E3 2006: The Console War

By Matt Bailey

I may regret my choice of title, as I'm not one to encourage “fanboyism”, or “this console is better than that one”, but the mood at E3 seemed to imply that the war was on between the manufacturers, or at least it will be by the end of the year. All three creators of the next-generation consoles held pre-E3 conferences to sum up their vision for the next year and beyond, before showcasing their efforts on the show floor itself. In this article we'll take a look at what was revealed and who had a ‘good E3’.

Sony

Sony's conference was first so it's only right to discuss them before the others. Overall, it has to be said that it was disappointing. Not that it didn't have anything to show, nor did it lack surprises, but there was the general sense that nobody in the audience cared about what was said on stage, partly due to the seemingly false enthusiasm, and partly due to the slow pace of the event. Among the highlights was in-game footage of a variety of titles, including Gran Turismo HD (playing at 1080p, of course), Metal Gear Solid 4 and Heavenly Sword, as well as impressive pre-rendered footage for the likes of Eight Days and Final Fantasy XIII There was also an impressive table-top card game, which combined EyeToy technology with real cards to present virtual characters on screen. Genji 2 had an interesting demonstration; this game was said to be based on real historical battles in ancient Japan. We were then shown the game being played by one of the developers, where we saw him attacked by a giant crab. Just like in the history books. The game also promised an innovative new feature: “real-time weapon changing”. I mean, if only that had been included in recent titles such as Hitman: Blood Money...

Despite that, things were mostly good on the games front — even if there was little to inspire a purchase at launch (MGS4 and GT aren't going to arrive until 2007 at the earliest). However, things didn't go so well for the rest of the PS3 announcements. While it came as a surprise when Sony revealed that the PS3's controller would be motion-sensitive, it has somewhat backfired on the company, with many accusing it of simply stealing Nintendo's main concept for the Wii. The design, which is more like a DualShock2 (albeit without rumble), should be more popular than the ‘boomerang’, and will of course be wireless. The lack of rumble was blamed on the motion-sensing equipment, though it's possibly more of a result of a recent lawsuit between rumble-patent-owners Immersion and Sony.

The other major bit of news, which also didn't go down too well, was the announcement of the launch strategy. While a near-simultaneous worldwide launch in November 2006 was welcomed, the price to go with it wasn't. Despite criticisms of Microsoft's two-package strategy, Sony have gone the same way with the PS3, with the lower end model — featuring a 20GB HDD — coming in at US$499/£499 (which are significantly different prices), and a higher end model — featuring a 60GB HDD — coming in at US$599/£599. Here in the UK we'll get the console on November 17th with the rest of Europe, though indications have been recently that we may not get the lower-end machine, and the 60GB model may cost us £425 — which is about 620 or US$800. Matters were made worse about the price when it was revealed that the lower-end machine would be somewhat ‘crippled’, lacking the HDMI output to achieve the highest quality HD images (1080p), the Secure Digital/Compact Flash/Memory Stick card reader, and the built-in WiFi. Of course, unless you have a HDMI input on your HDTV (and it's unlikely you even have an HDTV), then you won't notice that loss, and likewise the memory card and WiFi loss is no big deal with external devices available. Still, it does somewhat undermine what Sony's been saying, particularly with regards to “true HD”.

Also on display, of course, was the PlayStation Portable. The PSP has faced increasing competition from the Nintendo DS of late, particularly with the success of the Nintendo WiFi Connection and Nintendogs. So how did Sony respond? By showing off the ability for their handheld to play old PlayStation games. While a welcome addition, it's hardly going to topple Nintendo's increasing dominance of the market, particularly when the game shown off was Ridge Racer, which has since seen a better native version released upon the PSP's launch. Still, if the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid are made available, then fans will be willing to shell out again for the chance to take such classic titles on the move.

Sony also introduced connectivity into the mix at their conference. Despite talking about no gimmicks, they showed off a PSP being used as a rear-view mirror in a PS3 Formula One title. It seemed to work well over the wireless connection, but we did wonder where you would actually put the PSP to make that feature useful. On the games front, though, there was hope for the PSP. Killzone: Liberation seemed more impressive than the PS2 game it's spawned from, Tekken: Dark Resurrection looked like a worthy follow-up to Tekken 5, a music-based game Traxion, a proper outing for Snake in the form of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, and the excellent LocoRoco, which is due this month.

Verdict: On the showfloor it was clear that Sony's controller was a last minute decision with only their own title, Warhawk, supporting the motion-sensing capabilities. However, there were still some great third-party games on display, showing why Sony still dominates the industry. Sony's biggest problem, outside of their disappointing conference, was the quality of PlayStation 2 titles; it currently outshines their next-gen offerings. The PSP seems to be struggling against the DS, but had a good showing on the show floor which will keep it in contention.

