Microsoft Press Conference Impressions

After sitting through the Microsoft Press Event, and thinking about it over a tasty beef bowl at Yoshinoya, here is my summary and impressions of the event. Be warned, this is a long read.

The event kicked off with Don Mattrick, Senior Vice President in charge of the Interactive Entertainment division. He began his speech by saying that the Xbox 360 has delivered some blockbuster titles. To demonstrate that point, box art for Gears of War, Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, Guitar Hero III, and Assassin’s Creed popped up behind him. This immediately surprised me, since only two of those were exclusives to the system. Though it is indeed true that the 360 sold more copies of the multi-platform games than other systems, it still seemed a bit jarring.

After a bit of talking, he opened the floor to Todd Howard, executive producer of Bethesda Softworks, to talk about Fallout 3. Todd started by showing a trailer for the game that will be available for download later today, and then he began to actually play the game. He explained that it takes place in Washington D.C. in the year 2277. After a quick look at the game’s menu, the Pip Boy 3000, he began walking around the post-apocalyptic world. After shooting a couple monsters and laughing as they exploded, he went back to the Pip Boy to listen to one of the in-game radio stations. In this case, it was marching music, to which Todd quipped, “I think it’s the marching band music that nails it,” as he continued to hunt the creatures in the wasteland. He showed off a couple more weapons and then ended the demo by switching to the ‘Fat Man,’ a miniature nuclear bomb catapult. He locked on to some soldiers and launched the bomb, while the camera switched to a first-person view of the bomb as it hit its target. There was, of course, a lot of cheering. In fact, there was probably more fan reaction to this than any other thing at the conference. Before leaving the stage, Todd announced that Fallout 3 would have exclusive downloadable content for the 360 and that there would be plenty of DLC in general.

It’s interesting that MS chose to open the event with an RPG, since they are typically known for sports and first-person shooters. Perhaps Microsoft is trying to change the way it is perceived in the gaming world, and that is not really a bad thing.

That was followed by a short demo of Resident Evil 5 which showcased the online co-op play and the game’s main protagonist, Chris Redfield. A new character, Sheva Alamar was also shown off. It was announced that RE5 would have a worldwide launch on March 13.

Next on the list was Peter Molyneux and Fable II, and he began by showing the game’s intro, which shows a bird flying through a beautiful landscape. The camera follows the bird in flight until it comes to rest in a village. Surprisingly, the bird decides that would be an excellent place to do its business, and the camera follows the bird droppings as they land on the head of a small child. Thus, destiny picks its hero. Yes really.

The demo he showed after that looked quite impressive. It really seems that Fable II is as much a world as it is a game. You can quest with friends in co-op mode, get married, and even have children.

MS ended their blockbuster demo part by showing off Gears of War 2. Of the games shown, only Gears 2 and Fable II were 360 exclusives. Suffice it to say, Gears 2 is plenty bloody, and FPS fans will enjoy it and the new Horde mode where up to five people take on wave after wave of enemies to see who can last the longest.

Don Mattrick came back and started talking about how the gaming industry has become the largest of the entertainment segments, bringing in an estimated 48 billion a year. He also said “Today our games belong to everyone.” And he went on to say that the 360 will outsell the PS3 this generation. That’s a big claim, and even if it ends up being true, those kind of statements are risky. It is true that the 360 is selling pretty well, but I don’t think that Sony can’t move more units later. He also made special mention of downloadable movies and TV shows saying that 1/3 of all paid transactions have been for those.

Then MS launched into what they probably believe is their biggest announcement of the event. They are completely redesigning the Dashboard for the 360. It’s now more streamlined and gets rid of the ‘blades’ they had before. But the highlight for this part was the announcement of ‘avatars.’

This was, by far, the most disappointing thing for me. Avatars are little more than Miis that have been given a few more options and stolen from Nintendo. Since they have clothing (and it appears that clothing will be available for purchase) it seems this is all but stolen directly from Nintendo, Sony’s Home, and Second Life. This is disappointing because it seems there is not much innovation. Home is Sony’s version of Second Life to begin with. From the neck up, Avatars are virtually indistinguishable from Miis. I look for big news at these events and the best they can say is “We looked at everyone else and said, ‘Hey, me too!'”

