E3 2005 Coverage (Part 4)|
Written by Mat Houghton
June 7, 2005
Day one of E3 is something like opening day at a ball park (not that I am intimately familiar with the latter, just I associate it with that sort of expectant wonder. This is the beginning of something great.) Of course, day three is something like confronting the end of a brutal losing season, but weíll leave confronting that till later.
Day one simply radiates, and not only because of the TV screens large enough to land airplanes on, or display full-scale representations of Guam. Everyone is excited, interested; everyone wants the show to come into being. They all want to be the little kid who sneaks backstage and sees how the magician puts his assistant back together again, slowly pulling back saw teeth; the flesh all bleeding back together.
Into this heady air come the throngs of waiting watchers. The endless unwashed masses who will stand in lines for that one glimpse of light. They bear green badges around their necks, rubbing and mumbling over them Ė pilgrims bearing holy relics. As these microscopic cogs shuffle outside, jostling each other for a view behind the as yet unopened doors, you see little knots of blue wiggle their way through. They go in and out those unopened doors, their tags hang loose, almost forgotten, until security asks to see them and they jump as if startled and swing the blue into view. These makers are here with purpose, though not one of their liking. They are here to sell their half complete marvels of next year, to sell them to all of these waiting green toting pilgrims and to the loved/hated bearers of purple badges, that is if you have an appointment. The purple badge is its own burden and benefit. I wear mine with some measure of smugness. Iím not one of those guys just here to see the spectacle; I have a job to do. So come along, and letís see what lies in store.
The ďSquenixĒ booth Ė you have to wonder when they are actually going to change the name from Square-Enix because everyone already calls it that Ė was the first port of call on this little electronic cruise. There is something about that first booth of the show; it sets the tone for what is to follow. Maybe itís just a feeling, like roaches crawling up behind your eyes, fine, hairy legs skittering around your brain; something that you just canít shake.
As far as product is concerned the fare here was for the most part as rich and tasty as you would expect. The exceptions were of course the mobile gaming titles that Squenix had come up with. I have to say, unless you have a mobile phone/palm pilot/camera/mp3 player/blender/death ray there is no real reason to be playing a title that would look and play about 3,000 times better on your GBA, PSP, or DS. I have a phone and I talk on it. I donít need to waste the already negligible battery life trying to get a poorly animated sprite through a maze. Some of the other titles I had highlighted by a truly useless PR flack. He ran his mouth about two games which amounted to what he had written for him, shuffled me into the theatre, and went back to flirting with the desk attendant.
The theatre presentation was, well typical. It had a series of previews for the new big titles they have coming out framed by a ďyouíre completely excited and breathless about our stuffĒ sequence to make a show out of it rather than just a series of coming attractions. Being at once whelmed and overwhelmed, I walked out of the theatre, picked up a little gray slime and continued on my way. So what was there to see? Well, the biggest things they were pushing were Kingdom Hearts II and Dragon Warrior VIII, and Iíd say they look good, but thatís doing them injustice.
Kingdom Hearts II looks to be a sequel in all the best ways. Not only do you get a continuation of the story, but they took all the things that fans liked about the original and made them better. Now when you travel from one Disney world to the next not only does the entire graphic style of the game change, but the look of your character does as well to be in synch with the new environment. The new environments are pretty impressive too, from the China presented in Mulan, to Halloween town, to a treasure filled cave from Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, the new one.
The real improvement to game play is that combat seems a lot smoother, the developers having taken a page from God of War. No, it hasnít been made into a gore fest; just fantastic maneuvers can be executed with the push of a button.
Dragon Warrior VIII was also impressive in that it was graphically fantastic, so long as you like Akira Toriyamaís art style. The game itself seems to be in tune with other titles in the series, but having never been a big fan of them, I really couldnít tell you much about it. What impressed me was that you have real time day/night and a fairly dynamic world, so you could take Gohan and Bulma (ok, ok, no characters from Dragon Ball Z actually appear in this game, but everyone looks spookily similar to that series)up to the top of a hill and watch the sun set.
The little bit of Final Fantasy XII I saw was gorgeous, just flat out jaw droppingly impressive, but thatís to be expected of Square cinematics these days. I canít really tell you anything about game play because all they had was the movie, but it looked cool.
The Final Fantasy Compilation titles were interesting. Squenix has a new theory, why cross market the same story over and over again? Instead you make a world, say the world of Final Fantasy VII, and then tell different stories in that world, with each tale being something specifically created for the platform it will be produced for. That is, I think what the idea behind Compilation was, and depending on how this does Squenix will probably do more of it. In essence you have three game titles and a ďmovieĒ, Squenix doesnít like the idea of calling Advent Children a movie probably to distance it from Spirits Within. Anyway, Advent Children is something of a sequel to Final Fantasy VII, and the new PS2 title Dirge of Cerberus takes place after the events of VII. The other two titles, Before Crisis and Crisis Core, are mobile (phone) and hand held (PSP) titles respectively and handle events that led up to what happens in VII.
