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2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo Wrap-Up

Annual video game industry gala the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), held May 10-12 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, drew a whopping 60,000 industry insiders to Tinseltown for a look at tomorrow’s hottest digital diversions and sweetest next-generation consoles.

Although a good 10,000 people fewer showed up than last year, most of those unaccounted for were, happily, the hordes of frothing fans notorious for previously making traversing the show floor a precarious proposition. And, wouldn’t you know, like the event’s organizers, who’d made an active push to limit the number of random pedestrians at the convention, so too did Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo cut back on press conference and party invites.

The net result was a gala more controlled than chaotic, less insane than plain old intriguing. (Those seeking a clever metaphor might consider the case of booth babes, who, in the wake of mounting controversy, were forced to wear jean shorts vs. bikini bottoms, if not curb their on-site presence.) All of which, of course, conspired to make things a little easier for broadcast, print and online media, who were able to take in much more of the sights than ever before.

Electronic Entertainment Expo
Electronic Entertainment Expo

Sony Playstation 3

Sony kicked off the festivities early with a press conference on Monday, May 8, where it was announced PlayStation 3 would ship November 17, 2006 in North America. Available in two versions ? a 20GB ($499) and 60GB ($599) model ? the system also features a six-axis, motion-sensitive controller.

Structurally similar to today’s PlayStation 2 controller (note that said console’s games, coincidentally, also happen to run on the machine at enhanced graphic resolution), by tilting the joypad left, right, up or down, you can make in-game characters/vehicles respond accordingly. Hands-on time with the unit reveals the interface to be surprisingly responsive and intuitive, whether you””””re soaring and banking through Warhawk hostile futuristic skies or blowing enemies a new one in Resistance: Fall of Man.

Playstation 3 controller
Playstation 3 Controller

As Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO Kaz Hirai so aptly put it, “The real power [of the machine] rests in the hands of creators, and, ultimately consumers.” One thing he forgot to mention, though ? unless you spring for the more expensive model, you’ll be SOL when it comes to features like HDMI and built-in WiFi access.

The upshot being that enthusiasts had best start saving those quarters if they want to enjoy signature features like 1080p visual output and on-demand hi-def movie and music downloads. Oh well? At least the company is offering a free online network service that also supports text, voice and video chat. Not to mention, that is, an integrated Blu-Ray disc drive (capable of reading media that holds 6x as much as current-gen DVDs) that powers more realistic interactive outings than ever.

Unfortunately, highlighted game demos like Gran Turismo HD, which upgraded Gran Turismo 4‘s visual assets to hi-def (1920 x 1080) resolution, or 12x that of PlayStation 2, failed to impress. Seriously? we know using the PlayStation Portable’s screen as a rear-view mirror in Formula One ”06 sounds cool at first brush. But good luck finding a way to painlessly mount the handheld somewhere on or near your television screen without sending the wife into screaming fits.

Formula One ''''''''06
Formula One ””””06

It wasn’t until we got out on the show floor and actually spent time with offerings such as Assassin”s Creed and Indiana Jones 2007 that enthusiasm for the system really built. The former promises stunningly convincing background environments. (Imagine disguising yourself in throngs of medieval pedestrians to get close enough to execute a military leader before making an acrobatic getaway via nearby rooftops.) The latter, surfaces such as doors and windows which shatter differently every time and enemies whose reactions are so unpredictable you never know how scenarios will shake out.

Indiana Jones 2007
Indiana Jones 2007

Nintendo Wii

In hindsight, the real show darling was Nintendo, though, who revealed its tragically-named Wii console could do more than just play emulated, instantly downloadable NES, SNES, Genesis, Nintendo 64 and TurboGrafx games just 24 hours later. If the sight of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto sparking off the gaming legend’s pre-show press conference by conducting a virtual orchestra using the system’s controller didn’t touch your heart, well? Sorry, you’re probably dead.

