Summit In The City
We top ourselves attending the Xbox Holiday Showcase 2008, as Banjo flies us to the US
Back in 2005, when the Xbox 360 was about to be launched with Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo as its mainstay titles, we offered hands-on impressions of both games before the global release. We played them inside a transformable trailer, stationed in the parking lot of a shopping mall hidden somewhere in the obscure woodlands of the Basque Country. The following year, we travelled to Madrid and tried Viva Piñata, assisted by its producer Steve Brand and developers Elissa Miller and Neil Harrison from Rare. Today, we offer yet a greater special feature, including loads of fresh information, exclusive interviews, the usual hands-on impressions of all the upcoming games and multimedia coverage of the Xbox Holiday Showcase, a special event that Microsoft held in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 15th and Wednesday 16th, right after their press conference at the E3 2008 in Los Angeles. We have played and experienced Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise and the brand-new Xbox interface with its fully reinvented avatar system, especially designed by the people at Rare.
Think bigger, though, as this time that’s far from being the end of the story. As an exceptional manoeuvre, we joined forces with AnaitGames, the sumptuous gaming blog, and we also have off topic contents involving future hits Gears of War 2, Fable II, Fallout 3, Call of Duty: World at War and more. All offered in a bilingual, extensive and exclusive report. All brought to you by MundoRare directly from the burning streets of New York City.
Miracle on 35th Street
Far from the flood of yellow taxis that drive across Manhattan’s spinal cord, Microsoft Game Studios’ little hideout was set up at Splashlight Studios, one of the many aseptic soundstages surrounding the overpopulated heart of the Big Apple. Three rooms were arranged in two different floors to receive several members of the gaming press, in a similar, yet quite fancier way than they usually do in Europe. Each team of journalists had access to their own private gaming bubble with two or three couches, a glass table with green candy at hand, a furry carpet on the floor and at least one huge HDTV screen properly connected to an Xbox 360 beta launcher system. The first day, Albert Pennello welcomed us. He is the Global Director of Platform Marketing for Microsoft Game Studios, a title so long and bombastic that not even his colleagues could remember when we asked. Pennello is an expert seller and even better spokesman. In a matter of seconds, he summarized Microsoft’s entire E3 conference as it happened the day before. New upcoming titles, new exclusives, new goals, new achievements, new everything. If you ask Microsoft, Xbox 360 is getting bigger, better and cooler than ever before. But not as good as it will be next year, you can bet on that.
Starting with the dashboard, Microsoft is planning to completely re-imagine their console now that the fronts in the battlefield are established. Xbox’s new interface looks like a mixture of Sony’s and Nintendo’s own home menus. They took the Macintosh-like minimalist design of PlayStation 3 and then added a bunch of cartoon characters that look just like Nintendo’s Miis. There is no way to hide or deny these influences. It is anything but an original move. The goal, undoubtedly, was to take advantage of the best each world has to offer to transform the Xbox experience, as they call it, into the ultimate gaming adventure. Users now will be able to customize their virtual self, share personal files and meet with friends on an interactive environment of floating windows. You can still find a last remnant of the old dashboard in there, though. By pressing the Xbox button, a little menu made out of sliding blades pops out in the middle of the screen. From there, you can manage most applications in your console, just like before. “It was Rare’s own initiative,” they told us, “nobody asked them to do it, but then one day they went like ‘you know, we can make this look better than it is right now’.” The classic dashboard was beautifully designed. It’s quick, clever and accessible. But times change and you have to adapt yourself as the evolution law (or maybe we should call that revolution) goes on. Still, the new interface will hardly be a bad addition to the Xbox 360.
West Side Stories
Upstairs, Product Manager Michael Johnson was ready to show us Banjo: Nuts and Bolts and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. There is no need to say that Banjo’s was the biggest game in the building along with the tremendous Gears of War 2. Not surprisingly, however, Rare’s games were getting less attention from the average press member out there than almost any other title on display. After six years in the box, we are starting to get used to it. Heck, some people were even playing Madden ‘08 when they could have been trying Banjo. Although, on second thought, we were in the United States. That country where football is called soccer, the Nascar massive collisions are considered a sport and games like Madden at least have a reason to exist. After a quick briefing, Johnson invited us to step into Banjo’s new Macgyveresque world. Each person in this event seemed to be devoted to the title he or she was in charge of. They knew the demos like the back of their hand; they were familiar with each game’s history and universe; they were more than happy to see us trying to push the game to its limit by doing crazy stuff. One could say that they were even getting some sort of unspeakable satisfaction while watching us enjoy a game. If that was pure acting, it was really well played. We were able to go through the entire Banjo demo. As well as Piñata’s. And then we messed around with the Xbox avatars. This was certainly Rare’s most prolific year in ages.
