Summary: Now that he's back from Vegas, JCal reports on the sights and sounds of CES 2008. Read up on games like Little Big Planet, Soul Calibur IV, and more inside!
By all accounts, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is by far the biggest such event in North America. It brings in over 140,000 people over four official days (and two days of pre-exhibit floor events) and takes over the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Convention Center and the Las Vegas Hilton Convention Center, as well as lots of parties and events all over town. (Two mini-shows, Digital Experience and ShowStoppers, are also held during CES at Vegas hotels but they are not a part of the official event). Huge names in consumer electronics and entertainment show up to thrill attendees with keynote speeches, and major product launched are revealed.
Yet despite this massive show and attention, gaming and PC hardware makers have a somewhat odd relationship with CES. Except for Microsoft and Sony, who have other reasons to be there, publishers generally shun the show (Nintendo, arguably the hottest game publisher thanks to sales of the Wii and DS, doesn't even bother to show up at CES). PC hardware makers typically don't make huge product announcements during the event. An exception this year was Intel which launched or announced a whopping 16 new processors for desktops, laptops, and servers on the first day of the show this week. AMD didn't have much to announce this year, and NVIDIA decided to just have a meeting room instead of a full exhibit.
As a result, gaming and hardware, while still a part of CES, are pretty much regulated to the very back of this massive show as companies like Sony, Toshiba, Sharp, Panasonic, Phillips, LG and many more have massive exhibits, mostly about big HD LCD and plasma screens and, well, more massive HD LCD and plasma screens. Panasonic showed off a huge 150 inch plasma screes at their CES booth which made those 103 inch screens that debuted at last year's CES seem tiny. The big talk of the show was about something that was of at least some interest to gamers; the fate of the HD-DVD movie disk format after Warner Bros. went to the Blu-Ray camp just before the start of CES. There was no big HD-DVD press conference and the group's booth was decidedly quiet while the neighboring Blu-Ray booth had a fancy exhibit with a Pirates theme.
So what was at CES that was of interest to gamers and hardware junkies? If you spent a couple of days at the show, as I did this week, you can still find some stuff to write about.
Vader and a few Stormtroopers showed up at the event just after the company showed a trailer of the two characters at the Blush nightclub at the Wynn.
An early playable Xbox 360 build of Soul Calibur IV was at the event, and while Yoda wasn't at the CES demo, we did get some brief hands-on time with the three characters (Taki, Cassandra and Mitsurgi ) that were playable in two levels (a jungle like temple with hippos just outside the arena and a more conventional Greek-like arena). Fans of the series will be happy to know that the game pretty much looks like all of the previous Soul Calibur titles in terms of art design; characters look like their previous incarnations, and the locations certainly look much like similar arenas in the past. Of course since the game was running on Xbox 360, the graphics look pretty amazing event at this early stage. Character models are highly detailed, and the levels have a ton of impressive art textures. Animations still look a tad off and Taki's,um, tracks of land bounced up and down a tad too much (or just right, depending on your opinion). While it's great that physics is part of her character, it was really almost comical to look at which may be what the development teams intended. There was a little bit of interaction with the game's levels as your character breaks the ground beneath them when they go down violently on the ground. It doesn't look like there will be the kind of interaction that other fighting games like Dead or Alive has.
In terms of gameplay, Soul Calibur IV played just like previous games in the series; combo attacks with the character's weapons are fairly easy to execute for the simple combos, and the characters at the moment seemed evenly matched. The developers plan to put in some kind of finishing moves for each character that will make their final combos more complex than previous games, but they were not implemented in our build.
In chatting with Namco Bandai team members at the event we learned a little more about the game's plans. In addition to Vader and Yoda, a new original Soul Calibur IV character was introduced at the game's launch trailer. Helgie (I hope that's the right spelling) is a female character wearing an armored helmet and her own set of weapons. A couple of other new characters will be added to the game as well, but we werenít given details on what they will be like. Of course a host of older characters from the game's history will reappear, and you can expect to be able to play them with their weird and complex back story as they all try to take on the Soul Swords once again in a massive tournament. Soul Calibur III's character creation tool will return for the next game as well and we were told that not only will people be able to make their own fighters, but items like weapons and armor will actually affect the character's stats, giving this an RPG-lite feature.
