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E3 2007 – The Big Three

E3 2007 might have been a smaller, more sensible show this year but it’s still the biggest games exhibition in the world, and arguably the most important. Whilst many third-party publishers have reduced the size, scale and showiness of their presence this didn’t really seem to be the case with the big three platform holders, who – as ever – seemed intent on wowing us with their shows and convincing us that their console was the only one to buy this year.

Sony:

The Japanese giant had a lot to prove this year. After a painful couple of years where mistakes, poor judgement and downright lies seemed to be stacking up against them with unnerving frequency, many have lost faith in the former out-and-out industry leader. Their presentation focused on several things, but the principal elements seemed to be Home, PSN and the re-modelling and updates of their latest consoles.

Sony knows that in light of Nintendo’s fantastic successes with the DS and Wii, innovation will play a key part to winning this generation. They were trying to push this degree of innovation largely through their PSN home: Home, aswell as some games such as LittleBigPlanet, Pain and newly-announced Escher-inspired puzzle title Echochrome, developed by Sony Japan.

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LittleBigPlanet

A big talking point was the PSP’s redesign. It will be 33 percent lighter and 19 percent slimmer, although the screen and UMD size will remain the same. The battery life will also be more efficient, and it will load games faster than the current model. It will retail in America for USD 199, and comes with a copy of Daxter, a 1GB memory stick and The Family Guy Frickin’ Sweet UMD. Sony was also pushing the growing connectivity between their platforms, including connecting the PSP to a Bravia television, for example, to view footage, etc, on the big screen.

PSN – and specifically Home – were very principal parts of the presentation. You will be able to customise your ‘property’ and avatar in Home (it’s all looking very Second Life), and you will be able to drop in or out of games at any time, to enhance the feeling of overall connectivity and fluidity. They also announced that there are 2 million users on PSN, with some 950k of those in North America, and a total of 20 million downloads to date. Home Square will form the hub of the program and will form one part of many arty, relaxing, attractive locations in the system – which will be constantly expanded and built upon, according to Sony.

They were also keen to push their commitment to downloadable games, in the shape of Pain, Echochrome, Wipeout HD, WarHawk and Socom: US Navy Seals – Confrontation — the latter two of which will be available both through PSN and to buy as a Blu-ray game (and Echochrome will also be coming to the PSP). Additionally to this, they announced a partnership with South Korean online specialist NCsoft, who will be creating “online games for our platforms accessible through the PS Network that will be found nowhere else”, based on both current franchises and new IPs. Good news for fans of PSN to have such an expert in the online field on board.

Announcements were made saying that the PS2 has become the most popular console of all time with 118 million sales (and counting), and the God of War franchise has brought in nearly USD 200 million to date. Apparently Blu-ray movie sales are up on HD-DVD by 2-1, and we can expect over 200 Blu-ray game discs this year. What’s more, we can expect over 140 PSP titles this fiscal year, as well as another 160 PS2 titles. There are also currently over 80 first-party PS3 games in development.

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Wipeout Pulse

In terms of the games shown, Sony had a pretty strong line-up, although there was little that hadn’t been announced previously. They showed there’s still some mileage in the PSP yet, with the likes of God of War: Chains of Olympus, Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow, Wipeout Pulse, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, Star Wars Battlefront Renegade Squadron (at which point the presentation included a Darth Vader limited edition PSP), Sonic Rivals 2, SWAT Target Liberty, Patapon (a cute puzzler-type not unlike LocoRoco), plus a bunch of third party multiformat titles. It’s a bit of a shame there aren’t more original titles on the way to the system, but there’s definitely still a few good games on the way.

