E3 Conference Round-up

By Matt Bailey

E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is the computer games industry's biggest event of the year. Last year, however, it was considered that the event was getting too big, so 2007 has seen a scaled back event, and a move from the LA Convention Center to Santa Monica, California. The event also shifted from May to July, this year between the 11th and 13th of the month, with the three big console hardware manufacturers each staging conferences just before the event itself began. Here we take a look at each conference and what was revealed on stage.

Click to jump to a company: Microsoft | Nintendo | Sony

Microsoft

Halo 3 console, Xbox 360 Elite in Europe, Gears of War and Viva Piñata on PC

Microsoft began the round of conferences on Tuesday evening (early Wednesday morning British time), giving us a collection of interesting, but not particularly mind-blowing announcements.

First up was a new version (or SKU in industry terms) of the Xbox 360, unsurprisingly branded in upcoming mega-seller Halo 3 goodness. It's in "Spartan Green", with an orange trim, and will include a matching controller, play & charge kit, and headset - though oddly doesn't seem to include a copy of the game, instead opting for themes and gamerpics on the 20GB HDD. While it may not have the larger drive, the machine on show at E3 did sport an HDMI port, suggesting Microsoft might be offering the output on non-Elite Xbox 360s in the near future. The Halo 3 machine is due out in September (in the US, at least).

Speaking of the Xbox 360 Elite, Microsoft also revealed that it's going to arrive outside of the US later this year - with a European arrival on August 24th. We don't have a UK price yet, though some retailers are tipping a £330 point, particularly with no price drop for the existing packages in sight.

The other highlight of the show was some new PC versions of popular 360 titles Gears of War and Viva Piñata. The former has been rumoured for some time, so came as no surprise to be revealed at the show. As you might expect, it supports Microsoft's "Games for Windows - Live" service, although unlike recent releases Halo 2 and Shadowrun it doesn't require Windows Vista, suggesting XP owners might be able to play without the Live integration. It also includes new content in the form of three extra multiplayer maps, a new multiplayer game type, and five new campaign chapters. Graphics also get a boost with DirectX 10 options, and Epic's traditional support for user-made content on the PC continues with the included Game Editor. Microsoft also revealed that future versions of Unreal Engine 3 will include Games for Windows support, seen as a big boost for Microsoft's new initiative.

Viva Piñata was more of a surprise, and interestingly Rare will be stepping aside to let the Climax Group handle the PC transfer duties. The game was received very well on the 360 - some describing it as a return to form for the British developer - and is set for a release that works on both XP and Vista, though the latter will be needed for the Games for Windows - Live integration, which seems to match the online features of the 360 version. There was more Viva Piñata news in the form of a new party game called Party Animals planned for the Xbox 360, though again Rare aren't at the helm. Australian-based developer Krome Studios are in control of this, and it's a mini-game collection, with offline and online multiplayer action playing a key part.

Aside from the games on show, that was it for major announcements. However, the line-up was impressive, and with the exception of Resident Evil 5, all trailers shown were for games released before the end of the year. The only other things worth mentioning were new first-party XBLA games being shown off in the forms of Hexic 2, and classic Bungie shooter Marathon: Durandal.

Nintendo

Wii Zapper, Balance Board, Mario Kart Wii

With the almost ridiculous success of the DS at the moment (despite the fact the PSP is still performing reasonably strongly), Nintendo clearly didn't need to focus on the handheld at the event. That said, they still displayed an impressive selection of titles on stage, and more so at E3 itself, including the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and More Brain Training (which recently came out here).

The focus, however, was on the Wii, which has been a growing success since its launch here last December. First up for that was the Wii Zapper - a version of which had been shown off at last year's E3. It's now looking more like a submachine gun, and holds both the Wii Remote (as the barrel) and the Nunchuck in place. Importantly, it will be compatible with the likes of Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles and a new Medal of Honor due out later this year.

Sure to please fans of the series (myself included) was news of a new Mario Kart for the Wii. Due out in 2008, Mario Kart Wii will feature online play, including Battle Mode, which was only playable on local WiFi in Mario Kart DS. A variety of controller options are promised - we assume this will include the analogue sticks of the Classic Controller, but also the ability to control the game like a steering wheel using the Wii Remote and a new Wii Wheel add-on, which will be included with the title.

The event also saw Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3 being shown off, with fans going on-stage to try out the games. Both are set for release in the fourth quarter of this year, as we confirmed, and are looking particularly impressive.

Legendary developer Shigeru Miyamoto, despite being involved in three of the games previously shown on stage, chose to appear with a completely new title and invention; Wii Fit and the Balance Board. The new device connects wirelessly to the console and has sensors for measuring balance and can also calculate a person's body mass index (BMI). The software will feature over 40 different exercises for you to follow, with the balance measurements used to assess how you are performing. Rhythm-based games, and even one using football 'headers' are featured - and the best part was seeing a match between Reggie Fils-Aime (President of Nintendo of America) and Miyamoto on stage for the latter game. Reggie won - perhaps Miyamoto needs to spend some more time with his own game.

