In my last entry, I totally forgot to mention one of the most important things I did on Wednesday. I sat in line for 2 hours to get my hands on the PlayStation Vita. It's not that I thought it was worth the wait (it definitely wasn't) but I had a couple hours to kill at the end of the day so I figured why the hell not. Now, though I've said it wasn't worth the wait, that isn't the same as saying it isn't an impressive system. I just don't think anything at the E3 showfloor is worth that kind of time investment, especially when it will all be covered relentlessly in the following days.
Anyway, as I implied, the PS Vita is an impressive piece of hardware. The graphics were great, the touchscreen was demonstrated surprisingly well, and it felt very sturdy, in stark contrast to the PlayStation Portable (PSP) which feels like it could snap in half at any moment. With that said, I was really interested in seeing some of the Vita's non-gaming applications such as the social media stuff and its smartphone-esque capabilities. I still am not a smartphone owner, in part because I feel like smartphones offer a lot of things I don't want with a premium price tag attached. The Vita, on the other hand, offers things I am very interested in, and the smartphone-like features seem like a significant added bonus. I want to know if the Vita could potentially be a smartphone for people without smartphones, but I wasn't going to find that out at E3.
So onward to Day 3 proper.
I had seen Zindagi-shirted individuals floating around the E3 showfloor the past few days, and was curious what they had on the floor. Zindagi Games are the unsung developers behind the excellent PlayStation Move launch title Sports Champions, so I made it a point to find out what they were up to next. What I discovered was both intriguing and worrisome.
Medival Moves: Deadmund's Quest is their upcoming title, where players control an undead prince in a quest to regain his life and his kingdom. Back in my Sports Champions days, I couldn't help but think that Zindagi could easily make an entire game based off of the sword-fighting mechanics in the Gladiator Duel event. With Medival Moves, Zindagi has gone even further than that. There's the basic sword-and-shield play, and both Archery and Disc Golf (in the form of deadly shuriken) mechanics have been included as well. What's most impressive is how seamless this all is. The sword and shield is out by default, but reaching over my shoulder would cause Deadmund to draw an arrow from his quiver, holding the triggers would make him ready shuriken, and even making a drinking motion would cause him to down some life-replenishing milk. It was entirely effortless to switch between all these different actions.
The worrisome part is that the game is essentially on rails. Defeat the onscreen enemies, and then Deadmund moves on to the next action point automatically. There's some small player agency there, with secret, alternate routes, but there's something about on-rails games that—to me—has always made them feel inferior to other titles. One of the developers explained that they had done testing with player-controlled movement, but in nearly all cases it had been too cumbersome and distracting; it's hard to swing as sword as you would in real life and try to move a character as you would in a video game simultaneously. Still, I can't help but wonder if there's a better solution than "continuous momentum".
I had a procured a ticket for a little Capcom theater presentation early in the day, so after checking out Medival Moves I headed over that way. I had already explored Capcom's booth on the first day, but the theater presentation had video of both Asura's Wrath and DMC: Devil May Cry, neither of which had much presence on the floor proper. The Asura's Wrath portion of the showing was as illuminating as all Asura's Wrath material has been so far, which is to say not very. There's fighting, and a lot of QTEs, but it's hard to tell what's going on with more specificity than that. I was surprised to discover it had a huge sci-fi bent. All previous videos mostly stuck to the ancient eastern mythology motif, but in this video there were giant spaceships flying around and stuff. I still feel like I don't know much about the actual game though.
DMC: Devil May Cry on the other hand showed nothing but gameplay footage, and I have to say I was pretty disappointed by what I saw. I am a big fan of Devil May Cry, but I also believe that Capcom reached the pinnacle of the series design with the third installment. Because of that, when the new, more british, druggier looking Dante was revealed, I was ok with it. They're doing something different, I thought, and I can respect that. From the gameplay on display, though, it seems like the difference is limited to aesthetics. The combat was all air juggles and enemies kept aloft on cushions of gunfire, as it had always been. The small minority of Devil May Cry fans who were interested in an actual re-imagining of the series may have to wait a while longer.
I then revisited Dark Souls, and while I'd like to say that my fears were allayed by a second demo playthrough, I cannot. I made it all the way to the demo boss, and it turned out to be a rehash of the Maneater fight from Demon's Souls. I won't stop believing until I put the disc in my PS3 though.
