The Big Three Throw Down: Conferences and more from E3

E3 continues with the big three hardware manufacturers bearing all at the Nokia theater. Read on to see my recaps of the presentations…well, two of them anyway…and my reactions to the biggest bits of news.

Microsoft

I skipped out on this one on the off chance we’d get another Microsoft Embarrassing E3 conference video like these, but since the conference apparently wasn’t all that bad, looks like I avoided it for nothing.

I’m certainly not winning over man Microsoft fans this week, am I? Regardless, I read Wired’s liveblog of the event, and they didn’t seem too impressed. “You can now say “Take a shot!” instead of just pressing a button. Well, that seems a lot easier. Pressing buttons is a real pain in the ass.” they said, then later ““Let’s talk about sports.” Must we?” and frequently complained about the noise level. Doesn’t sound like I missed much.

Sony

Sony kicked off its conference with an elaborate, colorful montage of the wide range of gaming experiences made possible through the PS3, Vita, Move, etc. Hosted by Jack Tretton, the presentation began first with Quantic Dream of Heavy Rain fame introducing “Beyond”, the story of Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page via motion capture), a psychic young girl who somehow learns the mysteries of life after death.

Apparently the game will be about guiding her through life in real time, helping her “become who she is”. The realistic mo-cap graphics might be some of the most realistic I’ve seen in a video game yet, but overall, I’ve never really been interested in this kind of pseudo-cinematic gameplay.

Next came PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale from Superbad Entertainment…

…teasing Sly Cooper, Sweet Tooth, PaRappa the Rappa, Kratos, and more as playable characters for the Smash Bros. clone. Check that…clone doesn’t even begin to describe how much this game straight-up rips-off Nintendo’s Smash Bros series. In the live four-player gameplay match that followed, there was literally nothing to distinguish the two games other than its PlayStation characters; from “Supers” (final smashes), to items, to stage design, to gameplay, to the meters that rise every time you get hit, this is Smash Bros by Sony at its core. The company promised a playable demo on the show floor, cross-compatibility with a Vita version of the game, and also unveiled Nathan Drake and Big Daddy as characters.

Can’t Sony think up their own ideas for once? You’d think Sony would want to really create something special to celebrate all these characters coming together for one game. Instead, this is yet another example of outright plagiarism on Sony’s part, and I wasn’t impressed with what I saw regardless.

Touching briefly on the PlayStation Network, the company patted itself on the back for providing such an indie-friendly service, and pushed its PlayStation Plus service by making games like inFamous 2 and LittleBig Planet 2 free for members. Everyone in the audience was promised vouchers for one free year of the service. Nice. Sony also advertised PS One classics coming to Vita, and pushed the new video and music services for systems connected to the network. All cool things, still not interested in the premium service nor the Vita.

Ubisoft came out to talk about Assassin’s Creed III on PS3 and Vita, the latter version to be subtitled ‘Liberation’. The developers showed off a new clip of gameplay involving the steering and commanding of an old naval ship during the Revolutionary War sailing around blowing the shit out of other ships. Cool.

The show took a steep dive when the discussion turned to PlayStation Move, advertised as the platform with the “most motion gaming experiences out there.” I guess we’re just ignoring the obvious then, huh? This turned out to be a promo/demo of the new Wonderbook, an augmented reality device using PS Move to create a virtual book on your TV screen. Enter JK Rowling’s Book of Spells, a new text from the Harry Potter author allowing users to learn and cast their own spells. The demo dragged on for an eternity as the models fumbled about trying to cast a fire spell. Definitely the low point of the evening, and certainly not something I’d even consider buying. Reminds me of the old days of PC activity centers, “edutainment” games, and other wastes of time.

The show finally wrapped up with demos for God of War Ascension and The Last of Us. The former looked good, but I’d bet watching the damn thing isn’t nearly as much fun as playing it. The latter looked like a grittier, more violent version of Uncharted, and with a kid sidekick. I was indifferent.

