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Microsoft at E3: Halo 3, Rock Band, a new controller for Xbox 360

by Erin Bell, special to CBCNews.ca

Although rumours of an Xbox 360 price-drop announcement proved to be unfounded, Microsoft still had plenty of interesting announcements to make at its E3 press conference, held Tuesday night in a surprisingly chilly open-air amphitheatre in Santa Monica, Calif.

Live music provided by a band of "Halo 3 fans" kicked off the conference, which then segued into even more music as the evening's host, corporate VP Peter Moore, strapped on a guitar controller to demo the game Rock Band. Developed by Massachusetts-based Harmonix, Rock Band lets up to four players play along with musical tracks together using special guitar, bass, drum, and microphone peripherals. Moore was backed by three Harmonix employees, including CEO Alex Rigopulos on drums, and played through the Hives' "Main Offender."

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From there, Microsoft trotted out various pie charts and bar graphs pointing out the fact that the Xbox 360 is the top-selling current-generation console to date, after which the conference settled into a rhythm of product demos and announcements.

Of particular interest to Canadians is the announcement that Microsoft will be rolling out its high-definition video store on Xbox Live Marketplace to Canada by the end of the year. The service already offers more than 2,350 hours of video content and 500 hours of HD content for download to U.S. customers.

Microsoft showcased an impressive roster of A-list titles and Xbox 360 exclusives, including Halo 3 (Sept. 25), Grand Theft Auto IV (Oct. 16) and Madden 2008, the trio of titles that, according to Moore, would anchor the 360's holiday line-up.

The Canadian contingent was well-represented by Edmonton-based BioWare's futuristic role-playing game Mass Effect, and a pair of games from Ubisoft Montreal: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Conviction and Assassin's Creed.

High-powered titles like Project Gotham 4, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Lost Odyssey amply showcased the Xbox 360's ability to handle graphically advanced games, but it was also nice to see Microsoft emphasizing its family-oriented and casual gaming strategy with new Xbox Live Arcade titles like Hexic 2, and the console title Viva Pinata: Party, a mini-game collection that looks to be trying to take a bite out of Nintendo's Mario Party series.

The interactive board game Scene It? will be making its console debut on the Xbox 360, and will ship with a new kind of simplified wand-shaped controller.

In the worst kept secret of the show, Moore announced that the top-selling Xbox 360 title Gears of War would be coming to PC as part of the expanded Games for Windows Live brand (along with Viva Pinata and other titles). The PC version of Gears offers five new single player chapters, a new multiplayer mode, new multiplayer arenas, and new achievements.

Towards the end of the conference, Moore announced that Microsoft would be releasing a special edition grey and red Xbox 360 and various themed accessories to commemorate the launch of Halo 3. The conference ended with what a Microsoft rep later told me was a "vignette" of footage shot so far for the Halo 3 movie produced by Peter Jackson.

Erin Bell is a Toronto-based freelance video game and technology journalist, and is reporting on her fourth E3.

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