Within four years the Games Convention 2005 has established itself as the gaming expo juggernaut in Europe. Last year the show had more than 105,000 visitors. That number was topped already on Saturday this year – one day before show ended. Once again it was crowded, once again it was loud, once again Chrisg didn't make it to Leipzig, once again I had a lot less time for games than I had originally planned.
My preparations weren't exactly going well because, until recently, I was supposed to work at the show and demo a title until the publisher decided to take care of that with his own crew, leaving me no time to make press appointments for GWJ. And since 'GWJ Germany' consists only of a single member, I wasn't able to 'tag-team' the expo like Elysium, Certis and Pyro (plus Reaper this year) do at E3. And while I intended to to attend the GC for two full days, it more or less ended up being one day only due to a variety of reasons. Also, I had the camera objective set to 'close-up' mode, which I didn't notice until I wanted to check out the photos at home. Brilliant! Which means the pictures turned out to be quite ... 'blurry'. Not that you'd be missing out on a lot since the show floor looks pretty much the same every year. I'm almost under the impression that the one reason for publishers focusing on sequels is the option to reuse booth assets again and again. Basically, you'll be fine if you just check out the earlier reports to see what the GC comes along like.
Since I only had the time for a brief look at some titles, I'll just go ahead and start with the quick pieces.
Spartan – Total Warrior: Unlike Certis at E3, I wasn't particularly impressed by this Creative Assembly production. While there were massive battles going on everywhere, it nevertheless felt like 'Streets of Rage' set in Greece. Maybe it wouldn't have hurt to have some person or manual detailing the controls around or more time to try out the game, no doubt.
Rise & Fall – Civilizations at War: Probably the game I would have liked Spartan - TW to be. Which, admittedly, is a an asinine comparison considering the different intentions behind these two titles. Rise & Fall: CaW is being developed by Stainless Steel Studios, makers of the Empire Earth series. When the game was announced I was quite curious if the infight aspect would be working together with the tactical layer well or if it would turn out to be a mix not appealing to either audience. The former seems to be the case. When you switch to your hero and start wreaking havoc at the ground, it simply is quite satisfying to know that everything happening around you is at least partially a result of your tactical decisions. It being under your control instead of being a rather static stage setup you're confronted with. I can also see that the hero mode could really spice up the multiplayer part.
Rush for Berlin: A game featuring a rather small army, with focus on tactical battles, without base building and excessive ressource management and set in WWII? Sounds like Codename Panzers – Phase One and Phase Two, doesn't it? And it's even made by Storm Region. The games are no the same though because... this one is titled Rush for Berlin!
Pro Evolution Soccer 5/Winning Eleven 9: I noticed that Konami had the PSP version of the game available at their booth. That was enough to make me avoid that place. I currently do not have the intention to purchase a portable gaming device and, you know, I like it that way.
Panzer Elite Action: a game probably made for people who like driving around tanks in the Battlefield series, but would like to have a more fleshed out singleplayer component. (If you were hoping for a tank sim, move on, nothing to see here.)
GT Legends: SimBin's GTR was one of the best racing game experiences in the past years and this spin-off features a far more appealing line-up of cars thanks to the focus on classics. There's already a demo available anyway, so you can try it out on your own.
Crashday: the GC in Leipzig does have some constant elements – and this stunt/crash racer is one of them. Every year I get to see Crashday in some form, and every year it's supposed to come out six months later. Yeah, we know how that worked out so far. In the meantime we've seen the release of FlatOut and no less than two TrackMania games. Anyway. Atari had two modes available at their booth, one being the stunt mode, the other being the deathmatch mode or whatever they may call it. The former played almost like a Tony Hawk title due to the stunts, the latter should appeal to fans of Twisted Metal or the car battles in Interstate '76. I personally would have preferred toying around with the track editor instead. Maybe I can do that if Moonbyte/Replay ever get around to releasing the game some day. Of course, there's always the Games Convention 2006, eh?
The Guild 2: Bugs aside, one of the problems Europa 1400: The Guild had was its lack of appeal to a wider (non-German) audience due to the mix of genres. 4Head is trying to address this by incorporating more RPG elements, which should make it more interesting to fans of titles like Morrowind. The graphics have been notably improved and while The Guild 2 may not be 'Oblivion-pretty', it's a good looking and atmospheric game nevertheless. Naturally, it's very hard to judge to a game of this kind within a rather short time span. Noted down for further investigation, certainly.
