Wednesday, June 15, 2011

E3 2011: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo

The main attraction at E3 is the show floor, where companies show off their newest games, technology, and peripherals. But before the doors open, the big three take the stage at their press conferences to announce their new products and services, and unveil the future of gaming.

The Microsoft press conference began with probably it’s best selling title. While not an Xbox 360 exclusive, the Call of Duty franchise has been a mainstay for the Microsoft console for the last several years with exclusive-timed map packs and content.. Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward’s Creative Strategist, played a demo of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 on stage, showing an underwater sequence that eventually led to a raft escape through a battle in the New York harbor.

Casey Hudson, executive producer for the Mass Effect series by BioWare, then came out on stage to show a demo of Mass Effect 3, including its new Kinect functionality. With Kinect, players will be able to use voice commands for both dialogue options and squad commands. It’s an interesting addition, though I’m not sure how much more immersive it will make the game feel. Voice commands seem like the only thing BioWare could do to integrate Kinect into the game, without changing any of the game’s major mechanics.

Major surprises for E3 are in short-order anymore. However, one announcement that many didn’t see coming was the PC exclusive game Minecraft coming to the Xbox 360 with Kinect support. The overall theme of the press conference seemed to show how Kinect could be integrated into more core and traditional games, rather than simply dance or mini-games. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier showed how a first-person shooter could be controlled using Kinect, but the demonstration felt sloppy to me. Using the motion of making a fist and opening the hand to shoot seemed highly unintuitive, but it’s a start. They also showed Fable: The Journey, a new Kinect game from Peter Molyneux and the team at Lionhead Studios. While Molynuex has since denied that the game is an on-rails shooter, the demonstration told a different story.

Of course, just because more core games are using Kinect doesn’t mean the dance or mini-games are getting left behind. Microsoft showed Kinect: Disneyland Adventures, a collection of mini-games themed around the Disneyland theme park; think Kinect Adventures mixed with Disneyland.

Microsoft also showed a title they first announced at last year’s E3, Star Wars Kinect. The game can support up to two players as they play through planets and environments found in the prequel Star Wars trilogy. From seeing it played live, the gameplay feels stunted and the fidelity of the game comes up short. Hopefully improvements can be made before its release in 2012.

We also saw Dance Central 2, the sequel to last year’s best selling Kinect game. Dance Central 2 adds more music, multi-player dancing, and promises to work with the previous game’s downloadable content.

Of course, the announcement of Dance Central 2 wasn’t a surprise. Hours before the press conference started, listed several new titles under its New in Games section, including Halo Anniversary and Halo 4. Halo Anniversary is a remake of 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved with a complete graphics overhaul, improved functionality with multi-player through Xbox Live, and the return of seven classic multi-player maps. The end of the press conference saw Microsoft’s President of the Interactive Entertainment Business Don Mattrick taking the stage to show a trailer for Halo 4, developed by 343 Industries, which he said would be the, “dawn of a new trilogy for Xbox 360.”

Sony’s press conference was probably one of the most anticipated, simply because of the recent PlayStation Network outage. Would they roll out Kevin Butler and sweep it under the carpet with humor, or face the heart of the matter head-on? Sony didn’t waste any time, bringing Jack Tretton, President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, to the stage to talk about the outage. He started by formally apologizing to Sony’s third party publishers, retail partners, consumers. He stated that the network is now at over 90% functionality of what it was before the outage occurred, and he attributed that to the patience of Sony’s associates and consumers. He posed that the goal of the press conference was to show how the PlayStation brand is stronger than ever, that it surpasses just games with services like Hulu+, Vudu,, NHL Gamecenter, Music Unlimited, and Netflix. Tretton then introduced Naughty Dog on stage to show off Sony’s strongest first party title, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

Sony continued to push 3D technology by announcing a PlayStation branded 3D TV. The television uses a split-screen image technology that shows a different image on the same screen when viewed through a separate pair of 3D glasses. While this technology is not new, it’s an untapped resource not brought to the 3D market before. Combined with an HDMI cable, a pair of 3D glasses, and Resistance 3, this 24” television bundle will retail for $499.

