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E3 2009: Microsoft Delivers Project Natal, The Beatles, Halo Reach, and Forza 3 at Media Briefing

Microsoft held its E3 2009 news briefing at 10:30 am Monday at the USC Galen Center on a three-screen stage lit with its trademark green circle design and delivered its much rumored hands-free controller, along with a top-notch lineup of 15-plus games, 10 of which are exclusive to the system. (See shots of the conference, including Beatles people here.)

Microsoft kicked off its 2-hour conference with Harmonix’s Rock Band The Beatles (due 9.09.09 on Xbox 360 and PS3). The developed showed the first-ever footage from Rock Band The Beatles from flash graphic-style cutscenes to a full band set up including three singers, guitarist, drummer, and basist, demoed by the Harmonix’s house band, and followed up with guest appearances by the last remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

Carefully crafting the order and games for its conference to mix both casual and mainstream efforts with hardcore titles, Microsoft sent Pro skater Tony Hawk to the stage to demo Tony Hawk’s Ride replete with developer Robo Moto’s wireless skateboard controller (due fall 2009 on Xbox 360 and PS3).

Tony Hawk’s Ride was followed by in-game footage of Modern Warfare 2, which will enable gamers to ride and shoot enemies from snowmobiles (due 11.01.09 on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360), Final Fantasy XIII (with in-game footage including a summons spell calling “Odin” to fight alongside you; due spring 2010), and in-game footage from Donald Mustard’s new Shadow Complex, a sidescrolling action adventure game inspired by GI Joe and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (due summer 09).

Microsoft then demoed the free avatar racing game Joy Ride (winter 2009), a GC presentation of Crackdown 2 (which looks to feature big, nasty bosses who are much stronger than you), a CG video of Left4Dead2 (see L4D.com), an in-game video presentation of the exclusive Xbox 360 and PC game, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction (due fall 2009), and the not-so-surprising Turn 10 game, Forza 3–which Producer Dan Greenawalt said four times is “The definitive racing game of this era.”

Bungie Studios’ writer Joe Staten then introduced the first in-game footage of Halo ODST, which falls between Halo 1 and Halo 2 and puts gamers in the shoes of a non-Spartan military special ops team called Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODST), who, when collecting various articles on his journey, initiates flashback story chapters to tell the story. Halo ODST introduces a few gadgets such as the returning Halo 1 pistol, a scanning visor, two sound suppressed weapons, and a rocket launcher. Halo ODST includes the co-op mode Firefight, and is due September 22 worldwide on Xbox 360. Staten also revealed Halo Reach, which was only shown in video and is due on fall 2010. Staten explained that when you pre-order Halo ODST, you’ll automatically be invited to participate in the Halo Reach beta.

Remedy finally showed Alan Wake, which still isn’t coming out this year (due spring 2010), but its very pretty, polished-looking adventure-horror game featuring tons of lighting effects issued from flashlights and flares.

Microsoft then announced a slew of partnerships to bolster its multimedia prowess. It announced it has partnered with Last.fm, an online music service that has a subscription of 30 million users worldwide, which will be free for all Gold Members. Following that it’s improved its Netflix service, eliminating the need to use the PC to browse for movies and now enables players to instantly connect to movies without wait times. Microsoft also announced a partnership with SkyTV, which will benefit folks in the UK and Ireland to be able to watch live TV shows from their Xbox 360s such as Premiere League Football.

For all those who thought the Zune as gone and dead, it’s not. Zune Video enables Xbox 360 users to see 1080p videos “without discs, delays or downloading, using what MS called its “Instant On 1080 HD streaming service.

Microsoft didn’t stop there. It then announced it’s partnered with Facebook and Twitter, both of which can be used directly on Xbox 360. FaceBook on Xbox 360 enables players to post pictures directly to their 360s; both services are due in fall 2009.

Finally, and perhaps biggest of all was the announcement of Project Natal, a demo driven by designer Kudo Tsunoda and endorsed on-stage by Stephen Spielberg and Lionhead Studios’ Peter Molyneux. Tsunoda showed how Microsoft is taking the Wii controller idea and attempting to take it to the next level of controller-less games by eliminating the controller all together. Project Natal enables consumers to use voice recognition, facial recognition, and motion sensing technology to grant gamers the ability to scroll iPhone-style through the dashboard and pick movies, launch games, or turn off or on their 360s with a gesture. Gamers can play 3D breakout-style games (MS called this game Ricochet) by using their hands to hit and their feet to kick in coming balls, as well as create painted objects on virtual canvases (Paint Party).

Paint Party brought the biggest laughs, however, as the crude painting looked more like Jackson Pollack style abstract expressionism, and the shadow game elephant that was demoed on screen, while fun, also brought on uncontrolled laughter from the audience (as it showed male and female demo-ers bent over to imitate an elephant eating). Tsunoda also showed how the Mii-like avatar that Microsoft introduced last year is now fully useable as a movement controlled avatar onscreen, who looks like and mimics your movements.

Microsoft concluded its conference by showing a Lionhead game temporarily called Milo, which uses the Project Natal technology and showed how users could interact with a crude artificial intelligence “boy” who recognizes the user, speaks to the user, “understands” the users voice textures, and hands users things on the screen. Conceptually, Project Natal is a brilliant idea that was easily the most impressive aspect of the entire Microsoft briefing. The hard part, however, will be executing the concept in a way that works seamlessly and believably. Mattrick added that the technology will work with all games that have been released in the past on Xbox 360 and all games in the future. Tsunoda said the techo demos are shipping now out to developers and publishers.

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