We're closing on the final day of E3 and everybody is trying to get everything wrapped up before they kick us out the door. One of the hallmarks of this show has been the amazing amount of great games on display here. I've literally spent hours just looking at interesting stuff I randomly spied while walking the floor. Last year we spent the majority of the show looking for something suprising and interesting, which we didn't find until the final day with Oblivion. This year, I'm having a hard time keeping track of all the really suprising games I've played. The "booth babe rule" has actually had an effect as well, with a much more subdued and professional looking E3. As professional as you can get with a giant statue of Sonic the Hedgehog in the middle of the hall, anyway.
Updated Saturday with info on NVIDIA and Havok Physics, Warhammer 40K: Dark Crusade, Company of Heroes, Lucasarts Euphoria and Molecular Modeled Physics, Lego Star Wars II, Haze, Command & Conquer 3, Bioshock, The Darkness, World Tour Poker, Dark Messiah, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Chrome Hounds, Army of 2, Star Trek: Legacy, Crysis, Star Wars Empire At War: Forces of Corruption, The Witcher, Unreal Tournament 2007, John Woo's Stranglehold, Okami, Heavenly Sword, Deep Labyrinth, and Contact.
NVIDIA and Havok Physics [PC] - Pyroman[FO]
NVIDIA's plans to accelerate Havok physics on their GPU has been announced before E3, but I got to sit down with a demonstration of the tech and ask some questions. The tech demo itself consisted of a couple of things, brick walls made of actual bricks that deformed properly when struck, 30k boulders falling from the sky and rolling with fully modeled physics, a man who was surrouned by a swirling vortex of soda bottles, and a very nice looking dinosaur skeleton that could be deformed by throwing various things at it. It was all nice looking and fully modeled physically, and ran at a pretty nice framerate. The basic approach is to take the specialized processor on the video card and use it to calculate physics as well, since some of the basic calculations are similar. This also allows all the graphics and physics modeling to be done on the card, so no transferring positional data over the PCI-X bus. You can also use shader programs to move objects physically, think of spell effects in games and replace each sparkly bit with a physical object. Another good example is the objects in the Matrix bending and swirling around Neo. Game Devs can do things like that now easily and accelerated on NVIDIA GPUs.
Several things about the situation aren't ideal however, and NVIDIA's and Havok's reponses weren't exactly encouraging. I asked several questions about interoperability and APIs. For instance, can other physics middleware use this acceleration? Can game developers roll their own physics and use this acceleration? Will there be a standard API? Any chance of this API supporting the PhysX by Aegis? The answer was always the same "Why would anyone want to use anything but Havok and NVIDIA?" Which means this support may end up being less than universal, and therefore only in a handful of games. Since game developers have to patch their game to support this, it may not be as widespread as it could be otherwise. We could also end up in a physics API war. Hopefully someone will come in and bring some sense to the situation by standardizing everything.
Warhammer 40K :Dark Crusade [PC] - Pyroman[FO]
As a recent Warhammer: Dawn of War convert, I decided to stop by and check out this expansion. The expansion adds two new races, the Tau and the Necrons. Since I know nothing about Warhammer, I had to get some explanation. The Tau are a robotic race that believes in "the Good", which I'm still not sure what that means. But, they are a long range combatant that is weak in the melee area. The Tau Commander is armed to the teeth with weaponry, with several different kinds of attacks and special abilities. The Necron are a slow moving powerful race of reanimated souls, and really look very interesting. Their main base, the Necron Monolith, can become mobile when fully upgraded and can even teleport. The Necron Commander can resurrect fallen comrades, and the Necron even have a unit that demoralizes their enemy. This insane unit wants to be human again, and wears the flesh of their fallen enemies to try and accomplish this. It's very creepy and really great looking. The entire E3 demo I was getting was actual gameplay, which it didn't look like at first. It's a very cinematic style of combat that they've created with Dawn of War, though if you've already played the game you know what I'm talking about.
The single player campaign has been revamped, instead of a linear story based campaign there's a more "Conquer the World" single player with territories that give bonuses when controlled and a large map where you exterminate your enemies by controlling all their territories. It looks like it has alot of replay value, if it's any fun. I'm more of a multiplayer fan when it comes to DoW.
Company of Heroes [PC] - Pyroman[FO]
This is Relic's other title at the show, their next strategy game. This game looks very promising with a stripped down build and tech tree and a focus on interesting tactical combat. Unfortunately it's set in WWII France, a setting which I feel has been beaten to death with a cliche stick. Still the game looks very interesting, there are two sides, Axis and Allies. Each side only has 4 types of buildings they can build. No turrets or defensive structures. There's also no resource gathering. The entire map is based on territories, and the objective is to control all the territories on the map. You can build infantry and armor of various types, and upgrade them each several different ways. A flamethrower added onto the tank makes for alot of fun, because everything in the game is burnable and destructable.
