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Players Draw Battle Lines For E3

LOS ANGELES — The 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) here next week will mark a new phase in the evolution of the interactive entertainment industry.

The venue is slated to be the showcase for next-level gaming consoles positioned by their developers to take king-of-the-hill status away from Sony’s Playstation 2 as the year’s top-selling platform, promising game developers and end users more powerful processing capability and allegedly more compelling gaming. Emphasis will also be placed on the lucrative world of online multiplayer gaming, as manufacturers line up dial-up and broadband Internet access tied to multiplayer titles.

Sega will perhaps bring the biggest change to the show as it positions itself as a software developer for other companies’ platforms. After scrapping plans earlier in the year to continue pumping promotional funds into the Dreamcast platform, Sega is now developing game titles for virtually everyone else. The company announced it is developing and adapting games for Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox, Sony’s Playstation 2, Nintendo’s new Game Boy Advance, and most recently the GameCube.

Sega said it has sold roughly half of its remaining 2 million Dreamcast players since dropping further production and dropping the price to $99. It will continue to support the console with new titles, including “Phantasy Star Online Version 2,” which has been announced for Japan with U.S. marketing plans to be announced soon. Also to be demonstrated is “Sonic Adventure 2,” the latest Dreamcast installment of one of the company’s most popular franchises.

Microsoft’s Xbox will appear as the latest rival to the PS2, boasting a more powerful platform to help game developers realize their visions of advanced graphics and sound capability – something Sony also claimed for PS2, and promises to deliver with a vast assortment of new title introductions this year.

The first of what is expected to be several major national promotional partnerships includes Mexican fast food chain Taco Bell. Starting this fall and preceding the November Xbox launch, Taco Bell will provide “substantial media support” to Xbox and will host in-store promotions.

Dolby Labs,meanwhile, revealed that Xbox will deliver 5.1-channel surround sound using a new interactive content encoding technology. The Dolby Interactive Content Encoder streaming is said to dynamically encode multichannel audio into a Dolby Digital 5.1. Other video game offer Dolby Digital 5.1 capability, but that is found in non-interactive “cut scene” playback and not during real time game play.

Nintendo, meanwhile, a seasoned veteran of these video game wars, promises to showcase the next stage in its evolution by demonstrating a next-generation portable game system – Game Boy Advance – and its first disc-based system called GameCube, due out before the Christmas selling season.

The company recently announced that the platform will not ship in Japan in July as originally planned, and has been pushed back to September. However, Nintendo U.S. officials said they still expect GameCube to be ready to ship to dealers here before the Christmas buying season. They have also assured sufficient quantities to avoid the shortages experienced for PS2 last year.

Acclaim, among other things, said it is developing the sequel to “Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX.” Expected to debut at E3, the game is slated for release this fall for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube platforms.

Crave Entertainment said it will bring its “Kengo” franchise to the Xbox. “Kengo: Legacy of the Blade” is a sword-fighting game with customizable characters, and selectable game modes.

Electronic Arts is currently developing a James Bond game for the PlayStation 2 called “Agent Under Fire,” which is due by the end of the year.

Infogrames, a leading software publisher, will unveil Splashdown, a virtual personal watercraft riding experience developed along with Bombardier and Rainbow Studios, for the Playstation 2. It is due in the fall. The publisher also announced a licensing agreement with deal with CBS to develop a line of interactive games based on the “Survivor” program. The deal covers games for “next-generation console platforms and handheld systems” as well as Windows and Mac PCs. The first game is slated for release in late 2001.

Interplay is developing “Hunter: The Reckoning” exclusively for the Xbox by the first quarter of 2002. The title, featuring vampires and walking dead zombies, will allow single and up to four-player gaming.

Tecmo said its fighting game “Dead or Alive 3” will make its debut on the Xbox platform and will be among the first titles available at the platform’s launch.

Sony will unveil a slate of new games for its popular PS2 platform, including a new franchise called Extermination, which is designed to bring an action-movie experience to game playing when it ships this summer. The game centers on a top-secret military station in Antarctica, were a deadly virus threatens to spread to the world, infecting both organic and inorganic objects. Players must save mankind by defeating the mutant creatures and exterminating the virus with an advanced rifle packing a veritable arsenal of capabilities.

Also slated for summer release is “Twisted Metal:Black,” the latest and most sophisticated chapter in the Twisted Metal franchise. Another PS2 mega release will be “Gran Turismo 3,” which promises to deliver the most realistic virtual racing experience yet developed.