?There?s nothing new here from last year,? one attendee said to us on the first morning of this year?s E3. ?Every game is a 3D affair wherein the main character walks around and hits stuff, then either shoots something or uses magic, it?s just so formulaic,? said another.
The only thing these commentators had in common was the way they finished their sentences. ?Except on the Nintendo stand,? the said with a grin.
And indeed, the West hall really is a place of absolute contrast, perhaps the defining moment in the current crop of hardware and the way it is being put to use by its respective creators and developers.
Of course, this year?s main attraction is the new hardware available to see on the stands of Nintendo and Sony. The queue for hands-on with PSP is currently running at well over an hour, with a similar length queue trundling along to just see a rolling video.
The Sony stand is the dominating feature of the West Hall once again, with the minimalist sprawl engulfing the heart of the floorspace. The vast majority of software on show is third-party, a fact that the company and fans of the PlayStation 2 are keen to attribute to Sony?s absolute industry dominance. However, it is to the hardware manufacturers that we traditionally look for major innovation. It is the first-parties who have the ability to stop the rot in the industry, evinced by endless bottom-line focused, marketing-driven development cycles, and to have the belief in hardware to the extent that if a game will never be able to return its investment through standard game sales, then its collateral kudos will impact enough on the product range as a whole. Gran Turismo 4 aside, this is not evident on the Sony stand.
Understand, a fine range of games is on show, though they are just games, not leaps forward in the race to expand the industries boundaries. As the people we spoke to testified, this situation is compounded by the magic, if bizarre happening on the Nintendo stand, but more of that later.
It is a shame that Gran Turismo 4 is again on the floor at E3, instead of sitting in the drives of PlayStation 2 owners across the globe. Last year saw a frenzy of interest in the game, with some of the biggest queues ever seen at the show forming to play in sit-down, force-feedback mode. Although sublime, the game has been dogged with issues from the outset ? all of which stemming from the resolute belief in perfection rigidly adhered to at Polyphony. It is interesting to note that some of the blind loyalty shown towards some of the major FPS titles, not least Doom III and Half-Life 2, has waned somewhat in recent months. A layer of gloss and mystery has been lost, with disgruntled fans becoming increasingly impatient with cash-rich and arguably complacent development houses. This sits in contrast with the starry-eyed magnetism of the Polyphony racer which may well manage to gain a stronger foothold in the NTSC US region with its fourth incarnation.
One of the great crowd-pleasers on Sony?s stand is Burnout 3, as displayed by the delightfully earnest boys from UK middleware giant Criterion. We had been receiving information from sources about the title over the past month or so as various builds, including ones for retail demonstration and for the official magazines, started to leak out. The main complaints we heard was that the series, universally adored across gaming circles, had been altered beyond recognition. Gone are the ?butt-ache? days of the first two games, as players sat with clenched buttocks, squeezing through the slightest gaps in traffic in order to gradually build up the Burnout boost bar. Burnout 3 is an aggressive, affair, with much more interaction with opposing racers. The crashes remain just as spectacular, though the game will not punish you for minor errors in judgment. If the crash cycle in Burnout was protected by an eggshell, in Burnout 3 it is encased in mattresses. It?s different but importantly, it works. The online multiplayer offering, as well as the impressive boost-in-drift addition, delighted all comers. Burnout 3 is one of our picks of the show.
One of the stinkers on the Sony booth is 25 to Life, a game that has already been dubbed ?Grand Theft Eidos?. With its belief in controlling its own IP as part of a blisteringly efficient developer/publisher strategy, Eidos has never really tried to blatantly cash in on the success of other firms? big name franchises. 25 to Life, as well as the Burnout clone Crash ?N? Burn, will hopefully not herald a new phase in the leading UK publisher?s life.
Across the Hall on the Bandai booth sits the PlayStation 2 game spawned by anime classic Cowboy Bebop. A massive queue to get hands-on with the title (albeit powered in part by the free t-shirt offered) has Bandai officials grinning, and rightly so.
And again into the murk of third-party publisher offerings. After a glittering year last year, Ubi Soft has hit something of a wall, offering little of interest. Even the sheen from Sims in Pornland, also known as Playboy: The Mansion, is dulling, despite adorning the stand with, you know, those kinds of girls. Perhaps this stems from a rather amusing ruse the French publisher accidentally played on the famously chauvinistic gaming press. Having promised journalists from across the world a launch event at the Playboy Mansion, the few lucky enough to get a ticket were treated to an evening in a tent on the lawn of Hef?s bachelor pad of glory.
