GC 2010: Microsoft Play Day
Cologne basked and gloried in metaphorical and literal sunshine last year, the inaugural GamesCom an instant hit, by some measures the world's biggest videogame expo. So it was with disappointment that I noted the drizzle and grey clouds hovering over the medieval city as my plane bumped into town this morning. Surely not a premonition of darker things to come?
Microsoft were one of the biggest financiers of last year's event, and they followed up 2009's well-received performance with what was described as a 'Play Day', the platform holder eschewing a glitzy, celebrity-smattered media briefing in favour of a lower key bash in an unremarkable suburb; the aim presumably being to allow people time and space to get hands on with their wares - most notably vital November debutant Kinect.
Kinect is Microsoft's controller-less answer to the Wii and the PS3's Move, and it was the unmistakable focus of today's event - which even saw the likes of Halo and Fable cast in supporting role. The system was confirmed for release on November 10th in the UK, and former German international goalkeeper Jens Lehmann added just a smattering of glamour, appearing alongside Kudo Tsunoda to promote Kinect Sports and drink an apple juice.
But what of big, headline grabbing news? Well, this was thin on the ground to say the least - Microsoft apparently confident that the lure of Kinect can keep us all enamored, without the need for novelty. Is this really the company that gave us acrobats and neon outfits at E3?
Wandering the warehouse conversion it was interesting to note that more than three-quarters of the space on offer had been devoted to Kinect games, and these titles were certainly drawing the biggest crowds, even if some of the more 'hardcore'-looking journalists did seem to be eying the titles on show with an air of horror, annoyance and bemusement.
Dance Central - as we've already noted in previous previews - is perhaps the most natural fit for the Kinect motion control system, the game once again looking like a sure fire party hit. The range of moves once again impressed us (our demonstration took in hits from the 80s, through hip-hop, to present day pop), while the technology itself seems at home in this genre. The future of dance games? It's plausible, while the visual style and overall presentation smack of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, comparisons which could bode well.
Elsewhere, we checked out Kinect Joy Ride, a manic kart racer sporting cartoon-esque vehicles and a collection of frankly drug-induced environments. The racer is controlled by making a steering wheel with your hands, and giving your car and rivals a poke with a range of gestures. The controls seem to be responsive enough, although there are question marks over the subtlety of the gameplay. A good demo for what's possible, but hardly a killer app we suspect (someone over my shoulder mutters "people just have too much money" cryptically, before moving on).
Kinectimals was next up on my tour, and this is perhaps the most pretty looking Kinect game we've seen - a next-generation virtual pet title aimed squarely at the little 'uns. The tactile interface looks instantly approachable, while a lion cub leaps around delightfully in a lush landscape that has a Rare/Lionhead sheen about it. We took our young cub around an animal obstacle course, which was hardly challenging but will no doubt enrapture the target audience. Can a game like this really sell on the Xbox 360, however?
Wandering on, I stumbled across Kinect Sports, a selection of sports-based mini-games which takes aim squarely at Wii Sports. We had a go at the bowling simulation, and found the interface remarkably slick, while the aiming itself was not quite as sensitive. The Avatar-based visuals work well, although everything on offer looks uncomfortably close to Nintendo's offering, which will make the quality of the controller-free motion sensing itself vital to the title's success.
Kinect Adventures, on the other hand, looks like an altogether more original idea, even if the mini-games that make up this semi-narrative driven adventure do appear to be largely predictable motion-control escapades. The focus on social play makes sense, while pose-striking and white water rafting add variety if not cohesion to the experience.
Moving away from the various mass market-bating Kinect titles on offer, I found myself tucked away in a darkened corner, engaged in a Halo: Reach Firefight. Controller back in hand I felt very much at home leaping around a futuristic arena taking lethal pot shots at the bastard blue team, tracer racing around me as explosions rumbled. This may be recognisable, but Bungie have refined the formula to a veritable glisten, and this could be the definitive Halo experience if hyperbole is to be believed.
Fable 3 is also looking like a very complete experience, our brief play taking in chicken-kicking, a castle, a selection of rogues, some spiteful skeletons and a litany of very sarcastic dialogue. As Peter Molyneux has hinted, Fable is more adventure than RPG, and it looks very comfortable cast in this role. We'll be taking a more detailed look at this - and Halo: Reach - later in the week.
Casting aside the Xbox 360, the PC's lone representation at the Play Day came in the form of Age of Empires: Online. The game was certainly drawing a crowd, albeit a far less 'lifestyled' bunch than the Kinect games, while some must have wondered who'd let the keyboards sneak in. None the less, the game looks like a fun and colourful take on the real-time strategy classic, sporting some new visuals and a streamlined interface.
As if to ensure completeness, Xbox Live for Windows Mobile was also present, although this was in the main being used as a diversion for weary looking lunchbox-eaters, keen to look busy while simultaneously devouring a hasty snack in anticipation of another sweaty round of Dance Central.
And so our Microsoft Play Day was done, and we stumbled out into the drizzle eager for a little lay down, and perhaps a small glass or two of delicious German beer. Today was all about Kinect, and the motion control technology certainly answered a few questions, as well as posing a few new ones. The system's likely reception is still in the balance, but there can be no question marks over Microsoft's confidence. More from Cologne as we get it.