E3 Conferences 2009 Round-up

By Matt Bailey

E3, or the E3 Media and Business Summit, is the computer games industry's biggest event of the year. Three years ago it was thought that the old Electronic Entertainment Expo was getting a bit too big, and so it became a scaled back event. This didn't prove popular, so now we're scaling up again, though limited by the current economic climate. The event takes place in the LA Convention Center, with the three big console hardware manufacturers each staging media briefings at the start of the event. Over the next few days we'll have a look at each conference and what was revealed on stage.

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

Microsoft - Controller-less game control, new MGS, new Halo, Facebook and Twitter, and lots of games
Microsoft once again began the round of conferences on the Monday evening (or morning local time), and this year they went with the mantra of "showing not telling", with a big focus on game footage rather than sales statistics. In fact, we came away not even knowing the current Xbox 360 "attach rate".

Anyway, the clear star of the show was "Project Natal", Microsoft's project to allow you to control the Xbox 360 without lifting a controller; essentially a more intuitive version of the Wii Remote. It's Microsoft's attempt to fight back against Nintendo and draw in the casual audience, and expand the number of gamers. It's done through a new device – currently known only as "Project Natal" – that is the first to combine an RGB camera, depth sensor, multi-array microphone and a custom processor in one device. The combination of these means that unlike other cameras, such as EyeToy, it is able to track your full body movement in 3D rather than 2D, and respond to a wide range of voice commands. Microsoft are even claiming it can detect a shift in the emotion in your voice, something that was demonstrated by a new project from Fable II creators Lionhead (now a Microsoft-owned studio). Milo featured a boy who you can interact with via gestures and voice commands, with scarily realistic responses, in particular to tones in the voice.

"Project Natal" is also going to be able to provide facial recognition through its sensor which is not light-dependent. So you'll be able to sign in to your profile on Xbox Live by simply standing in front of it. A version was demoed on stage, and while it did look initially impressive, there were still some noticeable issues, and Microsoft clearly have a way to go with this if they aren't even naming it at this stage. Expect to hear much more about it in the coming months, however.

On to the games now, and the first big reveal was Metal Gear Solid: Rising. Details are few and far between, but essentially you'll be playing as Raiden in the first game in the series to arrive on the 360. It's a brand-new game, but we don't think it's an exclusive. What certainly is, however, is Halo Reach. A short teaser trailer was shown for the 2010 game, but really we know about as much about it as MGS Rising. However, it seems likely that it will be a prequel to the original Halo, both from clues in the trailer and that the (canon) prequel novel is called "The Fall of the Reach". It was shown off after Halo 3: ODST - the FPS coming later this year – was demoed on stage.

There were plenty more games being shown off too. The conference opened with The Beatles: Rock Band, including presences from the two remaining band members (Paul and Ringo), and we also saw demos of Final Fantasy XIII, horror action adventure 360-exclusive Alan Wake, another 360-exclusive Splinter Cell: Conviction, and Call of Duty 4 follow-up Modern Warfare 2. There were plenty of game announcements too, with Forza 3 and Crackdown 2 from Microsoft, Epic's XBLA title Shadow Complex, and a surprise in the form of Left 4 Dead 2 from Valve.

It wasn't just new hardware that was surprising, but announcements of integration with social networking services Last.fm, Facebook and Twitter. Now you'll be able to stream music from Last.fm to your 360, browse friends' status, wall posts and photos from Facebook, and tweet with Twitter. More importantly, there's the ability for game developers to make use of Facebook Connect to allow their games to interact with the social networking service in the same way as Flash games and iPod applications already do today. So, when you grab that high score in the next Geometry Wars you can let all your friends know, not just the ones on Xbox Live.

Lastly, there was a bit of a focus on video. It was recently announced that Sky would be bringing Live TV and downloadable content to the Xbox 360 for UK and Ireland users, and this will also combine with Microsoft's first rollout of the Zune brand in our territory when Xbox Live's video marketplace becomes the Zune Marketplace later this year. All content will also offer 1080p output, with new streaming technology allowing the high-definition content to be played almost instantly after purchase.

