It was with a certain amount of melancholy that I traveled to Leipzig this year to attend the Games Convention. As the contract between the Leipziger Messe and the publisher organization BIU expired this year, the latter revealed plans to stage the show in Cologne from 2009 on. An expo called gamescom; the Games Convention brand belongs to the Leipziger Messe.
Driven by the success of this year's GC -- over 200.000 visitors -- the Leipziger Messe just announced their intention to host another GC in August 2009 again, roughly three weeks ahead of the gamescom. However, most major publishers have thrown their weight behind the Cologne expo, making it likely that this was my last trip to what was started seven years ago. I haven't missed a single show since 2002 and, like most regular attendees, got really used to the expo area and the city. Despite the WiFi at the GC still being as stable as a house of cards during a hurricane.
Anyway, on to the games...
I got to play two levels of the game on Xbox 360 and Wii. Like in previous Traveller's Tales productions, you run around, beat up enemies, smash some objects and collect Lego stones to solve puzzles. The good: It really played pretty much like its predecessors - a very polished experience, enriched with the typical slapstick humor. The bad: It really played pretty much like its predecessors - if you're tired of the concept or never became a fan of it to begin with, then TT's latest title is not going to change your mind.
Guitar Hero: World Tour
I didn't get around to toying around with the music editor, but I did get a few minutes to check out Neversoft's drumkit. It felt quite solid and was definitely not as noisy as the Rock Band drum controller. The peripheral wasn't without its problems, though. During the demo session, a cable connecting one of the rubber cymbals to the core kit came loose - again, and again, and again.
MotorStorm: Pacific Rift
Overall I was somewhat underwhelmed by the graphics of Evolution Studios' latest title -- and I wasn't the only one--, which, unsurprisingly enough, didn't live up its announcement trailer. Admittedly, I wasn't a huge fan of the predecessor, and the sequel didn't warm the cockles of my heart either. Maybe I should quit wanting Excite Truck with better graphics.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider
Remember the depth and richness of the Golden Axe universe? Yeah, me neither. The sales numbers of God of War probably are the reason for the revival of Sega's arcade oldie. The result feels like a rather 'run of the mill-esque' hack'n slay title, that should please genre fans, but is unlikely to get anything beyond a 'rent it' recommendation.
Maybe we've been spoiled by the God of War games that, as if it was no big deal, keep dragging the player from one spectacular and well staged moment to the next, all set in quite memorable locations. Golden Axe seems rather tame compared to that, and while there is a dodge/block system in place that serves as trigger for counters, it is the attack system that comes across rather shallow. The option to mount beasts -- a nod to the original games -- only helps marginally.
Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.
Taking a hint from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. naming convention department, H.A.W.X. is the latest game made by the team in charge of the Blazing Angels titles. And like BA, H.A.W.X. might turn out to be a solid, but not overly memorable experience.
The graphics don't disappoint, but the rest doesn't seem to push the boundaries of, well, anything. To me, H.A.W.X. is too arcade-ish to appeal to my sim-fan personality, but it also lacks the craziness of Ace Combat. Of course, it doesn't help that I consider the Clancy universe a snoozefest and play the games despite -- not because of -- the branding. I can't share any information on setup options since I was basically dropped right into the mission, which, interestingly enough, was at some point about defending an oil plant. Oh global politics, is there anything you can't affect?
Square Enix rereleasing one of their old RPGs - something completely unheard of! To be fair though, Chrono Trigger is one of the finest games of its generation, and based on the Ds build I played, it has aged very well.
The touchscreen is used to display a minimap of the current area and a number of buttons that directly grant access to menues such as the party or inventory screens. It's possible to steer your party via stylus, but you can control Crono the old-fashioned way with the D-pad, too.
Unfortunately, portable greatness has a price. In this case it's the addition of slight load times (about a second or two) when moving between areas or accessing menu functions. Granted, these are nothing compared to the PSX remake, but they're still a minor cause for impatience. I only got to play the the first 15 minutes of the games or so, thus not experiencing any of the standard battles. I can only assume that the loading times are the same here.
