With the massive E3 trade show kicking off in Los Angeles at the moment, a positive deluge of press releases, product announcements, gameplay videos and screenshots has been dumped on to the web. We sort through the detritus to pick out some of the highlights of the show, today focusing on Virgin Interactive's line-up...

Maelstrom

Although Maelstrom was first unveiled a few days ago, the arrival of E3 has resulted in a barrage of new screenshots and artwork from the game. Powered by the very latest version of the Unreal engine, Maelstrom will be the first project to come out of Virgin's revamped internal development group, and it is already looking very promising.

Set some time in the far future, Maelstrom sees you joining one of two pirate clans fighting for control of deep space, raiding enemy vessels and passing convoys alike. Once you have taken out a ship's fighter cover and blasted your way through its defences, it's time to get out and walk though. The game will actually take you inside enemy ships once you have disabled them, with your character trying to capture any valuable cargo on board the stricken vessel while fighting or evading the ship's crew and security systems.

Maelstrom isn't a straight run-and-gun game, and as your reputation grows other pirates will come to work with you, allowing you to build up a small team of specialists such as hackers and demolition experts. As a result you will have to rely on a combination of stealth and team work to get away with the loot. Throw in a storyline and artwork by veterans of the Judge Dredd and Batman comic books, gorgeous eye candy courtesy of the Unreal engine, and the polygon pushing power of the latest consoles, and Maelstrom looks like it may just revive Virgin's reputation for innovative game design.

Expect Maelstrom to appear on PlayStation 2 around the end of the year, with an Xbox version on the cards for 2002.

Top Gun

While the PlayStation 2 has had the benefit of a good spread of games in its early days, from sports sims to strategy and first person shooters to space combat, one thing it has been lacking so far is a decent flight combat game. Virgin are hoping to help change that with Top Gun, inspired by the movie of the same name.

With three seperate time periods ranging from the early 1970s through to the present day, it doesn't stick too closely to the plot of the film, although you can play as any of the main characters - Maverick, Jester, Iceman and Viper. This also makes for a variety of planes and weaponry to master, with the US Navy versions of both the F-18 and the F-22 available to fly as well as the F-14 Tomcats seen in the film. Between the three eras the game notches up a total of thirty plus missions, spread across four different locations from Miramar base and the jungles of south east Asia to new settings in the Persian Gulf and northern Russia.

With six different playing modes, a wide range of hostiles to destroy, and some rather impressive looking graphics behind the whole thing, Virgin might be on to a winner. Of course, being based on the classic Top Gun franchise it's shaping up to be more of an arcade-style shooter full of outrageous manoeuvres and wild twisting dogfights over outlandish locations rather than a serious flight sim, but as such it should fit in perfectly on Sony's PlayStation 2.

Lotus Challenge

No console line-up would be complete without some form of motor racing game, and Virgin have no less than two of them chomping at the bits. First up is Lotus Challenge which, as the name suggests, focuses on the great British sports car manufacturer Lotus.

Featured models will include the Lotus 7 (driven by Patrick McGoohan in cult classic TV series The Prisoner) as well as the better known Esprit and Elise, and even some of the old Formula One cars designed by the now defunct Lotus Grand Prix team. As you can see from the screenshots, the cars have all been lovingly modelled in great detail from the curvaceous bodywork to the shiny metallic paint, while the scenery through which you will be driving them is equally impressive.

Rather than going for a straight road-racer, Virgin have opted for a mixture of timed races in locations such as London, Tokyo and Florida along with more unusual mission-based trials, such as performing stunts for Hollywood movies, racing around an oil rig for a tyre advert, or taking part in a hill climb event. Gran Tourismo 3 meets Stunt Driver? Only time will tell, but it's off to a promising start and if the innovative gameplay can match the stunning graphics then Lotus Challenge should be well worth a look when it arrives on PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

Downforce

Virgin's other big PlayStation 2 racer is Downforce, which follows a more traditional format by presenting you with a series of tracks to race around, each with two or more routes to take through them. The setting is truly off-the-wall though...

Set in the near future, a group of maverick drivers have grown tired of the constant burden of rules and regulations in Formula One and broken away to form their own high-octane racing league where anything goes. As a result it features some fanciful and at times outlandish car designs, loosely based on existing Formula One cars, but with the added benefit of regulation-busting extra wings, fins and turbo-charged things.

Neatly side-stepping the need to get an FIA license (although from recent evidence it seems that you can buy them from behind the lockers at Victoria station for a bundle of used fivers), the game uses imaginary circuits which range from desert canyons to the city streets of Tokyo and Las Vegas. And with a choice of at least ten drivers and no less than 27 cars, plus edited video highlights and the traditional two player split-screen option, there should be plenty to keep you busy.

If you're looking for a serious hardcore racing sim then this is probably not going to be your cup of tea, but if you just want to throw a ludicrously fast car around the corners and take full advantage of the real-time bodywork deformation system, then this could be right up your street.

Robocop

Games like Time Splitters, Perfect Dark and the Dreamcast version of Quake 3 Arena have shown that the PC isn't the only place to find great first person shooters, and now Virgin are looking to break into the growing console FPS market with a new PlayStation 2 game based on the Robocop movies and TV series.

Playing as the original robotically resurrected police officer Alex Murphy, it is up to you to get to the bottom of a plot to wipe out Robocop and his fellow cyborgs. In the process you will battle your way through downtown Detroit with an arsenal of lethal weaponry to back you up, "protecting the innocent, upholding the law and blowing away anyone foolish enough to stand in your way".

Between battles you will be treated to some very impressive cinematics to push along what storyline there is, and although the rest of the game can't match the splendour of the cutscenes, the engine does a good job of handling everything from the posh office blocks of the business district to crumbling slum streets.

Featuring rather less spectacular graphics is the GameBoy Colour version of Robocop, which will be appearing as early as July. This time round you are facing a deadly "cyber super-brain" created by the ubiquitous corporate bad guys at OCP. Naturally it's up to your good metallic self to track down the missing cybernetic Frankenstein, which has gone haywire and decided to take control of humanity.

Jimmy White's Cueball World

And now for something completely different! Snooker legend Jimmy White is back, but this time Virgin seem to have got bored of the traditional green tables and smoke-filled pool halls of previous installments, and gone for a change of decor.

For the first time you will be able to play snooker on a rock table in the middle of Stonehenge, on the beaches of a peaceful desert island, amongst the ruins of a dead central American civilization, or by a Japanese zen garden in the shadow of what appears to be Mount Fuji. It's odd. Very odd. But then, once you've got your photo-realistic balls and bizarre disembodied hands, you really have to wonder what else you can do with all that graphics processing power, and this is one (admittedly rather unusual) solution to the conundrum.

As well as giving you the usual variety of snooker and pool games and eight strange locations scattered around the globe to play them in, Cueball World will also include thumb wrestling, crazy-golf style stunt tables, and of course the great British beer-drinker's institution that is darts.

Whether this all proves to be a stroke of genius or merely a crackpot gimmick that seemed like a good idea at the time remains to be seen, but with Xbox, PC and PlayStation 2 versions of the game all on the way, we should know soon...

Conclusion

Virgin's current line-up is one of the most impressive we've seen from the publisher in recent years, showing that they are keen to produce their own hits rather than merely paying their way by distributing Interplay's titles on this side of the pond. Maelstrom, Downforce and Lotus Challenge are all looking very promising at this early stage, and although Cueball World strikes us as being a bit .. well .. weird, it is at least trying to do something different.

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