"I kind of miss the days when games were judged on their game-playing merit alone. I'm a little concerned about how far we (the game industry) are into the licensed four-page-ad marketing blitz era these days, which may be a natural evolution of the industry. But I'm always worried when we put more emphasis on glitz and production values than on the game. That's a trend that looks good for a while until you realize there's no game industry any more. If we don't have gameplay, we can't really compete with other forms of entertainment because we can't do graphics as good as the movie industry and we can't make sounds as well as the recording industry. All we can do that's special to us is be interactive. So we have to hang on to that and make sure we do a good job." - Sid Meier
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Watching Microsoft demonstrate what the world could expect from them, gaming-wise, between now and the next E3 is always an interesting proposition. For some, it’s fodder for their fan boy fueled hatred, while others discover it to be vindication in their belief that Microsoft genuinely has their fingers on the pulse of the gaming community. For many though, this time around, it seemed as though Microsoft was doing everything they could to please everyone and now that the initial shocks have worn, we can only wonder what exactly they were thinking in some cases.
It wasn’t terribly surprising that the press as well as those watching via Spike TV or one of many internet streams were entreated by Microsoft casually opening up by showing off Modern Warfare 3 within minutes of the lights dimming. The game is a flagship title that many players are looking forward to and shareholders are betting on turning a fair profit when it releases towards the end of the year. After all, Activision has impressed upon the world that this is series that can be, and realistically has been, milked into the ground.
Now, I’m not saying that the game looked bad by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, it looked very good under the assumption we can expect more of what made the first two Modern Warfare iterations so widely loved. What I’m simply proffering is that the series really hasn’t truly evolved in an innovative way since the first Modern Warfare hit store shelves, courtesy of a pre-capitulated Infinity Ward, other than the addition of Special Ops cooperative play. If this is the last Call of Duty or even the last Modern Warfare, then all the power to Activision, Sledgehammer and what’s left of Infinity Ward, because they deserve to see it go out with a bang. On the other hand, given Activision’s track record though in regards to many of its franchises, I anticipate we can see CoD further driven into the ground before it goes out with nothing more than a solemn whimper.
Still, Bravo to Microsoft for appealing to what is a major population component on Xbox Live by securing exclusively-timed DLC for Modern Warfare 3 when it hits store shelves this November, but should the game, in the unlikely event, ultimately flop or Battlefield 3 stands up and succinctly drive a wedge between the online community – aptly dividing prospective players between the two – then Microsoft will have bet on the wrong pony and their exclusivity will have meant nothing.
Moving on, Microsoft showed off the reboot of the Tomb Raider series, which was either vastly disappointing or sexually stimulating as hearing muffled porn through your bedroom wall – depending on your particular fetish. The developer, amidst the playthrough, conveyed that the game was going to be a telling of how a 21-year-old Lara Croft sets out upon adventure and becomes the hardened Tomb Raider only gamers familiar with the series when it first premiered over a decade ago would be intimately acquainted. While it seems almost moot at this point, it felt as though this reboot was an avenue for a potential cash-in on the popularity of titles such as Uncharted, but otherwise felt relatively soulless based on my initial impression.
Replete with all the Quick Time Events and insipidly poor female voice acting that you’ll be able to stomach, the demo was closer to watching a once kitschy beloved female character attempt to be reinvented as this fresh faced damsel with a bit of Indiana Jones in her. Feeling almost forced, it eventually becomes difficult to keep track of all the QTEs the game was throwing at the developer holding the controller during the roughly six minute demonstration. What could have been another chapter in the long line of Tomb Raider games heading on a downward slope towards an absolute nadir is instead going to be served up as an entirely new start to a long line of titles, which already look like it’ll be a long desperate climb to mediocrity.
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Stepping out on Stage, Cliff Bleszinski was joined by Ice-T in what may or may not have been the most ridiculous use of celebrity during E3 this year. Showing off a level in the Gears of War 3 campaign, it was sort of what you’d expect from the preceding two Gears – running, shooting creatures big and small and taking cover when circumstances dictated. Now, before you string me up in the town square, it bears mentioning that yes, the game looked great and if you loved the previous incarnations, you’ll already be sold on the third in the trilogy. But, it just seemed to me that Gears of War 3 doesn’t have the same kind of heavyweight status as a certain other blockbuster franchise.
Speaking of which, Microsoft showed off more Halo. While we can’t expect a Bungie-crafted Halo anytime in the near future, we can look forward to the next best thing this holiday season. The original Halo, dubbed “Halo: Anniversary” will be arriving in stores in time for the Christmas season. Remastered in the Halo: Reach engine, Halo: Anniversary appears to definitely going the lengths to reinvigorate the decidedly strong love many fans have for the original. Complete with Xbox Live co-op, online multiplayer and bringing many fan-favorite maps back to bear, Halo: Anniversary seems to be a somewhat decent offering for zealous Halo fans, at least until 343 and Microsoft Game Studios can get something else out the door next year.
