Gaming: E3 Special – Nintendo’s Press Conference explained

A company which began its life making dominoes has come a long way to giving the most user-friendly games consoles ever, but Reggie Fils-Aime, President of Nintendo of America, is keen to stress that “technology is only a tool, what matters is the experience.”

After a disappointingly samey E3 last year, Nintendo had a lot to do prove they haven’t run out of ideas, and sure enough they don’t disappoint. The biggest announcement is new hardware the 3DS (which looks very shiny, look up), boasting 3D gaming without the need for pesky 3D glasses.

Before that though, we are graced with the return of one of Nintendo’s best-loved characters – the first of many as it turns out – as Shigeru Miyamoto introduces us to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, with enhanced Wii Motion Plus controls.

At first he tries to explain things from a video screen, but soon this becomes too complicated so he slashes his way through the back wall to enter the stage, to an uproar from the crowd. Skyward Sword boasts new weapons, with a lot of the mechanics from the ever-popular Wii Sports such as rolling Link’s bombs out like a bowling ball.

Despite some technical mishaps on stage when trying to demonstrate the title, which Miyamoto clearly has a lot of love for, it receives a warm reception from the crowd, particularly for the new control style which sees the Wiimote become Link’s sword and the Nunchuck his shield.

After Reggie tells us that some of us like realistic games and some of us like cartoony ones (duh…) he goes on to show Mario Sports Mix. In the mix are volleyball, basketball, hockey and ice hockey for now, but since the game won’t ship until Christmas they’ll probably throw in tiddlywinks or something too.

Next Reggie dispels some myths about Wii gamers, assuring us they aren’t people who just play Wii Sports and Wii Fit occasionally and then get bored *shifts eyes uneasily*, in fact, according to Mr Nintendo, many so-called ‘casual’ gamers are “channelled along their gaming journey” by games such as Mario Kart Wii and New Super Mario Bros.

In order to continue these gamers development, Nintendo have handily come up with Wii Party, Mario Party 10,000 in disguise with a couple of other game modes attached. The game is centred around the 177,000,000 ‘Miis’ that have been created around the world and encourages social development, despite the console not having online capabilities strong enough to support interfacing with people worldwide easily.

The first third party title to be announced this year is Harmonix’s Just Dance 2. The sequel to the first game (obviously) it adds more tracks, more players and dance-offs to make making a fool of yourself more fun than it ever has been before (until Kinect comes out of course).

The announcement of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has been a long time coming and offered little surprise but it was Goldeneye returning to Nintendo that had everyone in the room salivating. A remake? A re-imagining? Does it matter? The game features Daniel Craig as the man in tux this time and appears to have retained many locations from Rare’s classic.

Unfortunately the graphics don’t look much more advanced than it’s N64 (grand)father and despite a few small but brutal touches there is nothing here that will ever live up to people’s understandably unreasonable expectations, since the original meant so much to so many people and it will always have that magic because it’s in the past.

An unusual entry from Disney next as they present Disney Epic Mickey, an adventure through 80 years of the company’s history with familiar characters and locations along the way, as well as things which have sunk into the vaults at Disney. It features three play modes, simple free roam exploration, traditional quests, and travel. The latter looks the most interesting as the game transforms into a sides-crolling actioner akin to Mario’s early days with an impressive visual style as the game takes you within a cartoon, very Viewtiful.

The first of two unexpected returning protagonists for Nintendo is Kirby, who stars in his own game for the first time in seven years – Kirby’s Epic Yarn. The visual style is stylised so everything is made of wool and Kirby himself is simply an outline. This leads to an easily manipulatable game environment, pulling land closer so you can reach it etc. and the presentation is stunning.

Dragon Quest 9‘s porting to US shores fails to spark much interest despite its incredible popularity in the East, but what does get people shouting is the latest footage of Metroid: Other M, which looks impressive without revealing very much at all.

If there’s one underrated Nintendo character, it would have to be Donkey Kong – if not least for his spelling-mistake name – since DK never seems to get the limelight to himself…still this won’t be changing, but Donkey and Diddy will be back with Donkey Kong Country Returns. Environments are a lot more interactive since the original, and the relics of his Super Smash Brothers outings are on show, along with all the staples like bananas, lots and lots of bananas.

For their grand finale Nintendo saved the best till last, with the unveiling of super-cool handheld the 3DS, which boasts not only increased graphics capability, a widescreen top screen and  funky 3D technology which allows you to see games in immersive 3D without the need for polarising glasses, but two cameras on the back which allow you to take digital 3D pictures.

