Although E3 technically begins tomorrow, the day (or in some cases, days) leading up to the actual convention have traditionally been the time when the big guys come to lay out their plans and show off their new offerings. Leading the charge this year was Microsoft, who opened the week with a press conference at USC’s Galen Center, as thousands of press and industry people were in attendance to see what the Xbox 360 had cooking.
Press conferences like these generally have a few moments to discuss how awesome the company putting on the event is, before displaying some new features, and then they close with a surprise to leave people talking. That was then plan this year as well, but the details of the conference leaked about an hour before the show began. But such is life, and as the lights went down, Microsoft began its showcase.
Modern Warfare 3
The show began with the familiar Xbox 360 graphic that you see every time you fire up the 360. But once the image left, the green hue remained, and formed a now familiar 3. With that, Microsoft showed off an early stage for Modern Warfare 3, which was being played live.
The level was set in New York — or more precisely under it, as you begin the game as a soldier named “Frost”, who is in full diving gear and making his way through a flooded tunnel leading into New York. Frost and his team emerge in the harbor and are hunting an enemy sub. Once they find it, they plant explosives which force the ship to the surface. Once you break the water, you get your first glance of New York. The familiar skyline is radically different, as missiles continue to decimate the skyscrapers, and fires cast a smoke cloud over the city.
Frost and his team then board the sub and fight their way to the control room, where they launch missiles on themselves to sink the sub for good. Next an escape on a raft through the New York harbor begins, and as Frost cuts around, over, and even under the remains of a naval fleet.
Although the section of the game was fairly short, it was also impressive and had the audience enthralled. The game is not an Xbox 360 exclusive, but any future expansions for Modern warfare 3 will be released on Xbox Live at least a month before they are released elsewhere. It may also be a not so subtle reminder that the Call of Duty series is thriving on XBL, while the PS3 version hasn’t been all that playable lately thanks to the PSN shenanigans.
Next up was another game that is not exclusive to Xbox 360, but was featured anyway. The demo was a playable look at the first level of the game, which is something of a reboot, and something of a prequel. A 21-year old Lara Croft is shipwrecked and captured on a mysterious island. She escapes, but is wounded in the process.
Lara makes her way through a series of caves, dodging collapsing obstructions and the odd bad guy, and makes it out to the surface to be confronted with the reality of her situation. Dozens of wrecked ships from across the centuries litter the bay, and the odds don’t look good for Lara.
The game isn’t due out until Q3 2012, and it will be available for PC and PS3 as well, which makes it an odd choice to show at the start of the Microsoft convention. But as it followed Modern warfare 3, which in itself has an exclusive agreement on DLCs through XBL, perhaps something similar is in the works.
Next up was EA Sports, which emphasized compatibility with the Kinect. Tiger Woods, Madden and FIFA all were discussed, and a fourth mystery title was also mentioned, but was said to be announced later (probably at EA, and the game is probably NHL ’12).
The next Sims game will also feature Kinect support, as will a new Family Game night title. The announcement was brief, so the exact details on how the Kinect will work with the games wasn’t highlighted too much, other than to confirm it will have voice support to issue commands. There will probably be gesture support of some kind at least, but we may have to wait to see.
The next big round of applause came from a brief look at Mass Effect 3, which will also feature Kinect voice support. The clip shown highlighted two specific uses for the Kinect: When you are in conversation trees, you can actually speak your choice. It is a neat idea, but little more than a gimmick. The second feature though was more interesting. You will now be able to command your squad through voice commands. You can tell them where to go and what action to use. It is an interesting idea, but the clip was brief. Expect to see a lot more on Mass Effect at the EA conference and E3 booth.
Next on stage was Ubisoft, which began its demo with a brief trailer for Tom Clancy’s Future Soldier, which will also feature Kinect support. Ubisoft was one of the first companies on-board with the Kinect, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see that they are doing everything possible to make all their upcoming titles Kinect compatible.
The example used was in the “Gunsmith” section of Future Soldier, a section which allows you to customize your gun—and not just with a new scope or a stock, but you can literally break the gun down to the smallest pieces and replace every part. Think Gran Turismo 5’s customization, but with guns.