However, some people still resist the idea. In a backstage talk with Microsoft representatives, they confessed us how frustrating it was to see Rare’s work getting undeservedly trashed one time after another in the modern gaming press. “There are some gaming journalists, mostly people over 40, who have been following their games forever, that now simply want to see them fail.” It’s easy to think that Rare begun to get off Nintendo’s social sphere of influence especially during their transition to Microsoft Game Studios, but it doesn’t seem to be exactly the case. “It’s been happening even before the buyout, Rare’s relationship with Nintendo wasn’t that good, they often contradicted each other when they had to comment on their games.” As for the reason why many fans are now less supportive than before, nobody can really give a clear answer. “I don’t know,” one of the guys from the PR department said, “I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.” Microsoft wants Rare to broaden the Xbox audience, letting them make the same games that they always used to do. One could argue that we haven’t seen a new Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007 or Conker’s Bad Fur Day in years. But they never stopped delivering great titles. PDZ and Kameo were two of the best games the Xbox 360 had for its launch. Viva Piñata was easily the most compelling release of 2006 along with the first Gears of War. And now we have Banjo back, whose dazzling Nuts and Bolts was the only sequel in the house that didn’t actually look like a sequel.
Wednesday night was rather productive. Half of this special report would have been impossible without it. Around twenty minutes before 7:00pm, a Fox News truck was parked in front of the Splashlight building. That was the first hint that something neat was going to take place inside. We tried asking a guy from Bethesda Softworks, who was smoking outside. “I don’t know what’s the plan, they’ve been setting up the truck around five o’clock.” The plan, at least when it comes to Microsoft, was to present their games to the public in one of those Hollywood like after show parties with nice looking girls, free alcohol, loud music and local celebrities that nobody should really care much about. Outside the Rare stuff, first we tried Fable II, Fallout 3, Rock Band 2 and Lips, whose producer Earnest Yuen, former member of the Microsoft team behind Kameo, was kind enough to chat with us. We also took a good look at three solo missions and the system link coop mode of Call of Duty: World at War. Sadly, Activision was not ready to let anybody play the game, fearing that their yet unpolished demo would make the wrong impression on the gaming press. Of all the companies in the show, they were the only ones who never allowed hands-on on either of the two days that the event lasted.
Shannon Loftis, head of the European MGS Production branch, showed us the promising Fable II, which we actually played for hours. We went so far in the game that the enemy guards eventually became invincible to balance all the evil points we gathered after an impressive plethora of wicked deeds. Loftis and the other guys from Microsoft learned that you could commit more crimes in a row than what anyone had thought. Anybody who loved the first Fable will love the second one. And maybe even some of its haters will give it a second chance. The game definitely deserves it, although is still too early to predict its success. If it will outlive the same hype that damaged its predecessor, remains to be seen. We dedicated more hours of in-depth play to the gory Fallout 3, which was being shown by Matt Grandstaff from Bethesda Softworks. As with Fable II, we played that game for so long that Grandstaff had to ask us not to spill the beans about some areas and weapons that we saw. So no comments on that, other than we reached the last part of the demo, which was set on an impressive reproduction of the devastated Washington DC, with what was left of the Lincoln Memorial and its crumbling National Mall, now inhabited by creatures like a two-headed mutant cow. It must be noted that Fable and Fallout were two games for which the simple act of wandering around and experimenting delivered enough fun so you didn’t need to look for a specific goal or quest. That freedom of choice, as their developers want to achieve, will be their greatest asset if properly conceived.
Bullets Over Broadway
Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, closed the event like no other could have done. “No drinks? What kind of party is this?” he laughed before sitting with us to talk about Gears of War 2. You can trust us when we say that this guy is the man. Nobody would talk more honestly and graphically about a game than him, with the sole exception of, perhaps, Cliff Bleszinski himself. We were able to see a good portion of one of the final missions of Gears 2, as well as try the addicting 5-player coop survival mode against hordes of vicious Locusts. According to Microsoft, no one ever went further than the 26th horde. That’s Epic’s internal record. But there are as many as 50 waves of enemies to wipe out. Visually, Gears 2 looks pretty much like Gears 1, which means nothing less than incredible. The glorious gameplay of the first instalment is still there, but with brand-new features like the already classic shielding movement that you can use to protect yourself while shooting and walking, using enemy shields or bodies as a personal shelter. Fans of GoldenEye 007 will also love the new proximity grenades that you can stick to the walls in the multiplayer, as well as new power weapons like a mortar that might take some time to master. Oh, and by the way, the hammer of dawn is still there and it will be more useful that ever, since some of the monsters we will be facing this time make the Cloverfield creature look like Wall·E’s cute pet roach.
Read and watch more about the Xbox Holiday Showcase very soon on our special report and video interviews about all Microsoft and Rare, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, Fable II, Gears of War 2 and Lips. And if you are one of the loyal readers that had followed us since our Spanish era, don’t miss our special contribution to AnaitGames with much more details in the coming days!
We would like to send our warmest thanks to Jim Bak, Michael Johnson, Albert Pennello, Shannon Loftis, Earnest Yuen, Michael Capps, Matt Grandstaff and the cute girl who stamped us in the entrance, for their invaluable help during the making of this special feature.
In a New York Minute
- Hands-On: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts impressions
- Hands-On: Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise impressions
- DKU Report: Being Hypnotized In New York
- Video interviews: Teaser trailer
- Video interviews: Albert Pennello on all things Xbox
- Video interviews: Michael Johnson on all things Rare
- Video interviews: Shannon Loftis on Fable II
- Video interviews: Mike Capps on the Gears of War franchise
- Hands-On: Avatars impressions
- Much more, coming soon!