Hitman: Absolution Screenshot

Today was the last day of PAX Prime 2012, and as such, this is my final writeup covering the event.

I don't know about anyone else, but this year seemed a little weird to me. The crowds seemed a little harder to push through, people seemed a little crankier and a little more rude… It wasn't terrible by any means, but the vibe felt a little off. Maybe it was just me, but there you go.

Weird vibes aside, PAX offered the same set of problems that it usually does. Even with three full days, there's not enough time to see and play all of the games, and there's definitely not enough time to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a meal with all of the people that I wanted to see. Although I did manage to catch up with a good number of people and I coincidentally bumped into many that I knew on the floor, it's still depressing to think that there were plenty of folks that I couldn't successfully connect with, and that I likely won't get a chance again for at least a year.

In any event, enough sentimentality and on with the coverage!

Dishonored Screenshot

My first event of the day was one of my most anticipated—Dishonored, from Bethesda. When I sat down with the game, I asked Seth Shain, one of the developers, to show me all the highlights and details that I might miss walking into the game cold. He was happy to oblige, and I hit him with every question I could think of.

Without getting into too much detail, I was most concerned with whether Dishonored was really as open-ended and flexible as has been advertised. After all, some games let players make minor choices (blow up the enemy/strangle the enemy/snipe the enemy) while still funneling them down the same basic paths.

The short answer? From what I could tell, the game lets the player do what they want, how they want, when they want. Of course, there are certain limits since the developers can only include so much content, but the demo level that I played through was quite impressive. Within a few minutes, Seth showed me no fewer than six different ways to enter the building where my target was located, and none was "right" or" wrong". It was all about how stealthy a player wanted to be, and what skills they chose to use. (once inside the building, there were a slew of different ways to accomplish the objective, but that's a different discussion.)

Over the course of the discussion, he mentioned that Thief and Deus Ex had been sources of inspiration for Dishonored, and in fact, several members of the Dishonored team had actually worked on Deus Ex. For fans of free-form play and stealth, I can't think of anything that would inspire more confidence than that.

A couple of factoids:

  1. The game features multiple endings. Two main branches, with multiple variations of each.
  2. It's possible to complete the entire game without killing a single character.
  3. It's possible to complete the entire game without being seen by anyone.
  4. The world reacts, alters and adjusts in response to each person's playstyle.
  5. In addition to missions, the player can steal various valuable loot items.

I was already excited going into this hands-on, and after seeing it for myself and finding out even more information, this game has secured a place for itself at the top of my PLAY ASAP list.

Hitman: Absolution Screenshot

Speaking of stealthy, free-form games, it just so happened that my next appointment was at Squeenix to see Hitman: Absolution. I've been a huge fan of the series since Silent Assassin, but in all honesty, it feels like franchise has been in a bit of trouble lately. Blood Money wasn't quite to my liking, and with all the talk of the changes made to the formula (run and gun as a valid option?!?) I was more than a little concerned. Thankfully, Hitman developer Tore Blystad was available to give me an insider's peek at the demo level, and I'm happy to say that he calmed all of my fears.

The section that was available to play featured an important person of some sort wandering a crowded Asian town square. I requested that Tore show me as many ways to complete the level as possible, but we only had time for four: sniper rifle, bomb, poisoned drugs, and the most direct route – a bullet straight to the face at pointblank range. That was just the tip of the iceberg, though. He told me that the dev team counts 12 "official" ways to complete the level, and that's not including several of the unexpected, "unofficial" ways that playtesters have found.

Hearing this? Music to my ears.

After being satisfied that the game has embraced a less-structured designed than the previous installment, I then asked if they were serious about run & gunning as a sound strategy for success. He laughed at this for a bit, and said that although it was possible, the team had never intended for players to get the idea that a full frontal assault was just as do-able as being stealthy. I asked him to demonstrate for me, and he was happy to oblige.

After sufficiently arming himself, he went about shooting every hostile enemy in the area. He was quickly overpowered (this was on normal difficulty) and was not able to complete the section. He apologized for not being able to finish, but I told him that I couldn't be happier. I don't know about you, but there are plenty of games out there that satisfy any gun-crazy cravings I may have. With so few quality stealth games available, I certainly don't need Hitman to compromise in that area.

As the demo ended, I felt a hell of a lot better about the game than I did going into it. It seems clear that the developers are fully aware of what the core Hitman fans want, while still trying to make the game more approachable for newcomers, or for those who don't want a "realistic" level of difficulty. It's looking really, really good.

Borderlands 2 Screenshot

Although it wasn't on my agenda to check out Borderlands 2, I had a little bit of time and there was some space available, so I figured "why not?"

The short presentation given ran through the DLC Mechromancer character, and showed a bit of her skill trees. (The person speaking was very careful to avoid using anything resembling "girlfriend mode" language.) He also showed the improved gun turret for the soldier class, and then moved on to give us a taste of an endgame boss, Terramorphus.

This huge creature drops specific rare items, so there's some incentive to take him down. On the other hand, the developers had only chipped away about an eighth of its life after several minutes of four characters equipped with top-class gear blasting away at it, nonstop. I gather that it's somewhat tough to kill. Also, that may be an incredible understatement.

After the talk wrapped, we were let out to get a hands-on with the game itself. Brief impressions: it's more Borderlands. Of course, it's impossible to get a feeling for the true scope of the project after just a few minutes of a demo level, but as someone who wasn't really a fan of the first game, I didn't see anything here to convince me to give the sequel a shot.

YM, of course, MV.

(Fun fact: the developers ordered 160 pizzas to feed fans attending the panel later that day!)

