Xbox highlights at E3 - Cowboys, Jedi knights and horse sweat: what’s not to like?

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David Phelan reports on highlights for the Xbox from LA’s E3 conference.

The orcs, babes and jawas are milling around Los Angeles again. It can only mean that the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, is in town. The annual videogames conference is jammed with eager gamers queuing to play previews of new titles while provocatively dressed actors seek to grab your attention.

Meanwhile, games makers had plenty to announce, with some of the most innovative titles coming from Microsoft. The most recent update to its Xbox 360 is the Kinect which launched last November: a depth-sensing 3D camera and microphone which tracks movement as you stand in front of it. Instead of mashing buttons on a controller, you wave, jump, run and nod at the screen and the game responds to your every move. It’s an amazingly intuitive system that makes gaming immersive and involving.

This year, Kinect games are everywhere. Standouts include “Kinect Star Wars”, where you can fulfil your dream to be a Jedi Knight and swing a light sabre, complete with the buzzing swoosh familiar from the films. Channeling the force to lift objects, deflect bullets and more is hugely enjoyable – expect it to be a big hit later this year.

Elsewhere, Kinect titles showed great imagination, with “Gunstringer”, a cartoony western-set title with unusual interface – you act as the puppeteer working a cowboy puppet. It comes from Twisted Pixel Games, whose “ ‘Splosion Man” remains one of the most fun Xbox games of recent years.

The super-realistic driving game, “Forza Motorsport” has reached its fourth episode and looks finer than ever. It has an improved lighting system which makes it more naturalistic and convincing. And you can use a controller or the Kinect mechanism to steer with your hands held on an imaginary steering wheel.

Perhaps the best Kinect implementation – and one of the real standout games of the show – is “Fable The Journey” from Brit super-creator Peter Molyneux. For much of the game you interact with a horse pulling your cart, using your hands on imaginary reins to guide him, swishing a virtual crop to speed him on. Because the Kinect has a microphone, you can speak to the game: clicking your tongue encourages him, “Whoa” slows him down. Molyneux told us that he was devising the game so the horse would only respond to one person’s voice.

He also said that a crucial element was that the sorcery part of the game should be “magic your way”. So you can cast spells against enemies with a carefully placed flick of the wrist as you recline on the sofa, but if you really want to get into the game, jumping to your feet to engage in magical combat gives you a gentle increase in effectiveness.

Molyneux is known for free-ranging games with extraordinary attention to detail. “We have horse sweat technology so if you whip the horse he’ll start to perspire. I wanted to have more details of the horse’s biology, with other material released from the horse’s bottom, but there was a push back from the other developers in my team, so we dropped that.” Since the most frequent view of the horse is from behind, maybe that’s for the best.

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