Gaming News from E3: Live from the Show

E3 Bombshell: Metal Gear Solid, "Natal" Motion Control for Xbox 360

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Turning to Xbox Live, Microsoft spotlighted a new, exclusive partnership with online radio station, the UK-based internet radio service with 30 million active listeners in 200 countries. It'll be available to Xbox Live Gold members at no extra charge later this year.

Video Service Updates

Netflix improvements: You'll be able to dig through the video catalog without going to your PC (woohoo!). Microsoft referenced their already-announced partnership with UK-based Sky TV, pointing out that watching TV directly on a game console without additional hardware is a first. Impressive? Not really, since PCs have had this forever. But sure, it's progress of a sort.

Microsoft says it's relaunching its video service as "Zume Video" this fall: First, they're upgrading their HD video library to full 1080p (no word on sample rates though). Second, they claim all movies and TV shows can be enjoyed instantly, "no discs, no downloads, no delays." Third, they're more than doubling the number of countries capable of using the service, from eight to 18. The last one's huge, as far as I'm concerned.

Facebook and Twitter for Xbox 360

Felicia Day, star of Microsoft's kinda-sorta-but-sometimes-not-really-funny game series The Guild popped out to reveal...Facebook! That's right, Facebook for your Xbox 360. The demo revealed the service plugging seamlessly into the Xbox 360's "New Xbox Experience" interface. The "friend linker" lets you see Xbox Live and Facebook friends together, and presumably issue invites from one to the other. My favorite feature: Facebook photos (what about videos, Microsoft?) available direct, full-screen. Most annoying new feature everyone else is going to love? Facebook status updates from your Xbox 360 (oh, and Twitter updates from your 360 too). Most intriguing feature? Facebook Connect, which lets you push in-game content from the 360 back to Facebook. The whole shebang: Coming this fall.

Metal Gear Solid: Rising

Eventually Senior Vice President of Xbox, Don Mattrick, took the stage for the Really Big Earth-Shattering announcements. At which point Hideo Kojima magically appeared and proceeded to dash the hopes of Metal Gear Solid 4 port hopefuls, then compensating by revealing Metal Gear Solid: Rising -- a completely new, standalone game in the series presumably not starring Solid Snake -- for the Xbox 360. "Lightning Bold Action," read a slide, as a voice declared "Raiden is back." Coming when? No idea.

But the biggest announcement of the show -- possibly the biggest announcement in years -- was Microsoft's "motion-control" reveal.

Project Natal

"Can we make you the controller?" teased Microsoft. "We are the controller."

It's called Project Natal (natal means "birth," and no, they didn't explain that in-show) and it's built around a sensor that tracks 3D movement and recognizes voices. The demo had the audience pretty much stunned. Think Sony's EyeToy plus-plus and then some. Natal will work with every 360 to-date, and every 360 sold in the future, says Microsoft.

Steven Spielberg popped out to talk about the controller, asking "How can interactive entertainment become as approachable as other forms of entertainment?" (Well duh!) Microsoft's going after "60%" of homes that don't own a console by making the technology invisible, said Spielberg, adding that "we're present for a historic moment, a moment as significant as the transformation of the square shaped movie screen to cinescope and IMAX."

Next, Kudo Tsunoda, the creative director of Project Natal stepped in to run an on-stage demo. Color me extremely impressed with this part. It looks like you still have to move with a certain amount of deliberateness and precision, but the on-screen response and tracking flexibility is amazing. It's clearly capturing information at a much, much higher resolution, and also much more deterministically than either the Eye Toy or the Wii. You can extend your body motion beyond the game's tracking range and it seems to compensate extremely well, recognizing your intentions and ignoring "noise" (e.g. limbs flailing, jogging in place while anticipating an action, etc.). My thoughts? Very Minority Report, but without Tom Cruise, which is always a good thing.

What about the voice capabilities? Peter Molyneux wrapped things up by demoing an incredibly lifelike character called Milo. Basically someone started talking to this virtual character (Milo) and he replied, recognizing the questions and reacting naturally. At one point, Milo tossed a pair of goggles at the screen and the player demoing the game reached down as if to catch them. Molyneux pointed out that "every player reaches down," and that it's part of the naturalistic aspect of Natal. It's hard to tell just how much of this was ad hoc versus scripted because it wasn't live demoed, but Molyneux claims it's the Real Deal, and that people will be able to meet Milo behind closed doors at E3 and see for themselves.

And that's a wrap for the Microsoft info-dump. Verdict? Most impressive conference I've seen in years. Fingers crossed Sony and Nintendo are up to the challenge.

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