E3 press conference reactions
Posted at 22:44 on 16th July 2008 - permalink

The three console manufacturers have made their annual addresses to US retail laying out their wares and plans for the rest of the year. The general consensus seems to be that this was very much business as usual, with no earth-shattering announcements.

Microsoft reeled off an impressive array of third party content, all of which will also be available on the PC and/or the PS3, with no new announcements. Their first-party efforts were largely focused on playing catch-up with the Wii (this month’s NPD figures are expected to show the Wii overtaking the 360 in the US, and without a significant price cut announced that gap is only going to widen), with increasingly-tired Scene It and Viva Pinata retreads being joined by a Singstar clone (Lips) and a technically simplistic Eyetoy-style game (You’re In The Movies). A protracted and awkward on-stage demo of the latter revealed it to be a video version of Mad Libs, which output very rough looking chromakey’d skits that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Kenny Everett Television Show.

Their big reveal was that Final Fantasy XIII will be coming to the Xbox 360, which is perhaps inevitable considering the series’ popularity in the US. Tellingly the 360 version is not slated for a Japanese release. Square Enix also showed a raft of other RPGs (one of which was openly stated as being PC-bound), demonstrating that Microsoft’s strategy for the Xbox 360 in Japan is to continue plodding down the Mistwalker route, providing isolated games that appeal to genre fans without building a software ecosystem around them that would justify a more general audience buying the machine.

Fallout 3 looked visually weak from the little that was shown, seeming little advanced from 2005’s Oblivion (and much greyer). The introduction of a turn-based combat option seems needless, and it remains to be seen if Bethesda can put together a more story-heavy RPG as opposed to another dungeon bash in the Diablo/Dark Alliance mould.

Resident Evil 5 (which also showed up in Sony’s show) impressed as expected. The number of elements being brought over from Resident Evil 4 (such as reskin/clones of Doc Salvador and Ramon Salazar) is getting a bit ridiculous, but that gets no complaint from me. A cooperative mode was announced, which will hopefully include something similar to the cabin siege in RE4. High def footage is here and is astounding.

Fable 2 annoys me, irrationally. I’ve not followed the game closely, but what was shown strongly suggested to me that Lionhead are suffering the problem that has been dogging them since Black & White, and that could be leveled at several other veteran developers: they’re trying to second guess an audience that they’re not part of any more. I suspect that there is a cultural disconnect with their American overseers at Microsoft Game Studios, similar to the issues that Just Add Monsters faced when making Kung Fu Chaos.

Fable 2 doesn’t seem to be a game with its own voice, rather an unappealing mixture of fashionable elements that they think Microsoft will like (a dog, like Nintendogs, a child that grows to be a hero, like Ocarina of Time, reams of customisation and minigames cribbed from Animal Crossing and The Sims) and forced attempts at quirky ‘British’ humour (bird shit, amateurish voice overs, burping wife). The demonstration assumed that we’d automatically want to spend a long time in this sandpit, fiddling with secondary and tertiary embellishments for hours on end. I can’t help but think that if I did want to do that, I’d choose another game which didn’t have such a profoundly unappealing art style, and perhaps implemented one kind of gameplay fully instead of half-baked versions of a dozen different genres.

Gears of War 2 cleaved to the formula of the flawed but commercially fortunate (“Kids! Need something to shoot at while you wait for Halo 3?”) original. A solid but technically unambitious game aimed at people that unironically whoop in crowds. The various multiplayer modes that have been discussed (including a 5P vs. AI siege mode, and a mode where the if the team leader is killed, the team loses the ability to respawn) sound intriguing, and will hopefully be implemented in other online games in future. I’m vastly more interested in what Id are doing with Rage, but then I’m an Id fanboy.

An overhaul of the 360 system software was revealed. I had previously predicted that towards the end of the machine’s life, it would receive a software update replacing the interface with one geared towards acting as a media hub and downloading content (as opposed to the current focus on discs). The announced changes go beyond my prediction, introducing a party system and the ability to install disc-based games to the HDD. It also introduces an ugly and derivative avatar system (which according to David Gosen is an improvement on Nintendo’s Miis because the characters have limbs – ?!) which will inevitably be used as a vehicle for more microtransactions. Coupled with the shift to larged HDDs, the new dashboard gives MS a solid foundation to encourage more users to regularly download games and video.

