My first year of E3 had a slow start. Not knowing how early I should get there to pick up my press pass, I found myself in the L.A. Convention Center at 8 o'clock. The process of getting my badge took three minutes at the most, so I had about four hours to kill before the main show floors were open to the media.
In my time killing wanderings, I noticed the Into the Pixel gallery in the Concourse Foyer. This gallery is made up of 17 selections chosen from thousands of submissions by a panel of judges comprised of art curators, creators, and experts. Considering that, I was both surprised and disappointed to see how mundane the winners turned out to be. 12 of the 17 images are from major development studios, including Microsoft and Bandai Namco, and originate from indie darlings like Dragon Age 2 and Kinectimals. Three of the five that come from actual independent developers are all from the same studio, Big Fish games, which further undercut the variety of the Into the Pixel showing.
What's more, these pieces are presented entirely without context. Some have a brief description of the piece itself, but none have an explanation as to what made them stand out from the rest. Yet another image of a titan looming over Kratos causes little stirring in my loins. While the intentions of the Into the Pixel gallery are good, the presentation—skewed as it was toward big names and heavy hitters—seemed to imply that the only good art videogames have to offer is pop art, which I refuse to believe is the case. For those interested, the winners' gallery can be viewed here.
Once the doors opened, my first stop was the Capcom booth in the West Hall, at the request of esteemed GameCritics editor Brad Gallaway. I was tasked with tracking info on the upcoming Monster Hunter Portable Third PlayStation 3 up-port (phew!), but I walked away empty handed. The demoers knew nothing about it, and those at the desk were much the same. If I wanted some real info, I had to get an appointment on the inside, something they were not giving out to the showfloor plebians, of which I count myself a member.
I did, however, get a chance to spend some time with the Monster Hunter-esque Dragon's Dogma. From descriptions Dragon's Dogma comes off like an open-world Monster Hunter with an almost Demon's Souls aesthetic, and the demo seemed to bear this out. A group of rugged, medieval warriors—comprised of three classes, a Strider, a Mage, and a um...Warrior—venture forth to take down the fearsome mythical creatures that roam the land. The Monster Hunter influence was apparent just from watching someone else play. The cumbersome movement of the avatars, the lunging attacks of the Chimera, and the (oft-repeated) encouragement to attack different body parts for different results would be immediately familiar to anyone with Monster Hunter experience under their belt.
When my turn arrived, I opted for the demo I didn't see: the fight versus the airborne Gryphon. I was put in control of a Strider, a nimble archer-class, and immediately set upon by a rabble of goblins, with the lion-tailed target circling menacingly overhead. After the goblins were dispatched, my focus turned to the Gryphon, and it was then that the game began to seem less like a high-definition reskin of Monster Hunter and more like a legitimate advancement. Teamwork has always been a crucial part of the Monster Hunter series, and players are often expected to have complementary abilities, but Dragon's Dogma takes a more literal attitude towards teamwork. The hunters in Dragon's Dogma can directly interact with one another. In one instance boosting an ally so they can leap onto the airborne Gryphon, and in another, carrying a downed friend to safety. In a move that was most crucial to defeating the Gryphon, the mage could imbue my arrows with magical fire, which would ignite the beast's feathers and bring it immediately to earth.
Dragon's Dogma's biggest problems come in the form of communicating with the player. The smallest of these transgressions is the interface, which is workman-like and inelegant. Far more egregious than this, however, is the loud and constant reminders from AI allies to fire at the wings! to take the offensive! to fire at the wings! to take the offensive! Bringing the Gryphon down did little to stop their ceaseless cries. Now it was come over here! Get on my back! Another annoying quirk is that whenever an ally goes down on one knee to give you a boost, the camera zooms over to them and lingers for a bit, to make double-sure that you know that this ally is doing that, in case the endless shouting wasn't enough of a tip. It does the same thing when a mage casts an elemental buff on weapons, or when the gryphon falls to the earth. Notifying the player of these developments is important, but the way it's handled in Dragon's Dogma is intrusive and off-putting, and I hope it sees some much needed tweaks before release.
