Clean up folks, go home; E3 2008 is done. Microsoft won the show; it's over and it hasn't even officially started yet. Today, the 14th of July, 2008 Microsoft delivered what was quite possibly the best press conference in all of E3 history. Microsoft had nothing to prove coming into the show this year; they are still maintaining a comfortable lead in hardware sales on the PS3 and are completely dominating in software sales with companies reportedly making more money on Xbox 360 software than they are on the Wii and PlayStation 3 combined. Sure, Microsoft could have just kicked back and relaxed; shown off Gears of War 2 and Fable 2; maybe have tossed in a little Too Human and Infinite Undiscovery for good measure, but instead they blew the doors off the place by showing new gameplay and trailers of the games we all knew about, debuting a slick new 3D interface for the Xbox 360 dashboard and of course announcing new titles that no one saw coming.
The conference began innocently enough with Todd Howard from Bethesda giving a gameplay demo of Fallout 3; something that had not been shown before. The game is looking pretty good, but was still a bit rough around the edges. At the end of the demo, he did announce that the Xbox 360 would be getting a good deal of exclusive downloadable content for the game after launch. Whether this exclusivity is timed or not was not revealed.
Next up was Capcom's Jun Takeuchi who presented a demo of Resident Evil 5. RE 5 is looking absolutely gorgeous. The visuals and animations are some of the best we've seen. The game looks like it plays similarly to Resident Evil 4, but with one small exception: cooperative play. In the demo Chris Redfield launched a new character, Sheva, across a gap on the rooftops of some buildings. Sheva was being controlled by another player who proceeded to mow down enemies with a machine gun that actually kicked her shoulder back when fired. The game's release date was announced as Friday the 13th, March 2009.
Lionhead's Peter Molyneux was the next to take the stage. He was, of course, there to demo Fable 2. This game was already high on my personal “must have” list and now it is even higher. The visuals are stunning and the new online co-op features look incredible. As you run around the world you will see glowing purple spheres. These represent your friends that are also playing the game. If you want to play together, you can simply run up to a sphere and invite them from in game; no more menu surfing or waiting in lobbies. The transition was smooth and seamless. Fable 2 is scheduled for release this October.
Microsoft then showed off the big gun that everyone was expecting: Gears of War 2. To say this game looks good is an understatement of biblical proportions. The presentation began with a gorgeous, but brief trailer for the game. Then Cliff Bleszinski presented a nice gameplay demo that showed off some new areas and ended with a showdown against a towering Brumak. The demo ended just as Marcus and crew were talking about taking a ride on the giant beast! Now that would be something to see! Gears 2 will also feature a new co-op mode called Horde which allows five players to get together and kick Locust ass. The release date for Gears of War 2 is set for November 7th.
After the Gears demo, Microsoft began playing the numbers game quoting some pretty impressive statistics such as users having spent over $1 billion on Xbox LIVE and that there are now more than 10,000 movies and TV shows available on the service. In the wake of all this, new partnerships were announced with NBC and Universal Studios. That means hit shows like The Office, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes will all be available on Xbox LIVE along with movies such as 12 Monkeys and The Chronicles of Riddick.
Next we were given a pretty in-depth look at the new dashboard interface. The new interface is like a combination of Nintendo's Miis (called Avatars on Xbox 360) and what Sony has been trying (unsuccessfully) to do with Home for the last two years. Basically you have an Avatar and the dashboard is all 3D. Your friends list is no longer just a list of names, but a bunch of 3D characters on the screen that you can go up to and interact with. You can do all kinds of things now. You can “party” up with friends and share photos or just chat and hang out. The resemblence to Miis was off-putting at first, but all the stuff you can do with them was enough to make up for the obvious nod to Nintendo.
Microsoft then announced Xbox LIVE Prime Time. This is a new feature that nicely compliments the new Avatars and party system. This is actually really cool and takes gaming into new frontiers. The Prime Time setup will have scheduled programming such as game shows that you can take your Avatar into and compete in for real prizes. This is something we have never seen before on a gaming console; Microsoft is truly a driving force of innovation in the industry.
