E3 2006: Picks and Pans

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It's a tough job, we know. But someone's gotta do it. We trekked to Los Angeles this week for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the annual showcase for the latest and greatest in gaming. We braved long lines and played plenty of video games to find out what's hot--and what's not. Here's our take on this year's show.

Best of Show

In Control: It was great to see Nintendo's Wii controller in action. Motion detection in the device lets you mimic your game's steering wheel, sword, gun, bow and arrow, tennis racquet and more. A built-in speaker gives further feedback, such as the twang of a bow in Zelda. Meanwhile, Sony's standard PlayStation 3 wireless controller will have six degrees of freedom: It can maneuver through the X, Y, and Z axis, so you can rotate, pitch, and roll through most all aspects of gameplay. We tried the controller ourselves, and it worked particularly well with WarHawk. The Nintendo has the edge on uniqueness and sheer innovation, but the Playstation 3 is expected to be a much more powerful machine when it launches on November 17 in the U.S. priced at $499 (20GB) and $599 (60GB). --Danny Allen

Biggest Coup?: It took several months for the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to arrive on the Xbox after its PS2 debut, but this is set to change as the battle between the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 gets under way. Grand Theft Auto IV will be available simultaneously for both platforms when it launches on October 16th, 2007. Moreover, Microsoft and Rockstar Games have entered into a strategic partnership for exclusive "episode content" to be delivered via Xbox Live. --Danny Allen

Ole Ole: The biggest sporting event in the world this year is the soccer World Cup and as much as I'm looking forward to spending some long nights soaking up the atmosphere through my television tube, I can't wait to do likewise with Konami's Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007. Personally, after playing an early build at the show, I still believe it to be the best soccer game franchise. The new title is slated for a January 2007 release on Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, PS2, PC, and PSP. Although the Playstation 3 wasn't mentioned, it's widely expected that Konami will still come to the party on the front. If not, I guess I'll stay an Xbox 360 man. --Danny Allen

Tripping Down Arcade Game Alley: In Kentia Hall, the Electronic Software Association had a cool display that was easy to get lost in for a few minutes--or hours. The display included an array of old console video games, set up with cartridges for you to play at will (among those represented: Atari 2600 and ColecoVision), boxes of old handheld and console games, and--best yet--several rows of beloved arcade games, no quarters required. I personally spent a little time revisiting my misspent youth on Galaga and Ms. PacMan?and Atari 2600 Missile Command (incidentally, someone bought that cartridge for all of $1, according to its red tag). --Melissa J. Perenson

Mobile Games Take Flight: Just like the casual hop-in, hop-out games seemed to have a lot of buzz (especially as part of Microsoft Xbox Live Arcade program), so too did mobile games. That Nokia was exhibiting on the show floor with N-Gage titles wasn't surprising. However, even heavyweights Electronic Arts and Vivendi Universal had mobile divisions showcasing quick-hit games, including Flying Toaster, Eragon, and Tetris. And Microsoft's Live Anywhere initiative will be compatible across hundreds of handsets--not just Windows Mobile. --Melissa J. Perenson

Scene and Heard

Sign of the Times: Frogger Turns 25. Sigh. Where did the time go? --Melissa J. Perenson

Console Wars: At every E3, much of the buzz around the show involves one basic question: How are Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo doing? The consensus among people I talked to seemed to be that Nintendo's Wii has everyone intrigued, that Microsoft had a good show (as it would, given it has the only next-generation console that's actually available), and that the PlayStation 3 has a bit of a me-too feel about it. --Harry McCracken

Booth Babes: Exhibitors faced $5000 fines this year if their promotional models were deemed too skimpy by the convention organizers. I'm told this E3 wasn't quite as crazy as some in years gone by, but it is still definitely a trade show for those 18 years and over. --Danny Allen

Microsoft to Gamers: We're Sorry: The behemoth of Redmond isn't known for its manners, but its launch of a new "Games for Windows" marketing campaign was built around the notion that the company hasn't taking Windows seriously enough as a gaming platform, and will try to do better from now on. In meetings with multiple Microsoft executives, we heard them issue abject apologies to the gaming community again and again. And again. --Harry McCracken

Long Lines Everywhere: At the Sony booth, there were rows of PlayStation 3 game demos as far as the eye could see, and you could play to your heart's content. But Nintendo hid the Wii console in a private area, and even before E3 officially opened, the wait to get in was more than an hour long. (I never made it into the demo, but my colleague Danny Allen did and blogged about it. Long, snaking lines of attendees were also seen waiting for demos of Spore (a new game from Will Wright, creator of the Sims) and Stranglehold (an action game whose creative personnel include Chow Yun Fat and John Woo)...and at every Starbucks on the premises. --Harry McCracken

Holy Celebrity Spotting, Batman!: Another extremely long line of attendees formed to get autographs from none other than the Caped Crusader himself, Adam West. Actually, Batman references are inappropriate here: West appeared in his capacity of the voice of the Mayor on Family Guy, which 2K is turning into a game. And given the age of many of the signature-seekers, I'm not even sure if all of them know that West once wore a cape and utility belt. --Harry McCracken

