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ECTS: What's on the box?

I didn't know what to expect when I finally got to ECTS at Earls Court, London, but getting in after wrestling gorilla-sized security guys for a press pass, the last word I thought I'd end up using to describe it would be 'small'.
Yes, all the big game maker names were there - Ubi soft (I appear to have a sizable collection of business cards from their very slick PR team), Acclaim, Eidos, THQ, Rage, Konami, Codemasters, Infogrammes, Midway and, of course, Microsoft (to name a few). Unfortunately, not many of them had a much on show, but that didn't stop us from getting in there brandishing business cards. In fact, the lady at Eidos informed Fyrespray that it was nice that she had the 'complete collection' from the editorial team, but could we please stop as she was getting a headache - well, we're persistent buggers on your behalf, nosing for the latest on the games we know you'd really want to play. So with an eye on the clock and dictaphone primed, I headed off in search of prime Xbox titles.

Ubi soft were by far the biggest crowd-puller and at times their intersection was crammed with eager press and trade folk trying to get a glimpse of what turned out to be the official 'Overall Best Game of the Show', Splinter Cell.

Splinter Cell is quite simply stealth on a stick.

If you've read my preview you'll understand why it's an impressive game, but sadly it won't be an Xbox exclusive. Ubi soft actually developed it on the PC platform for the Xbox, which according to Adrian Curry from the Xbox Development Team is really the "arse backwards way to do it". Regardless of development techniques it's turned out incredibly well and allowed the publisher to optimise Splinter Cell for a joint release in November (graphically PC gamers will need a Geforce 2 and above to appreciate the finer subtleties of the game).

If that wasn't enough Ubi are dishing out more action with the release of Ghost Recon in November (since it has a major online element this leads me to suspect that a European announcement of Xbox Live is imminent, although Laura Fryer, Director of the Xbox Advanced Technology Group pretty much indicated this at the Game Developers Conference Europe on August 27th). Ubi are also releasing the next instalment of the Rainbow Six franchise, Raven Shield (Xbox and PC) and an FPS game based on the French comic, XIII.

XIII taps into the trend for cell shading in games, but uses it to create the feeling of being in the comic, rather than simply as an aesthetic gimmick. Initially, I felt like I was playing a kiddies version of Counterstrike, designed to introduce younger players and keep them keen until they were old enough to play Soldier of Fortune 2 and watch someone's head being blown open like pumpkin. In fairness though, it does have more depth than that and I was particularly impressed with the cartoon icons that appear to provide in-game options, like a simple 'pick-up' icon that informs you that a body can be shouldered and hidden away somewhere.

XIII does add a few extra elements to the standard FPS genre - You can use NPCs (Non-Player Characters) as body shields, NPCs also have floating '!' or '?' symbols so you can easily see if you've been rumbled. A nice touch is a sound icon that appears in the middle of your screen when you stand still; if a guard is nearby little 'TAP, TAP' messages appear emanating from their direction. In a way, it's a poor man's version of surround sound, but a different slant on the standard radar in the corner of the screen. I can see it fairing well among casual console gamers, but unless cartoonesque utterances like 'Urggh', 'Thwaap' coming from your foe appeal to your sadistic streak there isn't much for a veteran FPSer to get excited over.

Incidentally, if 'killing stuff, cos it's there' is your thing you might want to check out my interview with Acclaim's Ned Browning on Turok: The Evolution.

Rage weren't exactly making much noise this year, although they did have an Alpha of Lamborghini (pretty much the earliest stage of review code for a game you can get to see), which looked decidedly ropey, although visuals at this stage of development are less important than how the cars themselves handle. In my opinion as the least likely candidate to ever own such a luscious piece of motoring extravagance they seemed to handle very nicely.

I was hoping to get some juicy info on a number of forthcoming titles from the likes of Eidos (all the 'twos' - Commandos 2, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Timesplitters 2), Konami (more 'twos' - Silent Hill 2: inner Fears and Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance), THQ with Yager and must stunningly Infogrammes with at least six titles coming out soon (Battle Engine Aquila, Terminator: Dawn of Fate, Unreal Championships, Superman: Man of Steel, Transword Snowboarding Driver 3, Splashdown and Zapper). Unfortunately though, it was really a case of 'and all I got was this lousy business card', but rest assured I will bug them on your behalf.

Ed Scio (in black) picked up the PC Game of the Show award for Breed on behalf of the Brat Designs team.I suppose it wasn't a surprise to see so few of the many upcoming Xbox titles being touted, as the PS2 had such a strong presence. Microsoft were there purely in a developer contact role and they've never been into playing second fiddle to any other company, their own X02 event in Seville will be where most of the big noise will be made later in September.

It was cool though to see the platform winning awards, but in particular, it was great to see Brat Designs snatch the best PC game of the show for Breed, since the team have their eyes firmly latched on an Xbox release date. The guys were heading off back to Middlesborough when I got this photo.

PS2 Experience: Tough act to follow

Look Mum, I'm on TV... I suppose I can't leave out the PS2 Experience, which it has to be said was great fun and very slickly branded. It also showcased the Eye Toy, an attachment for the PS2 that's been touted to allow you to 'interact more fully' with games. The pictures show someone beating out a tune on drums drawn on the screen by waving his arms around and a mother and daughter combo cleaning dirt off virtual windows - exciting stuff. Since it seems to currently work on movement, waving your hands around in most of the basic games appears to be a winner. Hopefully it should get to be a more satisfying experience when the device can do things like accurately assess speed and calculate the amount of force on impact. Personally, I felt that it'd be cheaper to wave your hands around in the air for half an hour instead and get a passerby to shout 'Hi Score', but I might just be biased towards my black brick of an Xbox.

Good vibes, good games... When I'm cleanin' windows

Overall though, if the Xbox wants to compete for the console crown in the future it will have to surpass such excellent consumer events. It's was great to see whole families having a great time, playing videogames, listening to some very cool (phat?) DJs and generally soaking up a friendly, relaxed vibe (while being pumped full of wholesome subliminal marketing messages, of course).

Chris Thornett