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GC 2010: Sony Press Event

Sony don't pick up the phone

Beyond predictably rolling out big hitters such as Halo: Reach and Fable III, Microsoft's 'Play Day' pre-Gamescom press event strived to focus the attention of gathered journalists on the much-vaunted promise of Kinect (which is coming to Europe on Nov. 10). Other than that, the American software titan's presentation was a distinctly by-the-numbers and surprise-free zone.

However, while Move will likely play a major role in Sony's looming press event, the company arrives at Gamescom trailing a number of rumbling rumours in its wake.

For, example, having last year used Cologne's inaugural videogames trade fair to officially whip the covers off the PS3 Slim, it is believed Sony will today formally unveil a 'PSP Phone' device that has been developed in conjunction with Swedish partner Ericsson.

Sony is also expected to confirm the imminent arrival of the same 160GB and 320GB PS3 Slims that were launched in Japan not too long ago. As for the existing 120GB and 250GB models, they'll reportedly have their price points slashed as Sony works to phase them out of circulation.

And, from a software perspective, a number of online reports suggest Gamescom 2010 will also go down in gaming history as the platform used by Sony to formally welcome BioWare's acclaimed Mass Effect series into the PlayStation 3 portfolio.

Ever expectant and hoping for at least one 'knee-trembling' announcement between all the corporate backslapping and fiscal pie-charts these press events usually throw up, we're here outside E Werk (a popular Cologne nightspot), waiting for Sony to open the doors and lift the curtain on its Gamescom presentation.

So, off we go...

Hold on, after more than an hour braving Cologne's ominous summer rain clouds, it transpires that Sony's press conference is actually little more than 'Play Days' in disguise. Where last year there was a large auditorium and a stage (the normal conference set up), this time we're met with partitioned rooms peppered with lazy chairs, wide-screen LCD televisions, individual Gran Turismo 5 driving pods, and a whole host of 'come and play me' gaming stations. Granted, there's also a broadcast balcony and a modest stage that's as-yet empty, but the venue is very much geared towards hands-on play as opposed to dull corporate rambling. We'll take this over Jack Tretton any day.

Unsurprisingly, there are Move controllers pretty much everywhere you look (unchained and unguarded), but Sony's motion controller is hardly the focal point. Moreover, a brief perusal of the playable gaming pods reveals the likes of FIFA 11, LittleBigPlanet 2, inFamous 2, Motorstorm: Apocalypse, DC Universe Online, and many more. There's also a smattering of PSN titles like Dead Nation, Pixel Junk Shooter 2, Eat Them!, and a pod covering upcoming PlayStation minis.

The PSP pods, which certainly don't contain any newfangled hardware, offer up the likes of God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Valkyria Chronicles 2, and the really quite beautiful Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

A little hands-on time with Ghost of Sparta reveals a spray soaked and visually arresting battle against giant tentacles clasped around the ruined deck of a spider-infested ship. Controls are pleasingly fluid and reliable - much like any other God of War title - as Kratos dodges successive lashes while ripping arachnids apart left, right and centre. It's impressive. Yet, while there's no denying the slick presentation and the welcome familiarity, we can't help but wonder whether excitement for Kratos is beginning to fade... not least because not many attendees are gravitating towards the pod.

Put it this way: Birth by Sleep delivers similar - if not somewhat cuter - third-person action. But the presentation is fresh and lively, and the mixture of Square Enix's franchise heroes and classic Disney characters is so far removed from Sony's incessantly growling Spartan warrior covered in the ashy residue of his victims. There's a fresh-faced appeal in attendance that's likely to grab a wider slice of the PSP demographic, which is probably why we were shuffled off the Birth by Sleep pod in a matter of minutes by other eager punters.

On the Move front, there are playable versions of an action-packed Time Crisis: Razing Storm (complete with snazzy Move-based gun peripheral), which we'll be covering in detail during Gamescom proper. There's also Socom Special Forces, Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition, Ratchet & Clank: Heroes on the Move, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2011, all of which are attracting a fair amount of journalistic interest.