Developers seem very excited, a video shows many big names singing the 3DS’ praises for its potential, and the platform has attracted more third party launch support than any console Nintendo has launched before, promising – on release – titles like Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Kingdom Hearts and Assassins Creed.

The 3DS also gives an old Nintendo IP to have a new adventure, namely Pitt (the annoying one in Smash Brothers Wii with that endless sword spinning attack) and Kid Icarus Uprising. The graphics for the game look particularly impressive for handheld, edging ever closer to the Wii’s capabilities.

As Reggie welcomes out a horde of attractive women to demonstrate the 3DS for the audience, you get the feeling that Nintendo have had fun at this event, their presentation has a sense of humour, they don’t take themselves too seriously and they produce some fantastically entertaining games, as well as pushing the boundaries wherever they can. They might not be as ‘hardcore’ as they used to be, but if you were having a gaming marathon at your place tomorrow night, they’re the company you’d like to invite.

James Michael Parry

Gaming: E3 Special – Microsoft Press Conference dissected


So, E3 (that’s Electronic Entertainment Expo for long) has finally returned once again to bring us a week of exciting gaming announcements. Microsoft were up first at 10.30 am this morning to a slightly delayed start, but talking piece of the conference is the very sleek, slim and new Xbox 360 (that black shiny thing you’re gawping at in the pictures).

Before all that though, there was plenty of Xbox-related goodness to get through. If you don’t fancy watching the feature-length event in full, which you can easily do online here at Gamespot.com, allow me to break down the excitement into bite-size chunks.

The event began with a immersive look at Call of Duty: Black Ops, Treyarch’s stab back after the Activision/Infinity Ward fallout debacle following Modern Warfare 2. The game looks great, with all of the series’ staples in place, but you can’t help feeling it’s more of the same. There was a nice touch though with the news that add-ons and DLC would be coming to Xbox 360 first for the next three years.

A packed Los Angeles Convention Center, or more specifically a theatre inside it, greets Senior Vice President Don Mattrick as he tells us that this year is the 10th year of Xbox and pushed home firmly the idea of making gaming simple.

Keeping up the momentum of his opening sermon, Mattrick ushers on Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid, to talk about the new game Metal Gear Solid: Rising. which was teasered at E3 ’09. The presentation was brief but showed off the snazzy visuals and distinctly Japanese fighting style which allows you to slice through anything.

Then comes the first part of the grand plan of simplification as the retail name of Microsoft’s Project Natal: Kinect – which was announced yesterday – is casually thrown in by Phil Spencer, who becomes the audiences’ guide for the rest of the conference.

He also talks about games, making the bold statement that “everything you see and hear from now on is exclusive to Xbox 360”, which you feel would have packed more punch right at the start, but MGS: Rising denied them.

The first ‘Xbox Exclusive’ to be rolled out is the hugely anticipated Gears of War 3, which Cliff Blesinski, Project Lead at Epic Games, is over-eager (as usual) to show us. Blesinski throws out the big guns, literally, showcasing the four-player coop of Delta Team – complete with female squad members – fighting off the new Lambent-mutated Locust, including a very quick and deadly Lambent Berserker which now hops around manically. Largely it’s more of the same, but when the same was as good as Gears 2 and there is SO much more, you can’t help but be excited.

Next is Peter Molyneux (thankfully without Milo in tow), to show off Fable III in all of it’s samey-ness, though things look a little more exciting and fast-paced than before, and the prospect of ruling an Albion moulded and shaped by your choices is an intriguing prospect.

After a random trailer for Codename Kingdoms, which resembles 300 in game form, we are treated to a visit from Marcus Lehto from Bungie to show us some in-game footage from the campaign of upcoming title Halo: Reach. At first glance the game already retains the sense of scale and wonder which Bungie have kept all the way through the series and the visuals are looking highly polished – a criticism of ODST’s minor upgrade.

On top of the visual changes the Elites have returned as main enemies, leading to a fan-boy resurgence as your Noble-team Spartan-III silently assassinates one from behind, prompting a short but very satisfying animation. The scene ends with you being ejected into space amid a colourful battle, perhaps suggesting some space vehicle combat?

With the “blockbuster game” demos out the way, the second act is left for Microsoft’s answer to the market-dominating Wii – Kinect (already proving to be a spelling nightmare.) What follows is a fairly drawn out series of demonstrations which range from a re-hash of what we were shown last year (Milo has become an affectionate tiger now), to genuinely interesting – if a little niche – titles.