So, a new device is what Nintendo had up their sleeves. It's an interesting one, but we're still sceptical (but then, weren't we all about both the DS and Wii?). There's no pricing yet, and the game's not set for release until next year, so we'll just have to wait and see.

Sony

PSP redesign, Home integration, MGS4 still PS3 exclusive

Sony's E3 conference last year left a sour taste for some people. The company were seen as arrogant, SCE CEO Kazuo Hirai looked the fool with his cry of "Riiiidge Racer", and Genji's "real-time weapon changing" and "giant enemy crabs" in feudal Japan did nothing for the upcoming PlayStation 3. The rather high price tag just didn't feel justified based on the E3 performance of the company who dominated the last generation. So comes 2007, with a new E3, and a new, more humbler approach by Sony.

Despite the PS3 being Sony's favoured child of late, the PSP got some much needed focus at the event, and the main draw of the conference was the new, redesigned PSP. It's not a significant change, and indeed it looks almost identical on first glance, but the adjustments are important. For a start, it's 33% lighter and 19% thinner, which should suit pockets better, and it doesn't lose any of that still-impressive 4.3-inch screen. It will be available worldwide in September in black and silver - with a special white Star Wars edition with a Darth Vader image on the back to be bundled with PSP-exclusive Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron. There are also adjustments to things like the UMD drive (and yes, it still uses UMD, contrary to some speculation), headphone port location, the position of the speakers on the front, as well as the removal of the useless IR port. More importantly, there is the promise of better battery life, as well as faster loading times thanks to adding more RAM to the system (possibly doubling the previous 32 to 64). The other important addition was the video out port, allowing you to display both games and videos on your TV. Composite and component cables are used for the connection, with the display at the conference suggesting the possible resolution of output may be greater than the screen's 480×272. It's all looking rather interesting, and hopefully we'll find some details on a European price point soon.

Moving back the PS3, Sony were touting the latest features of their Second Life-like 3D virtual world, PlayStation Home. The service was revealed in March, and is already in beta on both sides of the Atlantic, but Sony Worldwide Studios President Phil Harrison wanted to show some new features. The world appears to be expanding considerably on the existing offering, but most importantly, it will integrate with games. Phil got a bunch of people into his Home space, and then not only launched directly into Motorstorm from Home, but actually took part in a multiplayer race with those 11 other gamers who had visited his space. After racing on a new track that will be available for download next month, he quit the game and arrived back in the virtual world. An impressive sight indeed, and a sign of the proper integration of Home into the PS3 we were hoping for.

Sony was also pushing its first-party line-up, and aside from videos for games we already knew about, there was footage for Infamous, a new title from Sly Cooper developers Sucker Punch. While we've known about the game since E3 2005, we finally got to see what Killzone 2 was really capable of - with a new trailer of the game demonstrated, this time using in-game footage rather than fooling us with pre-renders. Amazingly, the new footage was able to almost match what we'd seen before, giving new hope to a game some had written off due to that trailer 'trick' two years ago. There were also new offerings for the future of the PlayStation Store in the forms of WipEout HD and Pain.

But if it's a big-gun third party title you want, then look no further than the almighty Metal Gear Solid 4. Despite continual rumours that the game would be heading to the 360, including speculation from Konami themselves last week, Sony were pleased to announce on stage that the game is still exclusive to the PS3 - and this without them having to put any money down for it (unlike Microsoft's $50 million for exclusive GTA IV downloadable content). A new trailer was shown, with series creator Hideo Kojima promising not only that the footage was in-game, but that this title would be the finale in the extremely-popular series (that doesn't necessarily mean the last game, of course, but certainly his last).

MGS4 would be a good title to finish on, but there was also an important announcement from another third-party developer. At Microsoft's conference, Epic Games revealed Gears of War on the PC, and the inclusion of Games for Windows in Unreal Engine 3 in the future, but the love-in wasn't just for Microsoft. This time Sony revealed that the American developer's upcoming Unreal Tournament III would be a PS3 exclusive for this year. PC fans shouldn't despair, however, as Epic were quick to note on their forums that it's just a console exclusive with the PC version still set to release alongside the PS3's this November. This essentially means that it's only the Xbox 360 version getting a short delay into next year. More important in the Sony love-in was the announcement that the PS3 version will support the user-created content of the PC version, making it a first for consoles. They didn't state whether such a feature will appear in 2008's Xbox 360 edition, though we suspect that the more closed nature of Xbox Live might prevent this from happening, despite the love for MS. Seems noone told Epic you can't make good with both companies.

So, it was a much better E3 from Sony, but they still have a lot to prove if they want to make the PS3 a success, and give the PSP a chance of at least catching up with the DS.

Overall, all three companies did well, but there was nothing particularly stand-out, apart from maybe the surprise of the Wii Balance Board, though that's hardly likely to be a system seller. Maybe it was the cut-down E3, or maybe it's just because it's a year with no new major hardware, but ultimately it felt less exciting than years gone by, and there was certainly no clear winner from the event.

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