PAX 2007

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The Penny Arcade Expo, now in its fourth year, is unlike any other gaming convention. There's a different vibe, less glamour than E3 but more swagger than GenCon. It's a three-day party, and this year it took over the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. Uber-geeks, Utilikilts, untold silliness, and games. Lots and lots of games, of all shapes and sizes.

Adam "The Fly" La Mosca and I explored the depths of the exhibition hall, playing all the latest and greatest games so you could spend your time watching The Wizard or signing up for the Guitar Hero tournament. Here's our thoughts on the highlights of the floor.

Haze

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Cory and I had some hands-on time with Haze, Free Radical's upcoming FPS. Just before they threw us into a trio of short four-player co-op missions they yelled at us, drill-sergeant style, about the game's premise and features. You begin Haze as a soldier for the Mantel corporation, a global mercenary outfit that makes and uses a combat-enhancing substance called Nectar. Nectar effects perception, altering the appearance of combat to make it, as Free Radical put it, "more like a video game." When you're dosed up with Nectar, kills are bloodless, corpses vanish, and butterflies frolic on the battlefield.

Not surprisingly, there's a shadowy side to Mantel and their bright yellow super juice. You can boost your Nectar levels, but you can also overdose. Bad Nectar trips have serious drawbacks, and will cause you to shoot anything in sight, friend or foe. Apparently you'll spend a fair amount of the game using Nectar's potent properties against others. In the levels we played you could coat knives and grenades with overdose-inducing levels of Nectar from fallen Mantel soldiers, for example.

Our hands-on time with Haze was a bit of a letdown, unfortunately. The first level was a simple firefight in a jungle setting, basically the same setup Free Radical showed in their hands-off E3 2004 demo. Next was a short driving sequence, followed by a basic firefight in one of gaming's most generic concrete buildings. With the exception of some of the aforementioned Nectar features, there wasn't much to it. Haze wasn't technically impressive, either. The textures were surprisingly low-res, the framerate was disappointingly spotty, and I ran into more than one instance of brain-dead enemy AI. Hopefully they'll work out the bugs, but with a November release date looming I'm a bit worried. Sony could really use a top-tier shooter for the PS3 (they're still insisting Haze is a PS3 exclusive), but I'm not so sure Haze will fit the bill.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

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Metroid Prime is what sold me a GameCube, so it's fitting that the third installment will finally push me over the edge for a Wii. This is easily the most beautiful game on the Wii, both in terms of art direction and graphical power. It's sometimes easy to forget, when playing, that the game is only running at 480p.

MP3's use of the Wiimote is fantastic. Moving is handled on the nunchuck, along with targeting and morphing into the famous ball, while aiming and firing is exclusive to the Wiimote itself. It takes two minutes to get used to moving Samus' arm cannon with your Wiimote, but quickly becomes second nature. It didn't take long for me to blast enemies out of the sky with both rockets and the beam. If this is the future of first person action games, bring it on.

I spent 20 minutes total on the demo, and could have played even longer. The demo, taking place in a level akin to Bespin, involved using the grapple beam to slide on railings to travel between platforms, as well as using the grapple to yank open doors. It was all fantastically intuitive, and all I wanted was more. The game should be available as you're reading this. Seriously, go get it.

- Cory "Demiurge" Banks

The Witcher

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Shawn wrote up a detailed look at the The Witcher just last week, so I'll refer you to his piece for the in-depth stuff. Suffice it to say I was similarly impressed. The game looks stunning, and it's unique in almost every way–definitely a labor of love from a determined, focused studio. Even though the combat looks positively nuts on screen, with all kinds of elaborately choreographed hacking and slashing, it really boils down to choosing the right weaponry and stance and then carefully managing the rhythm of your attacks. I didn't like the way I had to keep a careful eye on the mouse cursor, which changed to cue me as to the correct timing. The Atari rep assured me that with some practice I'd likely learn to feel out the game's own rhythm, and he noted that experienced players could turn of the cursor cues entirely.

We saw a fair amount of bugs, but the rep chalked them up to the unfinished build and the demo state of the save games he loaded. Here's hoping.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Dark Sector

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Cory and I happened upon the Dark Sector demo knowing next to nothing about the game. Here's what we encountered: an over-the shoulder perspective, cover-based stop-and-pop combat, a desaturated postapocalyptic landscape, and roadie running.

