E3 Press Conference: Microsoft desperate to Kinect with core gamers

I have to say, I don't know how gaming journalists cover all the action at E3 these days. I had trouble keeping up and the most effort I had to exert was changing channels on the TV. If I'd had to travel from venue to venue, there would've been no way I could have seen everything.

Anyway E3 kicked off Monday with Microsoft's press event. Heading into the show, I was curious as to what, if anything, Microsoft would surprise us with. Let's answer that question right up front: there were no huge reveals or big surprises (or at least, nothing that we didn't expect was coming).

The first half of the conference was about titles for the 'core' gamer. They opened with a long demo of Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 which was very impressive, as Call of Duty trailers always are. Then Microsoft's Don Mattrick took the stage to talk about all the non-game aspects of Xbox Live. The rumored "Xbox Live Diamond" service never made an appearance, but there was some talk of watching live TV via your Xbox, assuming your cable service provider supports it. No details on which ones will. It seemed to me like Microsoft didn't get the deals done in time to make a big splash with this just yet. Probably the biggest reveal was that YouTube was coming to the Xbox 360 (UFC too, in case you're a fan of the fights).

Kinect was featured, mostly in terms of voice commands of the Xbox Dashboard. Voice-powered Bing is coming to the Dashboard to help you search for all content containing, say, Harry Potter. It'll return movies, games and anything else available on the Xbox 360 that contains the phrase "Harry Potter."

To me, this is one of those cool technologies that doesn't have a lot of practical application. I doubt that people really sit down and think "I want a Harry Potter experience but I'm not sure if I want a movie or a game or the soundtrack." Still, on a device with no hardware keyboard, voice powered search is a welcome addition.

Then we were back to the games. First up was a demo of the new, re-imagined Tomb Raider (which had been revealed ahead of the show) and then Peter Moore came on-stage to talk in general terms about EA Sports, though his segment was short and kind of vague. No real details were offered.

As expected, Epic's Cliff Bleszinski came on-stage to show off Gears of War 3, and he was joined by Iced-T for some co-op play. Gears 3 looks like Gears of War 2, only slightly better. If you were already a fan of the franchise, you already knew you'd be buying the third game. If not, there was nothing here to convert you.

After that the rest of the conference featured Kinect. Kinect in casual games, Kinect in core games. Everyone's going to Kinect, it seems.

Probably the best implementation of Kinect in a core game was in Bioware's Mass Effect 3. During dialog-tree sections, you can just speak the choice you want to pick, rather than use the controller. During combat you can give orders to crew-mates via voice, too. Of course, all voice means...why do they need Kinect? Didn't Tom Clancy's Endwar do this kind of thing a few years ago, sans any kind of fancy hardware?

Speaking of Tom Clancy, a demo of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier features a weapon modification system that was manipulated via Kinect. The player spread his arms out and the representation of his gun burst apart into an exploded view, so he could change any part of it. That was kind of interesting. But then he demoed firing the guns, using one hand to aim and the other to shoot (via unclenching a fist) and it just looked awkward and not very accurate.

Other interesting reveals was a Disneyland Kinect game that let you fly around a virtual representation of the famous theme park, and enter into rides to experience them in a Kinect-ish fashion, and the fact that Indie darling Minecraft is coming to the Xbox 360, Kinect enabled.

Harmonix has a Dance Central 2 coming out, surprising no one. There's an HD re-make of the original Halo: Combat Evolved coming this fall. Peter Molyneux showed off a more-or-less on-rails magic-based brawler played via Kinect and called Fable: The Journey. So I guess that's the end of real Fable games, at least for now.

The show ended with a brief teaser for Halo 4, which we all knew was being worked on, but now we know it's coming Holiday 2012, and it features Master Chief and Cortana.

Overall, the Microsoft E3 Press Conference was workmanlike. There was nothing wrong with it, but not a lot that was truly exciting, either. The huge emphasis on Kinect was off-putting to this 'core gamer' because, for one thing, Kinect doesn't work in my living room (we don't have enough open room). And for another, I'm basically lazy. Kinect is one of those technologies that demos really well and is even fun to play with at a store kiosk, but when I get home on a Friday night after a long work week, I don't really want to be jumping and leaping around my living room like an over-caffeinated gnome (nor do my downstairs neighbors want me to be doing that). The biggest promise of Kinect, to me, is the voice control of games and the dashboard. But maybe I'll be convinced by some of these new core games with Kinect controls layered on.

Also I found it interesting that while Microsoft made a huge deal about Kinect, in the third party press conferences I caught (EA and Ubisoft) Kinect was barely mentioned. Clearly developers are willing to add Kinect support to their games (probably encouraged by a fiscal incentive from Microsoft) but they don't see it as a core aspect of their titles.

I give the Microsoft press conference a B overall. That's not to say I don't think the Xbox 360 will continue to be hugely successful; I do. But it seems like its the third party developers that are now pushing the platform forward, not Microsoft itself.

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