To make matters worse, their next big announcement was Live Party, a service that lets up to eight players meet in a room and chat. It’s bad enough that they’ve copied Sony and Nintendo, now they’re ripping off IMVU, and that’s not something I’d be proud of at all. To their credit, I will say that Live Party will at least make casual gaming more fun and easier. One person can start a game for everyone involved, and there will be a service called Primetime that allows players to join in game shows for real prizes.

Then they briefly announced some new Xbox Live Arcade games that look fun. Most notably Portal: Still Alive, Geometry Wars, and a sequel to Galaga topped the list.

The next big announcement was that Xbox Live will be partnering up with Netflix. Though details weren’t given, it looks like anyone that already pays for Netflix will be able to stream movies for free on the Xbox 360. For me, this is probably the biggest news of the day, but this has kind of been known for several weeks.

After that, a short video from Rare, which formerly made second-party games for Nintendo. Not surprisingly, new installments in the Viva PiƱata and Banjo Kazooie series are coming. This had been leaked a while back, but there was an interesting tidbit in there. The original Banjo Kazooie is coming to XBLA. This is the first N64 game to appear on the service.

At this point, the press event hit its lowest point. The ‘next big thing’ from Microsoft is You’re in the Movies. The premise sounded cool, but in actuality, it’s an Eye Toy rip off that allows you and your friends to embarrass yourselves by playing mini-games only to have the video captured from them inserted into a B-Movie. This movie can then be shared via things like Live Party to further your embarrassment. I honestly cannot see myself coming within ten feet of that game. It just isn’t going to happen.

Then things shifted gears a bit to music games. Things kicked off by showing Guitar Hero World Tour, and Microsoft happily announced it’ll come with more songs on the disc than any other music game. They announced a few exclusive artists, but the whole thing went over kind of poorly. The room was oddly quiet, and no one seemed excited at all.

This contrasted sharply with an announcement from Harmonix about Rockband 2. Everyone there seemed excited that it would have a lot of music as well, and those that own RB1 can import all of their songs downloadable or otherwise into RB2.

But between those two similar announcements came Lips, a straight-up rip off of Singstar. They showed a trailer that included integration with a Zune, but they didn’t really show how it worked. Someone plugged in a Zune, and the music changed, but the trailer never showed the screen after that. It looks like a clever marketing ploy. You can play any song you want with the game, but you won’t have the karaoke lyrics unless you pay for it. And the fact that they’d show it like that was kind of shady.

Following the announcement, pop singer Duffy came on stage and sang her new single Mercy in-game. It’s worth noting that even she missed a few of the notes, but it was pretty neat to get a live performance nonetheless.

The event wrapped up with Square Enix president Yoichi Wada taking the stage. He talked about The Last Remnant, Star Ocean 4, and Infinite Undiscovery. Aside from release dates, the only interesting thing is not what he said, but what he didn’t say. He specifically mentioned that Infinite Undiscovery is an Xbox 360 exclusive. He said Last Remnant is a timed exclusive, but he said nothing of Star Ocean 4 other than it’s coming to the 360.

Dan Mattrick started to wrap up the event, but Yoichi Wada came out for one more big announcement. As everyone knows by now, Final Fantasy XIII is no longer a PS3 exclusive. It’ll launch simultaneously in North America on the 360.

So that was pretty much it. It’s very interesting that Microsoft decided to bookend their event with RPGs, and for fans of the genre, this show had a LOT to be happy about. But for everyone else, it was a really boring show. Everyone already knew about Gears 2 and Resident Evil 5. Honestly, most of what they announced today seemed kind of embarrassing since it was either something I wouldn’t touch with a stick and/or it was a direct copy of someone else’s product. A bit of a mixed bag, but it was a good 90 minutes.

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