E3 with all its beauties and horrors is in actuality a fairly quick affair. From start to finish the entire show runs less than three hours and while those hours do drag some times (especially when you are waiting in line to play a game or check out a trailer) but this year the last day was a bit of a panic as I tried to scratch as many games of my “Games to Check Out” list as possible. While I got most of the games on my list there were a few games that I just didn’t get to see on the show floor. The biggest disappointment there was not getting in to see the Spore demonstration. I didn’t have time to wait in line so I actually did the douchebag media thing of trying to use my media badge to cut into the line but they were full up. For the second year in a row I didn’t get in to see Unreal Tournament 2007 and I didn’t have time to check out Webzen’s Huxley or 2K Game’s Prey.
That said the first appointment of the day was with Microsoft to check out their new Games for Windows initiative. While it was mostly a rehash of what Microsoft talked about at their press conference we did learn a little more about the upcoming Direct X games Crysis and Age of Conan. We also had to deal with another media member who qualified as the 80/20 guy of the group as he insisted on asking a series of questions about Microsoft’s support of the Open GL standard. Given that it’s not Microsoft’s standard to control and his insistence of about getting inane questions answered he would have qualified as the douchebag media member of the day had it not been for a writer for a major blog who had cut in line in front of everyone at the start of the day. That said Chris Donahue; the head of Microsoft’s Games for Window division handled the gentleman with more aplomb and decency that the interrogator warranted. After the meeting I was up for a little bit of violence and luckily it was time for me to get my grubby little mitts on Gears of War.
For those of you who have been living under a rock or in some kind of Nintendo fanboy alternate dimension (come to think of it they might be the same thing) Gears of War is the new second person shooter from Epic Games. They are calling it a second person shooter even though the game is technically a third person shooter except that you look down the barrel of the game. That would sound like a lot of marketing and game design hooey except that that game kicks a lot of multiplayer ass despite my complete inability to play the game. The teams were divided into two groups of four and told to have at it. It turns out the tactical elements of “playing together” and “watching each others backs” are quite critical to success and since my team elected to forgo these and go with a strategy of “divide and be conquered” so our results were less than successful. That said I did manage two kills in the six or seven games we played which sadly led my pitiful team of humans.
From a weapons perspective Gears of War features the usual array of shotguns, assault rifles, pistol, with the ability for you to pick up a grenade launcher and sniper rifle on the map. The assault rifle features a chainsaw bayonet which allows you to get the quick instant kill if you can get in close enough to your opponent. I wish I could say I had the satisfaction of being able to deliver one of these kills but I can vouch that when it is done to you it is quite humiliating in a kind of fun way. If you wound your opponent to near death they will crouch on all fours. At this point they can be revived by a teammate or “curb stomped” which sounds exactly like it sounds and much like a Christmas present it’s a lot more fun to give than receive.
While I didn’t have a lot of luck with the game I will admit that the game got it’s hooks into me and I look forward to playing the final version of the game when it ships at some point in the near future. The game will definitely appeal to the Halo crowd and this game may finally be the one that knocks Halo 2 from the top spot on Xbox Live.
After a quick respite I headed to the bowels of West hall and near the end of the Nintendo line to visit the folks at Bioware. A late addition to my appointment schedule I was eager to see what the folks from the North had been working on.
The first title that I was demoed was a PC port of last year’s Jade Empire. The game has received a major graphical overhaul and has received a ton of new effects and graphical details over what Bioware shipped to Microsoft’s last generation console. Bioware isn’t tricking the game out though and is setting the PC Spec’s a bit low so that gamers won’t need a high end PC rig to play thegame.
In making the transition to the PC the Bioware team listened to the fans and implemented a number of changes. The biggest one being an increase in the difficulty of the game as well as tweaking the game’s AI to make it a little harder to get through the game. The new version of the game will include a host of new powers and harmonic combos as well as adding two new styles to the game. The first is the Iron Palm which is a sumo combat style focused on slaps and pushing on opponents while the Viper Style will be focused on landing many fast strikes at once (and was inspired by the movie Five Deadly Venoms).
The developers let it slip that Jade Empire is the first game in a new IP for Bioware and while they didn’t say it directly one could almost deduce that Jade Empire 2 might already be under development for next generation systems.
Next up was the game that kind of changed my perspective of the show and while it’s hard to really get that excited about a non-interactive demo (at least non-interactive from the point that I wasn’t controlling the action) I have to say that I got the same feeling watching the demonstration of Mass Effect that I did last year when I sat through the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion demonstration. It was that feeling that things have changed and that the market is advancing, the fact that normal RPG standards are being advanced, that new perspectives are being created. Maybe I was just a little loopy from the sleep deprivation and caffeine buzz but I really dug what Bioware had to show me.
