Did the ambitious and hugely entertaining press conference for Microsoft at last year's E3 come too early? The progressive and frankly brilliant announcement of 'Project Natal' last year has been somewhat overshadowed by the constant barrage of negativity regarding Microsoft's inexcusable avoidance of any mention of the product. We've had to wait all 365 days for yet another look at the lovely piece of kit, that truly delivers “hands-free entertainment” for everyday users. I mention the fact since such a wait led me to perhaps supersede any reasonable level of expectation- negativity seemed not to hinder my approach towards 'Natal' (as it was previously code-named, now the much less attractive 'Kinect'!), instead keen on insisting my compatriots to “wait until E3” where I expected insurmountable levels of ambition, uniqueness and innovation. Instead, I was met with casual pet sims, over-the-top party games, rhythm-action dance routines, and mediocre sports titles (the latter coming from the otherwise influential industry stalwart, Rare!)
Big Names, Big Games?
Perhaps we were spoilt last year in E3's tour-de-force return to the big scene after the shambles that was E3 2008, but Microsoft's stage this year failed to match last year's influential list of huge names. No, there were no rumblings from veteran movie directors (Steven Spielberg) or music legends (Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr) this time round. Instead, this year's show seemed somewhat muted in contrast, lacking any of the enthusiasm or drama that last year's stage show boasted. We were however greeted by friendly faces from the industry- Metal Gear Solid creator, Hideo Kojima, presenting the spin-off from the main Solid Snake series, with Raiden's-own Metal Gear Solid: Rising, and the ever-charismatic Cliff Blezinski from Epic Games, with debuting game play footage of the much sought after Gears of War 3. Joined on stage by three team-mates, 'Cliffy B'- as he used to refer to himself- showed off the all-new four-player cooperative campaign, showcasing the latest Unreal technology in action with the insanely powerful 'Lambent' mutations in attack. The showing cut to black as the new 'Lambent Beserker' leaped the metal fence that the COGs resided behind, reaching unsurpassed heights of anticipation at what lay in store come April 2011. He also teased the audience with a new mode that is to be featured in the last in the series, entitled “Beast”- now showing on the show floor.
Peter Molyneux was also present once again, introducing Lionhead's Fable III debut trailer- beginning with a vengeful ruler, leading to the picturesque setting of Albion (now much more Industrialised than before), and colourful game play footage. The guys at Bungie Studios also took to the stage in what will be their final hurrah as developers developing exclusively for Microsoft's system, with Halo prequel- Halo: Reach. What followed was typical Halo 'run-and-gun' fare, with added suit powers. I'm slightly disappointed of the game's showing, if I'm brutally honest, but hey, multiplayer is and always will be Bungie's strong suit- it's for that reason why my pre-order for Reach was taken a few months back! I'm also reluctant to go into too much detail in regards to Treyarch's showing of the latest in Activision's cranked-out super-franchise Call of Duty with Call of Duty: Black Ops. Overkill or not, I fail to see myself getting excited about this in any fashion, although it did look impressive nonetheless, with a set piece sequence involving a gun-toting helicopter sweeping its way through the lush and fully destructible jungles of Vietnam. You'll buy it though, you all know you will.
The only 'surprise' came from Crytek, with a trailer for their latest game that is exclusive to the Xbox 360: Codename Kingdoms. The live-action trailer showed a gladiator, blood dripping from his sword although we'll have to wait for any further details regarding what it really is about, let it be known, however, that Crytek can not be underestimated in any circumstance.
The industry-insider audience were hardly interest, you felt, as Microsoft continued to big-up their progressive technology, now re-named 'Kinect'. We are of course all interested in what such a technology can provide, although if the show has anything to say for itself, expect bundles upon bundles of cheap, tacky and outrageously poor mini-game collections (say hello, Nintendo). My lofty ambitions of core game experiences with Kinect at the forefront were quashed, replaced by the the animal kingdom's replacement to Milo with Kinectimals (played out on stage between the cutest girl you ever will see, and a tiger pup named “Skittles”- no, he wasn't real!) It also saddens me to see Rare's initiative, that has given them incredible success for some time, disappear from sight- instead squandered by those at Microsoft, with the cheap mini-game collection look and feel of their Kinect Sports showing. The basic Kinect Adventures also doing little to subside my then subdued positivity further (a variety of mini-games that use whole body movement). One particular demo seemed like 'Hole on the Wall' embedded with Super Mario World- bizarre. Even those making fools on themselves on stage failed to raise a smile on my glum exterior. Oh, and remember that kart game featuring your customised avatar? What was the name...Joy Ride!? Well, stick a 'Kinect' before the title, add in motion controls, and what do you have? You guessed it, Kinect Joy Ride.
Core gamers had reasons to be fearful initially, but with the announcement of Ubisoft's fitness game Your Shape: Fitness Evolved and Harmonix's rhythm-action dance title Dance Central also shown, we now have every reason to have been sceptical from day one. OK, something inside me makes me want to bust out some moves to the “authentically choreographed 600 dance moves” that are featured within the latter title but don't question me why, I have no reason to- although that guy on stage sure had undeterred fun!
The only integration of the tech into core games came down to the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid: Rising demo, amounting to the slicing and dicing of a watermelon! And a LucasArts “controller free” Star Wars title, which looked incredibly linear, with the lead character (wielding a lightsaber, no less) dodging oncoming bullets from Stormtroopers with frantic motion gestures, using the force, and dashing forward. On the presentation front, it looked like The Force Unleashed blended with third-person, lacklustre green screen. The game is expected in 2011.
The only other look at Kinect came from Turn 10, developers of Forza Motorsport 3, who showed off their new game mode that used Kinect to interact with the steering wheel. The game mode tasks players to overtake as many AI opponents in the time provided by holding out your hands at “2 and 10”, although I didn't get an indication if support would be extended to the rest of the game.
Kinect is set for a US launch of November 4th. No prices have as yet been confirmed.
Other than a look at how Kinect would work with interaction to the Xbox, which admittedly looks fluid and simple (a wave signs you in, flicks of the wrist navigate, speech commands can select menu buttons, pause a movie, etc.), the only other main addition to the Xbox Live service came from two ESPN presenters who were keen in sharing Microsoft's partnership with the sports channel in delivering live games, a stat-tracking online service and more, all from the Xbox.
Anything hiding under that hollow shell of an Xbox 360?
The show ended with Microsoft's main presenter lifting a hollow, external shell of an Xbox 360 that had been on the stage the entirety of the presentation. It was expected, but it came as a nice surprise nevertheless- the much rumoured 'slim Xbox 360'. Boasting a new slim-line, more angular and shinier, black finish, the new Xbox also comes with built in Wi-Fi capabilities and a 250GB hard drive. It truly looks stunning and sleek, supposed to be “whisper quiet”, and is being shipped to US retailers as we speak for the same price tag as the current model. The announcement was met with rapturous hollering and applause from the crowd who were told that each of them were to be sent one of the new systems at the expense of Microsoft. That's great, but what about us!?