Besides the intro of Vader and Yoda, the biggest new feature for Soul Calibur IV will be the addition of online multiplayer for the first time in the history of the franchise. The developers aren't talking much about online features at this stage, but they did say that you will be able to take your custom fighters online to fight against others. Besides versus mode we were not told if there will be any other online play modes in the game, and there's no official word if things like leaderboards or other features will be added, although Namco Bandai does plan to organize online tournaments after the game is released. They also have plans to release a demo of the game before its release.
At the moment, Soul Calibur IV has a summer 2008 release date, but based on playing with the build of the game at the CES press event we think that date may be a bit too ambitious and we wouldn't be surprised if the date was pushed back to this fall. While it still looks and plays great, the build we got to check out is still a little rough. However, the promise of the full game will likely make long time fans of the series very happy if they can pull it all together and having Vader and Yoda among the cast will certainly bring in new fans. We will keep an eye out on the development of Soul Calibur IV as it gets closer to release.
Sony Online Entertainment chose CES as a way to have a launch party for Pirates of the Burning Sea, the long awaited MMO from developer Flying Lab Studios (Sony Online is distributing the game via its Platform Publishing label but all of the development and support is handled by Flying Lab). Pirate wench models, flame acrobats, and poker playing were all a part of the press launch and a good time was had by all. The developers told us that the "soft launch" of the game that started on Monday has gone well with no problems; the official launch of the game for non pre-order sales is scheduled for Jan. 22. Already the developers have plans to expand the game with new free content including new raids and others planned for released to subscribers about a month or so after launch. They also told us that their financial situation is sound, so you shouldn't expect launch issues that affected MMO games in 2007 like Vanguard or Fury.
While Sony Online didn't announce any new games during CES, they did hold a press event at the MGM Grand to give updates on previously announced MMO titles via chats with the developers and new video footage. One of those games is Free Realms, which represents Sony Online's first big launch of an online game designed specifically for a younger and family crowd. As we previously reported on, Free Realms will indeed be free to play through advertiser support (for example, a loading screen when the game first starts might show a trailer for an upcoming feature film) but people will be able to pay a subscription fee to turn off the ads and access extra content. There will also be micro-transactions for in-game items as well.
The game's art style is very cartoony which should please the younger set as well as their parents. The game is set in a fantasy world, with people able to play as human males or females as well as male and female elfs. Players will also be able to feature stats of their characters on a separate web site in a MySpace-Facebook kind of set-up to show others about what they are doing in the game. We also got to see (via video footage) some gameplay, such as the title's quest mode (becoming a mail carrier to mail letters to various characters before a timer runs out) and playing quick-mini-games to level up their characters. There will also be combat as well, but Sony Online said that players will initiate combat themselves. Gamers won't have to worry about NPCs or other players attacking them if they so choose.
While itís certainly not a hardcore MMO, Free Realms looks like it will be a step above other games of its type that mostly have poor graphics and limited gameplay options. The company is very optimistic that Free Realms will indeed expand their reach above the hardcore MMO player. Because of its free nature, the game will have a soft launch later this year to get the final kinks out before launching sometime in the second half of 2008.
Sony Online isn't getting out of the hardcore MMO market, however. We got an update on a game that was also introduced last year; The Agency, the PS3-PC Unreal Engine 3 powered spy MMO that is heavy on action and shooting, but will have a lot of the typical deeper MMO gameplay elements as well. Again we spoke to the head developers during the press event from the Sony Online Seattle office and got to see a new gameplay video trailer that we were assured was unedited to make it "look good".
The trailer showed a typical mission where you and two members of your team are assigned to track down an enemy who has some information. We saw the mission begin in the game's version of Prague where we saw the intended target and the team began trailing him.
The first part of the game was all stealth-based as the team followed him and tried to avoid getting spotted by hiding behind cars and other objects in the world. An indicator on the HUD showed us how exposed, or how concealed the characters were as we followed the contact into a building. Once inside, the shooting began as the team started their assault on the enemy stronghold. The game's action is all real time first/third person shooter style; no waiting for a virtual dice roll here. The Agency can simply be played as an online shooter if that is what the player wants. The gameplay trailer showed a massive firefight inside a kind of underground bunker against heavily armed enemies and at one point the team needed to keep the structure intact by shutting down timed bombs that were placed on the side of several pillars. At one point one of the team members was "killed" but we saw his buddy inject him with a syringe (a la Mission Impossible 3) to keep him alive.