The PS3 was obviously the main part of the conference, and the games line-up was no slouch. Probably principal of these was Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which Sony confirmed as a PS3 exclusive, and legendary creator Hideo Kojima made an appearance and with the aid of an interpreter talked about his game a little before showing a stunning-looking video. It looks like it will be the same elaborate, pretentious, fantastic game we all love and loathe in equal measure. Other big news included that Haze and Unreal 3 will launch exclusively on the PS3 in September and November respectively, with Xbox 360 versions pushed back to early 2008. First-party games shown include Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (more of the same, but prettier), SingStar (more of the same with enhanced connectivity and community), Folklore (a mixture of fantasy, action and RPG elements – could be great or rubbish from the video), Heavenly Sword (looking excellent – could be the PS3’s first genuine killer app), LittleBigPlanet (keeps looking better and better), Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (think Indiana Croft: The Prince of FarCry – could be good if the elements gel), Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (business as usual, although let’s hope PSN multiplayer is included) and a new title from Sly Raccoon developer Sucker Punch, called Infamous. It looks to be the PS3’s answer to Crackdown featuring a super-powered protagonist, a huge nonlinear city and plenty of destruction and gunplay. It’s due next year and could be a good effort from the underrated developer. Lastly, Sony chose to finish with a video of Killzone 2. Obviously you can’t gauge the quality of gameplay from a 90-second trailer, but graphically it looked impressive, and not too far off that E3 05 video. With a team of around 120 people working on it, a budget reportedly exceeding 40 million Euros and the likes of Gears of War and Halo 3 to compete against, Sony really can’t afford this not to be very good.

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Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

It’s a bit of a shame some big first-party franchises weren’t shown, like Afrika, Calling All Cars! or White Knight Story, but hopefully this is more indicative that they are still a long way from completion, rather than not deemed good enough to be shown. Overall though, it was a fairly strong and varied showing from the Japanese giant, and perhaps they can start to put the last couple of years behind them and concentrate on the future.

Microsoft:

Microsoft had a fairly different approach to the other two with regards to their presentation. They chose to show only games which will be available this year, promising “the greatest holiday line-up in videogame history”. Because of this, there was obviously a lot of emphasis on third-party multiformat games and software, but their first-party line up is still looking solid for this year, if a little analogous.

They didn’t waste any time with their presentation and launched straight into the games. Viva Pinata: Party Animals is a collection of over 50 mini-games. It’s not being developed by Rare, but by Krome Studios, creators of Kao the Kangaroo. Next up was Mass Effect. It’s looking increasingly excellent – probably a contender for RPG of the year – and is due in November. They also revealed Scene It?, made by Screen Life and based on the board game. It comes with four controllers and will feature new trivia questions, puzzles and HD movie clips. Basically, a 360 version of Buzz!; the similarities are uncanny.

Next they chose to reel off some figures [and a little hyperbole]. “We’re in a tight race with Wii, and outselling PS3 two to one. Xbox 360 is selling more games than anyone else. Xbox 360 is driving this industry.” [Regarding last generation’s top 5 games] “These came from two franchises” – that’ll be GTA and Halo“Three years later, this same perfect storm will touch down for holiday. This holiday will be unlike anything that’s come before it.”

This was followed with a video depicting the 360’s games due this year – PGR4, Dynasty Warriors Gundam, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Stranglehold, Guitar Hero III, Beautiful Katamari, Lost Odyssey, NBA Live 08, more Mass Effect, Fatal Inertia, Medal of Honor Airborne, Tiger Woods 08, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, NHL 08, Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, The Simpsons Movie, Splinter Cell: Conviction, NASCAR 08, Eternal Sonata, BioShock, Madden 08, Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground, Crash of the Titans, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Half Life 2: The Orange Box, Bee Movie Game, Rock Band and Naruto. Due to the nature of the presentation there’s very little here that hasn’t been previously shown, but with a line-up like this there’s every reason the 360 should enjoy one of the best Christmases of recent years.

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Bioshock

Xbox Live members has now passed the 7 million mark (eclipsing their prediction of 6 million members), and they are expecting it to pass 10 million by E3 08. Xbox Live Arcade game downloads has exceeded 45 million, and there is over 100 games due before the end of the year, including Bomberman Live, Undertow, Hexic 2, Sensible World of Soccer, War World, Every Extend, Geon, Wing Commander Arena, Feeding Frenzy 2, Track & Field, Spyglass Board Games, Space Giraffe, Super Puzzle Fighter World Puzzle, Marathon, Poker Smash, Tetris Smash and Boku Sudoku.

They also talked about Video Marketplace. There is over 2000 hours of content from 28 studios and networks, and so far over USD 125 million has been spent on DLC. They have also signed a deal with Disney to bring many of their films to Live, including Tarzan, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Atlantis, Hercules, Emperor’s New Groove, Armageddon, Sky High, Waterboy, Bad Company, Unbreakable, Coyote Ugly, Déjà vu, Primeval and The Queen, all in High Definition and all available soon.

