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Microsoft E3 2010: Preview, Predictions & Speculation

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Make no mistake about it, E3 2010 is primarily the official coming out party for Project Natal (hopefully we’ll get an actual name for the peripheral at the show) more so than it is for anything else that Microsoft will have on show.

With that in mind however, we shouldn’t count out the non-natal first and third party software that will be on show during the media briefing.

Starting with the first party stuff, outside of any outlandish surprise announcements (which I will talk about in a bit) it will be the sequel triumvirate of Gears Of War 3, Fable 3 and Halo: Reach that will be doing the business on the frontline. In regards to Gears Of War 3, we should get our first proper look at the title with confirmation of multi-player modes, some limited details of the single-player campaign and hopefully lots and lots of in-game footage to gush over.

Fable 3 should also get its fifteen minutes of fame with Peter Molyneux no doubt taking the stage to wax enthusiastically about the newest entry in the popular RPG franchise. Mr. Molyneux will likely give more detail on the core theme of ‘touch’ that he claims is at the centre of the ‘Fable III experience’ as well as an entertaining demonstration of the game in action, interspersed with factoids about new features, multiplayer and so forth.

Finally, after months and months of previews, features and a playable beta concerning itself with the multiplayer side of things, E3 2010 will be the place where the world gets its first glimpse of the previously under-wraps single player campaign for Halo: Reach. Developers Bungie are apparently keen on bringing back those large, sprawling battles that we first witnessed in the original Halo. In their swansong Halo outing, Bungie have said that the gamers can be engaged in complex and large-scale fire fights that can include as many as 30-40 participants and that is a sight I reckon we’re going to see, so expect lots and lots of in-game footage from what promises to be an epic single-player campaign.

Many folks are predicting that Forza Motorsport 4 will make an appearance at the Microsoft media briefing; I’m not so sure. Forza 3 is still selling very well and DLC support for the title is still strong as ever. While I’d like to be proven wrong and see developers Turn10 elevate their game even more in the face of the spectre of Gran Turismo 5, it just seems too soon for them to announce another sequel just yet.

Crackdown 2 will be present and accounted for too on the eve of its release, giving show goers one last look at the explosive frenzy of the Ruffian developed open-world sequel.

Outside of those titles, there isn’t in actuality a whole lot (that we know of) on offer from Microsoft’s first party developers which isn’t Natal related.

Rare could choose this year’s show to finally unveil the oft-rumoured and wished for Killer Instinct 3, since I’m not entirely convinced it would work well as a Natal title, but it equally wouldn’t surprise me if they continued to dangle the figurative carrot in front of our faces for another year. While the majority of Rare’s output will be Natal based, including a probable Banjo Kazooie based title, I can see them attempting to capitalise on the success that they have had with their Xbox Live Arcade releases in the past.

Titles like Banjo Kazooie, Banjo Tooie and Perfect Dark have all done well on the digital distribution platform, with Perfect Dark in particular holding the number one spot for a good few weeks. Based on this level of success, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to hope for an XBLA version of cult favourite Jet Force Gemini, or possibly even Killer Instinct. A conversion of Blast Corps wouldn’t go amiss either.

Speaking of XBLA, Microsoft will likely announce (as it has done for the last two years) details of it’s ‘Summer of Arcade’ promotion, where 5-6 high quality XBLA titles follow week after week from July to August. This year I can see the popular violent side-scroller Shank being a part of the promotion, with the promising Lara Croft and The Guardian Of Light being present alongside the creepy 2D puzzle platformer Limbo too. We could also see the forever-in-development Quake Live being part of the proceedings as well as possibly the first episode of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and Secret Of Monkey Island 2: The Revenge of LeChuck. The former may not be part of the Summer of Arcade however, due in no small part to Sega delaying the title for ‘more polish’.

All the pomp and celebrity pageantry that we have come to expect from Microsoft will no doubt return this year too. Steven Spielberg will likely be present to gush over the Natal title that he hinted at during last year’s E3 presentation. It’s also very possible that like last year, we have a guest band playing some music and generally clowning around if it turns out the Microsoft has exclusivity for a particular RockBand or Guitar Hero title.

Ah yes, exclusivity. These days it seems that we shouldn’t be asking the question as to which games will remain exclusive, but rather, which games will no longer remain exclusive. The recent press mix-up with Square-Enix regarding comments made toward a Final Fantasy Versus XIII possibly being on 360, are difficult to take out of context.

At the end of the day we have a game that will be more expensive to make than its predecessor, which also was stripped of its PS3 exclusivity in order for Square-Enix to at least break even on their hefty development budget. With Final Fantasy Versus: XIII being more expensive to make, it just doesn’t make good business sense to only sell it on one machine. Sony gamers shouldn’t worry though; the likelihood is strong that the PS3 version will again be the better version due to the Sony console being the lead platform for development.

Speaking of Final Fantasy, another no-brainer announcement will likely be that Final Fantasy MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV will arrive on the 360 also. This would occur for similar reasons too, since Square-Enix would want to maximise the target audience that their MMORPG would be able to reach.

