E3 Bombshell: Metal Gear Solid, “Natal” Motion Control for Xbox 360
By Matt Peckham
Microsoft’s E3 2009 press conference is all-systems-go, so what did Redmond, Washington have up its sleeve? Some pretty amazing stuff, actually. Metal Gear Solid for the Xbox 360?
Full-body motion controls that look more responsive, accurate, and open-form than anything the PlayStation Eye or Wii-remote have touted?
Also: Appearances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to discuss The Beatles: Rock Band? Read on for the complete show breakdown.
The Beatles: Rock Band
Microsoft got things kicking with a trippy Beatles video montage before segueing to The Beatles: Rock Band (not, you’ll notice, Rock Band: The Beatles, which speaks volumes). Launch date? September 9. After Harmonix rocked out onstage demoing “Day Tripper,” Microsoft revealed several of the game’s 45 total songs, along with the first official trailer of the game.
Stuff I heard:
I Am the Walrus
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Here Comes the Sun
All You Need is Love
To cap that off, Microsoft trotted out…wait for it…Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr to talk up the game. Hello mega-bucks to get those four (not to mention all on the same stage at the same time, more or less). Nothing special here, just Bunyan-sized buckets of star power. You have to hand it to Microsoft for nabbing McCartney and Starr. Not just anyone can say they’ve done that.
Tony Hawk Ride
Next up, Tony Hawk (the man himself, that is) talking his next game, Tony Hawk Ride, then demoing a new skateboard with motion control. Was this the long-rumored Xbox 360 motion control part? Not quite, but talk about a teaser. “The best way to experience skateboarding is on a board,” said Tony. (“The best way to experience skateboarding is to go skateboarding,” quipped some random drive-by commenter in a chat room.)
Modern Warfare 2
After a predictably raucous new trailer for Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2, Activision took the stage to demo some of the shooter’s new gameplay. We saw a guy stabbing climbing hooks into the side of an ice wall, climbing up said wall in first person, then flipping over to a shooting sequence in a snowstorm. The protagonist was using a gun with some sort of radar screen hanging off the left side, which looks cool but hideously impractical if you’re thinking real-world (then again, what do I know).
The new weather FX were effectively chilly, modeling blinding curtains of billowing snow. Then all hell broke loose on an airfield and lots of stuff went boom. Clearly the emphasis is “superhero” again, i.e. you meting out preposterous amounts of damage while taking relatively little, standing like a giant flag in the middle of no-cover and dropping enemies like tenpins. It looks interesting, but since it was all just standard shooting stuff (okay, the snowmobile chase scene was kinda cool) it’s tough to evaluate.
Final Fantasy XIII
Next up, Microsoft trotted out Kitase-san, producer of Final Fantasy XIII, and Toriyama-san, director of Final Fantasy XIII for a first-look at Final Fantasy XIII running on the Xbox 360. It looked good, though also identical to the cutscenes and gameplay trailers you’ve seen for the PS3. Surprised? Don’t be. And don’t bother looking for differences. Aside from possible content deals we’ve yet to hear about, there won’t be any.
Reveals? The game will have four active time gauges. Oh, and Odin’s a summon.
After FFXIII, the conference switched to 360 exclusives, leading with Epic (developer of Gears of War 2) who revealed their first Xbox Live Arcade title: Shadow Complex. This one looks like one of those two-and-a-half-D side-scrollers with, per design director Cliff Bleszinski, “tons of exploration and intense combat.” The campaign’s supposed to be over 10 hours long “with a lot of re-playability” and “some pretty cool boss battles as well.” Look for Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade this summer.
Joy Ride, a racing game by Big Park (one of the newest member of Microsoft Game Studios) was on next. Take the desert-scapes in the Road Runner cartoons and mash ’em in with Speed Racer and you’ve got the vibe. Microsoft called it a “new social experience with the energy of a kart racer,” plus a personal angle (personalize cars, upgrade them etc.). Oh yeah, you can share any race track with a friend, regardless of whether they purchased it themselves. Coming this winter to Xbox Live.
