E3 2011 “Big 3” Press Conferences

Microsoft

Microsoft opened E3 this year and blindsided attendees — digital and otherwise — and not in a good way, either. The pomp and circumstance of past years’ high-energy opening montages was replaced with a sudden, introduction-less demonstration of a game which soon proved to be the highly-anticipated Modern Warfare 3. Thus began a sloppy, often insipid presentation that had no unity or flow and left me rather unenthusiastic about the coming year in gaming on the Xbox 360.

All the usual suspects were present: another Call of Duty, another Gears of War (complete with ebullient-as-ever Cliff Bleszinski at the helm), another year of franchise sports games, another super-realistic racing game. But the energy really never arrived. Perhaps that’s because I’m a gamer, first and foremost, and what I love is well-crafted interactive stories experienced from a primarily sedentary position. I predicted no middle ground, and indeed, there was none: Microsoft said a whole lot of nothing.What Microsoft offered instead, for the most part, was a slew of games that require you to get off the couch and flail, most of which concentrate so much on the control mechanics of still-nascent Kinect technology that they seem to have forgotten the necessary factors of good game-making: plot, interesting characters, exciting environments.

The idea of being able to wield a lightsaber, for example, is fool-proof enough to pique the interest of even a non-fan like me — but as I yawned through the Kinect Star Wars demonstration, I couldn’t help but notice that that was it: lightsaber wielding in a bland, characterless environment. Fun for five minutes, maybe, but certainly not worth the time or money one typically invests into a new game.

On the other side of the Kinect coin is the precise issue I raised last year with Sony’s Tiger Woods demo, which is that ultra-realism in sports games shouldn’t be a goal for video game makers. The more realistic your golf swing can be, the more realistic it will need to be for you to do well; eventually, only real golfers will have fun with golf games, and they’ll be too busy playing real golf to care. I sense a serious risk that in pursuing this level of “interactivity” with the Kinect, Microsoft (and game companies in general) will alienate their core audience: gamers.

Over the weekend I predicted one of two possible outcomes for Microsoft: they’d stick with what we already knew was coming and bore us to death, or they’d pull out something shocking and generate tremendous buzz. I saw no middle ground, and indeed, there was none: Microsoft said a whole lot of nothing, and not even Halo 4 could resuscitate the flatliner that was this presser.

Sony

Jack Tretton began the conference the way he more or less had to: with an apology surprisingly devoid of the cynicism and vitriol that tends to drip from Sony executives’ words; one might even call it heartfelt, which is all the more impressive when one considers that the intrusions on the PlayStation Network have hardly been Sony’s fault.

Actions speak louder than words, however, and Sony’s best thank-you to its fans came in the form of the flood of incredible titles in the PlayStation canon set for release in the coming year and a half. Sony’s two prize horses, Naughty Dog and Insomniac, dominated the first half of the show with the third entry in each company’s respective stables used as a platform for advertising Sony’s latest attempt to try to make bulky, expensive glasses look chic. Yet it was the surprise return of my PS2 trifecta favorite, Sly Cooper, that most excited me, both on principle and the stunningly updated look featured in the teaser. This after inFamous 2, Dust 514 (a new FPS branch to the staggering EVE universe) along with a BioShock Infinite gameplay trailer, a Star Trek game, and a slew of PS3 exclusive perks solidified Sony’s position as the day’s clear victor in the console battle for E3 dominance; yet Sony was just getting started.

Looking ahead, Sony seems poised to take the lead after years of lagging behind the other two heavyweights of the gaming industry.PlayStation Vita (almost immediately rebranded “PSV”) wasn’t much of a surprise, but its quality was; even with the lack of a direct video feed — limited instead to an over-the-shoulder shot of a person playing onstage — the difference between Vita and its predecessor was incredibly clear. The presence of Drake and BioShock titles, in addition to home-brewed titles like Ruin and ModNation, got me genuinely excited, something the $300 price tag (for 3G models) hardly dampered — though as the general groaning across the theater suggests, I can’t say the same about the announcement of AT&T exclusivity. A proud owner of an iPhone and a member of the AT&T network myself, I must still question the decision to saddle developing technology with a single provider, particularly one with such a history of upsetting geeks as this. Time will tell if that decision hinders sales of the shiny new tech this holiday season when it launches.

Though I’m still crossing my fingers that all this motion-controlling, eye-popping nonsense will pass the way it did in the 80s, I’ll admit I was impressed by Sony’s 3D display, with its capacity to give two players, appropriately seated, entirely different views on the same television screen. As for Move, Sony’s gamble paid off: if it thought having Ken Levine stand on stage and say he was on-board would convince fence-sitters to accept the motion controller, it was right. Levine’s decision to also develop a portable BioShock game for Sony was almost dumbfounding.

Looking ahead, Sony seems poised to take the lead after years of lagging behind the other two heavyweights of the gaming industry. Though services like PlayStation Suite, and safeguards against future attacks on PSN, were only vaguely mentioned, Sony projected great confidence and energy about the near future of their company and the network it fosters. Early on, Tretton made an appeal to gamers who, like me, had once been a part of the PlayStation family and had since left, hoping that this year’s presentation would convince us that it was time to return. With a new Sly Cooper on the horizon, HD rendering of all the classic Sony games I never played, and an endorsement from Mr. Rapture himself, I might actually have been won over.

I’m interested to know what others — Sony prodigals like myself, in particular — have to say about last night. Did Sony impress you, or was the absence of Twisted Metal, God of War, and Square-Enix (neither Final Fantasy nor the long-hoped-for Kingdom Hearts 3 made an appearance) enough to leave a poor taste in your mouth?

Either way, the ball is now in Nintendo’s court. Can the Big N wrest dominance from Tretton’s hands, repeating the thrilling experience that was last year’s presentation?

We’re about to find out.

Nintendo

The professionalism, charm, and polish of Nintendo’s press conference this year were apparent from the moment the lights dimmed, as we were treated to an orchestral and video montage of Link’s quarter-century heritage. Nintendo wasted no time reminding us of the memories it has been responsible for creating, and thanking us for the symbiotic relationship that has let the company thrive even over the last few years of lackluster “hardcore offerings.”

Last year’s big news was the 3DS, a handheld sendoff to pesky red & blue glasses which gained a tremendous amount of attention for its efficacy at providing a deep visual experience and a slew of big-name titles prepared to support that depth. Today Reggie Fils-Aime picked up where 2010 left off, showcasing gameplay trailers for new and already announced titles alike, enthusiastically (if not convincingly) touting Mario Kart as a never-before-seen experience, shedding new light on Kid Icarus: Uprising‘s story, and revealing a sequel to the cult hit Luigi’s Mansion which looks perfectly at home in the small, 3D format.

Finally, Project Cafe received an actual name: Wii U. But what precisely is the new device?Finally, Project Cafe received an actual name: Wii U. But what precisely is the new device? A console, a controller, an interactive iPad? As impressive as the technology seems to be, Nintendo was surprisingly vague about what Wii U actually is; if one’s only source of information were the presentation itself, one might be led to believe that Wii U was simply a new touch-screen controller. Only with some digging did an image of the new console itself, to which the innovative controller is tethered, surface — one image but no statistics, pricing, or release date.

Still, the high-definition graphical capacity (welcome to the party) and a mind-blowing list of third-party endorsers (including Peter Moore, Ken Levine, and Warren Spector) are enough to dismiss any lingering doubts of Nintendo’s commitment to staying relevant in the gaming industry for another 25 years. Nintendo may have come from behind, but it definitely just took the lead.

For those so-inclined, I also covered Ubisoft and EA‘s press conferences last year on my personal blog.

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