The Move controller and its accompanying Navigation sub-controller are themselves surprisingly lightweight but well constructed, with the sub-controller similar in feel to the Wii's Nunchuk, while the slightly more ergonomic Move wand seems even lighter than the Wii Remote.

In terms of reaction to Move, we're finding it to be a little hit and miss. And we're not alone. Stuff like The Fight, Sports Champions, SingStar Dance and Virtua Tennis 4 are all fairly straightforward and seem to respond well to the extreme and obvious movements required to accomplish gameplay interaction (if you can get past looking like a spasmodic numpty). But things get a little more patchy when dealing with gentle nuance in, say, the Move-supported version of Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. Quickly defeated, we place the controllers down and let someone else put the game through its paces. We are quickly relieved and distressed in equal measure to note that successfully knocking on an apartment door or putting a hand in a pocket can indeed be an exercise in absolute frustration. We're hoping this hiccup is merely beer-fueled ineptitude on our part, and not an example of tacked-on functionality.

Of course, the AAA big hitters are where most attendees are congregating, and we're pleased to report that the tutorial demo of inFamous 2 pretty much delivers on the promise of recent trailers and gameplay clips. It's prettier, slicker, more nimble, and much more polished than its predecessor - and that ain't no bad thing. You'll also be interested to note that the tantalising demo confirms that Cole's aesthetic styling has indeed reverted to the bedraggled city courier we came to love in the first inFamous.

Taking a moment to enjoy the finer things in life, namely football, it would appear Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 has its work cut out for it at this year's Gamescom. Regardless of Konami's 'this is our year' bluster, FIFA 11 is an intimidating beast of a game. The footballing crown is very much on EA's head and this year's update, while not so obviously different during our time on the pitch, shoves in a few extra shiny jewels thanks to even tighter controls, a new level of visual beauty, and always-excellent atmospherics.

The media briefing itself, when it finally kicks into gear, immediately confirms one of the above rumours as Sony announces new Move hardware bundles in sizes of 160GB and 320GB. Both will be available from October, with the 160GB model priced at 299 euros, while the 320GB will cost 349 euros (there's no comment on the future of the existing 120GB and 250GB units).

Focusing in on its commitment to PSN, other showcased services and features include the likes of MUBI, a new film streaming platform that will include on-demand and commercially supported content combined with social networking features. MUBI will be made available in 18 countries from October of 2010. The presentation then spotlights the latest incoming batch of PSP Essentials, which are apparently being released to help drive software interest towards Sony's portable console. We're thinking that, outside of Japan, it could certainly could do with the help.

It's 3D glasses time, and the 'wow factor' proceedings begin in subtle style courtesy of a new inFamous 2 trailer, which offers up (conveniently?) slow-mo in-game snapshots and the briefest snippets of close-quarter gameplay - all set to a sexy creole cover version of House of the Rising Sun. They don't show much, but the 3D effects sure are purdy. It also coaxes the first enthusiastic smattering of applause from the watching crowd.

Next up is Greg Goodrich, executive producer for EA's new Call of Duty rip-off... sorry, Medal of Honor reboot. Sporting a sexy beard, Goodrich claims he can't show the new game demo alone, and that he requires the assistance of someone with much more ability. Wow, he's going to roll out the cast of The Expendables, we think. But no, it's some guy from 'sports metal' group Linkin' Park - who we assume provide music for the game. Of course, we're suitably impressed, as is everyone else in the room.

The new 'Gunfighters' demo unfolds from behind the controls of an attack gunship as it blows seven shades of shit out of a mountaintop settlement in Afghanistan. It's unclear just how much control is being given regarding the gunship, but that's not really the point. The point, as the hapless terrorists are quite clearly finding out, is to die in spectacular fashion while blasting RPGs in the gunship's general direction. Our knee-jerk reaction? It's a fairly intense example of how to run up a swift ordnance bill, but it lacks variety and punch. Plus, call us pedantic, but the explosions look extremely poor. We like our terrorist culling to be authentic, if you don't mind.