I mostly just browsed at the rest of the Capcom booth. Dead Rising II-2 seems like more of the same, as did Street Fighter X Tekken. The hardcore fans of these series will doubtless pick out all the idiosyncrasies that make them entirely new games, but it wasn't readily evident to me. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City looked like a standard squad shooter affair, albeit with mostly harmless zombies shambling about, and occasionally a Hunter dropping by, in a move reminiscent of Left4Dead. One thing I do give Operation Raccoon City props for is the art direction, which very accurately mirrors the urban carnage of Resident Evil 2. The two other games I really wanted to see, Asura's Wrath and DMC weren't on open display, but apparently they're giving a very limited number of tickets to see them both behind closed doors. Here's hoping I can get one before the show is over.
The next stop was the UTV Ignition booth, to check out the game I'm most excited about for this year, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. It shares a genre with Devil May Cry, but is far more accessible than that game. The original intent was to design the game around one-button combat, and while the folks at Ignition weren't able to achieve that they came quite close. One button handle's most action, with timing and rhythm being the key factors in mixing up a combo. Enoch's combat repitoire is further expanded by his ability to steal weapons from enemies, each with their own unique moveset.
While the combat is interesting, what really made the game fascinating to me is the setting and art style. The story is taken from the apocryphal book of Enoch, which never made it into western bibles, wherein Enoch is tasked with defeating the rebellious angels who are trying to make Earth their home. There aren't nearly enough games based on Judeo-Christian myth, so El Shaddai had my immediate interest. The art style is appropriately divine too. While the game is ostensibly set on Earth, this game, with its endless white expanses and walkable cloudbursts, looks like no Earth I've ever seen. Considering the game is headed by the art director of the original Okami, the inventive look should come as no surprise.
UTV Ignition's booth ended up being interesting for another, altogether unexpected reason. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is the company's first big, in-house project. Up until now they have been mostly a publisher of smaller downloadable titles. Because of this, the rest of their booth was devoted to those kinds of games, with titles like Mercury Hg, Quarrel, and Nat Geo Challenge filling out the ranks. Ignition seems to occupy this weird space between small time publisher and hit-making developer, and it was personally fascinating to see a company right at the instant of transition between those two usually exclusive worlds.
From there I hit up the Sony booth, and was immediately drawn to the PlayStation Network titles, particularly Okabu and Papo & Yo. In Okabu, two players control cute little cloudpuffs that nimbly sail just a foot above the ground. The goal is to work together, with a set of four island inhabitants who act as power-ups, to solve puzzles and proceed to the goal. I had the good fortune of playing alongside Simon Oliver, the strikingly handsome founder of London-based developer Hand Circus, who guided me through the short E3 demo. The infectiously cute visuals and joyful kinetic energy of Okabu were easily its high points. The clouds, Kumulo and Nimbe, slide around all over the place in away that reminded me of Mario's tenuously controlled momentum, in a good way. It lent the game a sense of messy playfulness.
Unfortunately, the puzzles themselves left something to be desired. Hand Circus made the bold move of limiting co-op play to the couch—no online matchmaking here—because they wanted to focus on playing to that intimate dynamic that only arises when people physically game together. That's actually pretty excellent, but for the majority of the puzzles in the demo, it was one of us doing the solving with the other waiting until their particular power-up is needed. For instance, if I was playing music to coax a friendly goat into charging down a brick wall, Simon, with his currently unneeded hookshot ability, could only sit and wait. I didn't see any instances of these two abilities working together simultaneously. On top of that, each puzzle seemed to fit the standard "open the door" template. Some obstacle needed to be blown up, or hit with a goat, or eaten by rabbit things before we could proceed. With a targeted release date of September this year, Hand Circus might have a lot of work ahead if they want the quality of Okabu's gameplay to match the level of its visuals.
Papo & Yo, on the other hand, was all around excellent, and was probably the most impressive thing I saw at the show on the first day. The most instant surprise of the game are its incredible graphics. If I had been shown a screenshot of Papo & Yo, independent of other details, and told that it was going to be a brick-and-mortar release, I would have believed it. This became doubly impressive when I learned that the game's parent studio, Minority, is only five people strong.
