Weapons of Mass Consumption
Despite the event toilets being so far from where I parked my keister with the other Aussie game journos, I - among many others I presume - got the feeling Microsoft were taking their position at E3 very seriously, and while hours before we'd heard ESA boss, Jim Ward, talk about quelling the "nuclear arms race" that E3 had become over the years, it became abundantly clear here at Microsoft's pre-show press event they were doing things their own way. Maybe it was the fact they'd hired out a whole school, or maybe it was their intro videos playing across the massive screen they had erected at the school's amphitheater that displayed practically everyone in attendance's Xbox Live Gamertag in an effort to display how they're connecting
gamers across the globe (though my Gamertag was missing, which did make me sad in the face of everyone else cheering when they saw their names, but I digress). Finally, before the bigwigs took stage we were treated to a live performance of the Halo soundtrack from a group of college students called Corporeal, which was both pretty cool and an obvious nod to hardcore gamers out there. It was also a stunt that set the stage for that ubiquitous September release: Halo 3 - something Microsoft played upon very heavily throughout the whole E3 as their 'license to gloat', but would it end up being their undoing?
The point of all this so far though, was that Microsoft were already kicking ass and it wasn't even officially the first day of the new (arguably/allegedly) improved E3. But all the green lights, Gamertags, live game music and amphitheaters in the world wouldn't win the race for them, it had to be about announcements and delivering on promises, so with this in mind, Xbox head Peter Moore took to the stage to begin the goat-fest that actually proved the industry young guns had more than enough guff to maintain their current position, and to perhaps even race ahead further.
As with most press events of this nature, figures were thrown our way next, though they were US-based so really hold no bearing on us back here. Still, hearing things like Xbox Live achieving more than seven million members worldwide (that's a new member every eight seconds since last E3, according to Moore), was pretty cool. But something odd was happening intermittently throughout the event amidst the obvious 'we're more hardcore than the other guys' undertone, and that was a renewed focus on the youth market.
This started with the announcement of a new Viva Pinata game from Australia's own Krome Studios, and followed with a look at a new controller geared directly toward party and kids games. In fact this new piece of equipment looked like a blatant cross between a Buzz controller and the Wii Remote.
Finally, a huge emphasis was made on a new Ubisoft Naruto title being built for 360. The series is absolutely massive in both Japan and the US, and it seemed like Microsoft had shifted their focus from 'we're hardcore' to 'we're also mainstream and for the kids', which was both odd and yet unsurprising given their current position in the marketplace.
But before it all shifted back to how important their core games were, M$ also took a look at the Xbox Live Arcade platform, reiterating a strong stance of support from both them and third-parties, revealing such up and coming titles as:
- Golden Axe
- Original Sonic the Hedgehog
- Sensible Soccer
- Track & Field
- Space Giraffe
- Super Puzzle Fighter
And heaps more. This maintained their [Microsoft's] veteran gamer stance amidst the shifting between mainstream appeal and capturing the youth market and painted a picture of Microsoft attempting to nab the industry in much the same way Sony did from Nintendo all those years ago.
But in the end, it's all about the games, and it was here Microsoft immediately stood out with a slew of first and third-party titles that would more than empty the pockets of consumers worldwide by the end of the year. In fact, among the 30+ titles shown, only one wasn't
due for release in 2007 (which was easily my game of the show, funnily enough); Resident Evil 5. The rest of the games revealed were almost all must-have titles, and those that didn't tickle my fancy definitely had an audience all their own, displaying something of a good line of sight for blockbuster hits from Microsoft - a definite improvement from their stance when entering the console race all those years ago.
From ex-Final Fantasy creator, Sakaguchi-san's Lost Odyssey, to BioWare's stellar RPG experience, Mass Effect, alongside Infinity Ward's frenetic Call of Duty 4, looking up at Ubisoft's beautiful Assassin's Creed to a glance over at Harmonix's Rock Band and beyond (sorry, I couldn't keep up the flow), Microsoft had almost every type of gamer covered - and all promised to be available this year (at least in the US, but still, that's pretty impressive). Head over to our files area for full videos of the games shown and stay tuned for in-depth post-show impressions of all the big games announced throughout the week including that all-important Bungie blockbuster, Halo 3. But let's take a look at that little dark horse among the big guns, in Nintendo and what they had to say at their press conference the very next morning.
