Part 1: Slip sliding away
We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but Bungie's keenly awaited Halo 2 has slipped a further two months, along with a whole pile of other top-notch Xbox games, according to Microsoft's latest schedule. Now down as an April 2004 release, the delay will no doubt frustrate millions of gamers who have already seen the game moved out of its original late 2003 slot.
Scanning through the list (reproduced below), gamers will also be crying green tears of pure rage to learn that other key titles, such as Kameo: Elements Of Power (June 2004) and Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden (April 2004) have also suffered further delays on top of their original delays. It's a depressing day for the Xbox faithful.
More predictably, the appropriately titled Fable has been given a rather hopeful June 2004 release date, while Rare's Conkers: Live And Uncut is now tentatively down for a second quarter release, having been the subject of a development overhaul after the muted response post E3.
New games ahoy
But it's not all bad news. We're more than happy to report that the currently unannounced follow up to the excellent Rallisport Challenge is down for a February 2004 release, while the - also unannounced - Phantom Dust will be released in June 2004. Who is developing it or what this game is is anyone's guess, but we're sure Microsoft will get around to telling us now that the word's out.
On the PC side of its business, Halo has slipped a couple of weeks to October 10th, Age Of Mythology: Titans Expansion is October 3rd, Dungeon Siege: Legend Of Arrana has been confirmed for November 28th, and Train Simulator 2 should emerge onto the platform on February 4th.
The full European list for Xbox is as follows. Our US readers should be aware these dates won't necessarily match any they may have seen.
- NFL Fever 2004 - September 19th
- Voodoo Vince - October 17th
- Crimson Skies 3 - October 31st
- Top Spin - November 7th
- Amped 2 - November 14th
- Grabbed By The Ghoulies - November 14th
- Music Mixer - November 14th
- Project Gotham Racing 2 - November 28th
- NBA Inside Drive 2004 - November 28th
- Counter-Strike - December 5th
- Links 2004 - December 5th
- NHL Rivals - January 24th
- Rallisport Challenge 2 - February
- Sudeki - Q1 2004
- Halo 2 - April
- Ninja Gaiden - April
- Kameo: Elements Of Power - June
- Phantom Dust - June
- Conkers: Live And Uncut - Q2 2004
- Fable - Q2 2004
Judging from that list, Microsoft is keeping its fingers crossed on the Counter-Strike front, which will surely prove to be a major draw for would-be Xbox Live subscribers if it makes its December 5th date.
This side of Christmas, however, the only other title that could be genuinely classed as triple-A is Project Gotham Racing 2, with the others looking of sound quality but lacking the draw of next year's blockbuster-laden list. One curiosity is its Music Mixer package, out November 14th. It remains to be seen whether this will be a major draw, but it's interesting to see the company exploring the versatility of the console.
Meanwhile, the first half of 2004 will certainly be an exciting one for Xbox owners, with plenty of top-notch titles to look forward to. You can't help but feel, however, that Microsoft needed these titles this side of Christmas to provide a stern challenge to Sony.
Part 2: Live forever
Despite a relatively quiet start in Europe, (75,000 is the current subscription figure being bandied about for the whole of Europe) Live is still clearly at the forefront of Microsoft's plans, and the firm has just announced a whole raft of initiatives to kick start demand for the excellent online gaming service. The first, and most ambitious offering has just been announced in the US, and grants users free access to the Live service for two months on the purchase of one of around 50 Live-enabled new releases. The initiative is also set to launch in Europe from around October 17th, and is likely to be comprised of a similar set of titles, minus some of the US-centric sports titles and more niche titles that won't make it over here.
Along with tempting trial offers, Microsoft is poised to do a spot of rebranding of the Live service, with all Live enabled games soon to sport the tag line "Social Gamer" on the packaging, marketing and elsewhere. We await its plans to rebrand all offline games as "Anti-social"...Hmmm...
