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Digital Life: California beaming as Microsoft unveils Xbox -- the new generation

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Kinect Star Wars

Kinect Star Wars

Kinect Star Wars

Two days, 38 games and 10,000 miles. The things I do for you . . . In the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry, building hype is all part of the strategy. Which is why Microsoft flew hundreds of journalists to San Francisco last week for a sneak peek of what it hopes will be some of the biggest titles of the year on Xbox 360.

Usually, the major gaming debutantes emerge at the giant E3 trade show every June. But Microsoft's annual Spring Showcase enables Xbox to hog the spotlight.

Unfortunately, the biggest bangs are still reserved for E3, so we had to content ourselves with closer looks at previously announced games.

Not that we weren't short of blockbusters to investigate -- Halo 4, Kinect Star Wars and Fable: The Journey, among others -- but there was no single stunning revelation. We won't count the unveiling of Forza Horizon, a racing game of some sort but presented with no detail except an autumn release date.

With 38 games on show -- including some on Microsoft's Windows Phone platform and on PC -- it took the best part of two days to explore them all.

Here, then, are the highlights.

Halo 4

The Halo baton has passed to a new team after five sci-fi shooter games (yes, five). But anyone expecting radical change would be crazy. In fact, an old friend returns after a long absence. "Our first decision was to bring back the Master Chief," says Frank O'Connor, franchise development director, referring to the original hero of the series.

Early glimpses of Halo 4 show it to be a souped-up version of the shooter we know and love. With improved graphics and a "faster, more visceral multiplayer", Halo 4 is already shaping up to be one of the biggest games of the year.

Due this October/November

Fable: The Journey

Charismatic developer Peter Molyneux won't thank me for labelling his latest Fable offshoot as My Little Pony but this quirky Kinect-based title requires a lot of hands-on horse handling.

But there's more to The Journey than taking the reins for a wild ride across a medieval land, with spell-casting and familiar Fable-style RPG elements stirred into the mix. Almost as a throwaway line, Molyneux revealed that talking in an angry or calm tone at the screen while playing would influence the effect of the magic. However, the feature wasn't demonstrated and in typical Molyneux fashion may never make the final game.

Due in the second half of 2012

Kinect Star Wars

First teased alongside the debut of Kinect in June 2010, KSW sticks true to its fantasy of letting you fight lightsaber battles by miming the moves. But in a bid to pad out, er, widen its appeal, it has introduced several new modes, including dance competitions, monster demolition rampages and pod-racing.

The additions will probably engage younger gamers rather the hardcore Star Wars fans. But the latter may find the on-the-rails nature of KSW to be too restrictive even while they enjoy the flashy combat itself.

Due on April 3

Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour

A reboot for the barmy Steel Battalion series crossbreeds Kinect control with a traditional joypad for a chaotic shooter featuring a giant robot tank. The result can be exhilarating as you wave your arms to direct the action inside the tank while driving and shooting with the controller.

But when you're being pounded by fire from several enemies at once, it can all get a bit frantic, though Kinect is rarely to blame. Considering the last Steel Battalion required a special €200 controller, Heavy Armour is actually a step forward given that Kinect costs only €150.

Due this June

Joe Danger: The Movie

Irish developer Sean Murray scored a serious hit with the original Joe Danger, a download-only title that was hugely popular on PS3 and then again on Xbox 360. Murray's tiny UK-based team have kitted out the cartoon stuntman with a bunch of new tricks for this sequel.

Murray admits himself the original was a bit monotonous so variety is now the key. Joe Danger swaps between motorbikes, skis, snowmobiles and even bicycles to race through challenges on streets, in the snow and on rails, but always with his sly humour intact. Multiplayer and a level editor are extra bonuses.

Due this summer

Quantum Conundrum

From the woman who helped craft the magnificent Portal, QC mines a related seam of gold, a puzzle game involving alternative dimensions where objects become lighter or heavier, or time slows down.

Wrapped by a droll voiceover, it immediately evokes the headwrecking brainteasers of Portal as your character explores the mansion of a nutty professor who's gone missing. This download-only title will also be available on PC and PS3.

Due this summer

Deadlight

An innovative download-only effort, Deadlight blends the side-scrolling 2.5D world of Shadow Complex with an arty sensibility reminiscent of '80s classic Another World.

Sure, it's set during yet another zombie outbreak but focuses less on brutal hand-to-hand combat and more on overcoming environmental puzzles to make your escape.

Due this summer

Trials Evolution

Sequel to the crazily addictive Trials bike sim, Evolution leaves behind murky warehouses for the outside world, though it's still crammed with ramps and hazards to be negotiated.

The new level editor looks to be incredibly flexible, ensuring thousands of new challenges created by players themselves, while a new multiplayer mode neatly enables up to four bikes to race on-screen at once.

Due this spring

Irish Independent