SAN FRANCISCO — Six publishers showcased more than 40 new games to the press in San Francisco and Los Angeles last week, previewing their biggest bets for the remainder of 2008.
The company with the second-fewest games — but possibly the noisiest, most graphically impressive and narratively ambitious batch — was Microsoft.
The Xbox 360 lineup will be led by "Gears of War 2," which was shown to reporters at Dogpatch Studios in a demo controlled by the game's lead developer, Cliff Bleszinski of Epic Games. The game might not be done, but the talking points are far along.
Bleszinski reminded reporters that the game was "bigger, better and more badass" than its predecessor several times. To prove it, he controlled returning protagonist Marcus Fenix in an early level of the game. Bleszinski had Fenix standing on top of a rolling derrick, one of several massive flatbed trucks rolling toward a goal in the midst of a war zone. From all sides, giant cannon-backed monsters approached the truck to attack Fenix. Hundreds of locust foot-soldiers swarmed the trucks. Fenix hopped on and off the truck to blow every last one of them to bits.
No mention was made about the presumed improvements to the game's multiplayer mode.
"Gears 2" shared a showcase spot with "Fable 2," a role-playing game developed by designer Peter Molyneux's team at Lionhead Studios. The game is set in a fanciful medieval British land, once again built to let players direct one character's life from childhood through old age. The first "Fable," which was released on the Xbox, fell short of achieving Molyneux's often-grandiose boasts. For example, he once said that any acorn dropped anywhere in the first game would grow into a tree — and then had to backpedal when the idea wasn't included in the game.
This time he's promising a world in which every building in every town can be bought, a technology that will shape a player's character depending on how that character lives and fights through their decades of life and a host of other malleable factors. And Molyneux has established this goal, which would only sound modest to people who have never played video games: "We have done everything we can do to make a story you can remember and [that] will stick in your mind."
On the studios' ground floor, four ambitious 360 titles were all available for hands-on play. There was the slick "Ninja Gaiden II," a June combat game that is a contender for the bloodiest game ever released. One mission available culminated in a ninja fight on top of a major metropolitan landmark (no spoilers here!). The game played more easily than its notoriously tough predecessor but was still challenging players at the event, even on its easiest setting.
Another offering was August's "Too Human," a 15-years-in-the-making epic from development studio Silicon Knights. The game lets players choose a warrior from one of several classes and slash, shoot or magic-spell them through hordes of enemies. The gameplay is quick and constantly about being outnumbered, utilizing combos and picking up hundreds — even thousands — of pieces of loot. New armor. New weapons. New boots, gloves, assistant spider-robots and more.
Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack says there's more content in the game than any one player can ever hope to discover. But for all the title's similarities to the legendary PC game "Diablo," Dyack will tell anyone who asks that "Too Human" is bringing a story with depth seldom seen in a game. It's something of a philosophical journey about the relationship between people and technology, told through ideas borrowed from Norse myth. Long a game that has drawn skepticism from the gaming press, "Too Human" compelled several reporters at the event to claim to be converted.
The cheerful fall tandem of "Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts" and "Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise" were also on display. "Banjo" is a sequel to a pair of well-received Nintendo 64 action-platform games (think "Mario"-esque) but now replaces much of the old hopping-around with the use of vehicles. Players make vehicles out of parts, adding wings, upgrading engines and so forth in the hopes that their mechanisms will move, and then use the vehicles to complete challenges that win them more parts.
"Piñata" appears to be more of a content-added update than a true sequel to the well-received 2006 first game in the series. It once again tasks players with tending a garden in such ways that will attract a menagerie of living piñatas. The two games have complex gameplay but also some of the most convincing interactive-cartoon graphical styles yet seen on gaming consoles.
Absent from Microsoft's event were any third-party games, as well as "Halo Wars," a real-time strategy game that had been expected for late-2008 release. If the "Halo" game is out of the picture and there are no other big surprises (Shane Kim, Microsoft's head of internal game publishing, told MTV News that "Gears" is the biggest thing Microsoft has this year), then the Xbox 360 still has a formidable lineup. Like all the new games, it's one with questions and potential. And it may include a great story line or two, not something gamers were likely expecting.
Check out the Multiplayer blog, updated daily, for even more gaming coverage.