Most of the rest of the presentation was paying lip service to consumers outside of the 360’s target demographic. With the possible exception of Banjo Kazooie, the games shown in this family segment were a pretty miserable bunch (the aforementioned Singstar, Buzz and Eyetoy clones).

With no price cut and no new ideas, Microsoft seem to be treading water. Nothing suggested that wheeling out the likes of Scene It and Viva Pinata yet again would be any more successful than earlier attempts.

While Microsoft railed King Louie-like at the constraints of their demographic, Nintendo had a different problem. With the Wii and DS now way out in front, Nintendo seem to have slackened the pace of software development. There was little new to see, and much of it was aimed at the extended audience. Oddly, Nintendo chose to show very few third party titles, focusing on those that supported Wii peripherals such as the balance board and zapper.

Animal Crossing City Folk for the Wii seemed to be virtually identical to the DS and GC versions, with networking capabilities still seemingly being approached with a great deal of trepidation by Nintendo. In spite of this the underlying game is strong enough to warrant repurchasing, and the introduction of voice communications should improve the multiplayer mode over the DS’s fiddly text input. Perhaps it will be possible to transfer DS content to the Wii version?

Wii Sports Resort was used as the showcase for the new Wii Motion Plus gyroscope peripheral. Sword fighting and jet ski racing (basically Wave Race) demonstrated the capabilities of the device and looked like they might have some replay value. Hopefully there will be some additional events of similar complexity on offer, rather than throwaway ones like the Dog Frisbee game that was also shown. The game will probably be a default purchase for most Wii owners regardless, and hopefully will give the Motion Plus add-on enough momentum to gain third party support.

The only third party Wii title of any note shown was Call of Duty World at War, which appeared to at least be making an effort visually (unlike the PS2 and PSP ports the Wii is still occasionally lumbered with), with some slick flame effects. Hopefully this and the exclusive Shaun White snowboarding game mark the start of a trend for third parties making a decent fist of Wii development.

The big news for the DS was the announcement of an all-new GTA game for the system. Worryingly, most of the third party games for the DS were described as being ‘custom’ games, suggesting that most of the Western third parties still aren’t viewing the DS as an important platform, but rather as somewhere to offload lazy cutdown cash-ins on existing brands, a soulless Spore variant (which might as well be called Spore Universe Brand Extension Content for 8-13 Demographic) being a case in point.

The big finale (assuming that was what it was supposed to be) was Wii Music. This looked (and sounded) very dubious, offering dozens of instruments that could very simplistically be ‘played’ and seemingly dispensing with the skill element common to most successful rhythm games all together. It seemed that we were supposed to be convinced by Miyamoto’s endorsement of the game alone. Maybe there’s an audience for music games that aren’t being catered for by Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but it’s certainly not a strong enough proposition to justify the way it was presented here.

While the Nintendo presentation failed to deliver anything particularly exciting, it was interesting to see the disproportionately negative response that it provoked from gamers. The exclusive focus on the extended audience was interpreted as a slight by some particularly stroppy individuals.

The strange thing is that the most strident of these critics admit that they are better served by the other consoles and the PC, and in many cases don’t even own a Wii. Why they need another console to offer the exact same sort of thing isn’t clear. In the 16-bit era, when it became obvious that the SNES was the primary destination for JRPGS, JRPG fans bought SNESes. They didn’t petition Sega, they just got on with gawping at FFVI and Chrono Trigger.

What is really motivating this behaviour is fear. These identity conscious ‘hardcore’ gamers have seen how well the Wii is selling and are terrified of it becoming a de facto standard in the PS2 mould. I don’t think that this is really an issue that is going to come to a head any time soon. Between the PC, PS3 and 360 there is a large enough audience for games beyond the technical scope of the Wii.