The basic premise of Papo & Yo focuses on the dynamic between a young boy, Quico, and his friend Monster, who is a monster. They get along marvelously until Monster ingests a certain poison toad, an act which makes him evil and aggressive to Quico. The problem is that monster is addicted to these toads, so he and Quico set off in search of a cure. The game is puzzle-based, with the two working together to make their way through the stages. The minority representatives on hand told me that the game's creator, Vander Caballero, drew from his own life experiences to make this game. In short, his father had issues with substance abuse, much like Monster. Given that my father is a recovered alcoholic, this concept immediately resonated with me.
I managed to get a few words with Vander Caballero later in the show, and I may throw up a post focusing specifically on this one game sometime soon.
I then wandered around Sony's general show floor and watched someone play Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I've not had much experience with the previous games in the series, but one thing that raised my eyebrow was that, prior to the mission, the player was asked if they were going to use a stealth or lethal approach, as well as what one weapon they wanted to take with them. That isn't really the kind of on-the-fly decision making I was expecting. Hopefully it's just a E3 demo thing.
The other game I spent time with in the Sony area was Final Fantasy XIII-2 which I think I was pretty much required to do considering I am the only person in the world who really liked Final Fantasy XIII. The haters may want to give this one a look though, because it had many of the Final Fantasy staples that XIII lacked. The area of the demo was fairly expansive, and well-populated with chatty NPCs. There were multiple routes through the area, and at the end of the demo there was even a choice of how to approach the boss; either face him head on or do some puzzle solving to fight him at half strength. The basic combat system is nearly the same, a plus in my book, with the interesting addition of monster party members. I'm not sure exactly how it works, other than each monster is confined to one class (ravager, medic, sentinel, etc.) and that switching paradigms actually changes the monster in the party. There's also an option to use overpowered combonation strikes with your monstrous allies, but I couldn't quite figure out how the availability of those moves were dictated either. Regardless, I've got a good feeling about this one.
The last thing I did in the Sony section was wait two hours in line to check out the PSVita. I wouldn't say it was worth it—honestly, I can't imagine 10 minutes with any console ever created being worth a two hour wait—but I will say that the PSVita is a solid piece of hardware. The system itself is kinda big and heavy, but that had the effect of making it feel sturdy, like I could drop it (not encouraged!) and not watch $300 disappear into the ether. The graphics are very nearly PS3 quality, and this was particularly apparent in the demo of Little Big Planet they had running on the system. Uncharted looked good too. The presenters did a good job of not over-selling the touchscreen capabilities of the system. In the games where touchscreen play was optional (which was most of them) they would initially introduce me to the game via those touchscreen methods, but if I found myself drifting back to conventional controls they would usually comment on how that was perfectly ok with them. In fact, with one game, Sounds & Shapes, they didn't even push touchscreen controls at all. I found this "play how you want" attitude refreshing in light of my ancient disappointments with the DS.
What I really would have liked to see was the non-gaming applications of the device—the GPS, the social media stuff, the apps—but alas, they were not being shown. As someone who still (still!) carries around a dumbphone, but plays a hell of a lot of videogames, a 3G PSVita could potentially be right up my alley.
As much as it pains me to say it, I've saved the worst for last. The reason it pains me is because of what that "worst" is. I'll save you the suspense. I hoofed it over to the Namco Bandai booth to try out Dark Souls, which turned out to be my biggest disappointment of my first day at the show. I am a huge, huge fan of From Software, I loved Demon's Souls, I own all of the US released King's Field titles, and even an import PlayStation Portable one. I even love Shadow Tower. Dark Souls should have been a home run, but it just felt uninspiring, like a Demon's Souls expansion pack, which is exactly what I did not want. Everything about this game felt the same. There were dreglings, who looked the same and fought the same, there was a red dragon camping on a bridge, the interface was nearly identical, and the whole area screamed Boletaria 2.0. For all the talk about the game being more open, I didn't see any of that in the demo. While it's true many of my beloved King's Field are quite similar in gameplay terms, they often have very different settings. It's difficult to build an atmosphere of terror and wonder for a player in a place they feel like they've already completely dominated. The game wasn't unpleasant to play, it just reeked of sequel-itis, which is something I never thought I'd have to say about Dark Souls.