Thursday, December 06, 2007

The rest of PAX

Already December! enough procrastination; I'm going to dump the rest of what I've written here, unformatted, with no photos, for better or worse. This is the rest of PAX:

America's Army: True Soldiers for the XBOX 360 is an UbiSoft title greatly assisted in development (but not financially supported) by the U.S. Army. It promises to be, though not totally realistic (it's a little more forgiving about death than real life), at least the most realistic game I've ever seen.

By realistic, I'm not referring to graphics, but game mechanics; If you want to know what it's like to be in action in the army, you like FPS, or you simply appreciate realism in games, you need to pick this one up. For the truly hardcore, there's even a "Super-Real" mode, which will remove all indicators, maps, and numbers from your display.

Gameplay is squad-based, with the best squad AI I've ever seen; you can't command your squad's movements and YOU DON'T NEED TO. Single-player seems to keep everyone into one fire team, but online or over system link you can play 16-player co-op, and split up however you like. The game features stat development where you can choose which aspects of your solider to upgrade, and it's presented not so much in an RPG-insane-magical-power way but more of a learning-from-your-time-on-the-field way. The training carries over to online play, so you'd probably do well to go single-player first.

Eidos was featuring just one game, but it's a doozy. Kane & Lynch is a 3rd-person shooter in the style of Gears of War, from the health system to the squad-based play to the "revive teammate" mechanic. What it doesn't do, however, is carbon-copy the style of any game you've ever seen. This game mixes ten parts Reservoir Dogs, Three parts Pulp Fiction, and one part Max Payne and drenches the tried-and-true gameplay with an atmosphere of pure badassery. For this reason I'm giving it the "Most Pleasant Surprise" award of PAX 2007.

This game is GORGEOUS. If you think that high-contrast graphics and over-used shaders can only look amazing in environments as fantastical as Quake 4 or Gears of War, you're in for a rude awakening, because walking down the street in a Japanese metropolis, guns blazing, will rock your eyeballs.

Controls are smooth as butter too. The game eschews complicated "hold this then tilt that" controls by assigning one action to each button and automating the rest. Familiar functions in Gears of War like "cover" and "reload" are replaced by squad commands such as "follow" and "attack".

"But wait," I hear you say, "putting all the squad commands into a menu on one button works fine. How can a game work without a reload button?!" Trust me, it does. Having a seperate button for each squad command isn't harder to learn, it's actually easier, since the other buttons don't have yet more crap for you to memorize. I've never had such an easy time giving so many orders to an FPS squad in my life. It works. Reloading works too. When do YOU reload? When you're empty or when there's a lull, right? Well the game does that FOR you. If you're not firing, iron-sighting, or performing some other action that implies combat, your character will put in a fresh magazine so you don't need to worry about a thing. The same goes for combat. If you fire your weapon and then stop firing/iron-sighting or moving, your character ducks behind the nearest object, be it a pillar, dumpster, or car. It works beautifully and you can finally spend more time thinking about how to beat a group of enemies than how to control your maneuvers around cover. Spray-'n'-pray from behind cover seems to not be a complete waste of ammo as well, a nice change from Gears of War.

Harmonix was expected to show off Rock Band, but I doubt anyone was prepared for how it turned out. People were OBSESSED with this game. It was totally impossible for me to play the game without waiting in line for half an hour - something I opted out of, for better or worse.

The songs are UNBELIEVABLE. The one thing above else that turned me off to guitar hero (especially the first) was the music. The covers were terrible, and most of the songs weren't that great to begin with. With Rock Band, the songs aren't known for their interesting guitar, but for being... you know... "good". The few covers there are in the mix also completely blow GH 1 and 2 out of the water in terms of musical quality; you'll truly WANT to rock out to this stuff.

The popularity was so massive that I have to objectively grant this the Best in Show award. What's so amazing about the game is that it doesn't do anything unique or new, but simply perfectly fits together the various pieces of all the other B- and C-list console music games into a complete set.

Nintendo & Jam Sessions

To say Nintendo's booth wasn't exciting might give the wrong impression; rather, from Nintendo, nothing is ever surprising because you always know to expect goods of a very high quality and polish. I wish I had spent more time with the new DS Zelda game, and my apologies to anyone I let down by not writing about it. Erm... you can draw on the minimap, notes and things. That's all I know.

Metroid Prime 3 was such standard fare I similarly was tempted to ignore it. The decision to buy it is a no-brainer, really: if you like the Metroid Prime series, you'll get it, and if you don't, you won't. It looked like a fantastic game, and it'll be on my Christmas list, but there's so little different-looking about it that it, like everything in the Nintendo booth, is hard to write about.