The Gunsmith section will allow you to manipulate the guns through gestures and voice commands. If you say “random”, a random gun will be assembled, if you say “optimize for close combat”, your weapon will be assembled for close combat. Then you will be sent to a firing range where you can control the action through gesture commands. Whether or not this was a full game feature or just something available in the Gunsmith wasn’t clear.
Ubisoft also confirmed that all future Tom Clancy games would be Kinect compatible.
Once the third-party vendors had their say, the Xbox team took the stage and discussed some of the changes coming to Xbox Live. Over the last few years, Microsoft has been attempting to create an identity, where people see the Xbox 360 as more than a gaming console. They want it to be an all-inclusive entertainment center, which is where the partnerships with ESPN, Last.fm and Netflix have come in.
To further that impression, another new application was announced, and coming this fall YouTube will be available through Xbox Live.
But while the inclusion of YouTube is big news, one of the biggest, and surprisingly most vague announcement was the arrival of live TV on XBL. The details were scarce to the point of non-existent when it came to what American channels and programs to expect, but international channels were confirmed, including the English Sky network, France’s Canal, and Australia’s Foxtel. The omission of American stations was likely due to ongoing negotiations, so expect to hear more about this in the future.
Another big announcement for the XBL was the inclusion of a XBL-specific version of Bing, that will be Kinect compatible. Once you activate Bing, you can then say the name of a movie, for example, and Bing will search all XBL applications, including the Zune library and Netflix, for that movie. If you want to watch The Goonies and it is available streaming on Netflix, Bing will take you there. If not, you can purchase it through the XBL’s library, which Microsoft claims will jump from thousands of options to millions.
The Bing service will also work with all libraries, including music and games. If you want to see what expansion packs are available for Call of Duty, you will just say so, and Bing will track them down and display the options. A Kinect is not necessary to use this feature, but honestly, it is much cooler to speak a search than type it on the keyboard.
Another XBL surprise was revealed by Dana White, President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Live UFC pay-per-view events will be available to purchase on the XBL, and the videos will be integrated with Xbox exclusives that you can experience with your friends. When a fight begins you will be allowed to choose who you think will win, how they will win, and when. You will also be able to access more info about the fighters during the fight. Once the match is over, the choices you made will be scored and you can compete with your friends for the honors.
Xbox 360 Exclusives
While the XBL is moving towards more entertainment than gaming, the Xbox 360 itself remains a gaming console at heart, and always will be. To emphasize that, Microsoft showed off a handful of Xbox 360 exclusive titles coming out soon.
Gears of War 3
Easily the biggest Xbox 360 exclusive of the year, Gears producer Cliff Bleskinski took the stage to play a bit of the campaign. To help him with the co-op, rapper-turned-actor Ice-T joined him.
The stage was a quick look at the opening level. Two years after the events of Gears 2, Marcus Fenix and his team are living on a carrier away from the war. They think that they are safe, until an infected leviathan attacks.
Halo: Combat Evolved
The original Halo returns to celebrate its anniversary. To commemorate the game that put Xbox on the map, Halo: CE will receive an HD facelift, with full remastered graphics and a new look to many existing levels. So while the paths you take may look familiar, the areas you wander through may look entirely original.
There will also be co-op, both online and off, and the seven classic multiplayer maps that came with the original will be available to play online.
Forza Motorsports 4
The biggest and best competitor to Gran Turismo 5 couldn’t let the release of GT5 go unanswered, and the fourth title in the Forza series will be out later this year in October.
Forza 4 will feature Kinect support, including head movement recognition. More on this game later in the week.
Kinect-specific Xbox 360 exlusives
Microsoft is gambling heavily in the Kinect, and to support the gesture based controller, it is planning on releasing several new titles to help.
Crytek is back, this time with a Kinect-exclusive game set during the fall of Rome. This was the first official look at the game. You are a Roman citizen, fighting for survival as Rome burns and the Roman Empire comes crashing down. Although the clip was brief, the idea is that you wield a shield and a sword, and through the gesture controls, you fight off enemies.
