contrast, Wong Kar-Wai is a clear influence. Yet interesting changes in angle, perspective, and a heavy reliance on handheld give this movie its own unique character. (Mild spoilers for Moonlight ahead.)

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La La Land: balancing modernism and classicism

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From the moment I heard La La Land talked up as a “modern” musical, I got worried. Updating older genres and tropes is en vogue these days, but it’s easy to mess up. Balance is key. Some films follow the rules of the past slavishly, making it hard for audiences to connect. Others cheat, creating an entirely modern film with a few half-hearted old school references.

Thankfully La La Land is an exception to this rule. Much of that credit goes to the film’s impeccable costuming, choreography, music, and direction. But I can’t imagine the movie fully gelling together without the skill of DP Linus Sandgren.

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The Nintendo Switch’s lost opportunity

Nintendo has seen better days. The Wii U was a sales disappointment. Competition is fierce with the PS4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile platforms enjoying record sales and attention. Early details suggest the Nintendo Switch won’t pull the venerable gaming company out of its slump.

On the positive front, Nintendo hasn’t lost their knack at hardware innovation. Almost every hands on report praises the Switch’s hardware and build quality. The device easily transitions between home (docked, playing on a TV) and portable modes.

Yet many other specs and stats are worrisome. A $299 base price for the console isn’t crazy in isolation. However, it’s the same price range as the Xbox One and PS4, both bestsellers with an extensive game library. Other costs add up: an extra controller costs $80, $20 more than the competition. Also, there’s now a monthly fee for multiplayer and it’s questionable if Nintendo can provide the same level of service provided on PSN or Xbox Live. Furthermore, several game prices feel unjustified. Nintendo wants $50 for a mini game collection (1-2-Switch) that should have been a pack-in title. Ultra Street Fighter 2, a repackaged fighting game from 2008, costs a rumored $40.

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Gaming trends for 2017

Early signs suggest 2017 will be a conservative year for gaming. The PS4 and Xbox One have little to prove, with an already robust library and huge user base. VR will be fascinating to watch, but mainstream adoption isn’t happening anytime soon. And the disappointing sales of several AAA sequels (Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Watch Dogs 2) will make major studios cautious with their output.

Despite all this, several factors may shake up the industry. PC and console gaming have been inching closer together for years; strong PS4 Pro and Scorpio sales should speed up this trend. And Nintendo continues to play a wildcard role. They could transform iOS and Android gaming and revitalize dedicated portable gaming devices.

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Sicario: tension and realism

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Last year’s drug war thriller Sicario was universally praised for its cinematography. Much of that credit goes to Sicario’s DP Roger Deakins, one of the most respected cinematographers working today.

One of Sicario’s standout scenes follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) on a van convoy to pick up a drug kingpin. It’s a vehicular sprint from the U.S. to Juarez, Mexico and back again. Tensions rise as threats loom around her and the rest of the convoy. The camera work conveys disorientation, claustrophobia, and the increasing threat of the Mexican drug cartel as Macer and her allies race through the streets. (Spoilers follow for the film’s first 30 minutes.)

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Battlefield 1 needs UI help

Battlefield 1 has received praise for its gritty WWI gameplay, but its pre and post-game user interface need serious work. They are too cluttered and confusing for casual players.

Let’s focus on BF1’s main menu:

Arriving after BF1’s otherwise stellar prologue, the menu is a momentum killer. There are six areas of functionality fighting for attention on this screen. Players can browse game modes and other recommended content in three interactive rows. Each has a different layout and visual aesthetic. There’s also information on profile, party, rank, and a legend to clarify button actions in the screen corners.

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Nintendo Switch in a smartphone world

Never count Nintendo out. Few others can rival their first party games; Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, and others made big impressions well beyond Wii U’s user base. And as the Switch reveal suggests, Nintendo can still deliver innovative hardware.

I’m intrigued that the Switch combines a home and portable console into a single device. It’s practical and catering to a wide range of gameplay. Game output should increase with developers no longer having to pick between two Nintendo platforms. And it’s less gimmicky than the Wii or Wii U.

The Switch’s convertibility may also be its greatest liability. Combining home and portable forces the Switch to make compromises. Likely we’ll see reduced horsepower, input control options, and battery life. All this makes competing against well entrenched rivals, both at home and on the road, that much harder.

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