While the original target of 200,000+ visitors wasn't met - it's been "only" 185,000 -, the Games Convention 2007 was once again one of the biggest shows in the industry. This was my fifth time attending the GC, but the first I ran into a fellow GWJ reader, chrisg. And unlike last year when I was busy demoing a certain game, I actually had some time left to check out other games such as Spore, Team Fortress 2 and StarCraft II among others.
I got to test out the mini-game where you tilt a board to get marbles into a hole - and gots me some real Wii Fit socks! Yay for swag, I guess. Went back to test out the header mini-game, too, some time later. The controls are surprisingly precise and work intuitively. The hardware does a good job at registering how you're shifting your weight. I can easily see Wii Fit becoming a smash hit; it'll probably be sold out the minute it launches in Japan.
That said, the overall experience didn't exactly wow me. It's nice. In the same way a girl calls someone a nice guy to make clear that their relationship won't go beyond polite friendship. If you are what analysts call a "hardcore gamer" -- and if you're reading this website, what are the odds? -- you'll probably quit playing it as soon as the initial curiosity has been satisfied. Consider it a purchase to leave an impression on your parents or non-gamer friends.
Rockstar's Table Tennis (Wii)
Rockstar had big GTA IV and Bully banners, but neither game was shown publicly at the GC. So, Table Tennis it was. It felt like a more complex version of Wii Tennis, which is not a bad thing. The timing is trickier, but one could adapt to it. Mind you, I could only test out the non-nunchuk control scheme, the alternative option probably offers more depth.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
I'm still puzzled as to how anyone could come up with such a title, but the game itself feels quite solid. Naughty Dog's latest is aimed at the Tomb Raider crowd. I was able to run, jump, shoot or climb without any further explanation of the controls. The developers often talked about their animation system, which is supposed to provide smooth blending between moves, and it certainly looks better than what other games offer in this regard. The level of graphics ranges between 'yummy' and 'hum, could use more grass shaders and better textures'. The environments are almost irritatingly colourful. At some point the main protagonist decided to try climbing a door instead of opening it and fell out of the level, which was when I ended the demo session.
Time Crisis 4
It's Time Crisis. You shoot stuff and take cover. If you're into light-gun shooters, that one probably was on your list anyway.
10 minutes never felt that short. That's how long we got to play StarCraft II in a 2-on-2 multiplayer session. I think the best way to describe the experience would be: it feels like coming home. I hadn't played SC in ages, but within seconds I was immersed like I was when the original came out 10 years ago. It simply clicks.
Due to the time restriction I couldn't really test out many of the new units. Not that it would matter, I'll get the game on launch day either way. I don't think SC II will hit store shelves before late 2008, but the demo build felt really polished already - Blizzard at work. It's impressive to see how truthful everything is to the concept and art direction of the original game. Based on the first screenshots I wished that the camera wasn't as close to the action as it was in StarCraft. Honestly though, that didn't bother me during the test session. I do hope though that Blizzard takes a few hints from other games the RTS genre has seen in the past decade. For instance, the option to queue unit or upgrade production requests even before a building is finished - really handy, done by some other games already, not possible in SC II (yet).
Unreal Tournament III
Felt fast, felt entertaining, felt right. The multiplayer session we had seemed what UT-jungies might have hoped for. I especially enjoyed piloting the mech, which moves painfully slow but unleashes a rain of destruction. The hoverboards, however, are the best addition to the series. They really do up the pace of the game by enabling the player to get from spawn points to the action quickly even without manning a vehicle. No boring walks on bigger maps anymore, also the mini-map suggests what part the level you might want to head to next. Given Epics well-known support for their games and the content provided by the mod-community, UT3 has a lot going for it. At the GC Developer's Conference Mark Rein also mentioned that they'll be doing a 'Making it Unreal' mod-contest for the game, too, once UT3 is available.
