But despite showing off flashy demos of big-name upcoming releases like Halo 4, Madden, and Call of Duty, the best of the buzz went to a brand-new system that promises — yet again — to change the way you interact with your TV.
Meet "Xbox SmartGlass," a new system that promises to integrate your big-screen TV with your console, your tablet, your cellphone, and your PC to provide a seamless way to watch movies, play games, and access related, customized content without interruption.
According to today's demo, a system that'll let you watch a show on a mobile device, pause it, and resume it on your TV right where you left off. Mid-show, you'll be able to look up details on cast, setting, and characters on their tablets. How often have you wanted to pull up a map of Westeros while watching Game of Thrones? Or find out exactly why that actress looks so familiar? The answers could be sitting right in your lap, thanks to what Microsoft's Marc Whitten described as "the world's best remote control."
SmartGlass devices will also function as controllers for games, web browsers, and other Xbox 360 apps, with functions like multiplayer matchmaking in Halo, sketching out Madden plays, and accessing background information on game fiction without interrupting your big-screen experience.
None of that would be much good without a strong slate of content providers, but here too Microsoft delivered. New partners including Nickelodeon, Paramount Movies, and Univison will broaden the Xbox 360's range of video-on-demand offerings, and a greatly expanded app from ESPN promises a social, connected sports experience that'll apparently be live in time for this year's hockey season. Music fans weren't left out either, with Microsoft planning an "Xbox Music" service that'll stream over 30 million music tracks to consoles and other devices.
On the games front, top billing went to the latest in the Halo series, which made a blockbuster appearance with a brand-new trailer and gameplay demonstration. It'll mark the first time a major Halo game has come from a developer other than series creator Bungie Studios, instead hailing from Microsoft subsidiary 343 Industries. And though the name on the box might be different, the action looks like authentic Halo: huge spaceships, high-tech morphing weaponry, and plenty of bug-eyed bad guys to blast.
Microsoft also showed off a more mature selection of games aimed at the company's Kinect voice- and motion-sensing system. This year's incarnations of EA Sports' massive hits Madden and FIFA will both integrate the top-selling tech, using it to let you shout commands at computer-controlled teammates, call Madden plays, and even vent your opinions on the standard of the game's refereeing. Hall-of-famer Joe Montana demoed the Madden enhancements; fans will get to try out what we're told is "the most impressive version of Madden NFL ever" when it launches this August.
While Microsoft's focus was on the console's mass-market appeal and broader entertainment plans, hardcore gamers weren't left completely out in the cold. Showing off a short teaser for Gears of War: Judgement , a 2013 release, showing off its trademark big guns, big baddies, and big square jaws.
But while Gears is staying close to its gritty, action-packed roots, another key Microsoft franchise is branching out: the next in the Forza series of motorsport games, Forza Horizon, looks to be bringing a more arcadey, thrill-heavy approach, a departure from the glossy realism of past games. Conference-goers also saw a new South Park game, presented by series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, content from new entries in the Resident Evil, Splinter Cell, and Fable series, and a lengthy presentation from likely fall best-seller Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Plenty of reasons to stay on the couch, then — but Microsoft, together with legendary sportswear maker Nike, also unveiled plans to get you up and moving. Kinect Training, a brand-new exercise game dubbed "the future of fitness," will put the Kinect's motion sensor to work rating your workout proficiency, using technology developed by Nike to train professional athletes. It'll even nag you (via your cellphone) if you're late for a workout. That'll be nice, then.
Only one thing was absent from Microsoft's presentation. Well into an unprecedented seventh year of availability, the Xbox 360 is the oldest console in the market. What will its replacement — already rumored to be in development -- look like? Some conference-goers had hoped for a sneak peek at the market-leader's next-gen plans, but they're going to have to wait. Microsoft — for today, at least -- ain't talking.
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