E3 rocks game plan

'Rock Band' makes debut at confab

Last year, after the smash success of “Guitar Hero,” Activision acquired the game’s publisher, RedOctane, giving it rights to the music-simulation franchise’s name, while MTV bought its developer, Harmonix.

At this year’s E3, it was clear that MTV made the smarter move.

“Rock Band,” Harmonix’s “Guitar Hero” follow-up that will be published this fall by MTV and Electronic Arts, was without question the standout game of the show.

By adding a drum kit and microphone for singing to “Guitar Hero’s” guitar and bass, “Rock Band” lives up to its name and creates the ultimate “social gaming” experience — creating an excuse to bring friends together rather than avoid them. While it’s possible to form a virtual band online, the experience of playing David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” right next to my bandmates in EA’s booth proved that “Rock Band” parties are sure to be the next big thing.

“Guitar Hero 3,” by contrast, which Activision assigned to inhouse developer Neversoft, simply adds new songs and the ability to “battle” — a competitive mode that feels more like a traditional fighting game and less like a party for music lovers.

Also helping “Rock Band”: EA and MTV announced aggressive plans to offer playable songs for download every week, including entire albums such as the Who’s “Who’s Next.” Activision hasn’t yet detailed its plans for downloadable songs on “Guitar Hero 3.”

“Rock Band” was just one of the many “nontraditional” games that were among the standouts at E3. Following the success of Nintendo’s Wii and “Guitar Hero,” many publishers are thinking beyond shooters, driving simulations and sports games.

The best title that Sony showed off at its press conference, for example, was a small downloadable game called “Echochrome.” With a visual style like an M.C. Escher drawing and a system of puzzles that are solved entirely by changing viewpoint, the game is a pleasing sign that Sony is encouraging creativity for its PlayStation 3.

Many other upcoming “casual” games were fun, but not nearly as inventive. I had a good time playing Electronic Arts’ schoolyard sports game for the Wii, “Playground,” but it shows that publishers are primarily using Nintendo’s console and its motion-sensing controller to simulate real-world activities rather than create a new experience. The same can be said for EA’s puzzle-solving collaboration with Steven Spielberg, currently code-named “LMNO,” which essentially brings building blocks to the Wii.

Nintendo’s “WiiFit,” which uses a balance board to simulate flexibility and conditioning exercises, doesn’t offer any new experiences but represents the first time anyone may use a vidgame console to get in shape. While the game’s ability to provide feedback and track progress is an advance over the home-exercise video, it’s truly a question mark whether a game so clearly targeted at adult women can succeed in the U.S.

The growing number of “casual” games didn’t mean that titles aimed at young men weren’t out in full force. One of the most promising was EA’s adaptation of “The Simpsons,” the only (intentionally) funny game at E3. By making it a parody of other videogames, with levels that mock everything from “Medal of Honor” to “God of War” to “Joust,” EA has smartly fit the game around the show’s sensibility, rather than trying to jam the show’s characters into a traditional game, an approach that has led to many poor “Simpsons” vidgames in the past.

It wouldn’t be E3, of course, without a plethora of slick shooters. Based on the games on display, the next year will see many with truly awesome graphics, including Microsoft’s “Halo 3,” Sony’s “Killzone 2,” LucasArts’ “Fracture,” Warner Bros.’ follow-up to “F.E.A.R.,” Ubisoft’s “Haze,” Activision’s “Call of Duty 4,” Disney’s “Turok” and Sierra’s “TimeShift.”

But only “Fracture,” which lets players literally alter the geography around them, and “TimeShift,” in which players can pause or rewind time at will, changed the traditional run-and-shoot dynamics.

“Call of Duty 4,” which concerns scarily believable issues of geopolitics and nuclear terrorism, and “Haze,” about a near future in which the government controls its soldiers through drug addiction, were the only entries that went beyond the typically simplistic or convoluted storylines of an action game to make players think while they shoot.

In the lead-up to one of the busiest holiday seasons in vidgame history, there were plenty of other impressive games, such as Nintendo’s “Super Mario Galaxy” and “Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass,” Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid 4,” Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed, Sony’s “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune,” Microsoft’s “Mass Effect” and Bethesda Softworks’ “Fallout 3.” There were also some games that had surprisingly little to show given their approaching release dates, such as Nintendo’s “Super Smash Brothers,” which comes out in December, and LucasArts’ next “Indiana Jones” game, set to hit stores in summer 2008. There also wasn’t much to see from October release “Grand Theft Auto IV,” though that wasn’t a surprise since it publisher Rockstar never has a big presence at E3.

Perhaps most surprising, though, was how difficult E3’s new format was. Like many attendees, I was pleased by the quieter atmosphere at the new, smaller version of the confab and by the shorter lines. But by spreading the show out among nearly a dozen separate locations, many 10-15 minutes apart, organizers didn’t manage to make this year’s E3 any more convenient.

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