Sunday, June 27, 2010

E3 Impressions

Before it gets far away enough to be irrelevant, I thought I'd write out my impressions of everything I played while at E3. I played a little over a dozen demos, and had a blast. ^_^ Here's what I thought of each, in no particular order.


Unfortunately, the demo for this was (understandably) only of the gameplay elements, and it seems most of the innovation on this game between versions 1 and 2 was on the content creation side. Still, I liked what I saw - it looks like there are a huge number of new tools, both for use in levels and in creating levels, and you can apparently make mini-games now, to play inside the standard levels! I'm really excited about that; making things is always at least half the fun of games like that.

As to the gameplay itself, I have to say I was rather disappointed with the multi-player they provided as a demo. It controls the same as a standard LBP game from the first one, with the added twist of a grapnel-gun in the level that was available for demo, but the camera following for multiple players was really weird. The moment one player got even slightly ahead of the others, the other players would find themselves off-screen, with nothing to do but wait until player 1 hit the next save point, causing them to re-spawn. So as co-operative play, it seems like it would involve a lot of waiting around for other players to catch up, and as competitive play, it seems like an initial lead would completely determine the game's outcome.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
Here's another multiplayer game, but this was one that's way different from what I'm used to. This game was surprisingly similar to real-life games like assassins, red-light green-light, and so on - and it was definitely a good twist on your standard shooter death-match, which have been pretty much done to death (no pun intended) at this point.

The whole idea with this game is subtlety. You're one of six characters in a crowded city made up of clones of the six characters. One of each character is the real assassin, controlled by one of your opponents, while the rest are all mindless NPCs that wander around the map. You are assigned one of the other assassins as a target, but you can't be certain which member of the crowd is your specific target unless you see them move in an unusual way - running, climbing walls, shanking someone, etc.: all things that the NPCs can't do.

Behaving like an NPC isn't necessarily a failsafe; everyone has a sort of radar that allows them to home in on their target gradually. But you're also warned when an assassin targeting you is approaching, so you can break into a run and then hide in order to save yourself. So it's a balance between stealthily stalking your target, and making sure someone doesn't sneak up behind you and shank you while you're ambling along.

I have to say, I was pretty bad at this game. (I came in second-to-last in the first round, and dead last in the second round.) But I still really enjoyed playing it, which I think is a sign of a really good game. I also felt like I could perhaps become good at it with time - another good sign. I had never played any assassin's creed games before this, but this demo really made me want to start.

Super Scribblenauts
When the first Scribblenauts game came out, I played a friend's copy and was rather enamored with it. I'm sure the novelty wears off after a while, but there's something really great about being able to summon Cthulu at will if you get frustrated with a level.

What Super Scribblenauts has going for it is adjectives. And with that simple addition, the playful, childish novelty increases exponentially. If you're trying to have fun being silly in the game, you're probably not going to summon a paintbrush or guitar unless you really have to for a level; they're not really particularly fun or clever objects. But a ludicrous paintbrush? An eclectic guitar? Suddenly any object can be made interesting via simple juxtaposition.

I have to say, probably my absolute favorite item that came out of my demo play was the "suspicious envelope," which ended up being an envelope that was, itself, suspicious of things. When it popped into existence, it had a little purple suspicion mood bubble, and immediately tried to make for the corner of the game screen. I also got quite a kick out of our "lively sentient chair," which immediately picked up the "happy angry sad cat" that we'd left around earlier, and then proceeded to bounce up and down. This worked out fairly well, until the happy angry sad cat decided that it was in an angry mood at the moment and injured one of the innocent bystanders, which unfortunately lost us the level.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
This was an 8-bit Castlevania game in hi-def. I know what you're thinking: WHY? Turns out, not a completely useless combination. The fine detail means that the player can zoom out far enough that they can see the entire castle - every single room - on one screen, before zooming back in to themselves so they can navigate. This allows you to plan out your route from a distance, and then execute it.

Supposedly this game is multiplayer, although I demoed it playing by myself. The castle seemed to have a lot of elements that interacted with other rooms far away from your location, so I can easily see how it could be a lot of fun to zoom out, note where your friends are going, and then take the quickest path to help or hinder them. As a single-player venture, I wasn't particularly moved, however. An adequate 2-D 8-bit platformer, with a little bit of oddball-ness thrown in. I suppose you can't ask for more, given the nature of the game.

