Xbox 360: Live and well

Post E3: Now and Zen.

It was like a scene out of Anchorman as Peter 'Zen' Moore (their words, not ours) rolled up his sleeves at Microsoft's pre-E3 press conference to "get the big guns out for the big guns". You almost expected him to kiss them left and right, shout "cannon baaaall!" and jump into the audience.

Instead of telling the audience to "stay classy", Ron Burgundy style, he made a jibe at Sony's expense. "Some guys do rubber ducks, some do tattoos." Then he proudly revealed GTA IV logo on his left arm. It wasn't the exclusive announcement that some initially thought, but it did neutralise one of the key advantages that Sony had in the last generation.

It didn't take long to digest the significance of probably the biggest single announcement of the entire show, either. Afterwards in an interview Moore was quick to make the point that the 360 would be the only console that gamers could play both next-gen versions of Halo and GTA. Given that both titles will be released at a time when the 360 console will almost certainly be cheaper than it is now, it's not hard to envisage that your average consumers will see the console in a distinctly different light come October 2007. Whatever the terms of the deal between Microsoft and Rockstar were, it will be worth every penny in terms of getting the mass market onside.

The differences between this year's show for Microsoft and 2005's were so vast that it was hard to believe this was the same company. The conference itself was playful, full of genuinely impressive announcements, light on ridiculous marketing psychobabble, concise, ran on time (early, even), and slipped in a few pleasant surprises. They even managed to wheel out a bumbling Bill Gates for our entertainment, bless 'em.

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Halo 3.

Last year's Microsoft conference was such an arduous, hideous experience we don't even want to think about it. Allard was probably so burned by it all he didn't even show up this year. No interviews, nothing, and no explanation either, other than Moore's comment that they wanted one voice this time to avoid a repeat. This is the first E3 since the launch of the Xbox brand Allard hasn't been the frontman. Whatever's going on, the attention turned to Moore, a man so ridiculed 12 months ago you wouldn't have blamed him for shunning the press forever. To his eternal credit, he's faced his critics head on over the past year, changed his approach, cut the bollocks and effectively given us what we wanted in the first place. Amazing to admit, but he actually seems genuinely likeable. Cutting out the ill-advised, ultra-serious visionary rambling nonsense, and lightening up without coming across as self-consciously wacky, most of what he says these days is succinct and to the point.

Even Microsoft's second-tier announcements were pretty impressive. Signing Remedy's Alan Wake could prove to be a masterstroke, while facing down the PS3 with the likes of Gears of War and the first next-gen version of Pro Evolution Soccer 6 won't hurt the 360's chances one bit. Planting the seed in gamers' minds that titles like Forza 2, Lost Planet and Fable 2 are coming exclusively to the platform is pretty significant, too, as is the next-gen arrival of a wealth of big-name multi platform franchises like Splinter Cell, Brothers In Arms, Call of Duty 3, Rainbow Six and Madden. And, okay, they weren't at the show, but who'd bet against the likes of FIFA and Need For Speed playing a big part in the 360's pre-Christmas fortunes this year?

At E3 itself, the behind closed doors titles played a massively significant role in generating excitement about future 360 releases. Titles like Bioshock, The Darkness, Alone in the Dark, Stanglehold, The Club, Indiana Jones, Lego Star Wars II, Sega Rally and Just Cause will all be coming to the platform over the next 12 months or so, giving Microsoft a stunning roster of diverse and exciting titles to look forward that will help persuade gamers to get on board with the 360 sooner rather than later. With 160 games available on the system by Christmas stood next to 15 PS3 games, Microsoft is giving itself every chance of meeting the 10 million installed base head start it so desperately craves.

It wasn't all good news for Microsoft, though, and it did the best to paper over the cracks by glossing over numerous first party titles in the press conference. The undoubted low point for the Redmond giant came when Moore unconvincingly stumbled through a Viva Piņata presentation that merely underlined how far Rare's star has fallen since its Nintendo glory days. Pushing the title's kid-friendly appeal would make sense on a console with a proven youthful demographic, but doing so at this stage of the early adopter curve seems, at best, misguided.

