An earth-shaking, in-depth demo of Halo 4 opened up Microsoft's annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) Xbox 360 media briefing, getting the thousands worked up about the upcoming blockbuster. But beyond that, Microsoft had little to sustain the excitement.
For years, the video game press has flocked dutifully to Microsoft's shindig, which traditionally gets the honour of kicking off E3 week in Los Angeles, California, and setting the bar that rivals Sony and Nintendo try to reach at their own mega-briefings. This year, those companies shouldn't be too worried about whether they will measure up.
While there was no shortage of booming blood and guts gaming to sate the largely male audience's fantasies of starring in their own action movies, this year's Xbox press conference, more than ever before, raised the real question of if Microsoft and its rivals really do need to go to the trouble of putting on such a glitzy event prior to E3 opening its doors.
After all, with no new hardware to announce, and no giant titles to unveil that haven't already been the talk of the gaming world for months, one has to wonder what Microsoft really was trying to convey.
To be sure, it's not entirely the company's fault. The video game press — and its audience — is desperate for news, and E3 is the biggest game in town. So, Microsoft probably has little choice but to have a huge gig. But listening to the people stuffed into LA's Galen Center, there was little that left a mark.
There's no question that the biggest thing on the Xbox horizon is the early November release of Halo 4, from Microsoft's own 343 Studios. But beyond a fairly impressive demo, featuring a sort of live-action movie followed by game play, there wasn't much that was new.
Many feel that the release of Halo 4, the first in the storied franchise from 343 Studios (after many popular iterations from Bungie Studios), will be the most important in the series since Halo 3 came out in 2007. The new game takes place after the events of Halo 3, and players will get to watch Master Chief as he "returns to confront his own destiny and face an ancient evil that threatens the fate of the entire universe".
Probably the most interesting element of the media briefing — after Halo 4 — was Microsoft's unveiling of its SmartGlass application, which it will launch this spring.
This is a system designed to let users play all kinds of media from mobile devices, like phones, tablets and Windows computers, on their TVs, via the Xbox 360. Smartly, Microsoft decided to let the system support Android and iOS devices, as well. Naturally SmartGlass will work with Windows 8, though few details about that were provided.
The goal of SmartGlass is to make entertainment of all kinds a multi-screen experience. Users can start a movie or a game on one device and then pick up where they left off on their Xbox 360. In addition, the system will give users the ability to see more information on their mobile devices about what they're playing — or viewing — on the Xbox. That means, for example, that they'll be able to get additional context about the actors and filmmakers of a TV show. Plus, they'll be able to do things like modify play calls in Electronic Arts' Madden NFL 13 from their mobile device.
With SmartGlass, Microsoft is clearly trying to get out in front of what Apple is likely to do when, and if, it releases its own TV. It has long been obvious that Apple wants to have its iOS devices — the iPhone and iPad — be front ends for such a TV. And, it's easy to imagine such a system working quite well together. But even if it happens, it's still well off in the future. Microsoft is trying to be the first company to make such a system work and undercut some of the excitement that might otherwise go to Apple.
Kinect-enhanced Internet Explorer for Xbox
Another, somewhat interesting, development was that Microsoft said it will soon release a new, Kinect-enhanced version of its Internet Explorer browser for the Xbox.
For years, people have asked the company for a browser that would work with Xbox, and now Microsoft will give those users what they've been asking for. While almost no one is likely to get excited about a new version of IE, it will feature voice commands, allowing people to control the browser with their Kinect.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Besides the demo of the upcoming Halo 4, Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was the game that got the Xbox media briefing audience the most worked up.
Scheduled for a mid-November release, the newest version of the mega-hit franchise appears to take place in Los Angeles, and attendees got to see an extended gameplay trailer that featured long combat scenes in and around the downtown area where E3, itself, takes place.
Few details were offered about the new Call of Duty — which will be cross-platform — but it was revealed that the first downloadable content for the game will be available to Xbox players.
Also shown off during the briefing were Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist, scheduled for a 2013 release; Electronic Arts' FIFA 13 and Madden NFL 13 — both of which will feature impressive Kinect integration, allowing for a variety of voice-activated controls such as calling football plays — Fable: The Journey; Resident Evil 6; Forza Horizon; and others.
Perhaps the loudest cheers were for the announcement of South Park: The Stick of Truth and its demo, by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Usher rocked the house with a dance routine demo of Dance Central 3. But notably missing from the briefing was any mention of Epic Games' newest Gears of Wars.
Another challenge to Apple was the unveiling of Xbox Music, a system that will give Xbox Live users access to more than 30 million songs.
In the end, though, it's safe to say that the audience left the Galen Center without the kind of buzz that Microsoft's E3 events have generated in the past. Whether Sony or Nintendo will be able to get people more excited is something that will be revealed at their press events. But the likely outcome is that E3 2012 will be remembered as one of the tamer years, in its storied history.