E3 2009 Sony Press Conference: The Highlights

by John Constantine

It doesn’t matter how many times Jack Tretton says that 2008 was a banner year, full of momentum and good times, for the Playstation family. There’s no escaping the truth: times are tough for Sony. The PSP continues to sell while its software continues to stagnate. The Playstation 2 enjoyed an Indian summer when its priced dropped, but the system has undeniably entered its twilight. And the Playstation3? Well, growing your audience by forty percent is all well and good but that audience is still very small compared to those of your competitors. Sony needed a big show at E3 2009 and, while the actual show dragged here and there, they had a giant one. Here’s the breakdown.

The Big Demos

Sony’s conference was bookended by spectacular single-player demos of “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” and “God of War III”. Naughty Dog’s made themselves a looker with “Uncharted 2”, which is no surprise, but the action shown in a demo of an early level easily outdid the graphics. Nate Drake and his new AI companion Chloe Frazer had to scramble down a crumbling baddie-infested hotel being dismantled by an assault helicopter. The level was full of the death-defying leaps, shooting, and witty banter that made the original “Uncharted” such a treat, but packed into a dense and dramatic sequence that rarely took control out of the demoer’s hands. “God of War III”’s opening level was classic stuff for the series, with Kratos mauling his way through a city under siege by a giant lava covered Titan. What was new play-wise was Kratos’ new crowd control moves (enemies will dogpile Kratos and he has to throw them off), the new lion-headed gauntlet weapons, and Harpy platforming. (Hop on a harpy, stab it in the wings, leap to the next one. Wholesome family fun, truly.) The demo had two big confrontations against a centaur and a chimera that ended with grisly disembowelings. The game looks like what it needs to be: big, gorgeous “God of War”. There were also demos of “Assassin’s Creed 2”, “MAG”, and the new user-generated-content-driven kart racer “ModNation Racing”, but none of them impressed like “Uncharted” and “God of War”.

The Big Tease

Sony had far more trailers than they did actual playable games on stage, but exciting ones nonetheless. Project Trico showed up in a more complete state. Officially named “The Last Guardian”, the trailer was largely the same as the leaked concept footage, but the environments were much more detailed and the lead character and his giant gryphon were completely redesigned. Rockstar North’s PS3 exclusive “Agent”, an espionage game taking place in the late ‘70s, was announced but sadly not even a trailer was shown. “Gran Turismo 5” also put in a trailer appearance. Big with pretty cars. Until we see the game played, it’ll be hard to say how it stands up as a game more substantial than “Gran Turismo 5 Prologue”.

The Motion Controller

The internet can stop writing about Microsoft and Sony’s rumored motion controllers. Finally. It’s over. Far more than an upgraded Sixaxis, Sony’s new controller, developed and demoed by EyeToy creator Richard Marks, is a wand used in conjunction with the Playstation Eye. While this sounds like little more than some kind of Project Natal/Wiimote hybrid, the unnamed controller is impressive in action. The tech demos on stage had the remote transforming into a variety of objects on screen, swords, whips, fans, Nerf guns, all of which behaved naturally on screen. Most remarkable was the controller’s ability to sense real depth. The demoer could literally move around in the onscreen environment, looking behind and over objects in real space. This functionality helped distinguish the controller from its competitors.

Final Fantasies

The new English-voiced “Final Fantasy XIII” trailer Sony showed wasn’t a huge surprise. In the ongoing “Final Fantasy” cockfight between Microsoft and Sony, it was natural. The 360 gets a demo, the PS3 gets new footage. Obviously. The footage was certainly attractive too, showing off tons of new battle sequences and inexplicable-out-of-context story. No one expected the words “Final Fantasy XIV” to be uttered, and when they were, people in the crowd (including myself) literally shouted, “WHAT?!” Square-Enix’s MMORPG follow up to “Final Fantasy XI” will indeed be “Final Fantasy XIV”. It will be a Playstation exclusive and will be released next year. I’m as dumbfounded as you.

The PSP Go

Kaz Hirai summed it up perfectly when he said the new PSP’s alternate name should be The Worst Kept Secret of E3. There it was on stage and all of its specs were exactly as they’ve been described in countless news reports over the past three weeks. There was some new info surrounding the PSP Go, though, including its big price tag. The system will launch on October 1st at $250, a steep cost considering the new SKU is being positioned as a more mainstream alternative to the PSP-3000. Three big games were announced to usher in the Go, including the six-years-in-development “Gran Turismo PSP”, Hideo Kojima and the “Metal Gear Solid 4” team’s “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, and the big shocker, “Resident Evil Portable”.

All in all a sprawling conference. We’ll see if the big announcements will change Sony’s fortunes in the coming months and on the E3 show floor.