More and more it seems that Microsoft is keen to secure exclusivity on DLC for a number of blockbuster third-party titles. Last year it was Modern Warfare 2, the year before that it was Grand Theft Auto IV. So I fully expect the trend to continue this year, with the forthcoming Call Of Duty: Black Ops, likely being the next suitor for exclusive DLC to appear on the 360.

More than ever, I believe Microsoft will be gunning for exclusive DLC bragging rights since Sony has recently moved their Playstation Store updates to Wednesday; the same day as the Xbox Marketplace updates, effectively eliminating the one-day advantage on getting DLC that 360 owners have traditionally enjoyed.

Finally and what must surely be the big white elephant in the room at this point, is the rumours pointing toward a slim line rendition of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console. In a similar way to how ‘supplier images’ and manifests were leaked prior to last year’s announcement of a slim PS3 console, various questionable ‘photos’ have been leaked regarding a Slim 360 console. Given the poor build quality of the current console and the importance of Project Natal in re-launching the Xbox brand, a sleeker and better built 360 seems very likely.

Release wise, I would estimate the console to appear on shelves no later than Natal’s proposed release date in order for cross promotional bundles to be created and fully leveraged at retail. Price wise nothing should change and the slim console would likely phase out the existing elite/super elite model within the next twelve months.

With Natal being a key focus for Microsoft at E3, as well as core component of their stratagem for success, Microsoft will be expected to blow the door off of their conference with a torrent of information regarding their forthcoming motion control peripheral. Indeed, MS will be having not one, but two scheduled conferences, with a special Project Natal demonstration being put on a day before their E3 media briefing takes place.

Microsoft should put their entire launch line-up, as well as titles due beyond the launch window, on show as well as providing detail on pricing and specific release dates. Equally importantly, everyone will finally be able to see for themselves if MS has conquered the notorious input lag that the device experienced on its initial showing. Indeed, Peter Molyneux and co have insisted that the device has ‘come on leaps and bounds’ since that initial viewing, but it’ll be nice to see just how close they have gotten to eliminating the lag monster in the face of the smoothly responsive Playstation Move.

In regards to the launch line-up for Natal, we already know that Microsoft’s first party studios are hard at work and the fruits of their labour will become immediately apparent. In a similar fashion to Nintendo, we can reasonably expect that the first party offerings will attempt to make the most out of the motion control system. Rare, who have been heavily rumoured to be working on a fitness game for Natal, will no doubt (and hopefully) have a number of more interesting titles to show; but it seems probable that the majority will like be targeted toward a lower age/non-casual gaming demographic.

Lionhead Studios will be expected to turn in something a little more substantial for their creepy Kate & Milo title that was shown at last year’s E3, hopefully expanding upon the world and just how many things Milo can understand and do. We’ll also reasonably expect Microsoft to have one or two more additional surprise titles for Natal too, which will likely form the backbone of the software line-up for the device on launch.

I think we can fully expect the third party publishers to be firing on all cylinders here for better or worse. EA are expected to adapt a majority of their evergreen franchises for the device, with instalments of Tiger Woods (which will miss the launch going by earlier comments from EA), FIFA and EA Sports Active heading up the charge.

It will be interesting to see how Activision will embrace the device, given that the controller free input may be at odds with the American publisher’s penchant for chucking huge amounts of expensive plastic in with their traditional franchises such as Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero.

Ultimately, while the third parties shall demonstrate one or two original IP for Natal, invariably, Ubisoft will likely take the path of least resistance with the device; adapting existing Wii titles for the control system, running the risk of creating the shovelware issue that has plagued third party offerings for the Wii.

Eyes will be on the Japanese studios too, to see what they can achieve with the device. Indeed, Konami Wunderkind Hideo Kojima has remarked that he sees Natal as the next ‘2D to 3D shift’ for the games industry, so it’ll be most interesting to see what he can pull out of the hat if anything.

In regards to the release date, I think we can expect MS to announce an Autumn/Fall release for the peripheral, with credence given to this by one of their leading Arabic Technical Officers heavily suggesting that Natal would make the aforementioned release window. I would expect the release to be bolstered by some 25-30 titles, not to mention a number of Natal specific bundle deals which would chime in with Microsoft’s desire to make Natal an ‘implicit gaming experience’ with every 360 console. I would also look for them to leverage the technology in bundles with their heavily rumoured Xbox 360 Slim console remodelling, also likely due around the same time.

In regards to the price I think the previously mooted $50 price point (£29.99/£34.99) is ludicrously low and not accurate for the device in even a standalone, solus SKU. If they do offer a solus, games-free option, I feel they will price the device at around $70 (£49.99), but they may avoid selling it solus all-together and instead perhaps attempt a Wii-Sports esque pack-in with the device, in which case I can easily see it retailing for a more realistic $90-$100 (£64.99/£69.99).

Unlike Sony, who has slowly but surely leaked out details for titles using their Playstation Move, Microsoft have kept their cards cruelly close to their chest, instead relying on what will surely be a marquee E3 unveiling to properly show off the device.

Whichever way you slice it though, Microsoft have a lot to prove with Natal and a lot of questions to answer.

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Written by bitsnark

May 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm

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