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Microsoft E3 2009 Media Briefing Summary

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 3, 2009 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

During Microsoft's E3 2009 Media Briefing, it not only revealed that Facebook, Twitter and Last.fm are coming to Xbox Live, new Netflix and HDTV features and controller-free gaming, but also showed off a slew of titles such as Splinter Cell Conviction, Crackdown 2, Forza Motorsport 3, Halo: Reach and a bunch more.

The Beatles Rock Band

The show opened up with a demonstration of the newest entry to the Rock Band franchise, starring the original pop foursome themselves, The Beatles. The game's opening cinematic was a long and surreal trip through every thinkable Beatles reference, and then we got a demonstration of the game. On the surface, it looked like the other Rock Band titles, although the vocals seemed to play a bigger part. The "band" demonstrating received substantial bonuses to their score for harmonizing and working together. The game is set to be released on 9/9/09, but will support downloadable content right off the bat. Various albums from the Fab Four will be available as DLC, with the first announced one being "Abbey Road." In addition, "All You Need is Love" will be exclusive downloadable content for Xbox Live members, and all proceeds will be given to Doctors Without Borders. After a cameo appearance from the surviving members of the band, we moved on to the next part of the show.

Tony Hawk's Ride

The demo of Tony Hawk's Ride was more about the game's new skateboard controller than the game itself. The new controller, which pretty much looks like a skateboard without wheels, is the focus of the title. Using a bunch of various technologies, it allows you to mimic the movements of a skateboarder, which are then translated into the in-game mechanics. You can even do grabs and flips, although they look a little awkward because you have to do them without actually making your "board" leave the ground. The controller looked quite fragile, so we're going to have to check it out on the E3 show floor to see if it's more durable than it looks. Aside from that, the game seems like the usual Tony Hawk game, complete with ridiculous over-the-top tricks and a roster of famous skateboarders.

Modern Warfare 2

Modern Warfare 2's presentation was built around an in-game demonstration. It starts with the player and returning character Captain "Soap" MacTaggert, who survived the events at the end of Call of Duty 4. The pair scales an ice mountain, which seems to be done through completely interactive gameplay.  After a near accident where the player character goes careening off a cliff and is saved by MacTaggert, the demo skips ahead to the pair infiltrating an enemy stronghold during a blinding snowstorm. Both the enemies and the players seem near-blind, but the futuristic super-gun that the main character is holding has a sensor that detects nearby enemies, giving him a substantial advantage. However, even the best-laid plans go poorly, and an accident leaves MacTaggert and the player trapped in a running gunfight with their enemies, who come after them on snowmobiles. One slick move later, and MacTaggert has dismounted, leaving the pair of you to escape on snowmobiles. The player can even use a one-handed gun while driving, although it seems to make it harder to steer. Unfortunately, the video cut off before we could see the end of the chase. Modern Warfare 2 will also feature two DLC map packs at launch, which should be hitting "first" on Xbox Live.

Final Fantasy XIII
Our first look at Final Fantasy XIII running on the Xbox 360, and it wasn't that much different from any of the numerous videos we've seen of the same game running of the PS3. The extremely short video featured Lightning and Sazh fighting a "Manavein Warmech," which is a giant robot presumably powered by magic. The combat system is still turn-based but uses an "action gauge" system where you can store multiple attacks to perform powerful combos. Our view of the actual combat was very brief, and the fight was ended very quickly by the introduction of a previously unseen summon monster, the series classic Odin. Much like Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, the Summon Monsters appear to actually fight, rather than being extremely shiny and powerful one-use attacks. Odin and Lightning fought together and ended both the fight and demo in a matter of moments.

Shadow Complex

One of a number of new Xbox Live Arcade titles being debuted at this E3, Shadow Complex is a game that takes its inspiration from Metroid and Castlevania. You're placed in the role of an unfortunate schmuck of a hiker who has wandered into a maze full of jerks with guns and giant deadly robots, and he has to fight his way out. It's a 2.5-D style game, with an emphasis on exploration. They showed us the in-game map, which is absolutely tremendous and divided into various sectors to explore. Like the aforementioned games, your goal in Shadow Complex is to collect new weapons and abilities to help you explore the strange maze. These include a foam gun, which can stun enemies and create platforms, a triple jump, and even a powerful suit of armor. The game is due out this summer.

