Truly, Microsoft is the supervillain of the electronics industry. They've got detailed plans to take over the world, one market at a time. They use sneaky, ethically questionable business tactics to crush their competitors, then laugh maniacally as their victims are dropped into a tank filled with sharks (with frickin' laser beams on their heads!). They're nearly invulnerable... even the United States government can't stop their unquenchable thirst for world conquest. Now, Microsoft is coming for you. It doesn't matter who you are, or where you play your video games... there's no escape from Bill Gates' iron fist!
Then again, after you see what's available for the Xbox 360, you may not even want to escape. Gears of War was the first game showcased at Microsoft's press conference, and judging from the footage, this could be the futuristic shooter that will make players forget all about Halo. Sure, the graphics are fantastic, with stone towers crumbling all around you and fountains of crimson bursting forth from your enemies as you cut them down to size with vicious melee weapons. That's only the tip of the iceberg, though. You can tell just from watching the footage that Gears of War is built on a solid foundation of smartly designed play mechanics and a strong sense of cinematic flair. Cover is absolutely essential to your survival, and the storyline is integrated into the gameplay, keeping the intrusive cut scenes to a minimum.
Just as a ten ton spider burst out of the ground and things started to get REALLY interesting, the Gears of War footage was interrupted by Peter Moore. The man in charge of Microsoft's Xbox division happens to look exactly like Ming the Merciless from those old Flash Gordon movies. And you thought I was kidding when I said that Microsoft was run by power-mad supervillains! After taking the stage, Ming- er, Moore described to the audience Microsoft's plans for the future. The company's sharpened focus on entertainment has brought with it a corporate restructuring... all gaming divisions of Microsoft have been brought together to form one entertainment powerhouse. Keep this in the back of your mind, because there's a reason for this decision which will be explained later in this article.
Moore turned his attention to the Xbox 360, apologizing for the frustrating shortage of systems last year. He also assured the audience that Microsoft wasn't restricting the supply in the hopes of driving up interest... the company just didn't have enough of them to sell! Despite this shortage, Microsoft had managed to move five million Xbox 360 units since it debuted last November, and expects to sell another five mill before the launch of the Playstation 3. If you thought those were impressive numbers, it gets better... three of the top ten best selling games in America were for the Xbox 360.
The audience was reminded that the Xbox 360 also introduced gamers to the high-definition standard, as well as entertainment integration and an unparalleled online experience. The Xbox Live service currently has three million subscribers, with another three million expected by the end of the year. It's a little presumptuous of Microsoft to assume that it'll double their user base in a little over six months. However, with enhanced (and damn gorgeous) versions of Time Pilot and Scramble coming soon to Xbox Live Arcade, along with a Lumines sequel that integrates music videos into the block-dropping action, there's a pretty good chance that its prediction will come true.
Then came a lengthy clip of games in development for the Xbox 360. For all Moore's talk about "innovation" (he dropped the word at least as often as Reggie had at the Nintendo press conference, if not more), there sure were a lot of tired Grand Theft Auto clones and first-person shooters in the mix! The few titles which somehow managed to escape these two genres really stood out. Rockstar Table Tennis got a thunderous reaction from the crowd, even though it's, well, table tennis. Then again, it's also made by Rockstar, and it sure as hell looks better than the hilariously primitive Wii Sports. Dead Rising is a third-person action game where you battle waves of zombies... it reminds me more than a little of the PSP game Infected, except here, you battle the throngs of reanimated corpses with a light saber. Ninety Nine Nights was also a highlight of the footage; a beat 'em up with more promise and onscreen foes than Genji and Project H.A.M.M.E.R. combined.
After the clip ended, Moore returned, offering a rather weak and vague commitment to the original Xbox. Knowing Microsoft's past track record with operating systems, however, it's safe to assume that the big black box will be swept under the rug faster than you can say "GameCube." Trailers were then shown for Fable 2, Forza Motorsport 2, and Splinter Cell: Double Agent. On top of all that, there was also some footage of Blue Dragon, promised to be the Xbox 360's great red and white hope in Japan. On the plus side, the game will be designed with assistance from Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragonball Z creator Akira Toriyama. On the down side, much of the work on the game is being done by Artoon, creators of such unappealing mascots as Pinobee and Blinx. Taking both factors into consideration, it's doubtful that Blue Dragon will light a fire under the Xbox 360, which has been stone cold in Japan since its launch.