Antichamber Screenshot

In last year's PAX rundown, I had made some brief comments about a game called Antichamber, and how it seemed quite impenetrable from the perspective of someone watching over a player's shoulder. The developer, Alexander Bruce, reached out to me and invited me back to take a closer look and get a better idea of what it was really about. I was happy to accept.

Sitting down with the game without really knowing anything about it, my feeling was that I needed the tiniest bit of info before playing in order to get myself in the frame of mind to properly interact with it. I didn't need a story mode or cutscenes, but I had no idea what to expect, and to say that Antichamber is a cryptic game is putting it mildly. After I put a few minutes in, Alex and I had an intriguing discussion about some of the meta-issues surrounding experimental or indie games.

I don't mean to put words in his mouth but if I understood him correctly, his basic concept for Antichamber was to challenge a player's expectations by introducing puzzles which require various degrees of perception and thought. I think it's a great aim, and I fully support such works.

On the other hand, I think there's a lot to pick apart with this particular title in regard to player engagement, the importance of context-setting in any game, and whether or not genre conventions can be played with, bent, or broken if the player is not aware or keyed into which conventions they are. Another issue that came up was aiming games at an appropriate target audience, and how to define who that audience was.

It was fascinating stuff to chew on, and Alex is certainly a bright guy full of ideas. It was an illuminating, thought-provoking chat, to be sure.

At this point, I was nearing the end of the day and I could feel that time was running short before people would start packing up their equipment and heading home. I kicked things into rush mode and tried to see as much as I could before the doors closed. I certainly don't mean to give short shrift to any of the following titles, but I didn't have nearly enough time to spend with each of them. I hope to sit down with every one for a longer period of time in the future.

Flying Frog is a local creator of board games, and they had quite an array on display at the show. I've heard great things about one of their titles, Last Night on Earth, and one of the staff at the booth was happy to play a quick session with me. Essentially, it's about a group of survivors fending off zombies in a small town, and it seemed like it would be a lot of fun at a dinner table with some friends.

Klei Entertainment was showing Don't Starve. It's an experimental title currently being built via an iteration process incorporating substantial feedback from players on the Klei forums. In its current state, and the game begins with the main character being dropped into a strange land and being forced to figure out what's going on, while scrounging for the means of survival. It looks a little like it was drawn by Edward Gorey, and it strongly reminded me of the survival mode in Minecraft, even though the game currently does not offer the ability to create structures.

Super Time Force Screenshot

Capybara Games was running Super Time Force, and it was pretty awesome. Graphically, it resembled an old-school 16-bit sidescrolling shooter, but the hook is that the player can "rewind" time every time they die, and that dead clone remains in the world. It's a little hard to describe without seeing it in action, but dying and leaving these copies behind is almost like giving yourself backup in difficult sections. It's heading to XBLA next year, and this is one I'm going to pop for on the spot.

Splice was an elegant, ingenious puzzle game featured in the PAX 10. In this one, the player takes a chain of genes and can cut it anyplace where two genes join. The goal is to rearrange the structures into a predetermined shape, but everything shifts and moves when cuts are made… It seems incredibly easy, but can be quite confounding past the initial levels. Thankfully, the graphics and music were quite mellow and relaxing. A smart move!

Deity was another PAX 10 entry. The gist was that the player controls a demonic spirit trying to reclaim its land from invaders. Since it's a spirit, it's able to jump from body to body and object to object for various results. It played swiftly from an isometric perspective, and looked like nothing else I saw on the floor. Unfortunately, this one was created by a team at DigiPen, and half of the team has already been hired by big-time studios in the industry. Deity looks like a one-and-done in this case, but hey, at least you can download it for free.

Dokuro is a Vita title that (I hope) will be getting a translation and become available sooner, rather than later. The build on display was Japanese code, but it didn't seem like a lot of work would be required to localize it. The gist is that the player is a skeleton who must guide a princess through various trap-filled levels in order to prevent her from coming to harm. It's cute and fairly simple, and looks like a perfect fit for a handheld which is currently starving for original content.

Guacamelee was the only other Vita game I saw worth mentioning. Coming from Drinkbox Studios (the developers of the excellent Mutant Blob games) this one stars a platforming luchador who brawls and combos his way through artistically stylized levels that incorporate Mexican mythology. According to developer Chris McQuinn, players should also be able to choose the much cooler female character Tostada, if they prefer her to the hulking beefcake. Yes, please!

Skulls of the Shogun has been in the works for quite a while, but this much-anticipated title from local developer 17-bit Sudios has finally gotten a release date of sometime in October. I've been following this one for a couple of years, so the thought of actually getting a final version has got me giddy. She's gonna be good.

My Giants is a child-oriented multiplayer game that aims to satisfy both little gamers and big ones. It's still quite early in development, but for parents on the hunt for games suitable for family co-op, this is one to watch.

The Unfinished Swan is an art-house PSN title coming soon to the service. It's a little tough to describe, but the player tosses blobs of ink into blank space, and when those blobs hit something, it kind of "fills in" the world as you go. If that sounds a little dry, trust me, it's much more interesting in person… Looking into a blank white screen, tossing a blob, and then seeing animals and shapes materialize is a unique experience.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, there was no way I had enough time to play every game and talk to every developer to the degree that they deserve, but I'm just one game writer trying the best I can. I'm sure there were a dozen more titles worth talking about that I didn't get to cover, so if you were at the show and know something that I overlooked, please feel free to drop me a line and clue me in!

(No need to tell me about Quadrilateral Cowboy, though. EVERYBODY told me about that.)

Brad Gallaway
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