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E3: In The Ring

Sony, Nintendo and MS square-up in LA

It's the same every year; the Pre-E3 press events exist as little more than a circus sideshow for the industry's 'big hitters' to flex their muscles, puff out their chests, belittle the opposition, and generally throw the occasional punch along with morsels of genuinely appealing information they lop at the journalists. E3 2006 has been no different in that regard, but who came out sporting the black eye, who quietly left the ring without even taking their hooded cowl off, and who remained the as-yet untested champion?

The Jaded Champion: Sony

Sony was the first of the next-generation competitors to step on to the scales on Tuesday. The showcasing of their wares included a genuine unveiling of real, 100% authentic, genuine gameplay footage from upcoming PS3 games - unlike in 2005 when rendered clips left the attendees somewhat frustrated considering all the PlayStation 3 anticipation. Games of note included Resistance: Fall of Man, Warhawk, Gran Turismo HD ( yawn), Eight Days, Heavenly Sword and Hotshots Golf. Yet, while perhaps running the risk of a repeated reaction from the gathered press, there was little on show in terms of oiled muscle to truly make the PlayStation 3 stand out beside the already established Xbox 360 and its awarded-by-default heavyweight belt. Plus, the PS3's design also looks somewhat unappealing beside both the Wii and the 360. Some have even likened it to a breadbin. However, hardware aesthetics are not in question here.

That's not actually the case though, especially as the generally lacklustre reaction garnered by Sony upon the initial appearance of its-now notorious-'boomerang' PS3 controller led to a complete rethink on the design front. Again, expectations were naturally rather high as to what Sony would offer up by way of final improvement. An amended Dual Shock PS2 controller (without the Shock feature) duly failed to whip up a positive storm and it hardly helps the PlayStation 3's image where gaming evolution is concerned. Of course, the implementation of an internal gyro that detects tilt motion probably had Nintendo Wii executives sliding horse shoes into their boxing gloves, but those in-the-know (which is pretty much all of us) are fully aware that Sony are walking the plagiarism tightrope with that particular move. It's yet another example of Sony flagrantly disregarding the knowledge and reaction of the general games consumer while resting on ill-gotten laurels; look no further than its recent blatantly sexist PSP ad campaign that belittles women (a demographic that DO play videogames), or its belief in prohibiting the sale of second-hand games, and its opinions on applying a code to PS3 titles that render them playable on ONLY the machine they first boot in.

Sony then announced there would be two separate hardware packages upon the global November 17 launch of the PlayStation 3, one being a 20Gb hard drive pack (without HDMI, and no support for WiFi networks or memory cards), priced at a rather steep $499/499 Euro/’350. And the other a 60Gb hard drive pack (with all the above features included), and priced at an even steeper $599/599 Euro/’400. Further to this, Sony has finally accepted that ignoring live gaming is potentially fatal - while Microsoft gallop even further ahead in honing an already grounded service with Xbox Live. The PlayStation 3 will include a live gaming service unusually similar to Xbox Live that includes a marketplace where extra downloadable game content can be purchased in return for Sony Vouchers (hmm, Microsoft Points anyone?). Then there's the handy backward compatibility of all PS2 and PS1 games (hopefully it'll prove better than the 360's attempts), and the shamefully gimmicky inclusion of close compatibility with the Sony PSP. Okay, hook up the PSP and use it as a rear-view mirror during racing games. Whatever. How many people used the GBA connection with their GameCubes to get that little extra content from the likes of Animal Crossing? Plus, regardless of usage, it's another example of Sony preying upon a competitor's originality.

Ultimately, Sony's E3 showing smacks of little more than trying to punch above its weight. Yes, granted, the arrival of the PS3 will likely still see Sony emerge as market leaders thanks to its PS2-imbued reputation, but at some point the consumer backlash will hit as Sony continue to insist that bigger is better while pick-pocketing the competition for ideas and inspiration. The PlayStation 3 may rise higher than the Wii in terms of performance, but it offers scant little in innovation that Nintendo won't trump with relative ease. Microsoft, on the other hand, need have nothing to fear from the PS3 on the power front and it already enjoys a massive base of Live gamer support that Sony may well struggle to overhaul. So, what does Sony bring to the pre-fight weigh-in? A breadbin filled with pretty graphics, a copycat live service, and a dusty controller with a suspect internal gyro. It's going to need a steak for that eye.

The Unsung Hero: Nintendo

By comparison, Nintendo stepped onto the event scales as a somewhat shadowy one-time heavyweight champion who seemingly refuses to concede that they're no longer able to throw the same power behind their punches. But that's only if by the term 'punches' we're referring to processing performance. Whatever Nintendo's preposterously titled 'Wii' may well lack in pure power (and marketing savvy), it more than makes up for with creative agility as it dances nimbly around its flailing opponents. Indeed, no one can get close enough to scrutinise the Wii, let alone beneath its defences to land a spin-fuelled punch.

From the off, it seemed as though Nintendo's line of tight-lipped non-committal was to continue as no concrete release date or final pricing information was forthcoming from its Pre-E3 show. As consumers, we must again remain placated with "Q4 2006" and "priced affordably" as the only points of retail reference concerning the Wii; though Nintendo has previously hinted that the final pricing will be well below that of the competition-it is, after all, a pure gaming machine rather than a multimedia hub. The games on show to whet collective appetites were Nintendo's usual array of reliable and brand-friendly productions, such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Mario Galaxy, Pilot Wings, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption - all of which utilise the Remote in certain ways to widen gameplay interaction. Like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the Wii will also be fitted with a live service (WiiConnect24) that will be open for content downloads, and can be left online 24 hours a day thanks to the unit's super low power consumption-equated to a very small light bulb, apparently. However, more than the Wii itself, which we all know will be a step up from the GameCube but underpowered compared to the PS3 and 360, Nintendo's quietly assured posturing centred on the Wii's revolutionary (speaker equipped) Remote controller units and their relationship to next-generation titles.

