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Comment: The Battle Of Los Angeles

It's practically customary, once E3 is fully underway each year, for journalists, industry types and fans alike to start heated debates over which of the platform holders "won" the battle of the pre-show conferences in Los Angeles. Bars up and down Sunset Boulevard and all along Santa Monica's streets fill with people drinking, gesticulating and arguing over which of the giant companies won the most hearts and minds in the days prior to the show.

This year the arguments were more heated than ever - because there was really no clear winner, and the two most interesting products on show - Nintendo's DS and Sony's PSP - have massively polarised opinion both within the industry and among consumers.

Microsoft, however, is barely in the running. For a second year running the company chose to massively inconvenience many overseas visitors to E3 by holding its conference on Monday evening rather than on Tuesday like its competitors, for which it instantly loses brownie points - we can only hope that some form of sanity will prevail in Redmond next year when this is being planned once more. However, the many overseas media types who missed Microsoft's conference weren't missing a great deal; the settling of a deal that will see EA supporting Xbox Live is important, but not exactly unexpected, the new Xbox Live features are only of passing interest, and while Halo 2 looks stunning, that's hardly a major surprise either.

In fact, Microsoft had pretty much nothing of interest to say in Los Angeles, and fell back on a cringe-worthy video lampooning Sony's online gaming efforts rather than actually announcing anything really noteworthy. It's hard not to see this as evidence of a company treading water until it can talk about its genuine next big thing, namely Xbox 2.

Sony's conference the following morning was quite corporate and reserved, but much more interesting nonetheless. Microsoft's comedy video seemed even more embarrassing as Sony reminded the audience of its vastly larger numbers of PS2 online gamers, and pointed out a growth rate of 100,000 new online users a month; and the company also fired an impressive shot across the bows of its rival with the announcement of a new IBM-built workstation for digital content creators, which will be based on the Cell processor which will eventually power PlayStation 3.

Of course, the real meat of Sony's conference was the unveiling of PlayStation Portable - a sleek black slab of technology which wowed audiences with superb design and impressive graphics, as well as a huge line-up of software. That's where the misgivings kicked in, though - much of the software in the pipeline appears to be PSP versions of existing PS2 franchises. Is this really the future, or just a portable version of the past?

Last out of the stalls was Nintendo, and the Japanese company's flair for showmanship once again proved to be a winner with the partisan audience at its conference. The Nintendo DS has divided opinions massively, though, with many dismissing it as a gimmick or a poor response to the PSP, while others are sold on the hugely innovative control mechanisms and some of the unique games demonstrated by Nintendo.

One interesting factor is that those who have actually used the unit seem to be much more positive than those who have only seen pictures; the response to the DS from those actually at the show has been far more positive, in general, than comments from those who have only seen pictures or videos of the unit. The company's trump card, though, was the unveiling of a new Legend of Zelda title for the GameCube, due in 2005, which returns to the graphical style of the N64 Zelda titles and received a rapturous response in Los Angeles.

The head to head here is between Nintendo and Sony, and arguments will likely rage for weeks over which company "won" E3. Our stance? Nobody "wins" E3 - but the healthy competition between the two giants of the games industry in the handheld space will make gaming consumers, and the entire market, into the eventual winners.

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