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E3 Impressions 2011

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By Nelson Schneider - 06/12/11 at 06:01 PM CT

This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was pretty exciting. For one, it’s the first one for which Melted Joystick has been in existence! For another, it’s the first year that I’ve been able to take advantage of streaming video (hooray for 1.5Mbps!) to watch the proceedings live. Microsoft started the show, followed by Sony, with Nintendo and its mysterious console announcement bringing up the rear. Read on to see what I thought were the highlights and lowlights of E3 2011.

WANT: Kinect Fun Labs, Kinect search, new dashboard
NOT SURE IF WANT: “Minecraft
DO NOT WANT: More “Halo,” more generic multi-platform releases, Kinect functionality in ‘real’ games

Kinect has started to intrigue me a bit. Kotaku’s Mike Fahey has convinced me that Kinect Fun Labs’ ‘Build-A-Buddy’ feature is the single greatest thing ever to hit the Xbox 360. Combined with other new features, such as voice search via Bing, Kinect is beginning to look like a pretty cool gadget… that completely clashes with the raison d'être of the Xbox 360. If I could buy a Kinect, plug its USB cable into my Windows 7 PC, and get these functions within Windows Media Center, I would be all over it. As it is, I don’t see any reason for adding neat features like this to a closed console that serves as a pretty weak Home Theater PC substitute. My only hope is that the new Xbox 360 dashboard, which uses the same ‘Metro’ interface as Windows Phone 7 and the upcoming Windows 8, is the harbinger of a coming singularity for all of Microsoft’s devices.

Microsoft has never impressed me with their first party games. Without Western third party developers, Microsoft would only have the “Halo” franchise, which is pretty sad for a company that has been involved in PC gaming for as long as MS has. Needless to say “Halo 4” and “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” did nothing to pique my interest. However, Microsoft’s close ties to PC gaming have also granted them a rare gem of a console exclusive in the form of “Minecraft,” the inscrutably-popular set of grown-up building blocks originally created for PC by indie developer, Markus Persson. “Minecraft” isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I’m also concerned that putting a game that relies on openness and mods into a closed system like a console will drain it of everything that makes it popular among PC gamers. Even with third party support, the Xbox 360 lineup consists almost entirely of samey shooters, sequels, and multi-platform releases shared with the PS3 and PC.

Due to their love of Kinect, MS has also declared that all first/second party Xbox 360 games will support Kinect going forward. The examples shown were absolutely laughable. Speaking lines along with the main character in “Mass Effect 3”? Is MS targeting Xbox fans or drama club students? Until MS demonstrates some kind of responsive motion aiming to replace the right analog stick, I don’t foresee Xbox fans wanting anything to do with this stuff. “Kinect Star Wars” and “Fable: The Journey” only served as further proof that Kinect, while great for home media and random silliness, is awful for real games.

WANT: “Dragon’s Crown
NOT SURE IF WANT: PlayStation Vita
DO NOT WANT: $500 24” 3DTV, more generic multi-platform releases

I don’t know if Sony was too busy patching holes in the PlayStation Network to come up with a decent E3 presentation, but their showing was incredibly weak. Almost everything Sony had on display was old news, like the HD-enhanced collections of old PS2 games, half-assed Move functionality, and their Next Generation Portable, which we now know will be called Vita (for those of you who never took Latin in school, that’s pronounced ‘WEE-tah’ and means ‘life’). Aside from those, we simply received a heavy dose of sequels: “Uncharted 3,” “Resistance 3”… other series I have no interest in… yay? At least we learned that the lying “LittleBigPlanet 2” box, which says the game is compatible with Move, will stop lying come September and the release of that game’s first add-on pack (I predict a full version of ‘Sackboy’s Prehistoric Moves’). The only PS3 game announced at E3 that I immediately added to my Wish List was VanillaWare’s “Dragon’s Crown,” a gorgeous RPG/Beat ‘Em Up that hearkens back to the classic Dungeons & Dragons arcade games, “Tower of Doom” and “Shadow Over Mystara.” It’s not first party, but Sony has always relied almost entirely on third parties to sell their hardware.

While the Vita announcement was old news, it wasn’t a complete bust, as Sony did reveal more details about the device, including its $250 price tag (for the wi-fi only version, the 3G version is $300), their commitment to making games that play seamlessly on both PS3 and Vita, and the potential for Vita to be used as a fancy controller with the PS3. Of course, that last one was a hastily-announced bit of scrambling after Nintendo’s big reveal. Sadly, aside from “Dragon’s Crown,” “LittleBigPlanet,” and “ModNation Racers,” Vita’s game library looks pretty bleak. While I really do appreciate Sony’s effort to make interoperability between their home console and handheld an important selling point, I won’t be sold on it until they demonstrate a way to push any game from the handheld to the big screen (including original PSP games).

