Held at the entirely unremarkable Marriott hotel in downtown LA, after being bribed with slightly stale pastries and fancy imported teas, we, the assembled throngs of the press were ushered into a surprisingly intimate meeting space for Activision's pre-E3 press conference. Opening with traditional bluster, Activision revelled in not only holding the status of No. 2 publisher in the US overall, but also scoring the No. 1 Xbox 360 title with Call of Duty 2, allowing it to segue nicely into announcing its next-generation line-up - the pride of place going to Call of Duty 3, in development for all three next generation systems. No further details were revealed about the title, though we know Treyarch, not Infinity Ward, is developing it, and neither does it appear that they feature at the show in playable form. Thankfully, Activision proved to be a lot less tight-lipped on the other major franchises that are a major part of their upcoming line-up - not least new Tony Hawk's titles Tony Hawk's Project 8 for PS3 and Xbox 360, and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam on Nintendo Wii (and DS and GBA).
Tony Hawk's Project 8
Tony Hawk's Project 8 is the Tony Hawk's series completely rebuilt, featuring entirely new graphics, physics and animation engines. Introduced to us with a skilfully edited movie of (what appeared to be) in-game footage, Tony Hawk's Project 8 looks absurdly stunning. Abusing slow motion to hold long, lingering close-ups of the footwork of the pro-skaters revealed just how different the new engines are. Certainly when it came to physics, only at one point, where an unnamed skater launched from a very slow grind on the side of his board into a triple side flip (or something), did anything appear even slightly off.
To ensure realism in the animation, all of the pro skaters featured were motion-captured extensively to form the basis of the new animation blending system. Up to 20 animations can be blended to allow the skater model to dynamically react to the world and the player's input, and in the case of grinding, as seen in the previously leaked animation test footage, the animation seems to be a better visual cue of the skater's balance than even the balance bar.
The surprising thing is that despite this complete rebuild, actual gameplay footage ("I want you to understand that because of all the rebuilding this is an extremely early look at the game," the Activision rep reminded us) was incredibly reminiscent of the Tony Hawk's franchise we have known and loved. In fact, it's almost indistinguishable; if you forget the mysterious appearances of stylish slow motion each time the skater performed a particularly impressive trick, anyway. It wasn't established if slow motion will really play a part in gameplay or not, though. More than that Tony Hawk's Project 8 is going down a very traditional route for the story mode. Tony Hawk's titular Project 8 is the man himself's attempt to find the best eight amateur skateboarders in the country, and you, the player, naturally want to be one of those skaters, so you have to skate about in a purportedly entirely seamless streaming world, impressing skaters and the like.
It's hard to tell after seeing the astounding graphics and physics of this new Tony Hawk's title if this is a disappointment or not. Despite all the talk of a complete rebuild and so on, if the final game really does retain all of the trappings of the series we've come to know and love, where is the real innovation? Fans of the series, however, will be pleased to know that this is the best possible helping of 'more of the same' they could ever hope for.
Tony Hawk's Project 8 is due on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Xbox and PSP in autumn.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is an even more interesting proposition for readers already struggling with their feelings on Tony Hawk's Project 8. Introduced before Tony Hawk's Project 8, I imagine so as the GameCube-era graphics didn't show it in a particularly bad light, but I'm not going to give it that courtesy, as discussion of the title works better in the context of Tony Hawk's Project 8. And anyway, it's possible that Wii dev kits are still GameCubes at this point, so we can't really consider any third-party Wii graphics as final yet.
Unlike Tony Hawk's Project 8, in which the name of the game is 'more of everything, prettier' Downhill Jam represents a wild change of tact is taken with the title a downhill skateboard racing sim with all of the trappings you'd normally expect in a Tony Hawk's game (a heavy tricking aspect, rock soundtrack, etc) plus the exploitation of the Wii's input method. While this is the first attempt the series has taken at being a pure race sim it would be incorrect to say it's the first foray into downhill skating, with more than one track in previous Hawk's titles being downhill. The original's downhill jam, Phoenix, comes to mind, so this isn't really that remarkable if you think about it. What is a fairly big step is the usage of the Wii controller. Rather than use the d-pad to turn left and right the controller is rotated, speed boosts - which I suspect are gained through successful tricking though it wasn't elaborated on - are engaged by thrusting the pad forward, and balancing in air or in a grind is taken care of by tilting the controller.