Again, the gameplay trailer was heavily focused on action, but we also saw a portion where an agent enters into one of the headquarters of The Agency's two super-spy organizations (the front of the headquarters was a flower shop) where you receive your assignments as well as the electronic gadgets youíll use to accomplish your missions. Again, The Agency is designed to be a quick and easy game to pick up and start shooting, but the developers said that it will allow for agents to level up with more skills, more weapons and gadgets, participating in spy-themed vehicle racing mini-games, and the ability to even form their own mini-agencies. There's still no word if the PS3 and PC versions of the game will support cross-platform play; the developers stated that the approval process for the PS3 is more detailed than the PC and that they need to find a way to streamline the PS3 approval process to be able to get updates to the game faster for both formats.
The game's release date is currently "when its done" and the fact that we were not able to play a build of the game for ourselves shows that The Agency is still in an early stage of development, but if Sony Online Seattle can bring a true shooter based MMO to life (Planetside failed to reach a large audience) there could be an audience for this game.
Overall Sony Online's CES press event was an excellent way to get an update on the company's current features and we await their plans for their next press event sometime later this year, which (fingers crossed) we will finally get some concrete details on their super hero MMO, DC Universe.
But that's not all there is to the game at all. LittleBigPlanet is all about user created levels and we got to see a live sample of the tools in action at the CES booth. You get a blank space to work with at the start where you can put in different backgrounds and then begin building objects. You can bring a simple block into the world which then can be manipulated quickly by expanding, editing and deleting portions and duplicating the item to make a simple object like a stylized tree. While there wasn't enough time to make a full level in our demo, we certainly got a chance to see how LittleBigPlanet's tools will be a huge hit among budding game developers.
We also saw a video that showed how LittleBigPlanet will allow both sharing and ratings of user created content. People can upload their creations in the game where they will be downloaded, ranked and even have comments from other players. Players can even go online and team up to make a level rather than just go solo. We were told that there will be moderation on the service to keep out levels that might have adult or offensive content (the game is aiming for an E or E 10+ rating).. Of course there will be online multiplayer gaming support for up to four players. LittleBigPlanet will still have some kind of beta test before the game's scheduled release sometime this fall (online reports of a hard September date were not confirmed by the Sony producer we spoke with at CES) and we think that this game will be a huge hit for the PS3 if all of the elements come together as promised.
The other major upcoming PS3 game release shown at the Sony CES booth was Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4. It was the first time we had a chance to play the demo of the game that was previously shown at last year's Tokyo Game Show and E For All Expo and we can report that the demo has all of the cool stealth action that the previous games have had. Our control of Solid Snake through a bombed out Middle Eastern atmosphere was pretty heavy on the stealth aspects. Having the character get on his belly and crawl around activates the special suit's texture merging features that allows for near total concealment even if enemy characters are pretty much next to you. You will still likely get spotted by enemy forces (with the familiar exclamation point showing you have been found out), and the vast levels allows for multiple ways to get around; you aren't stuck in just one linear move. Overall playing the demo was a great way to show that Metal Gear Solid 4 will combine the classic stealth action elements, with some impressive PS3 powered graphics. The game is still scheduled for release in the second quarter of 2008.
Last year at CES, Microsoft pushed their Xbox 360 business at their booth with a number of upcoming first and third party game titles. Despite the high sales of Xbox 360 consoles and games in 2007, Microsoft decided to ditch the Xbox 360 games at their CES booth for 2008 to concentrate on the Games For Windows program with a number of upcoming PC games from several publishers. At the booth was a number of games we have previewed extensively before like Age of Conan and Frontlines: Fuel of War but we also saw games that we had not seen before or seen only briefly at E3 2007.
Space Siege from developer Gas Powered Games and publisher Sega was one of the big highlights at the Games For Windows booth. The action-RPG takes part of the developer's Dungeon Siege formula and turns it into a sci-fi saga aboard a space ship that has lots of alien creatures, large and small, that you have to take on. You pick up items in the world that give you more points to upgrade your character's skills and weapons and you have special powers that you can access for extra punch (EMP blasts tor taking our surrounding creatures, etc). Along the way you can receive cybernetic implants that make your appearance less and less human if you choose to go that route.