Nintendo - Mario Bros Wii, Vitality Sensor, Mario Galaxy 2, Metroid: Other M
After last year's disappointing E3 show, could Nintendo win back their core audience and put on a better effort? The short answer is "not really", with a performance that fell well short of both Microsoft and Nintendo.

Nintendo began with the promise of pleasing that audience, and talked about how Miyamoto had finally been able to bring Mario into the fourth dimension. However, this turned out simply to be a four-player port of popular DS title New Super Mario Bros. on the Wii. It looks nice, and will probably be fun, but certainly not ground-breaking, and certainly not about to win back the audience that kept them going through the hard times of the GameCube era.

Following this was a return to pleasing the mass audience with an announcement of Wii Fit Plus, essentially more of the same, and no new hardware involved. It was followed by an extended look at MotionPlus, which is actually out this month in the shops anyway, and was the focus of last year's presentation. It was also curious to note how MotionPlus' uses were once those that the original Wii Remote was supposed to be capable off, such as sword fighting.

Focus then shifted to the DS, or in particular the DSi with Mario vs. Donkey Kong, which is not only a download-exclusive, but was also promising user-generated content that would be shared online, and Nintendo's first counter to Sony's LittleBigPlanet. Facebook is also coming to the DSi with an update that will allow users to share their edited photos directly to the social networking service. There was no mention of Facebook Connect integration for other games, however. Nintendo made a bit of a nod to the hardcore fans with the return of an old title on the DS. GBA game Golden Sun is getting a sequel on Nintendo's latest handheld, but it was hardly the high-profile announcement that they were building it up to be.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata was next on stage and spent too long talking about what the company had done rather than what they would do. And the reward for sitting through this? The Wii Vitality Sensor. Yes, really, Nintendo are releasing a device that you attach to your finger which will detect your pulse, and in theory other information about your body that it can report back to the console. There is the suggestion of games using this, but with nothing – not even a tech demo from Nintendo – on display we remain sceptical.

However, Nintendo did finish up with some new content for us to enjoy. First was Super Mario Galaxy 2; not a completely original game (or title), but still something to be excited about after the original was so good. It's also the first time we've seen two 3D Mario titles in the same generation, and a sign of the success of the Wii and the original game. Footage looked pretty, even if it didn't show much new in terms of gameplay. The game itself is due in 2010. More exciting was the final announcement. Not only is there a new Metroid game on its way for the Wii, but it would be developed by Team Ninja, the studio behind the excellent Ninja Gaiden games. The collaboration between the two will please many fans, and has resulted in Metroid: Other M, a fast-paced game that seems to switch between first and third person. The trailer also seemed to show a less-Western Samus with a bit more personality, possibly even suggesting this is some sort of prequel. Whatever it is, it's looking good, and we'll be seeing more of it ahead of it's release next year.

Sony - PSP Go, MGS PSP, Final Fantasy XIV, Motion Controller, Agent
Following Microsoft's packed conference, full of games, surprises and new technology, Sony really did have a lot to live up to. And with three platforms to cover they needed to keep the momentum going for quite a long time – the conference was nearly double the length of Nintendo's. Thankfully they succeeded in delivering a show that had most of what we'd want.

The show began its focus on the PlayStation 2. Sony's ageing platform is still chugging along nicely, actually outselling not only it's younger brother the PS3, but also the Wii and Xbox 360 too. At least in the US it is. However, despite this Sony didn't spend a lot of time focussing on figures, and soon moved on to showing some PS3 games. Naughty Dog's impressive looking sequel Uncharted 2 was shown off, as well as some in-game action from MAG, Sony and SOCOM-creators Zipper Interactive's new 256 player online action title. Playing live with 255 others on stage and across Sony studios it was an impressive showcase, and definitely keeps the game on our radar.