Get in the Game

Scarface Revisionism: Spoiler alert! In Brian DePalma's 1983 crime drama Scarface, Miami thug Tony Montana (Al Pacino) comes to a violent and, almost anyone would concede, richly-deserved end. But in Vivendi Universal's new game based on the movie--originally due last year and now supposedly arriving this fall--you play Tony, and the goal is to escape the shootout and go on merrily setting up front operations, assaulting people, swearing up a storm, and selling massive amounts of cocaine. Judging from the demo, eliminating the movie's hard-nosed moral may also remove much of what makes it memorable. --Harry McCracken

Mobile Games Take Flight: Just like the casual hop-in, hop-out games seemed to have a lot of buzz (especially as part of Microsoft Xbox Live Arcade program), so too did mobile games. That Nokia was exhibiting on the show floor with N-Gage titles wasn't surprising. However, even heavyweights Electronic Arts and Vivendi Universal had mobile divisions showcasing quick-hit games, including Flying Toaster, Eragon, and Tetris. And Microsoft's Live Anywhere initiative will be compatible across hundreds of handsets--not just Windows Mobile. --Melissa J. Perenson

Casualware?: Everywhere I went, vendors seemed to be talking up the importance of "casual gaming"--gaming experiences that don't require a massive investment of time (or a pricey, high-end computer) to enjoy. Games, in other words, for everyone. Sounds good to me, although most of the show's big launches still seemed to target hardcore gamers. --Harry McCracken

Get Your Body Moving: From the latest in Konami's Dance Dance Revolution to Nintendo's Wii and Nunchuk controllers and Sony's wireless controller with multi-axis sensitivity, the industry is now rife with ways for gamers to get off their couches and throw their bodies into action, literally. In a way, this is a great step for those who have long since worn out their trigger, err, thumb muscles. However, I can see the increase in medical claims already, for former couch potatoes who throw their shoulder out after an overly enthusiastic serve in a Wii tennis match. --Melissa J. Perenson

Oddest Comeback: Sierra showed off Flying Toasters, a cell-phone game based on After Dark, the popular screensaver of the 1990s. In this epic space drama, you, um, pilot a flying toaster which cruises through space, zapping slices of bread and bagels. --Harry McCracken

Now That's High Definition: Am I playing a game, or have I been inserted into an environment? PlayStation 3 games like Gran Turismo HD, presented in splendor at full 1920 by 1080p resolution, have such highly detailed artwork that it's sometimes possible to forget you're actually in a game, not a real, movie-like environment. The flyover of the Grand Canyon in Gran Turismo looks as photorealistic as it gets. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I'm convinced we'll start to see some of the same CG-generated animations that are used in films trickle into the environments that make up the next generation of gaming in high-def. --Melissa J. Perenson

Build Your Own Darth Vader: LucasArts' Star Wars Lego II seems like lots of fun. But an equally-as-big a hit at the LucasArts by-appointment-only room was this bin of Star Wars Lego characters pieces parts. The bin always seemed to have a queue of folks trying to find the matching bits to create a mini-Lego Vader or Skywalker. The stormtroopers, at least, were easy to find. --Melissa J. Perenson

Less Than Impressed

Inevitable Yet Stlll Peculiar TV Adaptation: Buena Vista Games showed a game based on Desperate Housewives. --Harry McCracken

Biggest Pet Peeve: Running out of time to try Spore, brainchild of Will Wright, creator of the Sims. This looks to be one of the most innovative software titles in some time so I was disappointed to miss out on my chance to fight with other pet creature creations in the tide pool and evolve into a tribe, city and civilization before exploring space. There is some good news though; an official trailer is now available to watch online. --Danny Allen

Where's the Wi-Fi?: Bringing you the latest news amongst the crowds at big trade shows like E3 is a (mostly enjoyable) challenge unto itself, but this year it was doubly so. Given that my hotel's wired and wireless networks were inexplicitly unavailable, I came to rely on the courtesy Wi-Fi provided at E3's media room. Murphy's Law being what it is, this also came crashing to a halt. Many of us refugees turned to the paid Wi-Fi, which we soon overburdened to a slow crawl. The moral of the story: if staying in touch on the road is an absolute must, then invest in some form of mobile broadband or a laptop alternative such a Treo hybrid phone. In my case, I eventually McGyvered a temporary, yet speedy solution by innocuously using the network cable from one of the many VoIP phones strewn about the media room? just to see if it would work, of course. --Danny Allen

Where's my HDMI?: Given all the buzz about next-generation gaming platforms, it was hard to overlook the fact that the lower-end $500 PlayStation 3 would not include an HDMI port. Of course, nor, for that matter, does the Xbox 360--an omission that's rather critical when you consider why you should bother upgrading to an HD DVD drive at all if you can't output at the maximum digital resolution HD DVD movies are capable of delivering. --Melissa J. Perenson

Console Systems for Movies? Nah: Given the lack of HDMI output on Xbox 360 and the lower-end PS3, it's hard to take either console seriously as a platform to grow the audience for the next-gen movie formats on HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. No HDCP-protected output like HDMI means that as soon as studios start to implement Image Constraint Token (ICT, a component of the AACS content protection system)--which they may very well choose to do as time wears on--that so-called next-gen console is going to feel pretty much like a large doorstop, if you planned on it doubling as your movie player. --Melissa J. Perenson

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