Microsoft got to kick off the festivities of the new, slimmer, slightly more disorganized E3. While there were no bombshells, the presentation was slick and aggressive. Journalists got to see new trailers, game demos, and some new information about release dates. Microsoft seems to be repositioning for a battle with Nintendo's red-hot Wii system, now that Sony's all but taken itself out of the race. This means a sudden change of emphasis onto appealing outside of the traditional gaming audience with which Microsoft's always done well. One of the few totally new games announced at the conference, for instance, was a Viva Piñata mini-game spinoff called Party Animals. Unfortunately, nothing was revealed that indicated a long-awaited Xbox 360 price drop.
A point-by-point breakdown of the speakers and announcements follows.
- Peter Moore, head of Microsoft's games division, kicked off events with a few statistics that were meant to establish Microsoft's industry dominance. The figures seem somewhat cherry-picked, and also clearly define the Wii as the 360's only real rival.
- Then a demonstration for Rock Band, showing what the game looks like with a full set of players and a singer going. The effect is impressive. Peter Moore jumps in to play toward the end, and isn't very good. Oh, well, he's a good sport about it, and Rock Band looks like it's going to be a very hot game. Imagine three people playing Guitar Hero at once, each playing different notes, while a fourth person is playing Karaoke Revolution. Despite the $200 price tag, this is going to be the party game of choice in 2007. After all, people who dug deep to afford Guitar Hero titles and bonus guitars probably won't find the price of Rock Band too much to handle.
- The Viva Piñata Party Animals announcement. The audience seems frankly sort of confused about it, but it'll definitely sell to the parents who want Mario Party-alikes for their kids.
- Mass Effect gets an extended trailer later. It looks good, of course, but doesn't reveal anything new about the game other than a November 2007 release date.
- There was a demo for a game called "Scene It," based on a DVD board game, that most of this site's readers will never, ever care about. It's geared to be very casual, and ships with four custom controllers used exclusively for the game — but the price is supposed to be no more than the usual $50-60 MSRP for 360 titles. It's one of two major bids for the non-traditional Wii audience Microsoft makes in the conference; the "Scene It" custom controllers even bear a striking resemblance to the Wiimote.
- Naruto: Rise of a Ninja gets an extended trailer. This is the first and only Naruto game developed by a Western developer, in this case Ubisoft Montreal, and is a 360 exclusive. It is far superior to other Naruto titles, and really, most other games in general. The cel-shaded graphics emulate the look of the anime series so well that the game looks better than the show at several points. The gameplay is a pleasant blend of action, 2D fighting, and open world exploration. This one could be very big, and has obvious potential as a system booster in the Japanese market.
- Next demo was Jeff Bell playing Madden 08 for the 360 with Reggie Bush. The segment wasn't unimpressive by itself, and seemed tailored for an audience other than the one actually present at the conference.
- Xbox Live gets its moment in the sun, with the happy announcement that its current subscription rate — 7 million members — exceeds the E3 2006 prediction of 6 million members. Of course, with only 10 million or so 360s on the market right now, that doesn't leave much room for growth. Microsoft calls for 10 million subscribers by next year's E3, which means they plan on moving a lot more consoles this year. This is followed by a montage of upcoming titles for Xbox Live Arcade, including Bomberman Live, Hexic 2, Every Extend Extra Extreme, Sonic the Hedgehog, arcade-perfect Golden Axe, Tetris Splash, Boku Sudoku, and much much more. The biggest surprise, though, is a port of the original Bungie FPS epic, Marathon. As a Mac-only title, a lot of Halo fans never got the chance to play this one the first time around. As an XBLA title, Marathon can expect to find a whole new lease on life.
- While XBLA got the crowd fired up, interest waned during a subsequent presentation about Xbox Live's digital distribution of TV shows and movies. Sure, $125 million have been spent on downloads, and Microsoft is about to roll out a deal with Disney that brings a lot of its back catalog to Xbox Live in true HD, but … we're game journalists. Show us games, not five-year-old Touchstone movies. Canada and Europe are set to get the Marketplace downloads this year, which did spark some approving applause from the crowd. Not incidentally, Europe is also getting the Elite this year.