Thankfully Nintendo didn’t resort to pandering to the most tiresome and nostalgia-blinded contingent of their fanbase by digging up the mouldering corpses of Punch-Out or Kid Icarus, as had been widely rumoured before the show. I’m sure that Retro Studios and Nintendo’s internal teams are working on some more appealing ‘traditional’ games, but with no new announcements at the show, the Wii’s schedule looks a bit barren for the rest of 2008.

After the two preceding damp squibs, all eyes were on Sony to offer something (anything) surprising. While Sony may have finally gotten the PS3 back on track, with HD-DVD buried and PS3 versions of multiformat releases steadily taking a larger slice of the pie, all the games they had to show today were either affected by preview fatigue (having been dangled in front of audiences for a year or more already), or too early in development to show actual footage. The theme of the presentation in fact seemed to be ‘wait and see’, pointing out that the landmark games in the psOne and PS2’s lifecycles mainly showed up in the third year or beyond.

Resistance 2 was demonstrated at length. A gameplay sequence mixed technically ambitious effects (a building-sized slavering monster, and more subtle elements like the lighting and post-processing effects) with rather clunky indoor sections and scripted events. A cinematic trailer put the game in a better light, showing more of the outstanding mechanical design teased in earlier screenshots, and ending with a spectacular shot of Chimera ships looming over a city.

Instantaneously, naysayers claimed that the game was not as pretty as Gears of War 2, blithely ignoring the extreme difference in scope of what Resistance 2 is technically trying to do. Gears of War 2 is still a corridor-based single player game with small-scale deathmatch-oriented multiplayer. It practically has to have baroque normal-mapped details plastered all over every surface to give the GPU something to do.

LittleBigPlanet was inventively used to present the obligatory package of conference chartzengrafs. A nice demonstration of the game/tool’s versatility, and perhaps an acknowledgement that there’s not really much more that can be said about the game itself that hasn’t been covered in previous demonstrations.

The PS2 was given a bit of stage time. Surprisingly, there is still some relatively big-budget development going on, with Mercenaries 2, Yakuza 2 and some new EA Sports games being shown. (The presence of EA Sports games on PS2 was surprising, and makes a still greater mockery of Peter Moore’s public griping about the performance of their games on the PC and Wii. The PS2 merits full-scale, deep sports simulations but the Wii doesn’t?)

An extremely diverse range of PSN games were then quickly run through (nothing that would get me reaching for my credit card, but all nicely polished). Playstation Home was wheeled out again. I was initially cautiously optimistic about Home, but with each delay it seems less of a great leap forward and more like a high concept project that has spiralled perillously off schedule and over budget.

A great deal of stage time was then spent on listing off a raft of complex and expensive PSP games which nobody will buy. It must be getting to the point where it would make more sense for Sony to bite the bullet and reposition the machine as a networked media player.

Finally we returned to the PS3 for a set of teasers of games slated for 2009 and beyond. DC Universe was, of all the games shown this week, the one most inevitably destined to sink without trace. An MMO based around the DC Comics characters (and strangely seeming to allow the players to play as them – not sure how this is going to work), DCU was talked up by a DC Comics employee who seemed to think that the audience would be enthused by the stream of cryptic comic-nerd gibberish that he was spouting, rather than sitting in awkward, pitying silence.

Sony were on safer ground with a teaser of God of War 3. Sadly no gameplay footage was shown. Neither was their any footage of the final game to be announced, MAG (Massive Action Game), pitched as a large-scale (256 player) persistent squad-based war game from Zipper Interactive (the SOCOM developers). The modern combat setting will probably help to bolster player numbers, but it remains to be seen if this is going to be a spiritual successor to Planetside, or just a bigger, even more chaotic version of Battlefield. A PC version would be nice.

Oh, they also showed a new trailer for inFAMOUS, which I had literally not thought about since it’s last conference showing. A trailer was shown which appeared to be gameplay footage, and distanced the game from Crackdown both in terms of content and visual fidelity. Presumably we now won’t see any more about the game until it’s in the shops.

So in summary, RAGE, Resident Evil 5, Animal Crossing City Folk and Little Big Planet all look exciting. But we knew this already. Same time next year then.

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