E3 2009: EA Press Conference
When I planned our E3 2009 coverage, before the show, I was convinced that Activision Blizzard had the strongest lineup of games. Since becoming the world’s largest publisher after merging with Blizzard, Activision has become a prominent player, releasing new editions of their strongest franchises annually and putting EA in the strange position of being something other than top dog for the first time in memory. But as Activision Blizzard continues to roll out tired sequels, EA responded at their 2009 E3 press conference by announcing a solid lineup of games built on franchises and several exciting new IPs.
The show started with a brief look at the upcoming Dante’s Inferno. Not too much was said about the medieval action game, but from the brief trailer I gleaned that the gameplay is going to be fairly similar to what we saw in last year’s reboot of Prince of Persia sprinkled with the larger than life battles of Shadow of the Colossus. The action looked frenetic, with blood and guts staining the armor of the main hero as he fights to reclaim his love as a pulsing orchestrated score ratchets up the intensity. It was an impressive, albeit short, demonstration of a game that seems to have the potential to turn heads when it is released.
Following the preview of Dante’s Inferno, John Riccitiello, EA’s CEO, came up on stage and pledged that EA’s 2009 lineup of twelve games would demonstrate the depth of interactive gaming unlike any other lineup in the company’s history. Riccitello also pledged the company’s support for the EA, calling it “a spectacular platform [for developers] if you build from the ground up.”
After a tease of The Sims 3, which looks bigger than any other game in the series, we moved on to the segment of offensive games designed for girls. Never in my life have I seen something as sexist as EA’s games for girls lineup. EA’s Hasbro division is launching a series of Littlest Pet Shop that will create an online world where girls can enter hang out with their friends, playing minigames to earn “kibble coins” to customize their pets and their pet’s homes.
Following the Littlest Pet Shop announcement, Dyan Williams, a senior producer for EA, announced the Charm Girls Club games, a lineup of four different products that “celebrate what’s great about being a girl,” which apparently to EA means doing their hair, talking on the phone, pillow fights and slumber parties. Apparently, games designed for girls can only incorporate tired stereotypes and no original ideas.
Once the crowd was done laughing at the ridiculousness of their girls lineup, the show got back to what the audience wanted to see. Patrick Soderlund of EA’s European label introduced the latest version in the seemingly endless Need for Speed franchise, Need for Speed Shift. The Shift subtitle is appropriate as the company seems to be taking the series in a different direction. Soderlund said the company is trying to make the game “extremely deep” by adding a cockpit view and by translating the physical feeling of driving a vehicle into a virtual world. A new experience system that monitors how you play will also be included and will track how you navigate each and every track to tailor the game to your play style. The graphics in the trailer looked impressive and the new cockpit view did seem to enhance the realism of the experience.
While the crowd seemed only mildly amused at the presentation of Shift, all of geekdom erupted (myself included) when Bioware founders Dr. Ray Mazyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk were announced. The first game the pair pitched was Dragon Age Origins. It’s fair to say that their expectations for the game are as high as ours. They called it “a big leap forward” in terms of story-telling and pledged that it was one of their most emotionally engaging narratives to date, in addition to being their darkest and most mature game yet. In the game, you play as a member of an ancient order with the mission of protecting the world from an entity known as the dark spawn. The action looked intense and graphic and, at times, I wondered if I was watching an action game or an RPG.
Dragon Age Origins was followed immediately by Mass Effect 2. Not much was said other than recognition that Bioware has a tough act to follow after the critical acclaim that the first game received. Players will again assume the role of Commander Sheppard as he fights to save mankind. Sheppard will lead a crew on what is believed to be a suicide mission into the heart of enemy territory. The gameplay trailer emphasized a lot of action that seemed very similar to the first game.
Perhaps EA’s biggest announcements came from Peter Moore, head of EA Sports. In addition to announcing MMA 2010, a new game coming out from the company’s Tiberoun division that will bring mixed martial arts to EA’s fighting lineup, the company heavily emphasized Fight Night Round 4. Claiming that the boxing simulation was part of their “most diverse product lineup ever,” Moore claimed that Round 4’s physics engine will deliver an incredible new experience.
The new physics engine, seen in action in a live demonstration of the game, did seem very impressive. Running at 60fps, players are no longer limited from getting inside on the other boxer, as height and reach are incorporated into the series for the first time. In the demonstrated matchup, Ali took on Tyson and used his reach to keep Iron Mike away from his ears.
Next, the company unveiled their new online strategy to keep gamers plugged into their games 24/7. First up is a school creation mode for NCAA 2010 that will allow fans to go online, create their own schools right down to the grass on the field and the socks on their feet and then upload that team into your game. You really take ownership of your team in a different way as you add your friends and family to the roster.
The biggest EA Sports announcement came, naturally, from the brand’s flagship franchise, Madden 2010. The game will be also be getting the online treatment, allowing the truly diehard players to get online, draft players and play with 31 others in a schedule that matches the real-world. You’ll have a week between games to manage your franchise from your office PC or from you iPod as part of EA’s new strategy of keeping their games “just a click away.”
Pandemic’s Tom French then took the stage to show us a quick clip and gameplay demonstration from The Saboteur, the studio’s upcoming noir-style stealth action game. The black and white graphic novel art style really brings the city of Paris to life as the hero battles Nazi tyranny in a way we’ve not yet experienced. French promised that players can climb Eifel Tower and explore the massive rendition of Paris that the team has put together. The gameplay really emphasized stealth, but the action seemed strong and engaging for those moments were you do have to take a couple of Krauts out.
One of the hardest things about covering events like this is that everyone they bring out on stage doesn’t seem to want to be there (the exception being the always-affable Peter Moore). Tim Schafer, president of Double Fine Productions, also had great stage presence. Schafer was full of jokes as he introduced Brutal Legend the game he alleged he made just so he could meet the musicians he brought into the action game that stars Jack Black and Ozzy Osbourne. Not too much new footage of the game was shown except for a brief teaser trailer.
Two small announcements were made immediately following the Brutal Legend tease: the first, that Crytek would be partnering with EA to release Crysis 2 on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 and that EA would be publishing All Points Bulletin, the upcoming MMO from Real Time Worlds.
The question you should wonder now is, how do you top this all off?
Dim the lights. Play the theme from Star Wars. Bring out members of Lucas Arts and Bioware and announce that Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to be one of the most ambitious MMOs ever produced. That’s how.
In The Old Republic, every character will be given a voice. Every single one. This is the first time something’s been tried like this in an MMO. Bioware and Lucas Arts are teaming up to bring the one pillar that’s missing from most MMOs – story – into the game through in-game voices that they hope will emotionally engage the player in the experience. On top of that, each class will have their own unique storyline, offering a unique experience each time you start a new character.
It’s a tall order, but after watching the cinematic trailer, I have faith that Bioware and Lucas Arts can get this done.
EA brought their A-game to E3 this year. Combining franchises with new IPs, the company is hoping to reassert themselves at the dominant publisher in the gaming business. While some parts of their lineup weren’t very strong, the company has an ambitious catalog of upcoming games that should be extremely well-received judging by what I saw today. It will be very interesting to see how the other company’s respond to EA following a very strong showing today.