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E3 2012 – Xbox stays the course

- June 4th, 2012
Splinter Cell_web

Sam Fisher knows how to shock AND awe.

I’m underwhelmed, if that’s a word.

OK, not completely underwhelmed – I just wanted an excuse to quote a Sloan song. But walking out of the USC’s Galen Center in Los Angeles earlier today after Microsoft’s teeth-rattling Xbox press conference, I felt like my fears of E3 2012 being an awkward transition year were being realized. The canny headline writer on my Sun story summed it up nicely: some awe, but not a lot of shock.

But it’s to be expected in a way. Next year’s E3 will be when we’ll presumably hear about the Xbox 360’s successor (as well as Sony’s PlayStation 4), so this year was focused on new entries in established, strong game franchises, such as Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Madden NFL 13, Dance Central 3 and Tomb Raider. There were some fun surprises, like South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone on stage to introduce an RPG designed to faithfully reproduce the look of the TV show, and a smattering of new IPs (including a game by Pirates of the Carribean director Gore Verbinksi called Matter, which, judging from the trailer, looks like a melding of Marble Madness and Portal.) But for the most part it felt like business as usual.

Which makes sense, really. The console is now selling better than its competitors, and the audience ranges from hardcore fans of action games to families who have made Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral such a huge hit. (Interestingly, Kinect had only a small presence in the E3 press conference, likely as a result of backlash from the E3-attending press at the overabundance of Kinect games showed last year.) Microsoft doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, they just need to stay the course.

There were some interesting non-gaming developments, like the introduction of Xbox SmartGlass, a so-called second screen technology that can be used in conjunction with Xbox games and other entertainment content. (The examples shown were an interactive map of Westeros paired with an episode of Game of Thrones, and a tablet being used to call plays in Madden, but we really need to see this hands-on to grasp how it will work.) Xbox SmartGlass might steal some of Nintendo’s Wii U thunder, but I suspect the Big N will have some rejoinders ready for their own press conference tomorrow morning.

And there was another bevy of entertainment content announcements this year, ranging from NHL on Xbox Live to Xbox Music, a Spotify-style streaming service. But being in Canada, it’s really hard to get excited about this stuff until we learn when (or if) it will come here.

It’s a quiet-ish year on the gaming front, as companies face declining retail sales, aging (but profitable) hardware and a climate that supports safe triple-A franchise games and inventive indies, but not a lot in between. (Though Ubisoft Montreal’s just-revealed new IP, Watch Dogs, looks very intriguing – an open world game in which hacking devices is the means to accomplishing objectives, but with a solid action component as well. Show-stealer?)

Next up this evening is Sony’s press conference. Fingers crossed for some shocks.

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