Say this for E3: It does make me eager to play games. After a week of experiencing various games one tantalizing 10-minute session at a time, I can’t wait to go home and play my Xbox 360 for as long as I damn well please, without a PR flack looking over my shoulder or a fellow nerd breathing down my neck and waiting for his turn.
A hands-on demo is something of a trial for both sides of the transaction. I’m in constant fear of the inevitable mistake that will get me scolded by the developer who’s guiding the tour—“No, press the LEFT trigger!!!”—and the dev, for his part, is anxious that I’ll uncover a glitch in the rickety build he slapped together for the show under pressure from the marketing department. As I tried out games on the floor today, many developers cautioned me with statements like, “I know those colors are wrong, but this is alpha code. We definitely plan to fix that bug. Remember, it’s just alpha. Alpha alpha alpha.” I feel for them. Any writer who would complain about load times or graphical glitches in an early E3 build is pretty ignorant (or despicably nasty), but I guess those people are out there, and the devs have to be on their guard.
David Wolinsky and I split our efforts today in one last push to see as many games as possible. His notes are below. Here are mine.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
When executive Jack Tretton was talking about this game at the Sony press conference, a colleague of mine leaned over and whispered, “Yeah, that’s why I play Assassin’s Creed. For the multiplayer.” OK, it’s an easy dig, probably unfair, but it’s still true. Not every game needs to be turned into a freaking community.
I didn’t bother with the multiplayer and instead watched a demo of a single-player mission, in which some white-bread pretender to Ezio Auditore’s greatness cavorted through a Renaissance town. Faux-Ezio first rode a horse in the city, smashing and crashing his way around the narrow streets, which you could not do in previous Assassin’s Creed games. This is exciting because using a horse is faster, according to the guy hosting the demo. Then the character climbed up on the city walls and fired off cannons to eliminate an invasion force. The whole thing was pretty dissonant—I mean, you tell me, do equine kamikaze runs and heavy artillery fire sound like the pastimes of an assassin?
It’s tough to read the tea leaves here. In the case of sequels and spin-offs, companies tend to show off what’s different from the previous game, even if those features are not necessarily a central focus of the final product, so on the whole, Brotherhood might stick largely to the Assassin’s Creed II format. But it still gives me pause that Ubisoft was so eager to demonstrate a portion of the game that was so loud and bombastic. Its relative quietness is one of the reasons that AC2 was such a delight.
Fallout: New Vegas
Unlike Ubisoft, Bethesda felt no compulsion to differentiate its big-ticket spinoff from the mothership. Fallout: New Vegas is Fallout 3 in the West, and that’s fine with me. During my demo, I asked the developer on hand, “What are the major differences in New Vegas from Fallout 3, aside from the setting?” He shrugged and said, “Mainly the story and the place.” Which is sort of what I meant by “setting,” but I let it go. About that setting: The Vegas Wasteland is slightly more colorful than D.C.—having avoided any direct nuclear attacks—but still, we’re not exactly playing Katamari Damacy here.
I did see some minor tweaks. You now order your companions around with a handy “Companion Wheel” instead of delving into tedious conversation trees every time you want to change your sidekick’s behavior. The kill animations have been souped up a bit. There’s new weapons, armor, etc., etc. Mostly the developers seem to be concentrating on not messing up a good thing, and I didn’t see anything to indicate they’d gone wrong.
I watched an extended demo of this upcoming first-person shooter, being developed by Id, in the same Bethesda booth where I tried out New Vegas. It was hard not to notice the similarities between Rage’s post-apocalyptic milieu and Fallout’s Wasteland. This despite a producer’s statement that Rage’s world is “very, very unique.”
Another claim made in the demo: The idTech 5 system behind the game allows designers to “hand-paint” all of the landscapes. I have no idea what that means. But the world did look beautiful—the best way I can describe it is Fallout 3 HD, if that makes sense.
Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow
Konami never could get a Castlevania game to work in 3D, so they decided to make a God Of War game instead and call it Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow. A crafty slight of hand. David mentioned earlier in the week (in the comments) that this might be the first 3D Castlevania title worth buying, and as I watched Gabriel Belmont take down a huge werewolf, complete with Kratos-style finishing move, I figured, “Yeah, maybe.”
And now, a nitpick. Here’s one thing that bugged me while I played the Lords Of Shadow demo: Why are Konami games (and Capcom games for that matter) so bad at interface design? They always use awful typefaces and arrange menus/displays with no apparent care for how everything fits together.
Castlevania: Harmony Of Despair
Typeface nerdery aside, the great thing about Konami is that they’ve never stubbornly forced Castlevania to embrace the newest tech. Sure, they’ll take a shot at 3-D from time to time, yet they also keep plugging away at the straightforward, entertaining 2-D titles. Harmony Of Despair is a clever twist on the 2-D Castlevania format. I’m loving the way that the game makes use of the HD canvas, by pulling back the camera to view multiple rooms of the castle at once (kind of like Tiny Castle). Other innovations include co-op play—up to six people can play through the same stage together—and a ghost mode that records your best playthrough in each castle so you can race against yourself. It looks so awesome that I’m still not sure if this is a real game or just a dream I had when I was eight years old.
