gamescom 2010 - The Huggable One
I don't remember whether this was the 8th or 9th time that I attended the event that until 2008 was called simply “the Games Convention”. Either way, even with almost a decade of gaming-expo expertise, I never cease to be amazed by how even the cheapest and ugliest of branded keychains or other promotional items elicit such fights to the death among what scientists technically refer to as “The Unwashed Masses”. Unless we're talking about the Portal 2 shirt. That probably was worth breaking a neck or two. Swagstravaganza.
But yeah, let's talk about some actual hardware and software, shall we?
I can only add to what the GWJ crew also reported from Los Angeles: The 3DS looks like a very convincing product. Some may not like the price, which is rumoured to be at around $250 bucks according to the usual gossip and retail estimates. However, I haven't seen anyone who didn't compliment Nintendo on the main selling point of the handheld.
I played/checked out a few test demos such as the Resident Evil piece. I also tried out Nintendogs and Pilotwings. Like movies, software does not take advantage of the 3D effect equally. Pilotwings looked fine, but it seemed I wasn't missing a lot when I turned off the 3D. Nintendogs and the Legend of the Guardians trailer, on the other hand, were very impressive. Last but not least: The analog controller works really well.
Enslaved is being developed by Ninja Theory, and the knowledge they've acquired through their work on Heavenly Sword shows.
The combat system is well designed, and feels polished and gratifying even if you only use the basic attacks. The puzzle and platform elements don't hurt the experience either. The cutscenes are excellent—the motion-capture work, especially the facial mo-cap, was done very well, as were the character models and the voice acting. All that combined results in a convincing performance. Even though there was not a lot of interaction/dialogue between the two main protagonists—Monkey (the player) and Trip—in the first level, it was enough to get me interested in them. Looking forward to finding out how the rest of the story plays out. Enslaved also does benefit from an art direction that tries to deliver a somewhat more creative take on a post-apocalyptic scenario than other recent titles.
(Negligible) Nitpicks: The camera can be annoying at times and may or may not provide unfavourable perspectives. It can be manually adjusted, but sometimes that's part of the problem. Also, there are many smaller cutscenes to support the cinematic feel of Enslaved. I know that many people don't mind that at all. I, however, wouldn't have complained had there been fewer of them, as they tend to interrupt the flow for me.
I'm not a big fan of show awards, but if there were the category Most Huggable Game Designer of gamescom 2010, Eric Chahi probably would win.
I've seen many presentations at this year's gamescom, but regardless of the quality of the product, the people behind it often seemed to lack excitement for their own work. It's not that they don't care about it that much; I think they all do. It's probably them being too focused on following the presentation template that was built earlier and trying to dish out impressive numbers—or them being tired of giving the same demo and rushing through the very same bullet points again and again and again and again. Not to mention pre-show crunch times and jetlag taking their toll.
Chahi, however, just kept emitting vibes of enthusiasm all through his demo of From Dust, beaming all the way and wildly gesticulating. It was an almost infectious excitement. Think of him as Peter Molyneux sans the urges to overpromise, to talk too much without actually showing anything, or to say clever things like that a series will "inevitably wither" if a certain game doesn't sell more 5 million units. (I know that this can be quite the challenge.)
From Dust was originally announced at E3 2010. However, at that point, Ubisoft kept actual gameplay details under wraps. The project which is being developed by Ubisoft Montpellier is god game that follows the steps of Populous and mixes it with the elements of the physics in PixelJunk Shooter. The player has to take care of his tribe. There's no direct way to interact with your followers—you're meant to manipulate the environment just like you did in Molyneux's oldie.
It's possible to grab water, sand, 'nature' or lava by positioning the cursor and pushing the left trigger button. Pushing the right trigger button will release said material again. The team at Ubisoft Montpellier—about 20 developers—came up with a very powerful physics system to take care of all the things that can happen in the game—including proper fluid physics. Obviously enough, it's a lot more impressive if you see it in motion.
In the mission shown, one of my tribesmen crosses a river. This could be either done by using soil to dam up the water or sucking up the water so that the fella could pass through the riverbed. He then went on to a shrine, which unlocked a special power, which enabled the tribe to play music to summon a shield that allowed them to survive an incoming tsunami. Things are likely to be more complex later in the game, and there are more special powers to be granted through your people later in the game. According to Chahi you, for instance, might be able to manipulate even hard rock or pull the all the water present in the map at once.
Nature, as far as I understood, has two major functions: It can be home to specific types of animals that might be useful for the villages, and it also stops erosion. Change is a theme of the game, as are life and death. The name of the game certainly does not only refer to the manipulation of soil. Each member of the tribe and all plants have lifecycles. They will grow, age and die at some point. Same for the landscape, which simply evolves due to the elements working and your sculpting the environment.