Using two controllers rather than one may seem a tad daunting to the uninitiated (pretty much all of us), but both the simplicity of execution and immediacy of player-to-game immersion could soon render current control pads as emotionally stunted slabs of the past. Of course, conversely, the Wii, its far-flung control system, and the innovation that Nintendo are battling to integrate into the industry to prise apart the twin 'more power!' behemoths of Sony and Microsoft, could just as easily see it slammed with a consumer-led knock out blow. It's not beyond the realms of belief to think that anything but absolute success with the Wii could see an end to Nintendo in the home console ring, especially considering the lengths it's going to in its attempts to change the course of gaming's future. We, the gamers, are the ones who will ultimately decide the fate of Wii. This writer will be buying one in the hopes of something new and invigorating after the dulling sensation invoked by the industry's cloyingly bland mentality over the last 5 or 6 years. Yet, personally speaking, the damage may well be done in terms of aesthetics being the only scale of quality that truly matters while story and originality have become secondary and tertiary elements on home consoles. Personal scepticism aside, 16 million Nintendo DS sales could still see the world embracing the innovation Nintendo are offering. Time will surely tell. Subsequently, the cowl of mystery remains firmly up as Nintendo, the quick-footed underdog, lithely springs from the weigh-in after only tantalisingly brief flashes of its offensive arsenal.

The Young Pretender: Microsoft

With the next-gen heavyweight belt thrown easily across its shoulder, Microsoft sauntered onto the Pre-E3 scales with very little to prove in the face of opposition yet to throw a competitive punch. Indeed, the gathered throngs were already aware of the Xbox 360's performance pedigree, its 4.5 million unit sales (albeit via a decidedly bumpy launch), and its successful ramping up of the Xbox Live service. A service that now includes trailer, demo, and content downloads as well as a widespread Live gaming platform that has buried deep roots within the online community since its arrival in November of 2002. The 360 has also ushered in a little piece of E3-related history that brings gamers closer to the games thanks to playable Live Marketplace E3 demos, which means account holders can gather firsthand experience of the same games the industry boffins are playing down on the floor of the LA Convention Center. However, regardless of its attributes and its undoubted power, the 360 has, thus far, fallen flat in Japan-where both Sony and Nintendo rule supreme with the PS2 and DS respectively. At this point, the championship belt abruptly slips just a smidge as Microsoft's shoulders visibly sag .

The expectations of gathered attendees may have been somewhat subdued for Microsoft's 360 showcasing seeing as the console has been on the market since the close of 2005, yet this merely afforded a little more focus on the upcoming games in the Microsoft stable. Of these, the most memorable were perhaps Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Viva Pinata, Fable 2, Forza 2, Shadowrun, and Gears of War - which looked particularly impressive. Microsoft also announced that Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 4 would be hitting the 360 in 2007, and the rumoured unveiling of flagship sequel Halo 3 also came to fruition via a 2-minute clip outlining a last-stand collaboration between Master Chief, humanity, and the Covenant, against the incessant Flood. The clip culminates in the doomsday proclamation of "This is how the world ends!"

The only noteworthy announcements in terms of hardware came in the form of surprise speaker Bill Gates revealing a new cross-platform connectivity system called 'Live Anywhere', which will allow gamers to access their Live friends list and interact with various game elements - be it Live multiplayer or downloading additional elements. This will be possible on the Xbox 360, the new Vista Windows OS, or even mobile phones that run with Windows Mobile. The much talked about HD DVD drive was also introduced to the masses and it is expected to find its way to retail over the Christmas 2006 period -no concrete word on pricing yet. Lastly, and as a rather tactless shot across Sony's fledgling online bows, Microsoft also revelled in the fact that by E3 2007 some 6 million gamers will be connected to Live accounts and that the Xbox 360 will be approaching 10 million units sold.

With its hardware already laying foundations in the market, Microsoft's press event was without fevered fanfare and, to be fair, they didn't really have to pander to the audience beyond Mr. Gates pricking up a few ears and Halo 3's clip delivering enough oomph to make players truly want to "Finish the fight!" as its finale demands. Microsoft provided what you'd expect from any next-gen champion, even those handed the belt without having to fight their way to the top, with an impressive showing of software that solidifies their machine's position as No.1 based upon gathered demos across all formats (at least where performance and impact are concerned). Breaking Japan is still the major stumbling block for Microsoft - and the 360's sleeker aesthetic design changes have so far failed to attract Japanese consumers who were pathetically labelled as not wanting the original Xbox because it was ugly. It's more likely that Japanese gamers are drawn to the home-grown products of Sony (PS 2) and Nintendo (DS), and they see Microsoft as unworthy invaders to a territory traditionally moulded by Japanese manufacturers. Plus, Microsoft's gaming catalogue isn't exactly full of Japan-esque titles, only 99 Nights at E3 in any way resembles the sort of game (3D hack-and-slash affair in the style of KOEI's Dynasty Warriors series) that would go down well with Japanese gamers. When titles such as Brain Training, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Guitar Hero, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Legend of Zelda, SingStar, Eye Toy, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing appear in the Microsoft armoury, then they may stand a chance of attracting the Eastern demographic beyond curious enthusiasts. At it is, Microsoft leaves the Pre-E3 weigh-in as favourites to retain the title of champion-for now-but the appearance of the PlayStation 3 will signal the beginning of the end as Sony steadily but surely reel Gates and co. back in. It's a sad statement of truth, but it IS the truth.

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