Next appeared an almost shockingly overwhelming amount of Kinect content, giving the definitive impression that now that Microsoft has secured the more relaxed slice of Xbox 360 gamers they’ll be going after the deeply embedded segment of the gaming community. Much seemed to cater to the die-hard Xbox 360 owners and while some look great theoretically, it’ll nonetheless be exceedingly interesting to see how the integration of core gamers accept Kinect functionality.
Mass Effect, showing off voice commands that seemed to work flawlessly in-game harkened back to Tom Clancy’s EndWar, which purveyed the use of the Xbox Headset to give orders to on-screen units with a relatively advanced level of seamless play. While a step in such a direction will leave many on uneven footing, even outright uncomfortable with the idea of utilizing this feature in-game, it looks like a reassuringly cool alternative to issuing movement commands via the previous methodology of the two prior ME titles. Suffice to say, Bioware did their homework and in this case, it really shows.
On a more superfluous level, the latest Ghost Recon showed off what can only be described as a Minority Report style armory. Allowing players to endlessly customize their weapons using voice commands such as “Long Range”, “Close Quarters” or “Randomize”, Ubisoft was more than happy to show off the almost infinite amount of creation that could go into a player’s weapon, being sure to note that potentially, no two weapons would ever be alike in game. Shooting seemed uncomfortable – not for the fact that there isn’t a weapon to hold – but because it just seemed unnecessary when placed next to a comparably good controller.
Perhaps most disappointing was the unveiling of Fable: The Journey. Seemingly gone is the whole “setting out to do whatever you wish while becoming the Hero of Albion” sort of thing, only to be replaced by something significantly worse. I don’t what the illness seems to be with developers trying to force the, so far, hit-and-miss integration of Kinect into more mainstream titles, but from what Molyneux and the Lionhead crew showed off during the Microsoft E3 Conference, it’s an understatement to say it was less than impressive.
A brief aside, the new Forza was shown, complete with a track from Kayne West. But it was a preview trailer that didn’t really go the lengths to show off what we can expect when the game finally revs its engines to hit stores in its final form. Certainly enough, it’ll have full Kinect integration, but the jury is still out on how popular that will be with Forza’s particular hard-line slice of the Xbox 360 crowd.
From there, it only seemed to become a disappointingly downward slide. Microsoft set out to try and continue convincing everyone that they have a stranglehold on a market the Nintendo Wii took years ago. Showing off sequels to original titles like Dance Central 2 and Wii Kinect Sports 2, the modus operandi for Microsoft regarding Kinect this year appears to be that if people liked it once, they’ll like it again. It was utterly disenchanting to watch them go through the motions.
Perhaps the only redeeming title, unveiled by none other than Tim Schafer, who stood by as an awkwardly stereotypical father-son pair played, was a Sesame Street title currently being developed for the Xbox 360 peripheral. Stepping into the digitized figures of Elmo and Cookie Monster, the pair played and watched their on-screen avatars do as they will, having a moderately enjoyable experience all the while – perfect sort of game for anyone with children. Admittedly though, the nostalgia factor for many who happily remember their days growing up watching the program is a key point of popularity for this game, nonetheless, time is definitely going to tell as it draws closer to release.
Going on, Microsoft showed off additional functional Kinect integration and what we can all expect from the, yet again, New Xbox Experience. Bing integration with Xbox Live was laughably received with absolutely zero applause while other features, such as YouTube pairing with the online service was met with audience approvals. UFC will additionally be receiving its own functionality, garnering an almost superfluous level of latitude similar to what ESPN got when it arrived on Xbox Live. Again, the best saving grace was the arriving ability to use the Xbox 360 to watch and DVR live television, which should bump whoever has a Tivo over the edge into finally buying a 360.
Beyond that, it was surprising how much Microsoft seemed to just get up there this year and flop around like a fish for two hours. Certainly, they showed a few interesting new additions to the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, proving that they have the capacity to adapt and change to whatever Microsoft wants it to be during a particular year, but with that evolution, it still feels like Microsoft is trying to please everyone on the gaming side of things.
Yet, showing a majority of Kinect and saving Halo 4 for the last was perhaps the best move they could have made, a teaser is just showing that 343 is indeed working on something and for the time being Halo: Anniversary is there to satiate your vicious fan-rage. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Microsoft even has the imaginative capacity to homebrew a new hit series that can meet or even top the laurels that Halo is now, in all essence, resting upon. But, since the next Halo kicks off a new trilogy, I guess we’ll have to wait a few years to find out.
Thus, while Microsoft didn’t bomb E3 this year, they didn’t really go too far out of their way to impress with anything that one would call revolutionary. Gears of War, Forza, and even Halo all made expected appearances, leaving little to blow the minds of those wanting to see something genuinely new. While it doesn’t seem that Microsoft is hurting as a developer or publisher, it feels like they did nothing less than phone it in this year – dumping their offerings on stage with a minutia of excitement and expecting us to eat it up like swine at the trough. Well, if nothing else, it gives us something to look forward to next year, right?