Joyride

Another new Xbox Live Arcade title was the kart racer Joyride. The video didn't provide too much info on the game, although what we saw did look interesting. Xbox Live gamers get to build a bizarre buggy for their Avatars to ride around in, which can be further customized and upgraded using in-game winnings. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else to the video beyond that, and most of the time was taken up by shots of various Avatars and their tricked-out rides making impossible leaps. The most interesting thing to note is that this game is going to be free  and available to anyone with an Xbox 360.

Crackdown 2

Many gamers only know Crackdown as "that game that came with the Halo 3 beta." For those who've played it, the game houses a surprisingly exciting superhero-style game where you battle gangs throughout the city as a superhuman dispenser of justice and firepower. The sequel looks to be going in a completely different direction, though. The non-gameplay video shows one of the superpowered agents tracking down a human who has been "infected" and dispatching him with extreme prejudice. However, no sooner is the threat eliminated than some monster emerges from the sewers behind the agent. What happens takes place off-screen as the camera pans out, and all we can see are the brief silhouettes that reveal that whatever snuck up behind the unfortunate agent was very large and apparently not fazed by the agent's gun. It seems as if Crackdown 2 may be going the same route as Prototype and pitting a superhuman against a swarm of infected enemies.

Left 4 Dead 2

Considering that Left 4 Dead is still a fairly new game, the announcement of Left 4 Dead 2 was one of the biggest surprises of the show.  In a cinematics-only trailer, we get to see a new team of survivors, seemingly unrelated to the cast of the original game, as they take on a swarm of "Infected." There are plenty of familiar sights in the trailer, including the iconic Tank enemy, but there are some changes as well. For one, this particular trailer takes place in broad daylight, a drastic change from the nighttime-only setting of the first game. Another change occurs near the end of the trailer. When the survivors run out of ammunition, they quickly discard their guns and brandish a number of melee weapons, including that favorite for zombie slayers everywhere, the chainsaw. It seems as if the sequel will finally be giving players the chance to take on the Infected in hand-to-hand combat with something besides the butt of your gun.

Splinter Cell Conviction

After being missing in action last year, the Splinter Cell franchise has returned to the spotlight. Sam Fisher has received another makeover that has him looking a bit more like his old self, rather than the long-haired hobo from the previous version. Things seem to be going badly for the down-on-his-luck superspy. His daughter was murdered, and as you might expect, Sam isn't taking it very well. He quits his job and embarks on a one-man vendetta to find out who killed his daughter and how badly he's going to have to hurt them. Visually, the game has a very unique and cinematic art style designed to keep the game feeling as intense and fast-flowing as possible. The developers seem to be going without menus at all, with text and mission objectives being projected on nearby surfaces in a hyper-artsy manner.

We got a nice and lengthy in-game demonstration of the gameplay, and the one thing that stands out about it is how fast and brutal it is. The Sam Fisher of the previous games was methodical and cautious, but this Fisher seems to have thrown all that to the wind and moves like a blazing devil. He rushes along and climbs up pipes and windows so quickly that it's almost scary. When he rushes into a room to fight enemies, he does it with brutal efficiency, shooting one in the head and killing another in melee combat in a matter of moments. During a firefight, he fluidly leapt out a window and quickly shimmied along the side to "sneak" behind the enemies who were shooting at him. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and Sam still has all of his old tricks. He can still dangle from pipes, sneak through shadows and use a broken piece of mirror to look under a door at the enemies in the next room. He's still Sam Fisher; he's just a much angrier and much scarier Sam Fisher. Splinter Cell Conviction is going to ship this October exclusively for the Xbox 360.