- A demo for Project Gotham Racing 4, focusing on the motorcycle component of the game. It looks nice, but there's no real "wow" factor to it. Should please racing fans who want more variety than what Forza 2 offers.
- Lost Odyssey merits an extended trailer, and overall is looking like a far more promising effort from Mistwalker than Blue Dragon. The trailer sadly gives no real impression of what the gameplay will be like, instead focusing on the game's epic scope.
- PC gaming gets its moment in the sun … sort of. First off, Shane Kim announces ports of Gears of War (with new single-player content) and Viva Piñata. Then there's a montage of clips for upcoming PC titles like Hellgate: London and Crysis. Oddly, it's Gears of War PC that merits the full demo, against a new alien boss. PC gamers probably aren't going to be happy with the lack of solid info, or the emphasis on a 360 port over original content. More interesting is the fact that Unreal Engine 3 is going to natively integrate Xbox Live, to support Microsoft's increasingly dominant "Live Anywhere" initiative.
- Call of Duty 4 gets a gameplay demo that's very beautiful, and leaves a strong impression of how the game plays and how very different it's going to be from the WWII Call of Duty titles. CoD4 takes the series into the challenging realm of "modern" warfare, although the plot calls for a frankly unlikely battle against Ukrainian terrorists rather than opting for a Middle Eastern setting. Fans of military FPS are probably going to be very pleased with Call of Duty 4 regardless. It emphasizes careful planning, realistic tactics, and pleasantly little hurling yourself blindly into firefights.
- Splinter Cell: Conviction gets a surprisingly brief and uninformative trailer. This is surprising given that Conviction is a 360/PC exclusive, and one of the most beautiful 360 games to date. Conviction is supposed to be a Q4 2007 title, but seems to get short shrift compared to other games if that's really the case.
- Peter Moore returns to talk about the 360's two exclusive online expansion packs for Grand Theft Auto IV. Rumor has it that Microsoft has paid around $15 million for that exclusive content, so no wonder they're already talking it up. Of course, even at that price: is it a true exclusive or something likely to show up on the PlayStation network after a year? Anyway, we get a new Grand Theft Auto IV trailer that emphasizes story over gameplay, but still looks promising.
- A slightly extended trailer for Resident Evil 5, which confirms the game's African setting as hinted at in earlier Famitsu reports. It suggests little about the gameplay, but still gets the audience incredibly fired up. If RE5 is even half the game RE4 was, it'll be absolutely amazing.
- Assassin's Creed gets a full demo. The graphics are a little weak, and the "realistic" combat calls on enemies to meticulously attack you one at a time, but the rooftop chases and acrobatics are excellent. There's a very Prince of Persia vibe to the game, and that's definitely appealing.
- Finally, we get information about Halo 3… and it's surprisingly uninformative. First, Peter Moore announces that a special version of the 360 Elite will ship for Halo 3, in dark green colors and with a custom controller. The audience not only fails to react with enthusiasm, but there is outright hostility from parts of the crowd. People came to this conference wanting a price drop, not another repackaging of the Elite. Why Microsoft and Sony stick to their two-tier marketing tactic when the Wii's sales performance proves just how much people don't like it is beyond this reporter. Anyway, following the console announcement, there's a Halo 3 trailer that really establishes nothing new about the gameplay or story, but still gets the audience really fired up.
This announcement finished out the presentation, which ran a surprising two hours. Despite the lack of huge announcements, journalists seemed to leave with good vibes in the air. Microsoft blocked out a heavy-hitting plan for this Q4 that Nintendo and especially Sony are going to be hard-pressed to compete with. If nothing else, 360 gamers are going to have a lot of great titles to choose from this Fall and beyond.