Nintendo Wii
Nintendo Wii

“Playing is believing,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s executive vp of sales and marketing. And for once, we agree with his enthusiasm. Even if, of course, the guy always looks so wild-eyed and amped up you’d think he’s about to tear off his skin and reveal he’s secretly a Terminator sent back in time from 2010 to destroy humanity. Thank a unique, two-piece interface which links together a wireless, speaker- and rumble function-equipped remote with a Nunchuk-like thumbstick attachment.

Nintendo Wii Controller
The Wii Controller in Action

Getting to watch demonstrators show how you could pull the remote control back to draw a bow in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (now coming for both GameCube and Wii, and arriving for the latter on launch day) was impressive. Even more so considering how the speaker tracks the sound of your actions, so you’ll hear the bowstring draw back and fired arrows whistle through the air to land with a meaty thunk in opponents. Still, it wasn’t until we got our own grubby paws on games like Sonic Wild Fire, Excite Truck (a pseudo-sequel to 1985 NES classic Excitebike) and Super Mario Galaxy that things really seemed to click.

Forget that we only have a tentative release date (Q4 2006) and don’t yet know the asking fee (although it is promised at a lower price point than competitors) for the unit. Once you feel how natural it is to swing the remote like a tennis racquet during a round of Wii Sports or aim your arm cannon by waving the device about wildly in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, you’ll be hooked. If ever a game system stood a chance of attracting newcomers to the hobby ? or getting all you lonely lads a little action on date night ? it’s this one. A slew of titles shipping soon for the machine including Project H.A.M.M.E.R., Red Steel, Disaster: Day of Crisis and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles should further round out anyone’s gaming collection.

Nintendo DS and Sony PSP

DS owners are also in luck. PlayStation Portable fans have to settle for fun, but largely formulaic outings like Tekken: Dark Resurrection, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony. (Although, in fairness, D3 Publisher’s interactive acid trip cum mini-game collection WTF ? an acronym for you-know-what, but subtitled “Work Time Fun” for sake of political correctness ? does defy classification.)

Meanwhile, those of you rocking the hardcore gamer’s favorite handheld can instead enjoy awesome offerings such as Starfox DS, Touch Detective (bad officer!), Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Justice for All.

Why, if it weren’t for Konami’s badass and utterly original Brooktown High: Senior Year, we’d think that across the board, someone was biting the Big N’s style. But as groundbreaking PSP games like this sweet first-person dating simulator that lets you relive all the trauma of high-school sans swirlies and food fights prove, nobody will be hurting anytime soon.

By and large, what you’re seeing now is an industry-wide push to develop superior cross-platform ports and seed mobile platforms not just with more games in general, but also more forward-thinking, original IP creations. Never mind that publishers are using handheld devices as a way to offset crippling financial losses in a pesky transition year. It’s you, the gamer, who’ll come out the winner, as a flood of high-caliber adventures from Yoshi”s Island 2 to Mortal Kombat: Unchained washes up on pocket-sized LCD screens in the next several months.

Sony PSP Update
Sony PSP Content Pack Update

Sony PSP Booth
Sony PSP Booth

Microsoft Xbox 360

Not to be outdone, Microsoft’s going back to its roots, bringing the pain primarily on PCs in 2006. What’s more, the January 2007 debut of Windows Vista promises enhanced audiovisual prowess, easier software installations and better ways to tweak games for premium performance. Middleware toolkit DirectX 10, arriving soon for the new operating system, can take credit for much of these sensory upgrades, as it lets developers create more immersive and detailed virtual worlds than ever before.

Another big undertaking for the mega-corporation in the near future is an initiative it’s calling “Live Anywhere.” An extension of the Xbox Live experience, the venture allows PC and Xbox 360 owners to enjoy seamlessly interactivity, and share a single gamertag, friends list and voice chat capabilities across a range of devices.

Now you can receive an invite to come play games from a buddy on your cell phone. Afterwards, connecting for a little multiplayer action is as simple as booting up your desktop upon returning home, loading Shadowrun, syncing up and going head-to-head with them, even though they’re on a set-top console. As another example of the technology in motion, you may also use your celly to tweak out and customize a car for later use on the Xbox 360 in Forza Motorsport 2.

