After a middling Cirque de Soleil show the night before, Microsoft made up for their mistakes from the previous night with a press conference that feature expected announcements, some cool demos, and a surprise or two.
The highly anticipated event was so packed with journalists, investors, and Microsoft employees that many had to be shuffled off to the Marriott Hotel next to the LA convention centre to watch via satellite. Those who couldn't make it to the event were able to watch the event streamed live over the internet, on live TV, or even broadcast live at Times Square in New York, making this the most watched press conference worldwide in the history of video games.
The show kicked off with a new trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest installment in what has clearly become Activision's pillar franchise. This particular installment didn't look to be a huge improvement over previous incarnations of the series, but considering how popular this series has been, it didn't seem to matter. The game seems to take place in the '60s in places like Laos and Vietnam, with a focus on deniable operations. The action was intense, the graphics spectacular, and the sound effects booming. But all those things are totally par for the course for this franchise at this point. The game has a release date of November 9, 2010.
After the trailer, it was announced that Microsoft has signed a three year agreement with Activision to make all DLC and map packs exclusive to the 360 for the Call of Duty franchise for an unspecified time. If multiplayer Call of Duty is your game, you'll have to play on Microsoft's machine to get first dibs on the latest maps and DLC.
It was then mentioned that Xbox is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Has it really been that long since the original Halo made us want that clunky original black box so heartily? It's made this reporter feel old.
Next came an appearance from Metal Gear Solid maestro Hideo Kojima, who unveiled a world premiere trailer for Metal Gear Solid: Rising, starring the maligned hero of MGS 2 and 4, Raiden. Before the trailer, Kojima introduced Shigerobu Matsuyama, Producer on the title, who explained that the tag line for the game is "Zandatsu." He then clarified for the English speakers that "Zan" means cut, and "datsu" means take. Once the trailer began playing, it became clear what he meant. The trailer featured some intense action that had Raiden slicing and dicing his way through enemies. The video seemed to show off a fascinated control engine that allows Raiden to cut his way through the environments and soldiers in real time and slowed down bullet time. Time will tell how the controls and mechanics will really work, but the trailer showed a ton of promise, as proven by the enthusiastic applause from the audience at the Wilhelm theatre.
After the Rising demo, Microsoft representative Phil Spencer came on stage to confirm that everything seen in the show from that point on was exclusive to the Xbox 360.
Not soon after, Epic games guru Cliff Bleszinski gave a quick demo of four player co-op play in Gears of War 3. The game looked as impressive as ever, but was not really a huge step up over Gears of War 2. We got a quick look at the new bayonet function, and the new enemies, the Lambent. The Lambent mutated convincingly in real time, and essentially made the previous enemies look like cute cuddly puppies in comparison. Gears fans will likely be drooling all over this one.
Next came Peter Molyneux, head of Lionhead studios to unveil Fable III. He revealed that the game takes place 50 years after the second title, and has a focus on "the journey from revolutionary to ruler, and all the responsibility that will bring." Molyneux has a history of exaggeration for his games, so it was refreshing to have him let the trailer do the talking... and well, it was Fable. The graphics were not as detailed as the titles that came before, and the animation seemed stiff. Still, those who enjoy the franchise will likely be salivating at whatever details are yet to come, but those were scarce at the press conference.
Microsoft then announced their newest partner for Microsoft Games Studios. This was none other than Crytek, makers of Far Cry and Crysis. A teaser trailer was unveiled for a game titled Codename: Kingdoms, but no gameplay or further details were shown.
Next up was the game that many in the audience were breathlessly anticipating, Bungie's magnum opus: Halo: Reach and the unveiling of the new campaign mode. The first half of the trailer featured the familiar Halo gameplay, replete with plasma grenades, assault rifles, and the action coming from all angles. It's nothing we haven't seen before. But what happened next was certainly interesting. The Spartan (it doesn't look like the Master Chief in the trailer) jumped into a rocket and blasted off to the orbit of the planet. At this point, the rocket broke apart and the game became a fully featured space shooter not unlike the Rogue Squadron games of yore. After selling 34 million copies across the franchise and two billion hours of online multiplayer logged, it's nice to see Halo make an attempt at innovation, and here's hoping that Bungie goes out with a bang before they leave the franchise they put on the map in other hands. The game takes place before the first game and chronicles the fall of most of the Spartan soldiers.
As expected, the rest of the show was dedicated to the Natal, which has been renamed to the Kinect, and new services for the Xbox Live service.
The Kinect demo began with showing how streamlined it makes navigating the Xbox environment, which was admittedly very impressive. To log in, you only need to walk in front of the camera peripheral and wave. The camera instantly logged the demonstrator into his own profile. Once there, the demonstrator showed that "if you can see it, just say it." He said things like "Xbox, Play game," and a game kicked on. He then showed how to use Netflix, and showed how the Kinect is a substitute for a remote control. He said things like "Xbox, Rewind", and then moved the cursor back and forth through the movie simply by moving his hand back and forth. Saying things like "Xbox, Play" or "Xbox, Stop.", worked instantly and effectively. Just this short demonstration was more effective than the multi-million dollar Cirque de Soleil show from the night before.