Chrono Trigger has a special place in my heart though and I'll probably cave in and buy the game a third time, thus rewarding Squenix's obsession with their oldies.
LBP usually gets covered in the context of user-generated content, but given what I got to play at the GC, there's actually a very charming platform game beneath the hype. The graphics schmooze with their entertaining animations and impressive textures, while the gameplay itself manages to improve upon Gish's challenging physics-laden approach.
Sackboy can jump and grab onto objects, or even other characters to drag them along, which looks ridiculously cute. The gameplay is mostly 2D, but it's possible to step into the background to dodge incoming enemies and the like. If you keep the left or right shoulder button pushed and move the analog sticks at the same time, Sackboy will wave with the corresponding arm. If you push the D-pad up or down, you can change his face expression from depressed through happy up to utterly crazy. Sounds like a gimmick, probably will be considered a gimmick by some, but it's one of these details that tend to induce a smile on the player's face. And many players surely were smiling while they were playing LBP.
As you're making progress in the game, you'll earn new stickers and objects that can be placed in the levels. Building basic maps shouldn't be much of a problem. Creating more complex pieces might pose a bigger challenge, obviously. The controls work well, the jump timing takes a bit to get used to it though. There were only two levels available, but I'm looking forward to checking out some more content of the game. An absolutely enjoyable demo, and I've yet to meet someone who didn't like it. If you own a PS3, then LBP probably was on your watch list already anyway. Right now it looks like the game will be one of the most notable releases this Fall.
Prince of Persia
It's not too often that I marvel at graphics, but Prince of Persia's amazing art direction tickled my inner artgeek. I don't care if it sounds like hyperbole, but if you pause the game and look at the environment, it does come across like a painting. Did I just say that? Yes, I did, and I stand by that statement.
The animations are just as impressive as the rest of the design, looking more stylized and fluid than what you saw in Assassin's Creed, which aimed for a more realistic feel. The prince learned a few new moves and now can even briefly crawl along ceilings. Prince of Persia is more open than its predecessors. Beginning and ending are fixed, but during the game you usually will be able to choose between different challenges, deciding on your own where to head next to free the world from the black evil... goo stuff that has spread all over the place.
Rather than fighting several enemies at once, PoP focuses on more monumental 1-on-1 situations. The battle against the so-called Hunter looked quite impressive, also thanks to its threatening appearance and design. He also had a little puddle of that evil goo following him. Screenshots really don't do the game justice.
There's a major difference between this latest adventure and the previous trilogy: The rewind mechanism is gone. In its place is Elika, the young girl that accompanies you. Ubisoft describes her as a dynamic checkpoint, and that surely is the case. In Prince of Persia you don't really die. If you miss a jump Elika jumpis in to pull you up. If the hunter is close to killing you, Elika will blast him with a magic attack. The prince got caught by the black goo? She'll free you and toss you back to a previous position, enabling you to try to get past it again.
Thankfully Elika's not as annoying as Navi, the hyperactive fairy from the Zelda games. The two characters interact often- the prince pulls her up while they're climbing, and they'll also chat at specific parts. Her function within the gameplay rules didn't go well with all people though. A number of attendees I talked to are afraid that this concept might remove all tension of the game. Tension the player would feel if a jump or battle passage was really deadly and required you to repeat a larger chunk of the level in the case of failure.
I personally am not that pessimistic; if the game is designed with such an approach in mind it simply might throw a different kind of challenge at you. Its prequels and a game like Braid have proven that you don't have to constantly punish the player and force him to go through parts of the game again. It tends to be an artificial inflation of the time you need to reach the ending, and that's what Ubisoft wants to avoid in Prince of Persia. It's hard to judge how it will work without having seen or played later parts of the title, but I'm almost tempted to get the final version for the graphics and the atmosphere alone.
Tom Clancy's EndWar (DS/PSP)
Ubisoft rather quietly announced handheld versions of Tom Clancy's EndWar. While its PS360 sister is another attempt to get RTS on console right with its fancy voice commands, the DS and PSP spin-off is trying to appeal to fans of turn-based strategy/tactic games, sharing only the basic scenario.
