Day two of my PAX Prime 2012 coverage! No long intro! Just info! Gooooooo!
My second day at Seattle's biggest gaming convention began with an upcoming XBLA/PSN title called Harold. I spoke with pleasantly French game designer Loris Malek, who talked me through the inception and creation of the game. His energy was infectious, and it was a real joy to see someone so excited about their project.
The game has a bit of a convoluted setup, but it boils down to the player manipulating different traps and features of an obstacle course so that the titular Harold can win a foot race. Unfortunately, Harold is painfully myopic and an enormous klutz, so despite his ability to run swiftly, he often finds himself falling into pits or crashing into walls.
When a level begins, Harold runs forward at a constant pace. The player must raise ramps, move platforms to bridge gaps, and generally clear a path for him. The flipside of this is that the player can also manipulate these same features to become barriers for the competing runners.
Harold is a clever experience in and of itself, but the hook is that the animation is outstanding. Since the studio behind it is located in Florida, they were able to take advantage of a number of world-class animators who were suddenly unemployed when Disney did some restructuring. In addition to those resources, there are also animators on board from Pixar and Studio Ghibli. If that doesn't give you an idea of how gorgeous this game looks in motion, go Google those names and then come back.
It's hard to resist the charm of Harold once you see it in motion, but there's a lot more depth to it than one would first assume.
I completed a couple runs on my own and felt fairly good about them, until I saw Loris show me how to play it in a more hardcore fashion. The game is designed so that anyone can complete it, but top-level play will require a mental flow state and lightning-fast reflexes. Loris told me he wasn't the best player at the studio, but I could barely keep up with how blindingly fast he moved while doing his thing.
It's a bit like the Trials HD of animated auto-running games. Me likey.
Moving on, I hit Injustice: Gods Among Us from Netherrealm Studios, makers of the recent Mortal Kombat. I had heard about this one for a while, but I wasn't quite clear on what was supposed to be. A few previews I had read seemed to suggest it was more of a brawler, but after getting hands-on, I was relieved to find that it's a straight-up 1-on-1 fighting game. The rep on hand was allowed to say basically nothing about the game other than to describe what was on screen, but it all worked out since what was on-screen looked great.
From what I can gather, a mysterious event happens that triggers a number of well-known DC Comics superheroes and villains to start battling each other. There were no other details given, but I have to admit that it was a little strange seeing Superman uppercut Nightwing into outer space, only to have him come back to earth and resume the fight. I have been assured that there is an in-game rationale given for this, but like I said, I have no hard info.
From the way the characters have been redesigned and from other aspects of the title, it seems clear that this game takes place in an alternate universe that will likely not be DC canon in any way. Honestly, that's fine. Netherrealm did such a great job with Mortal Kombat's story mode that I'd much rather see them given the freedom to turn in something solid, rather than being tethered to a lot of complicated continuity and other baggage that wouldn't translate well.
In terms of the fighting, it's strongly reminiscent of Mortal Kombat—and again, that's not a complaint at all, since that game was fantastic. This time around, there's more emphasis on the environments. In one match, Superman ripped a generator off of the ceiling and threw it towards the Flash. Afterwards, the wires that had previously been connected to the generator became a shock hazard that characters could be knocked into. There were also several instances where characters were knocked into different parts of the level, and some of the "super moves" were pretty over-the-top. Seeing the Flash dash around the entire circumference of the earth before delivering a jaw-rocking uppercut was neat stuff.
Bonus: Wonder Woman switches at-will between sword/shield and lasso-swinging stances. Too cool!
Crossing the hall, I made a quick stop at Tin Man Games, makers of various Gamebook Adventures currently available on iOS. I had heard of their titles, but had never tried them. After getting a demo at the booth, I loaded my phone up with three of 'em.
Basically, these are similar to an electronic version of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure... read some story, make a choice, and determine how the narrative plays out. The small pictures littering the pages were quite appealing and broke up the sections of text, and apparently there is a system of "bookmarking" that lets you go back and make a different choice if you end up driving your car off a cliff, or getting munched by a monster. If you've ever read one of these books in real life, you know that you inevitably keep a finger or two on the last couple of choices. Seeing a developer implement that same habit within the game was a delight.
