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Gamer Galore: E3 Highlights and Surprises

Back in the day, Albert Einstein wrote "All of science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have." As I staggered among the throngs at E3 and got elbowed in the ribs by the photo-taking hustlers during the Paris Hilton mobile game event, I felt I could apply Einstein's moment of scientific/literary brilliance to the science of making video games. Case in point: the forward-looking innovation at this year's E3 (but not the overly imitative Paris Hilton DIAMOND QUEST game).

What was most surprising about E3 began at the PlayStation 3 press conference and ended at the Sony game booth. The good news? The PlayStation 3 will be released on November 17, dashing rumors that it would be delayed for a second time. Yet much of the press conference was humorless and tired, and many of the nation's top journalists strained to see from the back of huge soundstage on the Sony Pictures Lot. Usually, Sony brings up a celebrity or two to spice things up. But the press conference was full of power point presentations and videos of games that looked, at best, like the Xbox 360 games. Since the PlayStation 3 is supposed to be far more powerful than the 360, this was a bit of a disappointment. So was the high-ish price. A fully loaded machine will cost $599.

As of last week, the game that looked the best was HEAVENLY SWORD.  It follows a red headed female warrior as she seeks revenge upon a despotic ruler and his army, even though she only has a few days left to live. Sure, the graphics shined. But the demo that was shown to me proved the power of the PS3 where the other games did not. Inside an arena, the warrior fought about one hundred enemies. They all seemed to move independently, and they all seemed to have their own personalities. Additionally, WARHAWK, looked stunning. In this flying and fighting game, you use the controller as a kind of steering wheel. Sony took a page from Nintendo's innovative Wii controller and added a gyroscope-like device so you can fly the planes by moving the controller up and down, and by tilting it from side to side. Still, the games offered nothing completely extraordinary and new. I mean, even the PSP will release the utterly creative LOCO ROCO later this year, and its simplicity will change gameplay. Of course, Sony will get it, and the PS3 will be a great machine with amazing games. The games just won't have that "Wow" factor until about this time next year.

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One of the many booth babes at E3
photo: Harold Goldberg

The most scintillating offerings were those showcased by Nintendo for its upcoming Wii device. With WII SPORTS, you use the wireless controller in tennis as a racket to serve, volley, and add spin. In baseball, you use it as a bat. These simple games are addictive and will probably give you a bit of a physical workout as you play. But Nintendo didn't stop there. SUPER MARIO GALAXY takes you through the universe as you hop from planet to planet and use the controller to vanquish monsters. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: TWILIGHT PRINCESS lets you use the controller as a bow and arrow. There's even a mini-game which allows you to relax and fish for bass. I didn't think the graphics of the Wii were all that, even with Zelda. But this is a revolutionary year because the way you play games is going to change—for the better—when Wii is released this fall.

Overall, Microsoft had the best looking game offerings. When Xbox executive Peter Moore showed off everything from GEARS OF WAR to HALO 3 at the packed Grauman's Chinese Theatre, jaws dropped and the crowd went wild. The graphics looked hyperreal. It was as if you were nearsighted and put on the right glasses for the first time. Then, Bill Gates took the stage to explain how the Xbox 360 could interface with the upcoming new Windows operating system, Vista. He then outlined how both of these would work with your mobile phone. For instance, if you want to play a 360 racing game on Xbox Live, you can choose the car and set up a game time via your cell phone. Finally, VIVA PIÑATA, a children's game that takes a page or two from Nintendo's ANIMAL CROSSING, looks like a real winner as far as the cute factor goes. Here, you raise living animal piñatas in a vivid, lurid world that constantly changes. Viva Piñata may well bring adults and children together as they play on the 360.

Over at the Electronic Arts booth, there was a two-and-a-half hour wait for a demo of yet another game that will change the character of gaming. Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, showed off SPORE. It's a mind-boggling PC game in which you can really create creatures from cells and grow them until they take off in a spaceship for the far reaches of the universe. The creatures you create are so much like the computer graphics in a Hollywood movie that it was no brag when Wright said, "The idea is to give you the tools to make a creature in minutes that it takes a Pixar animator two weeks to make." Even more compelling was the idea that every world a gamer creates can be uploaded to the Spore Web site. So there will be a vast universe of planets that you can land upon and explore with your spaceship. If you're angry, you can even make war with the aliens you find. Spore truly will be Will Wright's magnum opus.

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