Iwata Vs Goliath (and his brother)?
Nintendo's immediate focus was clear from the outset (in fact, it was abundantly clear from the moment I entered the Civic Auditorium), much like Microsoft's direction was just from the buzz before their event began, unlike Microsoft, however, the point here was clearly on embracing the mainstream and of reiterating their success in both expanding the overall market and of being the industry's true innovators.
As you can see from the accompanying pictures of the event, Nintendo, a company who once seemed destined to only
cater to their hardcore Ninty fanboys, is now dead focused on changing the consumer base of the entire industry as we know it. The colourful vibe, the fact that it was morning and the easy-listening music (Microsoft had an eclectic mix of funky beats) all painted an embraceable picture you can either hate, love or respect.
"My name is Reggie, and I am happy," exclaimed NOA president Reggie Fils-Aime when he took the stage to present to the audience. He's happy because Wii is a massive success and DS is the current market leader. And happier because this success continues to spread throughout the globe and Nintendo, for the first time in more than a decade, are looking like they're back on top. The question here though is, at what cost? From our perspective this growth and success has come at the cost of what we all want; more great Nintendo franchises given to us on a HD capable machine at 720p, at the very least. What we have though, is an undeniably innovative piece of hardware that offers visual quality equal to the last generation and still very little online community support - is this acceptable in face of both Sony and Microsoft pushing their HD-capable machines with massive community-based online features to the nines? Nintendo didn't really seem to care all too much about this question, and in fact almost spent the entire show saying "we told you so".
According to The Big N, yearly growth for games in Japan is at 114%, versus 46% in the US and 42% in the UK. Much of this growth is attributed to the success of both the DS and the Wii. These figures are undeniably impressive (especially in the Japanese market where the industry seemed to be dwindling), but the audience expansion from hardcore veteran players to the mainstream represents a clear divide in the industry where traditional games are being put on the back burner in favour of non traditional offerings like Nintendogs, Brain Training, Buzz, Singstar and more. However, Nintendo sees this outreach of new consumers as more of a beacon, or a "satellite effect" as Reggie explained it, whereby these new consumers are gradually sucked into the core of videogames, inviting them into a richer world of varied titles. So perhaps this current DS and and Wii model are simply place-holders for more advanced machines that will take hold of this new audience and introduce them to the world of videogames as we know it. Unfortunately, Utopian as this idea is, only time will tell.
But just when I thought Nintendo had completely forgotten us, out rolled some of the big guns we're expecting this year, beginning with a look at the biggest DS game for 2007, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hour Glass, and the hotly anticipated Wii first-person space romp, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
What was great about the new Zelda title was the visual quality and the control system. For one, it's visual queues are taken from The Wind Waker, a graphical masterpiece from the GameCube (at least IMO). Secondly, the controls are handled only with the touch-pad and stylus. Now, while that might sound awkward, it's actually incredibly intuitive, and the game's camera system has been designed around this control style which really shows (stay tuned for a full hands-on report in the coming days). Metroid on the other-hand proved you can't judge a book by its cover as the continuous batch of screenshots we've been receiving over the last few months don't even come close to doing the game justice. As it stands, this is easily one of the most polished, most impressive looking games on Wii, and the live demo we were shown proved Reggie's constant stance that this game is as close to mouse and keyboard controls as any console fps is ever going get. Unfortunately not a lot of the title was shown, nor was it available for play on the show-floor, but the two-odd minutes of gameplay I did see definitely had me chomping at the bit to play. Hopefully this title ushers in a new era of visual quality for Wii games and also proves the system is perfect for the fps genre.