The game, like Dungeon Siege, is mostly a top down or behind the back affair in terms of camera angles. Movement is actually handled by moving a cursor on-screen and clicking the mouse to move to that destination or to target enemies which may take some getting used to for those folks like myself used to the WASD style of keyboard movement. Overall Space Siege looks like it's coming along well and Sega is targeting a summer 2008 release date for the game.
Another game that's closer to release is Conflict: Denied Ops, the latest game in the Conflict series of first person shooters from developer Pivotal Games and publisher Eidos. Due out for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in mid-February, the PC build we got to check out showed off two of the game's locations, Venezuela and an arctic ice flow in Siberia. The game's plot involved you and your teammate (one is a precision sniper rifle user; the other is a more assault heavy weapons guy) who are on the trail of terrorists who are trying to get access to nuclear weapons. The game looks and plays like a typical modern day shooter with the added feature of having an AI buddy in the single player game that you can switch between. The game does have a few interesting features such as some destructible environments and support for two player online co-op play. However, Call of Duty 4 has raised the bar on these kinds of games and based on what we saw Conflict: Denied Ops will have to show us a lot more in the full version to make us believe that it will be worthy of being up to the spec of Infinity Ward's great game. A demo of the game is planned for release but so far there's no word on its release date.
Yet another game that we saw briefly at E3 2007 was Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, the alternate history shooter from developer Spark Unlimited and publisher Codemasters. We were pretty excited when we saw the game at E3 with its invasion of New York City in the 1950's by the Nazis and we got to see more of that aspect of the game during our CES demo where we battled Germans with grenades and placed machine guns while they attacked our defensive position in waves of infantry, armored personal carriers and high flying Zepellin that had Nazis rappelling from above. The action was extremely fast-paced and while somewhat scripted in terms of AI, it still was very intense. Having the top of the Chrysler building in the background toppled to the street was an interesting visual as well. Turning Point: Fall of Liberty is due for release in early 2008.
While not a part of the official Games For Windows efforts, Dell's booth at CES had a demo of yet another upcoming PC shooter from Spark Unlimited. Legendary: The Box, due out this summer from publisher Gamecock, was being shown in an early PC build running on a Dell machine. This game, which we also first saw at E3 2007, is about a man who happens to open the mythical Pandora's Box which unleashes a ton of legendary monsters and creatures on New York City. The build we got to see had an encounter in a ruined city street by our character and team members against some powerful werewolf-like monsters that can leap, crawl on the sides of buildings and generally make a huge mess of both things and people. As you take out creatures you can steal their life force (a side effect of opening Pandora's box). As with Turning Point, this game was also extremely intense, and even more so when we got to see one of the game's boss characters, a minotaur that charges you and tries to take you out with his horns. The boss level is set in a location with lots of stone pillars and walls but you can't hide behind them; the minotaur will just crash right through them and even throw objects at you to take on more damage. This game looks like it will combine the heavy shooter action with some cool monster-creature battles and we can't wait to try out a full version of the game.
As we mentioned before, there werenít a lot of major announcements for PC hardware or gaming oriented accessories but there certainly was enough to keep interest up for a couple of days at CES. Chief among the reveals is the new curved DLP-based PC monitor from Dell's sister company Alienware. There was a massive crowd around the monitor at the Dell booth where we saw Crysis running on the screen. As we previously reported, the monitor curves slightly inward, giving the user a far more immersive gaming experience. There were some visible vertical lines on the monitor but those should be gone on the final production model. We think this will be a huge selling monitor when it comes out later this year, no matter what the price may be (it has yet to be announced)
Video game controller maker Nyko got away from the busy CES show floor with a hotel suite at the Las Vegas Hilton to show off new and upcoming products. We got to try out a number of them including the new version of the PS3 controller that adds not only support for SIXAXIS but rumble support for PS3 games as well. Nyko's PS3 controller will be released in January in the US, which means that its PS3 controller will actually beat Sony's own DualShock 3 controller to the US market by a couple of weeks (Sony will release it in the US in mid-February; Japan got the controller first last month).