I enjoy both god games as well as games heavily focused on a physics component that offers a certain degree of freedom, enabling the player to come up with multiple solutions. From Dust combines these elements, and I can already see myself spending hours just on creating experimental setups. The game will be released in March via XBLA, PSN, and Steam, and I expect it to be priced accordingly. So even if it were to deliver nothing but a few hours of experimental entertainment, I'd already have my money's worth.
I was looking forward to trying out Dance Central, since many people had been raving about it. Now guess which part of the booth had been shut down due to some hardware problem when I stopped by at Microsoft's place. I toyed a bit around with Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports, but could not participate in the games that required running motions or anything like that, thanks to my nice knee injury. That said, what I saw seemed pretty underwhelming. I'm sure there is exciting stuff to be done with Kinect, but just copying what's out there on the Wii surely didn't get me hyped. Microsoft staffers kept pointing to it going way beyond Wiimote/Nunchuck, the system delivering HD graphics, and it being a refined experience overall. I'm not really convinced that the audience they're going for will be impressed by or even acknowledge this technological superiority.
Speaking of technology: The lag is pretty noticeable. It was also apparent that the body tracking is not without flaws. For instance: In order to advance to the next screen after completing a sports game, you had to hold up both of your arms for one or two seconds. I've seen it more than once that the system didn't properly detect that at first, which resulted in the user trying it again and/or stepping closer to the camera. (Side note: I went to their booth right before the show ended on that day. There was hardly anyone else around, so there was next to nil interference.) A friend of mine had attended the official event Microsoft had staged on Tuesday and noted that the camera occasionally got distracted by a person in the background. Not to mention the "can't detect floor" error he encountered.
Kirby's Epic Yarn
Bloody epic indeed! I thought that Kirby's Epic Yarn was one of the most interesting things to come out of Nintendo's E3 press conference, and now that I've played it, I am completely sold. The game is so incredibly adorable that you might consider it the software equivalent to kittens.
The art direction is—dare I say?—absolutely brilliant. It's not just a visual gimmick; the fabric/yarn theme is finely woven (yes) into the game design. Regardless of whether you just pull some knob or wrap up a tree or some other structure—'fabric physics' is what you get. The challenges and resulting effects are imaginative and often surprising.
The action doesn't simply look superb though—it controls extremely well. Nintendo keeps being the king of the platform genre, and no one else nails down the controls the way they do. Never missed a jump, never missed a target with Kirby's “yarn whip”.
I played the game together with a friend, and I kid you not: We and all the other people in the room had a big stupid grin on our faces. And sometimes gaming is just about that big stupid grin.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Nintendo had dragged the E3 demo of their latest Zelda game to Cologne. The graphics look decent; the shading works well. There's some sort of pastel filter that blurs structures in the far distance. It fits, but can also be just as irritating to the eye as anything that incorporates artificial depth-of-field effects.
The controls require the user to have MotionPlus. The Wiimote motions are translated into the game—fairly quickly and accurately. The lag was minimal and certainly smaller than what I had seen in PlayStation Move games. (Let's not even talk about Kinect here.) While the sword follows your Wiimote, attacks can be classified as vertical, horizontal and jabbing motions. The type of attack naturally comes into play when you encounter enemies, e.g., the flesh-eating plant that can open its mouth vertically or horizontally and is only vulnerable to corresponding sword strikes. Shaking the nunchuck makes Link quickly equip his shield.
All in all, the controls feel very solid and more refined than in Twilight Princess. Based on the short encapsulated demo, it's impossible to judge the story or the changes to the standard game mechanics that Nintendo keeps promising. I've played and completed most Zelda games, but never made it very far in Twilight Princess. Mario Galaxy was a breath of fresh air for Nintendo's oldest mascot; I think it wouldn't hurt if they did the same with the Zelda formula which, in my very humble opinion, hasn't gone through a major evolutionary process since Ocarina of Time.
Firefly blames a lot of the problems with the recent Stronghold releases on the fact that they were working with their own (flawed) technology and also lacked experience in producing an actual sequel.
Stronghold 3 is set to follow Stronghold in terms of both gameplay and story. In order to avoid having to produce and develop their own technology and tools again, the studio licensed Trinigy's Vision engine.
One of the key changes: The building system is a lot more flexible now. Castle walls can have pretty much any shape you want. This was illustrated during the live demo through drawing some random shape onto the landscape. Other buildings can be rotated smoothly before you place them.
Firefly incorporated the Havok engine into Stronghold 3. Houses and other structures will get destroyed depending on how they were hit. Soldiers now dramatically fall off walls due to a new ragdoll system.
