E3 2011: Microsoft Showcases ‘Halo 4,’ Hardcore Kinect-ions

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The one message that Microsoft drove home during their E3 2011 press conference is that they’re going to give everyone–from hardcore gamers to avid TV watchers to casual players–reason to turn on their hyper-successful motion-sensing peripheral.

Xbox exec Marc Whitten claimed that the goal is to “get the technology out of your way.” One example is how Kinect’s going to be powering integration with the tech giant’s Bing search engine, with 360 owners being able to input search terms via voice command. Voice commands that navigate the dashboard will reach across the various different content panes on the next Xbox dashboard, too. Whitten went on to announce  partnerships with YouTube and the Xbox Live TV initiative. Global partnerships with channels like Canal +, ABC, Fox will make TV programming available for streaming through an Xbox 360. Whether there’s an extra charge is yet to be announced.

Peter Moore, president of EA Sports came on stage to announce that four of the division’s biggest sellers will put out Kinect versions in the coming year. EA Sports for Kinect will include Madden, FIFA and two other titles. From EA-owned developer BioWare comes more Kinect integration. Mass Effect 3 was shown by Ray Muzyka with Kinect support with voice recognition for dialogue choices and field commands in battle.

Ubisoft showed different uses of Kinect in a demo of their upcoming Ghost Recon Future Soldier. A developer demonstrated customization commands via gesture or voice command. Pulling hands apart revealed the innards of a weapon, which you could then swap out for other parts. Then, a shooting range tutorial let you try out the re-jiggered weapon. Ubi president Yves Guillemot announced that similar support would roll out along the whole Tom Clancy line of games from the publisher.

While Microsoft’s trying to position their consoles as more-than-just-games boxes, playable content was still out in force. The press conference opened with a live Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 gameplay demo by Infinity Ward’s Robert Bowling. On a level called Hunter-Killer, Bowling steered a soldier underwater through a flooded Holland Tunnel packed with cars bearing dead bodies. The objective was to lay a charge on a Russian sub.

Swimming past Russian mines, Bowling eventually surfaced to see Manhattan under attack. Bowing and his AI strike team breached the sub, fought their way to the missile control room, and launched the Russians’ own missiles against them. An extraction via speedboat led to a gun battle that weaved in and out of Russian aircraft carriers with PT boats giving chase. The frantic adrenalin rush gameplay fans expect from COD looks to be intact and bigger than ever.

Next up was a demo of the new Tomb Raider by Crystal Dynamics. It opened with 21-year-old Lara suspended in a cloth-and-rope bondage trap. Swinging Lara from side to side brushes up against a torch which burns off a rope. Lara falls and impales her side on a spike, pulling it out and starting her journeys through a series of caves. She gets attacked from behind by a savage, shadowed man. A series of action sequences involved dodging a rockslide, making death-defying jumps and eventually making it to the surface where loads of ships lay crashed on the shore. Anyone worried about the Tomb Raider reboot shouldn’t be. The gameplay shown looked claustrophobic, scary and dark.

The games kept coming in rapid-fire fashion. A Gears 3 demo with Ice-T playing co-op showed new Silverback mech suits that Delta Squad will use to fight the locust. Ryse is a new Crytek game set in ancient Rome that focused on first-person Kinect combat and Fable: The Journey puts players in the first-person role of a new hero with actions like carriage driving and spell casting all done by gesture. Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, Kinect Disneyland Adventures, Kinect Star Wars all offered up monster mimicry, light saber duels, Peter Pan flight sequences and vehicular combat by way of gestural commands.

With all the hacking that went on after the device’s debut, Microsoft knows that the next wave of Kinect innovation may not come from Redmond. That’s what seems to be behind Kinect Fun Labs, a hub of user-generated content created by the dev tools already out in the wild. The titles shown were Kinect Me, which demonstrated avatar creation with via photo capture, Kinect Sparkler which lets you draw with finger tracking and manipulate images in 3D, and object scanning and animation in Kinect Googly Eyes. Kinect Fun Labs goes live today.

But, for fans awaiting the future of the premier Xbox franchise, we got confirmation of a 10th birthday Halo game with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary coming on 11/15/2011.

It’ll bring co-op and multiplayer game modes to the title that introduced Master Chief to the world. Finally, a teaser for Halo 4 showed Master Chief waking from cryo-sleep to Cortana’s panicked cries for help. The action that followed hinted at jetpack capability for the Chief in the next chapter as well as possible zero-G combat. The ship that bore Chief and Cortana was about to get enveloped by a giant mechanical maw. You’re going to have to wait until next fall to see what awaits in the Halo-verse.

It’s clear that Kinect isn’t going away, but what’s interesting is how the second wave seems to be courting hardcore gamers who scoffed at the launch offerings for the device. Microsoft’s treating Kinect as more than an input device. It’s a gameplay tool, search tool, a communication tool, a creation tool and quite possibly the key to the Xbox’s future. We’ll have more on Microsoft’s announcements and strategy as E3 2011 continues this week.

More on TIME.com: All Techland E3 2011 Coverage

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