Another year, another great PAX.
I've been to PAX several times, and every year it just gets better… and bigger. It's literally impossible for one man to cover the entire show, so I'm not even going to try that. Instead, I'll talk about what I saw and tell you what I thought, and hopefully that will be enough to pique your interest for the length of this article.
Maybe you'll even be interested enough to go next year.
(Before going on, I would first like to thank my wonderful gamer wife Gina and my little boy, Whittaker. I feel incredibly blessed that I was able to attend this event as a unit with my family, and that I did not need to leave my loved ones behind. Not everyone can say that, and as a gamer who’s also a dad and husband, I'm certainly aware of how lucky I am.)
Walking the show floor, I was struck by two ‘social’ things; the first was that there seemed to be an extremely healthy number of girls and families attending, in addition to the usual mob of sweaty single dudes.
I'm really not that old, but I suppose I am in relation to how many new gamers are entering the fold. “Back in my day”, a convention of this sort would have been overwhelmingly male, with the only females in sight (and on-site) being PR reps or bored, disaffected girlfriends dragged along by their inattentive partners. That's just not true anymore.
I spent more than a bit of time people-watching, and I was continually impressed with the sheer number of girls who were there of their own accord. They were playing kiosks, they were making game-trivia jokes, they were buying used cartridges — they were just being gamers. I can't even begin to express how overwhelmingly positive a shift this is.
The same went for families. Seeing babies and small kids (like mine) has been generally unheard of, but I was constantly seeing moms and dads with baby carriers strapped to their fronts and backs. There were a fair number of toddlers running up and down the aisles, and plenty of parents accompanying older kids as well. In other situations, I can say with first-hand experience that announcing yourself as a parent who plays games is analogous to pulling down your pants and announcing to the room that you have anal warts. Here at PAX, being a parent AND a game player is just the next normal phase of life.
The other ‘social’ thing that occurred to me was how fundamentally Twitter has changed the nature of networking and meeting people.
Although I've attended PAX several years in a row, 2010 was the best because I had friends in (literally) every corner of the building thanks to following and being followed. Although this was the first time I had met most of these people in person, they certainly weren't strangers and it was a lot less awkward than walking up to someone cold and trying to start a conversation.
Morning, noon, and night, Twitter provided constant access to the goings-on of people that I wanted to know about, and I was able to share tidbits of my day with them as well. It was incredibly easy to coordinate lunchtime meetings and evening plans. If I was somewhere and put out a tweet asking if anyone was in the area, there would inevitably be at least one or two people who could come over to say hi.
As an even better example, GameCritics teamed up with Gladriel to host a tweetup at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant directly across from the convention center. Thanks to this electronic network, we gathered an eclectic bunch who likely would have never sat down with each other to share a meal under any other circumstances. It was a similar situation at the Sega party later on — there were plenty of people I knew of tangentially, but thanks to the tweets, seeing some of these people face-to-face for the first time was like meeting old friends.
I don't mean to be a Twitter evangelist, but the service has done wonders to turn a traditionally forum/IM-oriented circle into something that's alive, vibrant, and immediate. I can say with complete confidence that if you are not already on Twitter and using it faithfully, you are missing out.
While PAX doesn't boast an exhibition floor as gargantuan as E3’s, it can certainly hold its own. With display spaces packed to the gills with upcoming games and vendors, there’s still plenty to see, and it takes quite a bit of time to get through it all. That said, in terms of quality I’d have to say that (in general) the selection was a bit lacking. I don't think it has anything to do with PAX itself; I took the uninspiring software and predictable entries to be more indicative of the industry overall. Still, there are things to talk about…
Biggest surprise – Mortal Kombat. If you had asked me before the show, I would've told you that MKII was the last time anyone gave a damn about it, including myself. After today, I suspect that might change.
Taking a cue from Street Fighter’s back-to-its-roots reinvention, the developers of Mortal Kombat have apparently decided that it's time to drop all the goofiness and stupidity that has infiltrated the franchise over the years. Rather than being another parody of itself, this new iteration was dark, brutal, and unbelievably gory – even for a Mortal Kombat.
The crowd around the kiosks was electric, gathering around to whoop and cheer with each Fatality more explicit than the last. The dissections and decapitations weren't limited to the end of each round, though. During the fight, there were frequent CSI-style close-ups and X-ray views of internal damage being wrought. It was brutal stuff.
