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E3 2012: Sony presser outs J.K. Rowling partnership, The Last of Us gameplay

Early on in Sony’s annual pre-E3 2012 press briefing, company president and CEO Jack Tretton made what would turn out to be a prophetic statement about the nature of E3 press conferences, how they generally just amount to publisher vs. publisher showdowns in which the court of public opinion invariably crowns a winner. His statements were prophetic because Sony brought nothing short of its A-game for this year’s presentation, filling it with monster reveals and impressive showcases for some of its biggest upcoming games.

Beyond: Two Souls

First out of the gate was Quantic Dream’s David Cage, who stepped out onto the stage to reveal the studio’s next game, Beyond: Two Souls. Hot on the heels of GDC 2012’s astounding tech demo, “Kara,” Cage offered attendees a first look at the stunning visuals bringing Beyond to life in a brief scene from the game, followed by an even more brief sizzle reel.

Beyond: Two Souls follows a young woman named Jodie Holmes, brought to life in voice and in physical performance — thanks to Quantic’s impressive mo-cap capabilities — by Oscar nominee and Juno star Ellen Page. The story deals in some way with the afterlife and Jodie’s connection with it. In the gameplay-free scene that was demoed, we see a shaved headed Jodie facing a battery of questions in the office of a local policeman who found her by the side of the road.

It’s hard to overstate the quality of the facial detail in evidence during this exchange. Jodie is mostly stone-faced throughout, but the uniformed cop’s gentle interrogation almost takes on the flavor of a live-action performance. The “Uncanny Valley” is nowhere to be seen here.

At one point, the cop circles around behind Jodie and spots a scar lining the back of her head. He makes note of it and, as he approaches to examine it more closely, we see Jodie’s first show of recognition. Her eyes flutter closed briefly, yet another lifelike display which seems to acknowledge that something like this has happened to her before, and it did not go well. Before the cop can make contact, a coffee cup on his desk is hurled across the room by an unseen force, shattering against the wall.

The scene concludes with a squad of heavily armed and armored stormtroopers in SWAT gear showing up and stacking up on the door to the office where Jodie is still sitting. We don’t get to see what happens next, with the video instead cutting to a sizzle reel showing off moments from the game. Big moments. Jodie’s got some serious powers; she runs along the top of a speeding train, only to leap off and form a bubble of… something… around her. She brings down a helicopter.

The clip ends with Jodie issuing a warning to the leader of the above-mentioned SWAT squad, only they’re in an entirely different location now: on a moonlit suburban street that is littered with the flaming wreckage of vehicles that were presumably tasked with capturing the young woman.

Ubisoft’s Big Showcase

Later on in the presentation, Ubisoft stepped into the spotlight for some reveals built around two of its top franchises. First up was Ubisoft Montreal creative director Alex Hutchinson, who started things off with a first look at the PlayStation Vita-exclusive game, Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation. In Liberation, players step into the well-worn boots of Aveline, the series’ first female assassin.

Describing the game as a full-scale Assassin’s Creed experience brought to the Vita platform, Hutchinson offered a peek at the game by way of a trailer showing off it’s 18th century New Orleans setting. Those who also end up buying a PlayStation 3 copy of Assassin’s Creed 3 will be able to link it to the portable game, unlocking Connor’s tomahawk, a character skin, a multiplayer character, and an upgrade to all ammunition pouches. Both games will hit stores on on October 30, 2012.

Hutchinson turned his attention next to Assassin’s Creed 3, unveiling what may well turn out to be one of the show’s biggest surprises. The console game will eventually turn its attention away from the American Revolution, putting Connor at the helm of a sailing in the Caribbean, circa 1778. Players will have the opportunity to steer the ship and direct cannon fire at enemy vessels, a description that hardly does justice to the stunning display that was the live demonstration of this section’s gameplay.

Everything from the motion of the waves and the way different ships — both Connor’s and the enemy’s — move on them to the impact effects of different cannon rounds on distant ships is brought to life with an incredible level of realism. You can see each individual cannonball fly and find or miss its mark, to the point that one moment saw a single enemy shot whizzing across the deck only feet from Connor’s position. There’s no indication of how this gameplay fits into the story or what else players might be doing while sailing the high seas, though the clip ended with Connor’s boat pulling up alongside an enemy ship and boarding it.

The attention turned next to Far Cry 3, with producer Dan Hay stepping out onto the stage to talk about a newly revealed and welcome feature for the upcoming game: four-player co-op. Far Cry 3 will feature an entirely separate campaign built for four players. It’s not entirely clear how the campaign fits in alongside the main story, but stepping into the bullet-riddled lush island paradise with three of your friends looks like a good time.

The demo culminated with all four players coming to a bridge that needed to be taken out. Fighting their way together across the span, the crew eventually reached a shack housing boxes filled with explosives. One player grabbed a box and raced off to the center of the bridge while the other three players provided support. The package was set down and armed, the team got clear, and the bridge exploded in spectacular fashion.

It’s hard to say much more at this point about what Far Cry 3‘s co-op mode will offer or how it will take shape. Each character seems to possess some sort of unique ability, as evidenced in a moment when on screen text indicated that another player had increased health regeneration for the squad. We’ll certainly be hearing more at E3 this week and in the months to come.

