E3 Postmortem: Grading the Big Three

At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the big three console makers, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, did their best to shock and awe gamers with announcements about what products we can expect to see from them in the future.

Now that I've had some time to think about what was said and shown, I've come up with letter grades for the three and rationales to back those up.

Nintendo earned a D. Microsoft, a C. And Sony, a B.

To put it simply, Nintendo showed us barely anything at all. Microsoft put almost all their focus on building an audience for one optional peripheral. And Sony announced a host of different products for different audiences.

Nintendo

I have to ask myself, how did Nintendo manage to fail so badly?

At its start, it seemed like their press conference was going to be a strong one. Actually, most everyone in attendance thought it would be strong even before it started, because we knew they were going to announce a new console.

They opened with an orchestra and a few announcements about the "Legend of Zelda" series. For instance, "Four Swords Adventure" will be available as a free download for the DSi. And "Skyward Sword" -- still for the Wii -- will be released this holiday season, with a gold Wiimote available as a special promotion.

Then they segued into talking about their plans for the recently released 3DS handheld device.

Five key first-party games are in the works, including a 3DS-specific version of "Mario Kart," which features hang gliders and underwater tracks; "StarFox64 3D" with motion controls; a raccoon-suited "Super Mario," "Kid Icarus Uprising," and "Luigi's Mansion 2."

Nintendo also announced that a system update was now available for the 3DS, which would enabled its online eShop and the Internet browser.

And that was all well and good.

What came next was really exciting at first blush. They announced their next console.

The Wii U.

I could make fun of the name and how if you say it over and over again you sound like a siren. And I just did.

But all they really told us about was the console's innovative controller, which is the size of a small tablet computer, and has dual analog sticks; a directional pad and the usual four buttons; a 6.2-inch touchscreen; triggers on the back; a built-in microphone, speaker and cameras; rumble functionality; and the same sort of motion-control technology as in standard Wii controllers.

It has a lot of potential: You can draw on it. You can use it to display your game, in place of a TV. You can game directly on the screen. You can use it as a scope in conjunction with your regular screen, make video calls and pretend to throw shuriken by sliding your hand across it.

All of that is pretty undeniably cool.

Yet it doesn't look like a comfortable controller to use for extended periods, given its size and the ergonomically unappealing setup of the controls. For instance, the dual thumb sticks are set toward the top of the device, almost directly above the buttons -- a reverse of conventional practice and a big potential problem.

We have to shift how we hold the controller so that we don't accidentally press the buttons with the heel of our right hand, and hitting the rightmost button will actually be a physical strain. Plus, it forces us to look down at a screen, which can be partially hidden by our hands, not up at an unobscured view.

In short, I think the Wii U controller is awkward.

And we know next to nothing about the actual console.

It will be powerful enough for 1080p visuals, just like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and to play the same sorts of games.

But exactly how powerful? I don't know. What kind of storage format will it use? No idea. Will Nintendo finally adopt a user-friendly Internet infrastructure? They aren't saying. How much will extra controllers cost? Mum's the word.

It's a case of a lot of flash and little sizzle.

Still, it won't be released until probably holiday 2012, Nintendo says. We're talking probably 16 months away or so, thus it's OK we don't know all the details.

But ...

WHAT ABOUT UNTIL THEN?

That's the big failure on Nintendo's part. They've removed all doubt that the Wii is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

The "Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" will be the console's last hurrah. A few other games are coming from Nintendo for the Wii still, but "Mystery Case Files," a new "Wii Play" and the virtual "Fortune City" board game aren't exactly titles that get the heart racing.

OK, OK, there is an unnamed "Kirby" game in the works, but I still find the fact that Nintendo didn't give the Wii any press conference time pretty telling.

Thus, they earn that D.


Microsoft

The maker of the Xbox 360 opened its press conference with in-depth displays of two beautiful games, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" and "Tomb Raider."

And I immediately knew that Microsoft wasn't going to wow me.

Because if you have to open your show with blockbuster games made by third-party publishers -- games that will in fact show up on at least one rival's platform too -- then you've dropped the ball.

And that's what Microsoft appears to have done. It still does have a few topnotch first-party games scheduled for release in the near future, such as "Gears of War 3" and "Forza Motorsport 4," but the emphasis is on the word "few."

The company seems to me to be relying too heavily on third-party support in order to keep players entertained, mostly so it can try to devote time to making the Kinect motion-control peripheral viable.

In fact, trying to convince the audience that that particular device is worth having is what Microsoft devoted most of its conference to.

Those of us in the audience were treated to dubious displays of the power of Kinect, mingled with a few small ideas with real potential.

For instance, a demonstration of "Mass Effect 3" -- published by Electronic Arts and also NOT an Xbox 360 exclusive -- showed off how players could say their dialog choices out loud and the Kinect microphone would prompt the game to react accordingly. And that's all well and good, except it's a laborious (yet optional) exercise that replaces a single button press.

More useful is the ability to verbally order your AI-controlled companions to unleash specific powers, in place of wading through sets of menus. I hope they keep thinking in that direction.