Their most recent title is Judge Dredd, but there's also a new one that combines vampires with a romantic twist, and their next title is a collaboration with Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy series called Blood of the Zombies.
If you're not frightened off by reading and the idea of carrying around a stack of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books on your iPhone sounds like an appealing thing, these guys look like they're cornering the market.
Nintendo's booth wasn't nearly as crowded as I expected it to be when I passed by, so I stopped in to lay hands on the new Wii U. I had never seen it before in real life, so I was quite pleased to not have to wait in line for three hours to check it out.
The console unit itself seemed more rounded than the original Wii, but was of a comparable size from what I could tell. The rep seemed hesitant to let me take pictures or let me get a close look, for some reason. My guess is that he was just being paranoid since the thing was right out in the open, but whatever.
I played one game of Luigi's Ghost Mansion as one of the Luigis using the standard Wiimote. This title is a minigame which comes as part of the Nintendoland disc included with the Wii U. basically, anyone with a Wiimote is a human, and the person holding the touchscreen gamepad is the ghost. At the moment, it's probably the best example of the "asymmetrical gameplay" concept that Nintendo has been talking about.
Actually playing the game was a mixed experience. Using a Luigi was dull, and I was bored before the first match was over. However, using the touchscreen was more interesting since the other players could not see me on the main TV, but I could see them on my handheld screen. I polished them off pretty handily and got a good chuckle out of it, but I can't imagine this minigame being entertaining for more than one or two quick sessions.
Next I tried Project P-100, from Platinum Games. It's visually reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe, and plays a bit like Pikmin. It seems fun and solid, but there was no meaningful use of the new controller. It could just as easily have been running on the original Wii.
Finally, I jumped to Pikmin 3, and controlled it with... the Wiimote and Nunchuk. I was quite puzzled by this, so I asked the rep why the new touchpad was parked on the console in front of us, and propped up to be used as a simple map screen. He told me that the game was still under development, and that the touchscreen functions were not ready to be shown. I asked him what those functions were, and he struggled to answer. Eventually, he told me that the game would be controlled in a traditional sense, and would use the touchscreen as an enhanced map view function of some sort.
(Oh, what about the game itself? It's more Pikmin.)
Speaking specifically about the touchpad controller, it was much lighter than I expected, and didn't feel as awkward to hold as it looks. On the other hand, I'm not a fan of jumping back and forth between control modalities, so I'm kind of questioning how many games will be able to use all the functions of hardware in a smooth, non-intrusive manner. The perfect example of this was ZombiU, which I didn't play, but watched for quite a while. (By this time, long queues had formed.)
The game itself looks like bog-standard zombie action, except that there are all sorts of irritating functions that use all of the options on the touchpad controller.
When going into the inventory, I watched a person take their eyes off the screen and their hand off of the right side of the controller while they were rearranging something on the touchpad. I also saw someone swinging the touchpad as a way of using a melee weapon, and apparently it also functions as a flashlight (look at the touchscreen, or look on the main screen) and as a sniper scope. I'm glad that somebody's trying hard to prove that Nintendo's new hardware strategy has a purpose, but to be brutally honest, it looks like a lot of hassle for a game that wasn't really benefiting from all of these gimmicky mechanics. Apart from these controller-specific functions, the game looks painfully average.
That sentiment goes for all of the Wii U games I spent time with, really. I didn't see anything that sold me on the new controller, and if Nintendo isn't launching with something that brilliantly capitalizes on it, what hope is there that someone will eventually come up with a killer app that justifies the design? I mean, it could happen, but the Wii U strikes me as Nintendo getting a bit desperate and trying to "innovate" when they don't have any ideas for applications that support it.
I left the convention center for a while, and visited the Tekken Tag Tournament 2 bus parked a block or two away. Once inside, the presentation I expected never appeared. Instead, the developers took it down a totally different PC-oriented path...
The game itself looks good and solid, just like a Tekken should. At the moment, it's got something like 52 characters including the add-ons, and there are even more coming. The reps were very clear to state that all DLC will be free for the game, as well.
That was great, but most of the time was spent talking about the improved online connectivity thanks to an improved iteration of the Soul Calibur V netcode, and an incredibly in-depth stat-tracking system and performance evaluator that is an order of magnitude greater than anything I've ever seen in any fighting game, ever.
