[Microsoft's E3 press conference was heavy on explosions, spectacle, and a focus on Kinect -- Gamasutra brings you all the announcements and key issues from inside the event.]
Microsoft kicked off its Xbox 360 conference with a look at a third-party game, albeit a big one. A rich gameplay demo that took soldiers from the sea to a breathtaking city battle was introduced by Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling and Sledgehammer Games' Glen Schofield.
"Sledgehammer Games has been honored to be working together with Infinity Ward to create Modern Warfare 3," Schofield said, clearing up some speculation on which of Activision's Call of Duty studios has been working on which.
The setting of MW3 is refreshing, in palette and scale, relative to the deserts, woodlands, or urban warfare environments generally on offer in the drama.
"The world's greatest storytellers are redefining our industry," said Microsoft's Don Mattrick. And the blockbusters kept coming, with a first look at the latest Tomb Raider game, which sees heroine Lara Croft's origin story. The 21-year-old Croft was shown trying to escape a bind and endure some fairly visually-intense injury as she tried to escape a dimly-lit grotto of dripping water, glowing flame, and the evidence of some dark ritual, skulls and bones.
Although the Tomb Raider games have always focused on the physicality of Croft, the emphasis seems to be on making the player empathize with her condition, thrusting her into wince-inducing violent impacts and threatening water sequences. Although Tomb Raider has no tagline, "Sadist's Edition" works for shorthand to be sure. It'll be unsurprising when the critical press begins to analyze Crystal Dynamics' focus on what it calls "visceral" situations for the young heroine.
EA Sports' Peter Moore appeared to stress the label's commitment to Kinect for its portfolio of games (in addition to the publisher's Sims and Hasbro Family Game Night brands), but it was BioWare's Mass Effect 3 Kinect support that received the most in-depth demonstration. The studio's Ray Muzyka demonstrated impressive voice control features during the game's key-component conversation options, speaking the dialogue lines to select them rather than using the controller.
Among its third-party peers, Ubisoft in particular knows how to do a compelling cinematic trailer. So it was for Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon -- aware, perhaps, that at an Xbox 360 conference it would stand among many gun games, the company dressed up its trailer with slow-motion bullet time and a little opera music, to admittedly visually-arresting results.
But the press conference's audience was impressed with the game's enormously elaborate weapons customization interface, which lets players invent and assemble guns from any variety of components -- and vigorously applauded the demonstration of Kinect controls with a core first person shooter.
"Today I'm proud to announce that all future titles in the Tom Clancy's franchise will leverage Kinect," said Ubisoft's Yves Guillemot. The revelation that a core FPS can work with Kinect, and that publishers will commit such games to Microsoft's gesture-controlled interface addresses a key uncertainty about Kinect and its relevance to audiences outside of those who play casual and dance games.
The company demonstrated a new, cleaner Xbox 360 interface that works entirely with Kinect and voice control, with individual menus for video, music, and games that can be accessed by speaking their names. The company asserted its commitment to add much more multimedia content to its platform -- including YouTube, a significant announcement.
And aiming to help users with discovery and ease, the company added voice-controlled Bing search to its platform, which brings up the ability to search outside of menu navigation by speaking individual terms (for example, calling up Bing and speaking "Xbox, Lego" will result in a list of all Lego games available). This latest "new Xbox experience" launches this fall.
"This is our vision for the future of television; effortless, approachable," said the company's Mark Whitten.
Microsoft Studios' Phil Spencer announced a partnership with UFC, "who recognize the power of interactive TV", demonstrating Kinect features to navigate television programming. The company saved its exclusives until afterward, kicking off with a Gears of War 3 two-player demonstration -- which has received 1 million preorders -- conducted by Cliff Bleszinski and rapper/actor Ice-T on stage.
Crytek showed a trailer for its new IP Ryse, which is set in Rome (the title will be Kinect-exclusive and Microsoft Game Studios published); and Microsoft unveiled an HD re-up of Halo called Anniversary with "fully-remastered" campaigns and co-op over Xbox Live; while Turn10 showed off a sharp-looking Forza 4.
Lionhead's Peter Molyneux took the stage to unveil Fable: Journey, the latest iteration in the franchise where the often-hyperbolic creative head said the team focused on "how can we make you feel a hundred times more involved" with the kingdom of Albion and offer players more power and control. In the demonstration, a player sat down and used his hands to fire magic spells at small goblin enemies. Microsoft also unveiled a partnership with Disney to make a faithful virtual recreation of the Disneyland theme park with Kinect.
One major surprise: Minecraft will make a Winter console debut exclusively on Xbox 360 and Kinect, a reveal that was met by audience applause. As warmly received was the long-rumored reveal of Terminal Reality's Star Wars Kinect and Double Fine's Tim Schafer's presentation of its storybook Sesame Street game, Once Upon a Monster.
This title is most certainly family-friendly, but just as Sesame Street itself has long been praised for having an ability to appeal to adults and kids alike with its charming humor, so likely will this title. It's easy to imagine it a great fit for kids and parents to play together. Schafer called the development "incredibly satisfying," particularly when he realized that when he has to leave his 3 year-old daughter at home to go work, he's making a game for her for the first time.
Interestingly, Microsoft seems to have embraced the culture that has quickly cropped up around Kinect hacks with Kinect Fun Labs, a set of user tools (live today!) that people can use to experiment with controls -- including using Kinect Me, a way to create a self-alike avatar by scanning themselves.
Tsunoda also showed finger-tracking for Kinect, where a user drew an image in multiple dimensions with the tip of his finger, a fascinating level of depth sensing and precision for the camera. The audience appeared to be impressed; the degree of playfulness and innovation using the camera resembled the sort of awe with which many experienced with the Nintendo 3DS' AR features.
The company closed with what Don Mattrick called "the dawn of a new trilogy for Xbox 360," a spectacular reveal of the next Halo title, suggesting that although the company touted its multimedia initiatives, Xbox 360 remains fundamentally relatively heavy on the explosions, spectacle and core market focus even for a platform that has historically prized that market.
Going from MW3 to beating up Lara Croft, into Ghost Recon through UFC and Gears, then closing with Halo 4 is telling. However, it's likely Microsoft has simply embraced the lesson: E3 is about the core audience and its press, which is generally less engaged with announcements outside of the AAA space (although the lean-forward enthusiasm for multiplayer dance in Harmonix's upcoming Dance Central 2 was strong).
It was a powerful showing for the company overall. Microsoft showed it can target the AAA audience much better than any of its rivals, but it also demonstrated a commitment to innovating on the Kinect platform and adding more multimedia features in the home. The demo for Kinect Fun Labs demonstrated that the company may be nicking from Nintendo territory, too, and Don Mattrick put it in plain terms, stating that the company aimed to become the best selling console worldwide.
The only wild card in Xbox 360's watertightness is the heavy investment in Kinect. Will it actually work well for those core titles the company framed as essential, and just how much do those consumers want those features?
If it's true that the rapid contraction of Nintendo's Wii and the historically weak performance of third-party and core titles on the platform were down even in part to disinterest in and fatigue of motion controls, Microsoft takes on much risk now. Do players really want to talk to Mass Effect 3 when they can just push a button?