Out of a sense of duty to my younger brother, I made it over to the THQ booth to check out Saints Row: The Third. I got into another one of those small meetings with a guided demonstration, and it really looked excellent. I'm of the opinion that Saints Row—not Grand Theft Auto 4—is the true heir to the GTA legacy, with it's totally over-the-top crassness. This newest one seems to be the most ridiculous yet. What really caught my attention, though, was the implication by the presenter that in Saints Row: The Third players will start at the top of their game. As the leader of the most powerful gang, and a hero and role model to the masses, with access to all of the fun toys right from the start. That's what open world chaos is all about. The majority of the demo was pretty standard (if you consider punching people so hard they explode, or shooting them out of cannons, or calling in a targeted air strike standard), but it all looked very polished, and sometimes that's all that is needed.
I figured that I should check out the Microsoft booth sometimes, so I headed over there afterwards. The whole thing was very Kinect focused, and seeing as I do not own a Kinect and don't intend to own one, I didn't really look too hard at what was there. What drew my eye were the XBLA games on display. I spent some time with Atlus' upcoming Rock of Ages, which was fun for the time I played it, but looking back, might be a bit too shallow. Basically two players (either two humans or one human and one AI) simultaneously reinforce a downhill route with obstacles and weapons. While this is happening, the titular rock is undergoing contsruction, and as soon as it's done it can be launched at the opponent's castle, at the bottom of their respective hill, at any time. Then play switches from the over head defense management to direct control of the ball, with the idea being to dodge obstacles and reach the bottom of the hill with as much momentum as possible to cause maximum damage to the opposing castle. That's pretty much it. It seems like more obstacles and such can be unlocked over time, and the rock itself can be enhanced as well, but it's definitely a WYSIWYG affair.
The other game I looked at—only briefly, and I really regret that now—was Crimson Alliance. At first glance it seems like a standard Diablo-clone (boy there were a lot of those at the show) but I noticed that the health was denoted by hearts, not the standard life bar. I asked about that, assuming it was a purely aesthetic choice, but apparently the developers were very serious about it. There's heart pieces and all, ala Zelda. Skill enhancement has been simplified as well, as players don't deal with skill trees and all that, but instead upgrade the face buttons of their 360 controller. Each button corresponds to a type of action, so if someone focused on upgrading the X button for instance, all of their sword based techniques would become stronger, faster better. It was also briefly mentioned that stat upgrades would be handled either mostly or entirely through armor and equipment. The general simplicity of the game really appealed to me, and it looked good besides. I intended to return to it at some point, but I had to rush off to get a look at thatgamecompany's Journey.
Journey was pretty much what I expected, and I don't mean that as a bad thing at all. The basic gameplay seemed Flower-esque, though instead of controlling a single flower petal players now assumed the role of a mysterious desert dweller, who searches the remains of a dying civilization for a path to the top of a far off mountain. I got a chance to sample the multiplayer, and while some have compared it to Demon's Souls, with anonymous "invaders" popping in, with no ability to communicate directly with you, it reminded me more of the multiplayer found in Keita Takahashi's Noby Noby Boy. Much as in that game, there is no sense of competition, or even cooperation. It's more like two players doing their own thing in the same shared space. It's an interesting interpretation of multiplayer that has barely been explored at all, and I'm eager to see more of it.
While Brandon and I were in the Super Secret Sony Meeting Room For Special People Only, we also sat down with Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One, and I have to say the Ratchet and Clank series doesn't seem to gain much from the addition of cooperative multiplayer. If anything, it seems to have suffered from it. The level design that we saw seemed broad and bland, undoubtedly to make room for the four player havoc that could potentially ensue. It felt a bit like a half-hearted, 3D, kneejerk response to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Sony's own messy four-player platformer.
Afterwards Brandon and I made our way to the Atlus booth, which was secretly sequestered in the Concourse Hall. There we got to play a little Cursed Crusade, a game for which I was excited, then concerned, and now back to excited again. It definitely has that Demon's Souls look to it, but it really is an entirely different game. It's more Streets of Rage than Demon's Souls, basically a two-player beat-em-up with swords and armor. Although simple, it looked pretty and the combat felt nice and weighty, and I don't have any problems with that. I would have liked to see more of the Curse mechanic though, as what I was shown made it seem mostly like a sort of Devil Trigger-cum-Magic system. I hope there's more to it than that.