What was interesting was this demo was followed up with talk of Nintendo's commitment to online where it was revealed EA's Medal of Honor Airborne would support 32 players online - does this mean we might see something similar spawn from the Metroid game? We'll find out as soon as next month when the game is released in August, but for now, fingers crossed. Other online revelations included both Madden and FIFA as fully online-capable titles for the Wii as well as a very brief look at possibly the biggest
online/game announcement; Mario Kart. However, enticing as it sounds, the visual quality of the game mimicked the GameCube version, which was anything but a great looking game. Still, if it plays more like the N64 version, we can handle the visual quality, especially if the online mode delivers what we're all hoping (and expecting) from such a series gone online. The other online title semi-revealed was Activision's Guitar Hero III which will come to Nintendo's console with an exclusive Les Paul wireless guitar controller - great news for Wii fans who don't own any of the other consoles.
The online banter faded into the background like so much of Nintendo's other points, but other games we saw a glimpse of included Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which was given a US release date of December 3 as well as that all-important other highly anticipated release, Super Mario Galaxy (which was
playable on the show-floor, so stay tuned for a hands-on report shortly) which was revealed to be releasing November 12 in the US. Hopefully we'll see both of these games and
Metroid Prime 3 in Australia this year, also.
Interestingly, throughout all of this, Nintendo revealed two add-ons for their console, one designed specifically for shooters called the "Wii Zapper" where both the Wii Remote and Nunchuk are placed in a gun-shaped casing to allow for "a more immersive experience". The Wii Zapper will come bundled with as yet unannounced Wii software. Mario Kart Wii will also come bundled with a new peripheral in the shape of the Wii Steering Wheel, which is basically another casing device for the Wii Remote. Whether or not this device will enhance play is yet to be seen, and with Mario Kart not actually due until early 2008, we'll just have to sit back and wait.
Which brings us to what brought the show to a close - Wii Fit. Based loosely around the success of Wii Sports, this new title incorporates a fitness program, however, unlike Wii Sports, Wii Fit uses an all-new type of controller called the Wii Balance Board. This chunky piece of wireless hardware looks like a set of scales. Essentially you place it in front of the TV and the board measures your center of gravity and overall body mass (as opposed to weight) and is designed for 'core fitness' which is a slower, more concentrated way of exercising. It incorporates yoga, aerobics and stretches along with a myriad of mini-games like the soccer demo shown by the ever-enigmatic Shigeru Miyamoto against Reggie. The game has you standing on the Wii Balance Board and shifting your weight left or right to deflect incoming soccer headers. It might sound a bit silly, but it is actually a lot of fun (again, stay tuned for a hands-on report during the week).
What came from all of this was Nintendo's continued focus on expanding the market with non-traditional game offerings as well as a promise to keep the core veteran player happy, though in not nearly as dedicated a fashion as Microsoft. Which also brings us to that final bigwig, Sony who held their press conference right after Nintendo's.
Battle of the Screens
Less than an hour after Nintendo's conference we were escorted to Culver Studio for Sony's explanation, proof and promises. What was an immediate stand-out for this event was being thrown into Sony party mode as soon as we got off the bus. Walking through the courtyard to the studio I was stopped and offered a champagne and orange mixer (and this is before
midday, mind you), which echoed yet another difference between the big three. Microsoft's event pushed their new focus on the youth market (and they only offered water), while Nintendo's event was all about family fun. Yet here we were, still in the AM, alcohol and food on offer and well and truly before Sony even got under way. It was abundantly clear the electronics giant knew who their key audience was, and it was their goal to grab them by the ghoulies, so to speak, and ensure any and all loss of faith was immediately renewed.
Inside the Culver Studio, four massive screens stretched before us and when things got underway it was undeniable Sony know how to impress. But this posed a troublesome thought as events moved forward; is it simply that Sony are in touch with the culture and not the consumer? The next 60-odd minutes would let us know.