Ninety-Nine Nights II
The developer’s spiel for Ninety-Nine Nights II was chock-full of phrases that make my eyes glaze over. “New engine.” “High polygon count.” “Five hundred enemies on screen at once.” I’ve never been able to grasp the appeal of crowd-combat games that emphasize huge hordes of bad guys like this. I’m sure that fans of the genre appreciate nuances that I’m missing, just as people who love bullet-hell shooters can passionately elaborate on the finer details of games that look like uniform madness to the uninitiated. In my experience though, the one-against-gazillion theme only takes you so far (and it’s a short trip). That said, if you love this stuff, there certainly were a lot of monsters on the screen in this game, so: must-buy!!!!!
Time Crisis: Razing Storm
Pinball was typically my game whenever I’d go to arcades in my youth, but I did have a soft spot for Time Crisis. Naturally, a lot of the fun came from using a light gun that actually worked (unlike the clunky home versions of the era). One of the underrated thrills of the Time Crisis experience, though, is the cinematography. The camera always SWOOPS to its next position, making your every move seem way more action-packed than it is in this largely static game. It’s such a simple trick, yet Time Crisis uses it so effectively. Razing Storm, the new PlayStation Move-infused Time Crisis, is a departure from tradition in that conserving your ammo is no longer a central concern. In my hands-on demo, I unleashed a blizzard of bullets on approaching enemies, which felt very strange in a series that has always demanded precision. But as long as the camera swoops (it does), the soul of Time Crisis is still there. Here is a bonus fact that will be of interest to nobody: In addition to the Move, Razing Storm is compatible with the gun from Time Crisis 4.
Other games that I saw but about which I have nothing much to say: Brink, Pac-Man Party, Dance Dance Revolution.
Game I am angry that I missed: Red Faction: Armageddon.
Game I am not angry that I missed: Super Scribblenauts.
Overall grade for the show: B-. Not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, but there sure was a lot of noise for not very many intriguing games. I can’t remember an E3 that left me so blah about the new releases on the horizon. The focus was on the new hardware—Kinect, Move, 3DS—rather than software, and I think the show suffers when it’s not all about the games.
Thanks again for all the comments this week. Here’s David.
David Wolinsky: Well, never say we don’t love you people. I’m technically here on vacation but gladly volunteered to help you guys out by hitting the games you wanted to hear when it came to light this morning that John couldn’t single-handedly do it all himself. Loath as I am to wait in line for anything, I braved a pair of hours-long lines at the Nintendo booth—and more excruciatingly, endured an insufferable amount of SEO buzzwords by a guy wanting to “monetize my content”—to be your eyes on the ground, or the 3DS, as it were. (Boobs free pornography sluts and great bargains on yard supplies. That should take care of my own SEO, thank you very much!)
The Nintendo 3DS
The 3DS’ best feature? It can burn you alive.
John had quoted me being especially non-eloquent (I’m on vacation, remember) in describing the 3DS as being “pretty cool” earlier in the week, and I’m disappointed to report that the thrill has worn off after spending a solid 20 minutes with a number of them at the booth. After being corralled through a line that almost snaked all the way around the booth, they let everyone go as they pleased to try a bunch of 3DSes set up with a variety of trailers, demos, and interactive games.
The third dimension is the new bandwagon everyone’s hopping on now—though I personally have long been a vocal supporter of depth—and it felt like the gaggle of Nintendo girls were just dispensing the latest drug everyone wants to take a hit of. As I was hopping from one machine to another, a woman tapped my shoulder and asked, “3D Paddleball?” Sure. Why not? I mean, I wouldn’t play Paddleball in real life, much less in a videogame, but it has three dimensions? Sign me up!
By and away, though, my opportunity to fiddle with the 3DS without it being chained to a woman’s belt, as it was at the Nintendo press conference, makes me think it still needs some work. The refraction in the 3D screen on some of the machines I tried wasn’t as pristine as the one I tried on Tuesday. It was downright blurry sometimes, and I find it highly unlikely that I suddenly need glasses 48 hours later. (Also, someone had asked me earlier in the week at the convention whether the 3D is viewable for people just observing and not playing—it isn’t.) I’m guessing, though, that the 3D slider is a lot like the original Game Boy’s contrast knob: Turning the contrast all the way up and having a solid black screen doesn’t look good; neither does turning the 3D slider all the way up. Instead, I had to finesse the setting to be somewhere in the middle or slightly higher depending on the game. Aside from Paddleball, there wasn’t much particularly amazing they had available to play.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Skyward Sword
The Legend Of Zelda theme might be as engrained in my mind as much as public domain songs like “Turkey In The Straw,” but I’m finding it harder to muster anything resembling excitement about Link and whatever his new boomerang-getting, bomb-throwing, and heart-container-collecting adventure is being called this go around. This has very little to do with the technical difficulties Miyamoto had during his demo of it at the Nintendo conference earlier in the week, it’s just… become very familiar. Twilight Princess memorably was ported to the Wii from the GameCube very last minute, and we were told soon after there’d be a Zelda coming to take full advantage of the Wii. This just seems like a WiiMotionPlus tech demo set in Hyrule: Look at how you can lob bombs underhand and overhand! (Prediction: Skyward Sword will feature a bowling minigame. Best-case scenario? It is run by a character named "The Jesus" who's living in a shed behind Lon Lon Ranch.)
