I attended PAX East, checking out upcoming games and meeting great people. That last one was a bit more difficult thanks to the enormous size of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC), but that size made panels much easier to get into and allowed for an expanded and much nicer exposition floor. In case you weren't there, here are some impressions…
The exposition floor was much less of a maze this year thanks to the new space, and it was also much brighter. Many of the lines were quite long, alas, but I managed to see a bunch of things that I was interested in. I regret to say that, while I didn't personally see the shirt, it was obvious that PAX's prohibition on booth babes had been relaxed or given up completely. Most exhibitors behaved themselves, but there were several booths, including ones just selling hardware (so no lame "it's a character" excuse), that crossed the line, in my opinion.
Since I'm on this subject, I'll start with Bethesda. They didn't have booth babes, just very friendly and helpful ladies wearing normal clothes (thanks!). However, as I was navigating my way around the line for Brink (sorry, don't care about it, read the coverage somewhere else) I bumped into the relatively deserted hands-on area for Hunted: The Demon's Forge, a co-op game starring a bald, gruff man and an elf woman in lingerie armor, set in a dark fantasy world. So, you'll be protecting yourself from skeletons and minotaurs with the power of butt floss. The art doesn't really stand out, although it looked fine and gave me something of a Demon's Souls vibe. The gameplay was rather interesting. Melee was straightforward action stuff, but using the bow with the elf was more like a cover shooter, complete with auto-aim. I also learned that this game has the kind of QTE I most dearly hate, where you wham the A button a bazillion times without any onscreen feedback at all. Based on my hands-on I wouldn't pay the $60 launch price, but if you're looking for some co-op dungeon crawling this may be for you.
Alternately, you could try The First Templar, which I got a fair look at in the Kalypso booth. The concept is pretty similar, although the female character was wearing more in the way of clothes and the look of the game is much brighter. Unlike Hunted, I was able to see some of the split-screen mode for Templar, and the way it handled screen real estate in that mode may not work out well for SD or smaller HD screens. There were some strangely-handled stealth elements that I didn't quite get, and although I liked the way the individual characters fought, the game's combat had a tendency to degenerate into a scrum. I should point out that the part I played was really far along in the game, rather than a formal demo, so I was playing from behind. The gameplay was solid, and unless you're seriously into self-important "dark" fantasy it may be worth thinking about for your medieval co-op fix.
I also heard a spiel about Tropico 4 (no playable build was available), and to be honest, it seemed like even the reps were struggling to make a case for it. The timeframe will shift, China will be added as a world power, and new edicts and dynamics, such as disasters, will be present. Without seeing whether the game got some other kind of upgrade, this sounds like the sort of thing that could just as well have been a DLC expansion pack.
Which brings me to the digital distribution games. When I looked at the exposition layout I was disappointed to see no booth for Mommy's Best Games, but on Sunday down in Indie Alley I bumped into Nathan Fouts showing off the upcoming Serious Sam Double D anyway. Transforming a famously silly first-person shooter into a 2D sidescroller is not something I would have thought of, but it looks pretty promising. It's going to be hard, perhaps even Ninja Gaiden hard, although Nathan tried to make me feel better about my horrible skills by saying he was still adjusting the balance. The difficulty is ameliorated by a super-easy quicksave feature, which will be getting quite the workout when I play this for real when it comes out in May or June. I also asked about Grapple Buggy: apparently Fouts has decided to rework it a bit in hopes of finding a publisher.
The most pleasant surprise of the show for me was Bastion from Supergiant games, which was hiding behind Twisted Pixel's booth. Coming to Live this summer, this is a light action RPG with a great art style and a really fun way of revealing its levels. From the end of the demo it seems like there will be a base-building element, too, although it's tough to tell how rewarding that might be. One really distinctive feature is the frequent voice-over narration. I dug it, but it's the sort of thing that may break people up into love-it and hate-it crowds.
I got to play a round of Skulls of the Shogun, which I really enjoyed. Skulls is a turn-based strategy game that has hidden most of the complexity where it belongs (in the engine) to allow players to get on with the fun. As I played I got the sense that it was a game with a fair amount of depth that would also be fairly accessible, in particular because the rounds are so snappy. The unit selection felt a bit wonky (maybe the cursor should move faster?), but this was the only hiccup in a game that seems like it's going to be loads of fun. It's destined for Live and PC, but I either didn't catch or don't remember the release date. Keep an eye out, though.
