ne year after millenarian promises of a gaming interface as natural as human movement with Project Natal, Microsoft and its close corporate associates took the stage in Los Angeles today introducing a host of sequels to massive franchises; the fruit of Project Natal in the form of Kinect; and a smaller, more compact Xbox 360 console available to consumers — incredibly — this week. Michael Ubaldi, James Day and Adam Bogert offer their reactions.
Anyone expecting the singularity to appear in the seraphic guise of Natal might be disappointed, but Microsoft's press conference proves the company more comfortable developing operating systems remains dogged in the console war.
After an inscrutable lead-off presentation of Call of Duty: Black Ops from Activision developer Treyarch, flagship series Gears of War, Metal Gear and Halo processed with each developer's objectives holding solid content over novelty as a priority. Perhaps we've seen one too many Covenant aliens leap out in fury only to be riddled with a Spartan's bullets, but sales figures speak of a kind of tradition in the millions of dollars.
Microsoft's press conference proves the company more comfortable developing operating systems remains dogged in the console war. Alex Kipman fulfilled stereotypes of corporate evangelism with a pre-show claim that motion-control system Kinect would change gaming as humanity knows it, and all that; but Microsoft's actual delivery of the product was down-to-earth, underscored by Marc Whitten's statement that the company is "making Xbox Live controller-free." Showing off useful voice-recognition features seen before only on Star Trek: The Next Generation duly substantiated.
Demonstration after demonstration, however, revealed Kinect's intended audience: would-be gamers, probably mothers and fathers, firmly in the age-35-and-up bracket. Some of us might be old enough to remember hearing the opening number of Kinect title Dance Central, Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison," on the radio — and we've all passed the three-decade mark. Launch titles range from the adorable (though juvenile) Kinectimals to the jocund (if derivative) Kinect Joy Ride and Kinect Sports. Still, if casual gaming can be made a commodity, consumers won't care whether their fun for a party or family gathering bears the name Nintendo or Microsoft.
Which raises the question of price: before today, the Wii was more affordable than the Xbox 360. The introduction of an Xbox 360 "slim," introduced Matryoshka doll-style, should place considerable price pressure on the older console model. Microsoft's talking, dancing, and aerobic heads made certain to mention that Kinect works with any Xbox 360. If Soccer Mom and Joe Sixpack browse the electronic entertainment aisle and start listing pros and cons between the Wii and 360, Microsoft — whose position in the seventh generation has been distinguished by strong revenue from multiplayer titles tailor made for traditional, youthful, loyal, controller-clutching gamers — may indeed stake the next few years on a device meant for those who aren't its current customers. Here's to new markets.
2010's Microsoft press conference never really looked destined to best the rollercoaster ride that was last year's.
Besides the reveal of the Xbox 360 redesign shipping to stores this week (though no specific regions for this were stated) we didn't really receive any earth-shattering announcements.
Nearly everything on show was in some way a known quantity. Most of the software for the newly renamed Kinect such as Kinect Sports and Kinectimals had been revealed the night before at the Cirque de Soleil event. Big-name titles for the hardcore crowd were present and correct but in the forms that everyone predicted — a four-player co-op demo of Gears of War 3, a game play video of Metal Gear Solid: Rising and a cinematic trailer for Fable III.
I was holding out for a big reveal of a game that would justify Kinect for Microsoft's built-in hardcore user base. It didn't come.Halo: Reach proved somewhat to be the exception. Bungie took viewers through an impressive-looking if somewhat typically-Halo segment of the campaign, gunning down aliens as a Spartan super-soldier. But it was capped off with the player's character launching from the planet's surface and briefly partaking in what seemed to be a playable space dogfight. It was so brief in fact that I'll admit to missing it upon first viewing, though hopefully we'll learn about this over the course of the show.
Somewhat naively, I was holding out for a big reveal of a game that would justify Kinect for Microsoft's built-in hardcore user base. It didn't come. The closest thing there was was the already-announced unnamed Star Wars Jedi game, though this was only shown in an early-looking game play video and not demoed onstage.
Fitness and sports games and Minority Report-inspired menu control were never going to interest me in Kinect. And with most of the 360's triple-A exclusives landing in the fourth quarter, it makes me wonder just how games are going to be released in 2011 and beyond that hold my attention.
If the Twitter-verse is any indication, people aren't totally impressed by Microsoft's showings at this morning's conference. Aside from the killer apps we already knew were coming, today was primarily about "casual" avatar-fueled games that look like they belong on a Wii — albeit a much prettier, more responsive Wii, but a Wii nonetheless. Indeed, with the most impressive game being the upcoming Metal Gear Solid, and the only real surprise being the new partnership between Microsoft and ESPN, Microsoft's goal today was clear: broadening the target audience.
We've seen this before, first with the Xbox Live Arcade and then with the introduction of the avatars. The hardcore among us have lambasted the Nintendo-eque moves and then quietly embraced them, some spilling actual cash into virtual outfits for the okay-maybe-they're-not-so-bad-after-all Mii-ripoffs. So I'm going to step away from the crowd on this one and say I'm actually excited about the Kinect.
Microsoft has out-Nintendoed Nintendo. For hardcore gamers like myself, the real thrill of Kinect is its latent potential.First, and perhaps most importantly, Kinect is real. After Molyneux's impressive Milo demo last year, there was still a lot of speculation (this is Molyneux after all) regarding whether the voice and spatial recognition would actually deliver on Microsoft's promises. Menu navigation is clean and simplistic. The camera will pan to follow you during video chat. If your friend wants to jump in, she can — literally; the game will adjust to split-screen mode accordingly.
Of course, E3 is supposed to be about the games, and to that extent the Wii comparisons are inevitable. Most of the games look like shiny, re-shelled versions of what we've seen — but so much smoother. More importantly, games like Ubisoft's YourShape Fitness Evolved will ensure use of the full body in ways the Wii never has (or could?). Not since Dance Dance Revolution has technology been more likely to shed gamer pounds.
The excessively cute Kinectimals and admittedly fun-looking, river-riding Kinect Adventures leave no question in my mind that Microsoft will succeed in reaching that broader audience; Microsoft has out-Nintendoed Nintendo. But for hardcore gamers like myself, the real thrill of Kinect is its latent potential. We caught a glimpse of it with the Star Wars and Forza demonstrations, but I can already picture myself ducking behind the sofa and blind-firing à la Gears and slicing watermelon with precision like Raiden. November can't come fast enough.