The game has Havok physics, which means when you blow up buildings they collapse on themselves it's fully modeled. All the buildings in the game are burnable and destructable, which is a very interesting gameplay point. You remember where I said there were no defensive structures you can build? That's because you can take cover behind or inside of almost anything on the map. You can even take over buildings and convert them into a motor pool or a barracks. The majority of the combat revolves around finding and destroying cover, which makes it more interesting than the standard "click and watch" of normal RTS battles. The tech tree consists of three different tracks, the Infantry, Armor and Airborne tracks. When you accomplish objectives or combat the enemy you get command points, which you can spend to upgrade these tracks to get new abilities.
It's PC only and supports up to 8 in multiplayer, which it could be a very interesting take on the RTS genre. I have mentioned before how I'm a sucker for RTS games with no build orders and no resource gathering, but the setting still puts this in a "wait and see" category with me.
Haze  [PS3] - Pyroman[FO]
This Free Radical developed FPS shooter is currently showing as a part of a very slick video presentation. This is from the people who brought us Timesplitters, so the humor is readily evident even from looking at the booth. The game puts you as a soldier for the Mantel corporation, whose motto is "Exporting Democracy since 2012". The video outside the theater shows a very dynamic looking man in a suit, talking about the Mantel corporation's various divisions (basically everything), then summarizing by stating how Mantel is trusted by NATO and the Western World to bring democracy to brutal dictators, with the best weapons and equipment money can buy. "We're here to make a difference, the Mantel difference." It's all very hilarious. The game itself though, doesn't look like much more than a well executed squad based military themed FPS. In the game though, there are a few parts where the story unfolds and those parts are really well done. I think I'll play through this just to get through the story, and the FPS part doesn't look bad at all. It just doesn't look particularly good either.
Lego Star Wars II - The Classic Trilogy [All Platforms] - Pyroman[FO]
I took a quick look at this back at the Lucasarts booth, the game seems to retain all the charm from the original. Each character has a special attack, Chewie can rip off Lego arms, Leia slaps, and Han does a dive then fires his blaster. One new thing in this one is the vehicles, which is no longer seperate from the main game. You can jump in a vehicle, run around a level, then jump out again and continue fighting. In the demo they showed a landspeeder and an AT-ST (which they build from the lego pieces lying around). Also the secret unlockable vehicles are now drivable around all the levels, which gives much more incentive to grab them. Coop is supported on all platforms, as well as a 4 player battle mode on the Nintendo DS. You can create custom characters out of lego parts, and the game names them accordingly. They gave of a quick demo of Boba Jedi and Slavegirl Chewie, and it's suitably hilarious. It looks like if you liked the first game this one will be right up your alley. I can't wait for it to be released in September.
Lucasarts Euphoria and Molecular Modeled Physics [All Platforms] - Pyroman[FO]
We got an extended tech demo of the net Indiana Jones game using the Euphoria AI system. The basic premise is that instead of controlling animation the traditional way with static animation, you tell the AI how to control it's own body to accomplish it's goals. It's licensed from Natural Motion and used in movies all over the place, but Lucasarts claim to fame is that they have it running in real time on an X360. And it's a hefty claim to fame. The enemies will not only move and react to objects in real time, but they'll try to correct themselves and act like a real person. For instance, the demo had Indy punching gangsters up against a car. Each time, the gangster would slam into the car with his body reacting to the shape of the car differently every time. Then as he was falling, he would position his arms and legs in order to catch himself. Sometimes, he'd manage to right himself instead of falling over. It was very realistic in a way a video game usually isn't, what you do physically makes sense instead of running through a canned animation every time. In another demo, they had Indy standing on a rope bridge. The controller nudged the bridge one way or another, but they had no direct control over Indy at all. Each time they would nudge the bridge, or throw a rock, and Indy would try to right himself. It looked very realistic. The best part? The entire tech demo had 0 frames of traditional animation. None. It was entirely Euphoria, and it looked more realistic than any game I've ever played.
The other bit of tech they had to show was Molecular Modeled Physics, which is another movie rendering tech they've managed to get running in real time. This allows materials to deform based on molecular properties in response to force. Which means, you throw a guy into a wooden door, it splinters and cracks like real wood. It'll work for all kinds of materials, wood, plastic, metal, whatever. And again it's realistic in that way games never are, in current games you stick an axe into a door and if you're lucky the door actually shatters. If you're unlucky it's indestructable. In MMP, it actually splinters like real wood, you can punch a hole in it and actually have a hole in the door where you punched. It'll crack around the hole like real wood would crack as well.
These two combined to have some amazingly interactive and fun looking environments. If they just gave me these two technologies, a pair of fists, someplace with alot of stuff to break and a bunch of bad guys to beat up, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. It really does fundamentally change how a game world can react to you. I can't wait till everybody is using it. Right now, Lucasarts is using it in all internally developed games, and thinking of letting 3rd parties use it.
