by Ken Gagne

The Grand Olympic Stadium was the site of this year's Microsoft press conference, the first which I'd had the opportunity to attend. Unlike last year, when attendees received free Xbox controllers, this year's public was treated to only stadium-style concessions: cheese steak subs, vegetable paninas, beer and soda, and popcorn and peanuts. Laden with sufficient snacks to occupy the one-hour wait before the show began, my friends (Joe Talladira, Will White, Ian Johnston, and Chris Bonilla) and I crossed the threshold manned by green-clad, impossibly thin "booth babes" and assumed central seats.

The conference was hosted by Robbie Bach, chief Xbox officer; Ed Fries, VP of Xbox game publishing; and J Allard, VP of the Xbox platform. In sharp contrast to Sony's traditional, numbers-oriented approach, Microsoft's team did not offer sales or membership numbers for its products and services, instead displaying game after game that we can expect to see this year.

Heading the pack were two Xbox Live games, making their debut this evening: Project Gotham Racing 2, and a new LucasArts title, Republic Commando. This latter game presented two Imperial storm troopers following a pair of insect-like creatures deep into a ruins, only to stumble upon a veritable nest which quickly swarmed over the humans. Perhaps this game will be a first-person shooter. LucasArts is the one company with whom I have a booth appointment this year (since they are by invitation only), so Gamebits will have more details on this title later in the week.

Two other games which have previously received little coverage were also presented tonight. True Fantasy Live Online looks comparable to Phantasy Star Online, though less action-oriented. Breakdown,. from Namco, is a first-person shooter that includes hand-to-hand combat. The game appears to borrow elements (in presentation, if not gameplay) from sources such as Metal Gear Solid, The Matrix, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Resident Evil, and ONE, with a story featuring mad scientists making the impossible real.

These games are four of 100 that Microsoft hopes to release with Xbox Live compatibility by May 2004.

Though Microsoft Games Studio has released many first-party titles, chances are you are not as familiar with them as other well-known brands. To add strength to its in-house development teams, Microsoft last year purchased Rare from Nintendo. The company known for Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and Banjo-Kazooie tonight premiered Grabbed by the Ghoulies, a fun and friendly romp through a magical, haunted mansion, in the vein of Harry Potter.

Another rare game, Conker: Live and Uncut (as in Xbox Live), was also demoed in a stream of brief clips that most notably included Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Soul Calibur 2, Pitfall, Legacy of Kain: Defiance, Sonic Heroes, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Simpsons: Hit & Run, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, Crash Nitro Kart, Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup, StarCraft Ghost, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a 3D brawler with plenty of cartoon art), James Bond: Everything or Nothing, Counter-Strike, Ninja Gaiden (finally!), Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds, XIII (a cel-shaded first-person shooter with inspiration from comic books), Dino Crisis 3, Sega GT Online, Kameo: Elements of Power (Rare's cancelled GameCube game), and Fable (formerly Project Ego).

Of course, Xbox being a console from a company that likes to have its hands in everything, there are other developments planned for the system. Xbox Music Maker will release this year with a microphone peripheral, bringing to the system music and video editing capabilities, karaoke, and more. Details on this product were scant, and led to a like amount of applause.

Xbox Live, the broadband-only online portion of the system, will receive an upgrade later this year, formerly called Live 2.0 but officially known as Live Now. Exactly what new features this upgrade will entail were not disclosed. Live Web offers users at web-capable machines a means of checking Live events and standings without accessing their Xbox, while Live Alerts can inform gamers of such affairs and changes on their PC, PocketPC, cell phone, or wristwatch. Expect many events to be occurring on this network, especially after the introduction of XSN Sports, an online brand for competition and fantasy sports.

Fortunately, Microsoft wasn't about to end the evening without a live (not Live), in-game demo of their most highly-anticipated shooter, Halo 2. Marking the return of Master Chief, Halo 2 opened to a CG sequence that put our protagonist in the middle of a warzone, whereupon he sniped some Covenant creeps. A soldier handed Chief a second weapon, making for some double-fisted action that brought cheers from the crowd (though why something Goldeneye did six years ago is now innovative mystifies me). We also briefly saw Chief in third-person view as a manned a turret, then again as he operated a minigun from the rear of a jeep. A Covenant fiend leapt atop the vehicle and overturned it, putting the Chief back in first-person view and on foot. When an alien hovercraft attempted to ram him, I was surprised that the hero instead grabbed the hood of the flying vehicle and punched out the pilot, claiming the controls for himself! This sequence then became automated, leading to another CG sequence which ended the demo of a game we shan't see in full until February 2004 at the earliest.

This evening's conference was a fine kickoff to the 2003 Electronic Entertainment Expo. With both Sony and Nintendo not having anything to share until their press conferences tomorrow, Microsoft left us with nothing but the Xbox to think about for the next 12 hours. The Seattle giant has announced neither a price cut on their system, nor a streamlined version of their current model, both of which have been rumored for months and the former which Nintendo and Sony have indicated they would not initiate, but pundits expected them to follow should Microsoft move first. Perhaps this year will truly focus on software, not hardware — a field in which Microsoft has so far put on a fine show. What Microsoft was lacking in surprises, it made up for with a steady stream of what gamers want: hot titles from well-known publishers in a variety of genres.

This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Gamebits, 12-May-03