Once again, Microsoft kicked off E3 with much song and dance, and yes, I mean that literally. Opening its Xbox 360 E3 2009 press conference with Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of the remaining Beatles was nothing short of a PR coup, and adding Steven Spielberg to the all-star lineup was a demonstration of both bravado and unnecessary excess. Star power goes a long way in Los Angeles, whether you’re attending E3 or a Hollywood premier, a lesson Microsoft learned after relying for too long on its own internal “stars” alone. The only problem with this grand beginning is that — in typical Microsoft tradition — the company is hoping that its grandiosity will distract people from pointing out the flaws and asking a few legitimate questions.
Microsoft has a reputation for over promising and under delivering, particularly with its Xbox 360 offerings. Just last year, Microsoft promised that avatars would revolutionize the way gamers think of their console identity. Twelve months later, we’re all still wondering what’s so different between avatars and Miis. Just last year, Microsoft said our avatars would be competing in Xbox Live tournaments in games like “1 vs. 100.” Twelve months later, the software giant is still telling us “1 vs. 100” will be the best thing since sliced bread, and we can finally try it for ourselves tonight (one year after its unveiling). Just last year, Microsoft said we’d be inundated with exclusive triple-A titles that you’d only be able to find on Xbox 360. Twelve months later, Cliffy B. is up on stage pimping one such game — for Xbox Live Arcade?
Look, E3 press conferences are all about hype, smoke and mirrors. They always have been, and they always will be. But for some reason, I can’t help but wonder whether Microsoft has finally over-promised itself into a dark abyss from which it will never return. The Xbox Live Vision camera was supposed to revolutionize gaming. Funny thing, Sony’s EyeToy and its PS3 counterpart couldn’t do that, and those were arguably better pieces of hardware than the Vision Cam. So will Project Natal, the Xbox 360’s new motion-sensing, face-recognizing, bread-baking and dish-washing camera really deliver the goods? The EyeToy let PS2 gamers use their bodies as controllers; that novelty wore off after about a year, and people moved on.
Yet here’s Microsoft, promising that Project Natal will one-up the Nintendo Wii by doing away with the controller altogether and letting gamers be the interface. Steven Spielberg standing behind it at least makes me stop to think it could succeed, but Microsoft’s history and timelines being what they are, I doubt Project Natal will be all it’s cracked up to be, or that it’ll ship before it’s really ready for primetime. I suppose that would make it pre-natal, eh? And did anyone else wonder why the project’s own codename is another word to describe something that’s not “fully baked”?
Never one to see a bandwagon it didn’t want to hop on, Microsoft also announced at E3 2009 that it will incorporate Twitter and Facebook functionality into the Xbox 360 interface. Snarky comments aside, this announcement is the most intriguing of the day, because if Microsoft is successful, it will essentially be the most aggressive move the company’s made to turn the Xbox 360 into the living room computer it’s always wanted to have. Remember, the original Xbox was supposed to be Microsoft’s Trojan horse into consumers’ living room, a successful experiment where WebTV and other Microsoft initiatives before it crashed and burned. So far, Microsoft has proved successful with the Xbox 360, but it’s slowly taken steps toward turning it into that pined-for living room computer. First Instant Messenger from the Dashboard, then Netflix from the NXE, now tweeting from a social networking blade. Add an Internet browser and Web-based applications, and you’ve suddenly got a Microsoft PC hooked up to your HDTV. Microsoft may be taking baby steps, but the company will make its way onto your La-Z-Boy faster than you can say “subscription-based computing.” Why didn’t that come up today?
Putting away the devil’s advocate comments for a moment, what excited me most about Microsoft’s E3 press conference? Alan Wake (can’t wait for it!), Splinter Cell: Conviction and Modern Warfare 2. Alan Wake, if Microsoft and Remedy haven’t watered-down the story and intrigue, could be an incredible title. The potential is definitely there for an outstanding narrative, and I’m always a sucker for a great story. Here’s hoping it can deliver. Splinter Cell: Conviction, meanwhile, could be a great reboot for the series, although I approach it with cautious optimism knowing that Ubisoft could go a little too far toward Assassin’s Creed-style gameplay and forget what made Sam Fisher such a compelling character in the first place. And Modern Warfare 2, well, do you really need to know why that one excites me? If Infinity Ward can finally break away from the constantly respawning enemies until gamers reach an invisible tripwire, Modern Warfare 2 could very well be the ultimate shooter.
But really, other than the social marketing functions and Project Natal, hadn’t we heard all this before? We knew the Beatles were getting their own game. We knew Alan Wake was on the horizon. We read about Modern Warfare 2 last month and had seen Splinter Cell: Conviction two years ago. 1 vs. 100 was shown at last year’s E3, and Cliffy B. pimping his pet projects isn’t exactly worthy of a headline — especially for an XBLA game.
But hey, look at the pretty shiny things! Don’t worry yourself over details, don’t ask where the real surprises are, don’t inquire when Bungie might actually work on something that doesn’t involve MJOLNIR armor. This is an E3 press conference! Style over substance, right? That’s what they say in LA, anyway.
— Jonas Allen