What made the demonstration different? It was a few things. The first was the cinematic feel of the game and the new way of approaching the old dialog tree that’s become common place in every single RPG. Rather than spitting out a specific line of dialogue you pick which emotion you want to communicate and the game handles the rest for you, coming up with dialog that matches the emotion you picked. The old paradigm of being zoomed in to the persons face was also changed as the perspective the dialogue takes place from is done from an over the shoulder perspective which adds a nice cinematic look and feel to the action.
I also have to give props to Bioware for coming up with a rather unique plot and plot device. You do have a bit of the standard “Save the Galaxy” from the great menace action but there’s an interesting twist. You play Commander Shepard, a new agent in the galaxies Spector program. As an agent of Spector you are tasked with protecting the galaxy no matter what. As the first human Spector agent you represent all humans as the humans have just recently joined the galactic party and you’re the first human that most aliens see. This means that your actions directly impact how all humans are perceived across the galaxy which is new concept that brings a lot of pressure with it as well as a lot of narrative potential.
The action in Mass Effect takes place across the entire galaxy as Bioware is providing gamers with the opportunity to explore the entire known universe with the possibility of new content being added after the game is released. You will explore the planets in a large planetary rover which can be upgraded as the game progresses. Like Oblivion, the game will have a main quest for you to solve as well as a lot of side quests that you can complete at your leisure.
It wouldn’t be an RPG without combat and you’ll have a new squad management system in place that allows you to quickly move your teammates around to achieve optimal tactical superiority using the games system of weapons and special powers. This part was a little more atypical RPG but it still looked good. All in all, Mass Effect has that game of the year type potential but I’m going to withhold final judgment until I’m actually playing the game at home.This is my second year talking to the folks at NC Soft and you have to hand it to them they are certainly doing something different with the MMORPG market. While they do have a few standard fantasy MMORPG titles they are also branching out in some new directions. The biggest indication of that is their new PlayNC initiative where they are going to be offering up select new games in kind of a newer interpretation of the old shareware model (or crack cocaine model if you’re into that kind of thing). The theory is that you hook people with a free sample and then they pay to unlock the full version or features in the new version. It’s a nice system but you have to have good games for it to work and that’s where the titles come in. NC Soft showed off four of these titles:
After NC Soft I roamed the halls a bit. E3 is usually the only time I get to meet the people that I exchange e-mails with over the course of the year so I always try and get a little face time in with them if I have time. I managed to make my way over to 2K Games boot h and somehow got whisked into a presentation of The Darkness, the new game from Starbreeze that is based on the comic book of the same name. The game has you playing a mob hitman who’s possessed by an evil force on his 21st birthday and gains the ability to wreck unholy hell on his enemies. The game is actually looking pretty good as you have to work in the shadows to really use your powers to summon darklings, impish little creatures who have a knack for death and destruction. A cool little feature of the new engine is that the developers can inject video anywhere into the game and they are promising to inject a lot of public domain video into the game.
After catching the Darknesss I asked very nicely to get into see Bioshock and luckily they were able to cram me into the booth. I’m glad they did as Bioshock was easily one of the top five games I saw at the show last year. What really grabs you about Bioshock is the amazing atmosphere the folks at Irrational have been able to create with the game. The bright cheerful art deco style contrasts wonderfully with the hulking monstrosities that haunt the halls of the underwater city. The game’s System Shock lineage is readily apparent and taken to the next level.
This concludes the bulk of my E3 coverage. I’ve already covered the games that I saw in appointments but I’ll try and post a little more later on this week about the other games that I saw on the show floor and what I liked about them as soon as I’m back on a regular sleep schedule.Day 3, by now exhaustion has set in, I woke up feeling like crap, but I braved the Los Angelese traffic yet again for more gaming goodness. On the plate for today was Nippon Ichi Software and the rest of what the show floor had to offer. Though I spent a larger amount of time over at the Square-Enix booth checking out more of Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria, hands down it is my game of show, and I'll explain why later.
Wednesday and Thursday each had their surprises, but for me, Friday was the defining day for my first E3 experience. That was the day I mad it into the Nintendo booth. To add some context for those of you who weren’t there, Nintendo’s exhibit was THE main attraction at E3. The line that stretched back and around Nintendo’s booth, across the food court and weaved between the cluster of meeting rooms, only to end in a four hour wait…well, it broke all previous E3 records. Nintendo was big. And I don’t even think they meant for it to get this crazy.
