E3 Conferences 2008 Round-up

By Matt Bailey

E3, or the E3 Media and Business Summit, is the computer games industry's biggest event of the year. Two years ago it was considered that the old Electronic Entertainment Expo was getting too big, so from 2007 it has become a scaled back event. This is despite a return to the LA Convention Center, and with the three big console hardware manufacturers each staging media briefings 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 - New dashboard, Lips, new XBLA games, FFXIII
Microsoft again began the round of conferences, this time on Monday evening (or morning local time), and it was an event containing some big news, even if most of it had leaked out over the last few months.

First up were some dates and games news. Gears of War 2 is due on 7th November worldwide, while Fable 2 is now finished and appearing in shops in October. Bethesda's highly-anticipated 360/PS3/PC first person action RPG Fallout 3 will have exclusive downloadable content on the 360 and "Games for Windows" editions. There was also plenty of Xbox Live Arcade news with a new, exclusive Portal subtitled Still Alive, the original Banjo Kazooie to complement the new sequel which was being shown off, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, Galaga Legions from the people who made the excellent Pac-Man: Championship Edition, and a South Park game.

One of the biggest pieces of news, however, had to be the pending update to the Dashboard. Microsoft is completely overhauling the Xbox 360's main user interface as part of its plans to integrate social features. This includes the introduction of Avatars, MS' attempt at Mii-like characters that are fully customisable, and indeed you can pack them out with a range of clothes like your PlayStation Home character. Just like Miis, you'll also see some games take advantage of the Avatars, including a new XBLA release Uno Rush and a sequel to movie quiz Scene It!. These games are amongst many that will also use the new social features, which sees friends grouping together, taking part in voice chat (now for up to 8 players), sharing photos, and just like one of the most impressive PS Home features, jumping straight into a multiplayer game together. Primetime is another new community feature, and will see large groups of player taking part in what are essentially online game shows, being produced by Big Brother creator Endemol. 1 vs 100, a game show currently on BBC One, is one of those that will feature, and aim to encourage both participation and watching as part of a fresh attempt at social gaming.

There's also some other additions being made in the "Fall" (that's Autumn to us Brits) update. The most major of these is the ability to play gaming from your 360's hard disk drive. You'll be able to copy your games from the DVD to the HDD, and save the noisy disc drive from spinning and cut load times. As you might expect you will still need the disc in the tray to prove you own the game. There will also be an ability to browse and purchase Marketplace content on your PC to set it up for download on the 360, as well as much-requested support for 1440x900 and 1680x1050 resolutions. With the dashboard itself moving away from the blades, there will actually be a whole blade-based system built into a new version of the Guide. Every feature and option will be available on the Guide itself, including accessing your full games library at all times.

Away from the Dashboard, but still in the social gaming space was the new Lips title. It's a karaoke game similar to Sony's SingStar, and comes complete with wireless microphones. It's being developed by iNiS, the people behind the excellent DS rhythm title Elite Beat Agents, and will see the mic responding to your wailing through lights on the device itself, and motion sensors allows it to pick up clapping motions too. The biggest feature, however, has to be the ability to sing to your own music; plugging in an iPod or Zune could leave you with thousands of songs to ruin to the delight of your neighbours.

The biggest shock of the briefing (and indeed probably the only interesting thing that wasn't leaked in advance) had to be the announcement of Final Fantasy XIII for the Xbox 360. Sony had previously been hyping up the Square Enix title as a PS3 exclusive, but now it's heading to Microsoft's machine, at least in North America and Europe anyway. In both those regions the 360 edition will be going out on the same day as the PS3 version, packed with the same features, except maybe some changes for online support if it is included. Final Fantasy Versus XIII remains a PS3 exclusive for now. With the 360 remaining the dominant console in both those regions, it made sense for the third-party publisher to bring their profitable series to both platforms, and with the development taking place with tools on the PC anyway, work on getting the game running on the 360 would have been a lot less than the full ports some have had to make. The announcement is a big coup for Microsoft, and a bit of a kick in the teeth for Sony who will hope their offerings at E3 will outweigh this news.

Nintendo - MotionPlus, new Wii Sports, Animal Crossing, Wii Music
Nintendo's success in the console and handheld markets continues unabaited, so maybe the company can be forgiven for a not particularly exciting E3 conference. That said, they were happy to state the Japanese business is not content with what they've got, and were aiming to push forward their ideas, with the MotionPlus adapter for the Wii being a major part of this. The device attaches to the bottom of the Remote and as it also contains accelerometers ("motion sensors"), it thus enables an extra axis of motion, and hence we get closer to 1:1 mapping between what you have in your hand and what you will see on the screen. The most major impact of this is the ability to deliver proper sword fights in future, though at the moment all we saw was a new Wii Sports title.

Considering the mainstream success of Wii Sports (to an extent that the mainstream includes many people who had not played games for years, or ever), I guess it was a major announcement, but we couldn't help but feel something more precise would have better showed off MotionPlus. Like a new Zelda, maybe. Alas we were confined to Wii Sports Resort, which is set to include the new peripheral and a new Wii Remote jacket when it's released early next year. Reports from the show floor, though, have generally been positive, with praise for the accuracy and speed of response for the new device in delivering the sword fights, disc throwing and jet skiing that will make up some of the sports on offer in the new game.

Nintendo of America President Reginald "Reggie" Fils-Aimé promised a gamer's game for E3, and what we got was not Mario or Zelda, or even F-Zero or Pikmin. No, it was Animal Crossing, probably one of the most mass-appeal titles from Nintendo in recent years outside of the Pokémon franchise. Animal Crossing: City Folk is set for release later this year, and looks visually similar to the previous GameCube title. Except now the game is more open-ended, and will include online support allowing you to visit other people's houses, as well as send messages to others via Wii Connect 24. Also to be incorporated is the new Wii Speak microphone that will finally bring voice chat to Nintendo's service. The device attaches to the console and is to be placed on top of the Wii Remote on your TV, ready to pick up everyone's voices for proper sofa-versus-sofa gaming.

