LOS ANGELES — Microsoft's top men came out with guns blazing at the company's pre-E3 press conference Tuesday with a showing designed to demonstrate that the Xbox 360's one-year jump on its console competitors makes it the unbeatable system. Game designer Cliffy B opened the event, held at Mann's Chinese Theater just off the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with a giant-screen play session of the heavy-armor, big-gun shooter "Gears of War" roaring in high-definition detail and positioning it as Microsoft's premier holiday 2006 title for the 360.
The big news of the conference came in two forms. For some gamers, nothing can top the debut of "Halo 3," which Bill Gates himself introduced at the conclusion of the show. Less flashy but possibly more profound was the announced expansion of Xbox Live, which Microsoft plans to integrate with its upcoming Windows Vista operating system and cell phones.
Xbox Live's new direction was demonstrated with a next-gen racing game that had players editing cars on Windows, tweaking them via cell phone and racing them on the 360. The integrated system, which wouldn't launch at least until Vista is released in early 2007, also enables players of a Windows game to compete against players of the same game on the Xbox. People using either machine will be able to easily see what their friends are up to on their devices and send them invitations to play. Peter Moore, Microsoft's vice president of interactive entertainment, quipped, "Productivity just went down in this country — in a lot of people's minds — a heck of a lot."
Microsoft puts on a slicker show than Sony and Nintendo, whose conferences took place Monday night and early Tuesday morning. Where Nintendo cheekily renamed the floors of the Kodak Theater things like "Mushroom Kingdom" and "Wario Land," only Microsoft's conference had doormen scanning attendees' badges for bar codes. And only Microsoft put bottled water in the armrest of every chair in its theater.
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Journalists leaving Nintendo's breakfast event for their Seattle-area neighbors' lunchtime affair were met with dozens of Microsoft employees divided in pairs, holding unfurled banners full of faces of a purposefully ethnically and gender-mixed group of gamers. The banners funneled pedestrians to Microsoft's event and away from a Walk of Fame induction that involved a crowd in suits, including Don King.
Microsoft's executive masters of ceremonies didn't need the likes of King to provide bluster. They did it themselves with numbers, as Gates and Moore repeatedly noted that the 360 is expected to sell 10 million units before PS3 launches in November and 6 million Xbox Live users will be online by E3 2007. Both numbers, they said, were just double current today's existing figures for Xbox Live penetration and 360 sales.
Moore made the now-standard apologies for not having enough 360s available to gamers, promising once again that the situation is being remedied. Mostly, though, he discussed software. He announced expansions to the lineup of classic games on Xbox Live Arcade that will now include titles from Namco ("Pac-Man"), Midway (including "Ultimate Moral Kombat 3") and Konami ("Frogger" and "Contra," among others — "Yes, the code for 'Contra' will work on Xbox Arcade," Moore said). The roster of indie developers making original games flashed across the screen, promising work from Game Developers Conference Independent Games Festival top winner Introversion, among dozens of others. Moore put the spotlight on "Lumines Live," a 360 version of last year's PSP musical "Tetris"-style game. He said the 360 edition would incorporate a partnership with Warner Music Group allowing artists "like Madonna" to be integrated with the system. For the demonstration, an image of Madonna became the "Lumines" backdrop and her music served as the score.
One of the best-received announcements involving full-fledged Xbox 360 titles came when Moore began to disrobe. "It's so exciting, I've got to take my jacket off," he said, pleasing the audience by stopping there. Rolling up his right sleeve to show the tattoo for the "Halo 2" release date that he inked two E3s prior, he said he'd saved something else for the "big guns." On his left arm he had "Grand Theft Auto" stickered in white. Gone is PlayStation's last-gen advantage of getting "GTA" titles as many as six months before they hit the Xbox. Moore broke news of the new "GTA" 's release date by saying that "GTA IV," as it's currently being called, would launch on the 360 on October 16, 2007. The game will also launch on PS3. Moore said Microsoft had also secured a deal with the "GTA" developer Rockstar to provide downloadable, episodic content through Xbox Live, though he did not specify whether that content would directly involve the "GTA" game or some other project.
Moore also introduced non-playable trailers for 360 exclusives "Fable 2," from top designer and new Microsoft employee Peter Molyneux; "Blue Dragon," from "Final Fantasy" creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and the racing game "Forza Motor Sport 2." That last title is set for release this year, as is "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent," which had been delayed from the spring and is now penciled in for September.
Attention was also paid to a newly invigorated effort to make gaming on Windows a stylish activity. To entice gamers, a trailer for the sci-fi game "Shadowrun" and a demo of "Far Cry"-maker Crytek's graphically rich "Crysis" first-person-shooter were shown.
Gates wrapped up the show, which he said was his first E3. "I'm a heavy Xbox 360 user, especially a 'PGR 3' ["Project Gotham Racing 3"] addict," he said before adding his own apology for the limited 360 supply and reminding the audience of that prediction for 10 million on the market before the first PS3 hits stores.
He narrated a demonstration of the broadly integrated Xbox Live Anywhere service and then, like the old TV detective Columbo "spontaneously" remembering to add one more thing, he called up the video of "Halo 3." The trailer was simple, and none of it appeared to be gameplay footage. A Spartan warrior, assumedly Master Chief arrives at the edge of a desert crater. His armor is moderately dented, showing signs of combat use and glinting sunlight. Enemy Covenant ships zip over the crater, where a large hole begins opening and smoke erupts vertically and an earthquake ensues. "This is the way the world ends," a voice intoned. The graphic "3" appeared on screen and a slogan: "Finish the Fight. 2007."
There's reason to come back next year for more as — so often the case with E3 — the hype can't be contained to a single calendar year.
For more E3 coverage from MTV News and MTV Games, check out e3.mtv.com.