The phrase “media giant” comes to mind when discussing EA. Easily the largest computer game publisher in the world, the company has been buying and building new studios like crazy, and at this year’s E3, no other single game company appears as focused and ready to take on the challenge of bridging the acceptance gap between games and those who’ve never played them.

So we spent several hours across all three days of E3 running their game gantlet to see what we could expect from the house that Trip built in the year to come.

The three hour tour started with the EA press conference on Wednesday, MCed by the lovely and talented Kathy Vrabeck, President of EA casual, who suggested that now was the time for “an industry leader to step in” and lead the charge to cashing in on the popularity of casual games … or something to that effect.

Having recently acquired internet gaming site Pogo, and mobile development team, Jamdat, it’s no surprise their efforts are being tuned in those two directions. But what was interesting to hear from the press conference was that they’ve been putting the screws to their various development houses, attempting to force a “other 90%” game out of the genie bottle. The result? Hit or miss. Mainly miss.

Playground, for the Nintendo Wii is among the smartest-looking of them, particularly the dodgeball mini-game. Players use the Wii controls to throw those fantastic, red balls at each other and … that’s it. Brilliant. The art style is goofy and fun, and fits the tone of the game perfectly. This component alone would eb worth a download, but the full game is to include a number of other games like tetherball, as well as an open-world type playground with collectibles and the like.

Unfortunately, the rest of EA’s “casual” offering suffer from a distinct lack of awesome.

Smartypants, the Buzz-like quiz game is confusing, difficult and at times just plain embarrassing to play. Players must move, shake and jitter the Wiimote when not answering questions, which at the best of times feels like busywork and at the worst fo times feels like someone had nom idea how to program for an accelerometer. The questions are also a bit dense, although those are apparently still being tweaked. Considering it’s due out for this holiday season, however, I’m not sure it will come together.

One that has come together is Boogie, the other “casual” title for Wii. Boogie features a great visual style and a neat take on the Wii control scheme. Players twist, twirl and shake the Wiimote in time to music, making the character on screen dance. It features DDR-style scoring, lots of fun moves and the usual assortment of fun songs. There’s also a karaoke feature as well as the option to record a short video of your boogier dancing, which you can edit within the game and then share with friends online.

In all it’s a fairly innocuous dance game, sans dance pad, which, although a bit tiring and bland, should be great fun to play with kids.

And now let’s step into the adults-only room. For the “core” gamer, as EA is now calling us, they’re offering a vast number of sequels and a couple of new IPs, of which, Army of Two and Rock Band caught my Eye.

Let’s start with Rock Band. I did finally get hands on with the game, playing bass on “Wanted Dead or Alive” with a few of the game’s developers. It was fun. Not mindblowing fun, but fun. Not even Guitar Hero fun. But still, fun.

The issues I had with the game after seeing it at Microsoft’s press event are just as annoying as I thought they’d be. The interface is lifeless and a bit confusing, for one, and it just doesn’t engage the same way Guitar Hero does. There was also a problem with the timing. I’ve heard reports of similar issues with certain television screens and Guitar Hero, but I’/m suspecting this issue is more endemic to the game than that.

It took me a full two minutes to get the hang of playing Rock Band and I was failing miserably – even on medium – until I discovered that notes needed to be hit about a half second before you’d normally want to. After I did that mental arithmetic though, it was all roses. But still, not Guitar Hero fun.

I’m also concerned that playing Rock Band may require a more consistent skill level form one’s friends or online companions than one can normally expect from such groups. In Guitar Hero when you miss a note, you still hear music and lyrics, just no guitar. What would a session of Rock Band sound like if everyone was off? Considering most of the public demos at E3 were given by three employees of Harmonix plus whoever was playing, I suspect it will be some time before we find out.

After rocking out Rock Band, I took a look at Army of Two, the game built from the ground up for co-op action. It’s a fun romp with a nice mix of realism and Hollywood boomage. Plus you can heal your teammate by shoving a tampon into his bullet wounds. How many games offer that as an option? None, to my reckoning, which in and of itself makes this one unique.

The game also features an agro component, making it possible to focus the enemies attacks on just one player, while the other enters a stealth mode, running around slitting people’s throts from behind. You can also go into overdrive mode, doing massive damage and taking a ton of damage yourself without falling., You can also play dead, and then surprise your enemies. You can also use car doors as riot shields, and then have your fellow player get behind you, picking off enemies from movable cover. And you can also … and you can also .. and you can also …

You get the picture. If you have at least one friend, and your tastes in military shmups run toward the more fantastical (and approachable) like mine, then you should enjoy it. Particularly the slightly homoerotic part where one player steers the parachute while the other, in tandem, picks off enemies as the two of you sail down into a hornets nest of enemies.

E3 2007: Bioshock

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