E3: Ubisoft press briefing decompression

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James Cameron and Pele showed up to this thing, which gives you an idea of the kind of mojo Ubisoft was rolling with on the eve of E3. I don’t have an exact time down, but this had to be the longest press conference of the day. The theme of their show was confluence, which in short, is attempting to merge the minds of Hollywood and gaming to create a universe of uber-creativity. We saw some of that, at least conceptually, with Peter Jackson’s King Kong, an original launch title for the 360 that was tied to the movie.

There was a lot of stuff to digest here, most of which dealt with the confluence thinking. I’ll spill my 2 cents about some of the other games. I’ve got my man-crush on Sam Fisher and Splinter Cell: Conviction (seen above) and Reggie will expound on his man-crush on James Cameron’s Avatar. Enjoy, post-jump.

I have been waiting to see Splinter Cell: Conviction for a few years now, back when Ubisoft first introduced the game and Sam Fisher looked like the most dangerous homeless man walking God’s green Earth. It was delayed, so the only action spy-thriller stuff based in realism that I had was the underrated Bourne Identity.

During Sam’s homeless phase, there was a lot of discussion as to his melee combat abilities, how enemies fought and reacted to you, and the concept of “hiding out in the open” where Sam could “sense” danger in the crowds of people where he chose to immerse himself.

But what we saw here was a mix between Jack Bauer and Liam Neeson’s character in the movie “Taken.” The focus now is on Sam Fisher as a hunter of sorts, using all of his training and skills to find out who killed his daughter, Sarah, and why. He doesn’t work under the umbrella of the NSA anymore, which opens the door for a nastier, more brutally effective protagonist. He doesn’t venture into cliched anti-hero territory … we’re essentially getting an angry father who just happens to have, as Neeson’s “Taken” character would put it, a particular set of skills. His retooled look also reflects this philosophy — gone are the triple-green goggles and long stretches of sitting and waiting (at least for the most part). He’s got short-cropped, grayish hair now, and he’s dressed in simple, functional clothing that doesn’t make him look like he’ll ask for money and/or a ride. You get to work with Sam’s senses and instincts rather than his stuff.

The game demo showed off a few of the game’s key elements. One was a renewed emphasis on what the designers called a more “seamless” gameplay experience. During a bathroom interrogation scene, Sam is beating down someone for some information. As he starts spilling his guts (the fact that Sam is breaking a toilet with his head helps), you can see a face and some footage start playing on the bathroom wall, as if someone had a portable projector in the bathroom. This is how objectives such as “infiltrate the house” or “find Sarah’s killer” are presented in the game as well. You’d think such a stylistic way of projecting big words on the fronts of buildings and such would be imposing and somewhat cheesy, but it worked. Some of the stuff that gets thrown up there adds to the tension, such as a mini-cinema of Sarah’s car crashing as Sam climbs up some steps to close in on his target.

One big gameplay feature is “mark and execute,” where you can essentially map out an action plan for Sam when he gets an advanced peek at a situation. The demo showed Sam looking under a door. He “marked” a light and the person under it with a red dot, along with another enemy in the same room. If you do it right, Sam will bust open the door, shoot the light and nail the two gunmen in one quick, smooth sequence. This essentially gives Sam the kind of efficient room-clearing power we wished he had on many occasions in previous missions.

Another cool feature is the “last known position,” where you get a visual indicator of where people “think” you are once you engage them in a firefight. This is useful because if people are shooting at Sam, he essentially has the ability to flank or elude them since their efforts would be concentrated on where they think he is. It sort of reminds me of the “aggro” feature in Army of Two, but with a lot more touch.

That said, I need to see how this title actually plays, if that’s possible. I’m looking forward to it. It’s slated for a Fall 2009 release. I’ll expound more on some of the other titles we saw, but it’s getting late.

Reggie: James Cameron kicked things off at E3 to talk about his four year long journey with Avatar, his new film, and in addition to my chance encounter with Hideo Kojima in the lobby (who kindly gave me an autograph) along with what my brother had also described above, Ubisoft’s conference was easily my favorite show out of the three. But I suspect that Kojima-san may have been there for more than just the games. As a film buff, I’m sure that James Cameron’s presence was probably as large a, if not larger, reason why he had quietly joined the incredibly big crowd gathered there.

As a movie buff, I’ve been following Avatar ever since Cameron had announced that he was finally making it. It’s been a long journey, but as it nears its December 18th release date this year, more and more is being said about the technology that will bring his latest creation to the edge of cinematic innovation. But just as Ubi’s president, Yves Guillemot, had also pointed out, Ubisoft was also on the fast track in doing the same thing by redefining what the developer/publisher was all about with his talk on confluence…the flow of both cinema and gaming into one, co-operative medium.

On that note, Avatar is getting its own game, and Cameron had also said that he was quite aware that a lot of movie-tie ins generally “suck”. But not this time. This time would be different, and I actually believe that he might be right even without the fanboy goggles.

Apparently, Ubisoft had an idea for a game with similar concepts to Cameron’s Avatar when they had first approached him in 2006. The two camps hit it off, and before you knew it, Ubisoft was in top-secret development mode for a game based off of the world of Avatar. It’s not tied into the movie through its story, but instead, through the world by telling a story of its own without spoiling its silver screen partner. Instead of being a movie-tie in that is churned out in a year, this is a game that has actually been in the making over a few years.

But the partnership between Cameron’s team and that at Ubisoft has also been an integral part to its development. The director went on to describe how certain vehicles had been designed by his own team for the game, and how certain concepts…like a certain bioluminescence effect…were impressive enough to bring into his own film. This is what Yves Guillemot had been talking about when he had mentioned confluence.

This approach is similar to what certain film franchise-tied games had managed to successfully accomplish in their own way. Everything or Nothing, although not based on an existing film, was based on Pierce Brosnan’s turn as James Bond and the world that he lived in…and it become one of 007s most successful forays into gaming. And then there was the legendary take by Rare on Goldeneye which was tied into the film, but expanded on its story and its background in unexpected ways that made it feel like an even more complete experience.

So now Avatar is following the same path, but it sounds like it could also be the right one. A film-tied game may not necessarily have to follow the film, but the concepts created in the film can provide a fantastic background on which to base a game that derives from that world in its own way. Instead of one drawing from the other in a vampiric IP embrace that swings only one way, this is an effort that complements both sides…and it is an approach that Ubisoft seems keen in pursuing by expanding itself into film and books in order to further flesh out their worlds. In much the same way that the Halo novels have given sci-fi fans of the games even more to discover about the world that Bungie has created, Ubisoft’s Avatar seems poised to deliver the same.

Now I can only hope that this particular gamble actually works out. It sounds good, I’m encouraged by what I heard, and I’m willing to give it a chance. And just like the film, the game will also be as cutting edge in another way: by being the world’s first stereoscopic 3D game. There’s a lot riding on this, but I’m excited to see the results.

And with everything else that my brother has also mentioned above, Ubisoft has come into this year swinging as hard as someone who was expected to have also delivered a console. No punches pulled. Only plenty of quality gaming promised. And dated.