There was a time when the Consumer Electronics Show was the absolute pinnacle of gaming's future. Anyone who was anyone in the game development world made their way to the Las Vegas Convention Center, press kits and goodies and beta builds in tow, and showed off their wares to buyers, publishers, and the press alike. One need only look at a few old videogame magazines to get a glimpse of the golden days of CES: pages after pages of exclusive show coverage, virtual nations of screenshots, and descriptions of games of all caliber. Here you'd see early glimpses of games that have become legends, forgotten obscurities, and even titles that never quite made it to store shelves. Photos reveal massive, expensive booth displays, glitzy world premieres, and a general sense that videogames have transcended the toy store prison and become both a viable market and a cultural phenomenon.
Powergrid Fitness's Kilowatt, so you can exercise and game at the same time. One of the many gizmos and gadgets at CES.
One may look at such coverage and think that they're seeing E3. And, in a sense, they'd be right. In many ways, E3 has become what CES used to be. Games simply became too big to be a part of a general electronics show. They've packed up and moved further west to Los Angeles, which was more than happy to accommodate their transcendence into a headlining act.
So what's left, then? Certainly not as much as there once was - software representation is relatively sparse at CES these days. This is a show of gadgets and gizmos and, as such, the videogame showing is mostly limited to new hardware, for better or for worse. But there are still major announcements and important showcases to be had from the important manufacturers, so let's look at what this year's CES brought for them.
Xbox - Next Time?
In fact, one of the most notable pieces of news at this year's CES was a piece of hardware that didn't make the cut - Xbox Next. At the time of the announcement that Bill Gates would present a keynote at CES 2005, it was widely rumored that a first look at the next piece of Xbox hardware would be forthcoming - especially since Gates unveiled the final look of the original Xbox at his CES keynote back in 2001.
However, this was not to be, at least not at this CES, leaving many to speculate that either Game Developers Conference or E3 will be the official unveiling of the company's next-gen hardware line. Nonetheless, references to Microsoft's games consoles weren't entirely excised from the speech - Gates referenced the apparently buoyant state of the current Xbox in his entertaining, slightly goof-heavy Conan O'Brien co-anchored keynote, mentioning an alleged 40 percent North American market share for the console in November and December, as well as eye-opening sell-through figures of 6.3 million for Xbox killer app Halo 2. He even participated in a little virtual sports car racing on on Forza Motorsport, an internally-developed Microsoft project which shows the sheer will of the company to compete in all major game genres, even in areas where Sony (with the Gran Turismo series) appears to have a massive advantage.
There were also public showings for a limited amount of Xbox titles, including networked versions of the already-released Halo 2 and LucasArts' forthcoming Star Wars: Republic Commando, at Microsoft's booth on the show floor, although some analysts commented on the Xbox display only taking up a corner of the company's massive showcase. Nonetheless, Forza's good-looking three-screen mode (in which you'll need 3 networked Xboxes and 3 TVs), with an end result looking something like the arcade version of Sega's Ferrari F355 racer, was probably the highlight of the booth for many.
Also shown behind closed doors were titles including Jade Empire, and, particularly, Doom 3, which ships for Xbox in March and has already been the subject of an enthusiastic, if early review in the final issue of Ziff Davis' XBN magazine. Vicarious Visions' port is, indeed, looking impressive, with deathmatch plus as yet unannounced extra Xbox Live functionality, as well as an intriguing-looking Xbox-exclusive co-op mode and surprisingly competitive visuals given the very high-end PC needed to run the PC original. But what wasn't being announced were major Xbox titles past mid-year, indicating, perhaps, that an increasing amount of major Microsoft development is going into games for Xbox Next.