The PSP was next up, and there seemed to be quite a focus on the handheld platform. To help this was the announcement of the PSP Go – a new, smaller, lighter, and importantly, UMD-less version of the PSP. It comes with 16GB of internal storage, and you'll be getting all your games via digital distribution, downloading from the PlayStation Store at the same price as retail. The new machine looks interesting for it's portability, and the new download model which has proven a success for Apple's iPhone and iPod touch, but it lacks the elegance of the latest PSP 3000 model, or even other Sony portable devices. It's price point is also a little high, arriving at the same price as the PSP did back in September 2005 – 249 Euros, which could either become £200 as it was at launch, or £215 which is the equivalent price now.

But the PSP push wasn't just with new hardware, with Sony placing a big emphasis on games. LittleBigPlanet and MotorStorm are already known to be getting PSP versions this year, but Hideo Kojima (who had appeared at the Microsoft conference on Monday to unveil MGS Rising) was on stage to reveal a brand-new PSP Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. A proper Metal Gear Solid being led by Kojima himself instead of a side-project like Rising, he talked about this being a true sequel. In fact, it's following the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, starring Big Boss and filling in some of the blanks in the series' back story. So it would seem Microsoft don't hold all the cards, though it was curious to note the lack of mention of Rising on the PS3, even though we expect it to be a multi-platform release.

The PSP reveals continued with a re-announcement of Gran Turismo on the handheld. It was originally announced alongside the machine's reveal back in 2004, but now it looks like it will finally be released alongside the launch of the PSP Go on October 1st. Packing in over 800 cars, a wide range of tracks, online racing and trading, and many more features, it's certainly a full game rather than a quick port, and we're looking forward to seeing it in action later this year. Resident Evil is another big series to get a new PSP outing, but there were no details on this except that we'll see it next year.

Microsoft were keen to show off Final Fantasy XIII gameplay at its event, but Sony also showed off footage of the game. However, the bigger news, and a complete surprise, was the announcement of Final Fantasy XIV Online. We haven't even got XIII out of the door and already there's talk of the next one expected as early as 2010. Of course, as you may have gathered from the title this is another massively multiplayer online (MMO) title, like Final Fantasy XI, but Sony were keen to point out it was a PS3 exclusive. Console-exclusive, that is, with it set to appear on PC too like the previous MMO.

Sony's answer to Microsoft's "Project Natal" – or more accurately, their answer to the hugely successful Nintendo Wii – was a brand new motion controller. Still in the development stages, the "wand", with a glowing ball on the end that changes colours was an interesting device. It partners up with a PlayStation Eye camera to track motion in a much more accurate and immediate way than what we saw with Natal, and we get a feeling this will come to market much sooner too. It may not be as much of a game changer, or likely to grab as many headlines in the mass media, but even compared to the Wii Remote and MotionPlus this looks set to become a convincing way to deliver motion-controlled games to a wider audience, and even for core gamers. Actual titles, however, are still absent, even if the tech demos were impressive.

Curiously Sony didn't finish the show there, and went on to show some more PS3 titles set to arrive this year. ModNation Racers is a title that aims to do for kart racing what LittleBigPlanet has done for platformers; offer an exciting base on which to build your own experiences with an intuitive editor, cute graphics, and online infrastructure for sharing. Team ICO (that's the people behind the excellent ICO - naturally - and Shadow of a Colossus) formally revealed their third game; The Last Guardian, which looks equally impressive as their last two titles. God of War III rounded out the show with a new trailer, but the most curious surprise came before this - a new, exclusive action title from Rockstar North, the team behind the Grand Theft Auto series. Surely something to shout about more, and yet Sony almost didn't give it a second glance. Some footage would have been nice, and would have been a very big trump card for Sony to play against Microsoft's strong showing.

Overall, it's hard to pick a winner between Microsoft and Sony, but Nintendo is clearly not placing such a big emphasis on E3 as those two. Maybe it's mass appeal means it doesn't need to, but we do worry that Nintendo's future is looking a little limited until it starts to show us a hint of the next big thing. Motion controllers are certainly in now, and we expect to see more from Project Natal and the PlayStation Motion Controller in the coming months. For now, we can sit back and enjoy what has been an interesting E3, and look forward to many exciting new games in the months ahead.

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