After showing off Prime Time, Microsoft announced several new, huge games coming to XBLA. The first was Geometry Wars 2, which was followed by a new Galaga game being developed by Namco Bandai. Both of those titles are due out next month. Then the lights dimmed and the voice of GLAdoS from the hit game Portal came over the speakers and announced a new game in the series was coming exclusively to XBLA in 2008. A South Park game was also mentioned as coming in 2009, but absolutely nothing was shown on it.
While on the subject of Xbox LIVE, Microsoft announced that they had partnered up with NetFlix and that LIVE users with NetFlix accounts could access movies from the marketplace. Not only that, but you can party up with friends and watch them together while chatting over your headsets! With NetFlix onboard, Microsoft just put a major dent in Sony's chances of the PSN ever competing with Xbox LIVE.
Next up, it was Rare's turn to show off. They announced that Banjo-Kazooie would be coming to XBLA and that it would interact somehow with the new game Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. They also showed some new video of Viva Pinata 2 and the ability to scan in new pinatas with the Xbox LIVE Vision Camera.
Various games were shown next including a new Scene It! title and a new game called You're in the Movies. This game looks interesting and makes use of the Vision Camera to capture video of players and then edits them together to make a cheesy, B-movie looking video. You can edit these videos and even share them with others. Then they went on to talk about several music games coming out. Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band 2 were both present and accounted for. Each seemed to be trying to out-do the other by announcing exclusive bands and tracks; both boasted about the number of tracks available. After the two music giants were finished duking it out Lips was shown. Lips is a first party karaoke game that lets you sing songs from your own collection. You can hook up a zune or ipod device and play songs off of that. Lips will be available this holiday season; it actually looks like a lot of fun!
Finally, Microsoft welcomed Yoichi Wada, president of Square-Enix to the stage. He talked briefly about the upcoming Infinite Undiscovery which is slated to release this September and Star Ocean 4 which will be available in the Spring of next year. Next he showed off a snazzy looking trailer for The Last Remnant, a game that is scheduled for release as a timed exclusive on the Xbox 360 this November. Interestingly, the game will also be available on the PC. Mr. Wada then left the stage.
Microsoft's Don Mattrick began talking again, but then the unexpected happened. Yoichi Wada returned to the stage claiming that there was one more "big" announcement he would like to make. A trailer starts and looks strikingly like a new Panzer Dragoon title with dragons soaring through the air over forests and canyons. As the trailer progresses we are shown more hints...airships, familiar looking soldiers...and then combat. It is Lightning, heroine of Final Fantasy XIII. She's kicking ass and looking beautiful doing it...and she's doing it on the Xbox 360. The mood was intense. No one could speak; you could feel the energy in the room. This was exactly what Microsoft needed. This is the biggest surprise to come out of the show; absolutely no one saw this coming. Jaws dropped, eyes fixated into place and everyone sat and watched as Sony's number one title played on screen at Microsoft's event.
Forget Metal Gear Solid 4, forget Infamous and Little Big Planet, forget God of War 3; Final Fantasy XIII was the game that was going to sell Sony's console and they just lost it. There is no announcement Sony can make to kill this buzz short of saying that Halo 4 will appear on the PlayStation 3. They can show off Home, they can say Home is done and people can get it now and it will not matter. They can announce Metal Gear five through one hundred coming exclusively to the PlayStation 3 and no one will hear it. They can debut the PlayStation 4 and no one will care. Final Fantasy XIII coming to the Xbox 360 is a checkmate move by Microsoft. With a smile on his face, Mattrick put the ball deep into Sony's court. Only it's not really a ball; it's a detonate-on-contact, 500 megaton nuclear holocaust just daring Sony to touch it. Sony can't move. They can't win. Microsoft has won E3 before it has even begun.