Gamer road trip: E3 report!

If last week’s E3 press conferences in Los Angeles are any indication, game consoles are no longer just about games. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, the year’s biggest video game industry event, lavishly presented gamers with a sneak peek at the most-anticipated titles and hardware goodies looking to lighten wallets later this year. But as more blockbuster game franchises are released simultaneously on the Wii, PlayStation, and Xbox, it’s become imperative for their parent companies to differentiate themselves — and traditional gaming has begun to take a back seat to this broad experimentation.

Along those lines, Microsoft attempted to guide itself out of the corner it had painted itself into following the huge sales of Kinect, the camera device that quickly became the fastest-selling consumer electronic of all time. Microsoft has been lacking significant game releases for Kinect owners, making this year’s release slate integral to satisfying the new and unexpectedly large consumer base. An upcoming Xbox interface allowing users to control other entertainment like Netflix and live TV by voice seemed to be a hit, as was the announcement of Kinect controls for traditional games like Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Microsoft undoubtedly launched Kinect to compete with the draw of Nintendo’s family-friendly Wii, and the device’s appeal to the more serious gamer is a delicate maneuver that these franchises could help accomplish.

In the PlayStation camp, Sony made a speedy apology for the PlayStation Network outage that has battered its reputation for the past two months and piggybacked its return with announcements for bundles, deals, and partnerships offering consumers considerable content for their respective price points. Presenting these products as “gifts” to consumers was an interesting approach to mitigating ire over the network snafu. All business, Sony’s presentation was the least titillating but perhaps most solid of the conferences.

No more beating around the bush: the biggest question going into E3 2011 was “What is Nintendo’s new console?” Leaked information that pointed to a new, more powerful console was confirmed when Nintendo announced the Wii U, a console with a touchscreen controller capable of streaming games to your hands — with or without a television screen. Actual game announcements were left to the newly-launched 3DS and surprises were scarce: tried-and-true franchises Mario Kart, Starfox, and The Legend of Zelda. While the possibilities for Wii U initially seem vast, the console’s true nature — and that of its “revolutionary” controller — remains nebulous. There’s the potential for an HD system to recapture Nintendo’s diminishing hardcore audience, but right now the Wii U looks like another stab at cornering families and casual players.

Third-party publishers care less about console revolutions and more about good ol’ fashioned video games. Electronic Arts stuck to its guns, offering concrete gameplay footage and loud (loud!) speakers that shook the Orpheum Theatre with Battlefield 3 explosions. The Battlefield franchise is looking to take Call of Duty head-on this year, and time will tell if players favor authenticity over that series’ scripted bombast. Either way, Battlefield 3 is one pretty game. EA also made a strong go at providing social networking experiences that augment traditional play, and offered them all for free — perhaps a dig at Activision’s recent announcement it will offer paid subscriptions to a similar Call of Duty social experience.

Inside the Los Angeles Convention Center, many newly-announced games were playable or shown in demo form. Highlights: Uncharted 3‘s two gameplay demos both boasted a top-tier knack for exciting set-pieces and storytelling, and it is the first game to truly suggest the power 3-D can add to the gameplay experience. BioShock Infinite was unmatched in attention to detail with its departure to a city-in-the-clouds backdrop. And Mass Effect 3 finally gave gamers a glimpse of Earth’s destruction in a short demo that demonstrated massive carnage and a surprisingly-affecting level finale. There were tears in a few eyes, folks.

E3 2011 was less about this or that game, and more about the process of evolving your traditional game console into an entertainment center where you surf the Web, watch movies, and even take the experience on the go. Nintendo was eager to suggest the new home applications its controller might afford, and Microsoft and Sony focused on expanding new possibilities for their current hardware through Kinect and Sony’s motion device, PlayStation Move. As more and more of the public identify as gamers, this is the playing field expanding to allow for different types of game experiences. Even so, games like Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3, and Mass Effect 3 suggest traditional gaming is more than up to the competition a broader user base might bring.