We also got to take a look at Catherine. It's hard to be on the internet and not hear all about Catherine, and because of this I kind of knew what I was going to see before I had even seen it. For those who have somehow remained uninformed, although Catherine shares a look with several other high-profile Atlus role-playing games (RPGs), it's not an RPG at all. It's actually a straightfoward puzzle game. Players must navigate Vincent to the top of a tower that exists in his nightmare by pushing, pulling, and climbing the boxes that comprise it. It actually seemed quite hard, especially considering that we were shown one of the earliest puzzles in the game. Thankfully, the normal difficulty level provides players with 9 penalty-free rewinds, to take back a single move. For the truly hardcore, higher difficulties have no undo function at all.
The visuals do a lot to enhance this experience; pushing blocks takes on a whole new sense of urgency when you're being chased by an enormous fork-wielding demon-doppleganger of your girlfriend. I was also glad to see the presence of the familiar MegaTen Law and Chaos dichotomy, which I hadn't really thought about for this game. Throughout, Vincent will have to answer personal questions about who he is, and the answers will move him either more towards Law or Chaos, which no doubt has an effect on the ending. Initially I thought the game may have 3 endings—one for each girl, and one for neither—and Atlus' own Aram Jabbari informed me that there will be more than twice that many.
For the final leg of my E3 adventures, I made my way back to the Square-Enix booth to watch a guided demo of the new Tomb Raider. Some have brought up issues with this new presentation of Lara Croft, where she is shown as vulnerable and inexperienced, but I think this is quite a different thing than games like Metroid: Other M and The Third Birthday. In those games, an established, powerful heroine was made weak for spurious reasons. In Tomb Raider, the reasons seem legitimate—to show how the invincible, infallible Lara Croft became the confident adventurer we are all familiar with. Everyone starts somewhere, so seeing a young Lara struggling to survive doesn't make me question her chops, it just makes her seem more human.
As for the gameplay itself, the game I was most reminded of wasn't any of the Tomb Raider titles, but Alone in the Dark: Inferno. There was a general aura of dark menace about the game that would be familiar to anyone who played the most recent Alone in the Dark, and both share an emphasis on fire and physics based puzzles. Even the part of the demo that showed Lara in a semi-open hub reminded me of Alone in the Dark's Central Park. Inferno was a deeply flawed gem with a lot of great ideas. If the new Tomb Raider turns out to be an accidental do-over of that game, this time with the production resources to back up those big ideas, I wil lbe a happy man.
As I exited the theater, I noticed a row of Deus Ex: Human Revolution demo's sitting completely untouched and, dissatisfied with making a judgement on the game based solely on my first day impressions, decided to give it a whirl. The most important thing I have to say about Human Revolution is this: the hacking mini-game is excellent. I've seen plenty of them come and go, and very few have been even kind of entertaining, let alone fun, and the hacking system in Deus Ex nails it. It's a really difficult system to put into words, but it strikes just the right balance of luck, logic, and reflex-based tension.
As for the greater game itself, my early fears were quickly put to rest. In the demo I played, I employed a broad range of approaches to the mission from moment to moment, whether it was sneaking through air vents, bluffing my way past guards, or just shooting up the place. The great part is that even if I undertook one approach—say, shooting everyone in the face—I could always switch approaches later. Eventually the alert would clear or I'd make it to my current objective, and then I could go back to sneaking along the floor with my stealth camo on. Lots of games provide players freedom of choice, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution seems designed to give players the freedom to change their minds, and I like that.
An astute reader will no doubt have noticed my distinct lack of Nintendo coverage, and that can be blamed on just how ridiculously mobbed the Nintendo booth was at all times of every day. Couple that with the fact that I am almost positive that the Wii U will be the single most heavily covered item at the entire conference, and I just didn't feel too compelled to take a personal look. I did have a brief look at some of the 3DS offerings, and one thing that struck me as ironic/interesting/weird was how now with the additional power of their new handheld, Nintendo is facing some problems that are familiar to anyone who has owned a PSP. Namely, there are great looking, fully 3D games on there, but just one analog nub. This issue was brought into a very stark light by a pair of Metal Gear Solid games on the show floor: Peace Walker which was being ported to the PS3, and MGS3 being ported to the 3DS. In the case of Peace Walker I thought "Wow, what I would have given to have had two analog sticks back when I was playing this on PSP." In the case of MGS3: "How do they expect me to play this minus a stick?" An unfortunate comparison for the 3DS.
That was pretty much my E3. I was glad to go, and I'm glad to be home. After seeing all the sound and fury in person, some part of me feels envious of those who got to attend during those couple of years when the convention was dialed way back.
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- E3 2011: Day the Third - June 13, 2011