Trenched looks like fun, but also like it will have problems similar to Brütal Legend when it comes to interpreting a battlefield you're actually on. Multiplayer may alleviate that problem, as long as everyone is coordinating and playing with discipline.
The longest line I actually waited in was to get a hands-on with the 3DS, one that did not allay my concerns. I played one of their AR games first, which was really neat. Unfortunately, in the limited space available I ended up tilting the thing when I should have moved, and this is bad. The 3D only works if you're looking dead at the screen, and when it wasn't working it really caused my eyes some pain. Admittedly, the viewing conditions in the exposition area probably weren't ideal, but I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy the 3D much.
As for implementation, that was a mixed bag. The AR game made really good use of the 3D, but for some of the other games it seemed inessential. The Ocarina remake looks quite pretty, but the 3D didn't add much in the sections I played, and some objects (like hanging vines) still look like sprites. Steel Diver's periscope mode was pretty fun, but again you could turn the slider down and lose almost nothing. The 3D added very little to The Mercenaries, and in that case the screen also felt really cramped. The launch lineup for the 3DS is light on things I want, so a day one purchase was never in the cards. Will I buy it later, when the Ocarina remake comes out? Maybe, but it would be a shame to pay for the thing and then never budge the slider from the 2D setting.
I also considered waiting in line for The Old Republic to see if it would be the game to finally draw me into MMOs. Then I watched the screens outside and changed my mind. My basic requirement for a Star Wars game is this: lightsabers must be awesome. In The Old Republic lightsabers are decidedly not awesome, not even a little bit. Even your average naked animal will effortlessly shrug off any hit from the your plasma blade as if it was just a lightbulb. The sight of a Jedi slashing futilely at a completely unperturbed moook is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen in gaming, representing the total triumph of our dullest conventions over fiction, excitement, and fun. The Old Republic will only let you play a Jedi in the same sense that Sam Jackson played one: wielding a stick with the lightsaber effect digitally rotoscoped in.
The lines were long again this year, though not so utterly forbidding as they were at the Hynes Convention Center. Thanks to good timing I got a good seat for the Irrational Games panel on Friday, where they discussed the process that led them to the art style for Bioshock: Infinite. As one might guess, the choice to make a bright, open game where the action in the exteriors is just as important as that in the interiors was motivated by a desire to create a kind of anti-Rapture. Initially their results were mixed: they showed early concept art of a cabaret that had a Rapture-ish color palette and a claustrophobic relationship with the clouds. Apparently there was also a major shift in the art direction partway through the process, which was actually fortuitous as it helped create a sense of a city that had some history.
I also attended the Twisted Pixel variety hour on Saturday night, which was 60 minutes of pure fun. I wouldn't say there were a lot of deep insights into their upcoming games Mrs. 'Splosion Man and The Gunstringer, although we did get some funny stories about the initial pitch and the live-action scenes for the latter. Everybody had a great time, and . If they do this again at PAX Prime, make sure to put it on your list.
I attended Saturday's "Females on Female Characters", which I felt suffered from being too much about throwing out as many examples as everyone could think up, resulting in a sort of scattered session without much in the way of core ideas. I think it's a valuable discussion to have, but things probably would have been better if they'd picked three or four characters to discuss in depth rather than rampaging past twenty. I would have liked to see more discussion of the treatment of female uncharacters as well, as this is a major problem for the industry in games like Duke Nukem Forever or Mafia II. Also, I can't agree with Susan Arendt's affection for Trip. More about that later, perhaps. There's not much to say about "The 'Other' Us", which turned to Q&A almost immediately and didn't really find a voice or a message. Also, there were way too many guys who tried to get up and defend Other M's story. Sorry boys, but even if you don't agree with Heppe that it was sexist, it was undeniably stupid.
The best panel on this subject was "One of Us" at the IGDA center, which included some valuable discussion about how to build safe communities and the importance and challenges of talking to people outside of those communities. This is clearly an effort that has to be dealt with on multiple fronts. I think things are going well with the group of people who are open-minded enough to try and learn about their mistakes, but Dave Edison made a good point that there needs to be an effort to mold the behavior of people who won't click on a feminism 101 link so that gaming spaces can become safe spaces for everyone. Overall I thought all the panelists provided some really solid insights, and I hope to see more like this at future iterations of PAX.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.