Tuesday, June 7, 2011

E3 2011: Impressions of the Microsoft Conference

You can't see how much I love Don Mattrick because he's so small here.

Well, I’m a day late but guaranteed to be not a single dollar short. I managed to catch the Microsoft E3 2011 Press Conference last night after work and I have to say I’m still not quite sure what I thought of it. They definitely know what a Kinect is, of that much I’m sure.

Modern Warfare 3

Events kicked off with a live demo of a submarine siege in the upcoming Modern Warfare 3. I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not, but it was charming nonetheless when the Xbox momentarily flashed up the ‘Reconnect Controller’ prompt. It seemed a nice way to encourage the impression that everything happening was real-time, and not simply a video feed. I didn’t realise that the phrase ‘Reconnect Controller’ was going to be something I’d be muttering under my breath of the remainder of the show. It was an ominous portent to say the least.

The submarine raid itself looked like good, fun, old-fashioned objective-based combat. Lots of sneaking about underwater, past mines and so forth with a crack team (I assume) of other like-minded military folk. After a short section underneath the waves, we were burst through the surface, and opened up to a busy, warry, sea-faring action movie scene. Lots of exploding ships in the bay with a nondescript cityscape in the background. I looked for clues as to the location but didn’t pick up on any. Having never played a Modern Warfare title, I was surprised at how similar it looked to Rainbox Six, to be honest. Except more… Jerry Bruckheimer-esque, I suppose.

Then out came the corporate love of my life, square one of four in my Microsoft E3 Conference bingo game – Don Mattrick. He’s a friendly, corporate ‘dad’ character, and great as ever today. He makes a welcoming face for Xbox. His spiel contained a lot of chatter that rounded up to him basically saying ‘Kinect will feature in this conference’. And, boy, did it ever.

Tomb Raider

Next up is Crystal Games with their new Tomb Raider title. Visually, it’s very pretty, and opens with her trapped in some sort of cave dwelling. There are great fire and lighting effects as you wandered through the area, with shadows bouncing around. The game makes use of ‘Survival Instincts’, a system that enables Lara to highlight the puzzle pieces necessary to let her progress. It looks interesting, though it’s not a franchise I’ve ever been particularly interested in.

Peter Moore (Corporate Bingo 2/4) is a wonderful Englishman who is now working for EA Sports. His appearance is fleeting, and he simply delivers the line that Kinect integration will appear in the upcoming editions of Tiger Woods, NFL, and FIFA. And then he’s back off to where he goes until the next E3.

Mass Effect 3

Bioware’s Ray Muzycka introduces the concluding chapter to the highly-acclaimed (and much-loved by me) franchise. It’s a new adventure, the advent of a galactic war. Earth has been taken, and it will be through our actions that we’ll get it back.

Quickly Ray adheres to the party line: Mass Effect 3 will be supporting Kinect through voice recognition. The game will allow you to converse with characters in-game, and this is demonstrated appropriately. It’s a fun mechanic but I don’t plan on talking to my television whilst I game, so it’s not for me. Ray even accentuates his speech here to say that we will be ‘more ‘Kinected’ than ever before’ – tsk tsk.

Another realm for Kinect to appear is in squad commands in the midst of combat. We see Liara and Garrus (I think) be verbally ordered into position, and Liara is ordered to use her Singularity. All in all, it is pretty impressive. Not much else is given away about the game. It seems a mite more physical, but doesn’t look much different to Mass Effect 2, really. Shepard seems to wear some sort of Halo-esque energy sword too, now, and likes to punch people with it, it seems.

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

Next up are Ubisoft with GRFS. They give us a video sequence, specially designed for the conference. The live camouflage technology still looks hella cool, but the operatics of this bullet sequence are a little… silly. Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft then comes out to tell us all about – you guessed it – how the Kinect will be used in their game.

This is one of the most intriguing implementations of it, though: weapon customisation. Gunsmith® is an exploded-diagram method of pulling weapons apart and reassembling them to be fit for purpose in the field. The Kinect integration on this looks pretty amazing. It’s all very Minority Report.

