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Sound and fury at E3

The good news: Video games are getting uniformly better. The bad news: They're also getting a bit too uniform. By MSNBC's Tom Loftus.

Old school game producer Warren Spector was having an awful time getting his pitch heard above the E3 show floor din last week.

"I've done so many of these I'm losing it. My God," he rasped.

Spector has been involved with the industry since a game convention meant nothing more than table cloth thrown over a card table. Now here he was struggling to describe the "most sophisticated sound modeling system" of his stealth game "Thief: Deadly Shadows" over the booming bass of a cops vs. gangsta's title next door.

That’s the E3 2004 experience in a nutshell -- a struggle to be heard above the "spectacle."

The "spectacle" makes it near impossible to spend 10 minutes on test-driving a game. And 10 minutes is not enough time to come to any conclusions, especially when one’s space is crowded by attendees hoping for a look at former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy.

Such are the challenges of game journalism.

But despite taking a battering, it was possible to leave the show floor with a number of observations on the good, the bad and the just plain weird.

The pros and cons of improved technology and design
As I traversed the spectacle, producers shackled to the 10 square feet in front of their game would ask -- plead, actually -- for news on the hot titles on the show floor. "Halo 2?" I guessed. "Madden 2005?" I was at a loss to name more than a handful of original titles.

Technology and the investment in technology has advanced to such a point that few games published by the companies that can afford to exhibit at E3 look and sound bad.

Rag doll physics, the programming required to make a corpse act like a corpse whether it’s dropped or kicked, was everywhere. Interactive environments? Check. Voice acting by B-level Hollywood stars? Yup. "Battlefield 1942" made its mark in 2002 by giving players the opportunity to jump into any vehicle and drive. Now every game does that.

It's not that most games at E3 were necessarily bad.  Most appeared well produced.  Well produced, but not necessarily memorable; which leads to a second observation...

Violence rules

Combat appeared to drive the game play of a majority of titles at E3.

There were games where you battled aliens ("Area 51"); alien zombies ("Doom 3"); hillbilly zombies ("Resident Evil 4"); Viet Cong ("ShellShock: Nam '67"); Nazis ("Call of Duty: United Offensive"); Muslim paramilitaries ("Delta Force: Black Hawk Down); Muslim paramilitaries, implied ("America's Army - Special Forces"); and rappers ("Def Jam: Battle for New York")

That being said, I emerged from a "Halo 2" session shaken and absolutely thrilled. There’s nothing like 25 minutes of multiplayer carnage.

Many of these titles looked fantastic. Ubisoft's PC version of "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell 3" looked more like a film than a game. The grand daddy of game gore, "Mortal Kombat," had a new polished look in "Mortal Kombat: Deception." In one memorable E3 moment, a crowd cheered when a game highlight showed Sub-Zero rip out the skull and spine of an opponent, freeze the opponent’s torso and then shatter the torso by hurling said skull and spine back.

Whew! After all this, the most intelligent response -- and crafty product pitch -- to E3's orgy of digitized violence came from a co-producer for the very soft-core "Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude:" "That's our culture. You can shoot things, blow up things, but God help you if you show a nipple."

More nipples, less bullets? Maybe. The game's obsession with blood, guts and heavy weaponry is getting tired.

Games for grown-ups
On a more cheerful note was Nintendo’s bongo drum-driven games "Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat" and "Donkey Konga." Both games utilize the new DK Bongo controller, a pair of bongos attached to the GameCube, and require the player to drum and clap his way to victory.

"Donkey Konga" is just a beat-driven karaoke game. "Jungle Beat" is a side-scrolling platformer where movement is controlled by which drums you hit and when. Hitting both drums sends Kong flying, a drum roll keeps him afloat … and so on.

Both games encourage a carefree racket -- when I played them I pictured the intended audience as a roomful of inebriated 30-year-olds. I’m looking forward to multiplayer BYOB (bring your own bongo) "Donkey Konga" parties in the months to come. Is my social life sad? Yes, yes it is.

Adult house party game gizmo of the year, the EyeToy, was also well respected on the E3 show floor with the snowboarding-type game, "Anti-Grav." The USB camera does not project the user onscreen. Instead, the user controls a digitized border racing along rails through a futuristic city. Gloves, included with "Anti-Grav," track arm movements essential for winning. Will "AntiGrav" replace the "Mirror Game" as favorite post-pub EyeToy experience? We shall see.

And finally the ultimate of adult game novelties, the promise by Microsoft that its online service Xbox Live will soon feature video chat. Imaginations run wild on that one.

New portables may drive change
At their press conference, Nintendo executives described the handheld Nintendo DS as the "developers system." And what I saw of the DS behind closed doors confirmed for me that the DS provides room for creative game development.

"Super Mario 64x4" tapped into the DS’s wireless capabilities to provide a multiplayer version of the Nintendo classic game. I played "Metroid Prime: Hunters" where the top screen of the duel-screened DS served as a map. The bottom provided a gorgeous first-person perspective. Aiming and shooting came courtesy of dragging and tapping the included stylus. The stylus also played an integral role in "Pac-Pix" where the object was to first draw Pac and then direct him, via a drawn line, toward the ghosts.

If the Nintendo DS’s unique two-screen format held out the promise of changing the way developers design handheld games (and how gamers play them), the Sony PlayStation Portable held the allure of influencing the way non-gamers perceive handheld games in general.

Black, with rounded corners and a slick interface, the PSP reads more like a Sharper Image gadget than a game handheld. And that appears to be the way Sony wants it. The PSP’s on display ran music videos and the trailer for "Spider-Man 2" in addition to a handful of game trailers.

Attendees appeared to be impressed. I thought that most would favor the DS, but most of the attendees I talked to appreciated the PSP’s 16:9 screen ratio – perfect for viewing movies. They liked the fact that it didn’t appear like a children’s toy as has often been the case with the current market leader, the Nintendo Gameboy. The PSP’s plans for hosting titles like Electronic Arts’ "NFL Street" probably helps too.

Let’s here it for the game auteur
In this age of big budget sequels it was nice to run into an individual game designer who’s still capable of embossing his creative stamp on a title. Lionhead’s Peter Molyneux is one such man.

At E3, Molyneux had not one, but three titles on the show floor: "Fable;" "Black & White 2;" and "The Movies." Not bad for a designer notoriously shy of the E3 spectacle. "I hate showing them off here," he told "It’s like showing off my babies."

I was happy he took the time to share "The Movies." It has everything: "Sims"-like control of archetypal Hollywood stars and starlets; a "Civilization"-like attention to monetary detail in the form of building studio sets and allocating movie marketing. What’s more players can actually create and share films made in "The Movies." 

Molyneux is hoping to get some films created by gamers into film festivals. The venture sounds familiar to anyone who attended those Pixelvision film festivals held a decade ago by bohos who discovered the children's Fisher Price Pixelvision camera.

And here’s the best part, the idea for "The Movies," Molyneux claimed, didn't come from focus groups or film studio partnerships or a kiddie cartoon. No, he said, it came to him in a dream.

There's hope for gaming yet.