E3: Back and Better Than Ever

As the video game industry trade show kicks off, the stars come out to play--and the new gear blows us away.

Meet the Beatles

A lot of game-industry navel gazers bemoaned the rebirth of the old big-tent, 300-ring circus that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Well, the show hasn't even officially opened its doors yet, and this shot alone screams, "We're back!"

Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr took center stage at Microsoft's event to help kick off E3--and say a few choice words about The Beatles: Rock Band game, which hits stores on 9/9/2009. Besides listening to the select songs that follow The Beatles' career, users will also be able to download full albums.

Oh, and for all those who want to feel good about playing games: Xbox 360 owners will be able to download "All You Need Is Love," and all proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders.

Spielberg, Hard-Core Gamer

Steven Spielberg hasn't really hidden his love of games over the years. He's been behind the creation of several, and he couldn't contain himself when given a chance to praise Microsoft's "Project Natal."

Natal allows you to interact with the Xbox without needing any controllers. And that includes navigating the menus with swipes of your hand, as in Minority Report. (For those with long memories, I talked about this tech at the 2008 Game Developer's Conference.)

Project Natal: The Potential Show-Stopper

Many people are already psyched about Natal's potential. Microsoft had a few tech demos to show what it has in mind, including a painting application, a block-breaking game where you have to knock balls with your body, and Milo.

Milo, an experiment put together by Lionhead Studios, shows how an eerily life-like 21st century digital boy can interact with a user. Using a camera, Milo detects motion, spacial relations (if you're near or far), and can recognize vocal patterns (are you scolding the wee lad?). One thing I'm doubtful about, though, is the alleged ability of the camera to scan a hand-drawn image in the blink of an eye.

However, the project is far from finished. I spoke with one of the people behind the techology that makes Natal possible, and he confirmed that the demo has a couple of "tricks" that help it work right now. No way could you wave an image right up close against the camera (the focal point of the lens wouldn't be able to adjust) and in a second have it process the image. This capability is more of a target goal.

James Cameron on Avatar

James Cameron should've held up a sign that said, "Spoiler Warning" as he proceeded to give the gathered journalists a full debrief on what the Avatar movie, game, and universe are all about. (Admit it: You'll still see it on opening night). Obviously, he's passionate about this project and anxious to let people know that the game is being created jointly with Ubisoft.

Still, it would've been nice to see something. A screenshot. Anything.

Joel McHale and Pele

The Soup's Joel McHale MC-ed Ubisoft's press conference, cracked a couple jokes, and introduced soccer (football outside the U.S.) legend, Pele.

The soccer star was on hand to promote Academy of Champions Soccer. The vibe, in a nutshell: Harry Potter with balls. Literally. You're at some academy with hyperpowered ball players. While we only have a couple of cinematics to go on, the game could appeal to kids. And to J.K. Rowling's army of lawyers.

Tony Hawk Skates

Where one device (Natal) aims to do away with the need for all peripherals (including this faux skateboard deck), Tony Hawk's Ride comes with a genuinely cool peripheral for the guy who wants to shred without breaking his neck. Like me, when I'll try to play it a little later this week.

The flat deck has accelerometers built in to detect everything from grinds and ollies to grabs and flip tricks. Gleaming the cube is optional.

Felicia Day: Social Media on the Xbox

Web Celebrity (Cewebrity?) Felicia Day (she of The Guild and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog) came out on Microsoft's behalf to talk about Facebook and Twitter integration into the whole Xbox Live experience.

Personally, I would've loved to see her talk about Hulu integration into Xbox Live as well, but that wasn't happening. To pour salt in the wound, Microsoft was more than happy to discuss SkyTV delivering live shows in Europe over the Live service.

But we do get integration (Internet music radio). Thanks.

Rapping at the Def Jam Offices

Right in the middle of downtown lurks Def Jam Records' West Coast offices--and inside, a surprisingly fun music game.

I'll be honest. Going in, I was expecting just another karaoke game. It's not. First, the music part: The game will ship later this year with 40 hip-hop tracks ranging from classic Kool Moe Dee to timely T.I. and T-Pain. Those on hand were quick to point out that it isn't just Def Jam artists--every major label is getting involved. Additional tracks, of course, will be available for paid download after the fact.

The multiplayer mode plays with several lines of lyrics queuing up while two players rap battle. And even if you don't know the songs it's actually easy to follow along and at least attempt to keep the beat. The game measures tune, timing and accuracy.

More than just songs, Def Jam will have a community site where gamers can submit 30-second clips from their sets, recorded on the Xbox Live Vision Cam (or EyeToy). If one of your buddies beats your score, you can get notified over e-mail of gettin' served.

Speaking of Rap....Jay-Z

Activision's big push to promote its Guitar/Band/DJ Hero turned into one heck of a concert. Travis Barker and DJ AM got the crowd going, while Jay-Z set the pace before bringing Eminem out on stage.

And, by the way, the show hasn't even officially started. Tuesday Morning, it's Sony and Nintendo's turn. For better or worse with all the glam fanfare, E3's back.

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