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E3 2009: my highlights

E3 2009: my highlights

Now that I’ve had chance to digest what happened at this year’s E3, I thought I’d share my thoughts and feelings about what is (once more) the games industry’s biggest and bestest games conference. Let’s start with the games.

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The Last Guardian was unveiled officially at Sony’s press conference. It’s probably been the games industry’s worst-kept secret over the past 18 months or so – anyone even slightly connected with the industry has known of its existence albeit under the moniker of Project Trico. Still, it’s great that it’s finally out there and we can talk about it openly, and what Sony showed was simply stunning. Fans of Ico and Colossus will no doubt go mental for the trailer, but I think even cynics couldn’t help but be blown away by the sheer magnitude of the game world and exquisite art style on show.

Finally, and I emphasise the word ‘finally’, Microsoft was able to say that Metal Gear Solid was coming to Xbox 360 and boy did those guys look smug about it. Well, for about 72 hours, that is. In this world of exclusives, the announcement of Rising on 360 was another weird twist to the phenomenon. 72 hours later, it was confirmed that Rising would be coming to Ps3 as well; Microsoft, it appears, had a 72-hour announcement exclusivity! The game’s subtitle suggests that it won’t be an MGS game in the style of, well, all other MGS games but will be Lightning Bolt Action. So that’ll be Raiden starring in some kind of Devil May Cry/Ninja Gaiden clone.

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It’s an interesting tactic – showcase multi-platform titles on your console – and might suggest that that console is best suited for playing that game. Microsoft also did it with The Beatles Rock Band and Modern Warfare 2 and, I have to admit, there’s a certain kudos to having the world first gameplay demo of Modern Warfare 2 at your conference.

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When the guys popped up on the Sony stage with ModNation Racers and started spouting off about the ‘play, create, share’ genre, I was immediately cynical. And then they gave a sweet presentation of their game and how easy to use its creation tools are. Fantastic results in just a short amount of time; it was actually pretty great. There’s no way that it’ll compare to LittleBigPlanet in terms of creative options, but it does demonstrate how the ‘play, create, share’ style can be transferred to another genre of game. Now just do this for a Call Of Duty game and you’ve got yourselves a real winner.

I was hugely impressed with the Uncharted 2 demo – this is now officially my most wanted game of this year. I personally think that the game is going to be a lesson to other developers on how to blend game, character and story in the medium of videogames. It’ll probably be an amazing game too.

I was surprised to hear dissenting voices at the God Of War III demo – I thought this was incredible. Complaints seemed to mostly be that it was God Of War. I’ve never understood this attitude towards sequels – of course it’s going to be like the last game! I realise that peoples’ expectations go up when a franchise moves to a new generation of hardware, but God Of War‘s gameplay was never built around technology – it always about story and setting, the attitude of the central character, ultra violence and epic settings. And in terms of these I can only see III becoming even more epic on PS3. Who isn’t impressed by that scene with Kratos battling demons on the back of a titan while the titan is scaling Mount Olympus?

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PSPgo was good but I’m left feeling that it’s a missed opportunity. Here Sony could have really raised the stakes with handheld gaming by really relaunching the PSP. I would have liked to see more internal memory (at least 32GB), a second analogue ‘nub’, a built-in camera and an OLED touch screen. Too much? I don’t think so – these few additions may have made the PSPgo more expensive, but would open up a world of possibilities for game and application development on the PSP and enabled it to take on the DSi and iPhone directly. I still think that PSPgo will be a great product and the support that Sony and third parties are showing it is great too – I just feel like it could have been so much better.

I shuddered when the demo for the PS3 motion controller began. After seeing the ambition and technology behind Microsoft’s Project Natal, and Nintendo’s Wii Motion Plus for that matter, I thought that I was about to see Sony embarrass itself with a hopelessly out-of-date product. About halfway through I stopped worrying and started marvelling at its potential gaming possibilities. The accuracy of the thing is what really excites. It looks like it sits somewhere between Natal and Motion Plus, using both a camera and sensor to track an object in 3D space, and seems to have the drop on both. More accuracy than the Motion Plus and additional inputs (ie: buttons and a trigger) for more varied gameplay experiences than the Natal. The best of both worlds if you like.

Without other input devices (such as buttons on a controller) I can only see Natal heading one way – down the casual games route; you won’t be able to control complex games by simply moving your hands and body. Of course, Microsoft’s goal with Natal is to take away the ‘barrier’ of the controller so I suspect that this is how things will play out. Games that will require a controller along with Natal hardly live up to Microsoft’s idea for it – to break into the older, more casual gamer market. Molyneux’s Milo demo was intriguing but left too many questions unanswered – like if it works how you say it works, why didn’t you demo it live? As a gamer (and a journo) I’ve been suckered in by Molyneux’s ambitions before… and severely let down. So, while I can’t wait to have real conversations with game characters, I don’t think that this generation of technology or software will allow it.

The Motion Plus is a real thing – it exists in a non-prototype form – and I’ll be able to buy one shortly with real games so technically the Motion Plus is the ‘winner’. But the potential of the other two systems seems greater; we’ll have to wait and see how Nintendo responds.

So E3 2009: a huge success. There’s plenty of other stuff that happened over that week, but these are the things that linger in my brain. There were some fantastic games showcased, although next March looks like when we’ll get to play most of them, and each company’s showcasing of new motion hardware shows that competition and, more importantly, innovation is alive and well in the games industry. And that it what I’ll take from this year’s E3 – more than any other of the past few years – that the industry is not only alive and well, but is the best it’s ever been.