03 Jun

My seat on the bus found me in the middle of two groups of fellow media badge holders, two men discussing the merits of the Microsoft briefing from the day before and a nervous looking chap eager for news of any kind. Having just returned from the conference that none of these gents wished to attend due to last year’s dreadful presentation, I had the honor of filling them in with the details, sharing my delight in a new Metroid and Mario and Luigi (RPG) as the bus bumped along the horrid roads of downtown LA.

Around 15 minutes of stuttering travel later we arrived at the Shrine Auditorium, an army of people already waiting in disjointed lines for their entry wristbands. It’s here that I caught my first of many glimpses of gaming celebrities, in this case a happy N’Gai Croal, formerly of Newsweek, waiting in line. Definitely an up-swing of mood, seeing the respected members of the press slumming it with those lucky enough to have blown a lonely Gamestop employee once.

Waiting in these stuffy, slow moving lines netted me a couple more menial conversations, but before I could reach the “GHI” table with the list I knew I wasn’t on, a Sony representative rushed out and called the masses in regardless of wristband-status, as they were starting too soon for everyone in line to mull through the required procedure. I followed the huddled masses cow-to-the-slaughter style into the Shrine Auditorium, an impressive looking building of formidable age and design. Looking disgruntled at various booths and demo kiosks I could have experienced if Sony had had their business together, I found an uncomfortable and odd-angled seat in the back of the immense audience hall. The show got me in a frenzy immediately, not for an immediate quality or surprise, but because they used a remix of the Queen song, “One Vision” for their opening press reel. And I’m a sucker for the Freddie Mercury-Brian May combo that song uses so well.

Within less than a minute the conference begun, with a shame-faced Jack Tretton sliding on stage and making self-deprecating jokes about Sony “always being the first in the industry…especially in terms of leaks…” The light-hearted take on the show’s worst kept secret set a nice casual mood that allowed for the developers to hold the audience in the palm of their hand. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the audience track of the Uncharted 2: Among Thieves demonstration, where a mere 3 minutes of rooftop scrambling, gun-toting, and building-demolition grabbed more applause and emotional reaction than the entirety of all other press conferences put together. Not to say it was as worthy of it, it just managed to get it.

Following Naughty Dog’s sharp and succinct presentation was the usual sales-numbers fluff required of the PR big-wigs, with a couple of sizzle reels and trailer montages thrown in for good measure. The difference between these unnecessary clips and Nintendo’s unnecessary clips were that, aside from the comparatively low amount of developer chatter from Sony, these were actually fun to watch. It’s hard to impress an audience of actual gamers when showing scenes of stunted happiness from a demographic they’re often at odds with.

Yet again we had an interactive, humorous audience for this conference, this time in much larger numbers. Their stick was riotous applause to games normally associated with rush production and crap quality. Example, they would scream and shout in glee with the showing of the Hannah Montana PSP Bundle. Again, it was hilarious.

A couple more in-depth presentations were to be had in the possibly-too-long conference, an impressive live-demonstration of MAG’s full 256 player capabilities and Assassin’s Creed 2’s dual hidden-dagger stealth kill move being the high points. Well aware of the embarrassment, Kaz Hirai was trotted out on stage with the already-leaked information of the PSP Go release, again making fun of their inability to hold onto secret intel. It was funny the first time, at that point it was just sad.

But any reservations of the new handheld iteration were quickly put to rest with the back-to-back drag out of Polyphony Digital and Kojima Production development heads, showing off Gran Turismo PSP gameplay and a Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker trailer, respectively. Hideo Kojima, for a man constantly mentioning his desire to distance himself from his stealth-action franchise, is still remaining on board to develop both Peace Walker and the previously announced 360-exclusive Rising. Many in the audience are wondering at this point whether or not Konami is just holding the man against his will at this point.

A bit more self-congratulatory number preaching about Playstation Network later, we have a new spiel and video about Home, which approximately 11 people in the audience cared about. Jack Tretton returned to the stage to buffer the lameness with scant details about the Rockstar exclusive espionage game Agent and to present a new trailer for Final Fantasy XIII. What followed had many in attendance scratching their heads for several minutes afterward.

Tretton continued his Final Fantasy trend with the discussion of a new title from the stalwart franchise to be coming exclusively to the Playstation 3, Final Fantasy XIV. The announcement of the title didn’t get any applause or gasps of surprise, but laughter. “Surely” we all thought, “Tretton knows that it’s called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, right?” But the lights dimmed, and the screen went black, and we stared in amazement as a full CG-trailer was dispensed for, indeed, Final Fantasy XIV. What would become the biggest surprise of the Sony conference got tumultuous applause, most of which noticeably went down a couple octaves in intensity with the flash of the word “online” to the game’s title at the very end of the trailer.

Three moments of varying epic-ness rounded out the Playstation briefing, all of various heights of expectance. The first was a live demonstration of Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s answer to Nintendo’s answer to earlier-generation Nintendo’s attempts at motion control. While looking like an anal bead out of the Harry Potter universe, the Sony “wand” proved incredibly precise and intricate in its abilities, and while no games existed to show off its tech, the audience loved the bare bones 3-D environments the staff representatives played around in, shooting arrows at approaching goblins and firing mini-rockets out of mini-tanks.

Sony trotted out some more new faces to demo another game in a lineup never imagined to be a lineup, the “Play Create Share” franchise. What made sense only as a box cover tagline for LittleBigPlanet quickly became an appropriate series montra as Mod Nation Racers was brought out by some of the development staff. Within 5 minutes, the two guys created a fully functional race track for the upload-and-share feature of this online racing game, complete with customizable and cute avatars and their rides. It was an intriguing prospect, to say the least. One that could give credence to the idea of Sony surviving this generation…almost.

Appropriately bringing the conference to the bloody and gory climax we all knew was coming, God of War 3 was given a live demo, completely with Kratos spilling entrails out of Centaur stomachs and ripping of tail-limb-and-head off of a vicious chimera. The demo was unfortunately cut short due to time, but had long since proven that the sequel will live up to the massive standards of its predecessors. The conference ended on a soft down-note, with God of War 3’s release date being well into 2010, leaving only Uncharted 2 to hold the Sony front for mainstream holiday releases.

I had gotten a lead out of the building by skipping Tretton’s closing monologue, and wound up in the now fiercely bright sun out on the Auditorium’s patio. There lay several table-length spreads of decent looking food for public consumption. What was intended as a sample turned into a lengthy luncheon, where I was lucky enough to sit next to two staffers from Sony Computer Entertainment, one of which headed the division responsible for “zipper tech,” the mechanic which allowed Kratos to spill Centaur-inners so beautifully an hour previous.

As I dined on a delectable mini-roast beef sandwich, kettle chips, and wild-berry fruit drink, I managed to rationalize this delay in work with the networking and ass-kissing I did to anyone that came near the table and looked important enough. Unfortunately the dozens of pictures I took of this party would become lost due to ludicrous battles with my borrowed camera. I would hitch the last available shuttle to the convention center, where I would spend the next couple of hours snapping shots of both main halls of the convention center before the pain in my legs from the bruises, blisters, cuts, and chaffing caused me to take inventory and leave the interviews and further hob-nobbing to the last two days.

I fetched another absurdly pricey cab ride back to my hotel, where the lack of sleep caught up to me and knocked me out for a couple hours, before waking up, taking care of some business, and falling back asleep. Despite more logistical bullshit keeping my spirits down, it’s hard to look back in retrospect and relive how much fun it all was. When I can afford hotel-and-cab fare, this is definitely a life-style I could get used to.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gavin Greene.