And so the second day of E3 begins!
I had some scheduled events to hit up with fellow GameCritic Brandon Bales that day, so I tried to keep things light until it was time to hit up the Bethesda demonstrations. The first destination was the Ubisoft booth, to check out Rayman Origins, and when playing it I couldn't help but be reminded of two specific Nintendo Wii releases. The first, and more obvious of the two was New Super Mario Bros Wii, since the games shared a 4-player side-scrolling platformer format. Rayman benefited from this comparison though, as player interactions were limited to the intentional; players could swat their "friends" around, lift them up to inaccessible ledges, and rescue them from near-death (think being "bubbled" in New Super Mario Bros Wii). There was none of the accidental-midair-bump-and-everyone-falls-into-a-pit-and-dies business that characterized my experience with Mario's multiplayer outing.
The other game I was reminded of was Warioland: Shake It!, a 2D platformer that came out near the Wii's release. My faint hope was that the Wii Warioland would herald the beginning of a flood of fully two-dimensional, sprite based platformers that would get enough support to hit physical retail. As it so happened, Warioland: Shake It! kinda sucked, and it ended up being the only console sprite-based platformer to hit brick-and-mortar stores until Rayman Origins's eventual release. The high power of modern consoles could obviously benefit a well-resourced graphically two-dimensional title, and it's good to see that potential being tapped again, however infrequently.
My next stop, out of morbid curiosity, was to check out Activision's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. For those not familiar with the premise, Skylanders is a reboot of the Spyro franchise, wherein Spyro himself receives a horrifying redesign and physical toys get thrown into the mix. Dismissed by many as another expression of money-grubbing evil by current game-devil Activision, I was surprised to see how the truthfulness of that characterization was irrelevant to the smartness of the idea. The basic Skylander package comes with the game, a portal that plugs into the console, and 3 of the 32 planned Skylander figurines. Placing a figurine onto the portal makes that character playable in the game world. I was told that the main game can be completed with the default 3 characters, with additional figurines providing access to optional areas.
The basic gameplay seemed Diablo-esque (a comparison that the dev team member I was speaking of didn't seem to like), with players firmly earthbound—no platforming in this Spyro game—as they take on hordes of enemies, accruing experience and some very simple loot. The twist is that character progress is saved to the figurine itself, not the console. If kid A, who plays on Xbox 360, wanted to take his level 4 Spyro to Kid B's house to play on her Wii, he could, providing she had a copy of the game and the portal. Platform agnostic was the term that was used. The occasions where kids (or even adults) have wanted to carry data across different formats are doubtlessly innumerable, so it's kind of shocking that such a solution has taken so long. DLC will be similarly agnostic, being delivered via Adventure Packs, which aside from including a couple new figurines, will include a playset that, when placed on a portal, will provide access to new game areas. Supposedly these playsets will have a use outside to the game as well. There was even some talk about using the portal for other properties (Transformers was a name that was mentioned), but that would depend on the success of Skylanders. Kids already waste tons of money on useless plastic (or worse. Remember pogs?) so the addition of functionality to such money-sinks seems like progress to me. Skylander's makes a good argument that corporate greed and decent children's entertainment are not mutually exclusive goals.
Then it was time to link up with Mr. Bales for the Obsidian presentation. Thanks are owed to him for getting me on the inside. First up was a guided demonstration of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I'm not a big Elder Scrolls player, with most of my experience consisting of watching other people play, so I like to pretend that gave me a level of objectivity about the demo that most attendees lacked. For the most part it looked like, well, Elder Scrolls, but there were a couple of new aspects that caught my interest. First of all was the Demon's Souls-ian equipment system, where anything can be held in either hand. Sword and shield, magic and axe, or even dual wielding were all options. No word yet on if the legendary shield + shield combo has made it into the game. Another quality I liked hearing about was how the game's dragons have their own will, meaning they can pop up in any section of the realm whenever they damn well please. Something like that definitely gives any game a sense of life. Fans of playing Oblivion in third person will be relieved to hear that the funny, stiffly-animated ice-skating characters have been dropped in favor of actual fluid animation too.
With all that said, it still seems like just another Elder Scrolls. I'm sure that's great for fans of the series, but knowing that there is a wizard, warrior, and thief (wow!) does little to inspire holdouts (such as myself) to take the plunge.
I actually got to spend some time with Rage in the Bethesda booth after the Skyrim presentation, and I have to say, id software really needs to gain a better understanding of open world gaming before they release their new game. The gunplay, when I got to it, was predictably high-quality, owing to id's storied pedigree. The non-combat portions seemed to be missing a lot of now-standard features though. Quest markers were entirely absent. The only way to find a quest was to talk to everyone, more than once! I originally talked to some people then got on my buggy out of town, only to have a id team member tell me I needed to go back, talk to one of the NPCs several more times, and accept the quest before I could proceed. That seems pretty archaic. Thankfully, said staff member also said that they have seen several attendees make the same mistake, and that they are already looking into changing it prior to release. Aside from that though, the space between hubs seemed like just that, empty space. It felt somewhat like Rage's open world was open for the sake of openness.