Wonderbook

Sony’s biggest game-changer of all for this year’s show isn’t even technically a proper game. The new Wonderbook initiative is a PlayStation Eye-powered AR experience that is built around the idea of putting a book in the user’s hands. Using specially designed book in the fictional and non-fictional varieties, users will be able to tap into interactive features brought to life on your TV screen by the PS3 and PS Eye tech.

The bombshell, however, is Sony’s first major partner in the Wonderbook initiative: J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter creator will be bringing Wonderbook: Book of Spells to the PS3 console this fall. The content of the book ties in somehow with the Potter reference site/community portal Pottermore, with Rowling providing new words set in the franchise’s universe that explore the history surrounding some of its most well-known spells.

A live demonstration of Spells offered a peek at how the final product will work, with demo operators tapping into the book’s content using PS Move controllers that doubled as wands. A narrator read through text describing the fire-making Incendio spell, how to “cast” it — by carving a “Z” shape into the air — and what its uses are.

Once the lesson was imparted, the scene switched to a training room location of sorts, in which the player gets to try out the spell from inside a tiny window on the screen. In the case of Incendio, this involved spurting out flame at things like butterflies and a dragon. Another portion of the demo took a peek at the origins of the Wingardium Leviosa levitation spell using a 3D-rendered puppet show that appears on screen directly on the pages of the physical book, like a pop-up.

The big picture implications of Wonderbook as a general concept are dizzying, but Sony nabbing the involvement of Rowling for the initiative’s first big offering is nothing short of a coup. There is no other name in printed fiction with such a massive built-in audience, and extending that reach to the Sony console is a major victory for the company.

The Last of Us

The best, however, was saved for last. Sony brought out the big guns for the final presentation of the afternoon, with the first publicly shown live gameplay demonstration for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. The Uncharted developer is stepping out in a bit of a different direction for its next game, dropping players into a post-apocalyptic adventure that follows the exploits of Joel (Troy Baker) and the 14-year-old Ellie (Ashley Johnson) as they make their way across a North America decimated by some sort of zombie apocalypse-like scenario.

This particular demo cast the science fiction creatures aside, focusing instead on some of the human adversaries that Joel and Ellie will face. While exploring the ruins of a hotel, the duo run into a gang of armed hunters who are there to scavenge for supplies. The encounter eventually turns into an all-out brawl, with Joel and Ellie using firearms, objects from the environment, and their two fists to bring down the aggressors, one brutal takedown at a time.

The technical horsepower of the engine powering this game is the real triumph. There’s really no description that can do it justice; you just have to see it. The crowd watched in awe as the demo driver maneuvered Joel through the hotel’s series of rooms, taking out enemies one at a time with only a limited supply of handgun ammunition and his wits to help him.

It’s the little things that stood out most in the demo. Joel takes cover at one point in front of an open closet. As he leans his back against it, you can see each hangar adorned with an article of clothing shift to accommodate. In a later moment, he takes a wooden board in the face before being tackled by an assailant. The damage to Joel’s face is clearly visible, with a bloody gash extending out from the bridge of his nose. Even incidental animations, like Joel reaching his hands out for support as he crab walks up to a cover location, is rendered with a stunningly lifelike level of detail.

Like many of Sony’s other offerings during the show, we’ll certainly be hearing more about The Last of Us as the week unfolds.

Random Tidbits

The above breakdowns capture the biggest highlights of Sony’s E3 2012 press briefing, but there was quite a bit more shown beyond that. Here are some of the other things you might be interested to hear about:

* The upcoming four-player cross-franchise brawler, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, is now officially confirmed as a PS Vita release as well as a PS3 release. The game will feature cross-platform play and cross-platform save features between the two platforms. Sony also confirmed the addition of Nathan Drake and BioShock‘s Big Daddy to the roster of fighters; both will be playable on the show floor at E3.

* Also on the cross-platform front is LittleBigPlanet 2, which will be updated later this year to support the Vita as an enhanced controller. It’s not clear exactly how this will work, but players can expect to see new content added to the game as well with the update.

* Also confirmed for the Vita is a proper Call of Duty game. Literally nothing was revealed about this one beyond the title: Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified. It’s not clear if the game will have a presence at E3 this year, but we’ll be hearing more in the coming months.

* A gameplay demonstration for God of War: Ascension offered an extended look at gameplay from the game’s single player prequel story. Kratos takes on a variety of new horned enemies while showing off some of his new telekinetic and time dilation abilities. Stay tuned for a complete preview from the show floor in the coming days.

* Sony will be beefing up its PlayStation Plus program soon with the addition of a rotating stock of free games for players to download and enjoy. The first offering of 12 free titles will include Infamous 2, LBP 2, and Saint’s Row 2, with more being rotated in on a regular basis in what Tretton called “an instant game collection for $5 a month.” He also confirmed that the much-requested addition of PSOne Classics to the PS Vita would be coming soon, with some of the first offerings to include titles like Tomb Raider, Twisted Metal 2, Wild Arms, and the fan-favorite Final Fantasy 7. Tretton also confirmed that Hulu Plus and Crackle will be coming to the portable platform as well.

* Two upcoming Sony hardware bundles were announced. First up is a PlayStation Vita bundle that includes a new white version of the handheld and a copy of Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation. Fans can also look forward to a PlayStation 3 bundle packed with Assassin’s Creed 3 and some free, exclusive DLC.

* While very few details were shared on the mobile tech front, it is confirmed that smartphone manufacturer HTC is the first non-Sony partner for PlayStation Suite, now re-dubbed as PlayStation Mobile.