They also went on to mention the first-party likes of Alan Wake, Too Human, Fable 2, Halo Wars and Banjo Threeie, as well as Peter Jackson’s Halo project. Apparently “If you are an RPG fan, Xbox 360 is simply the best console to own this holiday,” which may not be such an outlandish comment with Blue Dragon, Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata and Lost Oddysey due out this year.

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Alan Wake

Microsoft also talked about upcoming PC games, principal of which was that Gears of War is coming to Windows. Epic are adding five new single-player campaigns, new multiplayer modes and arenas, plus there will be enemies who you weren’t able to fight in the 360 original. More surprising was Viva Pinata on the way to PCs. Sega, Eidos and THQ have adopted Games for Windows Live, and Games for Windows will now be built into the Unreal Engine 3. They also showed a reel of other Games for Windows, including Flight Sim X: Acceleration, Thrillville: Off the Rails, Bee Movie Game, Hellgate: London, Age of Empires 3: The Asian Dynasty, Stranglehold, Bioshock, Crysis, Universe at War, Blacksite: Area 51, World in Conflict, Age of Conan, Lost Planet, Kane & Lynch, Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, Zoo Tycoon 2: Extinct Animals, Juiced 2 and Spider-Man: Friend or Foe.

Next up was a closer look at a few games. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is launching across 360, PC and PS3 later this year, but the online Beta will be hosted exclusively on the 360. Visit www.CharlieOscarDelta.com for more details. Next up was footage of Splinter Cell: Conviction, which is exclusive to the 360 and is looking like a proper re-invention of the series. There was also a little game called Grand Theft Auto IV, and Microsoft are very keen to let everyone know the 360 will be home to two new, exclusive downloadable GTAIV episodes by next spring. There was also a short video of Resident Evil 5 (the only game in Microsoft’s round-up which is not dated for this year), which shows a village in possibly Africa or South America afflicted by a 28 Days Later Rage-alike virus. There was also a playthrough of Assassin’s Creed, which is looking increasingly excellent, and a strong contender for best new IP of the year with its huge, original gameworld, beautiful, fluent Parkour and superb sword fights.

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Halo 3

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft finished their conference with Halo. There was a short movie made in collaboration between Bungie and Neil Blomkamp (the limbo movie’s director) to create a short movie advertising the game. It showed marines getting kitted up, arming themselves and it says ”Finish the fight”. They also announced there will be a Halo 3 Special Edition Console in September for all those series fanatics out there, although it’s not clear yet how much it will retail for just yet. Lastly, there was a Halo 3 trailer, which looked predictably slick. “You are in the dirt… thinking what? That you might escape the coming fire. Your world will burn until its surface is but glass.” Whether it will improve on the inconsistent Campaign of Halo 2 remains to be seen, but either way Halo is a juggernaut few games (if any) can stop.

So, there you have it – a summary of Microsoft’s conference. You can count on it being a great winter for the American giant.

Nintendo:

Nintendo – perhaps justifiably after such a successful twelve months, or so – started their conference by blowing their own proverbial trumpet. They came out with a handful of statistics (don’t you just love all these figures?!), such as a 69 percent growth this year for Nintendo platforms and an overall industry growth of 115 percent in Japan. Nintendo DS almost doubled its sales percentage of all consoles from 12 to 23 percent, and they say people aged 25 and over have come to account for a third of all revenues. They revealed that the general gender split in gamers is about 80/20 percent for male/female, but for Nintendo it’s 67/33. They also said sales of the DS passed the 40 million mark some months ago, and that this year we can expect 140 DS titles and 100 new Wii games this year.

They started with the Wii Zapper, which is a combination of the Wiimote and the Nunchuk in the form of a lightgun. Apparently it will be useful in shooters such as Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and Ghost Squad. The next Medal of Honour for Wii should take advantage of the Zapper, and there’s to be 32 player multiplayer. The Zapper will be packaged with Nintendo’s software (presumably specific games which will benefit from it), otherwise it will retail alone for USD 20.

