Monday, June 6, 2011

E3 Day 1 - Microsoft: Surprises and No Surprises Balance It Out...

So far, so good, I suppose. Microsoft kicked off the day with a pretty cool conference that revealed a much stronger focus on Kinect that in this writer's opinion, should have been last year's approach. Sure, 10 million plus units were shifted at retail since the launch, but many "core" gamers have ignored the peripheral for a few reasons (most of them based on misconceptions). Microsoft set out to change that big time and seems to have succeeded thanks to integrating Kinect functionality into nearly everything they showed off. More precise Kinect functionality (for the most part).

Before the big games were rolled out, Kinect was shown as a more precise part of the Dashboard experience with voice and touch functionality now in play. Of course, the 360 can't change discs for you, so you still need to get off your lazy ass and do that yourself. Er, at least until download-only full games start becoming standard issue (ugh). More partnerships I don't care about were announced, YouTube, UFC, Some TV service that allows you to watch your favorite shows, Bing searches and more stuff that makes some hardcore PC hard-heads idiotically slam consoles as "poor man's PC's" over and over. Personally, I don't care about all this media center crossover stuff - I just want to play good games, period. Fortunately, there were some of those shown at the press conference.

Modern Warfare 3 looked great, as did Gears of War 3 (although I found the demo strangely dull for some reason despite all the shooting and explosions). Mass Effect 3 (now with Kinect voice commands for your squad and live dialog selection for conversations) was a show-stopper and Battlefield 3 is Dice's Frostbite 2-powered trump card and ace in the hole all in one. I'm excited for the new Tomb Raider's mix of "survival action" and cinematic action sequences for sure. The demo left me wanting to see a lot more of Crystal Dynamics' new take on the long running franchise (Lara's gasps and squeals aside). Arkham City was stupendous (the playable Catwoman with her own move set was lovely) and Prototype 2 looked brutal and gory as ever. Speaking of gory, Dead Island will do just fine as a Left 4 Dead substitute and then some. Techland's powerhouse multiplayer zombie kill-fest has stunning visuals and plenty of undead to dispatch in some really nasty ways.

EA is sticking pretty much to mixing things up with familiar franchises. The sports games will either be Kinect-enabled, have new social gaming features and all sorts of new visual and animation tweaks, all expected upgrades at this point. SSX drops the Deadly Descents moniker and gets more tricked out gameplay that hearkens back to the original games while retaining much of the grittier look the reboot initially had. I'm not sure what to make of Black Box's Need For Speed: Run, but its interesting mash up of fast driving and QTE on foot chase action made me think of a cross between Outlander and Zoku: Legend of Bishin (look 'em up, kids).

Back on the Kinect loop, Crytek's tease for its Kinect action game Ryse was intriguing, but actual gameplay needs to be seen. Tim Schaefer poked fun at the faux father and son gamer pair during his Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster demo while adding a nice anecdote about his own kid. Fable: The Journey looked really slick and reminded me a bit of Sony's MIA Sorcery (more on that in a later post) with its gesture based spells and rapid-fire action sequences. The horse and buggy stuff was pretty cool as well. Even cooler was Ghost Recon's Kinect-only Gunsmith functionality, which looks like a gun nut's best dream ever. 20 million possible weapons combinations using internal and external parts and the chance to try out your gear as you tweak it all looked and flowed spectacularly. It's STILL a "pew-pew" thing at the end of the day, but it's GOOD "pew-pew".

Halo got two nods here - one, Halo Anniversary, the re-skinned/remake of the first game is coming this year as a budget-priced release with what looks to be nostalgic but modernized online multiplayer maps. Halo 4 was also announced in a too-brief CG teaser that die-hard fans started dissecting eve before as it was over. No doubt 343 Studios (taking over from Bungie) is planning a huge deal of content for this first in a new trilogy of games. 2012 (most likely Holiday time) will be the year we see if it all pays off, but knowing Microsoft's penchant for blowing as much hype as it can afford all over the place, expect to hear too much about about the return of Master Chief as the new year rolls in and onward.

For all the colorful visuals and bouncy tunes, I didn't like the Disney game much, but I absolutely see its family-friendly appeal. I don't have young kids, but I know folks who go there every year they can. Of course, I amusingly wondered that the game would do so well that it would backfire and hurt Disney theme park profits at some point. Then again, the game doesn't have the over-priced hotel, food and souvenir shops Disney does and some folks can't live without that, I'd imagine... As for the Star Wars game... it looks as if it's still in need of some work. Response seemed sluggish and the gameplay looked pretty basic despite the familiar John Williams score driving the action. We'll see what happens as development continues, but this one better be a killer app for the Kinect with such a big license strapped to it.

The Kinect-enabled exclusive (so far) Minecraft should be a blast, and Kinect Fun Labs (now available) adds some cool "mods" to your 360 such as the ability to whip up Avatars that actually LOOK like you (a poke in the eye to Rare who spent good time and money coming up with their Wii-versions) or draw in 3D with an interesting finger-motion sensor deal. All of this stuff SHOULD have been on board at the launch of both the Avatars and Kinect, but at least Microsoft is addressing the complaints they've been getting by caving in to allow user creativity to add to the overall Xbox experience rather than shut it out (only to copy it later).

As for this year's Summer of Arcade lineup, Bastion is the game I'm most looking forward to, but I want it in a retail box just because IT DESERVES IT more than being shoveled out as a simple Arcade experience, grrr. Overall, it was a decent enough press conference, but I was hoping to see some of those Japanese Kinect titles touted at last year's TGS at the event. I'm gathering that earthquake/tsunami disaster hit some of that development hard, leaving Microsoft and its NA and EU-based third parties to pick up the slack and make sure their Kinect stuff was on point. Whatever the reason for the lack of Japanese-developed 360 games at the event, it still seems that 2011 and 2012 will be pretty good for Microsoft's bottom line.

Back in a bit with Ubisoft and Sony takes...

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