It's June and there is buzz in the LA air but it's not just because the LA Kings are in the Stanley Cup finals it's because North America's largest gaming expo kicked off this week. E3 is upon us and with it brings a plethora of world premier announcements, new product ideas and of course, more marketing speak than most people would hear during a lifetime of watching infomercials.
Typically the week kicks off with the massive “media briefing” by Microsoft and last year the Xbox 360 maker received some backlash for focusing too much of the briefing on Kinect features and the more casual audience. I found this year's briefing to be a little more well rounded but there were still few moments I found strange, uninteresting and silly. I also noticed that most of these moments came when Microsoft strayed from the the market that got them to where they are... gamers.
The conference started off pretty strong by setting the stage with a trailer for the latest entry in the 360's flagship shooter franchise Halo. The trailer gave us a quick intro cutscene in which we watched a UNSC ship crash on a strange alien planet. Then a rep from Microsoft took control of Master Chief and showed off some gameplay. What we saw was Halo 4 looking great and the introduction of some new weapons, some new enemies, and Cortana loosing her mind. Apparently the A.I. is past her “best before” date and may at some point join the ranks of psychotic A.I. like Hal, Skynet, and Roberto from Futurerama.
With the obligatory Halo 4 over it was then Toronto's time to shine as the world was introduced to the first game to come out of Ubisoft's Toronto studio, Splinter Cell: Blacklist. In Blacklist, gruff super spy Sam Fisher returns as the apparent new head of Third Echelon. Some gameplay was shown showcasing the game's new enemy tagging system and cover system, which reminded me of similar mechanics used in Ubisoft's recently released Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. I looked like fun and showcased how an elite operative like Fisher can clear a room with nothing but a 9mm. I also liked the momentum driven combat which invoked anticipation for Assassin’s Creed III which I've been told will use a similar approach to combat. Finally, Ubisoft showed off some of the game's Kinect functionality by orally calling in an air strike. I though the demo was pretty decent for a first showing of our homegrown yet untested studio.
It was then that the Kinect orientated part of the show began. First, some reps from EA showed off how Madden 13 and FIFA 13 will use the device by allowing you to make substitutions with oral commands like a seasoned club manager. Then out came renowned quarterback Joe Montana who showed off how Madden 13 and Kinect will allow you to do things like call audibles from the line of scrimmage, right before the snap, like a real QB would. I did find it a little odd that they chose Joe Montana to showcase this considering there are much younger still active QBs who would have been a little more relevant but hey the guy is one of the best.
Continuing with Kinect, Microsoft went on to talk about some of the upcoming voice commands that will enhance your Xbox Dashboard experience. Soon you'll be able to “Bing” by genre and select your media by title. Currently, titles are selected by saying “Xbox, play title number two”. Soon phrases like “Xbox, play Breakin' 2 Electric Boogaloo” will be heard in homes around the world. And when I say around the world I really do mean around the world. Microsoft also showcased some of the upcoming multilingual support as a marketing rep navigated the 360's dashboard completely in Spanish. This is a feature that will definitely make a Kinect purchase more attractive in international territories. That said, I still challenge them to decipher what my Scottish cousins are saying. I've known them for years and can barely understand them at times.
At this point the briefing got into some dull territory as the company started talking about some new entertainment brands that will be available this fall on Xbox Live. For sports fans the NBA and NHL will join the ranks of MLB with games available over Xbox Live, but the NFL is still noticeably absent. New entertainment partners like Nickelodeon, Paramount, Uvideo, ESPN and Machinima were also announced to have content available soon on Xbox Live. Rounding out the dull stuff was Nike who took over to show off Nike+ and how that will integrate with Kinect. I know this may sound snarky but how about we get back to the entertainment part of this Electronic Entertainment Expo. I'm sorry, I know working out is important but it's not entertainment, it's work! This was one part of the briefing I could have done without. Show it on the floor and have that be that.
Microsoft then stole some of Nintendo's thunder by introducing Microsoft SmartGlass. SmartGlass, functions in a strangely similar manner to what we've seen the Wii U's tablet will be capable of. As far as I understand it, SmartGlass is an app that will be available for Windows mobile devices like a Windows Phone or a Windows 8 tablet that will allow you to begin watching media on one device and then wirelessly share it to another device or your Xbox 360. Once the content is on your Xbox, SmartGlass will then automatically provide you with additional information about the movie or show. Microsoft seemed very pleased with themselves as they essentially invented Apple's AirPlay and IMDB and made it so no one will ever just sit and watch a movie again. The videogame implementation at least seemed interesting. The example given was of a person changing a football play during a game of Madden. They brought up the play book with the tablet and then changed a runner's route by drawing a new one on the screen. This could allow for some really cool possibilities in games. Can you say custom maps for RPGs? Because that sounds kind of amazing.
It was at this point that the Xbox Live feed of the media briefing ran into technical issues and stopped streaming on my Xbox 360. So I headed to my PC to continue watching via another media outlet. This got me thinking. What if my team is having a do or die moment in the dying minutes of a do or die game and then all of a sudden...blip? “Sorry we're experiencing technical difficulties”. If Microsoft wants to compete with live TV they have to be at least as reliable as their broadcast competition.
Anyway, back to the games. In the home stretch both Tomb Raider and Resident Evil 6 were shown. Both games were pretty heavy with the scripted events but that's not something I normally have a problem with, plus I’m pretty hyped about RE6 because I think it may redeem the franchise in my eyes after the crushing disappointment of RE 5. Tomb Raider looked good too and both games showcased many thrills and spill. New games were also announced from Twisted Pixel and Signal Studios.
It was then, that the best 30 seconds of the briefing began as Matt Stone and Trey Parker took the stage to talk about my most anticipated game, South Park: The Stick of Truth. They were brief, yet hilarious and made an interesting point about mapping out the town of South Park. You see, coming from TV if Matt and Trey needed to change locations they would just cut to the new location but in a game you have to travel there. So, for The Stick of Truth the guys actually needed to map out the entire town for the first time. It's surprising that after doing the show for over 15 years they've never really thought about how far Kyle's house might be from Stan's House.
The show began to wind down with Harmonix showing off Dance Central 3, and by showing off I mean there was an Usher concert where he performed his new single “Scream”. It was either that, or Dance Central 3 looks phenomenal. Activision closed out the show by showing gameplay from CoD: Black Ops 2 which no longer requires you to use their snap-to aiming system because now there are drones that will do you killing for you so you can sit back and watch the explosions. The one element of Black Ops 2 I did find interesting was the introduction of branching paths. During one segment the player was given the option to provide cover fire with a sniper rifle or repel down to the street below and take the fight to the enemy. I'm glad that the developers at Treyarch are trying some new things to keep the formula fresh.
Overall the media briefing was pretty okay. It had it's high points when it stuck to the games, and the appearance by Matt and Trey. It also had it's low points like Nike+ and gratuitous pandering plugs for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Game of Thrones and Prometheus. I also thought it strange that Usher was brought in to entertain a hall full of sleepy, snarky game journalists who would have been happier to see more Dance Central 3 gameplay. However, I do thank that the majority of what was was showcased will make this a great yet most likely last year for the 360.