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On the ground at this year's E3

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Greetings from sunny Santa Monica, site of this year’s E3 Media and Business Summit.  E3, of course, is the annual event at which the videogame industry — publishers, developers, and media types — gather to show off their soon-to-be-released wares.  It is, as guest presenter Jamie Kennedy pointed out at a press briefing earlier today, the only convention that can make the sorry souls who go to Comic-Con look like the cast of Ocean’s 13.  (No one — I mean no one — in the audience laughed at this attempt at ice-breaking humor. I may have heard someone cough. Game professionals can make for a tough and mirthless room.) 

Up until 2006, E3s were large events held in early May. Crowds of more than 60,000 would descend on LA’s Staple Center, where they could wander around acres of strobing super-large-screen TVs and booming sound systems — a mind-softening journey in sensory overload that called to mind Malcolm McDowell’s rehabilitation scene in A Clockwork Orange. After last year’s show, the game companies decided that 200-foot TV monitors and PA systems capable of sterilizing cows was probably not the most effective use of their hard-earned dollars.  So the show was turned into a more modest event (some industry wags called it Min-E3 — see what I mean about mirthless?) and pushed back a few months. 

So here I am in Santa Monica (named, I am told, after one Saint Monica of Hippo), joining roughly 3,000 other attendees at the newly svelte (and sassy!) three-day conference.  What follows will be the first of perhaps two dispatches — my immediate impressions as an invited journalist. Owing to the late hour (and several large Cokes), this will be done in a loose, casual style.  And in keeping with the proud tradition of my solemn laptop-computer-bag-toting brethren, I will be tough. And mirthless.  I’ll start with the press briefings hosted by the three console manufacturers: Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony.  These briefings — lasting from one to two hours — kick off E3 and are presented by high-ranking executives.

MICROSOFT
•  The press briefing was held Tuesday night in the amphitheater of Santa Monica High School.  (I know what you’re thinking, ’cause I thought the same thing too: What kind of high school has an amphitheater? And here I thought my high school was special because we had a wood-burning kiln.)
•  As would be expected, there was a lot of talk about Halo 3, due in stores Sept. 25. We saw a short promotional clip for the game, directed by Neil Blomkamp, the talented South African who was supposed to direct the Halo movie that Peter Jackson was gonna produce.
• To give a brief demo of Madden NFL 08, they brought out New Orleans Saint (and Heismann Trophy-winning) running back Reggie Bush. He was greeted by what can be charitably called a smattering of applause.  There wasn’t even the kind of polite ovation he — a genuine NFL star in the making — was owed for merely gracing us with his presence.  That said, the audience was equally cool and indifferent to the many attempts by execs from all three companies to muster some enthusiasm for their products.
• Upcoming Xbox 360 game(s) I’m most excited to play: Halo 3 (even though I am laughably bad at it), Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat (the brief scene that had a British sniper team crawling through a combat zone swarming with bad guys left me with sweaty palms), and Assasin’s Creed (love the cool and creepy look of old Jerusalem).

NINTENDO
•  Held at the Santa Monica Civic Center on Wednesday morning.
•  Their big announcement was the game Wii Fit.  It will incorporate a new accessory, tentatively called the Balance Board, which is a plastic platform, roughly the size of a folded newspaper, in which are embedded various weight sensors and accelerometers.  Players to stand on the board and move according to the game’s directions.  In one mini-game, players were supposed to head soccer balls kicked in their direction — merely shifting your weight on the board sent enough info to the Wii console to mimic your character’s head making contact with the ball. I can’t explain it, but the technology seemed to work.  Other mini-games in Wii Fit involved balancing and step excercises.  Me, I can’t wait until they use the Balance Board in a surfing or skateboarding game.  Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary designer whose upcoming Super Mario Galaxy is supposed to reverse a string of mediocre-to-bad Wii games, said he was most excited about Wii Fit
•  Another accessory was unveiled. One is the Wii Zapper — set to retail for $19.99 — which puts the Wii remote and Nunchuck into a pistol-grip housing perfectly suited for upcoming shooting games like Ghost Squad and Medal of Honor
•  Madden NFL 08 and FIFA Soccer 08 — both for the Wii — will offer online play.
• And they announced a street date for Super Smash Brothers Brawl: Dec. 3.
• Upcoming Wii game(s) I’m most excited to play: Metroid Prime: Coruption and Super Mario Bros. Galaxy

SONY
• Held in a soundstage at Sony Studios at Culver City on Wednesday morning. What’s strange is that, having gone to four events at the studio, I have yet to see a movie being shot there.
•  The two big games were for the PS3 were Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (for which they brought out game designer Hideo Kojima, who said this would be the last chapter in the franchise) and Killzone 2 (they showed some remarkable scenes, which Sony claimed was in-game footage — it looked pretty good to me)
•  They showcased some nice looking games that will be downloadable on the Playstation Network — easily my favorite was echochrome, an elegantly simple title in which players must navigate a human figure through some M.C. Escher-esque drawings.  Trippy and amazing.
• A new PSP — 33 percent lighter, almost 20 percent slimmer, and with better battery performance and faster load times — will be in stores this September.  Be prepared to shell out $200 for one of them.
• Upcoming PS3 game(s) I’m most excited to play: Metal Gear Solid 4, Heavenly Sword (think Tomb Raider meets God of War), and Killzone 2 (in fact, I’m one of three people who actually liked the first installment for the PSone)

So that’s it for news from the big boys, fellow gamers.  (Well, as filtered through my indelicate and biased sensibilities.)   But let’s hear from you.  Is there a question about E3 or a particular title or piece of hardware you’d like me to ask about? 

 

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