Apparently, the goal with Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is to create a competition-class fighter with things like win/loss ratios, character mastery analysis, team performance analysis, comprehensive replay videos, detailed damage reports, customizable clan logos, online clan management, private forums, and even a cumulative electronic "baseball card" that can summarize a player's entire history. This is easily the most hardcore thing I've ever come across in a fighting game, and it's clear that Tekken is out to be #1 among people who take their fighting seriously.
This was all fairly impressive, but it comes at a price—these features require a browser to be used, and the rep had no qualms about stating that he expects tournament-class players to have a laptop sitting next to them as they train. None of these features will be available to players through the 360 or PS3 hardware. I suppose that's probably true since the kind of information being offered here will likely be of most value to the hardest-core players, but to have none of it open to the average player seems like an omission that needs to be addressed. If the players don't even get a taste of it on 360 or PS3, why would they be motivated to set up a laptop and arrange the uploads to use it?
Sega was featuring Double Fine's The Cave, and I played through the demo. It's kind of a combination of point-and-click adventure and platforming... an unusual mix, but I think it works.
At the beginning of the game, the player must choose three characters out of a total of seven. They're all fairly kooky, and each has a specific special power. The Adventurer as a grappling hook, the future lady can teleport short distances, the Hillbilly can hold his breath underwater (?!?) And the scientist does... I don't know, science? Anyway, the point is that there are puzzles sprinkled throughout a cave that the players are exploring in the hopes of getting their fondest wishes granted.
As an example of how this all works, I was faced with a large monster that I couldn't get past. In order to progress, I needed one character to get a crowbar and use it to grab a bucket so that water could be prevented from hitting a short-circuiting machine. Another character took a fuse from the now-dry machine and move it to another so that a sausage could be retrieved. A third character used to that sausage to lure the beast, and in the end, I needed to switch back and forth between the characters in quick succession in order to have them each perform their functions at the right time.
Anyone who's ever played a PC-style adventure game will be instantly familiar with how these puzzles work, but the added challenge of navigation and timing was an interesting twist. Add in some humorous voiceovers and the overall quirky style, and I'm sure that this one will have a legion of fans in no time at all.
My last stop of the day was to check out the Oculus VR headset that was recently Kickstartered and is now being cultivated with some help from John Carmack.
I've never been a big believer in this sort of thing, but I'd heard so much buzz about it, that I figured it was worth a shot. I have to say, once I put the headset on and started looking around, it was somewhat amazing.
The goggles have a very tight fit in order to put the eye close enough to the screen so that there is no dead zone where the peripheral vision should be. Because of this, I wasn't able to wear my glasses (I'm nearsighted) but the developers said this would only be an issue with the test model I saw today. Apparently, hardware will have a way of focusing to function correctly whether a person wears glasses or not.
The game running on it was Doom 3, and once I had the headset on and got going, I was honestly surprised at how effective it was. I just sat there for a moment looking around, over my shoulder, at the ceiling, and even behind me, and I never once caught even the faintest hint of my vision being cut off, or the game not being able to display what I should be seeing. It really felt like I was in that space, looking around at what "should" be in that virtual environment.
There's no way to post a picture of what that sensation was like, and words don't describe it... all I can say was that the effect was about a thousand times better than I thought it would be, and it was a remarkable thing. However, the good times didn't last long.
Within two or three minutes of putting on the headset, I got hit with an intense wave of motion sickness that was too strong to ignore. I sat still for a moment hoping that my equilibrium would balance out and that I could resume playing, but the next time I turned my head, nausea overpowered me and I had to take the headset off for fear that I was going to vomit all over the equipment.
The reps said that not everyone was affected by this, although afterwards I heard several stories of people who had and reported similar sickness. I'm not one who is generally motion sick on boats, trains, or in cars, so I was a little surprised that I got queasy so quickly. I was legitimately sick to my stomach, though, and the feeling lasted for a good half an hour afterwards... despite how impressive that technology was, I don't think I would be up for another demo until they figure out what causes such intense nausea and eliminate it.
Sickness aside, that VR effect was amazing. I think we may have finally turned the corner into the next level of game design once all the bugs get ironed out of it, and then it's only a hop, skip, and a jump until we get some outstanding interactive porno.
That's it for PAX Prime, day two. Check out Day Three for my final report from the show.