Sony showed off more of its titles coming this year, including a new God of War collection of previously released PSP games re-mastered for the PlayStation 3, and a Team ICO collection of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus.

Sony also showed off more PlayStation Move titles, including the surprise of BioShock Infinite from Irrational Games supporting the motion-controller. Ken Levine, the creative director for BioShock Infinite, described how he was initially hesitant of the PlayStation Move. After some time spent with the motion-controller, he realized the things it could do in the game space in terms of controlling the world of Colombia and manipulating Elizabeth. He also announced a new untitled BioShock project that Irrational is just starting to design that will be coming for the, then named, NGP.

Concluding their presentation, President and CEO of Sony Corporation Kaz Hirai came out on stage to give the final piece of information everyone wanted. Back in January, Sony announced its newest PlayStation portable using only its code name, NGP (Next Generation Portable). Now, Hirai officially announced the portable’s name, PlayStation Vita. “Vita means life,” he said, noting that the Vita will the “blur the lines between entertainment and real life, allowing you to connect and interact like never before.” Owners of the PlayStation Vita will be able to connect to over 24,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots across the US. The Vita will come in two different models, a Wi-Fi only model and 3G enabled model using AT&T as the exclusive mobile carrier for the US. Audible groans could be heard in the audience after this announcement. The PlayStation Vita will retail for $249 for the Wi-Fi only model, and $299 for the 3G enabled model, with both models launching by the end of 2011. This price point puts the PlayStation Vita in direct competition with the Nintendo 3DS. More about the technical specification of the PlayStation Vita can be found here.

The only thing eclipsing everyone’s anticipating of Sony naming the PlayStation Vita was Nintendo’s announcement of a new console. As reported by Game Informer back in April, Nintendo was to unveil new hardware, code named Project CafĂ©, at this year’s E3. Instead of opening up with the big announcement, Nintendo took its time to show off its new Zelda title coming for the Wii, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Nintendo showed the game off at last year’s E3, but the demonstration went awry as the motion-controls did not function properly, and its derivative nature of previous titles in the series left many unimpressed. This year, Skyward Sword made a grand appearance with a full orchestra playing the music to Zelda in honor of its 25th anniversary. Shigeru Miyamoto came on stage to announce The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword would be available this holiday, and that a special gold Wii remote would be available as part of a special promotion for the game.

Nintendo also pushed hard to show the upcoming titles for their recently released handheld, Nintendo 3DS. Kid Icarus: Uprising, Luigi’s Mansion 2, Mario Kart 3DS, Paper Mario, Star Fox 64 3D, Super Mario 3DS, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D were all shown.

But the headline of Nintendo’s press conference was the reveal of the Wii U. Due to launch sometime after April 2012, the new system utilizes a controller with a 6.2 inch touch screen that can be configured with a television screen, similar to the two screen set-up of the Nintendo DS. The controller also features a gyroscope and an accelerometer. The system will be backwards-compatible with all Wii games and support full 1080p resolution, HDMI out, and use internal flash memory with the option of using both SD and USB storage devices. We also now know that the console will not support DVDs or Blu-Ray discs, instead opting for a proprietary 25GB optical storage disc. With the inclusion of a traditional controller, Wii U will be able to support third-party games seen on other consoles. Darksiders 2, Batman: Arkham City, Tekken, Assassin’s Creed, DiRT, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Metro: Last Light, and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge are confirmed for the Nintendo console, with more sure to be announced in the future.

With Microsoft trying to extend the life of the Xbox 360 with Kinect, Sony bringing the PlayStation Vita to the handheld market, and Nintendo releasing a new console next year, all three companies are showing a healthy future for the video game market. Most of the games shown and announced at these press conferences were playable on the show floor and behind closed doors. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting previews and impressions from several that a got a chance to see.

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