Microsoft plays it safe at Xbox 360 E3 briefing

By Garnett Lee, Jun 06, 2011 3:30pm PDT

Last year Microsoft put on two pre-E3 press shows--their usual 360 briefing, and the dramatic Cirque du Soleil produced Kinect debut. We knew the two would merge into one this year, but few would have predicted that Kinect would dominate the spotlight in its first year sharing the stage. But that's exactly what happened.

In a program bookended by two legendary shooter franchises--Modern Warfare to open the proceedings, Halo to close--Kinect dominated the post-show conversation. It seemed to be part of nearly everything else. At one point I realized I couldn't recall how long I'd been watching games demoed on stage without seeing a controller.

Kinectapalooza got really going with Microsoft showing some of its answers for how the system works with more serious games. Voice control seems to be the entry level for many games. Speaking the dialog options in Mass Effect 3 hints at the potential for interaction in role playing and other story-driven experiences. But my experience points to potential pitfalls using voice commands to issue teammate orders, or call audibles at the line in Madden. In the heat of battle, I need to know my squad is going exactly where I need them to and so far sticks and buttons have been the only setup precise enough for that. And let's be honest, I get excited enough playing Madden as it stands, the last thing anyone needs to hear is me yelling plays at the TV in the middle of the night.

Gesture controls were up next with a demonstration of gun modding in Future Soldier using only hand motions. Clever, but the most useful thing I saw was the ability to tell the game which of my builds to use by speaking their name, like "loud setup" or "long-range setup." Watching the convenience of navigating TV and media with Kinect in the next segment of the show it was easy to see how the designers made the jump to doing the same thing in games. The difference, though, is that when I'm playing a game, I'm already holding a controller.

Not to be overlooked was the "proof" put on the stage that Kinect can do a couple things people have been asking about. The Fable: The Journey demo started with the person playing the game comfortably sitting on a couch like you or I might have in our den. This worked fine while he was virtually driving a wagon but when the action heated up, he had to stand up to keep up with the action. And with Kinect Fun Labs Microsoft shows some progress on promises like the elusive finger tracking capabilities. But these tricks still take the form of tech demos, not real tools being used in games.

As ordinary as these Kinect features sound, the sequel-heavy software lineup couldn't muster enough umph to overcome them. That definitely counts as the surprise of the morning. Blockbuster names had their time with a brand new Modern Warfare 3 demo at the start, Cliff and Ice-T playing Gears 3 in the middle, and the reveal of Halo 4 at the end. In contrast to the innovative atmosphere of Kinect, they felt like aging superstars.

Accentuating that sense was the lack of new blood on display. Where are the Halos and Gears of the future? Without the promise of new games, the standards felt all the more like grasping attempts to hold on to former glory. The trailer for Ryse, the Kinect-controlled game that lets players become Roman centurions, held some promise, but the highly produced video left many questions how it would be to play. And compared to grandeur with which designer Peter Molyneux the last installment of Fable, watching a character driving a cart only left me wondering if I'd be taking my vegetable harvest to market at some point in the game.

After working so hard to establish its place in the videogame world, and earning the accolades to prove it, Microsoft appears to have fallen prey to the very same false sense of security that left its competitors Sony and Nintendo open to a challenge in the first place. No tease of an exciting new Xbox to come in the future, no new games that brimming with creativity that demand attention, heck, not even a price drop. After clawing its way to the top, it could be Microsoft's turn to learn that you don't stay there by standing pat.

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