With redesigned characters, a roster that seems to include all of the fan favorites, and (apparently) limiting combat to a strictly 2D plane, this might just be the return to form that the series has badly needed for so long.
Most Improved – While I enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, I will be the first to say that it needed a lot of work. The story carried me through, but I didn't care for the combat and the graphics/presentation was sorely lacking. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with some of the developers and take part in a brief fifteen minute demo of Dragon Age 2 at PAX, and while there are still some question marks about the final product, my initial impression is that this sequel is a top-to-bottom renovation in every way. It looked so good, in fact, that I really don't think I'd be able to go back to the first game now.
The biggest shift in the formula is that combat now takes place in real time for whichever character is currently under the player's control. All of the same menus, options, and strategy are still there — the only difference is that rather than selecting a power or ability, the player presses a button and the action happens at that exact second. It may be a bit of a shock to some people, but after having seen it in action, I would definitely agree with the developers that this was a better way to go.
|Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider – A supremely friendly fellow!|
The Other Stuff – Tron Evolution: The Video Game was looking pretty good. Although the developers have apparently not had much time to put the game together, what they have done is quite respectable. The neon world and light cycles return, but the game now features a surprising parkour element with the main character performing wall-runs and some platforming maneuvers. Also interesting to note is that the feature film in theaters will use sections of the game for certain flashback sequences, and the continuity between the two is canon. (Unfortunately, the developer I spoke with dismissed any possible link between Tron Evolution and Tron 2.0. I can't say that was expected, but I'm still a bit disappointed.)
Front Mission: Evolved – Taking a detour from every other FM game ever created, this new installment bears more than a passing resemblance (i.e.- almost exactly like) the Armored Core series by FromSoft. In fact, if I had to describe it, I’d call it AC-Lite. I'm interested as a mech fan, but what I saw didn't exactly set my imagination on fire.
Battle Vs. Chess – Knowing nothing about this game except the title, it quickly made a place for itself on my day-one-purchase list once I laid hands on it. The game is essentially chess, but pretties things up with some extremely sharp-looking character models and backgrounds while adding some… uh, ‘nontraditional’… twists to the formula. In one mode, the pieces are placed randomly on the board. In another, players can "defend" aggressive moves by literally having the pieces fight each other. One of the most interesting, though, was the campaign mode where each level is a puzzle taken from famous matches in real-world chess history. This game isn't going to be for everyone, but it sure as hell is for me.
Two Worlds II – The original Two Worlds was little more than a punchline for most, but the developers have gone back to the drawing board and have come up with something that seems to be an order of magnitude better. An open-world RPG in the Oblivion vein, TWII instead delivers a third-person viewpoint and puts heavy, heavy emphasis on player customization. Not only does the main character have an appearance that can be altered, every weapon in the game can be broken down into component elements and used to modify or upgrade other weapons. Magic spells can also be changed on-the-fly to add, subtract, change, or completely transform their effects. In one example, I saw a spell go from a simple lighting bolt to an area-effect blast, and from there it transformed into a lightning-absorbing shield before becoming a simple light spell – all in the span of a minute or so. Players who enjoy tinkering with gear and abilities are going to be in hog heaven.
Hunted: The Demon’s Forge – This co-op game can be boiled down to something like “Fantasy-themed Gears of War”, but in my book that's not necessarily a bad thing. If a title is going to offer a multiplayer component, my preference is always for campaign-based co-op, and that's exactly what this game delivers. With one character focused on melee and the other on long-range sniping with a bow and arrows, there's plenty of potential here for some fairly epic adventuring, buddy-style. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this one.
The Downloads and Indies – Unsurprisingly, some of the most fresh and original titles on display at PAX were the smaller ones. The first that caught my attention was About a Blob. Soon available on PSN, this bright and colorful game offers physics-based puzzling with a blob that absorbs whatever’s nearby. Imagine a smaller, 2D Katamari Damacy that has puzzles and you won't be too far off.
Outland – An unusual mix of platformer and bullet-hell shmup with a healthy dose of Shadow of the Colossus thrown in, this one was a favorite of many passers-by.
Super Meat Boy – I've heard tons about this game, and after finally getting a chance to check it out first hand, it seems as though much of that chatter is warranted. An old-school-ish take on hyper-difficult platforming, this one seems tailor-made for masochists… yet I found it somewhat irresistible.