A list of minor date confirmations and announcements follow, with Gran Turismo 5 taking centre stage thanks to its official European release date of November 3. Oddly, and we're not trying to illicit hate mail here, but the playable PS3 pods for GT5 are running a racing title that looks somewhat disappointing for a game that's been in production since the dawn of time. Call us pedantic, but we expect the Nordschleife to look authentic while we're slamming into its crash barrers at mind-numbing speeds. And, hey, what's with the strange invisible walls on the Top Gear track? Nit-picking aside, the overall game still plays beautifully, and we're still buying it day-one.

More 3D trailer content now, with the likes of Virtua Tennis 4 (which will support both Move and 3D visuals), and an incredibly short multiplayer trailer for Killzone 3. Talk about feeling cheated. That said, the snatches of 3D for Guerrilla Games' latest epic do look superb.

The same can't be said for Motorstorm Apocalypse, which is next to be demoed on stage. It looks good, but Evolution Studios is putting a lot of effort into talking-up just how incredibly impressive the game's 3D depth of field is. It isn't. The car models look convincingly three dimensional, as do the bits of metal and other detritus flashing past the camera during explosions and crashes, but the background elements (where the apocalypse is supposedly unfolding) is a tad flat.

Back to Sony now, as magic corporate fairy dust aplenty is sprinkled onto its "long term initiative" where 3D support is concerned. "Here," it trumpets, pointing at the 60-foot screen and demanding we don our cumbersome 3D spectacles again, "look at our 3D commitment," it includes "many of our biggest releases." Fair enough, we can't argue with Killzone 3, The Sly Collection, Gran Turismo 5, Virtua Tennis 4, Motorstorm Apocalypse, WipEout HD, Super Stardust 3D, The Fight and, um, Hustle Kings. It's a compelling reason to splash exorbitant amounts of cash on a Sony 3D televis... hey, wait.

The night's final guest is Ted Price, head of Insomniac. Here comes Resistance 3. We feel a modicum of tenting in the pant area. Pah, our hopes are promptly dashed. Despite a grandiose preamble about "a shift of philosophy" at Insomniac that allows the studio to extend development time, increase quality output and generally add more final polish for the sole purpose of creating better games, Price then reveals the drop-in, drop-out cooperative Ratchet & Clank: All for One.

With arousal swiftly subsiding, we watch on (quietly impressed) as Ratchet, Clank, Captain Qwark and Dr. Nefarious all take to the screen and proceed to work together to explore the vast cityscape before them, combining to negotiate obstacles, destroy pesky enemies, and finally dispatch an arena-based armoured robo-boss-thingy. The visuals are typically sharp, as you'd expect for a Ratchet & Clank title. The character dialogue is quirky, as you'd expect from a Ratchet & Clank game. All is well, we're satisfied. Maybe that damn Resistance 3 billboard was just a cruel joke.

But wait, Price isn't finished. He's announcing that Insomniac is also working on something else for PlayStation 3. We then glory in a moody and atmospheric live-action trailer for Resistance 3, which shows a ramshackle group of human survivors travelling through a blood-stained and desolate American west towards the battered towers of a similarly hopeless city. Once there, the group disembarks in a dark tunnel, unleashing bullets at hordes of onrushing Chimera as they venture into the unknown. No gameplay, no projected release date, no rendered sequences, no story information. Nothing. But we don't care. We're also glad we wore our most resilient rubber underwear.

So, no PSP Phone, eh - you should check EA's conference for news on Mass Effect coming to PS3 - but the evening itself is certainly a welcome change from the humdrum banalities that regular pre-show press conferences usually throw up. Much like Microsoft's event earlier in the day, Sony has peeled away its corporate face in favour of hosting a mini Gamescom showcase of its very own. It's refreshing to get hands-on time with so many potentially great games and we hope Sony continues this trend next year.

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