Video Gamers Drool Over New War Games, Movie Tie-Ins, Handhelds

Sony, Nokia aim to unseat Nintendo's Game Boy with new portables.

LOS ANGELES — If you think all trade conventions consist of boring demonstrations given by middle-aged middle managers, you're probably not working in the video game industry, and you've definitely never been to E³, the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

The annual E³ conference, which began Tuesday and ended Friday (May 16), is the place to see what will be on the screens of gamers everywhere in the not-so-distant future. Until that day, those highly anticipated titles will be all any avid gamer will be talking about, thanks to a promotional price tag estimated to be well into the tens of millions. After all, hiring an Army Airborne division to repel from a Black Hawk helicopter in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center doesn't come cheap.

Nor do video monitors the size of movie screens showing demos of upcoming titles; makeshift catered lounge areas to shame some studio apartments; models dressed as Lara Croft and other fantastically beautiful creatures walking the floor and attracting as many gazes as the games they were promoting; and sound systems booming with gunfire, revving race-car engines, explosions and cinematic in-game scenarios.

Such sensory overload welcomed attendees Wednesday morning, the opening day of E³'s exhibition hall. The helicopter stunt was to promote new add-ons for "America's Army," an online game designed and developed by the Army and released last year. Throughout the conference, the same plot of cement at the convention center's entrance was the place for a show-and-tell of light armored vehicles, Humvees, and rocket launchers.

War games are popular for obvious reasons, and the new breed is more realistic than ever. From "Full Spectrum Warrior," a consumer version of an strategic simulation used by the Army, to "Call of Duty" and "Operation Desert Storm 2: Back to Baghdad," tomorrow's couch commando is fully prepared to infiltrate and take out the enemy, while enjoying the luxury of being able to reset the game should they catch a bullet in the mug.

Sports games also move ever closer to the real thing each year, with EA Sports' "Madden 2004" leading the pack of gridiron games and "Tony Hawk Underground" taking extreme sports to ... well, the extreme, with more expansive playing fields and the ability to get off the board to climb atop objects and then trick off of them.

As video games continue to be as lucrative as they are popular, financially out-grossing the music and film industries, celebrity figures are showing up in them with increasing frequency.

Hard rockers Cold contributed the theme song to the third-person spy thriller "ESPionage," and Vanessa Carlton wrote and recorded a song for "Spy Hunter 2" (see "Video Gamers Can Drive A Thousand Miles With Vanessa Carlton"), while Eve lent her voice the animated "XIII." But games with a movie or television tie-in are the ones that reel in the big fish.

ABC's "Alias" will spawn its first game this fall thanks to Acclaim, and the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" game gets revamped in its second incarnation, "Chaos Bleeds," which features voiceovers from key characters and a plot line that ties into episodes of the show.

Perhaps the most timely television game shown was "American Idol," due this fall. Players control the characters' dance moves, and the more rhythmic the moves, the more in key the songs are then performed. Contestants can groove to 40 hits, including songs by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and 'NSYNC, all in the face of celebrity judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

Trademark one-liners like "I'll be back" can be heard in Atari's "T3: Rise of the Machines," due this fall. Though there have been several games inspired by the futuristic film series, this is the first to get Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement.

Games based on blockbuster movies, such as "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," "Charlie's Angels," "Starsky & Hutch" and "The Fast and the Furious," are likely to dominate holiday wish lists. And while the "Enter the Matrix" game was released simultaneously with the film on Thursday, Neo-philes will have to wait until next year for the Internet-based "The Matrix Online."

High-profile sequels were the talk of the town, including "Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness," "Max Payne 2," "Doom 3," "Halo 2" and new chapters in the "Star Wars," "Final Fantasy" and "Metal Gear Solid" sagas.

Gadgets, too, populated the showroom floors. From the most realistic steering wheels for driving games to a laser gun with pinpoint accuracy, the latest accessories were almost as impressive as the games they accompany.

Gamers haven't been tied to their television sets since Nintendo introduced its Game Boy in 1989, and while other companies have tried to usurp Nintendo's handheld grip, never before has the threat been so real. Nokia and Sony announced plans for new handheld entertainment platforms to rival Nintendo's Game Boy Advance.

Nokia's N-Gage, priced at $299 and set for an October 7 release, allows for Web surfing and wireless multiplayer gaming, while also acting as a phone, radio and MP3 player. Ten games will be made available at the launch date, and another 10 in time for the holidays.

The PSP (PlayStation Portable) features a wide 480x272 pixel screen and utilizes a 1.8 GB cartridge, which has a larger capacity for data than conventional ROM discs. If that sounds good, you'd better leave room on your holiday wish list ... in 2004.

Each day, the daytime conference culminated in extravagant nighttime parties, where actresses such as Alyssa Milano and Claire Danes mingled with members of System of a Down and No Doubt on swanky hotel rooftops, movie sets and elite clubs. With such celebrity cachet, not to mention the cash to match, the words "Game over" aren't likely to signify anything but the start of another round.