I was abruptly torn from my time with Rage when Brandon came to collect me for Irrational's presentation of BioShock: Infinite. Being the videogame rube that I am, I still haven't played either of the preceding BioShock titles, but I have seen them, and from a purely visual standpoint I found Infinite to be much more appealing. The environment of Columbia was lively and vibrant, and those adjectives could also be applied to the gameplay, which—as shown—was dynamic and fast-paced. The player used a weird hook-y thing to slide around on Columbia's many sky rails, while legions of red-shirted enemies gave chase, shouting wildly in their pursuit. After the initial impression wore off however, the combat portion seemed to drag on longer than it should have. The actual combat didn't seem like it was going to set anyone's world on fire, so I would've preferred to see more of the quiet, exploratory moments that began the demo.
One thing that bugged me about BioShock: Infinite, though, was that Irrational has apparently adopted the well-worn Japanese role-playing game trope of the magical princess character. A helpless, ignorant-of-the-world, yet strikingly-beautiful damsel, who possesses mysterious magic powers beyond her control. Given Sparky Clarkson's interpretation of BioShock 2 as a story about parenthood, it was kind of disappointing to see Infinite give so much screentime to the male fantasy of rescuing a hot girl—who is conveniently reliant on only you, her hero!—from her father (in this case played by a giant robot bird). Still, this is a good candidate for the first BioShock game I actually sit down and play.
Our meetings for the day completed, I wandered over to the Sega booth, where Anarchy Reigns caught my eye. I'm a fan of Platinum Games in general and Madworld in particular, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to play it. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be unfinished. Sure, many of the games on the show floor were in pre-alpha builds, and nearly all of them were unfinished, but among those I played Anarchy Reigns seemed to be in need of the most work. It's basically a competitive brawler—think deathmatch with fists only—and it works about as well as one might expect, which is to say not very good. It was a big clusterfuck with no rhyme or reason. In a competitive shooter, a player can use the level design to assault targets while staying out of the line-of-fire of other opponents. In Anarchy Reigns everyone must be at arm's length, and mashed up together like that meant it was difficult to make sense of anything. I have faith in Platinum, but as of right now Anarchy Reigns is looking pretty rough.
I then checked out Binary Domain, the upcoming shooter from Toshihiro Nogoshi, the man behind the excellent Yakuza series. The squadmates of the game consisted of the expected stereotypes, broadly drawn in a way that seems totally unique to Japanese developed "western" games. Within seconds of starting, the main character offers up some small suggestion, to which the CO replies that HE is the commanding officer, not that it would mean much to someone with YOUR attitude. Never seen squad tension like that before. Once the game began I picked a couple of squadmates (totally at random) to accompany me into the fray.
It was a very basic Gears of War-style shooter, with a few tweaks, both good and bad. On the bad side, all of the enemies were robots, meaning headshots meant nothing. They were big metal bullet sponges. The way they reacted to the shots was impressive, bucking back as their armor chipped away, but I really would have liked to shoot them less. Another odd quality was the necessity to switch to grenades. I haven't switched from a gun to grenades in a decade. Why do they not have a dedicated button? On the positive side, there was a feature on the assault rifle that, when fully charaged, could launch a massive force push style technique that was fun too look at and incredibly destructive. The melee attack was also addictive and required no such charge. Hits went off with a satisfying crunch, and—in a welcome departure from modern third-person shooters—there wasn't much of a whiff penalty. I could walk up to a 'bot and crush him with my fists mostly without penalty. A couple of nifty close-combat abilities aren't going to elevate Binary Domain above the bevy of available and upcoming third-person shooters though, so it's going to need something more (a less generic aesthetic perhaps?) to set it apart if it wants to compete.
The last big event of the day was seeing a guided demo of Hitman: Absolution. I've always respected the Hitman franchise, but could never really play it. I'm not the type of gamer who can drop into the first stage with a thousand options at my fingertips and do anything other than freeze, which is why I'm excited for Absolution. The demo that was shown would make a great early game tutorial for players like me. In it, Agent 47 is on the run from the police, so his options are limited. There are still several ways to make an escape, but it wasn't the overwhelming buffet of options that always intimidated me in past Hitman games. A guided tutorial stage might be exactly what Hitman needs to broaden its audience.
Of course there were new features as well. One of the most exciting to me was the "attention meter". It's an invisible circle that surrounds Agent 47, but as suspicion is aroused via sight, sound, and environmental changes, "waves" arise around the circumference, cresting in the direction of the alerted party. The height of the wave corresponds to the level of awareness. I loved the Threat Ring in Metal Gear Solid 4 and this is almost exactly it. I'm glad to see that great idea has not been lost. Another good feature was Instinct, which allows Agent 47 to anticipate patrol routes—denoted by a flaming trail—sneaking opportunities and enemy positions. Think of it as an upgraded Runner's Vision from Mirror's Edge. In stealth games, there is nothing more tiring than watching guards mill about for 5 minutes just to figure out their routine, and Hitman: Absolution makes this unnecessary. I'm sure purists will bristle, but Instinct doesn't play the game for anyone, it merely saves time. My only concern is that it basically allows Agent 47 to see enemies through walls, and that seems a bit overpowered.
Tomorrow I'll be reporting on the third and final day of my E3 experience. See you then!