Microsoft began its Japanese reconnaissance mission with a talk by Robbie Bach at Friday morning's TGS Forum. Bach enthused about the "digital entertainment lifestyle" and a "new digital world" before declaring that "Microsoft will become one of the leading digital entertainment providers in the 21st century. Tens of millions of homes will have an Xbox 360 at the heart of their digital lifestyle."
But then mixed messages were sent out as the soundbites increased in frequency and audacity: "We must lead the way with innovation or be left behind. Xbox 360 is your ultimate digital amplifier", Bach stated. The MS man (17 years in a job with the Redmond, WA firm) continued with a reference to the competition. "We know about Sony's next-generation hardware. In terms of sheer power, our hardware and theirs is going to be about the same." This drew some stifled laughs from the assembled press. But Bach remained confident. "It's important for us to be more than just a games console. We have the opportunity to be the global market leader in the next generation."
Of course, the Japanese market is another matter entirely, and Bach admitted that the original Xbox had been a failure here. "Xbox was kind of big, kind of bulky," he said. "We've changed our design strategy. We are committed to perform better in Japan". Just as we were optimistically hoping for a renowned Japanese developer to appear and tell us about a great new Japanese Xbox 360 exclusive though, we were instead treated to a Gears of War presentation from Cliffy B of Epic Games.
Gears of War uses the Unreal 3 engine and is apparently an Xbox 360 exclusive, but the video demonstrated was jerky and would not particularly have impressed owners of high-end PCs. Cliffy B came across as a young 'hipper-than-thou' sort, which didn't seem to enamour him to the Japanese audience. "We like to call this... 'Destroy beauty'", B deadpanned at one particularly cringe-inducing moment (who can guess what the B stands for?) The demo was greeted with a wall of silence. (The only bricks missing in that wall were a few NCL employees, quietly chuckling.) This was probably not the game to show Japan and the Japanese press before going into the 360's Japanese launch period.
Still, things improved somewhat with a video presentation of the Xbox 360 games currently in development. From a Japanese perspective, in amongst all the FPS games, there were some titles that will stir interest here, notably Chromehounds, Sega's collaboration with mech specialist From Software, which looks gritty and powerful, like a Gun Griffon for the next generation. A new Far East of Eden will certainly placate a fair number of Japanese RPG fans, and its colourful anime-style visuals showed what else the 360 could do. Shutokou Battle too, was slick and detailed. Bomberman -Act:Zero, however, looked as bizarre as the use of punctuation in its title -- Bomberman was seen lobbing a grenade at a robot in a fully 3D and quite realistic setting. Let's hope this is nothing like the 3D Bomberman games on the N64...
On the show floor, Microsoft had a major presence entirely devoted to the 360. Skins for the hardware's front were revealed, which should cater well to the Japanese obsession with clipping things on to other things (check out Japanese youths' mobiles -- they always have trinkets attached). Also, several sleek living rooms were replicated to show the console in its natural environment and demonstrate its multimedia capabilities, with each system hooked up to a delicious 42-inch Pioneer HDTV.
Ridge Racer 6 was playable at both the Microsoft and Namco stands. The game uses the nitro system from PSP Ridge Racers, it looks crisp and the frame-rate is solid (though some way short of 60fps). And although not playable online at the show, Namco confirmed that Ridge Racer 6 will be an Xbox Live title. Namco also had Frame City on show, a cross between Hitman and GTA. Neither of Namco's contributions to the 360 party were given concrete release dates, but both are expected around the turn of the year.