Blizzard has for the past three years had a playable demo of Ghost at their booth, so who knows if this is actually going to come out anytime soon. They have added a multi-player mode so you can deathmatch to your heartís content, but at least they have other characters, so everyone isnít running around in various shades of Master Chief. Otherwise, itís an FPS, but it does look pretty.
Also on display were the by now released Battle Grounds for World of Warcraft. If youíve been playing this is nothing new, but then they werenít new at the show either, because they had been up on a test server for some time previous to the show. Iíd love to lay on some super secret information that I was able to weasel out of Blizzard at the show, but all I really have is that the first actual expansion to the game (not one of the endless patches) will increase the level cap to 62.
For those of you not in the know the World of Warcraft MMO has stepped up its PvP. The Battle Grounds are instanced areas in the game, one of which is a ten on ten game of capture the flag, and the other is a forty on forty series of quests that kind of work like the original Warcraft game. Is it groundbreaking and something that has never been done? Not really, but they do offer some very different styles of game play, and offer some good times, so long as you donít mind waiting (sometimes more than an hour).
Mad Catz was showing off their marketing strategy and a little bit of their tech savvy. Most of the actual products that they had on display were simple controllers that were either tie-ins (Fantastic Four or Batman) or licensed from the major leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB). They had controllers for all of the major teams, so if you like sports games and want to show your teamís colors, this is where to go. What was more interesting was that Mad Catz was getting away from the peripherals market and actually had some software.
The software included a DDR style dance game, which is simple enough, but still looked fun. I was also a little more complicated because it included the center as a button, but otherwise if youíve played DDR you know what to expect. What were more impressive were their other two software titles, which were golf and baseball simulators. I call them simulators because they are one of the many products that translate your movements into the on screen action, so you hold the golf club or bat and swing and you have a good drive or get a hit based on your own movements. They werenít impressive because this is anything new, but because they were going to retail, with the gloves and base that read your movements for around $60, which is not too shabby. Also, it was supposed to be accurate enough to help you with your golf swing, rather than just being a neat little toy, so the next time itís raining you can still get a few holes in.
Day two starts much earlier than day one and all the drunken partiers come crawling in on the backs of the assembly. The doors open and the hard knots of hangovers are tightened against the solid hammer of sound that hits you as you come in the door. Free drinks suddenly donít seem like the best idea ever. So you walk through the noise of one cacophony trying desperately to be heard over another, and let the noise wash over you, the light from ten thousand screens bleeding together. There is more to see, always more to see.
JoWood is a studio that probably doesnít get a lot of press; however they consistently make some pretty good games. This year they decided to get some attention, and I think it worked. Their big draw was the Stargate SG-1 tie in they are working on. This may have been because there were some absolutely incredible booth babes there and they had Richard Dean Anderson come in as well, and who doesnít like McGyver? Itís a squad based FPS, that if they come through on what is planned for it should be an interesting little, with the ability to jump between characters in your squad, each of whom has their own special abilities. The graphics and textures were finely detailed, even at this stage of development, and my favorite option was that you had a trail that told you where your grenade was going to hit when you threw it.
This wasnít all JoWood had to offer though. They had Gothic III, which is big news for all you fans out there, but for anyone who doesnít know, think the Elder Scrolls series. Gothic III is that sort of RPG, however with the third incarnation the series is becoming larger and a bit more involved. The best news was that your decisions would be remembered by NPCís, so if you feel the need to have a rumble with the local guards they will remember you, even if it isnít the one you beat on. In addition, there is a faction element to the game that is introduced early on and is fairly determinative of game play because, well the factions certainly donít like each other and, well, the friend of my enemy and all thatÖ
Also on display were Spellforce 2 and a skiing racer. While the latter doesnít sound too impressive Ė I mean, itís skiing Ė it has crisp graphics, a great impression of speed and is challenging, so if you have any interest in the sport you should keep an eye out. Spellforce 2 on the other hand is an interesting combination between RTS and RPG, much like Warcraft III, but with a much more detailed graphic style.
Bethesda was incredible. Their booth...not so impressive, but the demo they had of Oblivion was nearly perfection in a meeting room with airplane seating. I could go into detail about how fantastic this game looks, but just check out our Q&A. This is what I would call one of the first truly next generation games, but that moniker is going to be over-used within the month, if it isnít already. Good NPC AI, a dynamic world, rich graphics and ďgrownĒ forests all give this game style to the nines, to mention nothing of the voice talent (Patrick Stewart), physics engine, and a host of other features.