Forza 3

If there is one thing that the Microsoft press conference wanted to stress, it is that Forza 3 is going to be the definitive racing game of this generation. That's a pretty hefty claim, but judging from the videos, it is certainly going to be one of the prettiest racing games of the current generation. We got to see some in-game footage, and it really is absolutely jaw-dropping, featuring some amazingly rendered cars driving at blinding speeds. Forza 3 is promising to be a car lover's dream, featuring over 400 cars from 50 different manufacturers. Yet what they really stressed was how those 400 cars are going to become the playthings of the Forza fan community. Forza 2 had a dedicated and thriving community that existed entirely to tune, repaint or modify the various cars in various ways, and Forza 3 is being geared to appeal even more strongly toward those types, even going so far as to let you create your own videos through what appears to be a rather robust video editing feature. It ships this October.

Halo 3: ODST

While we've know it has been coming for a while, seeing video of the new Halo title is certainly enough to arouse curiosity. For those unfamiliar with it, Halo 3: ODST is an expansion pack for Halo 3. Instead of playing as Master Chief, players take on the role of "The Rookie," a member of the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, a group of hardcore marines who enter combat by dropping in single-man pods from space. While the Rookie isn't quite up to Master Chief standards, he has a few interesting things going for him. He has access to a different set of weapons, including silenced guns and a revamped version of the infamous Halo 1 pistol, complete with super-accurate sniping ability. He also has access to a visor, which allows him to see in dark areas and highlights enemies and important objects.

The biggest gimmick, however, is that you don't only play as the Rookie. Instead, as the Rookie explores, he'll discover objects that have something to do with the other members of the ODST squad. When he finds one of these objects, you are transported back in time into the role of the ODST squad member who is connected to that object. In the case of the video, the object was an explosive charge, and the ODST member was the one who had to set it. In order to fully understand the story, you're going to have to travel back and forth between the Rookie and the lost members of his squad. It looks like a solid addition to the Halo roster, and it'll certainly appeal to fans of the franchise who are waiting for something new.

Halo: Reach

Unlike Halo 3: ODST, this announcement is a bit of a surprise. Halo: Reach is a prequel to the Halo games connected to the planet Reach. For those unfamiliar with the Halo mythology, Reach was a major stronghold for the human army and where Master Chief was stationed immediately before the events of the original Halo. It fell in battle, and all of Master Chief's fellow Spartans were thought lost in the conflict. According to the novels, however, this wasn't quite what happened, and judging by the trailer, it seems like Master Chief may not be alone after all. The brief trailer shows the planet Reach under siege by the Covenant armada, with panicking humans struggling to figure out a way to stop the assault. The last thing we hear before the trailer ends is that Spartans are still on the ground on Reach, and they're not prepared to give up the fight so easily.

Alan Wake

After vanishing off the radar for a while, Alan Wake was a welcome guest at the Microsoft conference. A survival horror game that seems to owe quite a bit to Silent Hill, Alan Wake is the story of a writer who visits a small mountain town with his wife. He's working on a new novel, and everything seems great until his wife mysteriously vanishes. As if to make matters worse, the events of his novel are coming true, and terrible monsters are appearing all around town. Being the fine fellow that he is, Alan sets out to find the lost pages from his novel to find out what happened to his wife.

Alan Wake is set up like a TV show, beginning with a "previously on" montage before the "episode" starts. In the gameplay demo, we join Alan as he tries to retrieve some lost pages from his friend Rusty. As he arrives at Rusty's house, he finds that the poor fellow has already been taken by something, which is now dragging him through the woods. Alan takes off after Rusty, and we get our first view of combat. Whatever the supernatural force is in the town, it doesn't like light, making Alan's flashlight his most valuable weapon. If he points it at a possessed object, the light will exorcise it. If he points it at one of the monsters that attack him, it will stun the monster and weaken it, allowing him to finish it off with a handgun. Flares provide an even more powerful weapon, with a flare gun being capable of demolishing whatever foe it hits, and handheld flares providing a small protective area for short periods of time. However, things don't go very well for Alan, and before long he is being chased by an entire mob of monsters, far too many to fight even for the most skilled player on the planet. In order to escape, he has to run and activate a generator by playing a small mini-game. Doing so turns on a series of floodlights, distracting the enemies and allowing him to escape. Our demo ends with Alan trapped inside a house stationed on the edge of a cliff, as the supernatural force runs a giant bulldozer into it, knocking it over the edge, and giving us a quite literal cliffhanger of an ending.