The game is being developed by Funatics (Settlers II: The Next Generation), a company founded by former members of Blue Byte. Now, if you owned a PC or Amiga in the late 80s or early 90s you'll remember that Blue Byte once wasn't only about flinging one Settlers game after another like they are now. One of their most popular franchises way back was a TBS series called Battle Isle.
EndWar on DS and PSP basically is Battle Isle with a few tweaks, a retreat to the good old days of hex-map strategy games. The main difference between BI and EW: BI had random factors in the battle, which is not the case in EW. If you shoot you'll always get the same result, given the circumstances/environmental factors are the same. Which include the ground a unit is located on as well as the position of other units. If you 'jam' let's say an enemy vehicle with two of your tanks, each of them will get a bonus of up to 75 percent depending on the particular 'jam position'. Also, units gain experience with every fight. Altogether there are 22 unit types ranging from submarines over infantry to jets.
EndWar offers a campaign for each of the three factions: Europe (Easy), USA (Medium) and Russia (Hard), with the latter only being available if you finished the other two already. During the course of a campaign you often have the choice of which mission to approach next; it usually is not a strictly linear order. Funatics added overall achievements and optional mission-specific objectives in order to up the replay value of the game. There also is a two-player mode that works via the respective WiFi function of DS and PSP.
Every map -- the maximum size being 64x64 -- features buildings that can be used to produce or repair units. If you're done or not satisfied with all the levels made by the developers, you can build your own in the map editor. Up to 60 user-made maps can be stored. Obviously, it's possible to transfer your own creations to other DS/PSP users.
The DS version supports touchscreen controls via stylus, but can also be handled with D-pad and buttons. I did not get to see the PSP version, but was told that they split the screen 80/20 to show both, the map and additional information. From the sounds of it you probably might want to get the DS version if you have the choice.
EndWar does offer a number of comfort options such quickly showing you which position you can fire at from a desired target location. The help system explains all the little details and, most notably, can be reset. If you're well into a campaign, but decided to quit the game for a few months, you can simply set the hint/info mechanics to treat you as a new user. TBS fans should keep an eye on the handheld versions of the game. They'll be released along with PS360 SKUs.
"Please don't spoil the story when you write about the game", I was told as I sat down to play Fallout 3 on PC. Funnily enough, I couldn't if I wanted to since I was busy running around, exploring the area and fighting whatever the game threw at me during the hour I spent with it.
The GC build began right before the character leaves his Vault. As you step out the sun is blinding your eyes. After a few seconds though you are able to perceive your surroundings - standing on a small hill you get an impressive scenic view at the remains of Washington, D.C.. Undoubtedly, Bethesda knows how to introduce a setting to the player.
The first quest is to find out about what happened to your father. No further information is given - from that point on you're on your own. As I was making my way through the ruins of the city I was often attacked by mole-rats, dogs and the like. You also occasionally stumble across buildings, which can be entered like a dungeon. That's how I cleaned up an old school building that was home to a gang of Raiders. Many objects in the world can be examined to find stim packs or bottles of Nuka-Cola.
The graphics and the sound really do convey the feel of a post-apocalyptic setting, which is not much of a surprise though as Bethesda usually delivers in that regard. You can zoom out quite far, up to a distance that comes close to what you're used from the previous Fallout titles. Still, the game seems designed around a perspective closer to the ground.
The combat system is where Fallout 3 differs most from its roots. You can run and gun like in any first-person shooter, or you can pause and activate the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.), granted you have enough AP to do that. You usually do. In the V.A.T.S. you get to see the hit probability for each specific body part. Then you can simply select the part you'd like to aim at, execute the command and hope for the best. Once you're done the game switches to a more cinematic view -- slow-motion and tracking shot inclusive -- to 'celebrate' your action. After that, Fallout 3 switches back to real-time until you fire up V.A.T.S. again.
Its cinematic action view only happens to be a brief break, but I personally found it rather annoying quickly. Unfortunately, there's no option in the game to disable that part.