Command & Conquer 3 [PC] - Elysium
If you ever wonder why the larger media always comes out of E3 glowing about everything, it's because they are in comfortable chairs behind closed doors and away from the unwashed masses upon whom they look down and serve; surrounded by panoramic digital sound, drinking a bottled water like a thirsty Bedouin as passionate producers whisper sweet nothings in their ear. It may also have something to do with conspiratory money on the editorial and advertising side; I don't know. But, I'm pretty sure the difference between how enthusiastic you can be over a video game must have something to do with environment, and if you're jockying for position on a cramped showfloor, perhaps your cynical meter is tuned a bit higher. And, if you really want to see how the big boys do it, get backstage at EA.
I'm telling you this because my impressions of C&C 3 want to gush, so I'm having to restrain myself a good bit, and perhaps regain something like neutrality by recognizing manipulation when I feel it, but damn I want to play that game.
Introducing a third, and presumably alien faction to the GDI v. Nod universe, it looks as though we are going to learn a great deal about what Tiberium is, where it comes from, and why it's here. The world is broken into Red Zones that are Tiberium infested, alien, and unihabitable, Yellow Zones that cover roughly 70% of the globe where Tiberium is spreading and causing havoc, and a very small GDI controlled area of Green Zones.
Emir Jaffe, C&C producer, assured us that the intent here is to keep the classic C&C fast and furious pace, but bring in amazing visuals and new enemies. The graphics are truly gorgeous with detailed lighting the reflections off all surfaces, outstanding water and dust effects, the whole big basket of pretty that will make you ooh and ah while your DX 9 card weeps silently for its sudden and prompty inferiority.
A lot of what we saw was extraordinarily early, and while we were assured the game itself was running realtime, we saw a fairly scripted sequence with few enemies on screen. They know that it's not C&C unless you have a few dozen tanks supported by Orcas sailing across the desert, and what we saw, while visually stunning with destructible environments, isn't that.
The single player campaign will be split into three linear sections revolving around the GDI, Nod, and unannounced (alien?) faction. Each campaign will have multiple theaters of war, and the order in which you complete these theaters will determine how you progress through the campaign, and what assets you take with you through that campaign, for example finish one theater that gives you access to airstrikes or an aircraft carrier, and that goes with you through the rest of the campaign. It's an interesting way of breaking up the forced linear direction.
C&C 3 was on my must-see list coming in to the show, and I'm not disappointed. The developers hired MIT professors to create internal documents on the academic properties of Tiberium, and created a C&C bible that they use as a complete repository for the entire history of the universe and its most notable factions and leaders. It's a nice attention to detail, and is supposed to indicate their fierce attention to creating the next great and true C&C game, but in the end it will be about gameplay. That's the thing we saw the least of; it's just too soon to say. What they've done so far, however, looks amazing and got my adrenaline up, so here's hoping.
Bioshock  [PC] - Pyroman[FO]
The first time I heard that the spiritual successor was lurking around here at E3 I said a few choice expletives and headed to the 2K Games booth. It didn't disappoint. The game takes place in a utopian underwater biosphere that was built after the war around 1945 by a billionare philanthropist. On New Years Eve 1959, something catastrophic and violent happened which caused the outside world to lose contact with the biosphere. You arrive in the game without knowing who you are or when it is, and a large part of the game is uncovering exactly what is going on.
This game is mainly about having an open, complex world that follows it's own internal rules, and giving you the tools and the skills to poke and prod at this complex machine. Irrational Games touted it as almost an "anti-shooter", with an atmosphere, story and gameplay that is the exact opposite of your average testosterone fueled FPS mayhem. Ammo is scarce, so you have to be careful to not only conserve the ammo but use the right kind. No running into a room and filling the walls full of bullets.
The atmosphere and art direction of the game is singularly creepy. The 1940s-50s retro look is used to full effect, along with weapons and enemies cobbled together with whatever was lying around. Since the biosphere was supposed to be utopian, there were no weapons brought on board, so most of the weapons and enemies are cobbled together from non-combat items, giving the game a unique feel. For instance, a turret in the game we met was a camera, motor and machine gun all tied to a rotating office chair. The detail on it is amazing, and every detail of these cobbled together items can be made out clearly.
The System Shock 2 pedigree is evident (since Irrational also worked on System Shock 2), and several of the gameplay ideas and basic concepts remain. Security systems, hacking, audio logs, med hypos and weapon modification all make returns, as well as a system for modifying your personal character in an RPG like way.
We didn't get many questions but we did see alot of the fully functional gameplay, and it was impressive. Reminiscent of System Shock 2, in all the good ways, with a great atmosphere and story. It genuinely creeped me out just watching someone else play a demo.