It was a simple matter of underestimating demand. The hallowed Playstation 3, the supposed end-all be-all of console gaming, was making its debut. So why did the House that Mario Built steal the show? The answer is easy: Nintendo was changing the game.
The crowded atmosphere, the insane crush of people vying to get in, is a testament to the Wii’s mystique and appeal. Even after the doofy name (yes, I still don’t like it) there was still that ludicrously long line. And once I made it inside, it all made sense. The atmosphere hit you like a gut-punch, and while E3 is basically sensory overload anyway, the Nintendo booth had a unique feel. There was almost a class to the architecture, a feeling of exclusivity. A large, rotating turntable with three couches and a tri-screened plasma display dominated the entrance. The turntable displayed three Nintendo employees playing with the controller, while booth babes described what they were doing. I was lucky enough to see Koji Kondo, the man who composed the Zelda and Mario music, actually conducting the Hyrule overworld theme on the new orchestra game. I didn’t exactly weep, but I admit, seeing the master at work, conducting a piece of his own music that has been burned into the collective psyches of gamers worldwide…well, it made the hair stand up on my neck. I even snagged his autograph! That’s going in the scrapbook.
Along the walls surrounding the turntable were large LCD screens playing a loop of Wii footage, of special note, the Super Smash Bros. Brawl trailer. Look this one up on Google video, and prepare to get psyched for that game; Solid Snake makes a humorous guest appearance at the end.
After gawking for a few minutes, I made a b-line for the glass case containing the Wii and its many accessories. It was like being Indiana Jones, staring down that unobtainable idol. The console, the three colors of controllers, the sensor bar, the shell pad, the gun extension...well, just take a look at the many pics I snapped to get an idea. I cannot emphasize just how small and elegant the Wii is.
Reluctantly shoved away from the case by other ravenous photographers, I made my way onto the main show floor…and realized I had walked from a ginormous line into a merely massive one. There were one and two hour waits in front of almost every game, particularly the big three: Mario, Zelda and Metroid. I realized it was time to make a choice—after all, it was already, and the show closed at . Being the Samus Junkie that I am, I got on the waiting list for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and proceeded to wander about the booth while I waited for my turn. In the end I only got to play Prime 3, but I’ll give my best impressions of the many other notable games I observed.
First and foremost, Super Mario Galaxy looks to be the platformer paradigm shift everyone’s been waiting for, the true sequel to Mario 64. In the game, Mario is not constrained to one single world, but blasts to and from small planetoids, getting caught in their gravity and running along their spherical surfaces. Shaking the controller allows Mario to perform special moves, like his signature tornado punch, but movement is still handled by the nunchuck analog stick. Gaming Nexus ally Jim got a crack at galaxy, and said it is extremely smooth and intuitive.
Next up, the game that feels like it will never be released: The Legend of Zelda, Twilight Princess. Though it hasn’t topped Duke Nukem Forever’s 9-year record, Zelda is pushing three annuals and Nintendo fans are getting impatient. It was revealed at the press conference that two versions will be released: one for GameCube, the other as a launch title for Wii. This is a somewhat foolish decision, seeing as only the hardcore fans will buy the GCN version, but I’m just happy that it’ll be coming out this year. Regardless of launch plans, the game looks absolutely stunning on Wii. The controller isn’t used as integrally as in Mario Galaxy (this game was originally designed around the GCN pad), but jabbing and slashing with a sword, and bow-and-arrow simulation are very possible and very easy to pull off. Some other elements might use the Wii controller, such as the fishing minigame and control of Link’s fairy sidekick.
For my next game summary, let me break away from the Nintendo booth, to two days earlier. While touring South Hall I spied Microsoft’s massive booth and, more importantly, the new Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m almost as big a Sega fan as I am a Nintendo fan, so I was quite excited about this new iteration of the blue blur. I grabbed the ergonomic 360 pad and “jumped in,” only to have the distinct sensation of cold water a few seconds later. Sonic on 360 played just like Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, six years ago. About the only difference was prettier graphics. The same god-awful camera, the jittery controls, the total lack of traction, none of it has been improved upon. I played the PS3 version on Thursday, just to make sure, and that build was just as unstable. Now I’m no master of gaming, but when I lose all my lives trying to make one easy jump, then it’s the game that has the problem, not me.
