Saturday, June 13, 2009

E3 2009 Impressions (One): Controlling Interests

It's a good thing I waited until the big press conferences (and the entire show) were over and done as there were plenty of surprises dropped that are clearly going to change the way the interactive experience in the near future and beyond. Of course the ton of new games on the way that still use traditional control methods will do nicely at assuring "hardcore" gamers that analog pads are not yet going the way of the dinosaur. The one important fact about what was shown at E3 2009: there's absolutely no need at all for a new console generation for at least the next five or so years.

Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony each have separate strategies in play for the future of motion control gaming and it only remains to be seen who makes the best usage of their respective technologies. Microsoft introduced the tentatively named Project Natal, an innovative console add-on that adds real time live motion capture, voice recognition, chat and other nifty features to the Xbox 360. While seeing assorted Microsoft employees flail about on stage while demonstrating this nascent version of Natal was quite amusing, the potential is absolutely there for some amazing gaming experiences not before seen or played.

Seeing Lionhead Studios' fantastic “Milo” demonstration really made for an essential, pure emotional moment for me. Not about “him” personally, but for the wave of game ideas that flooded my brain when I saw how well the Project Natal technology could be adapted. Forget about “point and click” or "context sensitive" elements, folks – Natal looks as if it will make any game experience truly fully interactive. While watching Milo fully interact with a Lionhead Studios tech, I immediately thought of Yu Suzuki and how he may want to revive his aborted Shenmue project now that the technology exists to fully immerse players into that game's world and characters.

Naturally, the Internet went wild with message board yappings, calling Natal everything from "vaporware" to a "Wii rip-off", both which are incorrect. Behind closed doors at E3, Electronic Arts had a demo of Burnout Paradise hooked up to Natal and while I didn't see the game in action then, Jimmy Fallon had the same demo on his show this past week and went bonkers over it. Microsoft's Kuno Tsunoda was there with that kooky yet fun brick-breaking game (Ricochet) which online yobs hate because, yes, people do look quite silly flailing away at a TV screen. On the other hand, the fact that even this prototype version of Natal makes games accessible to anyone within seconds means Microsoft can broaden their audience without alienating smarter core users who don't care if Grandma gets herself a 360 at some point.

Announced last year, but finally fully realized, Nintendo's Wii Motion Plus add-on adds even more precise control to their top-selling home console. However, the device's main flaw is it's not compatible with older Wii software. This disappointed me because the Wii should have had that more precise control from the start. That and the fact that a number of upcoming releases about to hit retail don't use Motion Plus and play incredibly fluidly (The Conduit being the absolute best example of this). Of course, the focus of Motion Plus from Nintendo's view is to show off how well Wii games can stand up to current as well as future games from its competition and on that front, it succeeds. Wii Sports Resort may not scream out to "core" gamers, but that super precise control bodes quite well for that Pilotwings sequel many have been calling for.

All of the Motion Plus-enabled games play amazingly well and I'm really looking forward to Red Steel 2 finally delivering on the promise of the first game. I'd have to say I was most surprised by this overl every other Motion Plus game. even though the game looks like a mash-up of two of my personal favories, Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman and Samurai Western with a more modern twist.

To me, Sony's motion controller/USB camera combo was the biggest surprise of the three companies. A bit further along in development in terms of its pinpoint controls and ability to change on screen in real time into everything from a baseball bat to a gun or sword means no flailing away and some very innnnnteresting possibilities for developers. Watching one of the team hack away at a skeleton before tossing shurikens then switching to a super bow demonstration immediately made me wish for a new King's Field game as soon as possible. The again, I may be the only editor-type who remembers King's Field these days, but I can certainly see the first-person RPG landscape change significantly with the help of this peripheral. Of course, that glow-ball prototype version shown at the show will need a drastic new design, or else some folks will never take it seriously. Knowing Sony, the final version will no doubt be sleek and even more impressive.

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