Team Fortress 2
We all know it's been in the development for ages - but does that really matter when the final game delivers? Team Fortress 2 apparently does and is my personal game of the show. Played it with chrisg on the first day, and we immediatly knew that we had to get back to the booth to play it some more. And so we did, I even visited the spot again once more on Friday. After what one can consider an extensive hands-on session by expo standards - more than two hours - I'm happy to report that Team Fortress 2 doesn't only look great, the gameplay doesn't disappoint either.
The best part of the stylish graphics is that they're not just there for the point of setting the game apart from other titles in terms of visuals. They not only make the game more charming, they also serve a gameplay purpose. There are games where you have difficulties recognizing friend or foe, because they have some sort of similar camouflage outfit or simply because everything's too dark. Well, and then there's TF2. It's bright. It's very easy to identify enemies and specific classes even from a distance.
It's hard to notice all the graphical details such as Heavy Weapons Guy laughing madly while firing his gatling gun -- it was shown in a trailer, but he actually does it in-game, too. Not like you'd have the time to pay attention to such things during combat. Also, when you get killed, you'll get to see little motivational messages like: "Too bad, but no other scout player has killed as many enemies as you have ([insert number])." Or informing you that you didn't get fragged as quickly as in the previous round. A small, nice touch - makes you wonder why this wasn't done earlier. (Apologies if this was already incorporated in some other game.)
I tested out every class except the Sniper -- we played the 360 version, and sniping with console controllers makes Spun's head hurt -- and they all felt pretty balanced as far as one can tell based on the time we spent with the game. Right now it would be difficult for me to name a favourite class, because all of them were fun. No matter whether we're talking about backstabbing with the spy, dashing around as a scout, using brute-force with HW Guy, Soldier or Demoman - I had a great time.
TF2 will ship with six maps (with randomized elements) - the GC build had only one map, but that one didn't get boring at all. Valve has also hinted at the release of additional, free maps some time after the release. and now that the developers also seem to get match-making and stat tracking right with Steam Community, Team Fortress 2 is the MP-shooter to get this Fall, in my opinion. The game easily could have been sold as separate full-price title, and hardly anyone would have complained.
Didn't spend too much time with it since I don't like playing first-person games that require you to constantly look and aim at all directions with controllers that much, but am looking forward to testing it on the PC. The concept simply is intriguing, and I have no doubt that some of the puzzles will have knot-inducing effects on your brain.
Viva Pinata: Party Animals
Microsoft's Mario Party rip-off^H^H^H^H^H^H^H hommage looked cute and offered what was to be expected. In terms of humor it's closer to Rayman: Raving Rabbids though. One of the mini-games required you to push button combos with the right timing to drink soda and power up for a massive belch. I did not get to see the meta-game though. Overall it suits the console library, which isn't exactly rife with party games. Your casual or non-gamer friends might prefer the Wii though - based on my experience, once they encountered 'the waggle', they have a hard time going back to pure button mashing.
Guitar Hero III
Not being a hardcore Guitar Hero insider, I wouldn't be able to name any specific differences or new features based on the short jam-session chrisg and I had. Frankly enough, most of the time I was busy thinking about how much I really would love to try out the Rock Band drum controller instead. Unfortunately, EA didn't make their game widely available at the show. I, however, was lucky enough to score an appointment for...
While it wasn't really available at E3, Spore was shown at GC 2007 behind closed doors. And I got to see all the stages up to the city/civilization phase. The creature part has been talked about often enough, so I'll just skip to the tribe phase. This is the first time you have several beings under your control. You can upgrade your settlement with new buildings (always being referred to as "tools"), e.g. a tent that can heal your tribesmen or a hut that enables them to use weapons. All these buildings can be improved later on. Your main goal is to gather more than 15 creatures to advance to the next phase. One does not have to switch to the next level though upon reaching that mark, and can keep playing the tribes part beyond that.
