E3 retrospective - who won?

Written by Wil Harris

May 14, 2006 | 12:27

Tags: #gears-of-war #ps3 #retrospective #wii #xbox-360

Companies: #e3

So, E3 has now come and gone. What on earth was that all about, eh?

This year was my first E3, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. The show is big, although not as huge as the Vegas-based CES. In fact, why E3 isn't itself in Vegas is a mystery to me. Los Angeles is not the most visitor friendly town when it comes to getting around, and Vegas appears to have all the things E3 requires - namely, exhibition space, bars and girls.

"The stands from the big boys in South Hall at E3 are pretty spectacular"

But logistics aside, there is plenty to be seen at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The exhibition is divided into three major areas - South Hall, West Hall and Kentia Hall. In South Hall this year were the majority of the major publishers - EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Vivendi, Namco, Konami and the like. Microsoft was also tucked in at the back, occupying the majority of one entire side of the hall with a massive Xbox 360 display. West Hall was the territory of Nintendo and Sony, who had stands right next to each other that occupied most of the space. Kentia hall is tucked away downstairs, and houses smaller publishers and accessory manufacturers.

The stands from the big boys in South Hall at E3 are pretty spectacular, with tens of thousands of dollars spent on recreating whatever game it is they're promoting. Activision brought in a full-size half-pipe to promote Tony Hawk's Project 8, the first truly next-gen version of its skating title, as well as a replica Strogg gun for Quake Wars. Ubisoft had multiple displays on its stand, with a WWII battleground to promote the new Brothers in Arms and a brick-and-bar prison recreation for Splinter Cell. Ritual took something of a different approach, hiring look-a-like babes for its new Sin Episodes title.

Kentia is a rather different affair, with budgets tight and interest even tighter. However, there are always a few things of note to find down in Kentia - last year, it was where Guitar Hero was languishing before being picked up by a publisher and, subsequently, going mental with popularity. We saw some neat cooling technology firms and a couple of games that looked like they could turn out OK with a bit of TLC.

West Hall was pretty spectacular too, with the massive Sony and Ninty booths, and this segways me nicely into the aspect of the show I wanted to discuss next - who were the major winners and losers of E3. This show was always going to be about the face-off between the three major console manufacturers, and Sony and Nintendo in particular, situated as they were right next to each other. How have they all come out?

Well, Microsoft did pretty well. It had some good games and some good announcements. The introduction of Live Anywhere is absolutely massive, and could well be the first in a series of strategic moves that Microsoft makes. MS knows as well as we do that it has a massive monopoly in the PC space, dominating the PC operating system market. With Live Anywhere, it is leveraging that dominance to get more and more PC users aware of the Xbox 360. How many people run MSN Messenger? The ability to tie that in with your Xbox account and chat with friends who are playing will be very cool. Interested in playing on the PC? You can now play against your friends who have Xbox 360s, and heck, maybe you can be tempted into getting one yourself. Casual gamers are a generally untapped resource, and the ability to download a game on the Xbox and play it either on the Xbox, PC or your mobile is a good draw for these gamers. The XNA architecture means that developing simultaneously for those three Microsoft-controlled platforms is a reality, and which developer can resist the ability to get its products across all those platforms, opening up the maximum amount of gamers to pay money for its software?

Microsoft has also clearly got its Sony-bashing line worked out well. Being interviewed for Eurogamer, Peter Moore gave a pretty compelling value proposition when comparing the Xbox 360 to the PS3. With the 360, he believes they offer something for everyone. If you just want the bare console to game, you can get that. If you want to have the local storage then have that too. Want high def playback? You can get the add-on drive for that. With the PS3, Sony has rather removed those choices, assuming that everyone wants gaming, local storage and high-def - and consequently removing pricing options.

Gears of War was the standout title of the show for the 360, and we are desperate to get our hands on it. Like, really, really desperate.
The Nintendo Wii had a good showing also, with far more show-goers apparently interested in getting to grips with it than its rival across the hall. The queues to get into the controlled area where the Wii was being shown didn't disappear the whole show and gamers always emerged out the other side with a smile. Nintendo told us that the controlled area was there to make sure it could manage the amount of people around the consoles at any time - meaning people could swing the remote for tennis or golf without worrying about hitting somebody standing behind them.

"Sony perhaps had the weakest show of the three"

The games were surprisingly good. I think everyone was sceptical about how the remote would work going into the show, and the lack of third-party titles was also a worry. What the show proved is that it appears Nintendo's strategy of gameplay first, everything else second has worked. It's not concerned with high-def, it doesn't care about media functionality - the Wii is just about playing games. Microsoft is keen to leverage the massive base of PC users to buy 360, and Nintendo is clearly hoping to get average people, non-gamers to buy into Wii. It's accessible and easy to use, and it makes sense - for people who find joypads hard to use (and that's a lot of people in the real world) the Wii opens up gaming to them in a way that Solitaire did on the desktop. There are certainly still some kinks to be worked out - graphics need improving and the remote still needs a little fine tuning to be accurate 100% of the time. However, it's hard to believe that this isn't going to attract significant numbers of people to buy the console. As Peter Moore subsequently suggested, gamers can buy a 360 and a Wii for the price of a PS3.

Sony perhaps had the weakest show of the three, and its defensive stance in interviews after the event contribute to that line of thinking. Phil Harrison, the English face of the console, tried to downplay the importance of the show in an interview, suggesting that the show alone did not dictate the future direction of gaming. Ken Kutaragi, grandfather of the PlayStation, went on a price offensive, saying that not only was the price comparable with the price of the original uber-successful PlayStation, but that it possibly wasn't even expensive enough.

Sony lacked a single stand-out title to be the poster-boy for its next-gen effort. Wii had signature games in spades, with Zelda obviously the most popular. I mean, how do you trump Zelda? Sony certainly couldn't. The trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 certainly looked spectacular and involving, but it was all pre-rendered FMV. That does not a good showing make. On the show floor, there was nothing that we hadn't seen already on the Xbox 360. The racing games and Japanese action / RPG titles looked utterly generic and Warhawk, the only game to make use of the PS3's motion sensing controller, was bland, if kind of cool. Yes, the PS3 has loads of great technology and yes, it has Blu-Ray and, yes, this generation is really Sony's fight to lose, given the success of the PlayStation 2. But, for Sony, the lack of AAA games six months before launch must be worrying.

All of which is to entirely miss out on the amazing PC games on show. Obviously, one of the biggest showings was the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft. This is the first extension to the world's most popular online game, and it looks like Blizzard have got it right, based on fan feedback at the show. The WoW behemoth shows no signs of slowing down.

Quake Wars: Enemy Territory looked better than we certainly hoped it would. Whilst Quake 4 hasn't been a massive success in terms of getting people to drop CS and Battlefield, Quake Wars showed a style and subtlety that really impressed us. Likewise, Crysis showed a massive potential to get people playing. Christmas will be a good time to be an FPS fan.

If there was one thing that really disappointed us this show, however, it was the lack of babes. E3 is well-known for being a babe-fest, totally babe-a-licious, a veritable babe-o-rama. With this year's new rules in place, the amount of skin on show was minimal - which was disappointing to the legions of red-blooded games journalists runnning around the halls. Oh well, maybe next year.
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