X03: First Night
Kristan spends an evening in Nice.
Gratuitous is a word most games industry folk will be familiar with, and it's certainly a word readily associated with Microsoft's penchant for salubrious press trips. For the third year on the trot the Redmond behemoth flew a gaggle of twisted, cynical journalists to a sunny locale, plied them with fine food, endless free beverages, put on a DJ and then waited for us to ungratefully moan about the standard of the hotel or being forced to get up at dawn's crack to blearily blink through the day. We didn't want to let them down.
In the case of X01 and X02 there was plenty to show off; lots of new games to announce, partnerships to reveal, and an air of excitement. This year, the point of X03 was to consolidate, whoop a little bit about its achievements, and throw in a few jaw-dropping announcements to instil us all with confidence for the future.
Sure, Microsoft covered the 'how we got here' ground pretty thoroughly, with Peter Moore dryly re-educating us about how well specced the Xbox is, and perhaps labouring the point about convergence. Xbox Europe chief Eduardo Rossini, meanwhile, was in enthusiastic voice about how we should all play together, barking proudly that Xbox is the No.1 broadband online gaming platform (discounting the PC, presumably, and any hard stats from Sony), and is evidently chuffed with its No.2 console status in Europe, with 24 per cent market share. Big smiles all round, then.
But in terms of earth shaking announcements, X03 was a-lacking. Michel Cassius' announcement that Xbox Live is coming to six new countries across Europe is undoubtedly a good thing, but no real surprise, the Xbox Live two-month-free-trial offer is also a good thing but we already knew about that too, Ubisoft's Yves Guillemot predictably reminded us how good its Xbox line up is, boasting that Rainbow Six III would be the biggest selling Xbox title this Christmas, and cheerily premiered the world's first footage from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow - one of the few nuggets of new information.
Breakdown In Communication
Midway through the 75-minute press conference, Ed Fries nervously took the stage and we braced ourselves for some killer footage of newly announced titles. On the basis of previous X0s we could see them coming, but it wasn't quite what the doctor ordered. The trio of Rare's Kameo, Namco's Breakdown and DICE's Rallisport Challenge 2 were all hugely impressive - don't get us wrong - but we've known about all three for a while, and we'd be lying if we said we weren't hoping for something a little more blockbusting to finally usurp Halo in the killer app stakes. You know, maybe a new, hugely ambitious Japanese exclusive, or some Perfect Dark Zero footage, or - praise be - evidence of the elusive Half-Life 2 or Doom III development. Out of the three, Breakdown was easily the most impressive game shown all night.
Afterwards the strangely subdued Jay Wilbur left his Fred Flintstone-on-acid roar at home to talk about how Microsoft has given Epic an enormous sack of cash to make games exclusively for Xbox (he omitted the PC portion of the deal, natch, and made no mention of Scion Studios, which will probably land most of the work). In what appears to be a last minute addition to X03, he wouldn't tell us what games it is working on ("you'll find out soon enough" he offered) - or the fate of the Unreal brand. Interesting, but, again, lacking any substance to generate palpable excitement.
Super Best Friends
Towards the end Microsoft predictably wheeled out a trio of big guns to round off, treating us to the first playable footage of Fable, a Halo 2 'making of' video and a quick interview with the creator of Ninja Gaiden. Again, a great line up by anyone's standards, but games that we've all seen lots of tempting footage of already - and tellingly games that we can't actually play at X03. Where are the big surprises? Bah and indeed humbug.
On a positive note, Peter Molyneux delivered his usual warm and endearing presentation, with Fable being played live on a big screen above him. It's certainly incredibly pretty and promises a rich and deep combat mechanic. In the short presentation all we had time to see was someone charging around a lush forest environment hacking the crap out of anyone in their way, and switching to a pseudo first person bow and arrow view. As Molyneux said to Eurogamer earlier, it may even be ready before next summer. Fancy that.
The Halo 2 'making of' video was strangely unrevealing, cutting to various members of the team uttering such gems as "I draw Aliens for a living", and "I'm the gun guy, I make guns" or something equally incisive. The most revealing portion of the video was the admission that Halo was "30 seconds of fun repeated over and over again". Yeah, that's why it's not a 10/10. The sequel does look utterly gorgeous, but you knew that anyway.
The whole shebang concluded with an enigmatic interview with the Rockstar-esque Dead Or Alive chief Tomonobu Itagaki, who basically wants to turn Ninja Gaiden into the best action game ever. It certainly looks the business, and should be one of the most anticipated games of next year.
Afterwards, the assembled moaned a lot (hey, we're Brits, it's our job), and partied undoubtedly harder than anyone, as you'd expect for a beach side gathering plied with endless free food and booze, 'til one in the morning.
But filtering through the boozy haze was the pervading opinion was that Microsoft hadn't really announced much to get genuinely excited about. Where were the audacious acquisitions, the inspiring new franchises to kill the competition? And can Microsoft really be happy that just over 50,000 gamers are playing Live across Europe? That sounds a pretty humbling stat when stood next to the US figures over around 450,000. With a lot of work still to do, we have to admit we were expecting more outrageous boldness to really show Sony what for. It didn't.
We're just about to kick off our second leg of X03 antics, which essentially involves waving a camera in the faces of unsuspecting developers, and nipping off to play some previously unseen games, and we'll bring you our thoughts over the coming days.