The Darkness [PC]  - Pyroman[FO]
Starbreeze, the makers of Chronicles of Riddick, have a new FPS based on "The Darkness" series of comic books. The basic premise is a mafia hitman who is possesed by an ancient evil called "The Darkness", which allows him to use all kinds of demonic superpowers. There's no part of that last sentence I didn't like. It's a HUDless FPS game, similar to Riddick, however the Darkness powers really give an entirely new dimension to the game. One of the Darkness powers is sprouting a giant tentacle that can grab dumpsters and even cop cars and swing them around the room, crushing your enemies. Another is to summon creatures called Darklings, which are tiny little demons that employ different weapons to kill. In the demo, one spawned with a rusty saw and another spawned with a jackhammer. You can also use the Darkness tentacles to crawl along the ground, through vents, and up walls to bite people and remotely manipulate objects. Another nice feature is what they call "Darkness TV", which means all the TVs in the game will constantly have real-time video content. Anything ranging from movies to TV shows to the developers talking about the game. The intent is to allow the player to take a break and watch some TV, which since you're already taking a break and watching a TV in real life probably enables some sort of irony feedback loop. Still, as a vehicle for the kinds of things found in "Riddick: Developers Cut" I think I'd enjoy it.
World Tour Poker  - Elysium
You know, there have been some really crappy poker games made and tossed on to the public, and let's be honest, nothing is ever going to come close to sitting down with your friends at two in the morning over crappy beer and cold pizza and praying for an inside straight draw. As much, or more so than role playing, you can't recreate poker in a video game.
World Tour Poker comes closer than most though. With a lot of attention and detail paid to the faces and actions of your artificial opponents, WTP tries to simulate reading expressions, ticks, tells, and bluffs, adding an interesting layer to what has otherwise been a series of games only marginally better than something you can download for free. The presentation is high quality with numerous well-known players.
But, in the end, it's still just poker on a 360. You are far better off playing some poker with your friends, and if you don't have friends then you should probably work on that.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic [PC] – Certis
I was really happy to get some time with this Source Engine game before the show ended. Based in the Heroes of Might and Magic universe, the game is very action oriented despite RPG trappings such as skill points and melee/stealth/magic specialty trees. The demo level showcased some very dynamic battles against multiple enemies with your sword. Considering that you're locked into a first-person perspective I was surprised that everything controlled so well, usually I'd prefer 3rd person for this sort of melee combat to keep myself orientated. Even against four enemies at once everything was manageable and you didn't get lost in the action.
The vaunted Source engine physics were put to good use with plenty of traps that can be sprung on enemies and barrels being kicked back at you with a disturbing amount of precision. The graphics are better than the videos I've seen online and the different approaches available are all viable and play out very differently. Multiplayer modes were mentioned (objective based with different classes to play) that will support up to 32 players and ship with five maps. For the single player alone, I'll probably be buying it upon release.
Splinter Cell: Double Agent [360 Shown] – Certis
There wasn't much to the playable demo on the floor, Sam Fisher is in the artic and needs to get by a couple guards. He can actually swim under the ice, knock on it to lure an enemy above him and them break through, pull him under and introduce him to Mr.Shanky. That's about all the demo had to offer, aside from a parachuting mini-game and the ability to swim. Very minimal presentation, hard to even say how the graphics compare to the earlier versions.
Chrome Hounds  – Certis
I was a bit down on Chrome Hounds on Wednesday evening, so I wanted to spend some more time with it today before I actually put something into the pot. After playing for a good ten minutes I feel much better about how the game is progressing. In multiplayer, there are communication towers that can be captured for your team, which allows you to communicate with teammates within radius of the towers you control. Team work is important, you will get eaten alive if you try and take on two human players alone, so you have to be able to communicate.
Combat is incredibly long-range, depending on the kind of Hound you're playing with. Missiles will only go so far before gravity starts to pull them downwards, as often as not you'll be trying to lob them across large distances which looks really cool if you watch a few people trying to pin each other down. We didn't get to see any of the Hound customizability but the variety of weapons and shapes I did see suggests a really wide variety of approaches.
I do have a few issues with what I saw. I don't like that the only reticle is on the top right of the screen in normal view. This means you'll be staring at a screen using maybe 10% of the available viewing area so you can get a proper bead on an enemy. You can snap into a first person mode to get a slight reticle with zoom, but it's tough to maneuver and make straight shots in that mode. This is probably by design, to curtail the action a bit and make you aim, but I'm still bothered by it. Why force me to stare at a tiny part of the screen?
The areas were also huge and some of the Hound builds were very slow. It could take some time to actually find out where the action is. This is even worse if someone makes a one-shot snip on your cockpit and blows you up without a chance to respond. Damage in general is said to be location specific, but it doesn't seem to impact how it affects the Hound's ability to function. Everything is either working or you're dead, there doesn't seem to be any limping with blown-out legs or missing weapons.
All that said, I still enjoyed playing it and I think it will be worthwhile online. I wish I could see more of the single player mode.
