Vying for power

This year’s video-game offerings are more of the same-old, but the annual E3 conference in Los Angeles shows a peek into a future of ultra-high-powered consoles

The 11th annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, brought 7,000 journalists and video-game-industry professionals to the Los Angeles Convention Center. It was a real nerdfest. More than 400 exhibitors struggled to lure gamers to their demos with hordes of curvaceous models posing as customer service agents. But, despite the presence of babes dressed up like Bloodrayne and other assorted video-game vixens, the star attractions were still the games.

Approximately 5,000 different video-game products were displayed, making the L.A. Convention Center the largest free arcade in history. Despite the quantity of new games present, there were few surprises in the software department. The most polished demos were for sequels to existing franchises, including Zelda, Burnout and Onimusha. But this year’s E3 wasn’t about software; it was about revealing the future of gaming, which, conveniently, will be arriving just in time for Christmas.

“Our team has put in passion and commitment to build the most powerful game platform in history,” said Microsoft Xbox executive J Allard. That must have Sony worried. After all, reports Ken Kutaragi, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, the PlayStation 3 is only going to be “the most powerful game console ever created.” But wait a second. They can’t both be right. And what does Nintendo have to say about all this?

With the video-game industry overwhelmingly under the control of mega-corporations like Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has become the little engine that could.

<i>Gears of War</i> was one of the best new Xbox games at this year’s E3 conference. The Revolution, to be released later this year, is one of the innovations that’s helping Nintendo compete with gaming giants Sony and Microsoft

“Two billion games. That’s the number of games Nintendo has sold since we entered this business 20 years ago. Some people might call that a great run. I’m here today to tell you we call it a great beginning,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, executive vice-president of sales and marketing for Nintendo.

Nintendo’s offering to the present console generation, the GameCube, has always been the cheapest, but quality persists in shining through. Despite looking like a purple lunchbox, it frequently outperforms Sony’s PS2. Nevertheless, Nintendo’s console sales have slipped into third place, and, were it not for Nintendo’s true cash cow, the GameBoy Advance, the company would be working for Sony by now. But with Sony’s PSP becoming a worthy challenger to Nintendo’s handheld monopoly, the little engine that could needs its next-gen console to count.

Though the Nintendo Revolution was unveiled at E3, there were no demos, playable or otherwise, to showcase the power of the hardware. Also conspicuously absent was the console’s controller, which, knowing Nintendo’s quirkiness, could be a veritable Swiss army knife, containing touchscreens, microphones and bongos. Revolution’s greatest revelation is its backwards compatibility, which gives it an immediate library of 20 years of gaming history available for download. And, yes, Nintendo realizes it missed the boat with online play and intends to catch up with the Revolution.

Creating an online community with something for everyone seems to be the driving principle behind Microsoft’s Xbox 360. “In the next generation, a billion people will play our games,” said Allard. “To encourage this, every Xbox 360 will come with a free service of Xbox Live straight out of the box.” The free—or “silver"—service will allow gamers to create an online profile that includes a gamer handle, an experience rating and an indication of whether you play well with others, which will help players weed out the jerks who frag their own teammates in Halo multiplayer.

Microsoft hopes that eventually Xbox Live will offer features that appeal to hardcore gamers, casual gamers and non-gamers. But, regardless of whether these vague features will actually convince a non-gamer to dish out hundreds of dollars for a console, the success of the Xbox 360 will depend primarily on how well it impresses the hardcore gamers of the world.

As a Nintendo rep, left, demonstrates <i>Nintendogs</i>, a game where customized electronic dogs interact wirelessly, the crowd goes wild over the surprise appearance of legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, inventor of <i>Donkey Kong</i>.

Photo By David Robert

Graphically, the 360 is a mixed bag. While some of the pre-rendered cut-scenes are gorgeous to the point of photo-realism, most of the in-game graphics look only marginally better than what the current Xbox is capable of. In fact, many of the games, showcased both at E3 and the 360’s May 12 MTV debut, were originally intended to be Xbox releases. Titles like Kameo: Elements of Power were impressive only in how many hordes of enemies they could have on screen without a loss in frame rate.

Microsoft’s determination to get the Xbox 360 out long before its competition could release its next-generation machines may cost the console its title of technical powerhouse. Many are already likening it to the Sega Dreamcast, which was also white in color, early in release and eventually killed by the mere rumor of what Sony’s next-gen console could do. So what can Sony’s next-gen console do?

“Empowered by the cell processor with super-computer-like performance, a new age of PlayStation 3 is about to begin. Together with content creators from all over the world, Sony will accelerate the arrival of a new era in computer entertainment,” Kutaragi announced at the Sony press conference. Then, moments before the technical-jargon-heavy lecture forced the whole world’s gaming media to lapse into a collective coma, Luna appeared on the giant screen.

Luna, a creation of PlayStation 3’s cell processor, was a highly expressive, near photo-realistic Asian woman floating in space who could be manipulated in real time. “Luna looks good enough to fall in love with,” Kutaragi said with disturbing candor. A light source nearby reflected off her skin-tight body suit with eerie realism, and her motions came across as entirely lifelike.

The cell processor can manifest photo-realistic figures that can be maneuvered through authentic-looking backgrounds in real time. Imagine little Nemo in Finding Nemo swimming up to his father with a look of defiance. Now imagine it didn’t take Pixar’s best animators in the world hundreds of hours to render the shot, but instead required only a flick of the thumbstick and a quick tap on the X button. Does it sound too good to be true? It might be.

Sony’s demonstration was by far the most impressive, and this sort of advance in technology is exactly what will satiate those longing for the kind of jump that took us from the side-scrolling Super Nintendo to the 3D Nintendo 64. But is it really possible? Sony didn’t have any playable demos to demonstrate the magic of this wondrous hardware, and one has to wonder if this is a marketing scheme to steal the thunder from the Xbox 360’s early launch.

So which console is the best? Time will tell. At this point, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Different consoles will appeal to different gamers for a variety of reasons. And, as always, whatever the strength of the platform, it’s the content of the software that truly dictates the quality of the gaming experience.