E3: Tales From the Show Floor

Another Electronics Entertainment Expo has come and gone and everyone wants to know the answer to the most subjective questions of all: Who won? Of course, this simple question refers to the Big Three console manufacturers. For those who haven't followed the gaming industry much of late, Microsoft released their Xbox 360 last fall, Sony is scheduled to release their PS3 this coming November, and Nintendo is planning on releasing their new console, the Wii, sometime later this year as well. I don't really understand the thought process that goes into rooting for a company, nor do I subscribe to brand loyalty. But still, the question is pertinent. After all, this industry thrives on hype and mindshare moreso perhaps than any other industry. So, for those wondering who won, here's my answer...

Not Sony.

Shortly before the gates to the show floor opened and the sweaty hordes spilt forth onto the plush carpeting of the Los Angeles Convention Center, Sony executives released the price-points for the PS3. The premium version of the game console would retail for $599 in the United States and a relatively nutered version would be available for $499. The premium version of the Xbox 360, already available, sells for $399 in the US. That sound you heard early last week was that of corks popping in Redmond, Washington. As Microsoft's Peter Moore said in this interview with Joystiq.com, "We had a price drop on Monday when Sony announced their price." Having been playing the wait-and-see game myself, I can tell you that Sony's pricing structure and what I saw on the show floor last week has convinced me to rush right out and buy an Xbox 360 with my next paycheck. There's no need to wait any longer; the decision won't be regretted.

So is my decision entirely based on financials? Yes and no. I played a number of PS3 games last week and several of them were of a very high quality and quite enjoyable. Sony's first-party "Heavenly Sword" looked and played phenomenally and the upcoming "Warhawk" game not only looked tremendous but made wonderful use of Sony's new motion sensing controllers -- to fly the jet you simply tilt the controller, no more relying on Analog Sticks. And there were several other quality titles as well, but the problem was that not only did none of them look leaps-and-bounds better than their Xbox 360 counterparts, but the entire time I was playing them my mind kept coming back to the same number: $599. Ouch. No doubt games like Metal Gear Solid 4 (awesome trailer by the way) and others will soften the blow, but the high cost of admission into the PS3 universe will likely keep the installed user base at a relatively low level compared to previous Playstation launches for quite some time. Thus, Konami and the other game publishers in control of the true killer apps will withold their games until the numbers are up. Which means that it will likely be even longer before a system as expensive as the PS3 is truly worth owning. It's a vicious circle that Sony has snared themselves in. And there's no way out of it without someone losing a lot of money. Namely, Sony.

In saying that I'm going to rush out and buy an Xbox 360, I'm not necessarily saying that I'm not going to buy Nintendo's oddly-named Wii. I'm just not going to buy it any time soon. There was no doubt that Nintendo's booth was by far the most desirable place to be with lines waiting to get hands-on time with the Wii reaching up to 3 hours at times. Fortunately, I was able to use my Exhibitor badge to get in line early Wednesday morning and merely had to wait an hour or so. My opinions of the Wii and it's wand-like motion sensing remote controller are mixed. And for the first time ever, I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching others play with something more than I enjoyed playing with it myself. Nintendo has billed the Wii as the game console for the non-gamer. They've scaled back the number of buttons; they added motion sensing technology; and they are purposely shying away from complexity in both control and gameplay. Nintendo employees to a man will tell you this is by design. They speak of wanting my mom to play their games more than they actually want people like me to play them.

And that's good, because I don't want to. Other than the safe-bets in Mario and Zelda, none of the Wii games (of which there were many) were able to interest me for more than 15 minutes. Take the "Wii Sports: Tennis" for example. Everybody acts like they love this game. But I can't help but wonder if they realized that the characters ran to the ball automatically? Did they notice that there was very little control over where the ball went and at what trajectory and velocity? What about the drooled-over "Red Steel"? It's just a freaking light gun game after all, but instead of a gun, you're firing a remote controller. And then there's "Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam". It's a downhill skating game that reduces the Tony Hawk trick engine to just two buttons and uses motion sensing to control the skater. Was I the only one who couldn't hold a straight line or turn without pinballing back and forth across the level? No, I wasn't. Each of the Wii games on display seemed to be designed around using the newfangled motion sensing controller rather than around a concrete game idea. And although the Mario and Zelda games looked very nice and I'm sure they will entertain, I couldn't find a single person who felt that the Zelda game was easier to conrol on the Wii than on the Gamecube. I will be buying it for the Gamecube the day it releases.

