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Xbox conference: Halo 2 on-sale date, EA go Xbox Live

Halo 2 will be released on 9 November, while Electronic Arts have agreed terms with Microsoft that mean their Xbox games will finally be playable online via the Xbox Live service. Those were the only two major stories to come out of this year's Xbox E3 conference at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, which has already drawn comparisons to last year's infamous Nintendo Pac-Man-themed E3 event, such was its underwhelming nature.

While Sony are shortly expected to make massive announcements at their E3 conference regarding both software and - crucially - hardware, Microsoft's event saw the company largely happy to rest on its laurels, with the focus placed on Xbox's online functions and a slew of games whose existence we've already known about for months. Crucially, absolutely no mention was made of Xbox 2.

Instead, the big story was Halo 2 - whose release date was revealed as being 9 November, meaning it's a 'mere' six months away from hitting shelves. That date is, according to Microsoft, "set in stone". Let's just hope that doesn't come back to haunt them.

After last year's demo of the first level of the single-player game, this year we were shown part of the multiplayer component in action, which pitted Marines against Spartans in Zanzibar, a level set on the east coast of Africa in 2552. Bungie recapped the characteristics of vehicles in the game, which are fully destructible and can also be stolen off other players. Assuming you haven't already destroyed them.

While the environment itself looked suitably pleasing, it was the Half-Life 2 style physics that truly impressed, with buggies being violently - yet realistically - flung about and blasted into cliffs by rocket launchers. Which is obviously A Good Thing. Better, though, is the news that this will be playable on the show floor at E3 - so look out for a hands-on report later in the week.

Besides Halo 2, the other major - if predictable - news was that Electronic Arts have finally signed up for Xbox Live. So the likes of Burnout 3, Need For Speed: Underground 2, FIFA, TimeSplitters 3, Tiger Woods, GoldenEye 2 and Fight Night (which poor old Muhammad Ali was wheeled out to represent) will be playable online via Microsoft's broadband service. The first EA games with Xbox Live functionality will hit shelves in the summer.

The online side of things had been emphasised further earlier in the evening in a rather bitchy video that belittled Sony's relatively weak online PS2 service, which featured Donald Trump, a Bill Gates cameo, a Ken Kutaragi looky-likey and a beaming J Allard, who was looking far too smug (and far too much like Moby) for his own good.

Meanwhile, the latest non-gaming component of Xbox Live is a new webcam-based videophone function, which will allows up to five mates to have a natter while looking at a (somewhat jerky) video feed of each other. You'll also be able to send video mails to other Live users. It's essentially the same idea as Sony's EyeToy Chat application, which was announced last week.

Also new for online will be Xbox Live Arcade, which will allow you download a variety of retro, puzzle, card and trivia games. The spin is that it will provide a quick gaming fix although why you'd choose to play Galaxians instead of Halo 2 or Doom 3 remains to be seen. Speaking of which, Doom 3 was - for a second year - shown in video highlights format, with its Xbox-exclusive cooperative play highlighted. Along with a veritable smorgasbord of really unpleasant looking monsters.

In lieu of any mention of Xbox 2 whatsoever, we were given a recap of Microsoft's XNA software development tool, which will be at the heart of Xbox 2 games. The XNA Crash demo - the one featuring a car driving straight into a wall - which has been doing the rounds for a month-and-a-half already, was shown again, as was an updated version of it which featured a pair of Selena 57s charging straight into one another. A nice-looking video clip, yes. But hardly worthy of being one of the focal points of the Xbox E3 conference.

Also announced at the event were Vanguard: Saga of Heroes a (wait for it) third generation MMORPG which will be released exclusively on "XNA platforms" - ie Windows and Xbox 2 - and Forza Motorsport. This was pronounced as being the "first fully customisable racing simulation for Xbox" and, while it looked decent enough, it hardly appears to be the (excuse the phrase) Gran Turismo-beater that Microsoft surely need...

So, how will Sony's and Nintendo's E3 2004 conferences shape up compared to the disappointing Xbox affair? Keep reading gamesradar.com for the first live reports later today.

Photos: Jon Jordan

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