X03: The Show
I must confess to being something of a Microsoft press trip virgin having only previously read in awe of their past extravaganzas. Needless to say then I was more than a little excited at the chance for an all-expenses paid trip to Nice replete with lavish beach party-evening thing. Oh, and yes, it was very good indeed, though not - by the sound of things - up to the same world shatteringly huge standards set by previous Xbox conferences. But then, how were Redmond ever going to top the $350 million purchase of Rare? No. The theme for this year was more about consolidation and recapping - and it was a hugely enjoyable evening - but sadly it was one lacking in any major news and even the announcement of an Epic/Microsoft exclusivity deal did little to stir the masses too drunk to sit through an hour-and-a-quarter of marketing spiel without getting rather restless.
It's a good job then that there was plenty of free booze and food on hand to silence the critics - who at least expected some price cut news - but were instead treated to a rather enjoyable DJ set from one of the Massive Attack chaps. None of this however could quell the sense of disappointment from a crowd clearly expecting some big announcements to match the wondrous beach-front setting. Nevermind. Hopefully, we'll hear more on the Epic titles soon - and the plans for Xbox Live do sound promising.
Moving on from the evening's piss-up and onto the day's more sobering and hung-over conference and there were a few treats in store. Naturally, we weren't offered much in the way of 'news', but the range of titles available to play (or at least watch) in some form was impressive - and the ability to actually play a game without having to fight through a crowd of adolescent London kids made a pleasant change (this was not a Sony Experience). Of particular note was the excellent looking new racers coming next year from Microsoft Games studios, and I enjoyed getting my teeth into both Project Gotham 2 (graphically a small advance over the original but overtly much better designed in every way) and Rallisport Challenge 2 (what can I say - ace - graphically stunning and complimented by rock-solid gameplay).
In the Xbox 'Megacruiser' (a sort of big dark truck) I was pleased to stumble across Rare's Grabbed by the Ghoulies, which, apart from having the most comical game title ever (well, there was the odious 'Scarab' I suppose), is a fun, quirky and original title - which boasts a unique visual style and benefits from that unmistakable Rare touch of class. The control system is also rather good and my only disappointment was that I couldn't play more of it.
Technically-speaking, THQ's unveiling of Full Spectrum Warrior was more than a little impressive - boasting rich and dynamic environments that have a distinct sense of being 'alive', as well as boasting a bizarre system for switching between squad-mates which gives you a field of vision effect; heightening the realism. Sadly, I wasn't able to play the game so could only conjecture from afar whether any of this would play well. Memorable, nonetheless.
However, there was only ever one real highlight of the show for me (though Rainbow Six 3 came close) and even though I couldn't get hands-on with it I was still left somewhat in awe of Eidos and ION Storm's lovely Deus Ex 2. Backstage on the Eidos booth a small gathering of us were treated to a walkthrough taking in various aspects of the game from the excellent new control system (which appears in the style of a HUD burnt onto the player's retina) to the typically deceptive plot-lines that our hero will become embroiled in. The addition of nanotechnology is a positive one, too, allowing the player to induce a temporary state of, say, thermal-invisibility - once the technology is collected, that is.
This new addition makes for some clever moments in the game, such as jumping huge fences, sneaking past a heat-sensitive gun placement or creeping up undetected on a guard whilst invisible. With stealth in mind, and given it's current popularity, Deus Ex 2 includes a visibility meter which allows the player to gauge how stealthily they’re moving through the environment a la Splinter Cell.
Choices, however, once again form the foundations of the Deus Ex experience and its pleasing to note that the developers are clearly spending time catering for different styles of play - and in doing so - adding replayability. One example offered to us was the three separate ways a player could gain entry to a building in an Arctic cave, either by using a one-use only tool, blowing the door with an explosion, or by climbing a ladder and dropping through a hatch in the roof to surprise the enemy inside. Of course, the decisions you make are more important still in the storyline you follow - choosing who to trust and side with as you're presented with conflicting and multitudinous ideas, opinions and images at every step of Deus Ex 2's paranoid way. This is the future, ladies and gentlemen, and with the massively improved graphics I was very impressed with even the pre-alpha content I witnessed.
And so X03 draws to a fairly sedate end as I sit here in the Media Centre sweltering in the afternoon heat of the south of France - there were other highlights; Codemaster's surprisingly good Club Football games, Microsoft's Xbox Live–enabled Top Spin and even Ubi Soft's imminently due XIII which I spent some quality time with. Even Eidos' Whiplash proved a pleasant surprise, with comical animation and frenzied action that should ensure sales success this Christmas. Will Sony be worried in the X03 aftermath? Probably not, but this was never an event designed to change the gaming world - merely a state of intent that Microsoft are here to stay and will continue to build solidly towards making the Xbox number one - something that probably does send a shiver down Sony's corporate spine. Nice beer, too.