Rise of Legends: Without an appointment with Microsoft I had to check the game out down at the show floor. Since there were no tool tips in the demo I didn't really know what the heck I was doing or supposed to do. Which means, I probably knew as much as the guy Microsoft had hired to walk around at the booth, grin and be useless in general. Thanks a bunch! It's not like he didn't try to at least provide some hints though, because when a co-worker of mine tried his luck a day earlier he showed up to mumble something about how the game is not polished yet, that the level sucks anyway and that he (my co-worker) would be better off playing that Age of Empires III game over there at the other machine. RoL looked pretty though.
Gothic III: being one of the bigger fans of the series around here, I had to take a look at the third part, too. Or should I say: at the hint of what may be present in the final version. I don't think the Piranhas were really keen on having their game in the public at this point. And unlike the E3 version, there wasn't even some kind of show build as Kai Rosenkrantz stated that they had simply dragged a development snapshot to the GC. Is the publisher still claiming that it'll be ready in Q1/2006? Dear JoWooD, would you like some fries with that miracle?
The village one initially started in looked quite neat. Detailed objects with detailed textures such as wooden cottages and the like. However, if you entered what some day may be the wilderness you quickly found regions that hadn't been worked on at all yet. Basic textures, low-poly terrain and complete lack of objects (stones, trees, foliage) made it even look worse than its predecessor. I'm not kidding you, the quality of what was shown on screen when I took this photo only benefits from it being blurry because of aforementioned reasons. The character moving as if he had a broomstick up his... you get the idea – didn't actually help the impression. Let me say for the record that I think that the final game deliver. They just need to work on the content. I do wonder though what JoWooD was trying to achieve by letting the public get their hands on the game in its current state.
Titan Quest: Since I'm not a huge fan of Diablo I probably wouldn't have bothered taking a look at this one had it not been for someone from our team to urge me to do so. When I showed up at THQ's section in the Business Center (not open for the public) I was turned down by the woman in charge of letting people in because the guy to demo the game wasn't there and because I had no appointment in the first place. (Also, I didn't have a press pass and my badge clearly indicated that I happen to work for another company myself.) Some time later I was returning for a second attempt and on my way to that place I met some THQ manager. We were walking into the same direction I noticed what company he was working for and mentioned how I absolutely wouldn't mind taking a look at Titan Quest. He only said "Well, come along!", got me into that area and gave some order along the lines of "That pal wants to take a look at Titan Quest, take care of that!" Striiike! And now that you've made your way through this severly uninformative part of the text, here we go.
Titan Quest is one of currently approximately 344,241 games advertised for being designed or produced by someone whose puppy had a father that had bitten a guy who knows someone who may or may not have been involved in an Age of Empire game. That said, the game left an impression on me despite me not being an avid follower of this certain sub-genre to begin with. You might have heard of the gras, corn and whatnot moving as the main protagonists or other characters/animals walk through it through or cast a spell. It could come off as a gimmick, but it in fact is a small detail to make the game world seem more alive and dynamic. Birds are flying around, in cities you can see lots of things going on in the 'background'. The shadow casting and certain light effects don't hurt the atmosphere either. Titan Quest incorporates ragdoll physics. Also, if you kill someone, his weapon will drop right from his hand to the ground instead of somehow magically spawning right there or vanishing. Sounds unimportant, but all the other people who had seen the game mentioned it as well when we talked about it.
In the show build I was able to play two settings, one of them clearly being influenced by Greek style, the other one dominated by Egyptian architecture and artifacts. Both being more interesting than your average medieval Euro scenario. The graphics are laden with with small details and – what impressive is – look as good as comparable games that have 2D backgrounds and characters. Seriously. The variety of enemies in the show build left nothing to be desired, hopefully, the final game will live up to that. Up to 7 other players can join to battle the enemies – or each other, I guess.