Levels on show included San Francisco, Machu Picchu and Hong Kong, all being played by an amiable looking chap with a Mohawk who was a bit less good at the game, crashing repeatedly into walls in Machu Picchu, than his extreme haircut would have you believe.
While it does look remarkably good fun, prospective Wii owners are probably already going to fall into one of two camps - those who are happy that the controller has given Neversoft the opportunity to take a different angle with Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, and those who wish they were getting the same title as the PS3 and Xbox360 owners but with the usage of the Wii's unique controller.
Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is due on Wii, Nintendo DS and Nintendo Game Boy Advance in autumn.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Introduced after a teaser trailer for Spiderman 3 that was never elaborated on, other than being told 'this is not a pre rendered model' (which, I supposed, was only a likely candidate for confusion if we were all blinded by how shiny he was), Marvel Ultimate Alliance was presented running live on PS3 hardware. With some very slight framerate issues to show for it, the game ultimately looked like a very nice high-end PC title. But there are far more important things about Marvel Ultimate Alliance than merely how it looks.
For instance, how do you fancy having your own super team of Marvel Super Heroes. Just think about the possibilities! Combine the powerful team of Spiderman, Dr. Strange, Thor and the Silver Surfer to go and get some milk down the shops. Or get Wolverine, Electra, Ghost Rider and the Thing to build the bookcase you bought at Ikea and have never bothered to put up!
Well, it's not quite that good. You really only get to go through the missions in the game with them (well, obviously), but you do get to name them and give them a logo. A further possible joy stifler is that despite the crowing about there being 140 super heroes and super villains in the title, there are actually only 20 characters available to form your team of four with. So players looking to field a super team made up of the most obscure characters of the marvel universe that they can think of (I don't know, the members of Alpha Flight, or something) are out of luck. That's not to say that the other characters might not make an appearance in game - the team seems intent to cram the game with all aspects of the Marvel universe. For example, at one point during the demo the Scorpion, one of Spiderman's early, and critical, foes appears and is quickly, perhaps too quickly, dispatched by the might of four mighty superheroes bearing down on him.
Gameplay is very much like the recent Gauntlet titles, being a fairly straightforward team beat-em-up with RPG aspects. Most exciting is the promise that you'll be able to chose your hero's costume from any that they've worn across their history. So, for example, if you prefer Captain America's World War II phase you can use that. Each costume is said to include special era-specific abilities for the characters, and that's actually one of the most pleasing aspects of the game as we saw it; that despite the button-mashing fighting mechanics, the characters all fight in character. So the Thing will spend most of his time grumpily pounding enemies into the floor while Spiderman will web his opponents to the ceiling with a trademark nonchalance.
We were shown four levels, Dr Doom's flying fortress, a wonderfully watery Atlantis, and a couple of levels of Skrullos (while Galactus eats it.) Players will take part in adventures in the Marvel universe that use the 'epilogue system' which promises to have a lasting effect, such as averting (or not) the destruction of Atlantis, or, I expect, successfully interrupting Galactus' dinner. You are also able to take part in character-specific adventures from famous story arcs from the comics, so players new to the Marvel Universe are given valuable background, while hardcore Marvel buffs are given the chance to relive them. The game is also quite geared to co-operative (though competitive) multiplayer, with players co-operating to complete the levels and competing for experience. Meanwhile, during the character-specific adventures, the players who is playing the 'hero' can take the parts of the villains. Ulp.
The whole presentation of Marvel Ultimate Alliance was rounded off with the game's opening CGI (made by the academy award winning Bur studios, which, frankly, reminded that us despite being told not to confuse in game footage for CG, there is still a gigantic gap between the forms). The intro movie shows a raging Nick Fury (please let him be a playable character) standing on the bridge of a Shield air ship before Spiderman, Thor, Wolverine and Captain America clean up the bad guys effortlessly in their individual styles. Intriguingly, the game appears to offer you the opportunity to do exactly that yourself - and we look forward to finding that out for ourselves.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PSP, Game Boy Advance and Windows PC in autumn.
World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions 2007
Bit of a dark horse to spend such a lot of time discussing at their pre-E3 show after little more than a mention for Call of Duty 3 and Spiderman 3, but this looks like a competent poker game, the 'Tony Hawk's' of the Poker world of anything, featuring a huge range of poker professionals such as, um, Jennifer Tilly(?) and, yes! Your favourite and mine, Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson. I'm sure we all know him, right? (Right?). Good ol' Jesus acts as your mentor in the career mode, who will train you up from a poor rookie playing the dollar tables in Reno (or something) up to a real competitor in the Tournament of Champions, an invitational tournament held yearly for the cream of the crop.