Here's the confirmed list so far:
- Acclaim: NBA Jam, Burnout 2: Point of Impact (Developer's Cut), All-Star Baseball 2005 featuring Derek Jeter
- Activision: Cabela's Deer Hunt: 2004 Season, Cabela's Dangerous Hunts
- Atari: Unreal II: The Awakening, Magic: The Gathering - Battlegrounds, Dead Man's Hand
- Codemasters: Pro Race Driver PRDXL
- ESPN Videogames: ESPN NHL Hockey, ESPN NFL Football, ESPN NBA Basketball, ESPN NCAA College Hoops
- Jaleco: World Championship Pool 2004
- Konami: Dance Dance Revolution UltraMix
- LucasArts: Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Knight Academy
- Majesco: Black9
- Sega: Sega GT Online
- Take-Two: Conflict: Desert Storm 2 - Back to Baghdad
- Tecmo: Ninja Gaiden
- Ubi Soft: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, XIII
- Vivendi-Universal Games: Hunter: The Reckoning Redeemer, S.W.A.T. Global Strike Team
Of this slightly underwhelming list, we'd pick out Rainbow Six III, XIII, Prince Of Persia, Ghost Recon Island Thunder, Conflict Desert Storm II, Dance Dance Revolution UltraMix and possibly Jedi Academy, Unreal II and S.W.A.T. as being the key third party releases for Live. If only EA was doing Live, eh?
All this scratching is making me itch
But that's not all. The firm is also set to release a standalone Xbox Communicator on October 17th at a price to be confirmed (in the region of £9.99, we reckon), so that those engaging in the free trial can chat away to fellow users. Those who choose to not buy the Communicator will still be able to hear fellow players swearing at them in a squeaky voice. Great. The green S controller is also being made available from early October, for those who care.
For those wanting the full 12 month subscription to Live (and it's well worth it, we reckon), Microsoft is also planning to strip the incredibly rubbish Whacked! out of the package sometime in October and replace it with other, hopefully better titles. In the US, Microsoft went for Tetris Worlds, but we're hoping it will choose something good, such as Midtown Madness 3, or some of the excellent third party Live titles such as Moto GP2, Return To Castle Wolfenstein or even Midnight Club 2. We await full confirmation on this one.
And before we move onto other juicy pieces of information, existing and potential subscribers will probably be interested to know that Microsoft plans to launch a scratch card initiative in March next year (to co-incide with the first anniversary of the launch), enabling users to renew or commence their subscriptions via mobile phone style cards that house a unique code that users enter in the Live set up, thus negating the need to have a credit card. Scratch cards will be available in various denominations, with prices to match, allowing you to stock up on subscription for three, six or even 12 months if you feel that a game is going to last you.
Part 3: Knockdown prices
One thing we do know for certain is that Microsoft is plotting a further price cut in the run up to Christmas. We don't know exactly when it is, or exactly what the cut will be (things can change quickly in this business, as you well know), but we're confident the cut will be to £99.99, and will happen at the same time as its other promotional activity - i.e. October 17th, piling enormous pressure on Sony to finally cut the price of the PS2 - still currently stuck fast at £169.99. At £99.99 the Xbox would be truly an unbelievably good value machine, wherever your allegiances lie. Expect plenty of official value bundles to appear too.
Plenty of Microsoft's games are also receiving the price cut treatment. As of now (but not officially announced), Tao Feng, Dead Or Alive: Beach Volleyball and the superb Project Zero (buy it, in the name of God, buy it) all receive official price cuts to £29.99. Very shortly, the excellent Quantum Redshift, Toe Jam & Earl III, Blinx, and Shenmue II will be officially priced at £19.99, although won't be re-branded to become part of the Classics range.
So, in summary, it's going to be a busy few months for Microsoft, with some bad news on the slippage front being aggressively tackled with some decent promotional activity that will certainly focus the minds of would be purchasers. With X03 less than two weeks away, we're sure the company will be looking to supplement all this activity with some first looks at Perfect Dark Zero, although our spies have told us not to expect anything on the Doom III or Half-Life 2 front. Shame.