Speaking of, despite the lack of a proper groundswell of support for the only next-gen gaming system currently at market at Microsoft’s editors’ gathering, it would be unwise to discount the machine entirely. Everywhere we turned at the expo itself, developers were using the Xbox 360 ? 5 million of which will be sold by June, with over 160 games available by this holiday season ? to show off their latest jaw-dropping wares.

BioShock especially impressed room after room of stunned observers. We literally had to sneak in for two demos just to absorb everything this sci-fi/horror hybrid has to offer. Set in Rapture, a fallen underwater utopia where inhabitants unwisely tinkered with human genetics, the tale sends you deep within the sinking complex. Juicing up your abilities with an array of plasmids, you’ll have to distract hyper-intelligent enemies, hack into security systems and solve cerebral puzzles to escape the sinking settlement.

But what really left a lasting impression was how convincing and atmospheric the settings were. Mutant enemies each sported individualized daily routines and personalities. NPCs all behave in believable fashion. Multiple solutions were offered to every scenario. And if you couldn’t speak past baddies by creating distractions, there was always the option of turning them against one another. But hey, what else would you expect from a psychologically traumatizing epic that’s the spiritual successor to cult favorite System Shock 2?

Other games like BioWare’s brilliant sci-fi role-player Mass Effect and Midway’s Stranglehold, an interactive follow-up to director John Woo’s seminal kung-fu action flick Hard Boiled, simply confirmed it. There’s a definite trend developing here, as designers are finally being provided the kind of processing power needed to not just develop eye-catching game universes, but also plausible ones.

We can’t honestly say we agree with other industry phenomena popping up. (For instance, the rise of Hollywood convergence and a greater push for oodles of massively multiplayer online content.) However, when it comes to the increased emphasis being placed on adding polish to backgrounds, characters and stories alike, the team at Digital Trends is squarely behind game creators.

Otherwise, a few important miscellaneous items you should be aware of:

  • Gears of War not only kicks ass, it’s the most brutal and visceral first-person shooter seen to date. The crew at Epic Games has a definite masterpiece in the making.
  • Sports titles are about to receive more than just a graphic upgrade. NBA 2K7 features players who move, dribble, lean their bodies and even (ewwww?) lick their fingers in hyper-realistic fashion. Madden NFL 07 boasts some of the most fluid ball handling in the biz. And WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 touts more authentic atomic drop to spine action than you can shake a steel table at.
  • Weird is good. Between bizarre sagas such as interactive Japanese watercolor adventure Okami, teenage supernatural romp Persona 3 and hard-partier Guitaroo-Man Lives!, everyone will soon be going off their rocker. And that’s a good thing.
  • PC gaming is far from dead. Early candidates for Game of the Year honors like Spore, Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, Hellgate: London and Microsoft Flight Simulator X prove that much.
  • Getting a collective 10 hours of sleep across an entire week, no matter how hyped up you are to be getting your grubby paws on the future’s most mind-blowing gaming systems, is ill-advised. Especially when you’re sharing a room with three other slovenly reporters, one of whom thinks it’s clever to pass gas every five minutes and blame it on the air conditioner.

Enough incoherent Red Bull- and fatigue-fueled ramblings for now, though.

We’ll see you next year, same time and place, for a look at the second round of boundary-busting offerings from 2007’s best-selling next-generation consoles and the coolest new surprises for your PC.

Plus, of course, more oh-so-witty war stories straight from the trenches?

Click here for more Nintendo Wii coverage

Click here for 2K Sports Coverage

Click here for Aegia Coverage

Click here for Nintendo DS Coverage

Click here for Xbox 360 Coverage

Click here for Alienware Coverage

The next several pages have a lot of miscellaneous pictures we grabbed from the show, enjoy!

Misc. Pictures:

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