The in-house launch games are all very avatar-heavy, with names like Kinect Sports, Kinanimals and Kinect Joy Ride, and have a very thin veil over the fact that they are ripping off Nintendo’s Wii Sports (& Resort), Nintendogs and Mario Kart Wii respectively.

Luckily Harmonix turn up to save Massivesoft’s bacon with the groove-busting Dance Central (think Dance Hero) showing off what the hardware can do, albeit with practised professional dancers…mostly at least. The North American launch will be November 4, but the jury will remain out until one of the ‘real’ games developers implements Kinect into a traditional game genre.

There was a big push for the multi-media aspect of Xbox ownership during the presentation, including a deal with ESPN to show matches free to Xbox LIVE Gold members, though no news if this will make its way out of North America.

Once the executives were happy they’d pushed their new, strangely named, add-on enough, (not before fondling the inside of a virtual Ferrari a bit) they moved on to welcome back Don Mattrick to round up everything great about Xbox, before lifting the Xbox 360 which had been sitting in the middle of the stage the whole time to reveal a smaller, shinier, blacker version beneath.

Though this was expected ever since the PS3 went slim last year, it still provoked the biggest response from the audience, and as an unexpected bonus, everyone at the conference was sent one free of charge – well done for them fending off the ash clouds to turn up maybe?

The biggest surprise was how quickly the company is shipping them out, claiming they will be available to buy later this week, and the unit includes built-in Wifi, something which surely should have been corrected already.

So, there you have it, all of the big news and excitement from the Microsoft camp. The Nintendo and Sony conferences are held tomorrow so expect the news from there in the next few days, if you haven’t been beaten into the ground with tweets about it before that of course.

James Michael Parry

Music: Why iTunes is the rotten core of Apple

The shiny 3rd gen iPod Shuffle

iPods are everywhere. Over 260million have been sold worldwide, whether they are the cigarette lighter-like Shuffle, the tiny-screened Nano, the app-filled Touch or the tried and tested Classic.

Even the mobile phone market has been infiltrated, with iPhone, and later the 3G and 3GS versions, collectively selling over 51million units, but there are approximately 4.6billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide so Apple still have some way to go to monopolise the market.

The one thing which connects all of these popular devices is the music organisation and player program iTunes, designed to bring the brand together and provide a one-stop-shop for all your music and televisual needs.

But despite Apple’s popularity users are constantly faced with problems with the service such as computers crashing as soon as an iPod is plugged in, sluggish computer speed because of its high memory usage and refusing to burn CDs or freezing at any given moment, depending on the operating system you use.

Despite video iPods now being the norm, iTunes doesn’t support video directly – you’re forced to install Apple’s Quicktime software, and you can’t drag and drop songs from your computer to the player easily, instead you can only ‘Sync’ the iTunes library to your player – or do a ‘Party Mix’ in the case of a Shuffle.

Generally it seems like a company that made $42.91billion last year could do a better job, particularly when there are so many alternatives available, notably MusicIP Mixer, Songbird and MediaMonkey.

MediaMonkey in particular is good for MP3 player management, since it automatically tags songs from Amazon (with album art) effectively and carriesthat art and all the ID3 tag information to the player, even while playing something else.

Of course, MediaMonkey isn’t exactly a household name – even a self-confessed geek like me has only barely come across it – which highlights Apple’s greatest strength but also its greatest weakness. The company, in recent years in particular, has always focused on style over substance, products that look sleek and stylish but really do little to earn there hefty price tag compared to similar products from Creative or Sony.

One area where iTunes has had a real impact is music downloads, with the number of songs downloaded passing the 10 billion mark in February this year. Sadly the downloads themselves are in iTunes spacific .AAC file format, with a copyright protection system called FairPlay, meaning you can only play them on computers you’ve registered to your iTunes account or on your iPod.

If you wanted to be generous and give some music to a friend, you wouldn’t be able to do it digitally and would be forced to burn it to CD, losing some of the audio’s quality in the transfer – providing the music burns properly in the first place. While these measures were put in place to avoid unlawful sharing or transfer of songs, but with all the red tape and regulation you may want to dig out your old portable CD player and save yourself a whole lot of hassle.