Microsoft then showed up Video Kinect, which was essentially a Skype clone with voice commands. The quality seemed good, and connections seemed clear. It was also confirmed that the service is cross compatible with both Bing and Live Messenger services. Chatters can share news, sports, music, and videos together while using the service too. There's also face tracking through the device. Most of these features have been available on PCs and standard webcams for years now though.
New to Xbox Live is an ESPN channel, which brings 3,500 live and on demand sporting events including College basketball and football, NBA, MLB, soccer and much more into the living room. The service was unveiled by Sportscentre hosts Josh Elliott and Trey Wingo, who went through the features of the service, which includes real time trivia and will be free for all Xbox Live Gold subscribers.
As a major tentpole for Microsoft's major plans, the rest of the show was to show off the new games for Kinect. The controller free games did little to nothing to dissuade our fears that the device will leave the hardcore out in the cold, while catering to the casual crowd.
First up was Kinectimals, which is essentially a cross between Nintendogs and Webkins. The demo was conducted by a little girl who some would find cute, but this particular writer found to be pretty creepy. The game allows you to issue commands to the pet while playing up to 30 activities with the animal. The technology seemed cool, but this demo did little for the crowd, who greeted the casual game with casual indifference.
Next up was Kinect Sports. It was essentially Wii Sports to a tee, sans controller. Meh. Next...
After that was Kinect Joyride, a kart racer that is controlled by holding out your hands at ten and two o'clock and making various hand gestures to do stunts off of jumps. There wasn't much to this cartoony racer either, but kids will probably love it.
The next game was Kinect Adventures, which was essentially the same thing as Kinect Joyride. This game has players collecting tokens on raft and roller coaster tracks by making various jumps and body gestures.
The biggest problem with all of these games is that while the tech behind them is very cool, there was nothing there to show that these games will have anything resembling long term appeal. All the games seem like they'd be fun for a few minutes in an arcade, but as full priced retail releases, their shelf life will likely be minimal.
Ubisoft then took the stage to show off their own Kinect title, Yourshape: Fitness evolved. Much like the other games, the tech is through the roof, but the long term fun factor is in doubt. Still, I'm not really the target audience for these fitness games, and fans of games like EA active and Wii Fit will likely go nuts over it. The technology in this demo really shone through by measuring the exact angles joints were bent at, allowing the game to provide in depth analysis of your moves and giving helpful advice to maximize your work out. Work outs ranged from intense boxing sessions to relaxing Tai Chi and Yoga sessions.
The following presentation was undoubtedly the highlight of the six Kinect games shown at the press conference, Dance Central. Published by MTV games and developed by Rock Band creators Harmonix, Dance Central is essentially Rock Band with dance moves instead of flowing gems on a highway. In terms of pushing the threshold of how stupid one can make gamers look, Dance Central is at the top of the heap. Still, the game looks like great fun, and if any game is going to move Kinect units, this is it. The game flawlessly matched up individual moves from each limb, and even features a beginner mode to show the moves in slow motion until you're ready to really cut a rug. Many of the dances are authentic and ripped from the music videos of artists like No Doubt, Lady Gaga, and Beastie Boys. Over 90 routines are available in the game.
After all that, the worldwide release date for the unit is November 4, 2010, but no price was announced. There will also be 15 titles available at launch, and the unit is compatible with every single Xbox 360 sold since launch that hasn't red ringed or failed otherwise.
To conclude the Kinect demos, there was a trailer for a Star Wars exclusive game, which mimics motions as lightsaber motions. Time will tell how well it works without any tactile feedback, but the trailer did look pretty neat anyway.
Then, Turn 10 studios took the stage to show how Kinect will interact with the Forza motorsport series. Steering will be possible by moving your hands at two and ten o'clock, and turning your head will allow you move the camera to check out corners. Will hardcore driving sim fans really want to play with an invisible steering wheel? Who knows? The more impressive part of the demo was how the Kinect allows players to do a total virtual walkaround of a car, checking out the smallest details like brake plates to huge details like fully rendered engines and cockpits. The staggering level of detail will likely have any car fan jumping up and down with glee to be able to virtually maneuver around any car in the game. Turn 10 announced a release date of 2011 for the features, but did not specify if it is DLC or an add-on for Forza 3, or an entirely new release.
At the end of the show, Microsoft made one more rather major announcement, the release of the Xbox 360 slim model. The slim model looks essentially identical to the current model, but able to fit comfortably within the case of what is now the old "fat" model. The new slim has a built in 250 GB hard drive and 802.11 N Wi-Fi, currently the fastest wireless standard. The new model is already being shipped to stores this week, and retails for the same price as the standard Elite, a cool $299 USD. All the audience members were treated to a new slim model too.
The show capped off with a quote: "Fun is a universal magnet that binds us together." Taken on those terms, Microsoft's E3 2010 press conference was a resounding success, even if the long term future of some of the products shown are in question.