Army Of 2 [PS3, 360] – Certis
EA Montreal's first game seems to be a mix of Chaos Theory's online coop and the over the top, gritty attitude of a game like Mercenaries. As soldiers for a military cooperation, the game is focused on using team work to survive and be successful in the game. Two modes were shown, the first being single player with an A.I partner. Voice commands were shown in action but as usual, I find yelling at the TV to be a pain in the ass compared to just giving commands on the controller, which you can do. Moves like standing back to back to cover a good firing radius and limping your teammate along on your shoulder while still firing do offer a unique kind of experience.
Other things shows were one guy holding a grappling line while the other scales down a building. The emphasis is on maintaining good communication with your partner as you make your way through a given map. The weapons and combat looked ok but it was still early, I look forward to seeing how the game develops through to 2007 when they say it will be done. This could be a great one to go steady with one person for a week or two.
Star Trek: Legacy [360/PC] - Elysium
The concept is cool if you're a Star Trek fan, as it implements and blends all the Trek timelines into a single game. From the Archer era Enterprise up through the Defiant, Voyager, and whatever version of the NG Enterprise hasn't been blown up or crashed into a planet yet, there are 60 different ships for you to helm in real time battle.
The demo was shown to us on the Xbox 360, and the handling of the ships was extraordinarily simplified. There is only a minimal attention to actual bridge command, and the ships themselves are flown as you might expect with a console controller, so detailed simulator this is not. That may be good or bad depending on your gameplay preference.
We were shown a fairly intriguing recreation of the battle at the end of Wrath of Khan where the Enterprise is defenseless and the Reliant is pressing the attack. Aside from the basic cool factor of recreating a historical battle, the mechanics were significantly simplified, and there wasn't much of the Z-axis strategies or nebula play that were so iconic in the movie. There are some fun ideas at work here, but the action is skewed toward the action of the battle at the expense of complex ship management.
Again, whether that's a negative has more to do with what you expect from a Star Trek game than anything else. I wouldn't mind plowing the Defiant through some Romulan warbirds as long as the action remains fun, and you can adjust engine, shield, and weapon levels in a very simple manner adding a layer of detail to the action. The game looked fun, but how long you'll want to spend circling a Borg cube with the Enterprise as you cycle through firing arcs remain to be seen.
You can command up to 4 ships at once and develop a persistent and customizable fleet through the single player campaign. The AI seems to do a reasonable job of handling things while you're away on your own bridge, but the actual commands you can give to your fleet looked very simplistic. Warp here. Kill that. Shoot stuff. Don't die.
Bethesda and Mad Doc have a rare opportunity to blend across all the eras of Star Trek, and I hope they find an engaging game to melt it all together. Simplicity aside, I find I'd like to go back and play the Wrath of Khan level again if only so I can scream KHAAAAAN! at the TV.
Crysis [PC] - Elysium
We were shown a detailed demo of this game by Crytek co-founder and president Cevat Yerli. Whether what we saw is part of the final game, which is presumably some distant and unknowable stretch of time away, or simply an impressive tech demo certainly remains to be seen, but Crytek is putting together an impressive engine and seems to be on track to attach a solid game.
Let's be honest, though, this is all about the flash and pretty poly pushing engine that looks sexier than Claudia Schiffer in skimpy lingerie ... hang on, I'm just going to think about that one for a moment. Nope, Crysis is sexier, but not by much.
Weapons that tear through the enemies, buildings, and the jungle itself leaving a fully realized and physical world tattered in your wake, the destructibility of the gorgeous environment is of particular note. Let rip with a chaingun and entire swaths of branches, trees, and foliage tumble in real-time physical destruction a la Predator.
Some cool features include customizable weapons, object based motion blur, self augmentation, and tactical bullets. Tactical bullets are more like a useful tagging device where you can coordinate your attack. Hit your enemies with some tactical bullets from hiding without their noticing, and you can trigger them to fall asleep simultaneously. Stealth missions, here we come. Hit a vehicle with an explosive tactical bullet, wait until your enemies are on board and blow them up from a safe distance. You get the idea.
The highlight of the presentation was a multiarmed, presumably alien boss battle on board an aircraft carrier. I'm not sure what it is about aircraft carriers this year, but I'm seeing them in virtually every game, and most of them blow up. This is no exception. The massive boss, which I was assured was reacting in real time to the events going on and was not scripted, hurled waiting aircraft into the command deck, blasted allies with great swatches of freeze beams, trampled, crunched and generally destroyed in amazing and jaw-dropping details.
Crytek is being unapologetic about the system requirements on this game, and will be supporting only mid to high end video cards. The general sentiment was that the game will work on a minimum of 2-year old cards when it launches ... next year. That means the best thing you've got right now, will probably be only just above passable. My 9800 Pro is weeping at home at just the thought.
Whether a game is born of this visual achievement completely remains to be seen, but there's no question that Crytek has put together the tools to do something epic.