This is, of course, not to be confused with the full 3-D Castlevania by Hideo Kojima that was also there. I didn't play that one myself, although my friend Mike did and said it was about what you'd imagine of a Castlevania game from the creator of Metal Gear Solid.

Invizimals is an AR (Augmented Reality) game for the PSP, using the PSP camera. I say game, but from what we saw, it really seemed more like a tech demo for AR. (Or else, something that might be whipped up in one of the advanced game classes here at USC.) Basically it's an AR Pokemon. (Man, did the demo guy get offended when I said that.) You use the camera to focus in on brightly-colored objects, and find the creatures hiding there. Once you find them, you use a little AR trap to isolate them (put the little piece of paper down in physical space over the creature within view on the camera), and then you have to play a mini-game to capture them. Once captured, monsters can be evolved and battled, thus completing the Pokemon/Digimon/Monster Rancher/etc. parallel.

It was cute, and apparently has a story mode as well, but the controls were not exactly seamless, and overall it didn't seem particularly deep to me. There's an argument that it doesn't have to be, if the new technology is interesting enough, but we'll see if that argument pans out for the Kinect, and then re-evaluate from there.

Epic Mickey
If you'd told me a decade back that someone would make a dark, scary game featuring Mickey Mouse, I would've laughed. But since then we've had Kingdom Hearts, where Mickey is a badass, black-cloaked, keyblade-wielding king of a planet, and so times have changed. My actual reaction to the demo was that it wasn't dark enough.

The game was marketed as super edgy and unexpected, particularly in the amazing concept art. But I'm guessing the dark and edgy images didn't get past certain family-friendly higher-ups at the smile-like-you-mean-it monolith that is Disney. Instead the game looks like a fairly generic adventure game, complete with fetch-quests and collectible items hidden in bushes. The game's central mechanic - drawing things in with paint versus erasing them with thinner - flirts dangerously close with being your standard black-and-white moral choice system where angelic good and satanic evil are your only two options.

There's been some nod to the idea that, as designer Warren Spector put it, "play style matters," in that there are multiple ways to solve various quests and/or puzzles, and which choice you make effects the game characters and game world. Okay, fine. I appreciate the effort, I guess. But I would've gladly sacrificed that element of choice if the game had instead delivered on the darker aesthetic that was promised in these amazing pictures.

Fable 3
Speaking of black and white moral choice systems, I also played the Fable 3 demo at E3. I ended up playing side-by-side with a friend who was at the neighboring console, where he got a mission that involved beating up giant mechanical vulture statues and shadow monsters from dripping pillars of darkness, and I got a mission that involved dressing up in a giant chicken suit to round up some missing hens.


I don't really know what to say about Fable. I never played the second one, so my only point of comparison is the first game, which isn't really a comparison at all. I can't tell you if this game is trying to be a Sims-like life simulator in a fantasy setting with more direct control, or a gritty fantasy action game a la God of War, or something else entirely. The two demos were so disparate, it felt like they came from different games. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I'd say I didn't like it, per se. I guess I was too confused to really get a full impression. Mostly it seemed kind of funny and interesting, but I'm not sure it'd be enough to hold my interest for the full game length.

Lost in Shadow
This was one of the few games I played at E3 that I had never heard of before, as I imagine most others haven't either. The idea was that you play as a shadow of a person, navigating across the shadows of a physical world. The environments reminded me strongly of Ico, which endeared me to it immediately, and the puzzles were just bordering between intuitively easy and clever (but then, I only played the very beginning; I'd imagine they get harder). As a shadow person, you run across the shadow platforms created by railings, walls, and so forth, while avoiding sunlit drops and the spiky shadows cast by the tops of gates and things. You have some limited control over what happens in the physical world, which allows you to change the way shadows are cast, and therefore how you can move. As a mechanic it has a lot of potential, although I didn't really get to play enough to see if the makers capitalized on that potential.

What this game really reminded me of was a more polished version of many indie games, which tend towards side-scrolling action-platformers; essentially what this game is. It reminded me of something like Closure, say, or Shift (both games that I loved and highly recommend - they're free online flash games, and the latter has a number of equally interesting sequels) where you have one central mechanic that's exploited in a variety of interesting ways. The relative interesting-ness of Lost in Shadow's puzzles and mechanical exploits remains to be seen. I'm considering picking this one up when it comes out largely from pure curiosity, and a desire to encourage the game industry to try more interesting things.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
I went into E3 HUGELY looking forward to this game, so it's almost not even fair for me to comment on it. I played a little bit of Deep Space, which is apparently Stitch's level, as well as an unknown generic Disney area, and all I can really say is that I saw nothing that would make me hesitate to buy the game.

