E3 Notebook: Let the Games Begin

As the video-game sector's annual gathering gets under way, hype seems to be in abundant supply.
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Editor's Note: Senior writer Troy Wolverton is in Los Angeles to attend the Electronic Entertainment Exposition -- better known as E3 -- which is the video-game industry's giant annual gathering. He's filing occasional dispatches on the sights and sounds of the show.

LOS ANGELES -- After all the excitement of last year's event -- when


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each gave gamers a peek at their next-generation machines -- you had to expect a letdown this year.

I should have sensed trouble when Kaz Hirai, president of Sony's PlayStation division in the U.S., waited nearly two hours into the company's Monday night presentation to give the details that everyone wanted to know -- when the PlayStation 3 will be launched, how much it will cost and how many Sony will ship. Let me tell you, two hours has rarely passed so slowly in my life.

It wasn't just that Hirai waited until the end to get to the point of the press event. It was that everything in between wasn't terribly compelling. Most of the game footage Sony showed was from demos at best. Few of the games generated much excitement. And the company had little to show off in the way of certain blockbuster titles.

Instead of real, playable games, the company mainly showed a succession of videos of footage from various games, each one seeming more mind-numbingly violent than the next. Hey, I'm all for blowing stuff up from time to time -- in the game world, of course -- but when something like 80% of the games being shown involve some kind of extreme violence and mayhem, it gets a little monotonous.

To be fair, the company did show off a couple of innovations that seemed to stir the gathered crowd a bit. One was the promise of being able to link the company's PlayStation Portable to the PlayStation 3 to supplement games on the new console as a second display for it.

For instance, the company showed how gamers could use the PSP with its upcoming Formula One racing game as a side mirror to see what's going on behind them while the action in front unfolds on their main television screens.

The company also announced that its new controller will employ motion sensors so that users will be able fly virtual planes or presumably drive virtual cars simply by tilting the controller one way or another. As someone who finds it nearly impossible to play a racing game using the miniscule button on standard game controllers, I find the idea of having an easier and more intuitive controller a great one.

But even there, Sony's effort was somewhat disappointing. The company's controller is clearly an effort to duplicate a similar feature built into the controllers for Nintendo's upcoming Wii game system.

Speaking of Nintendo, the company's presentation on Tuesday was a disappointment in a more straightforward way than Sony's: It announced almost nothing of substance. Unlike Sony's Hirai, Reggie Fils-Aime, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo's American division, warned early on at his company's event that he wouldn't be giving any similar details on the Wii's launch.

I think many of us stuck around, figuring that he'd have to announce something noteworthy. Unfortunately, he really didn't.

Oh, sure, Nintendo announced there will be a new


game that will be available at the launch of its Wii console. And unlike Sony, Nintendo showed off several real, playable games and promised that visitors to its booth at E3 would find 27 different games available to play on the Wii.

But as with Sony, even those highlights weren't all that bright. Nintendo's been promising -- and failing to deliver -- a new


for several years now, so gamers will likely believe it only when they see it. And Fils-Aime declined to say how many of the games playable at E3 will actually be available on store shelves when the Wii launches sometime this fall.

With Microsoft having launched its own next-generation game system last fall, little in the way of news was expected out of the company's press event on Tuesday. But it made a big splash by announcing a partnership with

Take-Two Interactive

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that will bring the next iteration of Take-Two's flagship

Grand Theft Auto

franchise to the Xbox 360 on the day the game launches. Take-Two has released previous iterations of

Grand Theft Auto

for the Xbox months or years after it released them for Sony's PlayStation 2.

But Microsoft made the deal seem a lot bigger than it really was.

Unspoken, but heavily implied by Peter Moore, the company's corporate vice president in charge of its games effort, was that Microsoft had some kind of exclusive on

Grand Theft Auto

, i.e. that


would come out on the Xbox 360 before it came out on the PlayStation 3 -- or any other console.

Indeed, a Microsoft press representative told me after the media event that because the Xbox 360 would be the only next-generation console on the market at the time

Grand Theft Auto IV

launches in October 2007, it would be the only next-generation console to have the title.

Moreover, Moore seemed to be emphasizing the notion of a special agreement. As part of their deal, Take-Two will release "exclusive episodic content" for the Xbox 360 via Microsoft's Xbox Live online service. Again, the implication -- backed up explicitly by the company's press representative afterward -- was not only that Microsoft would be getting content for the Xbox 360 that gamers won't find anywhere else, but that it would be getting

Grand Theft Auto

add-ons that gamers won't be able to get on the PlayStation 3.

Well, not so fast.

At least according to Take-Two -- whom you would presume would know these things -- Microsoft is not getting any kind of exclusive on anything. According to Take-Two spokesman Jim Ankner, the game publisher will release

Grand Theft Auto IV

for the PlayStation 3 on the same day that it releases it for the Xbox 360. Not only that, but Take-Two has pointedly not disclosed what kind of "episodic content" it will be releasing, and whatever it is, the company has not agreed to make any of that add-on content exclusive to the Xbox 360, according to Ankner.

In other words, the add-ons may or may not be for

Grand Theft Auto IV

, and when they come out, they likely will be available for the PlayStation 3 as well.

To be fair, when I noted that Sony's PlayStation 3 is coming out this year -- a full year before

Grand Theft Auto IV

is coming out -- Microsoft's press representative backed off his assertion that the company is getting a next-generation exclusive on its release.

Still, leave it to Microsoft to disappoint gamers when it had such a low bar to meet.

You'd think that each company would want to play to its strengths. But one more aspect of the disappointing nature of the events so far was that each company in its own way showed off the shortcomings of its game system.

Sony's PlayStation 3 is all about amazing graphics and speed, thanks to its cell processor and top-of-the line video card from


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. The system allows for near photorealistic graphics and the display of thousands of intelligent objects on a screen at any one time.

Last year, the company in its presentations showed off the machine's power to dramatic effect with scenes from under the ocean with thousands of fish or the ability to show thousands of video feeds on the screen at once.

This year Sony gave special place in its presentation to ...


, a karaoke game that's seen modest success in Europe. Needless to say, the game did little to show off the PlayStation 3's high-end graphics. Nor is the game likely to appeal much to the hard-core gamers who will have to shell out $500 or $600 to get a PlayStation 3 when it launches this fall.

But Sony wasn't the only company playing to its weaknesses. Nintendo has made a big point of trying to distinguish the Wii from the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 by emphasizing that there's more to games than just graphics. The point, it says, is not how the games look, but how fun they are to play.

That's all well and good if you can emphasize fun games, which Nintendo did to some degree, showing off cartoonish sports games that looked fun even if they weren't exactly photorealistic.

But then the company showed off

Red Steel

, an upcoming action game from Ubisoft. Players get to fight gangs using guns and swords in a graphical environment that looks like something dated to the first generation of PlayStation 2 games six years ago. This is a game that would look awesome on the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360, taking advantage of their superior graphics. Instead, it looked pixilated and rough on the Nintendo Wii. Stick with the fun stuff, Nintendo.

That's what Microsoft tried to show off with its

Viva Pinata

game, an upcoming title from its Rare studios. This looks like a rare miss to me. The goal of the game is to grow and develop an ecosystem of living pinatas, even to encourage them to mate by taking them through elaborate dancing rituals. The point for Microsoft is to try to appeal beyond the core gamer audience to more mainstream consumers. Somehow, I think it's going to take more than this.