So, I was understandably skeptical when I saw the Wii’s exclusive Sonic title. Sonic Team apparently hadn’t learned their 3D lessons, six years after the fact, so what reason did I have to trust them now? Every reason. Sega can’t do a 3D platformer/adventure if their lives depended on it, but when given certain guidelines, they manage to whip up the old magic. Sonic Wild Fire is, for lack of a better term, a rail game. Sonic runs in a continual path through an extensive, varied level filled with obstacles, spikes, enemies, and of course, gold rings. He is controlled by holding the Wii-mote on its side, like an NES pad, and tilting it right and left. Additional actions can be performed with buttons and quick movements of the Wii-mote, like a sharp forward jab. The visuals are incredibly smooth and polished, and I dare say they look better than the 360 Sonic. The action is also incredibly fast, that crack-like velocity Sonic fans have been craving since the Genesis days. When it comes right down to it, isn’t this what we all wanted? Did we really ask for a Mario 64 rip-off, with clumsily placed roller-coaster stages that didn’t work well anyway? Wild Fire is everything we love about Sonic, distilled down into a concentrated, if somewhat restricted, package.
The much anticipated Red Steel was also playable, and it had quite a voluminous line as well. The Ubisoft-developed shooter was the first Wii game to have screenshots released, but the hype built up around this Yakuza thriller may have hurt it. Clearly, there is still much work to be done. The shooting mechanics, a core element of the game, are far too sensitive and finicky. Aiming normally is too random and unpredictable, so the zen-like accuracy of one bullet, one kill isn’t viable yet. The swordplay, the game’s main selling point, is also somewhat disappointing. The game interprets motions with the Wii-mote as preset, generic sword slashes, instead of actually mimicking the controller’s every move. This will have to be remedied if the immersive feel of the game is to survive, and the graphics could use some prettying up too. Don’t get me wrong; Red Steel is a good looking title with a lot of promise, it just needs polish. Rememebr who we’re dealing with here: Ubisoft Paris. These people brought us Splinter Cell and Prince of
Still waiting for Prime 3, I got my hands on the classic style controller at a virtual console kiosk. It looks like an SNES pad with two analog sticks, not unlike a PS1 controller minus the stubby handles. Playing classic games like NES Mario, Sonic and Mario World were a snap, and Mario 64 was easy enough with a little getting used to. The only problem is the position of the Z-button—next to the right shoulder button, like on the GCN pad. The games themselves look good, for straight emulations with no fluff. Mario 64 was somewhat rough due to the lack of anti-aliasing, but the Nintendo reps assured me that these were early demo builds and that all the graphical bugs would be ironed out. A Nintendo Europe employee hinted that in the next few weeks more details would emerge, such as pricing structure and storage options.
The penultimate experience came when I finally got my try at Metroid Prime 3. Due to the huge number of people in line, I only got seven minutes of play time, but in that time, the Wii and its controller finally made sense to me. You really do have to sit down and play with the damned thing. Maybe it was my considerable (unhealthy) experience with Prime 1 and 2, but I got right into the action and picked up the controls within seconds. Granted, I did watch the demo being played, off and on for about three hours, but watching and playing are two very different things.
The controls break down like this. The Wii-mote is used to aim Samus’s blaster with complete motion control. You point, she points, you turn, she turns, no questions asked. The dominant A button shoots, while the under barrel B trigger jumps. For me it’d feel more natural if these two functions were reversed (a trigger seems to be the obvious choice for firing a weapon) but the setup still worked incredibly well. The up, left and right D-pad directions swapped visors, while D-down launched off a missile. Supposedly Prime 3 will have a stacking beam system similar to Super Metroid, so switching back and forth between beam weapons shouldn’t be necessary anymore. The nunchuck attachment controls movement and strafing, just like the WASD keys on a keyboard. The Z-trigger on the front of the nunchuck is assigned the lock-on function, while the tiny button right above it activates the morphball.
An intuitive setup to be sure, but in action it becomes even more amazing. Stabbing the nunchuck forward unleashes Samus’s grapple beam, which can attach to sealed doors and enemies. Once latched on, pulling back on the control stick wrenches obstacles out of the way, or even tears a Space Pirate’s energy shield to shreds. These actions are indescribably visceral because they involve so much actual motion that correlates to the action on screen. At one point Samus must unlock a door by pulling a locking mechanism from its housing, twist it 180 degrees, and then push it back into place. This entire action is performed by the player. The most everyday tasks, like opening doors, become exciting with the Wii-mote.
Needless to day, I was on cloud nine. The sheer immersive factor was unlike anything I had experienced in a game before, and I can safely say that Wii will truly change the face of video games. It also helped that the game was drop-dead gorgeous. The Metroid experience, the music, the atmosphere, the locales, enemies, allies and new surprises were so real looking, it was apparent that Retro has taken the bull by the horns here. While not the muscle-bound monster that is the PS3, Wii can still pump out some stunning visuals if the hardware is pushed hard enough. I experienced no framerate drops or glitches, which is impressive for an E3 demo.