Xbox Video and Music

While it may be a video game console, games are not all the Xbox 360 is good for, as Microsoft was quick to stress. Things such as the ability to watch movies from Netflix were only the first step in Microsoft's plan to turn the Xbox 360 into a living room centerpiece. One of the first steps Microsoft is taking is altering how Netflix works through Xbox Live. Viewers will now be able to watch movies directly from their 360s, without having to mess around with their PCs. Furthermore, the video libraries are being modified, with HD video being increased up to 1080p, and an improved download service that allows for direct streaming for any viewers with at least an 8MB download speed. Viewers in the UK and Ireland will get access to SkyTV, which will allow them to watch movies and live television through their Xboxes. Viewers will also gain the ability to start "parties" to watch movies together, allowing them to watch the latest Hollywood hits with friends, even if those friends are $on the other side of the country. If you're in the UK, you can even watch live sports this way and use your Avatar to cheer on your favorite team.

Microsoft has also teamed up with Last.fm to bring live radio to the Xbox 360, which can be accessed through the new Music Marketplace. The marketplace is not only going to house a tremendous collection of songs and music, but it'll also have direct access to anything music-related on the Xbox 360, including downloadable content for the latest iteration of Guitar Hero or Rock Band at the touch of a button.

Social Networking

In addition to a wide variety of entertainment options, Microsoft is also bringing the Xbox 360 into the realm of social networking. There was certainly an element of this to the system before, with the ability to "friend" people on Xbox Live, but Microsoft's latest initiative goes above and beyond the usual. The first and biggest addition is Facebook functionality. It's exactly what you'd expect from Facebook on Xbox Live, allowing you to check and post to your Facebook profile, view profiles, send pictures and so on. You can even check which of your Facebook pals has an Xbox Live profile and friend them at the touch of a button. There will also be a new "Facebook Connect" feature in certain games, which will allow you to take screenshots of the game and instantly post them to your Facebook. The first game to support this will be the upcoming Tiger Woods title, but there are more expected to follow.

In addition to Facebook, Microsoft is also adding Twitter functionality to the Xbox 360. Anyone in the mood to tweet will be able to do so by using the simple Twitter interface located in one of the Xbox 360 menus. You'll even be able to use a special menu to keep track of all your friends' tweets while your Avatar looks on in amusement. It's not the most involved system in the world, but considering that the Xbox 360 is already capable of letting you play games, watch movies, chat with friends and listen to the radio, adding the ability to check your Facebook and Twitter has the potential to ensure some people never leave their Xboxes.

Metal Gear Solid Rising

One of the worst kept "secrets" leading up to E3 was that Hideo Kojima was doing something new with Metal Gear. Even ignoring the blatantly obvious hints dropped by the Kojima Production's Web site, there were a number of leaks, early information drops, and enough that people could piece together that something related to Metal Gear was coming. When Hideo Kojima snuck onstage, it wasn't as huge a surprise as it could have been. Metal Gear Rising is one of the first Metal Gear games to star someone who isn't Solid Snake, Solid Snake's dad, or someone pretending to be Solid Snake. Instead, it stars pansy-turned-robot-ninja Raiden and bills itself as "lightning-bolt action" to differentiate itself from "tactical espionage action," like Snake's adventures.  Sadly, the video didn't give us anything to go on as far as gameplay, but I think we can expect something a bit different from the usual Metal Gear Solid style.