Crackdown 2 announced: “The city is infected…you are the cure.” A dude in armor goes rooftop-hopping. “Our enemies have nowhere to run…just remember, neither do you.” Shortest trailer I’ve seen in a long time, which is why I’ve out of things to say about it.
Left 4 Dead 2
Left 4 Dead 2 announced and previewed: The trailer was basically what you’d expect. Zombies everywhere, heads exploding, bodies ripping open, swarms of bloody forms scrambling over fences. Narrated by a survivor, who ties off with: “And if we run out of bullets, baby, they gonna wish we hadn’t.” Cue chainsaw sound effect. Coming November 17.
Splinter Cell: Conviction
Stoked for Splinter Cell: Conviction (aka “The Fugitive: Sam Fischer”)? Max Beland and Alex Parizeau from Ubisoft Montreal took the stage to talk about the game, stating that “Sam has changed, and this time he’s on a personal mission.” Uh-huh. So what about the gameplay? We got a peek: Sam smacking around a bald guy in a bathroom as story-related video played in black and white on the wall around him. “The story unfolds in realtime,” said Beland, suggesting there won’t be cutscenes or breaks in the gameplay — it’ll all unfold around you seamlessly instead. It looks like Sam’s actions are going to be much faster, too, i.e. more violent, and — since he’s a guy who’s just lost his daughter — enthusiastically lethal. The demo revealed a new action called the “mark and execute.”
“Each environment is built like a small sandbox,” said Beland, referring to the game’s focus on freeform tactical play. Looks like there’s significantly better environmental awareness, too. Shoot down a chandelier and enemies react more specifically, referencing what you’ve done in some detail, or use broken glass to peek under a door. Coming this fall exclusively for Xbox 360.
Forza Motorsport 3
Next up, racing: Shipping in October, Forza Motorsport 3, which looked so photorealistic I’d say Gran Turismo 5’s in trouble, or at least in for a fight. Design guy (missed his name) claims it’ll have “the best graphic and physics” of any game on any platform (because no one’s ever claimed that!). Forza 3 ships this October.
Halo 3: ODST
Bungie dropped by next with Halo 3: ODST. The demo launched with a couple tough-quipping marines, i.e Gears of Halo 3. “Welcome to the city of New Mombasa, weeks before the start of Halo 3,” said Microsoft. You play a rookie orbital drop shock trooper separated from his team. You’re on your own, working through lots of wide open areas, and you have to “stay alert for unexpected help.” ODST troops apparently have access to gizmos Spartans don’t, like a low-light visor and two new sound-suppressed weapons. You’ll flip between different ODSTs, eventually, tackling different mission types too (the demo revealed two ODST’s trying to blow a bridge). This one launches September 22.
Hello top secret Bungie product! “From the beginning, you know the end,” began the trailer, before showing a planet that looked like Earth viewed from high orbit, with frantic radio messages and wild explosions going off across the surface. The game’s name: Halo: Reach. Halo prequel? “Falls 2010,” meaning it’s coming in 2010, or the fall of 2010, or maybe that’s code for a hidden waterfall in the game where they hand out magic candy. You pick. The hook: When you buy Halo 3 ODST, you’ll get an invitation to the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta.
Alan Wake was demoed for the umpteenth time, all in-game footage. In case you’ve lost track, the game’s a story about a writer whose supernatural scribblings are inexplicably coming true. The demo showed footage of Alan arriving at a meeting point at night, walking into a wrecked house and catching hell, literally. Alan battles Smokezilla from Lost? Something (invisible?) was flinging stuff at him, but maybe I missed it. It looks like Alan can slow down time (or maybe his enemies can?) and target them with a tricked out flare gun. Also: Tons of lighting effects, heavy duty particles, and crazy flare bleed in darkened environments. Alan Wake will “see light of day” spring 2010.
Turning to Xbox Live, Microsoft spotlighted a new, exclusive partnership with online radio station Last.fm, 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.
“Can we make you the controller?” teased Microsoft. “We can…you 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.