Sony’s only all-new announcement was stunning it its stupidity: a 24” 3DTV that costs a whopping $500 but allows two players to play local multi-player without splitscreen. Instead, each layer of the 3D image shows one player’s screen, allowing two people (each wearing $80 glasses!) to share one screen without worrying about unseemly behavior such as Screen-Looking. If a third person wants to watch the game (they can’t play!), they will be treated to a blindness-inducing morass of both player’s screens superimposed on each other. AWESOME! That screen is nearly as small as a handheld… who would want to play on that (besides college students who don’t have room in their dorms… but also don’t have $580 to spend on a TV and glasses)?

WANT: WiiU Console, “Zelda: Skyward Sword”
NOT SURE IF WANT: WiiU Controller
DO NOT WANT: Anything to do with 3DS, none of the ‘big three’ confirmed for localization

Despite confusing numerous journalists with their ambiguous reveal, Nintendo stole the show at E3 with their new console. While it has been the source of many rumors for the past two months, the mysterious device codenamed ‘Project Café’ has finally been revealed to the world as WiiU. The ‘U’ in the name is apparently supposed to represent Nintendo’s new focus on the individual (which really makes little sense coming from the company that invented 4-person local multi-player) through private screen streaming. As such, the WiiU console will include a single WiiPad: a giant, tablet-like controller featuring a 6” touchscreen, dual analog sticks, a d-pad, two triggers, two shoulder buttons, four face buttons, a strip of function buttons, an accelerometer/gyroscope, a microphone, a camera, stereo speakers, rumble, and an IR sensor bar (and perhaps the kitchen sink, as well). The main feature Nintendo touted was the ability to free-up the TV by playing games on the controller screen, which I find to be completely useless and a shameless attempt to make a console more like a handheld. Fortunately, they also demonstrated other uses for the controller screen that mostly involved the display of supplementary information.

The console itself was played-down and shrouded in secrecy: all we know about it is that it is capable of 1080p output, has an ATI GPU and a multi-core PowerPC CPU, reads Wii discs and its own proprietary 25GB WiiU discs (but not Gamecube!?), and is compatible with SD cards and USB hard drives. At launch, it will support up to 5 simultaneous players through the use of 4 Wiimotes but only one (?!) WiiPad. It’s possible that two-WiiPad support might be added later if there is enough demand for it.

While the fact that Nintendo is finally producing a modern console is great, as is the fact that WiiU will allow us to play our Wii games in glorious upscaled HD, the WiiU reveal wasn’t all rainbows and kittens. There were no actual games revealed (not even the “Pikmin 3” that Shigeru Miyamoto promised back in 2008): instead, Nintendo had a variety of first party tech demos and a highlight reel of promised third-party support, all of which were just ports of multi-platform games that already appear on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Nintendo does not need to court third parties who make generic, brown, gritty, realistic shooters. The mainstream gamers who like those games will not buy a Nintendo console no matter what, because they perceive Nintendo to be ‘kiddie.’ Instead, Nintendo should be seeking to serve the real hardcore gaming audience of geeks and nerds, who have been poorly served by both MS and Sony. In fact, Nintendo is sitting on a goldmine of titles that would instantly make them the heroes of the hardcore if published in North America: “The Last Story,” “Xenoblade,” and “Pandoras Tower” (and in my opinion, the lesser known “Takt of Magic” and “Zangeki no Reginleiv”). Yet when asked about these games, Nintendo had ‘nothing to announce.’ Instead, they showed off a hypothetical “New Super Mario Bros. Mii” that used Miis instead of Toads for extra players and some sort of multi-player shooter in which up to 4 Wiimote-controlled Chibi-Samuses on foot tried to take down a WiiPad-controlled Chibi-Samus flying around in her ship.

Yes, the current Wii was all but ignored at E3. Nintendo reassured us that we will be getting “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” this year (bundled with a golden Wiimote+), and a few Wii titles (including the destined-to-be-epic “Kirby Wii”) found their way into a montage at the end of Nintendo’s presentation. Other than that, Nintendo spent all of its time on WiiU and the portable abortion known as the 3DS. With the exception of “Super Mario 3DS,” which looks like it has major camera and level design issues (much like “Mario 64”), the 3DS library was dominated by remakes… of N64 games… *shudder* No, the return of the Tanooki Suit doesn’t magically make everything okay.

Considering the hardware similarities between WiiU’s controller and the DS/3DS handhelds, if Nintendo doesn’t announce a ‘DS Player’ soon, it will be a crime. But if they do announce one, I will buy a WiiU as soon as possible just so I can play my DS backlog without going blind and transforming my hands into misshapen claws. Regardless, I can guarantee that the only way Nintendo will get me to care about 3DS exclusives is to take a cue from Sony and make them playable on WiiU.

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