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Originally published June 6, 2011 at 9:33 PM | Page modified June 7, 2011 at 6:20 AM

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Microsoft out to show Xbox has got more game

With roaring gunfire, pulsing dance music and humming light sabers, Microsoft on Monday unveiled an array of new games that it's counting on to keep its Xbox 360 business surging ahead.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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LOS ANGELES — With roaring gunfire, pulsing dance music and humming light sabers, Microsoft on Monday unveiled an array of new games that it's counting on to keep its Xbox 360 business surging ahead.

Although the Xbox 360 has outsold other consoles over the past year, increasing sales 29 percent, it's passing middle age for a game console and facing new competition. Microsoft is trying to coax continued growth out of the platform by leveraging more use of the Kinect motion sensor and expanding connections with television.

Of the big three game-hardware companies at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) game show this week, Microsoft has been showing the strongest recent growth, but it's the only one that's not showing new hardware. Sony is introducing the PlayStation Vita, a new handheld device for its PlayStation platform, and Nintendo on Tuesday morning is expected to unveil an entirely new Wii console to go on sale in 2012.

Meanwhile, Americans are starting to spend on video games again, according to NPD research. After slumping through the past year, game sales rebounded in April, gaining 20 percent in large part because of the popularity of the Kinect for the Xbox.

Since its debut in November, Kinect has helped push total Xbox 360 sales to 55 million, with nearly 35 million people actively using its companion Xbox Live service to consume 2.1 billion hours of entertainment per month, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft is updating the Kinect to add, among other things, more voice controls, including a new voice-controlled Bing Web search feature.

"The world's greatest storytellers are redefining our industry," Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business, said at a high-octane press event Monday at the Galen Center basketball arena. "Technologies that see us, hear us and connect us all together are changing the way we interact and have fun."

Mattrick said new live TV services are coming to the Xbox, expanding on the ESPN service that's already on the console, but there weren't many details. A spokesman said the company will announce the TV providers this year and that the service will be available in the U.S. by year's end.

The next step

For the next phase of growth, Microsoft hopes to reach hard-core gamers with the first serious action games that use the Kinect, including several that were previewed at the press event.

The company started off the event with "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," a billion-dollar franchise likely to be the biggest title on all consoles this year.

Next, it showed a demo for "Tomb Raider," with a more realistic version of Lara Croft writhing in pain after a fall into a mine, then panting as she battles her way out through water-filled tunnels and lurking bad guys. The game launches in fall of 2012.

Microsoft later showed off more family-friendly games, including a new Disney one that lets players explore a Disney theme park and take "rides" via Kinect. Players hold their arms out to soar through the Peter Pan ride and hop and sway through an Alice in Wonderland adventure.

A new "Star Wars" game for Kinect coming in November will let players swing their arms to fight with a light saber. Sci-fi fans also are getting a new version of "Mass Effect," a polished reissue of "Halo: Combat Evolved," and, late in 2012, "Halo 4."

Peter Moore, president of EA Sports and a former Xbox executive, appeared on stage, joking that it "feels vaguely familiar."

Moore talked up new Kinect versions of its big franchises, "Tiger Woods," "FIFA" and "Madden," then started a demo of sci-fi blockbuster "Mass Effect 3," which will work with the Kinect controller.

Gamers have been waiting to see how action games will work with Kinect.

The player demonstrating the capability in "Mass Effect 3" held a controller during the play and used voice commands to prompt dialogue — choosing which line to read from two options — then barked out voice commands to advance an assault.

Ubisoft then showed how Kinect will work with "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier." The game has a feature called "gunsmith," which lets players use gestures and voice controls to modify weapons. With gestures, a weapon can be disassembled and modified, and voice commands can be used to activate options such as "close combat."

No action sequences were shown, but the player used hand gestures to aim and test-fire the customized weapons. Ubisoft said all future versions of the game will be Kinect-enabled.

Microsoft's Marc Whitten then showed updates to the Xbox Kinect console, including more voice controls for activating music and games.

Whitten announced one of the new partners, but it's a big one: Google's YouTube is going to become a channel on Xbox Live.

Whitten said the company is adding live TV services in the fall, controlled by voice commands via Kinect. Microsoft already works with some European cable companies that offer the console as a set-top box to customers.

Actor Ice T came on stage to demo "Gears of War 3," in which he provided voice talent.

A new "Halo"

Microsoft also is releasing a "remastered" version of the original "Halo" game that it's calling "Halo: Combat Evolved, Anniversary." It's going to be released Nov. 15.

On the family-friendly theme, besides the Disney game, the company demonstrated an interactive book/game called "Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster" that's coming out in the fall.

A page in the book displayed on screen launched an action sequence with Elmo and Cookie Monster encountering a scary monster. Players wave their hands and mimic the monster's stomping action to turn it into a cute, friendly creature. Then little pixies floating around the screen were "caught" with gestures, sparkling and poofing when caught.

Xbox Creative Director Kudo Tsunoda showed "Fun Labs," a new addition to the Kinect menu that will showcase "innovations" by game companies and Kinect experiences created by users with Kinect development tools.

It's a sort of sandbox for new Kinect activities, including "Kinect Me," a tool Microsoft developed to create new Xbox Live avatars. Instead of assembling predrawn features to create a cartoon avatar, "Kinect Me" takes your photo and cartoonifies it.

The event ended with a peek at "Halo 4." Mattrick called it the first part of a "new trilogy" for the game. It's being developed by Microsoft and its 343 Studios, since the company parted ways with Halo creator Bungie, and is expected to go on sale in the 2012 holiday season.

At a press event later Monday, Sony Computer Entertainment Chief Executive Kaz Hirai talked about the PlayStation Vita, named for the Latin word for "life."

It has the same basic shape of the PSP portable that debuted in 2005 but has dual cameras, a 5-inch OLED touch-screen, a rear touch-control panel and front and rear cameras that enable augmented reality games (such as those on Nintendo's 3DS handheld).

A Wi-Fi-only version will cost $249, and the 3G-Wi-Fi version will cost $299; both will be available "starting at the end of 2011," Sony said in its release.

"We believe this device will change how people think about portable gaming," said Scott Rohde, vice president of Sony's game studios.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687


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