James Michael Parry

Gaming: Top 5 Xbox LIVE Games

Online gaming is massive, something I’ve touched on previously in my blog, and nowhere more so than Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE, but for those of you who are yet to be bitten by the bug, yet to see your Xbox 360 reach it’s full potential, I bet you’re sitting there thinking: “Paying a fiver a month to play online? Why should I?”
The answer, is quality. The Xbox LIVE community thrives because of the people who make it what it is. Only last month we heard the story of players continuing to play Halo 2 after Microsoft decided to shut original Xbox LIVE down. Nowhere else would you get the same sort of devotion, except perhaps the most dedicated hardcore Counter-Strike servers.
So to initiate the unconverted, I’ve decided to pick out the top five games which show the best of what Xbox LIVE has to offer. While there might not be many surprises on the list, and there are many many more excellent games to be enjoyed online, these five together give the most enriching and entertaining all-round online experience.

1) Halo 3 (Developer: Bungie // Publisher: Microsoft)

So first up we have the big daddy of modern online gaming, the game that took the idea to a whole new level. By March last year over a billion matches had been played on multiplayer and it still ranks highly on the weekly Xbox LIVE play figures, reaching number three on week May 24th according to Major Nelson.
But just because a game is popular, doesn’t mean it’s automatically good, we all know what sheep people can be. In Halo’s case though, the Bungie team have learnt from the multiplayer in Halo 2 and improved everything about the matchmaking and game types to provide as wide a range of game types and general destruction as possible.
Standard deathmatches are all well and good, but fancy driving around the map with explosions everywhere from infinite ammo rocket launchers? Well you can thanks to the ‘Rocket Race‘ gametype – although it is rare to come across these days – as well as the more traditional ‘King of the Hill‘, ‘Gladiator‘ and ‘Team Swords‘ all being hugely enjoyable modes.
Another feature which in many ways was underused is the infinitely customisable ‘Forge’ mode, in which players can customise any of the maps in the game with additional crates, explosives, weapons, vehicles, practically anything in fact, leading to some inspired custom levels.
The latest DLC pack ‘Mythic‘ – released with Halo ODST – included a map called ‘Sandbox’ with large areas above and below the actual map for exactly this reason, sadly Bungie made little effort to introduce the best custom levels to the rest of the community and so the level failed to fulfil its potential.
Despite that Halo continues to be consistently fun to play despite being released in 2007, and the generally team-based play means the learning curve isn’t too steep.
2) Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (Developer: DICE // Publisher: EA)
While many of you at this moment are no doubt incensed with anger at me choosing this game in place of the astronomically successful Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.
The reasons this game tops it for me are two fold: firstly – Modern Warfare is hard. Now I’ve no problem with things being challenging, but Call of Duty is not a game you can just pick up and enjoy, you have to unlock the higher ranks for decent weapons and perks and though the Death Streak perks on MW2 initially give you a tiny edge, it’s easily the most frustrating game I’ve ever played for the sheer “Here we go, oh no I’m instantly dead”-factor.
On Battlefield though, team play takes a new meaning as you can spawn on your team mates. Of course they still die just before you get a chance to appear, but you find you can get out of a fix pretty quickly if you just hide in the foliage for ten seconds.
The multiplayer is based around a class system, namely Assault, Engineer, Media and Recon, and are as self-explanatory as they seem. There is some range, but not enough to make any one class miles better than any other, and a good balance in multiplayer is key.
The maps on the game are nicely varied, and the destructible environments give a certain uneasiness, since a place of safely can be deleted in an instant by a stray tank shell.
The vehicles themselves are what make the multiplayer so enjoyable. You and friends commanding the skies from a HIND helicopter or creating a Tank convoy to storm the enemy position. Not that vehicles make you invincible either, meaning a solid defence can take them down.
The lack of multiplayer modes, which are set to be increased come the next DLC instalment, don’t make the game repetitive or dull at all, and you really get a sense of a prolonged skirmish even in short games because of the amount of time in the action, though if you get the timing wrong when spawning you can find yourself with a long walk to the objective.

3) Left 4 Dead 2 (Developer: Valve // Publisher: Valve)

