For the last three days the Sydney Showground has played host to the EB Games Expo, and that was where I spent yesterday. There I met some folks from the industry, both publishers and indie developers; watched trailers and gameplay videos; observed live play; and last but not least, tried out a few titles for myself! Here are the highlights of what I saw (grouped by publisher):
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale, from SuperBot Entertainment and Sony Santa Monica. This appears to be Sony’s answer to Nintendo’s Smash Bros – a four-player crossover fighting game, starring Sony characters as varied as Kratos, Sackboy, and Nathan Drake. (Given the presence of third-party characters such as Big Daddy from Bioshock, I wished the game included Gene from Capcom’s God Hand. I bet Gene could take every other character in the game. All at once.) The live gameplay demonstration I saw was… chaotic; I found it difficult to tell who was doing what to whom. Still, perhaps this might be of interest to a fighting game aficionado?
The Last of Us, from Naughty Dog. I watched the same trailer shown at E3, and I was quite impressed. This doesn’t just convey a feeling of post-apocalyptic desolation, of scarcity (the protagonist in the video is down to his last few bullets). It also conveys the bleak message that the greatest danger isn’t what caused the apocalypse – it’s fellow survivors. And perhaps it’s the lack of context, but there’s a decided sense of moral ambiguity hanging over the video. There’s some real storytelling potential here, and this is one game I plan to keep an eye on.
Gravity Rush, from SCE Japan Studio. I’d heard a bit about this Vita game, which casts you as a young woman who uses her powers over gravity to walk on walls and soar through the air, so trying it out was a no-brainer. I enjoyed the time I spent playing it – its central gimmick was surprisingly easy to pick up, and its art is lovely – but it didn’t quite fall into the “MUST BUY VITA NOW” category its hype had suggested. Still, if I ever do pick up a Vita, I will definitely give Gravity Rush a second look.
I also spent a bit of time observing other folks playing Tokyo Jungle, a PSN game from Playstation CAMP and Crispy’s. Jungle is a 2D side-scroller which casts you as an animal in a deserted Tokyo, hunting (in the case of a carnivore) other animals to stay alive, and avoiding predators who’d do the same to you. The draw is the variety of animals: in just a few minutes I saw a ridiculous little poodle, a larger dog, chickens, boars, and deer. Using the poodle to pick a fight with the boars was not a great idea! Tokyo Jungle is already out, and you can check out what reviewers have to say on Metacritic.
Tomb Raider, from Crystal Dynamics. This also caught my interest at the show. I saw an old trailer depicting Lara’s early travails; watched a more formidable Lara in later-game footage; and spent a bit of hands-on time playing an early, largely scripted part of the game. From what I saw, it looks like the developers are making a real effort to convey a sense of Lara’s transition from everywoman to action heroine – while the cut-scenes lay it on her early helplessness a bit thick (even leaving aside the recent E3 controversy), I did like the contrast between the unarmed, visibly injured Lara in the section I played and the confident fighter seen in the later gameplay video. That has me interested in the final game, and I hope the developers will successfully deliver on their promise.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, from Firaxis. The 2K booth featured the same single-player demo released on Steam a couple of weeks ago, and since I’d already played it, I opted to just watch instead. Interestingly, despite the demo being set to the easiest difficulty, I saw players taking casualties anyway! That seems proof that the demo is intended to win over folks who wouldn’t normally play a turn-based strategy game – what is too easy for strategy buffs (who would probably buy the game anyway) is not necessarily too easy for genre novices. Importantly for Firaxis/2K, the players I saw all seemed to be having fun, and that bodes well for a game that – should it live up to its promise – I really don’ t want to see languish in a niche. The full game comes out this Friday (outside the US), and I look forward to chronicling it in a Let’s Play.
Borderlands 2, from Gearbox. I spent a little bit of time playing this, and a fair bit more watching others play (it was a common sight on machines across the show, not just at the 2K booth). What struck me was how vibrant and colourful the game is in motion, while I was also intrigued by the “second wind” mechanic that allows an eliminated player to hang onto life by quickly defeating an enemy. After seeing BL2 at the Expo, I’ll have to give it a closer look.
Company of Heroes 2, from Relic. This is the Eastern Front-themed follow-up to the Normandy-themed CoH, and after playing two missions of a pre-alpha build, what struck me was how close it felt to the original. The core of the game is intact –micromanage troops to seek cover or flank enemy positions; capture sectors to earn more resources; build a base to call in reinforcements. The differences I noticed comprise a new temperature mechanic (on certain maps, infantry who are in the open, and who are away from sources of heat such as firepits, will gradually freeze), and players can now select which resource they’d like a given sector to produce. Despite spending over 20 hours with the original CoH, it was ultimately a game I wanted to enjoy a lot more than I actually did. However, I remain hopeful that CoH2 will deliver the magic, and I look forward to following it as it draws closer to launch.
