Thursday, June 9, 2011

E3 shakes up video game landscape

by: Mike Smith
If you're a gamer, there's no week in the calendar more important than this. Every spring, the video games industry gathers in Los Angeles for the E3 Expo, a frenzy of press conferences, product announcements, and desperate hype that can lay out the course of electronic entertainment for the months and years to come. It's where the Wii was unveiled, where the world got its first glimpse of the Playstation 3, and where Grand Theft Auto IV was announced, tattooed onto the arm of then Microsoft exec Peter Moore.
And this year? No tattoos, but no shortage of bombshells. Sony's new portable now has a name and an oh-so-tempting price, Nintendo revealed an innovative new system that could solve a decades-old family argument, and Microsoft...well, let's just say Microsoft is clearly content with the status quo. Here's the skinny on the big hardware news from the Big Three console manufacturers.

Wii UNintendoNintendo might have taken the final slot in the E3 press conference schedule, but it easily had the most exciting hardware.
Its new system, dubbed "Wii U," uses a jumbo-sized, iPad-like controller with a 6.2" touch-screen along with conventional game buttons and sticks. The controller also packs tilt sensors, speakers, a microphone, a camera, and rumble motors. It might even be more high-tech than the console itself.
It's so high-tech, in fact, that you can play games on that touch-screen alone. Nintendo showed off a movie of a gamer switching seamlessly from playing Mario on the TV to playing it on the controller screen, a feature that could put an end to the living room arguments that have plagued families since the 1970s.
You could be forgiven for thinking the controller could be a portable gaming system in its own right, but that's not Nintendo's intention. Instead, it connects wirelessly to an apparently unremarkable set-top box, which takes optical discs (in addition to other media), outputs in high definition (finally!)  and looks rather like a melted Wii. It'll play all existing Wii games, and will also be compatible with Wii hardware like the Wii remote.
Nintendo also addressed another of the Wii's key weaknesses: its support from publishers other than Nintendo. Outside of a handful of big hits, non-Nintendo games simply haven't sold well on the Wii, and that's made many publishers reluctant to port over their big-name releases. Take EA's Battlefield franchise: violent, graphically intensive, and with a heavy focus on online play, it's the sort of game that would never have come to the Wii -- but as EA boss John Riccitiello demonstrated, that's all about to change. Battlefield 3, together with a number of other core-gamer favorites, will be coming to the Wii U.
The Wii U will be out sometime next year, and it'll be priced...well, your guess is as good as ours. Packing all that tech into the controller means there's no way it'll be cheap. Some have compared it to the iPad, and although it's doubtful the Wii U controller will carry anything like the $500 tag of Apple's tablet, it's clearly not going to match the Wiimote's launch price of $40. Add on the price of the system itself, and it seems unavoidable that next Christmas the Wii U will be sharing shelves with PS3s and Xbox 360s that are able to substantially undercut it on price.
Will that matter? Nintendo has two big hills to climb: it has to convince the price-conscious casual crowd -- the Wii Fit and Just Dance generation -- that the Wii U is enough of an upgrade to be worth their money, and it has to convince the hardcore gamer that he'd rather play Battlefield 3 on a Wii U than on the Xbox he already owns. Doing either would be a significant achievement, but it's all too easy to underestimate the boldness and marketing savvy of Nintendo. It's going to be one heck of a ride.

PS VitaSony$250 for a PS Vita, Sony's ultra high-tech successor to the Playstation Portable? Talk about aggressive.
Despite the PSP's perceived failings, Sony's obviously not prepared to concede defeat in the portable market just yet. Quite the opposite, if anything: it's painting a big bullseye over the Nintendo 3DS -- which, underperforming in sales and with hardware fundamentals fully seven years old, suddenly seems like an easy target.
Beyond its name and price, few other substantive Vita announcements have appeared, though its hardware specs have been common knowledge since January. Still, we have a much better idea as to what it'll be like to actually own one of the sleek portables -- and especially how it'll interact with our PS3s. Vita owners will be able to transfer game saves to and from their Playstations, picking up games at the point where they left off; they can play online against other gamers equipped with either system in titles like Wipeout; and creative-focused titles like ModNation Racers will be able to swap custom content between the two platforms.
However, the Vita still has plenty of obstacles in its way. Sony's decision to use AT&T's much-criticized telecommunications network for the 3G-equipped model earned them a rare chorus of boos at their press conference, and it's still unclear exactly which games Vita buyers can expect to be playing at launch.
All the same, that price point has to be considered a major coup for Sony. We suspect there's going to be an awful lot of demand for the Vita this holiday season -- and we hope Sony's up to meeting it.
Capitalizing on its experience in the broader electronics market, Sony will also be launching a purpose-built 24" television intended to give gamers an affordable leg-up into the 3D world. Bundled with one pair of glasses, an HDMI cable and a copy of Resistance 3, it'll cost just $499--- another aggressive price point, and another product that looks to be well placed for serious commercial success later this year. After unveiling a line-up like that, Sony's much-publicized security meltdown seems like a distant memory.

KinectMicrosoftWhen you're on top, you don't change the rules. Riding high after a successful 2010 -- and with its new Kinect controller system a smash hit with consumers -- Microsoft didn't have much to prove this year. With no new game system to announce, Microsoft wants consumers to think about Kinect, how the motion-sensing controller will work with more traditional gameplay experiences, and the snazzy features owners can expect in the 360's next dashboard update.
Still, Microsoft's offered a glimpse into some of the quirky potential of the Kinect's array of cameras. New downloadable app Kinect Fun Labs lets you scan in any object you like, and will animate it hopping about, in 3D, on your screen. Another feature will create an Xbox Live avatar from your actual physique and clothes. A third helps you make funky composite photos of yourself, adding neat 3D effects and custom lighting. What does this have to do with games? We're not sure, but it's pretty cool -- and it's already up on Xbox Live if you want to try it out for yourself.
So nothing on the hardware front, then? Almost. After the press conference wrapped up on Monday, Microsoft released the first pictures of its Wireless Speed Wheel, a tilt-sensing racing controller that'll launch this fall alongside Forza 4, priced at $60. Call us Luddites, but the thought of using a steering wheel that's not attached to anything still seems wrong, somehow, and it apparently didn't warrant a slot in their press conference. Looks like the aging Xbox 360 -- which will pass its sixth birthday later this year -- isn't past its sell-by date just yet.

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