Midway rolls next-gen dice in Vegas

At its 2007 Gamers' Day, the publisher holds up Stranglehold, Unreal Tournament III, and Blacksite: Area 51 as the fruits of its massive investment in new technology.

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LAS VEGAS--Walking through the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, one must navigate a series of Plexiglas cases holding various music-celebrities' outfits. Some are iconic, such as the light-blue tracksuit and polka-dotted outfit worn by Eminem and Elton John, respectively, during their infamous embrace at the 2001 Grammy Awards. Others, like Lita Ford's fishnet-and-leather thong and Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine's studded jacket, are more amusing than awe-inspiring.

The latter two numbers sit outside the entrance of The Joint, the Hard Rock's main auditorium--and the site of the 2007 Midway Gamers' Day. On Thursday evening, more than 100 journalists and analysts gathered in the front of the venue, whose front was hidden by a massive red curtain. After the crowd had quaffed the appropriate number of cocktails, the curtain dropped, and the crowd was gently herded onto several rows of narrow chairs below the logo-bedecked stage.

Harvey Smith, the creative director of Midway's Austin studio, kicked off the night's proceedings by officially announcing BlackSite: Area 51, the existence of which had been known of unofficially for some time. The latest installment in the console series inspired by the arcade light-gun classic, BlackSite is a pseudo-sequel to the 2004 shooter Area 51 (PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2). Perhaps as a result of that game's lackluster reception, Smith focused on the care that Midway-Austin is taking in crafting BlackSite. The game is using the same "Massive D" technology as Stranglehold to create destructible environments. Also, Gears of War writer Susan O'Connor is penning the game's storyline, which focuses on a squad of soldiers stopping an alien invasion.

After a very Gears of War-esque trailer for BlackSite, Reilly Brennan, Midway's vice president of media relations, introduced Jeff Anderson, president and CEO of Turbine, Inc. He announced the release date of Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Agmar, which Midway will publish for the PC on April 24. An open beta for the game will also take place during that month.

Paraphrasing Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien, Anderson said the massively multiplayer online role-playing game would be the "one game to rule them all." To help Shadows of Angmar challenge the current ruler of the MMORPG space, World of Warcraft, Turbine will offer those who preorder the game two "founder" subscription options not available to anyone else. "Founders" can either pay $9.99 a month (versus $14.99 for regular subscribers) or pay a one-time $199 fee for a lifetime subscription.

Anderson also emphasized Lord of the Rings Online's community-building features. The game will feature an in-game blog, where players can write about their experiences, and a wikipedia that will let players write their own encyclopedic instruction manual. He also revealed that, in addition to the many in-game minigames being included, Google Maps will feature a map of Middle-earth, allowing players to zoom in on locations when planning their treks to Mordor.

Following a trailer for LOTR online--which highlighted the fact that players can choose either the side of good or the side of evil--executive producer Mark Caldwell took the stage to introduce an all-new title. That would be Hour of Victory, a new entry in the Xbox 360 World War II shooter market, which has so far been dominated by Call of Duty 2 and 3. But while those games focused on multi-men skirmishes, Hour of Victory will be more about individual adventure. "It's an Indiana Jones approach, versus a Saving Private Ryan approach," he told the crowd.

Following a trailer for Hour of Victory, Midway CEO and president David Zucker took the stage to give an assessment of Midway's fortunes. He said 2006 was a good year for the publisher, which enjoyed the highest revenue growth in the fourth quarter since 1994. He said this was largely due to the popularity of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, which hit PlayStation 2s and Xboxes last October.

However, the gist of Zucker's speech was Midway's plan for gaming's newest platforms, the formerly next-generation consoles. He announced that Midway has spent upward of $100 million in building an in-house development team of 700 employees, almost all of which are focused on Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii development--as well as the PC. "Our plan has been to revitalize Midway by succeeding on new consoles," he told the crowd.

To demonstrate his point, Zucker made reference to Hour of Victory and BlackSite: Area 51. He also trotted out some spruced-up old footage to promote two new Xbox 360 and PS3 games. First up was a reworked version of a December promo clip for TNA Impact! Previously slated for a 2007 release, the forthcoming game based on the extreme--and apparently dyslexic--wrestling federation is now due in 2008 and is in development at Midway's Los Angeles studio. A short demo of the Xbox 360 version was on the show floor.

Then Zucker rolled out an extended version of the E3 2006 trailer for The Wheelman, the film-game crossover project executive-produced by and starring The Fast and the Furious' Vin Diesel. Speaking to GameSpot after the presentation, Zucker said that the game was sill set to ship in 2007 but that the film hadn't begun active preproduction.

While Midway's emphasis was on the latest batch of consoles, it also revealed two new games for current-generation portables. First up was Touchmaster DS, a DS game based on Midway's popular line of touch-screen trivia and puzzle game machines that dot bars nationwide. The title will feature 23 minigames, including mahjong and puzzle titles.

Also unveiled was Hot Brain, a PlayStation Portable game that is Midway's attempt to cash in on the brain-training game craze. The game will feature logic, memory, math, language, and concentration challenges designed to perplex the feebleminded. Though it bears the unfortunate tag "Fire up your mind," the game does have a grade-A B-list celebrity host in the form of Best in Show and For Your Consideration star Fred Willard.

Next to take the stage was Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games. Oozing the self-confidence that comes with selling 3 million copies of Gears of War in less than three months, the executive was on hand to announce that Unreal Tournament 2007 was being retitled. Its new name, Unreal Tournament III, is designed to underline the fact that it is "the next generation of the Unreal franchise, based on the Unreal 3 engine," according to Rein.

Then, the executive casually dropped the biggest bombshell of the night--that Unreal Tournament III was coming to the Xbox 360. "The 360 is a platform that we've had a little bit of success on," he joked. Though not totally unexpected, the announcement signaled the loss of another game Sony once touted as PS3 exclusive, although the title was always coming to the PC. The PC version of the game was playable on the show floor and appeared to impress almost everyone who played it.

Next up was Midway Studios-Chicago creative director Ed Boon to put the Wii edition of Mortal Kombat through its paces. Via a prerecorded video in which he starred, Boon showed off the various Wii Remote moves that can deliver in-game fatalities "more easily than ever before." Some swordlike motions looked particularly satisfying, and the demo drew the most applause of the night.

Last but definitely not least, Midway creative director Brian Eddy showed up to show off Stranglehold, the game sequel to John Woo's groundbreaking 1992 Hong Kong action movie Hard Boiled. Eddy showed off the first new demo of the game since E3 last year, guiding a virtual version of Inspector Tequila, played by Hard Boiled star Chow Yun-Fat, through a blistering gunfight in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Eddy then explained several of Tequila's signature moves, which the developers are calling "tequila bombs." Three moves were shown performed in Max Payne-esque slow-motion sessions: one-shot kills, barrages, and a 360-degree spin attack.

Following a pair of featurettes that showed the making of Stranglehold, which is due out later this year, the lights came up. The audience then descended on an open bar, on an ample buffet, and around two dozen demo stations like a pack of alcoholic, starving, game-crazed wolves. The consensus among the audience was that Midway gave a solid presentation. Cradling a tumbler filled with ice and an amber liquor of indeterminate origin, Wedbush Morgan Securities' Michael Pachter gave a direct assessment of the evening. "I was pretty impressed," he told GameSpot.

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