Smoke the Muthafuckas, 50!

“Where are the helicopters?”That was the question on the mind of many conventioneers heading into the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo at the L.A. Convention Center last week. E3, as it’s known, is the video game industry’s annual trade show, a digital debutante’s ball where grand announcements are made, and last year the U.S. military promoted its burgeoning recruitmotainment series America’s Army with a formation of Black Hawks, from which actual Special Forces teams rappelled down onto Figueroa. “The choppers were awesome!” recalled an Australian gamer with an Exhibitor tag while waiting for the light to change at Olympic. “Totally balls to the wall,” offered another Aussie. “Yes,” said a third from the group, “but who needs all that when you’ve got Playstation 3?” Good point: For gamers, a glimpse of reality is no match for the promise of a personal virtual reality at 51-billion-dot-product-operations-per-second, and this year the shock and awe came not from the skies but was instead encased in plastic. Deep inside the convention center, tightly guarded behind velvet ropes and bodyguards, the biggest video game news in years was being made with the unveiling of Xbox 360, Nintendo Revolution and Playstation 3, perhaps the most anticipated bundle of circuitry ever. But more on that later. To get anywhere near the new hardware, one had to run the usual gauntlet of booths competing to imprint their latest software on visitors’ minds. Imagine a humid Cenozoic forest where the canopy foliage was thousands of giant video screens and the floor was a slowly circulating throng of people drinking Red Bull and shouting to hear each other over a 100dB cacophony of growls, gearshifting and gunfire, and you have an idea of what E3 is like. Even a few minutes inside can be exhausting, due to both the logistics and the endless parade of bad products. Because what the Expo increasingly shows off is the industry’s deepening ruts. Although most of the business is centered in Northern California, E3 has always been held in Los Angeles, and presciently so, it seems, as video games have now developed Hollywood’s bad habits. A small number of giant companies dominate, producing fewer games with larger budgets and less risk. And less creativity, as anyone can see, surveying the acres of E3 floorspace devoted to sequels, remakes, “synergies with exciting Hollywood properties,” or just plain derivative crap-ass. Predictably, there was more Star Wars, more racing, more medieval-ish roleplaying, more counter-terror dudes in balaclavas, and another beachhead of World War II campaigns. Most games looked crushingly dull; others decent at best. There were a few bright spots, like Destroy All Humans and Stubbs the Zombie, both of which are clever and campy revisions of horror genres. Now, the body-snatching alien and moldering zombie are the protagonists. And the demo stations for the new version of Katamari Damacy, the cheaply made and sold Japanese game that became last year’s cult hit, were rightfully swamped. In case you were wondering about the ongoing electronic war between gangsters and the Army, it seems the gangsters have consolidated an edge. Whereas last year the buzz was a tossup between military games and titles like Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, the floor this time seemed to be overrun with crime, as every major video game company fought to cash in on adolescents’ latent desire for the underworld. This fall, for example, EA will make it possible to play Michael’s ascent to the head of the Corleone family in The Godfather, The Game. Vivendi Universal’s Scarface, in the words of the game’s flack, will “imagine a world in which Tony Montana survives and continues to amass a giant crime empire.” (When I asked her if Brian De Palma had played a role in the game development, she asked, “Brian de who?”) Moving from gangster to gangsta, THQ previewed Saint’s Row, a post-GTA criminal free-for-all for the Xbox 360 where the object is to help your gang take control of the city with the deadliest force possible. “The trick here is to earn respect on the streets,” explained the salt-and-pepper-haired game producer from Champaign/Urbana. Standing in front of the screen with a golf shirt and headset, he added with zero irony or inflection, “And sometimes, of course, you have to call in your high-level homies.” Similarly weird was VU’s intimate viewing of Bulletproof, a game where, as the literature described, “You play 50 Cent, the new millennium gangsta.” Bulletproof is another gripping hypothetical — “as if,” the demonstrator explained, “you know, 50 didn’t get his music career and he instead had to make his way through the New York underworld.” That scenario, we heard several times, was written by Emmy Award®–winning Sopranos writer Terry Winter, whose story is said to unfold into an “international conspiracy that 50 stumbles on to” but as far as I could tell consisted of dialogue like “Smoke every muthafucka out there!” and “Let’s lay these bitches down, son!” The rest of the audience ate it up. They saw no unintentional satire when the demonstrator said, with the same corporate PR voice that might be applied to a new cell phone plan, “In this mission 50 has to rescue his homie K-Dog.” Rather, the guy to my left looked like a kid in a candy store. With half a dozen bags of worthless video game swag at his feet, he watched with wide-eyed enthusiasm as 50 smoked muthafuckas, and sat up in his chair when he saw 50 use an opponent as a human shield. When the demonstrator announced, “Here’s some new counter kills,” and the little digital 50 Cent onscreen turned around to plunge a giant knife in the neck of his opponent, I swear the guy pumped his fist and shouted: “OH NICE! Now that’s some freaking blood spray right there!” A few hours later, as the lights went down in the Playstation theater, my own giddiness finally set in. As bleak as the video game landscape can be, no one who likes games can resist the thought of the good ones getting faster and better-looking. I had seen bits of Xbox 360 and Nintendo Revolution out on the floor, but the real star of the convention was the PS3, which was considered the best of the new consoles and could only be previewed by waiting in line for several hours, or by appointment if you had connections. “I’m sweating already,” said one gamer to another in the row ahead as the trailer started. “I think I’m gonna need a Mountain Dew after this.” Contrary to rumor and imagination, the PS3 is not a distributed computing terminal, or a somatically farmed brain stem floating in neurotransmission fluid. But it is a big step forward. Describing the graphics would be pointless, other than to say they’re impressive — the first thing I saw at E3 to strike that old childhood chord of eagerness for a new toy. Outside the theater’s exit, three sample boxes of the future PS3 in three different colors were displayed under glass. A group of dazed game enthusiasts stood around and stared at them. One guy liked the silver model. Someone else said the white one looked a little too much like a Miami Vice–era answering machine. I suggested that the black one should have a higher lacquer gloss with a fine inlay of bone and mother-of-pearl. There was a moment of silence. “I just can’t wait,” someone said, “for Playstation 4.”

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