After a half hour of that, you would think that anything else would seemÖ plain, but even so Bethesda still managed to flex some muscle. They had a very early demo for their Legend of Jack Sparrow game (based on the character from the Pirates of the Caribbean) that had potential, but was way too early to tell too much about how the final title would play.
Call of Cthulhu was much more impressive though. Based on a short story by Lovecraft, but containing elements from his larger body of work, Cthulhu looks to be a good survival horror title, with puzzles, combat, and of course the odd brush with the Other. It is first person, but has more in common with the Suffering or Eternal Darkness than it does a shooter.
Day three dawns in less time than you would have liked, but there is a nice greasy spoon around the corner with a fantastic breakfast and a cup of coffee waiting for you, and then you are off for a last fight with the crowds to absorb that last bit of information, take in that last bath of scintillating light. You plod along with the rest of the crowd, driven by the prospect of just one more bag of swag, just one more demo. The speakers boom out just as loud, the lights dance just as bright, and they ask to hear some noise and all you can muster is barely more than normal volume.
Day three was my own, so I wandered around taking in the sights and hitting a few demos that looked interesting. I did spend more time than I should have playing Auto Assault (more on that in a moment), but then they should have made it less fun.
NCsoft went well out of their way to make a mark on this year's show. They were really pushing Auto Assault, a Mad Max sort of MMO, but also City of Villains, Guild Wars, and Tabula Rasa. The reason Auto Assault was the center display was that NCsoft hired a band for three days plus one party to go nuts with about 55 drums, fire dancing, and some interesting themed costumes. Iím not going to say that this was the best spectacle of the show, but live music and people dancing and playing with fire on stage will definitely draw a crowd.
The games were also worthy of attention, but I have to say that Auto Assault looks like a much different animal than when I saw it last year. Gone is the birdís eye perspective and rather Diablo like interface. In its place is the typical third person camera, a bit of an awkward control scheme outside of your vehicle, and the usual time consuming quest system. What is good though, is that they kept the fun. This game is like GTA in that itís just flat out fun to hop in the car and cause some havoc. I can just drive around and blow stuff up and not actually have to do anything and its fun. I really hope that aspect of the game survives into retail.
What caught my eye at the Sony booth was a title called Shadow of the Colossus, which was unique because it took the giant bosses that have become so regular these days and made them a little more interesting. In this game you have to figure out how to bring the beast down, and I donít mean by watching its attack patterns while you keep up a withering barrage of lead. Here the big guy just wanders around, pretty much ignoring you unless you mess with him. You job is to use your magic sword to find his weak spot and then figure out how the hell youíre going to get up there to hit him (at least in the demo). The graphics on this were excellent, even down to the movement of the hair on the colossus as he walked, and from what Iíve heard the colossi are the only fights in the game, so look for an interesting puzzler in the future.
Turbine caught my eye because they were running D&D online. Yes another MMO, itís like someone is breeding them in vats somewhere in Northern California or something. At any rate, what D&D brings to the table is pretty obvious, however I donít know how effective it will be as an MMO, especially with what is shaping up to be a fairly crowded market. What I played was fun, if slightly typical, but the big draw of D&D is that you can hang out with your friends drinking Mountain Dew and shooting at the darkness around a table, rather than running some quests that someone you donít know came up with. The game looked pretty though, and I will say that it was a faithful recreation of the system, even down to showing dice rolls. Also interesting is that the game is placed in the new (or at least most recent) Eberron campaign setting, so that is either more popular than I thought, or Wizards of the Coast is really pushing it.
Wizard of Funk is a title that makes you think you are going to be playing a DJ simulator or something similar, maybe a dance game. Instead what you get is an urban RPG where you wander around fighting monsters using the Eye Toy. Instead of what every other title has you do with the Eye Toy, that is interacting with the action on the screen by kind of random hand motions, this game has you casting spells by ďdrawingĒ symbols in the air. It was a fairly interesting interface, and with the quirky animations, great special effects, and catchy soundtrack this title makes it look like there is finally a reason to by an Eye Toy other than as a conversation piece.
Thatís pretty much the show. I mean yeah, there was a new Army of Darkness game and an expansion for 40Kís Dawn of War. There was X-Men 2, and EA had a 360-degree screen that showed all their new stuff off like you were right in the middle of the action (see the nice Xbox tie in without even having to mention it outright?), and there was Zelda and Mario DDR and Dead Rising, oh my, but you werenít interested in any of that were you?