Kinect Disneyland Adventures
Microsoft and Disney have joined forces to present a game that will allow you to wander through a realistic interpretation of Disneyland, and several of the locations will lead to playable mini-games. The two levels displayed were both movement based games. The first was based on Peter Pan, and was a flying game that had the players moving around to capture items and avoid obstacles. The second was based on Alice in Wonderland and was a similar design, only the player was in a ball on a ramp, and you moved side-to-side only. It is due out at the end of the year.
Sesame Street: Once a Monster
A game geared for kids and families, Sesame Street: Once a Monster combines mimicking movement and mini-games. It is made for families, and should appeal to younger gamers.
Kinect Sports Season 2
The best-selling Kinect game returns with more sports and more options. Six options in total will be available, including: baseball, football, tennis, golf, darts and skiing.
Dance Central 2
A sequel to the game that has become a party hit is on the way, with more tracks and a few improvements. DC 2 will feature voice support, and allow two players to dance at the same time. It will also be compatible with all the original Dance Central tracks, so the new library will instantly double if you own the original game.
Kinect Fun Labs
Although not quite a game, Kinect Fun Labs will expand the potential of the Kinect. Available to download today on the XBL dashboard, Fun Labs has two new features that all Kinect users should like. The first is with scanning. You can now scan yourself with the Kinect, and create a new avatar that looks like you. It will map your facial features and even the clothes you are wearing, then recreate them as your new avatar. Item scanning is now available as well, and long awaited things—like the ability to scan your skateboard into a game and then use it—are available.
The second feature was based on finger tracking, which was on display though Googly Eyes, a program within Fun Labs. Simply take a picture of one object (maybe yourself), then take a background shot, and then you can edit the picture with your fingers. Best of all, the image will be rendered in 3D, allowing you to rotate it.
All of the new Kinect options will also be available to share online in the Kinect library, so you can show off your pictures to your friends.
Fable: The Journey
The next installment of Fable is on the way, and it will take the game in a new direction. Fable: The Journey will be a first-person game designed for the Kinect. The demo we were shown featured a sequence driving a carriage, where you move the reigns for speed and maneuverability. But much more interesting was the combat mechanism, which was gesture based.
Although there is certainly more to the game, the action demo we saw used magic to fight off enemies. With a pushing movement, you launch a fireball, a slashing movement sends an energy ribbon. If you rub your hands together the magic charges up, and if you roll your hands in a circle, you can create new types of attacks. Expect to hear more about this game.
Star Wars Kinect
The biggest of the upcoming Kinect titles is without a doubt, the Star Wars game. Although it is set in the time of the prequels during the Clone Wars, many of the original trilogy’s settings were shown, including Cloud City. The game is broken up into two sections, one flying and one combat (lightsaber) based. The flying seemed straight forward enough — you move to maneuver the craft and fire with a hand gesture. The combat was on rails, but it allowed some movement based on your actions.
Swiping your arm down brought your lightsaber down. Kicking made your character kick. You could also dodge and use force powers with gestures. The look may not appeal to those that aren’t a fan of the new films, and the on-rails action might not be ideal, but it is still Star Wars, and fighting with a lightsaber looks cool.
And to close the show…
To finish off the conference, Microsoft had one more trick up its sleeve, as it officially announced Halo 4 with a trailer.
When Bungie announced that it was moving on to create multi-platform games, it was assumed that Halo would still live on through a new company. We all knew it was coming, but it was still good to see Master Chief once again. The trailer was brief and inconclusive, but Microsoft did specifically say that Halo 4 would be the first game in a new trilogy created by 343 Industries, one of Microsoft’s in-house production teams. It also announced that Halo 4 would be due out at the end of next year.
Microsoft did exactly what it needed to with its E3 press conference. With Nintendo poised to steal the show with the Wii 2, and the still-vulnerable Sony likely to push its exclusive titles post the PSN-debacle, Microsoft put the emphasis on the Kinect, and on the future of Xbox Live as an entertainment service that does far more than just games.
Microsoft through the gauntlet down to start E3. Now it is up to the other guys to try to rise to the occasion.
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