Darksiders II (Wii U version), from Vigil Games. The little while I spent playing was my first experience with a Darksiders game, and also my first experience with the Wii U. I didn’t spend enough time with the game to form an opinion, but I did see enough for the console to come off reasonably well. The on-screen graphics looked decent, the tablet controller screen (used here to show the player’s inventory) was small but crystal-sharp, and while I was a bit leery of the controls at first – the tablet is so big compared to a 360 or PS3 controller – I adjusted straight away. The trick, I suppose, will be seeing what use developers make of the tablet screen – if it’s marginal, you might as well just play the same title on a 360/PS3.
Far Cry 3, from Ubisoft Montreal. I’m still not sold on the decision to ditch Far Cry 2’s grounded, gritty African civil war setting in favour of a B-movie “island filled with crazies”, but the trailer I saw at the expo hints the developers may have a few tricks up their sleeves. For example, FC3’s narrator doesn’t strike me as the most reliable sort… We’ll see upon launch, in a few months’ time.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist, from Ubisoft Toronto. My introduction to the stealth-action Splinter Cell games came in the form of a trailer, which seemed rather heavy on the “action” part (i.e. sneaking up behind guards to take them down) and on gadgetry. The overall effect reminded me a bit of my sole frame of reference for the genre, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Interestingly, the developers have stated that the high-octane trailer isn’t really representative of the game! As such, I have no judgment for now.
The Expo also featured a number of independent developers – some Sydney locals, some from other parts of the country. I had a great time talking to them and looking at their games, which I’ve highlighted below. I’ve also linked to their websites, so please take a look if you’re interested!
Orbitor, from Evil Aliens. A top-down, PC physics puzzler in which players boost from orbit to orbit in order to collect enough resources to leave the star system. Simple but stylish and attractive graphics. Currently raising funds on Kickstarter.
Protocol E, from Silver Nova Software – a multi-platform (PC and mobile), cyberpunk-themed action-RTS. Notable features include a striking, wire-framed aesthetic (think Tron or the original Battlezone) and an interesting control scheme. Notably, the website has a pre-release demo available to play, so check it out if you’re interested.
Bebee the Bee, from indie developer Alex Vlaskin. An iOS side-scroller aimed at younger players. Players touch the screen in order to fly around, collect pollen from flowers, and dodge nasty wasps. I was quite charmed by its colourful, cheery graphics.
Dream Catcher from Evoke Method, a 3D “endless runner” game in which players avoid obstacles by tilting the iPhone to move from side to side, or tapping to jump. I, uh, lasted about five seconds.
Giant Robot Destroy Everything, from Kyhil Duggan, Michele Ianello, and Ned Kirner. In this game, the player has to draw energy shields on the screen in order to deflect incoming shots (and, hopefully, send them right back at their shooters). Different enemy types – for example, a melee enemy that can pierce the energy shield, and can only be destroyed by rebounding shots from a ranged enemy – add spice to the experience.
Tasty Fish, from Dime Studios. A mobile casual game in which you have to manoeuvre a school of fish around the screen, earning points (by picking up bubbles and simply by staying alive) while dodging various nasties out to eat you.
Bouncer, a PC physics puzzler from solo developer Brennan Hatton. The objective is to bounce a ball off various features on the screen in order to reach the exit point; you get one click (which determines trajectory and power) per attempt, and after that it’s all up to the laws of nature. Each level is also graced with a random witticism (chosen from a list of, I think, ~270 or so). Currently free from its official website, so grab it if you’re interested!
Runic Rumble from Epiphany Games, an Android/iOS fighting game whose gimmick (based on the trailer I saw) is that you attack by combining different magical elements – shades of Magicka, I suppose. Could be interesting!
Missile Control, an iOS/Android game from Blunt Instrument Studios. I saw a little footage of this title, described as an action-RTS, in which the player uses the touchscreen to launch missiles and guide them into incoming volleys. Could be pretty cool, depending on how much depth later levels add.
BlastPoints, from Pub Games. This is a 3D space shooter running on the Unreal engine. The core gameplay (manoeuvre around, adjust throttles, fire guns and missiles at enemy spaceships, and don’t take too many hits) is pretty simple, but my brief spin with the game was quite engaging and there are multiple spaceships/loadouts in addition to the one I tried. Available for iOS and Android.
“Gangnam Style” was everywhere. I heard it on speakers while waiting for the company presentations to begin, and I saw it in Giant Robot Destroy Everything, where the robot dances Gangnam-style if it goes without taking damage for a certain amount of time. It’s a wide and wonderful world we inhabit!
Overall, while the game looming largest in my sights is still the imminent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the Expo did a lot to pique my interest in one current game (Borderlands 2), plus two upcoming games that hadn’t really registered for me (Tomb Raider and The Last of Us). I’m interested in Tomb Raider’s potential to depict Lara’s character arc, from de-powered to extraordinary. And I feel The Last of Us deserves particular mention; judging games based solely on what I saw at the show, TLOU would be the winner. The trailer promised a game filled with a sense of weight, a game built around the concepts of friendship and loyalty that made Ico so memorable. More than that, the trailer promised a game that de-glamorises violence, depicts it as something nasty and brutal to which we resort out of necessity (or “necessity”). That is the kind of mature storytelling I’d like to see, and I hope TLOU will live up to my expectations.