Mountain climbers have Mt. Everest. Fans of America's pastime can journey to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. For the hard-core video-gamer, there is only one holy place: E3.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3), the world's biggest "interactive entertainment trade show," took over the Los Angeles Convention Center last week, with 70,000 industry professionals, 5,000 products on display and more than 400 exhibitors at what sounded like 400 decibels.
With an environment that seemed more like a futuristic carnival than a trade show, no one stumbling into the facility would have mistaken the gathering for a dental convention. (Indeed, the fire-baton twirling was just one of many stunts that distinguished E3 from other trade shows.)
Imagine a set of giant video screens showcasing new commando adventures with the audio turned all the way up to 11; then imagine almost every exhibitor using similar tactics, and you've got a sense of what it was like. Many of the displays included elaborate ways to preview games. One title, the hotly anticipated "Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess," granted attendees a preview in a little room on the side of the Nintendo booth that was more of a haunted house ride than anything else. A path through a dimly lighted faux forest and across a virtual projected stream led to a creepy dungeon, complete with a skeleton-like character reaching at gamers. There was a long line to enter the forest, with a two-hour wait.
And although this year's conference seemed a little flat (we'll have to wait until next year to get our hands on the next generation of game consoles, which were announced at press conferences before the convention), there still was plenty of the usual mayhem to go around.
Console wars When the Microsoft Xbox was released in late 2001, the standing of Sony PlayStation 2 took a small hit. After all, the games on the Xbox looked better, and Xbox Live feature would make playing games against others on the Internet an easy reality.
Both companies unveiled the "next generation" of consoles at E3, and it was Microsoft's turn to take a hit (or was it more like a giant beating?)
The PlayStation 3 showed gamers what the next generation of games will look like. Period. With breathtaking graphics that border on photo-realism (such as the off-road racer "Motor Storm" and the futuristic fighter "KillZone") as well as the ability to play almost anything that can be made into a disc (CD, MP3, DVD, Blu-ray, you name it), the PS3 announced its presence like the 800-pound gorilla it is. Its features are big, beautiful and destined to be a huge smash, assuming it doesn't cost too much (more than, say, $500) when it's released in spring 2006.
When we got a chance to view the Xbox 360, that old Peggy Lee song came to mind: "Is that all there is?"
Most of the Xbox games that were demonstrated looked like things you can play now. Only one, the auto racer "Project Gotham Racing 3," felt like a must have. Everything else, including "Dead or Alive 4," didn't feel advanced enough in comparison with the PS3 offerings.
Sure, the 360 is expanding on the already great Xbox Live service, offering many ways for gamers to connect to the online community, but that wasn't nearly enough to capture most people's attention. One of the features that the Xbox folks touted was the customizable faceplate you can stick on the outside of the unit to make it match your living room or personality. But it seemed to impress no one.
Nintendo released very little information about its next-generation console, the Revolution. The best thing mentioned was the ultimate backward compatibility: a way to download and play every Nintendo game of the past (yes, even Super Mario 64).
Game time In addition to the console demonstrations, this year's E3 featured teasers of some terrific games on the horizon. Some highlights:
"Black," for PS2 , from game giant Electronic Arts, is a first person shooter that's like an action flick come to life, with lots of shooting and fiery explosions.
"Killer 7" (for PS2 and Game Cube) offers a fresh (but strange) visual style that looks like a comic book with really harsh shadows.
"Death Jr." is a quirky little adventure for the PSP starring the son of the grim reaper.
"Dragon Quest VIII" (PS2) is the stateside version of the Japanese phenomenon that looks like a happy waste of time.
And, finally, soccer and baseball get the Mario treatment for your GameCube: "Super Mario Strikers" is a fast-moving and extremely enjoyable marriage of the cute little Super Mario characters and soccer. "Mario Baseball" does the same, with a Mario twist. (As the outfielder was chasing down a fly ball, a giant barrel rolled out onto the field, knocking him down. Good times.)
Some of the games that were previewed didn't look so promising. Because of the success of last year's L.A. gang simulator, "Grand Theft Auto San Andreas," (PS2) now it seems that everyone has to have a game about thugs in the 'hood. Sadly, most of the titles were about as original as "American Idol."
One game, "50 Cent Bulletproof" (PS2 and Xbox) is downright offensive. Billed as what would have happened had Mr. Cent not become the rap superstar he is today, 50 and his crew run amok in the streets, grabbing anyone nearby, shooting them in the back of the head and then stealing their wallets. "Redeeming value" seems AWOL.
Others, such as something called "Saint's Row" (Xbox 360) looked nice, but failed to come up with any new bells and whistles.
What good would a company be if it didn't have a World War 2 simulator to release sometime soon? It seemed as if every booth had some kind of game based on our grandfather's finest hour. Some, such as "Call of Duty 2," were beautiful; others, such as "The Outfit" (both Xbox 360) took themselves a lot less seriously, luckily.
We kept hoping for more glimpses of originality, but they were few and far between.
Party time One of the best things about E3 is the array of giant parties that the big companies throw to promote themselves. If you were in the right circles and knew the right people, there was at least one event to attend every night of the week, sometimes up to five events happening simultaneously.
Microsoft's gathering featured music by the Killers and, among other food choices, tasty tacos. Nintendo's party offered hands-on game preview time with no lines (as well as Wolfgang Puck catering and a Maroon 5 show), and Midway threw a bash where rapper Twista performed.
But leave it to Sony to up the ante with two separate parties: Tuesday's star-studded PSP Factory affair at a film studio in Hollywood, and the legendary end of E3 PlayStation party in the hills above Dodger Stadium Thursday night.
Then on Thursday, a crowd of about 5,000 gathered in an elaborate tent city on top of a hill in Chavez Ravine, behind the "THINK BLUE" sign, to watch Carmen Electra's Pussycat Dolls burlesque show, musical acts (including Jimmy Eat World and Tone Loc) and Lucha Va Voom (a combination Mexican wrestling-burlesque-comedy show that was the highlight of the night). There was almost too much to take in — but no Dodger dogs. I guess Pleasure Island can only be so wonderful.