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Monday, July 16, 2012

Microsoft's 2012 Xbox 360 Conference

At the dawn of this generation, way back in the middle part of the last decade, the powers of gaming promised us grand new vistas of entertainment, beautiful worlds to explore and enjoy. At Microsoft’s 2012 Xbox 360 Conference, we saw the astonishing results that seven years of accumulated effort, skill and talent can achieve.

You can genuinely claim that the games on offer this year fit all-too snugly into moulds we have seen many times before, but you cannot argue against the gorgeousness of their sweeping landscapes, the intricacies of their shredded cityscapes or the convincing corruption of their steaming jungles.

Halo 4 was the guest of honor at this celebration of all things Xbox, beginning in the earnest, techno future-topia of pan-humanity, pan-galactic benevolence but quickly descending to picking off chattering grunts in a prehistoric jungle, a heart of inter-species darkness.

Master Chief did what he has been doing for over a decade, but today he moves through a world that delivers space opera on the scale for which it was always envisioned.

Also scrambling through jungles, but with way less aplomb, was the hugely likable Lara Croft, her origins tale Tomb Raider plunging her into the twisted ravines of a Lost-style island, all lush vegetation and rotten WW2 aircraft. As Croft bombed through pirate coves and rusting machinery, she gave us a glimpse of the new videogame hero; damaged, vulnerable and brave.
A long presentation of Black Ops II took us into Los Angeles in the midst of agonizing destruction at the wrong end of rogue drones. Now this is a world made for videogames. You, hunched in the back of a humvee, with the president herself to your right and L.A in flames everywhere else.

Of course, this was standard Call of Duty single-player fare, but watching the great American city falling apart, it was difficult not to be both disconcerted and impressed by the rubbish, chaos and smoke.

Unless you are a true believer, it’s not easy to get excited about driving games, but Forza Horizon really drove home this point about gaming worlds reaching new pinnacles of desirability. Colorado at dawn, gleaming automobiles, the sun rising in the East. It was lump-in-the-throat lovely

Fable is another universe that pleases the eye, though this trailer for Fable: Journey was one of the least memorable moments, spoiled, perhaps, by the cheezy-introduction of an awe-struck young man with magical powers in the palms of his hands. Sheeesh! Of course, we always knew Kinect would be muscling its way into the party, like Microsoft’s big, dumb pal from the High School football team. More on that to come.

If the backgrounds and settings of the games we saw were amazing, the action was downright horrifying. We saw a lot of people die this morning, mostly meeting their maker in bone-crunching, artery-squirting excruciation.

A small posse of Middle Eastern bad guys, for example, always looked like temporary guests, once Sam Fisher’s chevrons appeared ominously over their heads. In the excellent walkthrough for Splinter Cell: Blacklist there was plenty of military mayhem.

In the shadow of awe-inspiring Persian terrain, we witnessed killin’-in-motion, gruesomely fluid executions to the faint melody of minarets. There was applause from the audience at this, although some laughter at the unlikely stupidity of a guard confused by Fisher’s “Hey, You” dumb diversion tactic.

And yet, this was merely a plate of Middle Eastern hors d’oeuvres for those in the audience keen to see some truly crimson violence. Resident Evil 6 gave us Leon Kennedy in the midst of an urban zombie-pocalypse, heading straight for the decrepit, abandoned factory for some decapitation, dismemberment and death-by-roundhouse.

Introducing South Park: The Stick of Truth, Trey Parker and Matt Stone gave voice to this notion that games today look really convincing. “[The game] had to look just like South Park, which is pretty crappy,” said Stone. “You won’t believe how much work went into creating that crappy look.”

These two celebs got the warmest reception of the day, more even than multi-Superbowl winner Joe Montana who strolled on to show us how Kinect might work with Madden NFL 13. EA’s sports games look great. How far they will actually be played via Kinect remains to be seen, but Montana was convinced. “This is actually pretty sweet,” he said. “It brings back some great memories.”

These press events, of course, are all about relentless cheerfulness and optimism. But the award for most over-optimistic statement of the day came from song-and-dance man Usher who implored the crowd to get “on your feet”. Alas, he had more chance of conjuring an actual drone strike on the Galen Center than any scenario in which the world’s games journalists started dancing together at 10am on a Monday morning. Still, he is a very fine dancer and an excellent ambassador for Dance Central 3.

And yet, perhaps standards of cynicism are slipping among gaming’s scribblers. Don Mattrick, worldwide uber-boss for all things Xbox, actually got a laugh from, “we are ushering in a golden age of entertainment,”. Perhaps Don can be pressed into compering a Ubisoft conference in the future? He can star alongside Mr. Caffeine and someone called ‘Bing Comedy’ who was mentioned in the ‘control your TV’ section

There is always a certain amount of stiffness in these events, as business executives take to the stage to work their way through the tele-prompter's traps and pitfalls. The toughest job of the day went to Xbox Live’s Marc Whitten who explained how Smart Glass would connect mobile devices with TV and games. Neato. But is it possible that more games will be controlled and manipulated in this fashion than via Microsoft’s perennial pet project Kinect?

Of course, all this was pretty much known before the show, including the addition of Internet Explorer. Yeah, this is innovation and who knows where it will end up. Somewhere good, most likely.

Microsoft gave us brief looks at exclusive games including sci-fi puzzler Matter, LocoCycle and Ascend: New Gods, which is an original IP but not, of course, remotely an original idea. Equally familiar is Wreckateer, an unholy marriage between Kinect, 3D graphics and Angry Birds. Only the pigs were missing, replaced with goofy goblins.

Kinect Training looks a lot like a certain fitness game that we played for a while back in 2008, except this time with added corporate sponsorship. Some guy from Nike came onto the stage and droned on about 'excellence' and 'motivation' for a bit. Every show needs a moment when the mind is allowed to wander.

Overall, this was a good, solid late-console-cycle set of announcements and updates from Microsoft, a confident green-hued pronouncement of ambitious technological experimentation and bombastic big-budget franchises that we love. Missing was anything that might be confused for genuinely blockbuster new IP or, of course, even a sniff of Xbox 720.
Microsoft began the show by boasting that it has sold more current-gen consoles than any other player. You can’t blame those guys for wishing to squeeze another year out of a machine that continues to deliver the kinds of worlds that, seven years ago, were only promises.

Source-IGN

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