E3 2011: Microsoft Reveals Halo 4, Bets Farm on Kinect Experience

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So there's this franchise called Halo, maybe you've heard of it. You know, the game about a supersoldier battling aliens? No, not The Chronicles of Riddick—I said Halo. Well, it's getting another sequel. That's right, Microsoft revealed Halo 4 at its press conference during E3's pre-show press circus—I mean press conference—this morning.

What do we know about Halo 4 at this point? Not much. If the teaser was in-game and not pre-rendered, it looks great, but then you'd expect it to. It involves John "Master Chief" 117, but then you'd expect that, too. And it's the dawn of a new trilogy, so the giant Borg-like thing eyeballing the pygmy spaceship John's on probably has something to do with a new threat you'll be battling thrice. Check it out for yourself.

Microsoft also revealed Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, the "remade and re-mastered" version of the original 2001 Xbox game. It'll include seven classic multiplayer maps reportedly enhanced for Xbox Live. Available: November 15th, 2011.

The rest of the show was relatively uneventful, just one thunderous demo after another of games we already knew about. Like: Modern Warfare 3. Mass Effect 3. Gears of War 3. (This whole three-quel thing's a mild downer—we know plenty about those games…where was anything new and interesting?)

We did see a new Tomb Raider game (coming in 2012, anyone yawning yet?), and the first footage of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. The latter included a trailer in which you butcher enemies using a futuristic arsenal, including personal cloaking tech. The most intriguing bit involved a mode called "Gunsmith," in which developer Ubisoft claims you'll be able to create some 20 million unique weapons using Kinect gestures (flip your fingers forward to "fire") or voice commands for tactical delegation. Of course the guy demoing the gun looked as silly as you'd expect someone clutching an invisible gun to.

And that set the theme for rest of the show: Kinect, Kinect, Kinect. Last year was all about introducing Microsoft's "you are the controller" motion-sensing camera. This year was more about integration. Take Mass Effect 3. BioWare demonstrated how we'll be able to speak naturally to delegate tactical commands. Shepard (the protagonist) looked as unexcited and woodenly animated as ever, but the voice angle has potential, and don't worry: it's supplemental to standard gamepad controls.

The next coolest news (after Halo 4) was probably the New New Xbox Experience, with its much simpler Kinect-driven interface. Microsoft's stripped things down to make navigation more categorically intuitive. In fact the Xbox 360 looks less and less like a dedicated games console and more like a generalist all-in-one media hub. Speaking of media, YouTube's (finally) coming to Xbox Live in the update, as is Microsoft's search engine, Bing. "You say it, Xbox finds it," said Microsoft corporate VP of Xbox Live Marc Whitten, adding that the whole experience is designed to be "effortless" and "approachable." Of course putting YouTube and a search engine in Kinect is all stuff that really could (and should) have launched with the peripheral a year ago.

Live TV fans have something to look forward to: "This is the year live television comes to Xbox," said Whitten. "Watch live television on your Xbox, including news, sports, and your favorite local channels." Not too shabby.

The New New Xbox Experience—I'm just making that first 'New' up, since Microsoft already launched a New Xbox Experience in late 2008—rolls out sometime this fall.

Other games teased: Crytek's new Rome-themed game, Ryse, in which you fight sword-and-shield style using Kinect. And racer Forza 4 made an appearance, looking even cleaner and more photorealistic.

Then out came Fable's Peter Molyneux, posing questions in classic wide-eyed Molyneux style: "How can we connect you to Albion like never before? How can we make you a hundred times more involved?" The demo for his upcoming Kinect-driven fantasy game Fable: The Journey answered that question by looking both more and less involved. Forget the controller, you are the horse-driver! Yep, you can take the reins of a wagon driven by horses, then hop off and cast spells with gestures, or backhand enemies in close combat. About the "less involved" part: Maybe I'll be wrong, but the game appeared to be on auto-drive, such that you're simply reacting to stuff thrown at you, like an old-school pop-up shooter.

What else. Indie hit Minecraft's coming to the Xbox 360 and Kinect exclusively this winter. That should please Minecraft fans, though it's really a shame it won't be available on all platforms simultaneously.

In the kid's camp, Microsoft revealed Kinect Disneyland adventure, shipping this holiday. It's basically a virtual version of Disneyworld, plus special themed levels that look like a Disney-fied version of Kinect Adventures. The company also demoed a ridiculously cute Sesame Street-themed game starring Cookie Monster and Elmo.

And yep, we finally got a look at Kinect Star Wars. Like Fable: The Journey, it looks to be another on-rails game, where you're basically reacting to stuff. Jump into battle. Use your arms to pull off force tricks. Swing a lightsaber. Rush at enemies and extend a leg for kicks. The big reveal may in fact be that there's still substantial Kinect tracking delays, which is part of why I don't bother with most Kinect games.

My favorite Kinect announcement? Kinect Fun Labs, where you'll be able to fiddle with the latest Kinect gadgets from the games industry or developed by the Kinect community. Microsoft is making KFL a permanent part of the Xbox Live dashboard now, as in today, June 6th.

And last but not least, we saw Dance Central 2, which adds voice controls, a campaign mode, and a redesigned "Break It Down" mode. You'll be able to import all songs from Dance Central into Dance Central 2 (over 100 titles at launch) and—wait for it—finally engage in simultaneous multiplayer dancing.

So a little of this, a little of that, if nothing to write home about. That's okay. Microsoft's still outselling everyone in monthly console numbers, and it knows this E3's probably Nintendo's to lose, what with the worldwide debut of Nintendo's Wii successor tomorrow morning.

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