Upon ordering to ‘Optimise for close combat’, it instantly calls reassembly of the weapon to that configuration. Very cool. We are in the Combat Range, where Kinect is used to aim and fire at targets. It seems perhaps a tad over-simplistic. I can’t see the Kinect being so great at the long-ranged shooting they demonstrated, but I’d happily to be wrong about that.

A new guy, Mark from Xbox, now comes out and talks about Xbox as entertainment. More Kinect-happy talk about removing obstacles etc etc. and basically getting rid of the remote control.

He runs a demonstration of what looks like the New Xbox Experience. A very clean experience, indeed. He also announces YouTube coming to Xbox Live – it seems to me like he’s making a bigger deal of it than it is. The follow-up of introducing Bing on Xbox doesn’t get nearly the same cheer as YouTube. Bing will search your games, Netflix, Hulu and so on for entertainment relating to your particular request. It’s not clear what the fidelity is on this search, such as which words it can recognise, nor the difficulty that may lie in calibration of such a system. The final announcement Mark has for us is that Live Television is coming to Xbox 360. This is strange as Sky TV in the UK has had live television for a while. It seems to be new to Xbox US though.

UFC President Dana White comes out next, and I tune out – not a huge interest in fighting games, and no interest at all in UFC.

Gears of War 3

Afterwards is Phil Spencer from Microsoft Studios. He spends a short minute talking up UFC, and then introduces the Gears of War 3 announcement. I could be wrong on this, but it seems as if this is now three years in a row that Gears 3 has trailered at E3. Anyhow, Cliff Bleszinski appears and reminds us ‘Gears is better with a friend’ – and who better than Ice T to play co-op with. The two of them take on something with tentacles. There are lots of smaller Lambent coming after you as well. The main creature they’re up against facially resembles the deep sea monster from Gears 2, that you faced on the boat in the underground caves. Lambent explode around you like mines throughout. EPIC finish up with Ice T announcing that his old metal band Bodycount are performing a song to comemorate Hoarde mode or something. It’s not totally clear whether or not this is a joke, and Cliff is unusually awkward in his reaction to the news. It doesn’t even seem staged.

[Crytek have a quick slot to show a video that advertises their new game set in Rome - again, I tune out. Apologies]

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

We get some Gregorian chant music, and an expected Halo Announcement. There is much repetition of ’10 years ago, 10 years ago’, and this lines us up for the relaunch of ‘Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary‘, an HD recreation of Halo’s first outing, to come on November 15th.

Forza Motorsport 4

Dan Greenawald from Forza comes out to give us a quick run-down on the new iteration of this popular racing franchise. This is certainly a conference apologising for the lack of attention Kinect has recently received. We are treated to a video clip that shows off cars, engines, etc. All in all it is a typical racing game video sequence, and about as inspiring.

Fable: The Journey

Peter Molyneux jaunts in now to show us the new Fable title – Everyone loves crazy Peter…

The clip has a voiceover by Zoe Wanamaker, it seems. Fable means nothing to me, if I’m honest. After the cutscene, Peter orders his underling ‘Dmitri, show the demo’. He uses Kinect controls to move through the environment. Spells are cast to defeat enemies in a way that reminds me of Child of Eden. A hovering circle you target and deploy. It’s not completely clear if it’s on-rails or not. At one stage, he casts some kind of enchanted spear. The creation and throw of it looks clumsy, really, and it might have found itself better off excluded from the demonstration.

Phil Spencer is back again, this time talking about an indie game that was a great hit this year- BAM! Suddenly Minecraft is announced for Xbox with Kinect integration – and there is an awkward beat of silence in the hall – it’s not the reception they were perhaps expecting. Phil is all about Kinect, still, as is everyone in this showcase.

Next up is Kinect Disneyland Adventures, which will give players the joys of visiting ‘the park’. They don’t clarify which park that it is. It’s not Disneyland Paris, at least. It looks as if the park serves as a hub for a variety of motion mini-games or somesuch. Peter Pan’s Island is a flying game that otherwise reminds me of the the whitewater rapids in Kinect Adventures, with coin collecting and obstacle-dodging. Alice in Wonderland is almost hilariously identical to Peter Pan. Another on-rails, moving forward, trying to collect coins affair. Every game that shows up the video that follows looks to be a similar mix of moving and collection coins.