It'd be a completely shameless Gears of War clone were it not for one small game mechanic. Which, as it turns out, is also kind of derivative. Remember the glaive from Krull? Dark Sector's protagonist has one of those, the result of some sort of infection that transforms his right arm. It slices and dices, but can also pick up fire and electricity from areas of the environment that are high-voltage or ablaze. Send it into a streetlamp, for example and it'll come back all sparky, ready to electrocute bad guys. Cool.

D3's PR rep told us Dark Sector's going to have a lot of puzzles. "We like to say we've got a little Zelda in our Gears of War," she said. So that's the awkward PR sound bite. We saw absolutely zero puzzles in the short demo. She also promised that the protagonist would gain several more unique powers over time for use in both combat and puzzle-solving.

Although the controls could certainly use a little fine-tuning, especially in the aiming department, it all came together okay. I'm docking Dark Sector points for its blatant copycatting, but I have to admit by the time I'd finished the demo I felt like I'd fallen into a nice sort of combat rhythm, and I wanted to keep playing. Digital Extremes' resume is noteworthy, but their last game–Pariah–didn't impress. I'll stay skeptical until I see more. I do want to see more, though.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Kane & Lynch

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Eidos' David Bamberger compared Kane & Lynch to crime movies like Heat and Reservoir Dogs very early in our meeting, and the resemblance is striking. Developer I/O Interactive has taken many of the gameplay elements that made their Freedom Fighters easy to pick up, including the simple-yet-effect squad controlling mechanics, and placed them in the confines of a gritty narrative that evokes the best moments of films like Michael Mann's classic. The level I demoed involved a rooftop insertion and daring bank robbery, complete with a massive shootout between my small squad of criminals and the city's finest peacekeepers. It was explosive, intense, and quite a lot of fun.

Bamberger talked briefly about offline co-op and online multiplayer content, but wasn't ready to get into specifics. Kane & Lynch is slated for an October 2007 release.

- Cory "Demiurge" Banks

Mass Effect

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BioWare still won't let anyone actually play Mass Effect, which really bugs me. They did run through a good 20 minutes or so of actual gameplay, though, which was nearly enough to make me weak in the knees with anticipation. Holy cats, this game looks beautiful. And so very, very cool.

I'm of two minds about the character models, whose incredibly lifelike appearances underscore the fact that their animations aren't nearly as believable. This is definitely uncanny valley territory. Regardless, I'm entranced by the fluidity of the conversations. It's just that I've no idea whether the rest of the game will hold up as well as what they've shown. I certainly hope so.

I'm even more clueless about the combat. It looks like an amazing action game where you can pause the combat to strategerize and swap out weapons and abilities, but I really can't get my head around how it will actually feel. I'm just not sure what's actually beneath the highly polished surface. This is Bioware, so I'm definitely optimistic. But I want some hands-on time.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Telltale Games

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This time last year, Telltale Games was a small independent developer with a vision: release games in chunks, on a schedule, and treat them like a television show. The game they released, Sam & Max, proved to be a huge success, and on the other side of Season One, Telltale is the shining beacon for the episodic model.

In our meeting, founder and CTO Kevin Bruner was quick to point out that Telltale is applying their episodic design on all their games, as in CSI: Hard Evidence, a game made for retail but split into five different episodes. The game uses the same technology as all of Telltale's games, but with more television-specific camera angles and a different tone than Sam & Max. Ubisoft is publishing the title on the PC and Xbox 360 this fall.

- Cory "Demiurge" Banks

Turok

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Turok surprised me with its shooter slickness. It's a good-looking game, and the demo we played was obviously a near-finished build. Propaganda Games' stated goal is to provide players with a lot of options and reward creative thinking, and from what I could tell they might be on the right track.

The setting was a sprawling jungle environment populated by hungry dinosaurs and clusters of bad guys. The demo had a sort of AI ecosystem going on, where dinosaurs could be used to the players' advantage. You could lure raptor-type lizards towards unwitting bad guys with flares, for example. Stealth seemed as viable an option as straight-up shooting, as you could pick off enemies with a bow while concealed in the tall grass, or simply creep up behind them for dramatic shankings. It's an especially bloody, violent game, full of gruesome, cinematic finishing moves. It's also very intense–at one point I was caught in the middle of a firefight while simultaneously trying to manage two fighting lizards, and it was nuts. In a good way.