Star Wars Empire at War: Forces of Corruption [PC] - Elysium
If the people at Petroglyph read my largely negative review of Empire at War, they were gracious enough not to punch me in the face when I asked them about the expansion. But, my diappointment in Empires at War was born not only from the fact that it was a purely mediocre game, but also at how awesome it could have been. Is the expansion the part that puts the fun in the game? Hell, I don't know. I wouldn't hold my breath, certainly, but they're putting a lot of work into a fully equipped and featured expansion. They've got some good ideas, and some nice tweaks to the gameplay, but to be perfectly honest I'm not certain they've addressed the fundamental issues many people had.
Let me tell you what they're doing, and you be the judge. They are adding a whole new faction (3 factions in your RTS seems to be the theme of this year's E3) called the Underworld. It is a criminal and nefarious organization led by Tyber Zann, a sort of crimeworld boss who acts as the new faction's Vader or Obi-Wan. The Underworld approach the galactic map in a variety of new ways making their fortunes by corrupting existing worlds and stealing credits from both the Empire and Alliance. They research new equipment similarly to the Alliance, by buying it, and seem to exemplify the smuggling styles of gameplay with options for sabotage, and being able to bribe their way past potential space battles on their way to a juicy target. They are suitably different from the Alliance and the Empire to introduce some interesting new tactics toward galactic control, mostly designed to sit in the shadows and avoid conflict until the odds are in their favor.
New vehicles have been included for the existing factions along with a complete fleet for the Underworld. The centerpiece space battle shown included Vader's flagship the Executor and the 2nd Death Star ("What the hell's an Aluminum Falcon?") firing its guns on Alliance capital ships. Factional specific orbital bombardment a la nukes, the ability to specialize you forces, emplacements, and buildings on the ground, and transport vehicles for ground based combat round out the highlight of features.
Will this do much to improve a largely dull and often lifeless ground combat? Nothing I saw really addressed that, but we'll see. Some great ideas, but the truth is this is a game that demos very well. It's when you've had four or five hours playing that you either see the new shine or not. We'll find out this fall.
The Witcher [PC] - Fly
Those poor people at CD Project. Their tiny Kentia hall booth was just across the aisle from Red Octane, and Guitar Hero II's promotional acts were completely drowning out their presentations, forcing them to yell over the din. That didn't seem to diminish their enthusiasm for their game, though.
The Witcher is a single-player story-driven RPG based upon the world created by Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski, whose works have never been translated into English but are apparently very popular where they've been published. The game isn't all that witchy, in that it has no witches to speak of. The Witchers are instead a shadowy group of elite monster hunters.
The setting is reminiscent of medieval Europe, but completely ravaged by years of war, poverty, and disease. It's a weakened, dysfunctional society, embroiled in racial and political conflict, that has begun to fall prey to darker forces and evil creatures. CD Project didn't reveal much about the plot except to say that the main character, a semi-human Witcher with long white hair and reptilian yellow eyes, finds himself a central figure in an effort to prevent some greater evil.
The overall tone of the game appears to be very harsh, gloomy, gory, and mature. CD Project indicates that the world of the Witcher is morally ambiguous, with few clear cut good and evil characters, factions, or choices. They intend to offer the player numerous difficult decisions with far-reaching effects, and they showed some specific examples of choices that determined the course of major events that occurred many hours later in the game.
The Witcher appears to take place entirely from a third-person perspective, and combat is real-time, fast-paced, click-heavy and entirely mouse driven. It's also very bloody. The combat system is pretty unusual in that it allows the player to gradually develop different strings of attacks that can be selected during a fight and performed by clicking in quick succession. They've done extensive motion capture work on the title, and the combat animations are unique, graceful, and very impressive. The limited magical attacks I saw allowed the main character to set enemies on fire, knock them backward, and stun or disarm them.
The game is powered by a heavily rewritten version of Bioware's Aurora engine, and it looks absolutely beautiful, both in terms of its art direction and technical features. I saw a real-time demonstration of its day/night, atmosphere, and weather systems that was very compelling, as a well as a number of cool visual effects that represented drunkenness and the effects of various potions. I didn't have the opportunity to learn much about how character development will occur, how long the game will be, or the game's overall story structure, but I was very impressed with what I saw. CD Project's aiming for a Spring 2007 release.
Unreal Tournament 2007 [PC, PS3, 360] - Fly
Epic's presentation was practically worthless if you wanted to learn any specific details about UT2007, as they didn't actually say anything about the game or allow time for any questions. What they did do is show a short real-time PC demonstration of a scenario that seemed to show a new game mode that combined elements of the Onslaught and Bombing Run game types, where the player had to activate nodes by carrying a small sphere from one location to the next in order to gain access to and destroy a power core. It looks like the maps may allow for some limited environmental destruction, as the demo showed giant stone arches being destroyed to crush opponents below.
