Microsoft's E3 Surprises: ESPN, New Xbox 360, and a Shameless Bribe?

Short on shocking moments and big reveals, Microsoft pulled the trump card at the end of its E3 press conference on Monday: Everyone in attendance would get a brand new, redesigned Xbox 360 for free. For all the journalists in the audience, it was time to make an ethical decision. For the rest of us, it was suddenly clear why Microsoft chose a small venue for the event, forcing many reporters, myself included, to watch via live video feed.

Microsoft's new Xbox 360 model ships immediately. It's not officially dubbed the Xbox 360 Slim, but it's smaller than its predecessors and includes a 250 GB hard drive and built-in wireless n. Previous models had only wired Ethernet jacks and maxed out at 120 GB hard drives. The new Xbox 360, which comes only in black, sells for the same $300 as the current Xbox 360 Elite.

The new Xbox 360, and its subsequent gifting to the to the press, were among a few surprises dotting an otherwise lackluster press conference. Most of the games Microsoft showed off were obvious Xbox 360 exclusives, and looked just as predictable in action. Halo: Reach was more Halo. Gears of War 3 was more Gears of War. Call of Duty: Black Ops was more Call of Duty. And almost every Kinect game on display had already debuted the night before (the exception being Metal Gear Solid: Rising, which may support motion-controlled sword combat). The conference's only new blood was a game codenamed Kingdoms, and its short teaser video had so little concrete information that the game is hard to get excited about.

But for existing Xbox 360 owners, at least there was ESPN. Rumored by the New York Times in January, ESPN for Xbox 360 will offer more than 3,500 live and on demand sporting events, including Major League Baseball, the NBA, soccer, college football and college basketball. No mention of the NFL, which has lagged on new media in general. In addition to the games, Xbox 360's ESPN support will include trivia, highlights and voice activation with Kinect. Best of all, it's free for Xbox Live Gold subscribers. The unanswered questions: When will the service arrive, and how subservient will the live broadcasts be to cable and local broadcasters?

Strangely, Microsoft announced a November 4 launch date for Kinect, but no price, nor any console bundles. Maybe the previous rumor of $150 is still in dispute.

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