Swarm – Take a large group of disposable blue creatures, group them together, and then try to navigate them through obstacles and puzzles, most of which are lethal – that's Swarm. The interesting thing about this title to me was that the individual had no importance: the name of the game is sacrifice for the many. When trying to leap across a chasm, the swarmlets stacked atop each other in a pendulous pile in order to make a big jump. The creatures at the top made it, but the ones at the bottom… well, let's just say that they died for a greater cause. Thankfully, the swarm can be repopulated quickly and easily to prepare for each new deathtrap, whether it be saw blades, tossing themselves into machinery, or just a good, old-fashioned explosion.
Bastion – Currently without plans for a specific download service (watch that change in a New York minute) this title will without a doubt be snapped up by some publisher by the time the show’s over. Visually reminiscent of something along the lines of Boktai, this stunningly beautiful project revolves around a world broken up into fragments, and the player’s quest to reconstruct it. Words cannot do this game justice, so make sure to watch the trailer.
There were a few other notables that warrant further investigation, specifically Hoard, Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, and Plane Weaver. I ran out of time on the floor, though, so I can’t speak on them in any detail. Still, appearances were very promising.
I don't often comment about public relations reps, but this year I’d like to give special praise to Aubrey Norris of SouthPeak Games, Shaun Norton of Sandbox Strategies, and Lawrence Lacsamana of FortySeven Communications. All three of these folks knew what to do and how to do it, and as a critic who sometimes has to hustle and deal, it was a pleasure to work with some people who were happy to work with me.
On the other hand, I was more than a little put off by the quality of representatives at the Ubisoft booth.
After something caught my eye in Ubi’s area, I had a few questions to ask, but there were no reps in sight. I looked around and found a developer, but he couldn't stop playing his own game long enough to speak to me. Instead, he directed me to a desk around the corner, and when I got there, the person at the desk said she had no idea who I should talk to or where the person in charge was. I offered a business card and asked if she would pass it along to the person who dealt with such things, but she wouldn't take it. When I asked specifically who I should talk to in order to set up a line of communication, she shrugged and said “we don't really do that here, this isn't E3.”
Is this really how PR should be handled, Ubisoft? Somehow, I don't think so.
On the second floor of the convention center near the Rock Band stage, there was a small juice bar and healthy food café tucked away from sight. While their tuna sandwiches were great and the orange Creamsicle smoothies were too, the best thing was a special wheatgrass drink they made that blended the pungent juice with lemon, lime, and cayenne pepper. Instant perk-up GET!!
What fan-oriented convention would be complete without dozens of people walking around in fantastic (and some not-so-fantastic) outfits? There were a few impressive-looking costumes that we didn't manage to snap when the camera's batteries died (Renegade Shepard and Battle-Damaged Garrus come to mind) but more than a few were happy to pose before the Duracells ran dry. Also included: some of the more interesting floor displays and statuary. I think these speak for themselves, but you know what? Comments follow anyway…
In random order:
|This guy is at PAX every single year. He never misses.|
|No line-jumping! Hold those media bastards back!!|
|PAX took up every floor you see here, and more.|
|My son couldn't stay away from this giant dino. We visited it at least 50 times.|
|Apparently MS was pissed that these guys were backlit.|
|This was fifteen minutes before the crowds were let in. The floor was never this empty again.|
|My son Whittaker, racing to get a place in the Killzone 3 line.|
|At PAX, this isn't odd in any way.|
|Can he really see through that orange glow?|
|Bees about to take the Rock Band stage.|
|Subway sandwiches are the preferred sustenance of Black Mages.|
|No clue what this was advertising.|
|Seriously, take a shower before you come to PAX.|
|I have NO IDEA how she got someone to fit inside that Servbot.|
|BUY MY SPEAKERS!!!|
|I'm guessing the big blue guy isn't the brains of this crew.|
|That line of people against the windows? All sprawled out on beanbags. Downstairs, too.|
|A Big Daddy, a Little Sister, and… a maid?|
|Still looking for that damned Ring.|
|Can you spare 1.21 gigawatts?|
…And there you have it. This year’s coverage is a wrap, but endless thanks to Jerry, Mike, and the rest of the Penny Arcade crew for making such an amazing thing happen. PAX is always a high point of every year for me, and I hope it keeps going for many, many more.