I saw a lot that was familiar, especially in terms of weaponry, but it looked like nearly every aspect of the game has been given a visual overhaul, and several vehicles have been redesigned. The demo showed a conflict between two opposing forces, the Necris and the Axon. The Necris appear to be a more alien, insectlike race. Probably the most impressive thing I saw in the demo were the Necris's giant tripod-like walking vehicles, which seemed extremely powerful and intimidating. As expected, there were multiplel vehicle types, ranging from light, speedy ground and air vehicles to hulking, powerful Leviathan tanks. The even showed a small snowboard-like sled that hovered along the ground.
Not surprisingly, the action was very fast and everything was big, loud, and outrageous. Graphically, the game looks good, but other than some sophisticated weapons effects I didn't see anything especially jaw-dropping. I was disappointed that Epic wasn't talking more about the game types or how much content they'll will offer. They're currently gunning for an early 2007 release, so I'm sure we'll learn more later this year. So far it looks like it's going to offer a little variety, some interesting refinements, and more of the same twitchy fragfest gameplay.
John Woo's Stranglehold [PC, Xbox 360, PS3] - Fly
Stranglehold is a third-person shooter starring Chinese action superstar Chow Yun-Fat, reprising his role as Inspector Tequila in a sequel to John Woo's film Hard Boiled. Much of the Stranglehold presentation consisted of clips of John Woo films and claims that Stranglehold is going to offer the same sort of action, but Midway did actually show a ten-minute realtime demo that depicted a gunfight inside a two-story restaurant.
At first glance, the game looks just like a Max Payne title, complete with bloody two-fisted shooting and bullet-time (they're calling it "Tequila Time" here) leaps and rolls. The shooting looks a bit more precise, though, as there's a zoomed-in over the shoulder view. And Inspector Tequila (try typing that name with a straight face) actually has a lot of platforming-type abilities. If you run him towards a table, he'll automatically slide across the top to the other side, knocking off whatever's on top. He'll also automatically bust through doors, run across stair railings, spring off walls, etc., and you can string together these actions in interesting ways.
There's a kill meter at the bottom of the screen that, when full, can be used to activate especially cinematic moves. The one they showed in the demo, the "Tequila Bomb," had Tequila dropping down and whirling around, firing with outstretched arms. The camera spun in the opposite direction and a flock of doves appeared out of nowhere, fluttering upwards as Tequila's surrounding enemies were quickly and efficiently dispatched. In other words, classic John Woo.
Midway made a big deal about the game's destructible environments, and the area they showed did feature plenty that could be shot up, knocked over, or otherwise strewn all over the place. The enemies seemed pretty dull, typically just running at the main character with a death wish, or standing in place and shooting. Visually, the game looked pretty good, and they've done an especially good job modeling and animating Chow-Yun Fat.
Although Stranglehold was pretty to look at, it struck me as the type of thing that, like so many John Woo-influenced action films, would probably get dull very quickly without a decent storyline. It'd be extremely easy for Midway to simply cash in on the license, so it remains to be seen how much creativity and effort they really put into the title, especially in terms of variety and plot. Midway says they'll have driveable vehicles and multiplayer options in the finished product. It's due out in Winter 2006 for the PC, PS3, and 360.
Okami [PS2] - Fly
One of the most intriguing games this year is for the PS2, by Clover studios, the developers of the Viewtiful Joe franchise. It's Okami, the story of a sun god who takes the form of a wolf, tasked with restoring color to a world enshrouded in darkness. In order to do so, the wolf, Ameratsu, most learn the calligraphic techniques of the "celestial brush."
Okami's art style evokes classical Asian painting and calligraphy, and it's one of the most uniquely beautiful games I've seen. It's displayed as a painting in progress, and uses an unusual game mechanic to temporarily transform whatever's depicted on the screen into a canvas, where the player can then use a calligraphy brush and draw symbols to solve puzzles, alter the environment, and attack enemies. It's a wonderfully done, visually stunning effect that makes for some very interesting gameplay.
Okami seems to play much like a recent Zelda title, like Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time, and it has the player encountering all sorts of quirky characters and unusual enemies. This year's E3 demo was a revamped version of what they showed last year, complete with more thorough localization and a lot more polish to the on-screen interface. It also added an impressive boss fight, and some new attacks and abilities for Ameratsu. Okami was released in Japan last April, and should release everywhere else early this fall. I can't wait.
Heavenly Sword [PS3] - Fly
Ninja Theory was showing off a brief demo that had Heavenly Sword's red-haired heroine, Nariko, depicted in third person in a small, closed arena, fighting groups of about a half-dozen enemies at a time. The God of War similarities were obvious, as the melee fighting style, weapons, and combo types Nariko exhibited were very similar to those of Kratos. Nariko even had a pair of large blades attached to her arms by retractable chains, and the demo ended with some context-sensitive button pressing that triggered a series of dramatic finishing animations with a boss character. The arena was full of objects that exhibited realistic physics and were knocked about and smashed apart during combat.