Overall, Sony’s was a solid presentation, if a bit overlong and tedious towards the end. As my first full Sony E3 conference viewing, I was impressed how they really treated the show like an important event, and brought out many of the creators and such. They put a lot of effort into the evening and it largely showed. Most importantly, Sony focused first and foremost on its hardcore gaming audience and, minus the Wonderbook, didn’t feel pandering or overly kiddie in the slightest. Definitely looking forward to the company’s future.

Nintendo

In Nintendo E3 tradition, the company’s presentation began with a video from Shigeru Miyamoto, showing the legendary developer preparing for the festivities with Pikmin all around his office. Miyamoto was all smiles coming out onstage, digitally placing Pikmin on the shoulders of some unenthused journalists in the audience on the big screen behind him.

Miyamoto brought on the long-gestating third installment of Pikmin, narrating over the gameplay. Announcing several new features in gameplay and using the more accessible control setup of the Wiimote/nunchuck, Miyamoto emphasized deeper strategy this time around with the more natural control scheme.

It seemed like this was Nintendo really plugging their definition of a hardcore experience. I like the series, and I’m sure it plays even better with Wii controls, but this installment didn’t look to be anything more than what we’ve already come to expect from the series. The environments look a little more detailed than on Gamecube, but otherwise, it hasn’t received much of a facelift from the the eight-year-old Pikmin 2. Still, Pikmin 3 looks decent enough and ended up standing as the highlight of the conference.

Next, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime came onstage to reiterate the philosophy of the new Wii U system Satoru Iwata talked about Sunday evening, all while announcing new features, such as the system’s ability to use two gamepads “just like the original [NES]”, and support for more video streaming services like Hulu Plus and Amazon video. Quickly recapping the features of the controller and the Miiverse, now apparently the Wii U’s hub world/home menu, Fils-Aime moved into the upcoming software.

As hinted at in promo vids, New Super Mario Bros. U was officially announced. The game will be able to connect with Mii players mid-game, as well as enable those holding the touchscreen controller to drop ‘?’ blocks into the game. NSMBU looked exactly like the other “New” Mario games, which I was never a fan of. Compared to the tight controls and punishing difficulty of Super Mario World and Super Mario 3, respectively, NSMB feels like a step down more than anything. It’s a reflection of the sad reality that Nintendo just isn’t the same company anymore.

Taking a note from its competitors’ presentations this year, Nintendo brought out many of the third party developers working on games for the system, and first up among them was WB Interactive’s Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition. The new edition will see extended gameplay, Catwoman as a playable character, and a new BAT mode using the touchscreen that charges up Batman and gives him…invincibility, or something. You can also switch between gadgets with the touchscreen.

While the new features looked interesting, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of new content that would really demand players of the game on PS3 and 360 to go out and buy the new version.

In a montage, games like Mass Effect 3, Tekken, Ninja Gaiden 3, and Aliens Colonial Marines were among the games coming to Wii U. Wonder how long that’ll last before, like with the Wii, developers flock back to Sony and Microsoft’s consoles, taking their cutting-edge titles with them. I give it two years.

Fils-Aime introduced the next game Wii Fit U by playfully reminiscing on his infamous “my body is ready” quote. Sadly, the game itself was far less entertaining, featuring a promo vid where a player placed the touchscreen controller on the ground in front of the Wii balance board and had her Mii do trampoline jumps on the screen. I await the endless complaints when people start accidentally crushing the controller upon landing. As for the game, wasn’t interested in the first, not interested now.

We were then “treated” to a game called Sing from FreeStyleGames. Wanting to change up the typical karaoke game dynamic, the company showed a promo video where the player used the screen on the controller to face the audience instead of the TV. The controller commanded the singer to tell everyone in the room to clap their hands. I suppressed my vomit as the presentation carried on.