Another noteworthy addition would be the day/night cycle. The map is completely visible during daytime; at nighttime, however, it is covered with a fog of war. If you're paranoid about enemy movements, you can install and light beacons, send out a horseman with a torch, or have a catapult fire burning projectiles randomly or at whatever place you want it to aim at.
Stronghold 3 will be using Steamworks. Players will be able to place their castle via Google Maps widget. There are supposed to be both global and local rankings. Multiplayer is confirmed, but details will be announced in the near future.
Firefly’s changes and additions sound promising, and their demo was enough to get me into the right mood for the game again. It should also be noted that Stronghold 3 doesn't look quite as ugly as the first screenshots did.
P.S.: Yes, the cow catapult is back. You'll be able to use other animal species, such as sheep, too.
Torchlight perhaps was my favourite non-Plants vs. Zombies game of 2009. I was pleasantly surprised when Runic announced a sequel a few days before the show—even more so when I heard that it'd be shown there.
Torchlight II's biggest addition undoubtedly is the peer-to-peer multiplayer mode—a feature that was missing in the predecessor. Four to eight players will be able to team up; the final number is not set in stone at this point. Each player gets individual loot; items can be traded, of course.
You may remember that Runic originally wanted to work on a Torchlight-based free-to-play MMOG after finishing the original game. That project is still going to be made at some point, but right now the studio is completely focused on Torchlight II.
I asked Max Schaefer (CEO of Runic) about this, and he stated that, after the release of Torchlight, they noticed that people simply wanted to play with their friends instead of joining a full-fledged MMOG. Since Runic already knew the technology in and out at that point, it was decided that a straight sequel with an MP mode could be used as a weather balloon to test for bigger things to come.
Even if you don't care about the multiplayer component for some mysterious reason, there's enough new content in the game to get you hooked. Torchlight II offers four classes to choose from. The demo build included the Railman (tank-style engineer) and the Outlander (ranged skills). Unlike the predecessor, which had no customization options for the characters, the sequel lets you pick gender, face, hair, and hair colour. The basic stats/level-up system wasn't changed; there will be individual skill trees for the new classes, of course. In addition to the two pets from Torchlight (dog & cat), there'll be more pets available in the sequel, e.g., a ferret. Their stats will slightly vary.
The overworld is now a large, mostly randomly generated place with lots of exploration options, instead of only consisting of a sole village. It'll be filled with small events such as you running into a group of monsters that summon a mini-boss. There'll be side dungeons, too. Some of the enemies now can jump down from higher positions directly without having to look for a path.
To phrase it politely: The story wasn't the strongest part of Torchlight. Schaefer just nodded and grinned before noting that they've now hired a professional writer to take care of that. Runic also took a closer look at some of the things the community had developed so far. An example of that would be the respec potion mod, which turned out to be so popular that the developers probably will let the player respec right away without the need for a mod.
Most of the things Runic is promising were already incorporated in the version I got some hands-on time with at the show. Multiplayer could not be tested though, because there was only one PC (Schaefer's notebook) around. The game looks good and plays just as well as its prequel did. The user interface was slightly tweaked. For example, the pet inventory is now right next to your character's inventory. Also, the UI can be fully modded now. Spring can't come soon enough.
Prior to the appointment I had wondered about the price they'll be selling the game at now that it includes multiplayer. I expected a statement along the lines of "We're not talking about the price at this point." Funnily enough, Schaefer answered the question on his own before I could even ask it: They intend to sell Torchlight II at $20, just like the original game. According to him, there were some people who suggested raising the price by at least $10, but Runic feels confident that this should not be necessary.
The Witcher 2
The narrative of the Witcher 2 presentation at gamescom was pretty obvious: Build up some curiosity and skepticism by presenting some ballsy claims. And then deliver.
CD Project argued that they have the best-looking RPG out there—and undoubtedly, The Witcher 2 did look more impressive than any other RPG that's currently available or in the making. They were also one of only a few companies that didn't mind people recording the footage. That's how confident they are. A few more stats: 150 minutes of cutscenes, three game openings, 16 endings.
Once again quests can be solved in different ways, depending on the players' preferences and previous actions. The prison escape scene that was shown played out differently depending on how sneaky/aggressive Geralt was, as well as on whether he had killed a particular NPC earlier. The combat system looks smoothed, but is not finalized yet. I've heard that they're using some mo-cap data for the game that was originally supposed to be incorporated into the cancelled console version of the sequel.
The presentation ended with a really atmospheric boss fight. You can watch it, thanks to the power of the internet, but let it be known that it looks pretty great when you see it on a big screen with HD resolution.