Wii Music was the other surprise up Nintendo's sleeve. It's, well, a music game, using the Wii Remote and Balance Board to provide the motions for instruments to be 'played'. It's more about moving to the time than anything else, making it quite a different experience from Guitar Hero, and indeed probably somewhat easy too. It may be an interesting release, but it's appeal will only last so long, and we really expect Nintendo to deliver a bit more based on its own pre-E3 hype.

So, what's left? Well, there wasn't really much more; some third-party releases like Call of Duty: World at War got some attention, and importantly there was also a mention of a new Grand Theft Auto game for the DS titled Chinatown Wars, but that didn't even come with a render, let alone some screenshots or footage. Overall it was a disappointing conference, and while MotionPlus certainly gets us interested, we're still waiting to be convinced, and certainly unsure what we will be playing on our Wiis over the next twelve months.

Sony - Ratchet and Clank on PSN, Resistance and Super Stardust on PSP, Video Store in North America
Sony's sole hardware announcement this year wasn't particularly major, but is an important move in the console 'wars' battleground. The 40GB HDD-carrying PS3 will soon be an 80GB one, coming in at the same £299 price here in the UK on August 27th. That's it, really, so on to the games.

Well, almost. If you're North American then you'll be pleased to hear that SCEA is finally catching up with Microsoft in putting online a video download store. In fact, they've done an Apple, and released it on the night of the conference, so if you head over to the PlayStation Store now, you'll see a new video option where you can rent or buy DRM-encumbered movies and TV shows. While that copy protection will stop you playing them on your iPod or your PC, you can at least transfer them to a PSP for portable viewing, and is likely a cheaper and more desirable option than UMDs. Unfortunately if you're not from the right/wrong side of the Atlantic, then you'll have to wait until 2009 before a similar service reaches your shores. The same for Australia and New Zealand, I'm afraid, but you probably expected that.

Now on to the games. There's some high-profile third-party titles coming to the PS3 before the end of the year, such as BioShock, and Soul Calibur IV, but in terms of exclusives, the focus is mostly on Sony's own studios now, and on Blu-Ray disc we're looking at Resistance 2, and Motorstorm: Pacific Rift. The former got a good in-game walkthrough from Ted Price at developer Insomnic Games, and will be highly anticipated upon its release later this year. Insoniac were also leading the way on the download front with a brand new Ratchet and Clank on the way to the PSN. This summer, for US$15 (no European price yet, though we are confirmed to get it on the same day), R&C Future: Quest for Booty will continue where Tools of Destruction left off, and offers a shorter chunk of action for a rather reasonable price.

It's not the only thing coming to the PSN; there's a vast array of impressive-looking original titles coming to the PlayStation Store over the coming months, including Crash Commando, Fat Princess, PixelJunk Eden, flOwer (not actually a sequel to flOw, just the same people), and Siren Blood Curse. There was also Ragdoll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic from Media Molecule, who were also showing off the vesitility of their highly-promising PSN game LittleBigPlanet by visualising the 'boring bit' that makes up every E3 presentation; the number crunching. They presented the data in a fun way, and so not only managed to keep the press awake during that part, but also showed what can be knocked up in the game in less than 2 days. It's just a pity we didn't see more of the game, which is due in October.

Also coming via the PSN is some important downloadable content for Gran Turismo 5: Prologue; Gran Turismo TV. The service is finally getting a proper launch in both North America, and at least the UK, on August 1st, with free and paid-for motoring content coming from a variety of providers, including BBC Worldwide with Top Gear, and developer Polyphony Digital themselves. We don't know any specific prices or release dates for each piece of content, but we should be getting those soon, ahead of the first content going live in 2 weeks time.

Despite all the PS3 love, the PSP wasn't left out either. Sequels for the excellent LocoRoco, and Patapon were shown off with in-game footage, and hopefully shouldn't be too far off, while PS2 and PS3 quiz title Buzz! is also coming to the handheld. The brilliant PSN title Super Stardust HD is getting a portable edition too, though there was no word on whether this will be a download or UMD release. Of most interest is a PSP version of Resistance, called Resistance Retribution, which is being produced by Bend Studio, and will feature third-person action to better suit the device. The graphics looked impressive from the in-game footage shown, and it's certainly something PSP owners will be getting excited about.

We round out this look over the Sony conference to mention that Sony hasn't forgotten those games who haven't joined the rest of us in the current generation of consoles. With PS2 sales still going reasonably strong, the Japanese giant isn't turning its back on the platform just yet, and announced a new LEGO Batman console package, among a range of other games due for the 8-year-old machine in the coming months. It's shows that although Sony have slipped back a bit, they've certainly got the potential to dominate again in the future, and their impressive showing of titles at E3 this year will certainly put them on the right track towards that.

Overall, it wasn't a particularly exciting E3. Nintendo's MotionPlus was the only real bit of new hardware, though we've yet to see it's potential, and their conference was otherwise fairly lackluster. A lack of games to please their core fanbase may hurt them in the months ahead, though the mainstream are bringing in plenty of money at the moment. Which really leaves the 'winner' between Sony and Microsoft, with both showing strong showcases of titles. Microsoft had some of the bigger surprises with the complete re-invented dashboard and the FFXIII announcement, but Sony's strong software line-up across both their platforms, and probably most interesting conference, can counter this well. The footage is out there on the internet, so we'll leave it up to you to decide.

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