Nariko's much more graceful and acrobatic than Kratos, and she doesn't convey the same sense of absolute rage that Kratos does. Instead, she comes across more like a disciplined, graceful martial artist, and she almost looked like she was dancing while fighting. Her fluid, complex animations and ballet-like moves were actually quite stunning. The combat system also seemed to be a little deeper than in God of War, leaning a bit more towards that of a traditional fighting game. I really liked the clean interface, and the fact that the there weren't many arcade-like elements, like glowing red orbs that dropped from enemies or combo scores that appeared when hits were landed.
I was able to talk for quite a while with one of Ninja Theory's designers. He said that Heavenly Sword will be very story driven, but they're not revealing much about the plot. He did say that Nariko is cursed somehow and only has a few days to live. The game is going to be all melee fighting, and Nariko will have no magical abilities or ranged weapons. There won't be any platforming or puzzle-solving, either. The game doesn't even have a jump button. It's going to be a straightforward, single-player only third-person fighter.
I was really impressed by Heavenly Sword's visuals and the feel of the combat, and Nariko seems to have a lot of potential as a character. I think there's going to have to be a well-developed and compelling story, though, not to mention plenty of combat variety, to keep the melee fighting from getting boring after a few hours. Ninja Theory says that these aspects are big priorities of theirs, but only time will tell if they're successful. They say they're on track to launch Heavenly Sword with the PS3 this fall.
Deep Labyrinth [DS] - Fly
Here's how Deep Labyrinth begins: a young boy is taking a drive in the countryside with his family when they get a flat tire. They stop the car, and the boy's dog runs into what looks like a nearby haunted mansion. His parents follow but don't come back, and when the boy approaches the front door to investigate he's sucked into a vortex that drops him onto a small floating island, where a pink elephant-headed creature appears and informs him he's on Vimana, the "airship of the gods." The boy leaves the airship through a sort of rainbow fountain and is transported to a mazelike area of grassy fields connected by tunnels, where he begins to encounter a variety of bizarre creatures, some helpful, some hostile.
So it's kind of like the film Spirited Away, but it makes even less sense. Dark Labyrinth seems to be a basic RPG with solid emphasis on real-time, action-oriented combat. The player explores the world and fights from a first-person view displayed on the bottom screen, with the top screen displaying an simple overhead map. At the beginning of the game the character is given a sword and shield, and he's taught a few magic spells that can be cast by drawing different characters over a grid. Character movement and combat felt pretty good, but fighting, blocking, and casting all took place on slightly different screen types, so switching back and forth felt a bit cumbersome.
The 3D exploration works very well, and it's easy to find your way around the world, but the game's introductory level seemed very repetitive and bland, as were the handful of enemies I saw. Visually, it just wasn't very interesting. The helpful characters that the player met, like a platypus with a golden crown, were charming and bizarre, but there wasn't much going on as far as the story was concerned for the ten minutes or so that I played the game. Deep Labyrinth was supposedly developed by Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy alumni, so there might be more than meets the eye to the storyline. It was very easy to pick up and play, so I'll probably give it another look when it releases later this year.
Contact [DS] - Fly
Contact is an RPG directed by SUDA-51, the creative force behind the completely whacked-out and bloody Killer 7 for the GameCube. The only thing Contact shares with Killer 7, though, is a unique approach to game design. The first thing I noticed about Contact, an adventure/RPG title, is that it employs two very different art styles for the top and bottom DS screens. The top screen is rendered in a flat, pixellated, cartoonish style, and depicts a busy professor as he putters around in his science lab aboard a wrecked sailing ship that is apparently also some sort of space craft. The bottom screen shows the outside world, rendered in much more realistic detail, where the player controls the professor's friend, a young man named Terry. Both screens show a 2D isometric perspective.
Periodically the professor speaks to Terry, and sometimes directly to the player, providing instructions and guidance. Early on he says to the player, somewhat unnervingly, "they're after me," so there's a mysterious undercurrent of urgency and danger. Much of the time, though, the professor is busy muttering amusingly to himself or his dog aboard his little spaceship. Early on Terry is tasked with searching for "elements" lost when the professor's ship crashed, so he's kept busy exploring and fighting odd little creatures. Combat is simple, and seems to involve little more than hitting a button to move Terry into a "combat stance" then moving him close to an enemy with a particular attack type selected. At the beginning of the game Terry is given a single punching attack, but judging by the game's extensive menus, which are empty at the beginning of the game, it looks like dozens more eventually become available.
Thoughout Contact Terry obtains suits and costumes that, when worn, allow him to perform different tasks. An aqua-rain suit lets him spray water, for example, and a chef's outfit allows him to cook. The professor also gives Terry a variety of different "seals," which are little stickers the player peels up from a menu and then applies to the game screen with the stylus. One seal I applied turned all the enemies onscreen into sheep. Another was required to wrap up one of the professor's elements I discovered in a cave.
Contact starts out simple, but given the extensive menus of items, abilities, outfits, and more contained in its interface, it looks like it has the potential to be a very deep game. It seemed very charming, unusual, and well-conceived, and I'm really looking forward to the finished product. It's due out this summer.