I didn't have a lot of time with Turok, and the demo was in an especially loud and distracting area of the exhibition hall, but I liked what I saw. There were moments of what looked like terrific AI, where the dinosaurs would circle around me or enemies would sneak up completely unnoticed.

I should mention that the trailers I've seen online make the game's story and characters look completely inane, but there really wasn't anything to the demo but straight-up exploration and combat. It's hard to tell where the game is headed with such a small snapshot, but what I saw was encouraging.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Lair

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This is the third time I've played the Lair demo this summer, and I still can't figure out how to control the dragon properly. The player is flying with a ... what, fleet? Sure, a fleet of dragonriders, assaulting a scary looking tower defended by enemy dragonriders. You have to fly into the tower through a carved mouth and do ... something. Burninate some ropes? Try as I might, i couldn't figure it out. Controlling your dragon is as easy as tilting the Sixaxis in the direction you want to fly, but the lack of feedback lends itself to overcorrection and makes the experience frustrating. No joke, at one point I had the controller upside down.

Lair comes out September 4th. Maybe you can triumph where I failed.

- Cory "Demiurge" Banks

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

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I'm just going to parrot what everyone else has said about Uncharted, so I'll keep it short. The shooting's simple and fun, with a hint of a Gears of War-like cover mechanic. The platforming's an enjoyable hybrid of Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia. The environments are beautiful. It's going to take some work to keep such a familiar setting interesting, but I'm betting Naughty Dog's up to the task. So far, so good.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Rockstar Games Table Tennis: Wii Edition

The Nintendoized version of Rockstar's Table Tennis allows you to select several different control schemes, depending on whether you want basic Wii remote functionality or full-on nunchuck player control. And the game does benefit from a lot more strategic gameplay options than you'll find in any Wii Sports titles. Still, it just didn't quite click. Cory and I both walked away feeling like the game's timing was off, and that it rewarding us for deliberately swinging early. I like Rockstar's Table Tennis much better on the 360 where the controls are far more precise and the game's appearance is vastly improved. I'll stick to Wii Sports.

- Adam "The Fly" LaMosca

Rock Band

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I have seen the future of Rock 'n Roll, and it is Rock Band.

Adam and I bamboozled our way into the line on Saturday, sweet talking Harmonix reps and bragging about or high levels of musicianship. I took up the drum sticks, sitting in front of an impressive controller that felt like a small electronic drum kit, while Adam strapped on the Fender Stratacaster controller. The new guitars are deceptively light, but feel just about perfect in the hands. We were joined by two gentlemen who took up the bass and microphones, as eager to rock to Foo Fighter's Learn To Fly as we were.

The timing on the guitar parts is slightly different, but easy enough to adjust to. The drum experience is surprisingly close to playing a real kit, even on easy levels, and pounding a sequence out correctly is exhilarating. The new UI is easy to read while still drastically different from Guitar Hero's fret boards. In fact, the entire interface, including the band's avatars playing in the background, leaves an impression of Guitar Hero with more realism. Rock Band isn't going for cartoony, but a cleaner, more glamorous tone, and it's very appealing. The only downside to our demo was having to exit the stage and make way for some other upstart band, our five minutes of fame over.

Harmonix was quick to point out that they haven't set a price point for anything, but are still planning to release weekly content in the form of songs and full albums. And contrary to what you've heard me say before, you can use other guitar controlers with the game, as Harmonix wants to make the game as open a platform as possible. Rock Band is due out this holiday season.

- Cory "Demiurge" Banks

Comments

Looking forward to Rockband on the 360.... i'll probably have one in time for its release.... I'll probably be a singer or drummer. I don't think i could get into playing fake guitar after playing real guitar for so long...

[edit] Oh yeah, thanks for the round-up guys. Hope you had a good time

Great round-up there. Lots of good info. Bring on Rock Band!

Has Elysium's avatar always had a yellow G on it?

Yup, always.

I don't believe it.

Awesome write-ups guys!

Developer I/O Interactive has taken many of the gameplay elements that made their Freedom Fighters easy to pick up, including the simple-yet-effect squad controlling mechanics, and placed them in the confines of a gritty narrative that evokes the best moments of films like Michael Mann's classic.

Wait, these are the Freedom Fighters guys? What a great game that was! Now I'm even more interested.
Rockstar Games Table Tennis: Wii Edition

That came out of nowhere, but I'm not surprised. Hopefully they get the timing sorted it, I could see it being fun.

