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E3 brings the controversy

Dealing with the aftermath of Columbine, the usually raucous video-game industry convention was a muted affair

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The 1999 Electronic Entertainment Expo? In a word: muted. Post-Columbine jitters weren’t the only reason exhibitors were quiet at the fifth annual videogame hype-fest; show organizers replaced the eardrum-piercing booth noise of years past with an 80-decibels-or-lose-your-electrical-power rule. The 55,000 industry pros gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center from May 13 to 15 still had to strain their voices while talking up the most-wanted games and gadgets of the coming Christmas season — like the Sega Dreamcast console, which has four times the processing power of a Pentium II and a built-in 56K modem for networked play. But most of Sega’s new games didn’t match the wow factor of its hardware, and since Nintendo and Sony weren’t showing their next-generation players so much as teasing them, E3 ’99 left us wanting. Still, the main event of the $5.5 billion PC- and console-gaming world had some notable thrills and spills:

LEAST-DEBATED ISSUE: The brouhaha over videogame violence led to rumors that game companies would pull their bloodiest titles from the floor. In fact, E3 was as gruesome as ever — the gore in the Dreamcast version of The House of the Dead 2 was literally gut-wrenching. There were exceptions, such as Activision’s limited-access booth for its new Soldier of Fortune game, but the cancellation of an online-ethics panel after two speakers dropped out suggested that the topic itself was off-limits.

BEST GAME: An overabundance of sequels and genre-conforming yawners jammed the floor, but slam dunks included Blizzard’s Diablo II (PC), a hellacious melee with mystical bad guys; the urban-Asian adventure Shenmue (Sega Dreamcast); and Lucas-Arts’ Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (PC). Top honors, though, go to Um Jammer Lammy (Sony PlayStation), a follow-up to the surreal hit Parappa the Rapper that substitutes the original’s main character with an electric-guitar-strumming lamb for an even trippier interactive music experience.

BEST GOD GAME: SimCity creator Will Wright’s newest, The Sims, puts the everyday lives of a neighborhood full of people at your command. Help a freewheeling bachelor score chicks at a nude hot-tub party in one house, but don’t forget the family of four across the street, who’ll burn their place down unless you give them cooking skills. As in life, there is no obvious objective — just a learning curve to happiness. Characters die if you aren’t careful, which gets spooky when you upload pictures of your relatives and create, in essence, a voodoo-doll family. As Wright says, ”After playing this game, you go home and feel weird.”

BEST GADGET: Destined to bring out your inner nerd, Intel Play QX3 Computer Microscope gives kids of all ages the ability to display images up to 200x magnification and edit them on your PC. The funky-looking ‘scope looks like an iMac-style version of the one you used in high school biology and doubles as a digital camera. You can also make time-lapse movies of slow-moving wonders: say, a flower blooming, or the line to see Star Wars: Episode I

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