E3 2009: Microsoft Impressions

E3 2009: Microsoft Impressions
By Andrew Shin

Fellow gamers, it’s that time of the year again. You can feel the excitement and drama that is E3 with all of the hype, rumours and big announcements that the gaming industry serves up on a BIG silver platter. One of the major attractions at any E3 is the media briefing sessions by the Big 3. Of course I’m referring to Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. We in the media as well as majority of gamers around the world wait with great anticipation to see and hear what each will bring to the table for the current and coming years regarding new games, peripherals and new innovations in how we experience gaming.

First up at this year’s E3 was Microsoft. If you recall from last year’s E3 media briefing, Microsoft had done a commendable job in focusing on a great line up of games, introducing the New Xbox Experience and ending with the huge announcement that Final Fantasy XIII would be coming to the Xbox 360, thus putting an end once and for all to any exclusivity for the PS3. So how did Microsoft ‘bring it’ this year? Here are my impressions.

They started off with introducing The Beatles: Rock Band. There was some general information about the game and the announcement that the list of downloadable songs would extend across all Beatles albums ever made. Specifically, initial downloads including all songs from the Abbey Road album and the song All You Need Is Love were revealed. In fact for every purchased download of All You Need Is Love, proceeds from the sales would be donated to Doctors Without Borders. Good news indeed. Then came out Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison for a quick cameo – I really didn’t see the purpose of that. Immediately afterwards, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr came on stage to speak a little bit about the game...and I mean LITTLE. Really, someone at Microsoft should have done a better job of prepping these guys to talk about a major game bearing their band’s name. All Ringo could say was, “Game is good...graphics are really good...we’re great.”, while Paul jumped in with “Thanks for having us on your game show.” C’mon, this is E3, not The Price Is Right. Ok, so a tame start to the ‘show’, what next?

John Schappert, the Corporate VP at Xbox made his way out onto center stage. He kept things short and sweet. More importantly, he promised the crowd that this briefing would not be about sharing impressive sales and revenue numbers. YES. Microsoft was here to get straight to the goods and at the end of the day, that’s what all of us want.

Now to the games.

First up was Tony Hawk Ride. Tony Hawk was present to introduce his new game as well as the new skateboard peripheral/controller that would be used to play the game. Think a Wii Balance Board in the shape of a skateboard. From looking at video of the game being played by a number of pro skaters, it appears that the board is responsive and translates movement into the game quite well. Robomodo is the game’s developer as well as the maker of the skateboard peripheral. Looks interesting enough. To be honest, as I watched the video of the peripheral and game in action, I thought to myself that this is a game I may consider investing in.

Next up was Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2. Now things were getting good. For those of you who played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (myself included) would probably agree that this was one of the best and likely genre defining military FPS. Especially the multiplayer which I feel is the best FPS multiplayer out there today. Infinity Ward’s Jason West and Vince Zampella provided a demo of the game and all I can say is ‘amazing’. It would appear that Infinity Ward has stepped their game up with this next iteration in the Modern Warfare franchise. Gameplay is fast and intense and graphics look fantastic. They announced a release date of November 10, 2009. Also announced were 2 map pack DLCs that would be made available first on Xbox Live. I wonder what that translates to in terms of time until these downloads are available to PS3 owners? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. Considering it's map pack DLCs, it didn't really stir up much interest in me.

Final Fantasy XIII was showcased next. Yoshinori Kitase and Motomu Toriyama of Square-Enix came out on stage to demo the game. The demo looked quite impressive on the Xbox 360. Sharp visuals and a number of new gameplay mechanics hold the promise that this next Final Fantasy game will not disappoint. Indeed, this is one game that many Xbox 360 owners have been patiently waiting for and seeing it in action should have made them all warm and bubbly inside. Without a doubt one of the briefing’s key highlights.

So with the first part concluded, Microsoft turned to exclusives. Here’s where one would expect things to heat up in a good way. Did Microsoft deliver? I would have to give two thumbs up in this department. They showcased an impressive line up of exclusive titles set to release in this year and in 2010.

First off was the announcement of a couple of Xbox Live Arcade games. Shadow Complex, a joint production from Epic Games and Share Entertainment is a side scrolling action shooter reminiscent of games such as Castlevania and with certain elements that remind me of the older Metal Gear Solid games. The game is built using the Unreal Engine 3. The other XBLA game was Joy Ride. This is an animation style arcade racer that incorporates your avatar into the game. Looks like it could be fun, but I wasn’t all that interested. Although I must say the game’s various environments conjured up good memories of old school Looney Toons cartoons with the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Next were game trailers for Crackdown 2 and Left 4 Dead 2. What can one say? The first Crackdown and Left 4 Dead were some of the best games to ever come to the Xbox 360 and for them to come back and continue to be exclusives will no doubt strengthen the 360’s appeal and offering. I just hope that at the end of the day, both games will deliver beyond their predecessors.