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The Wii Zapper

Then it’s time for a few third-party games: Smackdown 2008 (for Wii and DS), Soul Calibur Legends, Dragon Quest Swords, Mario & Sonic (who would’ve expected this collaboration a decade ago, eh?) and Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword on the DS. Then it’s swiftly on to some first-party games, like Super Smash Bros. Brawl (due this December in North America) and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the DS. Its pseudo-3D, with a top-down perspective like the Zelda games pre-Ocarina, but with 3D graphics and style as seen in The Wind Waker. Then it’s onto everyone’s favourite female interstellar bounty hunter, with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Things are looking predictably good here, but it remains to be seen how comfortable the controls will pan out, even though they were keen to suggest it has “The best first-person control on any console. Period.”

Then it’s on to the DS and its Wi-Fi connectivity. 5.5 million players have used Wi-Fi Connection, culminating in 230 million gameplay sessions. The Wii Virtual Console has done 5.6 million downloads, and there are now over 112 games available in the US. They also mentioned that both Madden and FIFA on Wii will be online, and talked up the connectivity between the Wii and DS versions of Pokemon. That was followed by showings of Guitar Hero III and Dragon Quest Joker. Nothing particularly inspiring.

They then showed Mario Kart Wii, which will be available Q1 2008 and will be fully online. The footage looks good, if a little similar to what’s been before. The online will be the real test for such a game, and they revealed that a custom Wii wheel will ship with the game (presumably developed from feedback received after Excite Truck, and equivalent third-party products which did the same thing). It looks a little small and plasticky, but this is merely observations drawn from a video, and besides it’s obviously being largely targeted at the younger market.

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Mario Kart Wii

Then it’s on to a bit of self-congratulation of uber-casual games like Nintendogs, Brain Age (which, it was revealed, has sold 15 million copies worldwide), Wii Sports, DS Cookbook and a bit of coverage of Brain Age 2, which is apparently even more successful than the first game in Japan. There’s also some footage of Super Mario Galaxy, apparently “In one sense, this is the first worthy successor to Mario 64,”. It’s looking good – very inspired and energetic, if perhaps a little disorienting at times. Its due November in the US. Some more games such as Picross DS, MySims on the Wii and DS, High School Musical on the Wii and DS, Rayman Raving Rabbids 2 (confirmed as a Nintendo exclusive some months back), My Word Coach from Ubisoft – the title is fairly self-explanatory, and then there was Flash Focus – effectively a visual equivalent of Brain Training.

The last game up was largely an extension of the success of Wii Sports. “Of course, all this stems to the popularity of Wii Sports. The last game we’re featuring today takes our big leads in audience expansion and effectively laps the competition. Wii Fit is it.” Wii Fit will retail with an aerobics-type step, and you have to stand on each side of it with a certain amount of pressure and posture to perform certain tasks. There are the likes of press-ups, various pressure and balance tasks, hula-hoop type movements (without the hoop, obviously), aerobics, muscle conditioning, yoga poses – over 40 tasks in the final game. It seems not unlike a cross between a dance-mat style peripheral mixed with Eye Toy. The step itself is called the Wii Balance Board. It can measure weight and track movement for games that will take advantage of full-body movement, and it is wireless. It can also be used to indicate your Body Mass Index, and compare your health and fitness with friends and family. Nintendo performed a demonstration which lasted some 15 minutes or more, and while the peripheral seems interesting, it perhaps doesn’t seem worthy of being Nintendo’s principal game of the show. However, they readily admitted that software like this is their attempts to wholly break the family market, and have the Wii accepted by all members of the household.

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Super Mario Galaxy

“Our primary target is much wider. There are 24 hours in every day, and only a small amount of time is available for leisure entertainment. Minute by minute, we intend to steal more of that time for videogames. We are the ultimate interactive experience. The future should belong to all of us. And when that day comes; that videogames are accepted as the pre-eminent form of leisure entertainment by the greatest number of people over the greatest part of the world, then we might also be happy, and might also be satisfied.” Depending on how you view this newfound ‘casual gaming’, Nintendo probably would have had either a very impressive or a very poor show for you. Either way, they are in a very strong position, and after a decade playing catch up with Sony, are finally back as the current industry leader.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2007.

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