The event fully opened with SCEA boss, Jack Tretton, speaking to us from backstage as his persona was revealed across the four screens as part of PlayStation Home. He walked us through the new lobby area, which is essentially a hub that leads to a theater (to watch the latest Sony trailers), your home and more. In all it looks reasonably impressive, but reminded me more of Habbo Hotel than something worth worrying about. But it all seems to be in place to cut in on the user-generated space of the world of online amidst such communities as Myspace, Youtube and Face Book, so if those places are your thing, PlayStation Home is something you may be interested in.
Soon after though, Tretton took the stage and did what both Microsoft and Nintendo had done, in throwing sales figures around as well as talking about the recent $100 price-drop for the system in the US (which we won't see in Australia) as well as talking about the bundle deals North America would be receiving this holiday season (Sony Australia will be holding their new Pause event this week, so stay tuned for Australian-specific information to come out regarding the PS3 in Aus). But before the PS3 took center stage as the main focus, Tretton talked about the continued success of the PS2 across the globe with such hits as Final Fantasy XII and their near two million dollar franchise, God of War, which is set to have an iteration of God of War II, God of War II: Chains of Olympus, appear on PSP along with Silent Hill Origins, Pata Pon, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions and Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles joining it this year.
In keeping with the PSP focus, a new PSP unit was revealed which is 33% lighter and 19% slimmer. The unit will come in Ice Silver in the US as well as a special edition Star Wars themed appearance (which was shown to us by Chewbacca, no less) to celebrate the new PSP version of Star Wars Battlefront (again, impressions coming this week).
With the past and portable out of the way, it was time to talk about the virtual as we were given a glimpse of what to expect on the PlayStation Network. This portion of the event came out with a huge bang as Tretton announced the up to 80 first-party downloadable games would be made available on the service including the very impressive Echochrome, which essentially looks like a puzzle game inspired by Escher artworks. We also saw WipeOut HD, Warhawk and another new game called Pain which is basically a 3D pinball ragdoll experiment-turned-game. More and more games will be available on the service, and it was pretty clear they have every intention of competing with both XBLA and Nintendo's recently announced Wii Create service, definitely making for a level playing field and ultimately rewarding smaller, more independent developers in the face of such giants as EA, Activision and Ubisoft.
Finally though, it was time to bring it home on the PS3 front, and while much of what was shown wasn't all too different from last year's E3, there were a few surprises, including the announcement that Free Radical's Haze would land exclusively on the PS3 alongside the even more surprising revelation that Epic's Unreal Tournament III would also be a Sony exclusive. We saw yet again the amazing Resident Evil 5 trailer (the full three minutes of which will be made available on the 26th of July), as well as Kane and Lynch, Madden 08, Burnout Paradise, Medal of Honor Airborne, Rock Band, Ratchet and Clank Future, Folklore, Heavenly Sword, NBA 08, LittleBigPlanet, Unchartered, and Gran Tourismo 5 Prologue as well as two huge surprises at the end including a massive trailer for what will be the last Kojima-directed Metal Gear Solid, MGS 4: Guns of the Patriots: Tactical Espionage Action and the absolutely incredible looking Killzone 2 (both of which will be outlined in detailed impressions for you this week).
So, after a year of what seemed like pure arrogance on Sony's part, they finally seem to have the proof they're able to continue to deliver, which as mentioned a little earlier has created something of a level playing field among all three big players. At this stage each company seems to have a different idea of how to broach the industry, which should make the next 12 months even more interesting.
There was no clear winner; each company offered some great ideas and some even greater games. Sony finally has the line up we've all been waiting for, and Microsoft's Xbox 360 2007 30-odd games promise should keep them well and truly ahead of the pack, but might actually leave them a bit dry moving into 2008. Nintendo will continue to do things their own way, and here's hoping they use their current leverage to ensure their next machine (which had better be both backwards compatible and HD-ready), will keep them on top of their own game. But, as I said before, it's too early to call this. Ultimately if you're a consumer, you have your veritable pick of the litter, I only fear having so many great games available doesn't overly flood the market and keep the rest of us poor throughout the holiday season (though with so many great games to play, it's not like we're going to need money for a social life). Check back for further updates outlining more of AusGamer's on-site impressions of this years event.