Iron Lore does not reinvent the wheel, but what makes Titan Quest a game one, without any doubt, needs to keep an eye on is the point that they take all these elements, polish them immensely and put them together, forming what could turn out to be a very immersive experience. At this point it's already safe to say that the final product will not disappoint on the visual side of things. If the game design department makes it to fill all these aspects with life by creating characters one actually can care about and tasks that go beyond your standard series of fetch quests, then, ladies and gentlemen, Titan Quest will be a strong contender in the 'best action-RPG of the year' category in 2006.
Company of Heroes: this one also happened to be a 'trying to walk into the THQ area without having an appointment or press pass' gig for me and it was even more thrilling: the other day I simply walked into the THQ area without having an appointment or press pass around. And no one really cared. Well, actually, Jay Wilson, lead designer on the game, cared and didn't mind talking to me about Company of Heroes when I approached him about it – despite me not having an ap-... yadda yadda, yes.
It usually only takes the mention of phrases such as "WWII setting" or products with Band-of-Brothers-wannabe titles to put me to sleep within seconds. Still, I decided to take a look at Company of Heroes based on a personal recommendation of someone and a few things I read about earlier. And it was totally worth it.
Company of Heroes puts you in command of – surprise – a company of soldiers. Well, in the campaign mode the player is going to start with a rather small squad consisting of maybe 2-4 combatants. You'll get to control more soldiers and vehicles as you progress in the game. Despite there being tanks and other vehicles though, Relic's product seems more infantry-focused compared to the Codename Panzers series and the camera happens to be closer to the action. Like in Brothers in Arms you can order one group to distract the enemy with cover fire while another squad takes the opportunity to flank them.
As the soldiers move along the street through the ruins of a city featured in the demo build, they automatically take the terrain into consideration and also try to take cover while being under enemy fire or pick their own targets. Getting that implemented certainly would be easier if it was a static battlefield we're talking about, but – and this undoubtedly is the key element of Company of Heroes – it's not. Pretty much all objects present in the game can and will be affected by your or the enemy's actions. That includes everything from smaller wooden objects that may be destroyed by gunfire, debris or barbwire hit by grenades up to craters in the ground or holes in buildings that were hit by tank shells and the like. What if you keep on damaging a building that way? Yes, the whole thing will eventually collapse. Words hardly can communicate though how awe-inspiring it looks when you see all these details live in action for the first time. Nothing's solid, nothing's safe. That'll come in handy in some cases, but it also requires you to come up with a very quick decision if the enemy shows up with a tank or two himself.
There are different types of units such as the standard infantry, snipers or RPG specialists. Engineers are able to put up some defense measures such as barbwire or machine gun nests. Your soldiers will gain experience and get their stats improved during missions. Relic experimented with the idea of letting the player carry these improvements from one mission to the next, but apparently dropped it in favor of getting the balancing right. According to Jay Wilson, it'll take the player about 30 hours to get through the singleplayer component. Me talking about a singleplayer component should be indicator enough that there also will be a multiplayer part. In which up to 8 players – that number may change though – can battle each other in Axis vs. Allies matches. Each player is allowed to control every unit on his side, making teamwork and coordination a requirement if you want to avoid conflicting approaches. Unfortunately, there's no coop mode for the campaign though.
I guess one of the tricky parts for Relic will be getting the AI of your units right. Having them react automatically the right way in some situations instead of being total goons, thus getting rid of rather annoying micromanagement - but not in a way that sending your troops to some position and then simply let them take care of the rest on their own would work. I'd say they're likely to get that done. The bigger question though – and one difficult to answer based on the demo build – would be: will the missions really let the us try out (and succeed with) different approaches, maybe even offering different paths? Or will it be a rather linear puzzle game requiring the player to come up with the one intended solution? We won't get the final answer before Fall 2006, but I'm optimistic that the inclusion of aforementioned battlefield physics alone will be enough to provide some alternatives and options for the player to try out different tactics.
According to the organizers behind the GC, there were more than 134,000 visitors attending the show this year - exceeding the original predictions (110,000) notably. I certainly plan to attend again in 2006, and if it's just to run across people like the ... Chaos-Lordz. Fear them for they are daring and dangerous as indicated by the use of "z" instead of "s". Or those who fall victim to the merciless marketing experts who know how to trigger the "Oh it's free!" behaviour. Because they're destined to be there again once the GC opens their gates again next year.