One thing I've never played (but always wanted to) was the Fire Emblem series, and the new one for Wii looks like a good ol' Tactics-genre romp, so I'll probably give in and buy it, if only to say I've played the distinguished series. Everything about the interface was very clean and easy to understand, and at no point was I stuck guessing, "Uh, well I guess that number's my accuracy, or maybe damage," a trait that seems exceedingly rare in the genre.

The only truly shocking things about the booth were that my mother fell in love with brain training, and that the Nintendo reps were obsessed with preventing people from taking video. Bear in mind that this is a public event, with an open booth, and thousands upon thousands of people streaming by. Nothing in these games is exclusive knowledge. MP3, the most hotly guarded, was set to release in mere days. The idea that you can prevent people from taking video would be insulting if it wasn't so ludicrous. After a time of repeatedly stopping my video-taking, they started targeting ME SPECIFICALLY, and I STILL captured plenty of video. In the end all it accomplished was lower my opinion of Nintendo of America, both in their common sense and in the lack of explanation over why video was forbidden (hence why I chose to ignore the restriction).

Jam Sessions, the DS acoustic guitar chord simulator, was not represented by Nintendo, nor even on the exhibition floor; rather, a music stage wandered about, moving each day like an elusive nomad. Part of the UbiSoft crew, I was fortunate enough to have a long interview-style conversation with a knowledgeable person, and here's what I learned:

It's got smooooth controls. You have a down-strum and an up-strum, which with their own sound, and if you strum from a line on the screen right next to your "strum bar", you make a very crisp and short "hit". The guitar tabs provided cover a wide range of good songs, so if you're not much of a writer, there's plenty to work with inside. Something everyone will be pleased to hear, the controls are customizable for either hand and for either way to be "down-strum". Recording of your own songs isn't that terrific, only about 1 minute, so this is more of a live-performance thing.

In summary, I'll try and get jam sessions, as it should prove a far more-convenient (if more-expensive) substitute for my harmonica as far as portable music goes.

Microsoft (mostly hellgate)

Microsoft's booth was mostly about Mass Effect, with Rock Band (yes they were in multiple booths), PC ports of XBox games, and lesser names take up the periphery. I still don't really know anything about mass effect because I completely ignored it in favor of one terminal alone: Flagship's Hellgate: London demo.

For those of you out of the know, Flagship studios is formed of a large chunk of the team that developed Diablo II, and it shows. A spiritual sequel in gameplay mechanics to D2, Hellgate is going to provide players with all the hack-n-slash dungeon-crawling they can handle when it hits shelves on Halloween.

With even simpler skill sets and a daunting inventory system, this game is definitely all about the loot. Basically, if you wasted a month or more of your life spending every evening playing Diablo II, this is a no-brainer. For those who still need to be convinced, I assure you that the game is beautiful and handles very will with keyboard movement in the 3-D world, freeing up your mouse for combat - allowing you to, for example, move backwards while firing your gun FPS-style at a charging demon. Laying the smackdown with a sword is perfectly acceptable of course; The game moves into 3rd-person for melee combat and features different attack motions based on which way you're moving when you attack.

The game will be an up-front priced game like its predecessor, and then also feature free online play with an option subscription. After hearing nothing about what precisely subscription would offer players, I was unhappy to find that the Hellgate reps were equally dodgy. I think they honestly didn't know at PAX-time.

In the end it looks a little too simple for gamers who want a game with more meat on its bones, satisfying a wealth-gaining response in the brain rather than a system-mastery response. Players who are looking for intense adrenaline-pumping battles will be a little hard-pressed, while players who live for the grind will be in heaven when they play Hellgate.

Fury is that type of game that is so esoteric that almost no one will play it and yet so perfect at what it does that every true gaming aficionado will have heard of it. Imagine if you will a game devoted to the PvP of such games as Everquest and World of Warcraft, and a dash of Diablo-2-style loot (that is, an orgy of the stuff), without all that silly xp grinding, re-rolling, and waiting for peak hours before you can find a PvP group. Fury is MMORPG PvP percolated down into its rawest and purest form, right down to taking all the numbers from the game and obsessively calculating your DPS down to 45.8 seconds after the beginning of engagement, resulting in the transposition of two abilities in your attack chain.

There's a massive number of abilities; I'm talking hundreds. Each ability has many levels and you can choose your abilities and levels at will (there's no stone-set classes in the game). Do you take two abilities at level 3 or a single one at level 4? You can spend literally all day at this.

Of course, the game, perfect as it is in its role, is totally, %100 unappealing to those who are unable to spend an idle day in MMORPG PvP and feel satisfaction at bedtime. I myself am among such folk, so while I enjoyed the beta copy I snagged on and off over the course of about 10 days, I was more than happy to let it fall off my desktop when Valve's Team Fortress 2 beta went live, as it was far better at filling my PvP appetite.

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