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Forza Motorsport 2.

Elsewhere several previously announced titles were relegated to brief showings on the highlights reel - and for good reason. Promising-sounding first party titles like Real Time World's Crackdown failed to ignite the show floor in playable form, while Silicon Knights' Too Human and FASA's Shadowrun received a similarly muted reception from attendees and critics. Whether these games can come together in the coming months is a tough call, but it's telling that Microsoft is shying away from hyping certain titles on its roster while actively thrusting others (Gears of War) into centre stage.

Where Microsoft is being particularly cunning is the way it's pushing Xbox Live. Offering a swathe of downloadable content - demos, documentaries and trailers - during E3 week was a great idea, although the general consensus was that it didn't really live up to its initial billing. Meanwhile, its approach to its Live Arcade gathered further momentum. After a quiet, but encouraging start for the service to date, E3 gave the company the perfect opportunity to show the industry which direction it's going in - and it didn't disappoint. With over 100 developers now signed up to produce downloadable games on Live Arcade, the way is clear for Microsoft to start delivering on its promise to appeal to a much wider demographic.

Using what amounts to a two-pronged strategy, Microsoft's continuing focus on servicing the retrogaming market was a particularly smart move, with classic retro content from Konami, Namco, Capcom and Sega fleshing out the existing line-up with a raft of all-time favourites such as Pac-Man and Galaga likely to be a huge draw even 25 years on from their heyday. In terms of eclectic, accessible new content, the signing of Lumines Live from Q? Entertainment gives another pointer to the level of quality Microsoft is targeting for Arcade. Games like these may not grab the headlines like a next gen trailer for Halo 3, but Microsoft's competitors will overlook the potential of Live Arcade at their peril.

Diverting attention away from the games at an E3 press conference was a risky move, but Microsoft's focus on Live Anywhere could be equally significant as any idea it has come up with to date in the long run. As a concept, it finally brings together its three main areas of gaming interest under one co-existing roof. Just as its XNA development tools gave a hint to the direction of the company back at GDC in early 2004, Live Anywhere sees Microsoft trying to tie together the Xbox, PC and mobile platforms in as seamless a fashion as possible. After years of trying to drive a wedge between the PC and Xbox ("It's not a PC! No, really!"), Live Anywhere is the company's admission that the two can happily co-exist in more ways than have ever been possible.

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Gears of War.

By integrating the Live service into MSN Live Messenger (version 8.0 currently in a Beta phase) and PC gaming, Microsoft is not only opening up the option of communicating with the Live community regardless of which platform you're using at any given time, but cross platform games like Shadowrun will be playable online in multiplayer modes between PC and Xbox 360 owners. Finally, users will be given the choice over what control system they prefer - a decision that many hardcore games will wholly embrace after years of being forced to play games originally designed for PC, but shoehorned into Xbox exclusivity in order to drive sales of the console. With a more assured confidence about it, Microsoft is fully aware the 360 will happily co-exist alongside Windows Vista when it eventually launches.

It's easy to come away from E3 believing that the pieces of the 360 jigsaw are starting to piece together. With a compelling game line-up forming, solid peripheral launches on the horizon (like the camera, steering wheel and HD-DVD player), an increasingly tempting array of quick fix titles on Live Arcade, and Live Anywhere, it's been a hugely positive period of progress for the company.

But despite the gloss, the big name announcements, the cheek and the charm, Microsoft had no convincing answers to several of the burning questions posed to them at E3. Its Japanese strategy looks possibly even weaker than last time around. When the Xbox launched, Microsoft could point to amazing titles like Panzer Dragoon Orta and Ninja Gaiden on the horizon. This time, some big names have been signed up to work on the likes of Ninety Nine Nights and Blue Dragon, but the results to date haven't set the heather on fire (and don't even mention the laughable bouncing boobfest of Dead or Alive Xtreme 2). Meanwhile, closer to home, the paucity of strong new releases on 360 over the next four months or so could cost the company as the launch of rival systems moves ever closer. Microsoft should be taking full advantage of the positive scenario it finds itself in now - not when Sony is busy cranking up the PR noise to 11 in the run up to the festive season.

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