Project Natal

With the Nintendo Wii selling gangbusters, it's no real surprise that the other two big companies are trying to figure out their own ways to catch onto the success of the little system's motion controls. Microsoft's ambitious idea is simply dubbed "Project Natal" for the moment, and instead of adding a motion-sensitive controller like the Wiimote or the SixAxis, is trying to forego the idea of controllers altogether. Instead, Project Natal is going to be a special camera and voice sensor that is supposed to allow the player to use his or her own self as the controller. It's certainly an incredibly intriguing idea, and what Microsoft showed off seems like it has a lot of potential.

The first game they showed was a sort of Breakout clone. The camera was centered behind the player, and he could "hit" a ball to knock it towards bricks. The goal was to use any part of your body to knock the ball back toward the bricks and break them. It looked like it works great and is a lot of fun, and it certainly serves as a very interesting proof of concept title. The second was a sort of "art" program that allowed the player to use his or her hands to "throw" paint at a canvas. Switching paints was done by simply saying the color you desired, and there seemed to be a wide variety of colors available. Players could also create a "stencil" in a unique way. By activating the stencil-creating tool, the screen would turn the player's silhouette into a stencil. A clever player could even use various props or their friends, to turn the silhouette into a certain shape. In the demo, they had two people stand close together to form the basic shape of an elephant. The controls seemed rather flawless, the voice commands didn't falter during our time with it, and the hand and body movements corresponded perfectly.

The "big daddy" of the Project Natal showing came from Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios. Instead of a game, they showed off a special interactive program called "Milo," which was simply a small playful young boy who will interact and respond to the person talking to him. This video in particular was quite unbelievable, with Milo's actions and responses working almost supernaturally well with the person he was interacting with. In the brief demo, he held a lengthy conversation, played a small game where the player tried to catch fish, and in a rather amusing display of sleight of hand, "took" a drawing from someone in the real world. It was quite eerie, and rather unbelievable — until Molyneux mentioned that Milo would be shown to certain members of the press behind closed doors later at E3.  If Milo works even remotely as well as the video made it out to, then Natal really may have something special on its hands.

In addition to games, we also got to see a video of Natal concepts that Microsoft hopes to implement. Some of them were simple, such as a "Minority Report"-style gesture-based movement control for the 360's menus, which Microsoft already has in a solidly working state. Some of the others were more unusual and futuristic, such as the ability to "try on" clothes using the camera and an accurate 3-D model of your body to see what they'd look like. Many of them looked like something out of "The Jetsons," and if Microsoft can get even half of them working, Natal really might stand out as something special even to people who've never touched a video game.

After the Show

Not all of the big news went down at the press conference. Afterward, we were treated to a few more interesting tidbits of information that Microsoft simply didn't have time for during the main event. Perhaps the biggest of these is that Microsoft is planning to enter into the realm of digital distribution for Xbox 360 games. When this service hits, players will be able to buy and download complete Xbox 360 titles onto their hard drive. This service won't even use Microsoft points but will allow gamers to buy games using real money. While there isn't a complete list of which games are going to be available for digital distribution, what we saw was a pretty healthy lineup, including Bioshock and Mass Effect, amongst many others. There will be around 30 titles to start, with new titles being added every week. At the moment, there is no word on whether this feature will simply be for older games, or if Microsoft might be planning same-day releases for certain titles, although Microsoft didn't rule out the latter.

Xbox Live Arcade has a number of big-name titles coming to it in upcoming months, including a number of classic titles such as The Secret Of Monkey Island: Special Edition and Battlefield 1943. This is in addition to a number of already announced classic titles, such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Reshelled, and brand-new titles like Splosion Man, a bizarre little side-scroller where you appear to play as a man whose sole power is making himself explode.

The Xbox Avatar system is also undergoing a change. Developers will be given the ability to award special unlockable items for Avatars. which can be used to dress them up in various ways. One example we were given was an ODST outfit from the upcoming Halo spin-off. In addition to in-game unlockables, you'll also be able to purchase new outfits from an Avatar marketplace. Finally, Avatars will also be able to equip "props" to add an extra element of customization to the Avatar by giving them special animations. An Avatar equipped with a cell phone may chat on it from time to time, while an Avatar equipped with pom-poms will go into a little cheer routine.

 

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