Microsoft E3 Media Briefing Impression

Microsoft kicked off its press conference by showing a trailer and a live demonstration of Rock Band Beatles, punctuated by the appearances of Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Sir Paul McCartney. The celebrity endorsements glossed over the fact that the game isn’t exclusive to the 360, and as impressive as they were, it didn’t really make a great opening. Before going further, Microsoft followed this year’s hot trend for media briefings by promising that there would be no sales charts or graphs to view – just games. The briefing immediately turned to showing off one game after the other, starting with Tony Hawk’s Ride, complete with matching skateboard controller, and Modern Warfare 2.

Next, Final Fantasy XIII made its appearance. Running cleanly on the 360, the demo closely followed the Japanese one that accompanied the special edition of Advent Children. There were a couple of changes though. The characters had English voices, and the mechanics were tweaked to allow Lightning to summon Odin. The summon worked similar those in Final Fantasy X; the other party member disappeared, and Odin and Lightning worked together in combat.

Microsoft then dealt out a series of 360-exclusive titles. Most of them were geared toward the stereotypical action-racing-shooter 360 owners: Crackdown 2, Left4Dead2, Splinter Cell Conviction, Forza Motorsport 3, and of course Halo 3 ODST and Halo Reach. Alan Wake also made an appearance as a survival/adventure type of game – a nice break from the standard 360 fare.

But the company wasn’t completely hardcore; Microsoft also made a couple of feeble stabs at adding casual content. Joyride, a racing game for Xbox Live avatars, met a chorus of crickets. Microsoft also announced the addition of, Facebook access, Twitter access, and improved Netflix delivery to Xbox Live. Half of those will be useful. on Xbox Live is great for those who don’t have a stereo but have a good TV sound system. The ability to access Netflix directly from Live and quickly download movies in chunks makes Netflix on the 360 more appealing than before. Facebook and Twitter access, however, are just silly because for most people their computers are just as easy to access as their 360s. It seems a lot easier to update Facebook and Twitter that way as well.

The apparent surprise of the show – just like last year’s revelation of Final Fantasy XIII on the 360 – was the announcement of Metal Gear Solid Rising for the 360. It was not as much of a shock because the MGS series has jumped platforms before.

The pinnacle of the media briefing was the revelation of Project Natal, a controller that’s not a controller. Instead of being a motion sensor, Natal captures the player’s movements with a camera and puts them into the game. It also features voice and facial recognition technology. Chanting that the best controllers were the players themselves, Microsoft tried to show a world where people who were previously intimidated by controllers could now interact with the game system to play and to do enhanced everyday activities. The trailer for Project Natal looked like a lot of wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations. For example, one section showed two young girls talking to each other via Xbox Live about fashion. One girl recommended a dress to the other, and she was able to try it on a motion-captured version of herself and get an idea of how it would look. It was reminiscent of the first showing of the Nintendo DS back in 2004 where a family communicated to each other via Pictochat from different rooms in their house. It was a terribly unrealistic idea and a feeble attempt to make game systems into something they aren’t and probably never should be.

Microsoft then brought out Steven Spielberg to talk up Natal. There was also a demonstration of Natal’s abilities, though the motion capture and movement were not accurate and the avatar on the screen ended up looking like a contortionist. After this unimpressive display, Microsoft tried to save face through two demonstrations of games with Natal. Both of the games worked quite well, though they were casual in nature. One was basically like Breakout with a human, and the other allowed the player to splash paint on a canvas like Jackson Pollack. Both required a lot of body movement. The speaker even got in a dig about how you aren’t sitting on your sofa using “waggle” to play.

Peter Molyneux also made an appearance and showed off Natal with an AI character called Milo, which was created by his team. Players could interact with Milo and his environment in physical and emotional ways, even carrying on a conversation with him. This appeared to be more like a tech demo than a real game. Putting Peter Molyneux with Natal’s capabilities bodes well for the next Fable title, should there ever be one. Motion capture would work well for the various expressive motions – heroic pose, slap, dance – and for fighting as well.

Project Natal left me with mixed feelings. The actual interactive gaming prospects – playing a game by moving your body, not the ridiculous dress-shopping – are intriguing. The sense of losing a controller feels like too much of a departure from traditional gaming and too close to casual gaming. And would mundane non-game motions, such as scratching your nose or reaching for a quick drink, cause you to accidentally punch an NPC or throw away an important item? What if someone walked by while you were playing? Furthermore, like with the Wii and the DS, the concept has a lot of potential and the company has lofty ideas, but will any of those translate well into reality? It’s tough to call now, as Natal’s sensitivity and responsiveness seems inaccurate at this stage and the only demos they showed were completely casual games. One thing is certain: it’s not anywhere near as ridiculous as last year’s You’re in the Movies fiasco.

To sum up, Microsoft’s press briefing mainly aimed at their core gamer audience with gritty shooters and action titles before offering something for its nearly nonexistent casual gamer audience. There was very little for those who are in between, particularly RPG players. Microsoft would be wise to continue to lavish attention on its more serious gamers instead of trying to tap into the casual market.

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