Microsoft Kicks Off E3 With Big 360 Plans

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Those hoping to learn about a new console may have been disappointed as Microsoft kicked off the first major press conference at the E3 Entertainment Expo this year. Scheduling their briefing a day before the actual show, the focus seemed to be on making the most out of existing Xbox consoles, with new games being just a part of that strategy. The 360’s capabilities will also be expanded to include tight integration with the Internet. Microsoft wants gamers to do more with their console than just play games.

The biggest push in this direction will be from SmartGlass, a software application that will tie the Xbox 360 to Windows phones and Windows 8-based tablets, as well as to Android tablets and iOS devices. Several examples of SmartGlass were shown, including gamers designing plays on their tablets while playing Madden with friends, and browsing Websites about popular movies while watching them on the 360 at the same time. The SmartGlass application can also be used to control the television, and with Kinect, allow for voice recognition Web searches using the Bing Search Engine.

Another nod toward bringing the PC and Console worlds closer together came with the surprise announcement that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is being added to 360 consoles, effectively making the 360 like a desktop computer. According to Microsoft, using the SmartGlass application along with Explorer is like having ‘the world’s most powerful remote control.’ The target date for all those efforts is this fall.

More content is also coming to the 360, including 24-hour live sports programming through the WatchESPN application. Shows like SportsCenter will be streamed live to 360s in full HD. And for the first time, NBA action will be available on the console for those who love basketball action.

In that same sports vein, Kinect gamers will be getting a workout with Nike Plus Fuel, a way for athletes to compete against one another. Along the lines of integration, you can set up your 360 to call your phone when you’re past due for a Kinect workout, so you won’t have any excuses not to use your 360 to get into shape.

Microsoft is also moving its failed Zune Music service over to the Xbox 360, and calling it Xbox Music. Microsoft says it will give gamers access to 30 million music tracks and work on the 360 and Windows 8 tablets. Movies too, will be part of the service. A number of new video content providers will be part of the launch of the new service.

Although a surprising amount of time was devoted to non-gaming applications, games were of course also talked about, and shown on the big screen, as well. Halo 4 took center stage and led off the briefing, where it looks like gamers will face a new synthetic enemy that just downed Earth’s latest space exploration vessel. It almost seemed to blend a bit of survival horror into the Halo action.

The re-boot of the Tomb Raider franchise also got a lot of time, with a younger, scrappier Lara killing swarms of bad guys, parachuting over a cliff out of an already crashed bomber, and generally getting the crap kicked out of her, yet still surviving.

Some exclusive titles were shown, including Signal Studios’ Ascend: New Gods, that looks a bit like an action RPG version of Skyrim, or perhaps Microsoft’s answer to God of War. The demo showed a warrior climbing onto the back of a giant and then proceeding to shoot and kill other giants.

Some more lighthearted titles included a South Park RPG which the developers at Obsidian said was difficult to make because they wanted to show off the capabilities of the console, but also give the game the same ‘crappy’ look and feel as the TV show. Called The Stick of Truth, it won’t be out until March of next year.

Usher showed up to promote Dance Central 3, which looks really good, and we got to see a demo of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, with terrorists causing all sorts of chaos in LA. Thankfully, the Microsoft conference didn’t cause that level of mayhem, but it looks like 360 gamers are in for a good year, especially if they want to transform their consoles into something more than just a way to play games.

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