There are a number of PS3 games that already have rumble support, so there won't be a lack of titles to try out. Nyko also showed off the upcoming Wireless Nunchuk for the Nintendo Wii (perfect for gamers that might have some problems with the flapping cord between the Nunchuk and WiiMote), a new Wii one-handed arcade shooter enclosure for the WiiMote that's a ton more fun to use for shooter games than the two handed Wii Zapper, and a Guitar Hero III guitar controller for the Wii that has a slot to put the WiiMote in on the controller's front (currently Activision doesn't sell separate controllers for the Wii version of Guitar Hero III which means the Nyko controller will allow two player action without having to buy a second game). There's also an upcoming PS3 guitar controller that also has a USB dongle that you can use to switch between Rock Band and Guitar Hero III, finally solving the issue that caused some friction between Harmonix and Activision over having Guitar Hero controllers work with Rock Band.
PC physics hardware-software game company AGEIA met with us at CES to give us some more details about their future plans. AGEIA recently lowered the price of PC cards with their physics chip to $99 and also released two new custom levels for Unreal Tournament 3 that used the AGEIA physics chip to great effect. AGEIA plans to release a second map-pack for UT 3 in the near future that will feature an all new level (HeatRay) and a revamped level of an existing UT3 level, ShangriLa, that will add more interactive and destructible environments. There will also be new mutators and weapons for the game that will be released that will also take advantage of the physics chip. AGEIA will likely have some more interesting announcements during GDC in February.
PC gaming accessory maker Razer also made some announcements on new products at CES, including their new Razer Destructor gaming oriented mouse pad. While we find it hard to get excited over a mouse pad, itís hard not to be impressed by the Destructor, which not only is a huge pad but has a specially developed surface that they have created using composite materials and chemical treatments. Razer claims that the pad will offer 37 percent better tracking for laser-based PC mice and 25 percent better tracking for regular optical mice. We got a review unit from Razer and will definately be trying it out when we get home.
CES had a "Gaming" area in one of the Las Vegas Convention Center's many hall but it was pretty pitiful for the most part, with a lot of gaming chairs on display of various sizes, gaming accessories, and software for families and kids and the Entropia Universe folks showing off their long running MMO-virtual world title with paid virtual properties.
However, there were a couple of interesting items. One was a PC mouse from Sandio that had console like analog sticks on the sides and top that allow to control things like CAD programs for rotating objects on screen in a 3D space. It can also be used in games to replace things that keyboards normally do; the developers say that using the analog sticks in games like Hellgate London will replace as many as 16 keyboard comments for things like spells, movement and more. We also tried out the new gaming vest and helmet from TN Games. Priced at $170, you attach the vest and helmet and then you play games normally on the PC where you can feel via air pumps the attacks on creatures via the vest and helmet.
The game comes bundled with Call of Duty 2 but other games like Half-Life 2, Crysis and other games can be supported via a downloadable patch. Our experience was...interesting...but quite frankly the sensations feel like exactly what they are like; being hit by an air hose.
Finally, do you know what a $1,500 PC keyboard looks like? We do after seeing a demo version of the now infamous Optimus Maximus keyboard. The device uses keys that can change to show different languages, pictures and even items like weapon and items logos to play Half-Life 2. Believe it or not, the keyboard's makers have already started selling the long delayed Optimus Maximus to their 400 customers and as we write this have begun shipping the keyboard to those first buyers and more orders are on the way. Personally we like the idea of the keyboard, but asking $1,500 for it is a tad too much (you could buy a decent mainstream PC for that price).
Last year at CES you couldn't walk five feet before walking into a booth model (I'll never forget seeing about 50 or so models dressed as nurses; they were promoting DirectTV) but this year it looks like there wasn't enough interest to hire the typical models that are seen in these kinds of trade shows. Below are the images we took while at CES this year.
So was the Consumer Electronics Show fun? If you are a gamer and expect to see a bunch of cool new titles like at E3 or Penny Arcade Expo, the answer is "No". However if you just like checking out new gadgets and lots of huge screen TVs and the odd celeb (Billy Bob Thornton at the Dell booth, for example) than its definitely worth checking out. Hopefully the gaming publishers will come out in greater number for CES in 2009. In the meantime, weíll be posting video footage from the show shortly, including booth tours of all the motherboard manufacturers, as well as companies like AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA. Stay tuned!
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