So this brings me to the Xbox 360. Microsoft had many impressive titles on display for their system, but none moreso than "Gears of War". This third-person tactical shooter was demonstrated in a theatre setting and, being that I'm most likely (fingers crossed) authoring the strategy guide for it, I was able to stand at the podium and watch over the shoulder of Epic's President as he played through the first area and explained the system mechanics. It was, in a word, awesome. And that was far from the only impressive title. The upcoming massively-multiplayer racing title "Test Drive: Unlimited" pits up to 8,000 racers on the island of Oahu and lets them live out a high-fashion fantasy of collecting cars and bikes, racing, betting, and even upgrading their housing and clothing situations. The cars drove as wonderful as they looked and you were able to go anywhere on the accurately-mapped island. Even offroad. Yes, I did launch my Lamborghini off a vista and proceed to drive it through the bushes and grass downhill towards the rocky beach below. You can go anywhere except the ocean. Other titles that promise to eventually be in my collection were "Lost Planet", "Table Tennis", and "Chromehounds".

But enough about the consoles and the most talked about titles. E3 had plenty of surprises too.

For example, Rare's new game for the Xbox 360 "Viva Pinata" had to be one of the biggest surprises. Essentially a hybrid between "Spore" (also fantastic) and "Animal Crossing", players are given a sandbox from which to design an environment and as they do up to 60 different species of pinata move into town. You can design clothing for them and give them names and build structures to allow them to socialize. But you also must keep them from killing one another. The graphics were amazing and the game looks adorable. Potentially a cult hit. Then again, Rare's track record says that the game won't probably hit retail until 2011.

Also in the cutesy camp, and another game I can't wait to buy is "Loco Roco" for the PSP. Players use the PSP's shoulder buttons to tilt the 2D landscape to roll what is essentially a giant blob through the environment. The catch is that the blob can grow and can also be split into smaller blobs. The level I downloaded through Sony's download station (a wonderful addition to the show floor that was conspicuously absent from Nintendo's booth despite the DS having WiFi capabilities) was far more complex than one might at first think. I spent over an hour bouncing and tilting my blob through the level and still only found a fraction of the rescuees and fruit that makes the blob grow. This is precisely the type of game the PSP needs.

Another pleasant surprise was Rockstar's "Table Tennis" for the Xbox 360. Possibly the only true sport/game simulation that I'll enjoy playing, this simulation of everyone's favorite basement sport was simultaneously beautifully impressive, addictive, and challenging. I never thought I'd say this, but "Table Tennis" may be the first Xbox 360 sports game I buy.

So what else did I play? I played a lot of stuff. Some of which sticks out and some that doesn't. Sega's "Full Auto 2" seemed to be a big improvement over the original (which I enjoyed, but found to be too short) and I'm looking forward to it. "Eye of Judgment" had to be one of the far more uique uses of new technology that I had seen -- it's a card-based battle game where a special camera actually tracks the cards you play on your table and translates them into monsters on the tv. You literally hold physical cards not unlike those in Magic: The Gathering and place them on a special grid playing surface. You can hold the card in your hand in front of the camera and a 3D monster will spring to life on the tv in your hand on screen. Very cool in a very nerdy kind of way, but the game seemed very, very shallow and didn't work well during my time in the demo room. Two or three iterations from now, and it could be a huge hit. Lastly, I also very much enjoyed my time with the multiplayer mode in "Prey", the upcoming PC and Xbox 360 first-person shooter. Having also played the single player game, I can honestly say that for the first time in, well, forever, a game is truly advancing the first-person shooter genre. And I'm not just talking about the running-on-ceilings stuff. Put "Prey" on your shopping lists now.

Well, this certainly got a bit longer than I anticipated. I didn't even mention the fun I had at the Dodger game I went to on Wednesday night with my editors, the great dinner I was invited to by the folks at BradyGames on Thursday, or the good times I had just hanging around with my cross-the-country co-workers. But I will say this: I left E3 invigorated. I'm once again looking forward to playing games, and am very excited about the projects that I'll be working on later this year. Speaking of which... it's time I get to work.

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