Nintendo

Last year at E3 Nintendo's ‘Revolution’ seemed like some sort of pipe dream; a hope by Nintendo to reverse their fortunes following the relative failure of the GameCube in this console generation (though nowhere near the scale of the Dreamcast). Back then the console now known as the Wii was shown off in basic form; we knew it would be in multiple colours, was the size of 3 DVD cases, would play its own 12-inch optical discs as well as the GameCube discs, would play classic NES, SNES and N64 games as well as GC ones, and would include Wireless capabilities. Twelve months on and the console has its final name, a slightly-revised but similar in size look, Nintendo WiFi Connection, and of course, the controller. The so-called ‘Wiimote’ has been getting a lot of attention since it was unveiled towards the end of last year, so this E3 was for Nintendo to spend time showing what it could do, rather than concentrating on new announcements So, unlike Sony who told us their date and pricing structure, all we got from Nintendo was “Q4 2006”, with rumours since giving a price under the US$250 (~£135) mark.

Nintendo did, however, confirm a couple of the rumours that had been floating around. Firstly, the yes-it-does/no-it-doesn't argument about whether the upcoming GameCube title The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess will feature compatibility with the Wiimote (thanks to the console's back compatibility). The answer; no it won't, as instead Nintendo are releasing a version of the game on the Wii to accompany the console's launch. This version will of course take advantage of the new control method, allowing you to do such things as fire arrows by aiming at the screen (something which is in fact more difficult than the controller, but more satisfying), or fling a fishing rod into the water, as well as giving the game a bit of extra graphical polish. The game will still get a simultaneous GameCube release on Wii launch day, but the next-gen version will also benefit from the other rumour confirmation; the speaker. The Wiimote itself will contain a small speaker, which should help give feedback on your motion-sensed actions, such as for The Twilight Princess where you'll get a delightful ping as you fire your arrows.

WiiConnect24 was a new announcement at E3 and is an implementation of the Nintendo WiFi Connection on the Wii that allows the machine to offer online activity, even while the console is in standby. This means while you sleep you could receive messages or gifts from friends on a Wii version of Animal Crossing, or even let the console download demos overnight ready to play on your DS in the morning. It's an interesting idea, but we do wonder whether it will be redundant in an era of increasing broadband speeds, where small files come in instantaneously anyway. Besides, what benefit is there to receiving something while you're asleep over the console downloading it when you turn it on? With no hard drive planned, the downloads on Wii are never going to be too big, anyway. There's also the environmental issue of having the console constantly sucking a reasonable amount of power in order to continue its services. There are enough complaints about TVs being on standby to provide power for the remote control, could the combination of the Wiimote and constant online services make the Wii an environmentalist's nightmare?

Still, those issues will be looked at upon release, and until then we'll probably be more concerned about what games will be arriving upon that day. A few games were revealed at the conference and later on the show floor, with some set to accompany The Twilight Princess to launch. These include Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Mario Galaxy (not a launch title), Wii Sports, the previously-announced Red Steel, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, Sonic Wild Fire (also not a launch title), and Super Smash Bros Brawl (again, not a launch title).

Red Steel, one of the first known Wii titles, proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. The prospect of controlling a blade with the Wiimote was an exciting one, but it turned out the game does not track your constant movement, instead only reacting with a set animation to a limited range of swipes of the Wiimote. Some of the Wii Sports had equal disappointment, with the baseball game simply taking into account your timing, though as it is a collection of mini-games it was less of an issue. Besides, it was great to see Iwata (President of Nintendo), “Reggie” (Reginald Fils-Aime, now President of Nintendo of America) and “Shigsy” (Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, etc.) take on a winner of a public competition on stage in Wii Sports tennis.

For the current handheld, the DS, Nintendo spent most of the conference talking about how successful the machine was, with no new hardware announcements (the DS Lite having already received its North American release date). On the show floor, however, was a range of DS software that should keep the sales flowing in the months to come. This included The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Star Fox DS, Final Fantasy III, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Yoshi Island 2 Revealed and the soon-to-be-released New Super Mario Bros. Owners of the older Nintendo platforms, the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, will be disappointed by Nintendo's lack of support, with the only notable title for either platform at the show being Super Paper Mario on the GameCube.

Verdict: Nintendo probably had the best E3 of the three. While delivering very few surprises, they put in a good performance at the conference (it's worth watching through if you haven't seen it yet), and let the games speak for themselves. Despite the extremely long queues, it seems the hands-on with the Wiimote and some of the console's first games went well, and a great line-up across both the Wii and the DS allowed Nintendo to shine above its HD-obsessed rivals.