The final line up of exclusive titles to be presented included Splinter Cell Conviction, Forza Motorsport 3, Halo 3 ODST, Halo Reach and Alan Wake. Too keep things simple, I’ll touch on Splinter Cell Conviction, Halo 3 ODST and Alan Wake.

Splinter Cell Conviction is the long awaited next chapter in the series. Max Beland and Alex Pariseau of Ubisoft provided a demo of the game. After having seen the demo, I was sold. Conviction looks to be another solid Splinter Cell game with innovative new features. The game`s objectives are integrated in real-time into the surrounding environment as you play through each level. The environments look to be very interactive and while providing Sam opportunities of stealth movement and plan of attack on enemies. Sam`s arsenal of abilities have also been evolved with more brutal and lethal takedowns – case in point the ‘Mark and Execute’ move where you can pre-plan your attack by tagging your enemies and then follow up with a lethal finish. I`m convinced that this will be a big winner for both Ubisoft and the Xbox 360.

Halo 3 ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) was demoed by Joe Staten from Bungie. From what I saw in the demo, this game looks to possess all of the great game qualities that made Halo 3 a big success. With the story’s timeline weeks before the events of Halo 3 and played from the perspective of a rookie ODST, this game will provide a fresh and new experience for gamers. The addition of a co-op game mode called Firefight should bring added value to the game as well.

Then came Alan Wake. The demo showcased some of the game’s interesting elements and overall eerie atmosphere. This is a horror/thriller game after all. The use of light as a weapon seems to be integrated nicely in how it is utilized and in its visual effect. As mentioned before, the game’s atmosphere and the dependence on using a flashlight creates an intense and nervous feeling which I think will make this a truly on edge gaming experience akin to games such as Condemned and Dead Space. This game is scheduled for release in 2010 which is still some time away from now, but as more gets revealed about the game I’m certain this will eventually be a great title for the Xbox 360.

Microsoft then moved on to Xbox Live and its new additions. I feel that the Xbox 360 has raised the bar for online experience with the introduction of a partnership with Last.FM, Sky TV (UK and Ireland Xbox 360 users), Facebook and Twitter. The latter two being the key partnerships. It’s a no brainer that the addition of Facebook and Twitter to Xbox Live will further enhance how gamers interact with their Xbox 360 and provide more reasons to stay engaged with their console. Seeing a demo of how both applications have been seamlessly integrated into Xbox Live indicates an easy and rich interactive experience.

From an innovation and new technology standpoint, Microsoft introduced what they call Project Natal. This is the much rumoured motion control technology where playing games can be done through body movements and voice and visual recognition thereby eliminating the need for a physical controller. The part of this presentation that intrigued me the most was an interactive demo that was created by Lionhead Studios and presented by Peter Molyneux. In the demo he showcased some very impressive use of the technology. One was the way in which you could communicate with the main character, a young boy named Milo and engage in a full comprehensive dialogue. Another was the use of the camera as a scanner. The demo video showed a person drawing on a piece of paper and then holding it up to the camera. This did two things. One, it initiated an action of passing the paper to Milo and two, it allowed for a scan of the picture on the paper which then was translated into the virtual paper that Milo accepted and was able to identify the picture that was drawn. This just blew me away. I could only imagine the numerous possibilities in how this technology could be utilize in games. It’s almost limitless.

And finally the HUGE announcement that many have been waiting for to come to fruition. A Metal Gear Solid game for the Xbox 360. Hideo Kojima made a short presence on stage to share some light details about the new MGS game titled Metal Gear Solid Rising. What has been confirmed is that Raiden will be the lead character. The game is currently in development and will introduce a “new Metal Gear experience” as Kojimasan put it. There was no mention of it being an exclusive, but that hardly matters as news of an MGS game for the 360 is significant enough.

So there you have it, my thoughts on Microsoft’s media briefing. At the end of the day, I believe Microsoft did a solid job of delivering the goods for the Xbox 360. A strong line up of games, especially in the exclusives with titles such as Splinter Cell Conviction, Crackdown 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Halo 3 ODST, Halo Reach and Alan Wake. The enhancements to Xbox Live with partnerships including Last.FM, Facebook and Twitter will only build a stronger community of Xbox Live users and likely draw a stronger user base in the years to come by incorporating two very popular social media outlets. Project Natal showcased the limitless possibilities to make gaming a fully interactive experience that is accessible to anyone whether they are a first time gamer or hardcore. Then the announcement of the MGS franchise coming to the Xbox 360 was the cherry on the top of the sundae. Here’s hoping that the Xbox 360 does deliver.