Kinect Star Wars

After that, as if to save us from the horrors of the Disney fiasco, the Star Wars theme kicks in to signal the advent of Kinect Star Wars, and the hall finally experiences, at my count, its first un-cued cheer. The video seems to be rendered representations of movie scenes, with a few shots of pod-racing, lightsaber combat, and an X-wing space battle or two. Then we’re shown a demo of the game. I had read somewhere that mentioned that during development, they didn’t want the player to look like the infamous ‘Star Wars kid’ whilst playing, although from where I’m sitting it sure looks like that to me, particularly when shouting ‘Lightsaber on’. I don’t relish the prospect of talking too much to my games, if that’s not already clear. The lightsaber combat seems a little clunky, and character movement is very awkward. Really, the game looks a little sluggish all in all, but maybe it doesn’t feel that way when you’re playing it. For those interested, the characters are rendered in a cartoon-style. I haven’t seen much of the series, but it reminds me of the Clone Wars stuff.

Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster

Tim Schafer from Double Fine is the most laid-back developer I’ve seen. He is easily the most comfortable guy to have been on stage so far. His mode of communication is relaxed and looks unprompted, and he even jokes about the ‘simulated family’ that are going to be helping to demonstrate his company’s new Kinect game – about Sesame Street.

This game is no doubt guaranteed to be a lot of fun. Double Fine have gone from strength to strength over the last year. The games are all very simple and intuitive and involve fun-looking tasks like imitating a monster with the players represented by Elmo and the Cookie Monster.

With Don Mattrick and Peter Molyneux and Peter Moore, my Gang of Four is complete with Kudo Tsunoda. I still have no idea why he wears those glasses (ah, it appears his eyes are super-sensitive to stage-lighting). Tsunoda introduces:

Kinect Fun Labs

The first demonstration in the labs is a new method of using Kinect to scan and design your Xbox Avatar for you. It works well, but again, these things always do in a conference demonstration. Afterwards, it’s Kinect Finger Tracking, which I suppose is their not-so-subtle way of letting the world know that Kinect is soon to be due an upgrade that will pick up on fingers, and hopefully toes, for all those toe games out there.

Kinect Sports Season 2

Nicole Makila is here to tell us about Kinect Sports Season 2. I am not excited by Kinect Golf. Microsoft are a few years late on this game. Voice commands are demonstrated again, as she picks the clubs, but I’m not sold on it. Then we are brought into team sports, with American football. It looks terribly embarrassing. I don’t know if that’s the fault of the two awkward jock guys demonstrating it or what. Running on the spot to progress on the field looks ridiculous. It’s a no from me for Kinect Sports Season 2. I didn’t even know there was a Season 1… In any case, this season will bring us Skiing, Golf, Darts, Tennis and American Football.

Dance Central 2

It’s always good to see what Harmonix have to offer. This guy working the stage is a nerdy, nerdy guy who has been given a trendy clubber’s hairstyle. We’re told that Dance Central 2 involves voice control, and that the new game will incorporate all of the songs from Dance Central, just like how the Guitar Hero games all worked together. Dance Central still looks ridiculously good. I actually finally got a chance to play it at PAX East, and it was brilliantly good fun. At long last, the sequel will feature two-player simultaneous play, which is not a moment too soon, and about a whole title too late.

Don Mattrick comes back out finally to round everything off, and finishes up by dropping a pretty lacklustre bombshell. ‘A new trilogy for Xbox 360′, he says. I’m piqued! ‘Halo 4′, he proclaims. ‘Trilogies usually start at 1′, I dejectedly sigh. (Or yes, sometimes they start at 4, if you’re George Lucas). Halo 4 is coming out Holiday 2012. I’m not totally sure if that means this christmas, or next christmas. Either way, I can wait.

In closing…

Microsoft have framed their press conference with a firm affirmation of their desire to work increasingly with the Kinect. Unfortunately, I’m sad to say that I’m no more convinced to purchase one. You can call me old-fashioned, but my idea of normal gaming simply involves me moving as little as possible, and basically being catatonic until I’m done. And sometimes I play DDR.

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