King Kong, Godfather, Call of Duty 2: A private showing

Fourth annual Sneak Peeks session gets under the hood of three likely blockbusters.

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E3's Conference Program continued in style on Wednesday morning with the fourth annual Sneak Peeks session. Lucky attendees were treated to special previews of The Godfather, King Kong, and Call of Duty 2.

But the session offered more than extended trailers and new game footage. Representatives for each game were on hand to preface, discuss, and answer questions about each preview. The panel, moderated by journalist Geoff Keighley, included Nick Earl and Phil Campbell (Electronic Arts), Michel Ancel and Xavier Poix (Ubisoft), and Grant Collier (Infinity Ward).

The Godfather--EA's upcoming video game remake of Francis Ford Coppola's classic mafioso film--was presented first. Earl and Campbell talked at length about the game's relationship with its movie predecessor. Earl, who called The Godfather "one of the gems in the IP universe," recounted the effort to "respect" the spirit of the film but also to create something more than an interactive movie. Campbell described, "We didn't want to just play the movie this time...we didn't want to be in awe of the content."

Instead, players will create their own character and "intersect with the movie at all the best bits." As Campbell explained, players will plan their own strategy through the game, such as deciding whether to kill certain adversaries or keep them alive in hopes of later negotiating for more information. Campbell also touted the game's "living world," an open-ended environment in which players' decisions will have significant, lasting consequences. And though Earl admitted that the gameworld might not compare in physical size with other open-ended worlds, like that of Grand Theft Auto, he emphasized that The Godfather reflects an attempt to make the environment "richer, more dense."

Of all the new features, however, the game's "black hand" control system was given the most attention. Labeled by Earl as the game's "key innovation," black hand is an analog control system designed by the inventor of the analog swing mechanism in EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour. The mechanic promises to allow players a certain nuance of control in a variety of mafioso activities, including choking, threatening, and pushing. Campbell happily remarked, "We want to make it feel damn good to be a gangster."

The two EA representatives finished by showing a series of short video clips. Actual gameplay footage was limited but included atmospheric shots of a grimy virtual 1940s New York, heated arguments, a bloody barbershop assassination, player stranglings, and dramatic in-game cinematics rendered on the Xbox 360.

Other features included clips from the film itself, video footage of voice-over performances by original Godfather actors James Caan and Robert Duvall, and an audio clip of famed Godfather star Marlon Brando fittingly commenting, "It's the audience, really, that's doing the acting."

By contrast, Collier's sneak peek of World War II shooter Call of Duty 2 wowed audience members with a long, continuous preview of one entire level. The demo--completely different from the show floor version--showed off a British infantry operation in North Africa. Set in 1942, the mission sends players to an embattled, German-controlled desert town. From the very beginning, the intensity and chaos of war serve as the dominant element. As the transport drives the player's squadron over the sand dunes and into the town, fighter planes fly, bomb, and plummet all around, while undecipherable ethnic chants set an ominous tone.

Once the transport enters the town, the rest of the level barrages the player with nonstop action that leaves little room for breathing space. Among other actions, players break into buildings, shoot from behind barricades, hide in the cover of smoke, and sneak up on German troops. Amid the loud, continuous roar of gunshots and explosions, non-player character allies shout helpful commands.

As Collier explained, the Call of Duty 2 team was primarily "interested in keeping the action going." Collier even admitted that the game sacrifices some realism in order to maintain player immersion. For example, the team did not want to force the player to take cover for unnecessarily long periods of time or go back through the level scouring for health packs. Rather, as the demo showed, players can be hit by gunfire multiple times and still continue on.

In addition to the video, Collier spoke about the design process. Whereas the original Call of Duty was produced by 25 people in 18 months, the sequel will, by launch date, have needed 65 people and two years. As Collier explained, the larger team was assembled to create a new engine from scratch, as well as develop versions of the game for both the PC and the upcoming Xbox 360.

Collier pointed out that the experience of both versions is "tailored to each system." The project also required "a lot more preproduction." In fact, the team even visited France and North Africa to better understand some of the game's environments.

Ancel and Poix presented last, previewing Ubisoft's multiplatform project King Kong, an action game based on Peter Jackson's upcoming blockbuster film. Ancel, a lead designer on Beyond Good & Evil, was apparently "handpicked" by Jackson for the project. Ancel recounted their "creative partnership" in glowing terms and commented that the two could discuss "like two gamers talking about games." And though he acknowledged that many games based on movies have failed, Ancel argued, "Quality and licenses...it's not opposite."

As a starting point in the game design, Poix emphasized the team's goal of capturing the same emotions that fans experience in the film. To that end, Ancel and Poix revealed that the player would control both King Kong and human protagonist Jack Driscoll--sometimes even within the same level. Nevertheless, the characters' points of view differ significantly, reflecting their unique qualities. As Jack, players see the world in a first-person perspective, which leads to greater immersion but prevents players from "mastering" the surrounding environment. As the "very physical" King Kong, players are given a third-person view in order to explicitly show his relationship to the world.

As a finale, Ancel and Poix ran a demo of the game off an Xbox. The footage featured several scenes of Jack and company making their way through a dangerous jungle. In the first segment, Jack escapes from a hostile, fire-engulfed native town, armed with a set of throwing spears. Later, Jack and his companions (who talk to Jack in real time) frantically make their way through dinosaur-infested jungle ruins. In the last segment, the player was placed on a raft, chased on both riverbanks by a group of tyrannosaurus rex. As Ancel explained, Jack can only distract the larger dinosaurs. Apparently, players will have to use King Kong to ultimately defeat them.

In all three presentations, the panelists addressed the potential of next-generation consoles. Collier expressed his excitement over the coming shift toward camaraderie and cooperative play. In that sense, Collier predicted, "For me personally, the next big evolution is going to be in gameplay." Campbell, however, touted the upcoming ability to render convincing facial expressions, which will better allow the player to "tell the actual emotional state of people." Ancel agreed, stating, "The more we have, the more we can express."

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