In a brief turn towards the 3DS, Films-Aime turned it over to the head of marketing, who showed quick glimpses at New Super Mario Bros. 2, a game, bizarrely enough, more about collecting coins than anything else, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the latest installment in the RPG sub-series now featuring the collection of stickers to get items and make moves in battle, and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, sequel to the 2001 Gamecube title featuring similar ghostbusting gameplay, though this time around, pitting Luigi against a giant spider and a ghost dog. Of the three, the latter was the only title that captured my interest.

We also got quick glimpses at some of the third party games coming out for the handheld, among them Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, a 2.5D title which appears to have the same kind of quicktime events as in the console game, and Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, which looks a lot like Capcom’s old 16-bit Disney titles. Not bad for a system sorely lacking killer aps.

Next, developer Ubisoft was invited onstage to kiss Nintendo’s ass for just how great the Wii U apparently is, and showcased two contrasting games. The first, Just Dance 4, saw a group of dancers come out to dance to the game’s Moves Like Jagger track, all while Films-Aime acted as “puppet master” and carried out the commands the dancers would see onscreen for them to do. “Puppet master…kind of like running Nintendo of America” he quipped.

The second game, Zombi U, another FPS zombie shooter, used the touchscreen controller to scan for nearby lifeforms, snipe, select weapons, shake off zombies, and more. Looked pretty cool, and the crowd in the theater really dug it. Then Reggie stuck the touchscreen controller’s camera in his face and started posing for the game’s “zombiefy” feature, and the whole thing just got embarrassing.

Fils-Aime proceeded to present the show’s final game, Nintendo Land, a game imagining popular Nintendo properties as theme park rides designed to show off the new features of the controller. From the developers of Animal Crossing and Wii Sports, the game features a multicolored theme park your Miis can walk around in, with 12 different attractions available to enter, among them rides based on Zelda, Animal Crossing, Luigi’s Mansion, Donkey Kong, and an original ride called Ninja Castle, where you shoot throwing stars at targets via the touchscreen (as in the promo vid we saw last year).

I expected Nintendo to announce this to be a pack-in title with the Wii U, but the company said nothing to that effect. I certainly wouldn’t buy it as a standalone title if that’s what Nintendo expects consumers to do – it’s far too kiddie for my tastes, and the theme park itself lacks any real sense of scale, looking more like a toy than anything. The orchestrated score sounded okay at least.

One of the rides on display was Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, which is pretty much a redesigned version of the highly underrated Pac-Man Vs. Basically, one player is a ghost chasing others around a maze using the touchscreen controller, while everyone else has to avoid him and shine a flashlight in his direction when he gets close. I’ll stick with Pac-Man Vs.

The approach behind Nintendo Land is sound, almost taking a page from Disney World and how Epic Mickey reproduced many of the locales from that park. Still, the actual rides seem to add up to little more than yet another minigame collection from Nintendo, and I can’t be the only one absolutely sick of that kind of game after Wii became a dumping ground for them.

The presentation closed as Fils-Aime framed the Wii U as a “Wii Universe”, reiterating the idea of playing games together and closing out with a small clip of a Nintendo Land firework show.

On the whole, I was disappointed. Nintendo clearly hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the Wii and seems content to repeat them with the Wii U game lineup. Honestly, the Wii U sounds like a solid piece of hardware in its own right, internal limitations notwithstanding, but the game lineup so far just doesn’t deliver. Nintendo’s own titles look to be more of the same gimmicky, kiddie tripe, and it’s highly likely third parties aren’t going to be around forever to pick up the slack for the hardcore audience.

I honestly expected Nintendo to bring back a lot of its core franchises to win back consumers in the form of a new Star Fox or Smash Bros. cinematic, but instead, Nintendo is yet again choosing to neglect its core audience. The only game that really, truly felt like a return-to-form was Pikmin 3, and even that’s a bit of a stretch. All I can say is, I don’t envy Nintendo come November.

 

Keep following for more from E3 tomorrow!

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