Of course, you might be able to dress it up with Digimask's facial avatar technology (and put your own ugly mug in the gameO), career modes, and nice graphics, but it is just a poker game, and one that relies more on luck than on skill. The core mechanics of the game seem sound, however, with a clear and intuitive interface. All of the betting options can be performed using one context sensitive stick, and each of the poker professionals have had their play styles analyzed and placed in the game, so if you've ever wanted to play poker against, say Jennifer Tilly, or a man who calls himself Jesus, it's as close as you're going to get, probably.
Oh yes, and there's also a lot of online modes and stuff. But who'd play poker against other people, online, not for money? I mean, what's the point of that?
World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions 2007 is due on Xbox 360, Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PC in autumn.
The Movies: Stunts and Effects Expansion Pack
Naturally only of particular interest for those who have either bought The Movies or plans on buying The Movies, there's therefore only one thing I really need to tell you about it. It lets you use a free roaming camera during shots. As in, you can place your camera anywhere you like. You can even move it during a shot. This is probably tremendously exciting for those of you struggling with wildly over-complex plans for your machinima, as it allows you complete control - well, within the boundaries of the props and characters in the game, natch. This is why it's nice that this expansion pack adds an extensive amount of extra possibilities for films, including, joyfully, shots using miniatures. And yes, you can create a miniature city and have a character in a rubber suit stomp about in it. Green screen effects and lower tech rolling backdrop effects are available, and for use in larger sets they've added the ability to create impressive car stunts such as jumps and crashes. The stunts are a new and important part of the actual 'game' part of The Movies (as if anyone remembers that bit) with actors now able to be injured and stuntmen available to be hired to take their part during dangerous stunts. It's naturally a better idea for them to look alike, but, you know, if you want a large black man to stunt double for your pretty blonde starlet you probably can.
The presentation ended with a short little trailer made by the chaps at Lionhead for a joke film made with all the new techniques on offer called Heavy Duty. Featuring large amounts of gunplay, car crashes, explosion and people falling out of windows, it was a classy piece of 1980's action cinema and bodes well for the new possibilities this expansion pack should add to The Movies.
The Movies: Stunts and Effects is due for Windows PC this summer.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
The final demonstration of the day was an impressive group demo of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, the interesting development that marks out Enemy Territory as its own series, albeit one which uses other series settings (Wolfenstien and now Quake) to create its particular brand of team based military FPS titles.
The choice of the Quake setting is an odd development when you consider already how confusing that already is, with the first and third titles not having much to do with anything. But, wisely, this game takes its cues from 2 and 4, and attempts to expand upon and clarify the setting, working as a prequel to them. It is (apparently) 2065 and the Strogg army has invaded Earth, with their invasion bitterly opposed by the Earth Defense Force. The demonstration didn't show any details of the Stroggs other than in screenshots and as distant opponents, but there are supposed to be significant differences between the teams, the asymmetrical nature of the warfare apparently one of the selling points.
We're told that, for example, while the EDF have 'classic' medics, they hand out health packs and can call in supplies, the Stroggs have technicians, as Stroggs use a substance called 'stroyant' for both ammunition and health. How do you create stroyant? By sucking it out of human corpses, of course! Stroggs also have the advantage that fresh human corpses can be turned into 'hosts' for respawning Stroggs, to increase their effectiveness on the front lines.
While the teams are very different, the game's interface and style is highly akin to the original Wolfenstein Enemy Territory, right down to the deployment screen (but naturally the graphics are far and away more impressive and there are far more tactical options on offer.)
We watched as a EDF Field Ops character called for a helicopter to drop off artillery at the EDF base, drove a speedy buggy through cross country terrain (intentionally designed to be inaccessible to the larger vehicles) to a critical flashpoint, before calling an artillery strike to allow EDF mechanics to build a mission critical bridge.
Later he took a short trip in both an attack helicopter then a transport helicopter further into enemy territory to show us the range of vehicles on offer and the impressive architecture of the levels from an aerial vantage point.
Currently planned for PC only, it's debatable whether the asymmetrical warfare in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars can tempt Battlefield players away, but it does look like it will suit players of the traditionally faster paced, more exciting Wolfenstien: Enemy Territory.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is due on Windows PC at an undetermined point in the future.