Still, the Wii’s potential to have 1:1 swordplay is something no curmudgeonly gamer can pretend not to be interested in. Playing big-deal first-party Nintendo games the “old-fashioned” way simply ain’t gonna happen. Kid Icarus has gone 3D, Metroid has stepped back partially to be both 2D and first person, and Mario needlessly has added waggle. So it was only inevitable that Link gets in lockstep. Now, bear in mind it’s disorienting enough waiting 1.5 hours in line to play a new game, much less playing a new game while a PR person is hand-feeding you controls and directions on where to go. The bow and arrow and slashing works pretty intuitively—your actions as executed in reality will be accurately portrayed onscreen.
Other than that, I don’t really know what to say. A Zelda game isn’t really something you can experience in a 10-minute demo. They’re longish adventures usually including a fire, water, and forest temple and involve a shopping list of familiar items. If the sole innovation here is the controls, I’m really not sold on that being worth all the whooping and hollering that happened at the back of the press conference earlier in the week. By the same token, though, it’s a new Zelda game—and it warrants attention. The controls are fine. Hopefully the game itself will set up its, uh, game, and become worthy of its name and heritage. In the meantime, I’ll be changing my cellphone background to this adorable photo of Miyamoto grimacing and holding Link’s sword and shield and imagining he's a trick-or-treater I just opened the door for.
Metroid: Other M
I simply couldn't bear to wait in another Nintendo line after the previous two, so hang tight 'til I file my review at the end of August. If you have a problem with that, blame Nintendo, who delayed the game from early June. The jerks.
Nintendo isn’t the only company with series to reiterate with souped-up graphics. Twisted Metal is back on the PS3 next year, and although my demo against five other players ended abruptly with my machine freezing irreparably, I have high hopes for it. I haven’t played TM since, gosh, the late ‘90s I suppose. How the hell is Twisted Metal 15 years old at this point? It’s almost old enough to legally drive—though its abundance of vehicular manslaughter and missile-launching cars will likely stand in its way of getting that license—and if memory serves, it’s gotten a bit long in the tooth at its young age. Well, David Jaffe’s return to the series proves there’s still life in the old girl yet, as Twisted Metal’s twisted humor and motley crew is getting just extended enough to feel worth revisiting with those pretty, pretty graphics. This time out, there’s a greater emphasis on team-based matches between a group of warring factions—many of them clown-based, apparently. What I did manage to play before my game up and died, was pretty enjoyable. It’s still plenty familiar, but different enough (including but not limited to nuclear weapons and new vehicles like a helicopter, an adapted medical vehicle), to warrant keeping an eye on. Especially if it doesn't suddenly come crashing to a halt.
I know what you’re all wondering: Is George Clinton back? He wasn’t in the demo, but I wouldn’t rule it out and would actually be surprised if the licensed funk-dispenser was excluded from the final version of this Wii update to the early ‘90s arcade hit. As a non-sports enthusiast and a general avoider of sports videogames, NBA Jam—and Hal’s Hole In One Golf on the SNES—was a game I always made sure to play when at my childhood Fuddrucker’s. Sure, it only had two or three games there, but whenever I tired of The Simpsons game and had some leftover quarters, I’d always sink them into NBA Jam. If I had any kids, I guess I’d make them play the new NBA Jam and regale them of a time when arcades used to exist in this country for that added historical perspective.
The old game’s controls have carried over well onto the Wii. Flicking the wrist doesn’t feel like a stapled-on last-minute feature—it actually feels natural to flip your hand up once on the WiiMote to leap into the air, and then bring it back down to dunk. I played a quick 10-minute game against another attendee, and, again, it was like being back at the arcade. Some weirdo behind me in line craned his neck forward to shout, “Dunk city!” at no one in particular during our game. NBA Jam is just flat-out fun, pure and simple. It may also cause bystanders to just shout nonsensical exclamations at you, which is a neat feature.
It’s pretty cliché at this point to harp about the Wii’s limited graphics capabilities, but the game’s cartoony nature somehow just feels right with the jagged pixels visible on every player and coach in the background. If you think NBA Jam should have buttery smooth graphics, you’re forgetting what arcade games looked like back in the early ‘90s. That said, the Wii’s graphics are definitely still an improvement.
I know there were a couple more games you were interested in hearing about, but believe me: This was all I saw today that merited any mention. If you want to hear more about SEO, I’ve got a guy’s business card I can send your way.