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E3 2009: Postmortem of Gaming's Biggest Night Out

Contributor:
Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

On the gaming industry calendar few occasions match the digital opulence of the annual geek banquet, E3. Running for three days, wrapping up on June 4th, E3 gives the industry’s heavy hitters a unique chance to show off their biggest and boldest offerings of the coming year. 2009 was the first time the event had been re-opened to the public after smaller scale expos in years previous, and the ephemeral hype was definitely restored to mythic levels of old.

In recent times there has been a mounting ambivalence towards gaming’s centrepiece expo, on behalf of the press and public alike. With the industry rapidly evolving on multiple fronts it seemed the old-model hype machine was struggling to hold the interest of dedicated fans or catch the attention of new audiences. 2009 saw a dedicated attempt to remedy that apathy, to put on a real song and dance that would satiate the curmudgeonly hardcore and bedazzle the flighty causal crowd.

In some ways E3 2009 succeeded in its aim, the larger public format alone meant the swelling event would capture the gaze of mainstream press in the way that only large volumes of money packed tightly into a single space can. As for what the expo actually brought to light, specifically care of the ‘Big Three ‘, the case for success is a little greyer. There were some big blows dealt, but just how thrilling the outcome is will depend heavily on expectations and needs.

Microsoft

As the first of the big showboating press releases, Microsoft were charged with ever-important first impressions of E3 09, and on that score they did admirably.

The company’s biggest reveal was the Natal, a motion-sensing input that will purportedly make the traditional controller obsolete. As well as sensing movement in 3D to an infinitesimally accurate degree, the Natal will also recognize player’s face and voice.

A slick promotional video for Project Natal showed the device being used to control racing games, fighting games, and sporting games, all with movements of the body. Anyone with even brief experience of Nintendo’s Wii knows the intoxicating allure of motion-sensing controls, but with just a little more experience they doubtlessly also know the frustration that comes with the technology’s limitations. Only time will tell if Microsoft’s one-up attempt fullfills its promise.

Further expanding the online entertainment abilities of the Xbox 360, Microsoft will deliver a host of set-top box functions in the future. On-demand, high quality movies, TV shows, and music care of a Netflix partnership (and SKY TV in the UK). Additionally the console will be making a foray into the social networking world, integrating with both Facebook and Twitter. This will hopefully make for a more easily managed online Friends feature, but will also exponentially expand the amount of free time sucked into the black hole of social networking sites.

As far as actual gaming announcements went, Microsoft was eager to show off newfound support from the Japanese development community. Traditionally weak in Japan, the Xbox 360 will in the future see its first Final fantasy game by undermining the PS3 exclusivity of Final Fantasy XIII, as well as its first instance of the Metal Gear Solid series, Metal Gear Solid Rising, a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 2 starring much-aligned character Raiden.

Microsoft really did seem to have something for everyone. The possibilities the Natal control brings to the table are intriguing, even if the idea doesn’t exactly bleed originality. More robust online features seem like a clear path into the future for the console market, as well as a great way to entice that juicy casual audience. And hardcore gamers can’t be too disappointed with the announcement of two of the biggest gaming franchises coming to the Xbox 360.

Nintendo

Ever since taking over the world with the release of the Wii, Nintendo have boxed themselves into a corner as far as E3 Expos goes. No matter what they have to say you can be sure nobody is ever happy with it. New innovations that expand the definition of videogames are seen as betraying traditional gaming values, whereas announcements pertaining to the very games that built those traditions are met with resignation as ‘yet another’ Mario/Zelda/Metroid game gets rolled out.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, but at least they’ve got all the money. Once again Nintendo tried to walk the line between casual and hardcore needs, and in succeeding brilliantly managed to put together the most underwhelming press conference of the Expo. Again.

Nintendo had two hardware developments to show off, and one was a product they already had on display at last year’s E3; the MotionPlus sensor is an add-on for the motion-sensing Wiimote that will greatly improve its accuracy - to a level that the hardware probably should have had when it first launched. The Wii Vitality Sensor clips onto a player’s finger and measures pulse, allowing developers to ‘visualise something otherwise invisible’ within games. Though how exactly this will work is anybody’s guess, as the company had no software to support the new peripheral.

Microsoft aren’t the only ones getting in on the social networking game, Nintendo’s new DSi handheld will also soon integrate with Facebook, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Nintendo’s most substantial announcements were new instalments to three of their classic series. The imaginatively titled New Super Mario Bros. Wii will bring the classic 2D platforming mayhem to the console for the first time, a direct sequel to the acclaimed Mario Galaxy will also soon be touching down on the Wii, and the beloved first-person adventure series Metroid will be getting updated as Metroid: Other M, care of third-party developers Team Ninja.

New Hardware to engage that lucrative geriatric and housewife demographic, backed by a slew of enticing games for long-time fans; Nintendo deliver exactly what they should and still nobody cares. Ah well, it’s hard at the top.

Sony

Bringing up the rear, Sony held a lively press conference that nonetheless seemed to cover a lot of the same ground already mined by the competition.

Never afraid to look like they’re completely biting their competitor’s ideas, Sony announce the next step in their motion-sensing co-option; the Wii has MotionPlus, the Xbox 360 has Natal, and now the PlayStation is packing the PlayStation Motion Controller (a name that makes one wonder what exactly the marketing department at Sony actually do all day).

This announcement was leaked well in advance of the Expo, which helped avoid the whole been-there-done-that shadow a little, but it’s still difficult to summon much enthusiasm for Sony’s little motion-tracking ‘magic wand’, though it does seem like the device is impressively close to release.
 
Another widely leaked announcement was Sony’s handheld remodel, the PSP GO. A compact version of the original minus the UMB drive, The PSP GO has been developed with increased photo, music, and video management in mind. Tailored to compete with Nintendo’s newly successful DSi, the device is less game-oriented, aiming instead to be a trendy bit of consumer electronic flash.

A laughable dearth of must-have software has plagued the PlayStation 3 since its inauspicious start, and Sony were ready to us E3 to proclaim that ends now. The team behind GTA IV will be bringing a 1970s-set espionage thriller exclusively to the PS3, footage of the online Final Fantasy XIV was shown off (though the title will no longer be a PS3 exclusive), and Team ICO stole the show with a wonderful trailer for their new PS3-exclusive creation, The Last Guardian.

The PSP will also be getting lots of love with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Resident Evil, LittleBigPlanet, and Gran Turismo among its illustrious releases.

A motion-tracking device to match competitors, a redesigned handheld to keep up with the DSi, and a display of big titles that weren’t all exclusives isn’t exactly a blitzkrieg for Sony. The lack of a heavily rumoured (and desperately needed) PS3 price drop also served to sour the event a little, but the loyalists will no doubt be happy with what the company did have to share.

In the end E3 ends up bigger than previous years, but not necessarily better. Much of the big hardware announcements have been filed squarely into the wait-and-see category, and the bold, new gaming properties were few and far between. At the end of the day safe, big-money sequels to fan-favourite series were, as ever, the pervading flavour of the event, and that shouldn’t be overly exciting to anyone other than stockowners.

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