Another crushing disappointment is the Tecmo stand which is bereft of anything new. After a suspiciously quiet nod from Microsoft at its press conference earlier this week, some kind of announcement was expected ? these hopes were dashed. Tecmo does however continue to run its hourly live soft porn extravaganza. If you thought a 30 stone man in California couldn?t sweat any more, wait until he?s at the Tecmo booth, hollering for a free cap from a Japanese girl in a bikini. It?s as interesting as it is terrifyingly dark?
As you can gather, this year?s West Hall is something of a disappointment. It?s a little depressing to see such a small amount of truly appealing software, games that have been created to actually make a difference as opposed to facilitate a new round of funding or to squeeze a competitor?s per-genre market-share. The antidote to this snowballing feeling is the Nintendo booth, stand 2816 in West Hall.
It?s bright, white, shiny and friendly. Nintendo has hired more staff than ever to make you feel happy and at ease and has now perfected the art of controlling, managing and focusing the fanboy frenzy that engulfs its pods each year.
Signifying its imminent release, Metriod Prime 2, now subtitled Echoes, dominates the entrance and is looking reassuringly well. A hands-on with the game shows new weapons ? a light and dark beam, its restructured ammo system and Samus? expanded level of interaction. It is difficult to rank Nintendo?s offering this year in any meaningful way as everything that has been rolled out for the first time has caused such a stir amongst gamers and industry watchers alike.
Advance Wars: Under Fire, the GameCube-housed dimensional leap in the strategy series, literally has fans of the GBA games agog, as though they are looking at something that is as beautiful as it is impossible. Paper Mario 2, and to a lesser extent, Mario Tennis have the same effect. To see true videogame religion, you need to see the hoards of gamers staring open-mouthed at the new GameCube Zelda trailer running on loop above the floor. Hundreds at any one time stand nailed to the spot, as though staring into the eyes of God in silent, unified disbelief. If there was any doubt that videogame fanaticism was invented by Nintendo, there is no doubt that right now, the Kyoto-based playing card manufacturer leads the way.
This adulation is in contrast to the mayhem caused by the whole corner of the booth fitted out with Konga controllers. Two games are on offer, Donky Konga and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. Konga needs no introduction and is currently causing sore hands and grin-ache en masse on the booth. One of the most rewarding discoveries to be made is playing Donkey Konga in four-player jam mode, with four sets of drums. Each player plays a different section of the beat, with the four combining, performing solos, doubling up and hammering out in unison at various times, always finishing with an eight drum crescendo. It is an absolute joy so see, with gamers of all ages, sexes and races coming together, all sporting massive grins. E3 can be a fairly hostile place, with gratuitous images of sex and violence bombarding the senses, certainly not conducive to top-end mood enjoyment. The area surrounding the Konga area is the diametric opposite of the rest of the show and illustrative of Nintendo?s future intent.
Donkey Konga brings people together, makes them laugh and cheers them up. In terms of what it represents ? Nintendo?s wider strategy of developing peripheral-driven innovation aimed at generating sales through a compulsion to be entertained in an entirely new way ? it might be the most important game in the West Hall.
Donkey Kong Jungle Beat crowns off Konga perfectly, offering a multigame laden 2D platform offering controlled with the drums, a game that sounds impossible to play and yet is the most natural and intuitive piece of software, with a learning curve of about a minute.
And it continues. Whatever Nintendo says, the Game Boy Advance is dead in the water, completely overlooked at this years show, not By Nintendo which has plenty on offer to view, including new Pokemon offerings, the action puzzler Mario Vs Donkey Kong, new F-Zero, new Kirby and Zelda games, but by players, all of who walk straight past the nifty, if aged, portable to see the Nintendo DS. Although not in its final form (a Nintendo representative told us yesterday that various additions, including a stylus port will be included) its power and aesthetic and the fact that is a new high-end piece of Nintendo portable hardware ensure that it steals the limelight conclusively.
The DS simply destroys all expectations, in terms of its technical might, its software, its functionality and design. We were treated to a lengthy behind-closed doors section with the entire suite of available games, a feature about which will follow next week. The best way to describe the line-up is that it works. It works completely, the design, the concept, the way in which the games make you play them, via the alien medium of touching or rubbing a screen. Being gifted a couple of DS styluses and walking out owning a small piece of the machine, is a thrill in itself. We?ll be giving away a whole heap of DS stuff as the countdown to its launch approaches ? stay tuned for updates.
As we leave the West Hall, there is one question that we ask each other. In the first round of next-generation portable gaming, who landed the first blow? Everyone in our group, and everyone we have spoken to since gives it to Nintendo. Although the PSP, the beautiful, high-powered PSP with its massive screen and lifestyle augmentations, is an impressive example of Sony?s market-understanding and engineering prowess, the DS underscores the genius of Nintendo, touching gamers as much as they touch it.