If you want to unload your gun or swing your baseball bat in real-time because of your mad FPS skills, there's one thing to be kept in mind: You'll only be as good as a player who uses the V.A.T.S. mode at best. The hit probability is always the same no matter whether you fight in V.A.T.S. or in real-time. So, if there's a 50% chance to hit someone's arm, you might miss in real-time even if you're actually correctly aiming at it. That is, if you really got the crosshair right. If your FPS skills aren't actually as great as you think they are, you're likely to do worse in real-time since you might miss the enemy often enough to begin with - something that cannot happen in V.A.T.S., where the hit probability is the only deciding factor. Ultimately, the real-time part will get you through easy fights quickly, V.A.T.S., however, is what you might want to use for full efficiency.
I only ran across two NPCs during my session, and it's really impossible to say yet whether Bethesda got the dark humor of its predecessors right. Trailers or not, I'm still not sure if what I'm seeing is Fallout, or something that thoroughly imitates elements that made Fallout what it is. I definitely want to play more of the game, but wouldn't mind being courted some more. In other words: I liked flirting with Fallout 3, but I'm not sold on the marriage yet.
Street Fighter IV
Now there's a game that looks mightily impressive. Both, the models of the combatants and the backgrounds, are laden with details and well animated. Small elements like the face expressions really add to the overall look, even if you don't notice them at first. Like Prince of Persia, SF IV is a game you need to see live to fully appreciate the visuals. As for the gameplay: Street Fighter. Thumbs up.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
I got to see MK vs. DCU right after Street Fighter IV. The latter looks better than its screenshots, the former, well, didn't. It might be unfair to compare a very colorful and stylized title to one that aspires to be gritty and dark, but MK simply seemed a bit dull and lifeless. Wouldn't want to judge the gameplay based on the short session though; the last instalment in the series I really tried out was Mortal Kombat II.
Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War II
Remember all those people who wanted Dawn of War with the Company of Heros engine? Well, Relic is about to deliver exactly that. And remember all those 40K-fans demanding Tyranids to be added to the games? Guess what.
Colourful textures, cover, destructible terrain and objects, and tons of particle effects are testament to what the technology offers. It looked really delicious when it was shown by the lead designer and the producer. Relic, however, also improves upon other aspects and incorporates RPG elements. Each squad leader gains experience and can be leveled up. With each new level you get to distribute one attribute point on either health, range combat, close combat and energy. Each character has different skills and abilities though to be unlocked.
DoW2, like DoW - Dark Crusade, offers a strategic map with different territories to be conquered. During the course of the campaign, which can be played via coop, the space marines get to visit different planets on their way to fight back against the Tyranid invasion.
Maps feature persistent elements like certain buildings that can be captured. These spots grant certain bonuses on a map, and should you be required to defend a level against an enemy force, you'll be able to take advantage of said bonuses until the enemy got ahold of these buildings again. Relic also encourages the player to explore the maps and kill as many enemies as possible. This increases the chances of finding items you can equip the squad leaders with later on.
CoH and DoW were two of the best RTS series that got released in the recent past, and now that Relic is merging the two while also coming up with a coop campaign, they basically got themselves automatic access to my wallet. True story.
World of Goo
I already mentioned World of Goo in the forum a while ago and also know the first chapter thanks to the beta version that was released earlier this year. If you have no idea what the core gameplay was inspired by, grab Bridge Builder.
WoG makes you build all kinds of structures with goo balls. There are different types of goo balls though, which adds variety to the gameplay. For instance, one of them is to be used as fuse.
Each chapter has a very specific topic, which is mirrored in the levels. Example: In one of the worlds a strong wind is constantly blowing, increasing the challenge and serving as foundation for some of the puzzles. And despite it being a puzzle game, there actually is a narrative connecting all the chapters.
No matter what Kyle Gabler, one of the two guys behind the project, was showing to me, the art direction and the music was simply terrific and spot on. The Wii version offers coop support for up to four players.
The game is content complete now and should be available rather sooner than later.