What I saw of the (slightly) new combat mechanics (rechargeable special moves) seems interesting, and I've heard bizarrely fascinating things about the leveling up system (a board-game based mini-game?!), but the bottom line is that I'm in this for the story and the world-building, and for that you need to play the full game to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I trust Squeenix, and I trust the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Every time I've been skeptical so far (a card-based battle system? A third girl who looks EXACTLY like Kairi and Namine?) they've managed to allay my fears and provide me with a solid, fun gaming experience, and so I'm willing to just take their word on this one and get it. The real question is, can I justify getting another PSP enough to buy the super special bundle pack when it comes out?

It's Okami but with baby animals on the DS. Enough said. I'm sold.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
This is a tough one for me, as I'm a huge fan of the animated series, and am feeling some serious trepidation about seeing the movie. Even if you're not a fan, though, I have a hard time seeing how this game could excite you. Looked at independent from its IP, the demo seemed like a fairly generic Wii game, where you press A repeatedly to attack, and then give a directional swing of the wiimote when the pop-up command indicates that you should do so. It might as well be God of War with exercise for your wrist instead of your thumb.

As an example of the Airbender IP, I really couldn't tell you. The character you play in the demo is the Blue Spirit, a character who doesn't use any form of bending - only physical combat. Which makes me wonder why they made that decision for the demo, since bending is the central mechanic of the series, and the action that the players will be most eager to perform in the game. It should be the most interesting part of the game, and the one that would be best suited to the Wii motion controls. So why didn't they demo that? Are they ashamed of how generic it is? If it's the same as the combat that was in the demo, then they should be. The A:tLA brand presents amazing opportunities for a motion control system, and unfortunately, I think this game is going to be just another lame movie-tie-in brand extension. I'd love to be proved wrong on this one, but somehow I doubt it.

Ghost Trick
Apparently this game is from the same developers as the Phoenix Wright series, and it shows. In this DS title, you play as a ghost that can posses items in the world and cause them to perform actions, or "tricks." You've lost your memory, and so the game is about trying to figure out who you were and why you died. The mechanic is simple, and I can't imagine all that much you could do with it past a certain point, but the demo was adorable and really quite funny (and broke the fourth wall in some very refreshing ways), and so I may have to pick this one up just for the sheer novelty. I think it's worth playing a game just for the sake of silliness every now and again.

Kirby: Epic Yarn
What you can say for this game, aside from "it's a Kirby game," is that it has quite the interesting aesthetic. I'm not sure I've ever seen "yarn-punk" before, but this would probably fit that description, if anything would. (Or, perhaps, "yarn-core"?) The game takes place in a fabric world, where you and everyone else are made of yarn. That's right, yarn. You're a little yarn outline, fighting other yarn outlines. You jump on stitches, hide between layers of fabric, and swing from buttons. Altogether, the aesthetic is fairly seamless (no pun intended), and affords some interesting mechanics and visuals.

The game is co-op for the Wii, and I played with a friend of mine that I was touring around with. The co-op reminded me a little bit of playing Four Swords, and also of the LittleBigPlanet 2 demo, in that there was a lot of, "Hey! Put me down!" and "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to grab you!" and "Throw me over the ledge! Throw me over the ledge!" But I'm of the opinion that we should have more games like that, so count it as a positive aspect coming from me.

Other than that, not much to say about this game. Playful, adorable adventures. Kirby. From those key words, I think you should know what you need to know about whether you'll like it or not. Oh, and the two playable characters combined to form a giant tank made of yarn at one point. I guess that bears mentioning.

Overall Impressions
E3 was loud, it was glittery, it was full of shine far past the point of substance, but I think there was still enough meat buried under there that I feel confident about what's coming up in the industry and in the market. I could care less about generic shooters 1, 2, and 3, but there was a surprisingly high amount of content at the convention that wasn't generic, and even many of the sequels seemed like they were trying to push themselves and do something new. Overall, I think we're going to be okay. (And also, I'm seriously looking forward to more news on 'El Shaddai.' That trailer has some really darn pretty sequences. And also also, OMFG Portal 2 trailer. Seriously.)

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