And for all the Metroid nuts out there, I’ll give you a tasty bit of info. The end boss of the demo was none other than Ridley. He and Samus were actually plummeting down an exhaust shaft, trading shots and blows. Having him come right up in my grill and smack me across the visor was particularly jarring. Here’s hoping that the notorious Kraid will make an appearance too.
And so, I left the Wii booth after three hours of observation and immersion. My mind was spinning, and I had stepped right into the sizeable DS demo floor. What kind of Nintendo E3 summary would this be if I didn’t mention Wii’s little brother, the DS Lite? Now I know a lot of people have plunked down the cash and imported the slick little portable (it seemed that every third person at E3 had one), but finally getting the Lite in my hands was an eye opener of sorts. It really is that tiny. And bright. Oh my god, how it is bright. The nicest surprise to come out of DS this year was Starfox, a series that has been handled rather roughly the past few games. Thankfully, Fox McCloud’s DS outing returns to the space combat roots of its predecessors. There’s no on-foot this time, just straight-up aerial shooting. Starfox DS has more in common with the cancelled SNES Starfox 2 than it does with Starfox 1 or 64—there are no on-rails levels.
Instead, there is a map displaying enemy positions, bases and squadrons. Starfox Team is spread quite thin across the Lylat system, so it’s up to McCloud to protect his mothership, the Great Fox from incoming enemies. Tracing a path with the stylus expends fuel, so players must choose which enemies to engage while keeping in mind relative distance and Great Fox’s vulnerability. Once Fox hits a cluster of enemies he enters a short, timed skirmish in which he must engage all hostile forces in the area. Destroying bases stops the flow of enemies, but taking too long leaves Great Fox open to attack. This element of strategy deepens a series that I personally think has been too shallow for too long. Purists might whine about the lack of rail shooting, but if you ask me, ditching that constrictive formula can only help the anthropomorphic space sim.
The demo only had one planet, Corneria, but the final game should have multiple worlds spanning 30 missions. The multiplayer component also looks very promising, with 15 playable characters, 8 player local download and 4 player over Wifi.
As an end note, if you were lucky enough to play Mario DS you received a free DS Lite carrying case. I snagged a couple, but I’m sure there are plenty on Ebay right now for those not at the show.
Nintendo has really turned things around for themselves, in addition to placing the gaming industry on its ear. They have a lot of attention, the E3 herds and literal stampedes of fans prove it, and they’re making good on their promises of changing how games are played. Some of the titles, Red Steel in particular, need some buffing up, but with five months until launch I have confidence in a strong release lineup. Q4 2006 is going to be a very big time for gaming, on Wii, DS, 360 and PS3. The next five months of waiting are going to be oh so painful.
My last day started with a backstage visit to Microsoft. As Charles has detailed this visit thoroughly, I’ll avoid repeating much of the information he relayed. The one thing I will say is that the concept of Xbox Live becoming a multiplatform (Windows PC, Xbox 360, and Cellular Phone) gaming system is perhaps the most intriguing and exciting idea to come out of this year’s E3.
My last appointment for E3 was with FunCom for the Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures demonstration. I’m going to say it straight up: This game looks pretty kick ass, and isn’t even done yet.
The storyline starts out like the morning after a bad night in
Graphically, Age of Conan is striking. A lush group of jungle islands are your environment for the first 20 levels of your gameplay. Cities are full and explorable, and the good and bad parts of town are as identifiable as they are in real life. Wandering dark alleys is trouble, and working on quests for the king in the good part of the capital bring a terrific reward cinematic worth the effort of doing some good deeds.
The combat system is robust, and allows both foot and mount based combat. Weapons are modeled realistically, and interaction with a two handed sword is drastically different from that of the interaction with a bow, lance, or any other weapon.
Age of Conan offers unique touches that really catch the eye. Player built cities will eventually attract the attention of bad guys who will build their own city nearby for the purpose of conducting raids and attacks. Player built cities can only be built in specific areas of the gaming world that make sense. Walls will be very important, as keeping the enemy hordes out is am important as having a good strategy for fighting them. Large catapults and other medieval weapons of mass destruction will be a part of the city v city combat.
Finally, outside of the standard player dungeons, the game will also offer random encounters that make sense. This is truly a breath of fresh air. Stay in one place long enough, and you’re likely to be encountered by a wondering opponent who is going to be a challenge to defeat. No more bunnies or frogs wandering into your campsite that simply wastes your time, while providing little challenge or experience.
Age of Conan is scheduled for release as a title optimized for Windows Vista in Q4 2006.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.