LOL @ Favre

oh wait he has a SB ring.. nm.

Metriod 3 does look very nice for what the Wii is capable of... I didnt see much variety in the demo at the store though.. so I am a bit wary its a huge corridor romp.

I don't believe it.

I swear. It's as much a part of my identity as the beard.

For the benefit of those who weren't there (including myself), do yourself a favor and listen to Wil Wheaton's PAX 07 keynote. It's funny, chock full of gaming references, excellently delivered, and contains a great message. Link below:

http://www.pennyarcadeexpo.com/PAX07_Keynote.mp3

Kane & Lynch due out October 2007... I wish they would take a bit more time. Enemy AI seemed really bad, friendly AI is questionable. Still, I'm looking forward to it.

btw, Good write up.

bennard wrote:
For the benefit of those who weren't there (including myself), do yourself a favor and listen to Wil Wheaton's PAX 07 keynote. It's funny, chock full of gaming references, excellently delivered, and contains a great message. Link below:

http://www.pennyarcadeexpo.com/PAX07_Keynote.mp3

Wheaton earned a standing ovation. Just a heads up, it's NSFW.

Gamevideos.com has the Assassins Creed panel/demo up in 4 parts - can't seem to link directly to it. This was the game i came away from the show most wanting to play.

Very informative. Well done guys. I think I'll pick up a copy of MP3 on the way home tonight.

I'd appreciate a small addition to the article - which console the game is coming out for?

Specifically asking this because of Uncharted and the Turok Game, but there's a couple others that I didn't know about (Kane & Lynch? Who comes up with these game names?)

Elysium wrote:
I don't believe it.

I swear. It's as much a part of my identity as the beard.

What the... when did you grow a beard?

Uncharted is PS3 only, Turok is both consoles most likely, and Kane and Lynch on both consoles and PC.

At the risk of sounding like a whacko -- I think Wil Wheaton is something of a generational voice for misunderstood geek-parents everywhere. I've enjoyed his books, and his blog, immensely. I followed his anxiety leading up the the PAX speech on his blog, and am stoked he delivered. He's a rare breed of writer - he's "just" a storyteller. I say "just" because it's rare a writer understands what he's good at it and keeps refining it. Given his background, he could easily have devolved into a bad screenwriter or a half-ghostwritten crappyass novelist. Instead, he's focussed on what hes really good at and gotten better at it.

I missed the keynote, I'll have to download and listen to it.

I didn't talk to Wil while he was doing autographs, though I did get a picture of him pointing to his "Science: It works, bitches" shirt.

Second year in a row my PAX attendance efforts were thwarted. Last year, my now-10-month-old was doing her best to make an early entrance right before PAX, so I had to stay home with the wife. The good news? She guilted herself into agreeing that we needed an Xbox 360.
This year, Friday morning I woke up ready to go to the airport, but my body disagreed. You gotta be friggin kidding me! I'm sick the morning I'm supposed to fly to PAX!? I'm so bummed I had to cancel my trip AGAIN.

I attended in 2005 and it was great, but the gaming gods seem to want to prevent me from getting back there.

Someday, somehow, I'll be able to afford and justify a plane ticket to Seattle for one weekend.
PAX is like my Mecca. My desk faces west for this very reason.
Someday.

Good stuff and nice overall review of the games at PAX. Awesome as always!
Now we just need some PAX photos and we are all done.

jonnypolite wrote:
Gamevideos.com has the Assassins Creed panel/demo up in 4 parts - can't seem to link directly to it. This was the game i came away from the show most wanting to play.

Same here. Same here. This game wasn't even on my radar-screen pre-PAX. I saw the demo and was quite taken with the fluidity of the game and the kinetic nature of it. I'm stoked.

Dysplastic wrote:
Someday, somehow, I'll be able to afford and justify a plane ticket to Seattle for one weekend.
PAX is like my Mecca. My desk faces west for this very reason.
Someday.

It was good, but I think next year I'm just going to drive to GenCon and Wizard World.

Been wrapped up in committee meetings and exhausted at the end of the day all week AND haven't quite finished Bioshock yet. That's my excuse for not having Metroid Prime 3 yet, but I am quite looking forward to it. Also dying to play Kane and Lynch... Loved the Hitman series and looking forward to some hearty co-op action prior to the release of Left4Dead; this one could be the perfect drug to get my fix.