Let the games begin.
New videogame consoles from Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. made a splash when they went on sale during the last two holiday seasons in the US, but many consumers sat on the sidelines waiting for prices to come down and better games to show up.
Game makers hope to fix part of the problem when they show off their new line-up at the annual E3 games conference in Los Angeles, where game companies pound the drums for products that will go on sale to the public by the holidays.
The appeal of these games will be key to helping Sony and Microsoft turn a profit from their money-losing game consoles. Sales of PlayStation 3 have been lacklustre due to its high price and thin line-up of games since the console came out late last year. There’s been a better selection of titles for Xbox 360, which came out a year earlier than the PS3, but the Microsoft console still needs more hits to put it into the mainstream.
So far, Microsoft’s head start has helped it win the lead in the market, with 5.6 million Xbox 360s sold in the US since its debut, compared to 2.8 million Wiis and 1.4 million PlayStation 3s, according to NPD Group Inc.
With this generation of games hardware, Sony no longer has some of the exclusive games that helped it win about 70% of the console market with its earlier PlayStation 2. For instance, previous editions of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.’s Grand Theft Auto—the racy, controversial urban adventure game that allows players to create mayhem on city streets—came out first for Sony’s console, boosting sales of the system.
With the new Grand Theft Auto IV, though, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions will be out on the same day, 16 October. What’s more, the makers of the game have said they’re working on Grand Theft Auto IV “episodes”—small, new chunks of games—that will only be available for purchase and downloading to the Xbox 360.
Meanwhile, Halo 3, the latest version of Microsoft’s outer-space shooting game, will only be playable on the Xbox 360. “The exclusives for 360 look a little bit better,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities.
Here’s a selection of some of the top games expected out in time for the holidays this year:
• Halo 3
(Microsoft/Bungie Studios) Playable on Xbox 360
• Grand Theft Auto IV(Take-Two Interactive Software/Rockstar Games)Xbox 360, PS3
• Madden NFL 08(Electronic Arts) All consoles and PC
Three holiday seasons ago, Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas trampled sales of most other titles on their way to becoming two of the biggest games of all time. Halo 2 went on to sell 5.8 million copies, while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sold 8.2 million, according to NPD.
The makers of Grand Theft Auto IV aren’t saying much about the new game beyond a couple of tantalizing preview movies that they’ve posted on the Internet. The story follows a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe named Niko Bellic, who arrives in the US and has to help his cousin, who runs a taxi company, get out of trouble. Players of Grand Theft Auto could steal cars and shoot police officers, which added to the game’s infamy. Expect similarly controversial possibilities with the new version.
Halo 3 takes place in a less gritty setting. The game again follows a genetically modified super-soldier called Master Chief as he races back to Earth from space to confront a nasty group of aliens known as the Convenant, who are terrorizing mankind. Microsoft is promising new, undisclosed enhancements to the online-gaming capabilities that made earlier versions of Halo so popular.
Electronic Arts’ Madden football, a perennial favourite, comes out every year with a fresh batch of new National Football League player rosters that reflect trades of actual athletes. This year, EA—the dominant player in the sports games business—has added new player moves such as backward passes and low-hitting tackles.
• Lair(Sony/Factor 5) PS3
• Lost Odyssey(Microsoft/Mistwalker) Xbox 360
One game earning buzz for the PlayStation 3 is Lair, a title that will only be available for Sony’s system. Gamers play the title as a warrior named Rohn, who pilots a dragon through dizzying aerial and ground combat with other dragons and warships.
The game will exploit the PlayStation 3’s “six-axis” game controller, which allows users to turn, dive and attack opponents by making tilting and twisting motions with their hands. Lair’s makers are striving for a lush cinematic experience with the graphics and other details in the game. The orchestral score was created by John Debney, the composer behind the music for Sin City and The Passion of the Christ.
Lost Odyssey is produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the man behind the top-selling Final Fantasy game series.
In Lost Odyssey, players take on the role of Kaim, a man who is destined to live for 1,000 years, as he meets and fights with other characters over several generations in a world of magical powers.
• Mass Effect(Microsoft/BioWare)Xbox 360
• BioShock(Take-Two Interactive Software) Xbox 360, PC
Fans of science fiction will have two promising new options for the Xbox 360 this year, including Mass Effect, a so-called role-playing game, in which players become heavily immersed in a story with dialogue that forces them to make decisions about what action to take.
Players in Mass Effect, which sports a heavily cinematic look, play the role of an elite agent named Commander Shepard who must keep law and order throughout the galaxy.
BioShock tackles similar subject matter, but in a different realm: underwater. The company behind the game describes it as a “genetically enhanced first person shooter”, in which characters can turn any object within the game into weapons.
• Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock(Activision Inc./RedOctane)
Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2
•Rock Band(Electronic Arts/MTV Games) Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
• Jam Sessions (Ubisoft) Nintendo DS
• SingStar(Sony) PS3
• Boogie(Electronic Arts) Wii
• Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party(Konami) Wii
One unexpected development in the games industry has been the explosive popularity of games centred on music, a number of which feature clever game controllers shaped liked musical instruments.
Guitar Hero III will feature songs by The Rolling Stones, Beastie Boys and Pearl Jam, with an added bonus for people who buy the Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 versions: a wireless guitar controller that will free up players from cords. The product will face stiff competition from the original creators of Guitar Hero, who now work for MTV and are debuting a game called Rock Band, a title that will come with a guitar controller, drum-set controller and microphone.
For players who want a simpler musical experience, Jam Sessions turns Nintendo’s hand-held DS game player into a portable guitar. Players will strum their virtual guitars by scratching a pick across the DS’ touch-sensing screen. SingStar, meanwhile, will allow PlayStation 3 users to do karaoke in the comfort of their living rooms, capturing their performances using a videocamera that attaches to the console. Users will be able to upload the clips to the Internet.
There’s even a new wave of dance games coming that take advantage of Nintendo’s Wii, with a motion-sensing controller that lets users manipulate on-screen action by swinging their arms around in the air. Konami is coming out with a Wii version of its popular Dance Dance Revolution franchise that will allow users to engage in dance contests by moving their bodies around. EA is getting into the dance act with Boogie, in which players make customizable game characters called Boogs shimmy on screen.
• Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Activision/Infinity Ward)Xbox 360, PS3, PC
• Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction(Ubisoft)
Xbox 360, PC
• Assassin’s Creed(Ubisoft) PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS and PC
The latest game systems from Sony and Microsoft hold great promise for realistically simulating combat. Activision has become a leader in the war genre with its Call of Duty series, which are set during World War II battles. The latest version, though, is set during modern times, and players have an array of advanced weaponry and can rappel from helicopters and use jets to take out enemy strongholds.
Ubisoft, for its part, has had success with action games that require a high degree of stealth on the part of players, rather than aggressive displays of firepower. Splinter Cell Conviction is the latest instalment of the company’s spy adventure game, inspired by characters created by author Tom Clancy. Players will be able to use their controllers to blend in with a realistic crowd of people to avoid detection by enemies, or to cause panic as a way to escape.
The company’s Assassin’s Creed, meanwhile, will turn players into a master assassin in the Holy Land during the Third Crusades as he attempts to unravel a conspiracy.
Yukari Iwatani Kane contributed to this story.
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