Another Kinect demonstration, of Ubisoft's "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier," had the demonstrator gesticulating wildly while stooped over in order to show off how players could aim and fire guns on a target range using purely physical gestures. Yet the whole thing looked uncomfortable and too unwieldy for prolonged real-world use.

Yet not all of what was shown for Kinect was a bust.

Disney's "Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster" seems to have huge promise as a game for kids and their parents, where children will get to stomp around and pretend in front of the Kinect camera in an assortment of entertaining minigames that don't feel like games.

They feel like miniature adventures, with Elmo and Cookie Monster leading the way.

And "Kinect Fun Labs," a free addition to the Xbox Live dashboard, available now, shows the future potential power of the device.

For instance, "Kinect Me" allows you to scan yourself and your outfit in order to create a custom avatar that truly represents you. "Sparkler" shows off the device's ability to track your finger movements, and also proves the camera understands dimensionality. And the "Googly Eyes" tool allows you to scan real objects, which then become virtual objects that can be manipulated on screen.

Still, as cool as that is, Microsoft should be glad it had a few other tricks up its sleeve. Otherwise, I'd be grading it as harshly as Nintendo.

So what are the saving graces? Number one: They are releasing a remastered, updated version of the Xbox classic "Halo: Combat Evolved." Number two: A new "Halo" trilogy starring Master Chief and starting with "Halo 4," is in the works. Number three: They've cut a deal so YouTube videos will be watchable over Xbox Live. And number four: They're bringing the hugely popular Indie title "Minecraft" to the console.

All that combined helps the company stay in gamers' good graces. But they need to work harder next year or they'll be in serious trouble.


Sony

Just so it's on the record, I went in to the Sony press conference not feeling that great about the company.

In addition to the major PlayStation Network outage that had just ended -- because of how Sony got hacked -- I had just sent my launch day PlayStation 3 in for repair at my expense. A few days earlier, it had had a major hardware malfunction.

Yet, while I still have mixed feelings about the company's online security, its showing during the press conference has given me a positive attitude about the direction it's going with gaming.

The reason is simple: They're covering all their bases. They'll have plenty of first-party games for their core system, the PlayStation 3. And while they're pushing both the use of 3-D and their relatively new motion-control system, the PlayStation Move, the emphasis is on those as options, without diluting the core experience.

So while they pushed playing first-person shooter "Resistance 3" using the Move-equipped Sharpshooter, they also made clear that nothing will be lost if players stick with the standard DualShock controller.

Sony also showed off how great AAA title "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" will look in 3-D, for those who have 3-D TVs. Yet it's still fantastic without that equipment.

And the company has a realistic attitude about 3-D. Namely, that a lot of us can't afford it quite yet.

So they are planning to release a 26-inch PlayStation-branded 3-D TV for $499. That price will get you the TV, necessary cords, a pair of active shutter glasses and a copy of "Resistance 3." Extra pairs of glasses will retail for $69.99, which sounds expensive (and is) but is cheaper than most other pairs on the market.

Affordable? Hmm, well, it's more affordable than most 3-D TVs out there.

The new game announcements weren't quite as over-the-top as I might have hoped for, but there were a few, which is better than Sony's competitors had.

"StarHawk," the spiritual successor to "Warhawk," appears to blend real-time strategy elements with third-person shooter and vehicle combat. A new "Sly Cooper" game is on the way too. And "Dust 514," which admittedly had been announced before, will be a shooter tied in to the "Eve Online" PC gaming universe.

See? There's stuff.

Sony also confirmed the future release of a new handheld gaming system, the PlayStation Vita, which will take the place of the PSP.

The device appears to be remarkably similar to Nintendo's Wii U controller: dual thumbsticks; shoulder buttons; a directional pad; the standard four face-buttons; a beautiful touchscreen; built-in motion controls; and front and back cameras. Yet it also has a rear touchpad, and it's its own device; it isn't tied to a separate console.

Oh, and all models have Wifi.

Yes, I said models. There will be two Vita models when the handheld is released this holiday. The wifi-only one will retail for $249. Another version that has both wifi and 3G service through AT&T will sell for $299. Sony and AT&T haven't specified the terms -- cost and bandwidth -- of the 3G.

Part of the deal, though, will be the ability to use the Vita for voice chat anywhere.

There's one other important feature too. And it was demonstrated as part of the newly announced game "Ruin," a dungeon-crawler in the spirit of "Diablo."

You see, players will be able to save their Vita game of "Ruin" to the "cloud" on the Internet, then pick up right where they left off on the PS3 -- and vice versa.

Most importantly, though, Sony and third-party developers already have a large lineup of games arranged for the Vita, including "Uncharted: Golden Abyss," continuing the popular tale of Nathan Drake; "Hustle Kings," a physics-heavy game of billiards; "Shinobido 2: Tales of the Ninja," which is very similar to "Tenchu" so far; and futuristic racer "Wipeout 2048."

I don't know how many will be launch titles, though. I doubt Sony knows either.

Regardless, I've got a positive feeling about Sony's direction now. With both the PS3 and the Vita, I know a lot about what they've got planned, and it's a direction that makes sense to me: Offer cool options, yet keep the core experience intact.

Why can't the other two be as communicative?

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