Sony's CES press conference was also rumored to be a little more earthshaking than it eventually turned out, since it was believed that North American launch price and date would be set by Kaz Hirai at the show. This may, in fact, have been the original plan, but with Sony's PSP GPU factory not yet up to speed, and units only trickling out onto the Japanese market, in the end, only a tentative 'late March' date was announced. Hirai did confirm that, as of that date, 510,000 PSPs had been shipped to stores in Japan, but it's clear that the handheld is still tremendously difficult to get hold of, even there. Therefore some observers believe a PSP launch delay until May is in order, simply to give Sony time to build up units for North American and European debuts. Conversely, it's quite possible that the PSP could launch in March, just with the same relative paucity of units seen in its Japanese debut.
One thing that the PSP press conference made very clear, however, was that the PSP isn't just about games. Hirai showed several movie trailers running on the PSP's UMD discs, and also brought rapper and Pimp My Ride star Xzibit out on stage to show how easy it was to transfer songs from a Sony PC to the PSP. Multi-function gaming devices are increasingly attractive, if not always well-realized, but in order to truly take off, it's clear that Sony want the PSP to at least appear to be everything to everyone.
On the other hand, the range and originality of PSP games was something that Hirai also tried to stress in the press conference. Although some currently have the impression that a great deal of PSP launch games are slightly streamlined PlayStation 2 conversions, he pointed out that there a number of original titles in development in the near and far future, and that many of the well-known names appearing on PSP (Tony Hawk, Wipeout, and so on) are more 'franchise extensions' to PSP than straight conversions. There's a fine line between the two, but the real point is probably this - it doesn't hurt to have 3D portable versions of titles which exhibited great gameplay to start with.
As for the range and breadth of titles being shown, the video montage shown during the PSP press conference featured the following titles: Ape Escape P!, ATV Offroad Fury, Coded Arms, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower, Dynasty Warriors, Hot Shots Golf, Mercury, Metal Gear Acid, NBA ShootOut 2005, Tony Hawk's Underground 2, Twisted Metal World Tour, and WipeOut Pure. Many of these titles were then available for playable demonstration following the press conference, and there are, likely, too many to cover in detail here. But it's obvious that Sony has a multitude of good-looking, functional games for the PSP's launch window and beyond, and, depending on price and availability, have an extremely competitive handheld.
As for the public face of Sony's handheld at CES, PlayStation Portable had a small showing, buried deep inside Sony's booth. The unit sat, behind glass, playing a looped movie involving bright colors and flowers. The games themselves were not particularly visible on the show floor, though, showing that CES has morphed somewhat for the major console manufacturers, from a place where it was important to be seen, to a place where it's important to make announcements and show your products to a select band of individuals.
Giz Us Gizmondo
In contrast, Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo, for example, had a strong showing this year. Strong, that is, if strength can be measured by booth size. The Gizmondo had its American premiere at the last CES, back when it was called the Gametrac and had absolutely no software announced. Tiger's gotten their act together now, and have already apparently launched the portable in Europe. They've even gone as far as to hire "booth babes" for the show, and set up a break dance floor next to the booth.
The Gizmondo is a portable gaming device that, much like the N-Gage and the Zodiac and other portables who have struggled to grab a market share, is packed with all sorts of extra features that don't have much to do with gaming. There is a functional digital camera, for example, though "functional" is about the extent of its capabilities. The Gizmondo can also play movies and music via SD memory cards. The most surprising and note-worthy inclusion here, however, is an embedded Global Positioning System, which allows one to… well, see exactly where they are at any given time. Useful for driving, we suppose, though we're told that future games will somehow incorporate this feature into play.
The only example we were revealed is packed into a gang war simulation called Colors. Apparently - and this wasn't functional at the time of the show - Colors features a separate 2D minigame in which players can "own" real territory in their area. Details were sketchy, but we're told that players can hire both NPCs and real people to defend their turf from rivals who wish to take it for themselves. This, of course, depends on separate players owning their own Gizmondo, a copy of Colors, and the willingness to play. When asked if this feature had any use without these outside factors, the answer was an honest "no."