It's possible to have your followers mate, but you also might 'recruit' other tribes by convincing them in friendly, diplomatic ways or, of course, just attacking them. Icons to the left show the status (HP, hunger, tiredness) and activitiy of every single member of your tribe, it's also possible to select them that way.
In the next stage you start with your own city and territory. There are three types of cities -- military, religious and diplomatic. Your behaviour in the tribes phase determines what kind of city you'll initially have. It's possible to get ahold of additional strategic options by conquering other regions with a different setup.
Here you get to build vehicles for the first time. At the beginning you'll need a harvester to collect resources for you. Later you can generate the so called Spore-Dollars through factories as well. Once your population grows, the player also gets his hands on tanks, ships and airplanes upon reaching certain marks - 40, 60 and 80. There's a variety of equipment that can be attached to a vehicle, affecting its HP, attack points and firing rate in the case of military vehicles. You can scale and tweak all parts in the editor - and the possibilities here seem really endless -- but that will not change the stats of the specific piece you've chosen.
There's a general rule in Spore for creatures, outfits, vehicles or buildings -- you can design them all from the scratch or download models built by other players. User-generated content is being integrated automatically and seamlessly. In order to keep you from getting spammed, the game will limit the assets available to pieces that might suit your preferences. In addition to that, it's also possible to subscribe to the content produced by players of your choice via Spore.com, a concept titled "Sporecast", or simply browse the complete archive.
There still were some interface and pathfining glitches, but it's not like the game will ship next month. When asked, EA simply kept saying that it won't launch before fiscal 2008 (April 1 2008 - March 31 2009) - they didn't sound like they are expecting the game to ship in Spring though. It's really hard to judge Spore at this point since I haven't seen the complete package yet and had to use cheats to make my way through the different phases within the demo session time. The question of how fast the motivational curve will drop, once you've seen every stage, remains to be answered. The option to design your own content and get assets created by the community should help get some mileage out of Spore.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games
Finally, the game to unite both former arch-rival mascot ... thingies: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, aka The Unfunny Version of Rayman: Raving Rabbids. The two disciplines shown pretty much played like you'd expect them to, e.g. wildly moving up Nunchuk and Wiimote up and down to speed up in the 100m sprint. Characters have different strengths and weaknesses, Sonic is the fastest, but bites in terms of acceleration, Mario is a rather balanced fellow, just like in the Mario Kart titles. Bowser probably and surprisingly will be the strongest one. Let's just hope they're not as 'well-balanced' as they are in Mario Strikers, where most pro-players always tend to go for the same set of characters.
Maybe the other mini-games will be more exciting, the part shown simply didn't look that special. If there's one thing the Wii doesn't lack, it's party-titles that let you waggle around heavily - Mario Party 8, Wii Sports, EA Playground, Carnival Games, Rayman: Raving Rabbids, WarioWare to name the most popular ones. And if I have to pick one more Wii game for MP purpose this holiday season, it'll probably be...
Rayman: Raving Rabbids 2
Featuring more anarchic humor - and, more importantly, Ubisoft addressed one of the weaknesses of the original game: Pretty much all mini-games can be played by several players simultanously now. Also, the music mini-game, a poor man's Rock Band, looks more entertaining than its spiritual predecessor, the dance mini-game. And you finally get to play as one of them Rabbids. As if anyone ever wanted to be Rayman to begin with.
Overall impressions from the show - no major announcements from Microsoft or Nintendo, especially the latter one disappointed by showing quite a number of games that are already available, like Brain Age/Training 2 for DS or Wii Sports, in order to attract even more people, who don't own either system at this point. Sony officially announced PlayTV and a GPS add-on for PS3 and PSP respectively, which probably won't thrill you, if you're, well, into games. Plenty of upcoming titles like the new EyeToy, Buzz!, Singstar games, Ratches & Clank, GT5 Prologue or Uncharted: Drake's Fortune were playable though.
-Julian "Spunior" Dasgupta aka GWJ's German correspondent