If you prefer the dead to the living, then zombie dismember-em-up Left 4 Dead 2 is right up your street. Not only is it the most varied zombie game I’ve ever come across (though Dead Rising 2 is shaping up very nicely) it gives you the chance to be a zombie, and not just a trudging brain-muncher either.
The ‘special’ infected (the game’s term for zombies) have fantastic powers, from releasing your tongue as a lasso to ensnare your victims, covering them in toxic gunge or pouncing on them from a nearby rooftop to claw up their face.
It may all sound a bit brutal, but this is a battle for survival after all, and this game like no other makes you value your life as you manically swing a cricket bat, or gnome, to defend yourself from hoards of evil nasties.
The bedrock which the first game set down has been well build upon this time around, with ‘Survival‘ and ‘Scavenge‘ modes adding some variety to the usual run-of-the-mill campaigns, which themselves are very varied and enjoyable in their own right. ‘Realism‘ adds a challenge for veterans of the first game, taking away helpful pointers such as weapon highlighting and friends’ outlines when out of view, making things instantly more treacherous.
Xbox LIVE is woven into the structure of this game, it would be a shadow of itself without the help of random online strangers, however tool-ish they can sometimes be.
Learning how and when to use the special infected, particularly in the short sharp bursts that ‘Scavenge‘ offers, is even more enjoyable than tearing through the infected with your AK-47 as one of the very vulnerable survivors.
As much as it’s fun to work with your friends, it’s even more fun to hunt them down and devour them, with the sadistic pleasure we all feel seeing our friends in some mild peril – albeit in video game form.
This game also gets the ‘Pick Up and Play’ award for simplicity as Valve, with their considerable experience in first person shooters (stand up and take a well-deserved bow Half Life), have created the most intuitive control system, keeping things simple to make the learning curve as shallow as possible, and it pays off – gruesomely.
4) Red Faction: Guerilla (Developer: Violation Inc // Publisher: THQ)
Computer games give you the ability to enact your greatest and wildest fantasies from the comfort of your own sofa, and who in their right mind hasn’t liked the idea of blowing up everything in sight?
Thanks to Red Faction: Guerilla that dream came one giant jet pack flying leap closer, with Violation Inc’s highly impressive ‘Geo-Mod 2.0‘, a gameplay engine which dynamically maps the destruction of buildings, allowing you to cause the roof of a building to fall crushing the building beneath it ad other such havoc with the game’s various structure-deleting equipment.
In multiplayer this engine takes a more significant role in gameplay as towers fall to become bridges and the building you’re safely hiding inside quickly crumbles around you, forcing an energetic and varied style of play.
Game modes here are more inventive than most games too, but all containing a fair amount of destruction for good measure, naturally.
The highlight is the ‘Destroyer‘ game mood, which is pretty much as it sounds, one player tries to destroy as many buildings as possible while the rest of the team protects them, and the other team does the same. There are bonus points on offer if you kill the enemy destroyer.
It tends to work better on some maps than others, since sometimes people are too efficient and blowing things up and there is nothing left on the map by the end of the game, but it makes for some interesting matches.
Another key thing to mention is that the standard weapon is a sledgehammer, adding a satisfying twist to the standard melee attack, not to mention some amusing unlocks as you reach higher levels (ostrich-hammer anyone?)
5) Splinter Cell: Conviction (Developer: Ubisoft Montreal // Publisher: Ubisoft)
As the lone wolf of stealth action, Sam Fisher is getting on a bit, but at the risk of ruining his ‘one-man-army-super-badass’ image, Ubisoft decided to bring in some now acquisitions for their highly-addictive cooperative mode ‘Deniable Ops‘.
Players control either ‘Archer‘ (American, cocky, sarcastic) or ‘Kestrel‘ (Russian, cold, calculating) in missions in secret complexes, installations and generally other covert things. What makes the game mode work is the free-roaming parts, which allow you to work with your partner to navigate a large area filled with enemies by working out a strategy.
Of course you just wing it a few times, but then get separated and killed pretty quickly so decide perhaps a tactic or two wouldn’t be a bad thing. As much as it sounds like a lot of thought, after a while it becomes second nature, depending on how good your partner is, and you find progressing cooperatively even more rewarding than pumping your friends full of lead.
One place where the game really favours the coop mode over the standard campaign is the much touted ‘Mark And Execute‘ system, which allows players to highlight a certain number of enemies depending on the weapon they are using them, and then press a single button to kill them all automatically in a matter of seconds.
Because the two games are connected together there is a bit of leeway between one player pressing the button and the other, meaning you can often watch your characters executing half a dozen enemies through various walls and other obstacles, suggesting their bullets have suddenly gained wall-felling powers.
What began as feeling like a bit of a tacked-on option in the run up to the game’s release flourished considerably, thanks to – or even cause of – some significant delays, and made the title overall far better value for money.
So, if you’re Xbox-ing away at home on Mass Effect 2 for hours on end, blissfully unaware of the outside world, try connecting your Xbox up to the magical wonderment that is the internet and watch your games instantly become even better.
James Michael Parry