Never one to pass up a chance to steal a market, Microsoft is hoping to charm families away from Nintendo and to its Xbox 360 with Rare's Viva Pinata. It's a territorial development simulation designed especially for kids. You're given a small plot of land, and it's your goal to turn it into a sanctuary for a bunch of brightly colored party animals. Once you've turned the land into a pinata paradise, you can customize the critters with accessories purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace, and even breed your pinatas by dropping two adults into a disco hall and letting them dance the night away. No, they don't do the horizontal bop!
Oh yes, speaking of the Xbox Live Marketplace, Microsoft has big plans for that as well. Moore claimed that the demos available in the Marketplace have sharply raised sales of complete games, and that there will be plenty of music and movies that Xbox 360 owners can purchase online by the end of the year. There was also news of an expansion unit for the Xbox 360 that lets it play HD-DVDs. Can you say "32X", boys and girls? I knew you could. Microsoft will ignore the deafening voice of reason and release the HD-DVD player for the Xbox 360 by Christmas.
Moore then invited two special guests on the stage... namely, his biceps. When he started to roll up his sleeves, I thought he was going to squeeze open a can of spinach, catch its leafy green contents in his mouth, and beat the everloving crap out of Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken "Bluto" Kutaragi to win the love of his spindly girlfriend Bill Gates. Actually, it turns out that Moore's just rented out his arms as billboard space for Microsoft. He first lifted one sleeve, showing off the Halo 2 logo, then the other, revealing "Grand Theft Auto IV" in bold white letters. The game won't be exclusive to the Xbox 360, but it will be released on the same day as its Playstation 3 counterpart, and offer new missions that can be downloaded from the Xbox Live Marketplace.
Microsoft then detailed its plans for PC gaming. They'll be rebranding their software as "Games For Windows," and releasing such exciting titles as Crysis... better known to me as "another fucking first-person shooter." Judging from the footage shown, Crysis has even more visibility issues than Doom 3. In the clip, the player wandered through an inky void that was illuminated only by the plumes of fire in the far distance, along with the occasional burst of gunfire. Here's my question to you, PC gaming fans... why even bother putting $500 graphics cards in your computer if you can't even SEE the graphics in half your games?!
Then came trailers of ShadowRun (better known to me as "yet another fucking first-person shooter") and Alan Wake. No, he's not the guy who plays Snape in the Harry Potter films, but a writer tortured by his insomnia, starring in a stylish action title by the creators of Max Payne. Very little was revealed about the actual gameplay, a disturbing trend I noticed in most of the trailers shown at Microsoft's press conference.
The conference was almost over, but it would not end without an appearance from Microsoft's sinister leader. He's the man who puts the "evil" in Xbox Live... the world's scariest nerd... Emperor Primatine himself... Bill Gates! After twirling his waxed mustache and cackling madly, Gates outlined his plans for Live Anywhere. This cross-platform integration system lets players purchase a game once, then enjoy it on several different platforms. Once you buy a prize, it's yours to keep... unlike Namco which charges players over and over for the same versions of Pac-Man and Galaga. Live Anywhere also lets you customize Xbox 360 characters on your cell phone, and lets PC owners and Xbox 360 players lock horns in online battles.
Finally, the conference was capped off with a brief, cryptic clip of Halo 3. It revealed almost nothing about the game, but fans of the series were just happy knowing it was in development. It's also one of the many advantages that Microsoft has going for it in this console generation. The Xbox 360 was the first out of the starting gate, giving it a considerable lead over its competitors, and it's got the perfect balance of power and price. The Wii is a little too wimpy for its own good, offering last-generation performance, while the Playstation 3 is entirely too extravagant, offering gamers everything they could possibly want but a price they can afford. Microsoft may never take over the world, but it could very well have the video game industry under its oppressive heel by the end of the decade.
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