E3 2009 – Microsoft Press Conference: The Highlights

by John Constantine

You’ve got to hand it to Microsoft. In the weeks leading up to E3, the discussion surrounding the house of X was focused on precisely what they didn’t have. Where was their fall line-up? Where were the exclusives that have defined the console? Microsoft had them and then some.

Opening your show with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr instead of closing with them is the probably the most impressive show of corporate confidence in history. With the reveal of Project Natal, Microsoft’s new hands-free controller-camera, the house of green showed that this was no mere act of baseless hubris. They came to play.

The show opened with a selection of multiplatform titles. “The Beatles: Rock Band” looked more than promising by changing up “Rock Band”’s familiar play with vocal harmonies. Three singers from Harmonix’s house band performed “Day Tripper”, with three separate vocal pitches to perform. The game’s cartoonish presentation looked similar to other “Rock Band” titles until a trailer showed off tracks from later in The Beatles’ career, with more stylized on-screen band performances. “I Am the Walrus” in particular was perfectly psychedelic.

“Tony Hawk Ride” and its skateboard controller were not demoed on stage unfortunately. A trailer spotlighting the franchise’s new cel-shaded look and a small army of pro skaters discussing the game showed a few examples of how the game will actually be controlled – there is a lot leaning involved – but it was hard to get a sense of how the game will actually play.

Jason West and Vince Zampella of Infinity Ward demoed “Modern Warfare 2”, playing through an early mission on an icy mountaintop in Kazakhstan. The level shown was massive, starting with a cliff face ascent, the infiltration of an air base, the ensuing shoot out, and a frantic snowmobile escape through the surrounding area, all of which was playable. Microsoft also announced that the first two map packs for “Modern Warfare 2” would appear first on the 360.

Sandwiched between all the blockbuster retail games were two Xbox Live Arcade games that may not have drawn the biggest cheers from attendees, but were important nonetheless. The first was Epic Games “Shadow Complex”, a sidescrolling action platformer explicitly inspired by “Metroid” and Koji Igarashi’s “Castlevania” games coming out this summer. Lead designer Donald Mustard, with some assistance from Cliffy B showed off a brief demo highlighting “Shadow Comlex”’s Samus Aran approved triple jumping, special weapons like a platform building gun, and some neat shooting play that has you targeting enemies not just in front of you but in the background. The other downloadable from Microsoft, and the most significant, was the Big Park developed “Joyride”. A multiplayer kart racer with all the power-ups and cartoony tracks the genre’s known for, “Joyride”’s notable first for incorporating Xbox Live Avatars for its characters, and second for being absolutely free. Microsoft is making their money on the game from microtransactions, letting players buy new car accessories and other upgrades as the play. This is the first time that one of the big three platform holders are introducing a microtransaction-based game and it will be very interesting to see how it fares when it comes out this summer.

As predicted, “Forza 3” made its debut at the show alongside “Crackdown 2” and on-stage demos of “Halo: ODST” and “Splinter Cell: Conviction”. They all showed very well (though “Crackdown 2” was purely a trailer with no gameplay). The biggest surprises of the show however came in the form of the playable “Alan Wake” and the trailer only games “Halo: Reach” and “Left 4 Dead 2”. Remedy last showed “Alan Wake” publicly almost four years ago and, even though the game is still almost a year from release, it looks like a unique and well-crafter third-person action game. Hideo Kojima also sneaked on stage later on to announce “Metal Gear Solid Rising”, a new cross-platform entry in the series starring the fair-haired ninja Raiden.

While much of the back half of Microsoft’s show was devoted to announcing Xbox Live’s new Facebook and Twitter functionality and the new Zune Video service, the big reveal at the end was designer Kudo Tsunoda’s Project Natal. Microsoft’s long rumored motion sensing controller turned out to not be a controller at all but a camera/microphone hybrid. It will not only allow a player to use their whole body as an input device, but will also recognize individual player’s voices and faces. Early prototype games were shown, including “Paint Party”, a sort of Jackson Pollock meets Mario Paint affair, and “Richochet” a first-person “Breakout” that has you deflecting dodgeballs using every single one of your extremities to break objects in the background. Peter Molyneux also showed up to show off Lionhead Studio’s Project Natal demo “Milo”, an interactive AI that will purportedly talk to you, take drawings out of your hand, remember your personality, and lie to you about doing your homework. The video shown was tightly scripted and produced so it remains to be seen how “Milo” performs in actual play. Overall though, Project Natal was incredibly impressive. Nintendo and Sony’s work is certainly cut out for them when they host their conferences in the morning.