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The fact that this year's E3 video game conference was supposed to be a lower-budget affair than years past was a point seemingly lost on Microsoft, which rented out an entire (big, nice, fancy, expensive) hotel in Santa Monica to show off its wares. While the entire lineup consisted of more than a dozen titles spanning both Xbox 360 and PC, three in particular caught our eye: 'Fable 2,' 'Mass Effect' and 'Halo 3.'

'Fable 2'
The earliest along of the lot was 'Fable 2,' from gaming legend Peter Molyneux and his team at Lionhead Studios. Though the game isn't due out until 2008, Molyneux showed off some of the game's more progressive ideas. The first has to do with combat, which is tied to the X button; it's an attempt to reach both hardcore and casual players simultaneously, moving against the grain of ever-more-complex control methods that have alienated many a former gamer over the years. Essentially, if determined enough, you'll be able to win any fight simply by mashing on the button -- you just won't get as much experience as you will if you use more refined skills (like hitting the X button to the rhythm of the in-game music). It's an interesting idea, certainly, and we're interested to see how well they can pull it off.

The other major point Molyneux illustrated was the game's approach to death. Where most games have traditionally forced the user to replay the same sequences over and over again until they successfully complete it without dying, 'Fable 2' takes a different tact. The player has a choice: once his hit points run out, he can either pay a fee (using gold or experience points) to get up and keep going, or you'll be able to wait 15 seconds and you'll get up anyway -– the consequence being that you're permanently scarred from the fight.

Other characters in the game will then react differently to you, based on how severe this scarring is. Your children might run away screaming when you arrive home with a nasty gash across your face, or that your wife may gape at your ugliness. How's that for realism?

'Halo 3'
The third and (supposedly) final chapter in the Halo saga is almost finished, set to hit the streets this September. The single player campaign, shown for the first time to the press, looked exactly as we expected it to look -- which not a bad thing, per se. The combat looks just as dynamic as in other Halo games, with heavily contested, intense battles remaining the order of the day. There's a ton of (rather intelligent) battlefield chatter going on at all times, which adds quite a bit of atmosphere to the action. Graphics were impressive, if not mind-blowing; this is a high-resolution version of a game we're all exceedingly familiar with, and it looks like the next logical visual step for the series (that said, some of the graphical techniques used in the environments do look amazing).

Most importantly, the game looks like it will be fun. The last thing Bungie showed off was one cooler multiplayer features in 'Halo 3' -- namely, the ability to record and play back movies taken during both multiplayer and the single-player campaign. Essentially, the game records as you play; when it plays it back, all of the events which took place are reenacted in real time, and the player is given the ability to move the camera anywhere he or she wants, as well as to pause, slow, and re-edit the action. There are some amazing possibilities here for user-created movies, and the fact that you can easily upload them and download the work of others means one more reason to never stop playing Halo.

'Mass Effect'

One of the more notable showings at all of this year's E3, Bioware's 'Mass Effect' looks to elevate the company's tried-and-true formula to new heights. The sheer depth of the world is perhaps the most compelling thing: it feels like it has history and context, which is more than we can say for most games.

In the first part of the demonstration, we saw was a conversation between the game's protagonist, Shepherd, and a bounty hunter named Wrex who you can recruit to join your party. While the characters do have their moments of eerie, off-putting unrealism, the general quality of the motion-capture and voice acting was very impressive: for one of the first times in a videogame, Mass Effect comes close to creating convincing, emotional CG characters (at least if you squint your eyes a little bit).

Which would be somewhat irrelevant if not for what appears to be an incredibly deep, layered narrative, with enough history and context to make the 40-ish hour adventure one worth embarking upon. Without spoiling anything, expect lots of interstellar politics mixed with interpersonal drama – a bit reminiscent of the goings-on in 'Battlestar Galactica'.

Even combat looked incredibly fun and deep for what is ostensibly a role-playing game (RPG), and the game's vehicular combat needs to be seen to be believed. Can you say jump jets?

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Tags: E3, Fable 2, Fable2, Halo, Halo 3, Halo3, Mass Effect, MassEffect, Microsoft Gaming Studios, MicrosoftGamingStudios, Peter Molyneux, PeterMolyneux, Xbox 360, Xbox360



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