Microsoft’s Unveils ‘SmartGlass’, Kinect-Enhanced Sequels at E3 2012

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From Halo 4 to an Xbox 360-, tablet- and smartphone-augmenting technology dubbed “Project SmartGlass” to a barrage of franchise sequels, Microsoft‘s E3 2012 show brought few surprises and expended most of its 90-minute presentation on core gamer products. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — after all, E3 is a core gamer show.

The company launched with clearly Xbox 360-quality footage of Halo 4, as Master Chief witnessed something crash, something else fly off into the distance, then poked around in a jungle, initially taking out familiar Covenant aliens. And then the obligatory new aliens we’ve been expecting since Halo 4 was first announced appeared: “…some kind of defense A.I. — definitely not Convenant,” said series sidekick Cortana, as a flaming skull-faced variant pounced like Ghost Rider’s head on the body of one of Metroid Prime‘s enemies. Cue creepy insect-like robots swarming tree limbs and a spoiler that the series may turn Cortana into a villain. So far, so still-very-much-Halo (would we have it any other way?).

(MORE: Microsoft Says Xbox 360 ‘Defying Gravity’ at 67M Sold (This Is Why No New Xbox at E3))

Next up, we got a look at a new Splinter Cell game from Ubisoft — Splinter Cell: Blacklist — which showed series protagonist Sam Fisher somewhere along the Iran/Iraq border, working to capture and interrogate a terrorist leader to thwart attacks against U.S. interests. Ubisoft claims that once you’ve mastered Sam’s abilities, movement through the environment is more fluid. There’s also a new Kinect angle, with classic Splinter Cell moves enhanced by voice recognition, i.e. calling out to distract enemies, as well as the ability to call in team actions. Ubisoft said the game will support single-player, co-op, spy vs. mercenaries multiplayer, and that it’ll ship next spring.

EA Sports’ honcho Andrew Wilson took the stage to talk about Kinect’s impact on Madden NFL and FIFA. With FIFA 13, he explained that we’ll be able to use Kinect to change tactics and formations on the fly — no need to bother with menus or pausing. We’ll also be able t0 give A.I. teammates clear commands on attack and defense, and (amusingly) referee feedback will keep track of how players react to referee decisions, including penalty flags for offensive language. Turning to Madden NFL (and trotting out football legend Joe Montana to demonstrate), Wilson said next year’s version represents the “biggest investment in the franchise’s history.” Montana then demonstrated how you could voice pre-snap calls, call out individual players, set hot routes or run audibles without tapping a button. When: We’ll see it August 28, according to Wilson.

As usual, Microsoft spent much of the show rolling sizzle footage to fill up time between presentations. We saw a trailer for Fable: The Journey (shipping this holiday) depicting an ordinary gamer conjuring and tossing spells at enemies. Gears of War: Judgment put in a brief sub-minute showing with its pre-rendered debut trailer that cut between fire, chainsaws, fire, a large enemy and more fire. We had a look at Resident Evil 6 with the usual zombie-shooting sequences augmented by new jujitsu-style moves and timed-action triggers. And Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 rounded out the presser with typically apocalyptic gameplay footage that made me think this series ought to be re-dubbed Call of Ridiculous.

Also on tap: Forza Horizon (ships October 23) which could almost be Forza: Need for Speed given the off-course angle; new Tomb Raider footage, which looked wonderful but showed Lara doing ridiculously over-the-top things (Crystal Dynamics has apparently learned nothing from Naughty Dog); Wreckateer, which has you motion-controlling projectiles at castles via Kinect; Dance Central 3, i.e. more Kinect-style dancing (plus an unexpected, frankly unnecessary performance after the reveal by Usher); South Park: The Stick of Truth (an honest-to-goodness South Park action game); and brief clips of Ascend: New Gods (a monster hack-and-slash), Lococycle (who knows?) and Matter (looks like a stylish puzzle game).

The highlights were twofold: Microsoft says it’s bring the NBA and NHL to Xbox, as well as full, unmitigated access to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3 and ESPNU this fall. And the company rolled out what it calls “Project SmartGlass,” which is essentially a meta-interface that lets you drill on supported items, in-game or out, to summon or manipulate contextual information — think of it like augmented reality where “reality” equals what’s transpiring on-screen (as opposed to around you, though I imagine that’s next). Xbox LIVE president Mark Whitten noted it works with “devices you already own and love,” e.g. smartphones and tablets, including iPhones and Android devices.

Whitten also demonstrated how SmartGlass might let you craft your own football plays in a game on the fly, sketching the individual positions and vectors on a tablet before executing the play, or to drill on waypoint information in a game like Halo 4 before shifting seamlessly from single-player to multiplayer without having to first quit your single-player game. He also revealed that Internet Explorer would finally hit the Xbox 360 this year, showing how both Kinect and SmartGlass together would let you operate a “Webhub” of bookmarks to visit websites, play movie trailers or scroll through content using a tablet or phone, pinching and zooming or clicking links to control information that’s actually displayed on your television. Whitten said to expect SmartGlass this fall.

The best part of the show? Everything worked, which is probably worth a 100-point Xbox LIVE achievement alone. (Oh yeah, and about that whole “next Xbox” rumor: told you so!)

MORE: Nintendo’s Provocative Pre-E3 Wii U Reveal: A Tweaked Controller and New Social Network