There is also a single-player mode to Colors, which takes place in its own fictional 3D world. In the early build we played, the game offered a choice of three or four very similar early 90s "gangsta" movie-type players which were used to roam around a vast, lonely 3D city looking for something to do. We spotted an extremely low-polygon car parked near a streetlamp, though efforts to interact with it proved fruitless. A few buildings had doors as well, though upon further inspection, these were just flat sprites. Occasionally a hostile gang member would step out of nowhere, initiating a fight.
Fights involve targeting the opposition and pressing the "fire" button repeatedly. Targeting is fairly intuitive, as enemies stand still until they are dead. Players can strafe to avoid gunshots, though they can't fire unless they're standing still, so getting shot up a bit is probably unavoidable. When your rival is defeated, after pumping nine-or-so bullets into his body, he falls to the ground. There is no reward for killing rival gang members, other than the inalienable right of not having bullets sprayed into your body.
We were eventually shown a short preview of a later build of Colors, though not much had changed. There was a stereotypical pimp - cane, hat, and all - standing on a street corner, who requested a vague protection service from the player. When asked a yes or no question by the pimp, the player's possible replies are "Yo was up!" and "Naw dog."
Other games on display included Stuntcar Extreme, a racing game with questionable collision detection and a track that stops rendering itself when you fall off the side. This game was a part of Europe's launch, so we're left to assume this is near-final code. There was also Angel Fish, a vertical shooter with somewhat pedestrian enemy patterns that repeat indefinitely throughout its three levels. This, also, was a part of the European launch, along with Super Drop Mania, a standard but well-meaning puzzle game courtesy of Fathammer.
DISCovering DISCover, Finding Phantom
DISCover's PC/console hybrid technology returned to CES in the form of a small corner booth in the South Hall. Last year, DISCover and Apex went all out to push their upcoming joint effort, the ApeXtreme, including a flashy press conference in a rather swank little Italian restaurant across the street from the convention center. This year, their presence was limited to exactly two televisions hooked up to the bulkier and more unsightly Alienware models in a completely abandoned booth. When asked, an Apex marketing representative said that the ApeXtreme was "undergoing revisions" and "will not appear on the show floor." In fact, according to recent news stories, legal and logistical problems may mean the Apex version of the console might not appear at all, but we'll have to wait and see.
The mysterious Phantom makes another appearance.
Infinium Labs also made a return to CES though, unlike last year, the Phantom was actually functional and hooked into a monitor. Nothing much has changed since E3. The Phantom carries all of the same features as before, though we're told the final production model will be a bit more streamlined than that which was displayed. We were given a release date of "third quarter 2005," which brings the trade show release date count up to three. Perhaps Infinium is just about due for a charm?
Other than a number of mobile-related game items, and a neat little surround-sound chair designed for game playing alongside a number of hardware peripheral manufacturers showcasing their wares at CES, there wasn't a multitude of items for a games journalist to look at. Despite early press releases to the contrary, and little crudely-drawn game controllers adorning most of the official CES signs around the halls, this simply was not a videogame show. It may never be again.
But all in all, the gaming presence was significantly stronger this year than last, though that's really not saying much at all. Much of what was there was either hidden or limited to events outside of the show floor, such as the Game Power Showcase and Forum, a one-day event held before the CES show floor was even opened, which apparently drew record crowds for a pre-show event.
Showing the somewhat evolving status of CES, there was even an appearance by the shyest of major console manufacturers - Nintendo made a small appearance on the show floor with its bus, revealing the current status of the new StarFox title for GameCube, other titles such as Wario Ware Inc. for DS and Resident Evil 4 for GameCube, and… for now, not much else, since its major hardware announcement of recent is the DS, and it's clearly saving its major console announcements for later in the year.
this is the beginning. Perhaps games are on their way back home
to Vegas. But for now, we're going to have to give a Colors-inspired
"naw, dog" and start packing for GDC and E3.
Additional contributions to this report were made by Simon Carless.