"If something looks blown up, make sure it's fully blown up before you approach it," cautioned a Microsoft programmer before letting players try the upcoming alien-fighting video game Halo 2 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo show this week. "Fusion cores will explode if shot."
Much of the video-game industry's annual event this year focused on giving players new ways to blow things up.
In Halo 2, players can smash their vehicles in all sorts of ways until they eventually ignite. In new versions of fighting games like Dead or Alive or Mortal Kombat, players get the chance to dismantle more of the arenas during each bout. Shooting games like the next Medal of Honor and Pariah allow players to enjoy the thrill of tossing gas tanks into crowds of enemies, then detonating them with a well-placed gunshot.
To dramatize how games for the Xbox console have improved, Microsoft Vice President J. Allard played a demonstration of digital cars that repeatedly crashed into walls and each other. Where in today's games, those automobiles fall apart in the same ways each time, in this demo each collision of flying metal and broken glass was unique unto itself.
Not every gamer cares for this sort of thing. "There's lots of violence, but that's what sells, I guess," said Brett Baker, a college student who was trying out an all-terrain vehicle racing game in a section of the show floor dedicated to Sony's PlayStation 2.
Baker prefers sports games to war games, but there were fewer to look at this year. Microsoft and Sony said they would pass on this year's round of updates for many of their sports titles, ceding even more of the market to dominant game publisher Electronic Arts.
As usual, me-too titles were a trend in their own right. For example, many games were set in fantasy worlds that resemble Middle-Earth. And with the runaway success of The Sims -- publisher EA says it has sold 12 million Sims titles, which recreate the everyday interactions of virtual people -- developers are readying many other life-simulation games.
The Movies, from famed game designer Peter Molyneux, lets players create their own film studios and direct miniature productions. Playboy Mansion gives players a chance to don the silk pajamas of Hugh Hefner and manage the Playboy empire.
Ask gamers to pick the coolest game of the show, and a diverse array of titles tripped off tongues, ranging from Def Jam Fight for New York, in which players fight against digitized versions of such rappers as Ludacris or Busta Rhymes, to Mech Assault 2, in which giant robotic war machines, yes, blow each other up.
Many of last year's "coolest-of-show" picks are still around, and still in their development cycles. Half-Life 2 is now due this summer, Halo 2 is scheduled to ship Nov. 9 and Doom 3 is expected to ship by the end of this year. Duke Nukem Forever -- first demonstrated at 1998's E3 -- continues to await a ship date.
Some of the most anticipated releases are being developed for Nintendo and Sony's upcoming handheld game players.
Nintendo showed titles that exploited the two screens of its Nintendo DS, due later this year. In one, players drew lines on one screen to steer Baby Mario through an obstacle course illustrated on the second screen.
Sony, meanwhile, showed off footage of what versions of the Spider-Man and Gran Turismo games might look like on its PSP, which won't ship in the United States until next year.
Asking gamers to handicap either handheld usually made for a short conversation, mainly because both Nintendo and Sony have stayed vague about such details as how much these handhelds will cost. Game publishers, in turn, also generally kept a lid on their plans to develop for these devices -- other than to point out that Nintendo has a reliable track record in this area, and Sony's executives are no dummies either.
Bruno Bonell, the hipster chief executive of Atari, offered a typical response about the Sony PSP. "I don't know if it's going to be the Newton story or the iPod story," he said, alluding to Apple Computer's most notorious flop and latest hit.