E3 Returns With New Maturity, Same Old Excitement

E3′s return to the Los Angeles Convention Center this year is also a return to the show’s roots. Once known for its big splashy displays, scantily clad booth babes and eardrum-challenging audio output, the show returns from a two-year experiment as a scaled-back media and trade event a little more mature and a little mellow.

The big booths are still here, as is a healthy crowd of industryites and gawkers well-connected enough to score a pass to the nominally trade-only event. But there was more room to breathe in the show, with booths no longer pushing the limits of sensory overload and a crowd level that was still busy but not crammed and uncomfortable.

There was a noticeable change in the games themselves, away from a relentless pursuit of the serious and often violent brand of adventure preferred by die-hard gamers to a brighter, gentler world influenced greatly by the success of casual games.

Sure, there was still plenty of action for the die-hard gamers. Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example, brought the Dark Knight to vivid and believable high-def life. But while the game called for combat skills, it also had a detective mode that harkened back to the character’s roots in the comic books of the 1930s.

Animated characters from all over the world were prominent players in many of the games on display.

At the Tomy booth, anime action hero Naruto was a star player, appearing in several games. Naruto Shippuden: Clash of Ninja Revolution 3 for the Wii is an old-fashioned fighting game featuring more than 30 playable characters and a cooperative two-man squad, tagteam mode. Due out in October, the game also incorporates Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to allow players to battle online.

A 3-D version of the popular character comes to the Nintendo DS this fall in Naruto Shippuden Ninja Destiny 2, again offering more than 30 playable characters who can play in story mode or quest mode, either single player or against a foe wirelessly.

The Nintendo booth itself was full of fans taking in the new Super Mario Bros. Wii, which retains the classic look and gameplay, while also trying out the Wii Motion Plus controller and new versions of Wii Fit and Wii Sports.

The nearby Activision booth was rocking, putting the spotlight on FreeStyle Games’ DJ Hero, which comes complete with turntable controller for mixing and scratching the hottest tracks. The infectious tunes crossed over into promos for Guitar Hero: Van Halen and another fascinating superhero entry in Marvel Alliance 2, which goes deep into the Marvel Universe and brings the likes of Cable, Firestar and Cloak & Dagger into the battle.

War games remain big, with realism the operative word. Exemplifying that trend was 505 Games’ IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, a new version of the popular World War II aerial combat PC game. The game allows players to fly some 50 missions in six of the biggest battles in the war, including Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, Berlin, Sicily and the Battle of the Bulge. The game lets players fly in three modes: arcade, the most game like mode; simulation, which is as close to really flying as you can get; and realistic, which combines the two. The amazing detail extends to the terrain below, which for each battle was constructed from modern satellite imagery altered to look like it did during the war. The game, which comes to the PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS and PSP, will feature yet-to-be-determined multiplayer capabilities and downloadable content.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey

Getting back to the music front was the MTV Games booth dedicated solely to the upcoming Rock Band: The Beatles game. The booth featured three versions of the game set up for folks to try, with ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’ proving to be early favorite tracks.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the old E3 is there’s still too much to take in. Even a full day at the show wasn’t enough to get more than a tantalizing glimpse of such cool fare as Ubisoft’s Red Steel 2, which lets players use the Wii Motion Plus controller to unleash some amazing sword and gun play, and family fare such as Disney’s lineup of games based on such classic and upcoming films as Toy Story, G-Force and The Princess and the Frog.

Given the excitement that fanned through the expansive Los Angeles Convention Center, it seems certain that the return of E3 was an energizing experience for the gaming industry, giving it a high-profile and buzz factor that can only grow interest in gaming all year long.