I spent a good five-plus hours Thursday at Microsoft’s showcase of upcoming games for the Xbox 360, Kinect, PC and Windows 7 phones. Here’s a quick recap of the news from the event, along with some quick reactions to what I saw and played. I’ll try over the weekend and early next week to follow up with some more detailed reactions to some of the games I played.
“Gears of War 3,” due out Sept. 20, was the first game I saw when I walked in the door. A fact sheet handed out to journalists announced that the public multiplayer beta test, which you can access with some copies of the game “Bulletstorm,” would begin in mid-April. On Thursday, I got to try out somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-dozen different multiplayer maps, though the only game type that was available was a team deathmatch-type game. Of the new maps, my favorites were “Checkout,” which takes place inside of a Wal-Mart-sized superstore, and Overpass, where the two teams fight for control of a turret mounted on the titular overpass. I spent a good hour on “Gears” multiplayer and will try to post more thoughts in the coming days.
Also on display was the “Halo: Reach” Defiant Map Pack, or part of it, anyway. The map pack, which goes on sale March 15 for $10, includes three new maps: “Condemned,” “Highlands” and “Unearthed.” “Highlands” is geared toward big team battles of 8 to 16 players, so it wasn’t available for play at the show. “Condemned” is an interior level, set in a damaged orbital space station above “Reach.” Gameplaywise, it felt like a standard interior “Halo” map, with a layout built to discourage camping out and some natural central meeting places where a lot of carnage can go down quickly. There were a few locations that were no longer pressurized, so when you went in them, you got kind of an eerie, “Dead Space”-style vacuum effect, but it was purely cosmetic. The other map I played, “Unearthed,” is set at a mine and refinery and is geared toward “Firefight” play.
Microsoft had a trio of Kinect games on display. I was able to try all of them. Q Entertainment’s “Child of Eden” and Double Fine Productions’ “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster,” both retail games, are coming along nicely, but Twisted Pixel’s Xbox Live Arcade shooter “The Gunstringer” was the best Kinect game I’ve played yet.
“The Gunstringer,” due out sometime this spring, comes from Twisted Pixel, makers of clever, stylish Xbox Live Arcade games like “Comic Jumper,” “‘Splosion Man” and “The Maw.” It stars an eponymous, six-shooter-packing marionette who’s out for revenge after being buried and left for dead by a group of villains. The gameplay for the portion I played was largely what’s commonly known as an on-rails shooter. The Gunstringer ran forward at its own pace, and I controlled lateral movement and jumping with my left hand, and targeting and shooting with my right. (Yes, the game can be played sitting down.) The first official trailer for the game (below) shows some 2D elements and platform-jumping, as well, and the overall title should take about five to six hours to complete, Twisted Pixel’s Jay Stuckwish told me. I’ll have much more to say about “The Gunstringer” in an upcoming post.
“Child of Eden,” which made its debut at E3 last June, also plays like an on-rails shooter, but with a decidedly different art style that should be familiar to fans of Q Entertainment studio head Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s previous work on trippy shooters like “Rez” and “Every Extend Extra.” The right hand governs most of the shooting action in “Child of Eden,” while the left hand is used to orient the player and look around. In the demo I played, I chose between two different weapons, alternating between them by clapping my hands. What I got to play of both this game and “The Gunstringer” was a little on the easy side. Whether that’s because they’re keeping it simple for public demonstrations, an overall design decision or a limitation of Kinect remains to be seen, but I’ll give Q and Twisted Pixel the benefit of the doubt. Both of these shooters were quite enjoyable.
Fresh off of “Costume Quest” and “Stacking,” San Francisco-based Double Fine Productions is now working on “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster.” The colorful, kid-friendly game stars familiar “Sesame Street” mainstays like Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster, along with some new Muppet-type monsters created by Double Fine, the studio founded by Sonoma native Tim Schafer. Though plenty of adults have fond memories of “Sesame Street,” “Once Upon a Monster” is clearly a game meant to be played in tandem by a young child and either a parent or an older sibling. The gameplay is incredibly forgiving if you mess up, a design decision that was made because Double Fine and Sesame Street Workshop, who are collaborating on the project, didn’t want to punish little kids for failure. Though I don’t fit the game’s target audience, I have plenty to say about “Once Upon a Monster” and will be writing up a preview soon.
After I finished checking out “Once Upon a Monster,” I spent 15 minutes or so playing the beginning of “Beyond Good and Evil HD,” which is hitting Xbox Live Arcade next week and will cost a measly $10. The high-definition port of “BG&E” still looks like a game from the early part of the last decade, but don’t let that scare you away. Ubisoft’s designers have the new iteration running at a higher frame rate than the original, and the action felt fluid. The original game, in which a female journalist and a supporting cast of anthropomorphic animals try to take down a tyrannical government, packs a maturity that belies the game’s cartoony appearance. I played through the original “BG&E” on Xbox back when my first Xbox 360 was sent in for three weeks of repair, and I almost didn’t miss my much newer console as a result. At $10, “Beyond Good & Evil HD” is a no-brainer buy if you haven’t played it yet.
That’s pretty much the long and short of what I played. I watched others play around with the PC version of “Fable III” and the upcoming “Age of Empires” reboot. But when I tried to find a rep late in the day to give me a crash course in “Age of Empires,” I came up empty. Also at the show was “Batman: Arkham City,” a title I’m very excited to check out but passed on on Thursday because I’m scheduled to preview it next week at the Game Developers Conference.
In addition to all this PC and Xbox 360 stuff, Microsoft threw Windows 7 phone gamers a bone with the announcement that “Angry Birds” will finally be coming to the platform. A number of other titles, such as “Plants vs. Zombies,” “Doodle Jump,” “Hydro Thunder GO” and “Sonic 4″ were also on display. Windows 7 phones will probably never rival the iPhone as a gaming device, but it’s good to see they’re coming along. I’m not a big gamer in the mobile space right now, but I’ll probably rectify that at some point soon.
One final observation I have on the showcase was that I’m finding it hard to believe that Microsoft laid all of its cards on the table, and that its only fall title is “Gears of War 3.” I would bet that we’ll probably be hearing more about Microsoft’s plans for its “Forza Motorsport” and “Halo” franchises coming up at E3. Microsoft seems to have shifted its hype machine to emphasize titles coming out within the next six months. At last year’s X10, which took place around the same time and at the same venue as this year’s showcase, we didn’t hear much of anything about Kinect. This leads me to believe there’s more to come.
As I said above, I’ll work on getting up previews for the “Gears of War 3″ beta, “The Gunslinger” and “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster” over the next few days. I’ll also be running a preview of Splash Damage’s “Brink,” a game I played a couple of weeks ago but which is under an embargo until Monday morning. I’m planning on spending much of next week at GDC, where I’ll be seeing and playing titles including “Batman: Arkham City,” “Homefront,” “Battlefield 3,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Resistance 3,” “The Darkness II” and more.