Microsoft

It has to be said that 2005's E3 was a bit of a mess for Microsoft. Disaster would probably be too strong a word, considering they were the only company gearing up for the launch of a next-generation console that year, and thus actually had something real to show. However, the threesome at the conference left a lot to be desired, and Microsoft's decision to run code on alpha kits instead of the pre-rendered sham of Sony's PS3 conference didn't inspire confidence in their platform, even if they arguably made the right decision in doing so. Still, 12 months on and only Microsoft has a foothold in the market for the next-generation platforms, giving them the upper hand in being able to not only show off what they intend to do, but also what they had done already.

Peter Moore led the proceedings by himself this year, leaving J Allard in the dark, but providing for a better event. Of course, there weren't going to be too many revelations when you've already dealt your hand, though there were a few surprises in store. First was Grand Theft Auto IV. Aside from the confirmation of its inevitable existence, we also found out that it'll now arrive on the Xbox 360 on the same day as the PS3 (compared to the delays of non-PS2 versions in the last generation), though some form of exclusivity comes in the form of extra content for the game only on Xbox Live. Lumines Live was also a big surprise, particularly when we already knew of three follow-ups to the PSP launch title; Lumines II on the same platform, Lumines Plus on the PS2, and the recently released Lumines Mobile. The new Xbox Live Arcade version will of course be HD'd and will feature proper music videos in the backgrounds, with Madonna on display on stage.

Lumines Live was just one of the Live Arcade games on show, with Microsoft showcasing a range of new titles as well as a host of retro classics from Pac-Man through to Sonic the Hedgehog. They also talked about over 100 development partners for the platform, with Introversion — developers of the excellent Uplink and Darwinia — appearing amongst them, even if no details of a deal have been confirmed.

A bunch of hardware was also shown off for the Xbox 360. This included the previously announced HD-DVD drive, a wireless headset, a wireless steering wheel, a receiver to let you use wireless Xbox 360 controllers and the wheel on the PC, the Xbox Live Vision camera, and a 256MB Memory Unit. Bigger news, however, was Live Anywhere. Bill Gates himself was on stage to explain it at the conference, showing how Microsoft are planning to link up Live for both Windows Vista and Windows Mobile users, allowing interactivity between your Xbox 360, PC and mobile phone. Shadowrun is one of the main games behind this move, allowing players on the PC and Xbox 360 to play each over Live. Forza 2 also has potential for link-up, with the Forza team demoing a system that allows you to customise your car on a Windows Mobile phone, which will be in place when you next load up the game on the 360.

Of course, the games themselves helped make Microsoft stand out at E3. We're now about to move on to the second wave of titles for the Xbox 360, and it's beginning to show what the extra development time can do to give the console an edge over the PlayStation 3, at least in the short term. As well as the two previously stated titles, other highlights included Capcom's exclusive Lost Planet, Mass Effect, Too Human, Viva Piñata from Rare, Saint's Row, Stranglehold, online racing title Test Drive: Unlimited, Crackdown, and of course, Gears of War. The last title, in development at Epic Games, is of particular note. While it was only shown in full behind closed doors, it is said to be one of the most important titles for the platform this year, and was probably even its game of the show.

For the original Xbox, however, things weren't so rosy. Despite Microsoft promising to continue supporting the platform through to 2007 they didn't actually show any games on the platform themselves. It was up to the third-party developers to provide titles such as Destroy All Humans 2, LEGO Star Wars II, and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Even Pro Evolution Soccer 6 — which is getting its first next-gen outing on the 360 — won't see an Xbox release while still appearing on the PlayStation 2.

There was also another title on show at the conference. Bill himself ended the conference by revealing a trailer for the eagerly-awaited Halo 3, which apparently featured in-game footage. The trailer looked and sounded impressive, even if it did lack substance. This footage was, however, immediately available for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace, alongside a vast array of E3 content. Microsoft's “Bringing It Home” campaign for E3 was an excellent idea, allowing every Xbox Live user to sample some of the content on show at E3, with a range of trailers and even playable demos, and for this they should be commended.

Verdict: A strong showing from Microsoft makes up for last year. While Xbox owners may be disappointed to see the momentum has entirely shifted to the 360, owners of the next-gen console will be pleased that there's a lot to look forward to. Gears of War in particular should help drive sales of the Xbox 360, but overall Microsoft still lacked some of the clear innovation seen on the Nintendo stand, and of course they lack a handheld of their own to show off some different games. Still, Xbox Live Arcade has the potential to make up for that on both fronts.

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