If the Twitterati were to be believed, the fate of the next console cycle was decided at 7:00pm pst last night. In their press event, Sony embraced indie developers, reassured us that there was no DRM scheme to limit used games on the PS4, teased an online cross-platform library powered by Gaikai, and announced a price point that was $100 cheaper than Microsoft's. Ouch.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around how Microsoft ceded the narrative to Sony so completely. I counted at least half a dozen people from my friends list (including members of this very community) who went and pre-ordered the PS4 shortly after the conference. Whatever momentum Microsoft had built through their games-heavy press event utterly evaporated by that evening.
Whatever the narrative may seem to be, it hasn't dampened enthusiasm for either console by any appreciable amount. When the doors opened to the hall this morning, the entry queue stretched out to the space between the LA Convention Center's main show floors. Convention-goers bumped elbows and clogged the walkways as they attempted to get hands-on time with either company's hardware. And the corporate mouthpieces faithfully soldiered on as if the other team weren't a few dozen feet from their doorstep. We're still interested in new toys, no matter how appealing (or abhorrent) the packaging may be.
I managed about 10 minutes with the new controllers. The Xbox One felt like a lighter version of the controller that I've grown comfortable with. No real surprises there. The PS4 controller, with its textured sticks, irritated my thumbs and caused me to adjust the way I held the gamepad. There really wasn't a way to gauge the new tricks packed into either yet, so my time was spent critiquing their aesthetics. I'll devote more time to them on Thursday.
Given that the spotlight was going to be on Microsoft and Sony, I decided to look at some of the lesser-known offerings found on the show floor this first day. I spent a good part of the morning looking at point-and-click adventure games. Daedalic Entertainment, a German publisher, is bringing three adventure games to the market this year: 1954 Alcatraz, Goodbye Deponia and Memoria. Deponia is the last chapter of a trilogy that follows Rufus, a hapless hero trying to get off of the junk-heap of a world he was born into. It's a decidedly humorous adventure, with brilliantly hand-drawn characters and backgrounds that feel like something born of the spirit of LucasArt's old efforts. Memoria spans five centuries, following the exploits of a rural farm-boy and an ancient warrior-princess as they each find ways to affect the world they live in. Memoria gets major points for featuring a female protagonist, even if she does split time with a male hero. Interestingly enough, his story is more local and contained, while her story is a grander, world-spanning epic. Memoria seems the more challenging of the bunch, with more intricate puzzles strewn about. Finally, 1954 Alcatraz centers around an inmate trying to find a way out of the notorious prison, while his wife avoids the mob and navigates the streets of 1950s San Francisco. As with Memoria, the story is split between a male and female lead: While the inmate faces many regulations and limits in Alcatraz, the wife is relatively free in the city. The game was still in an alpha state when I looked at it, so it still needs some time to bake, but the thought of exploring San Francisco and dealing in noir-ish tropes sold me on it.
Daedalic also has a single-player, turn-based tactical RPG coming to market: Blackguards. Based on the mechanics of The Dark Eye (a pen and paper system popular in Europe), Blackguards puts players into the role of an accused murderer. There's no sense of clear right or wrong in the world — even your allies come and go as their personal whims come into play — so it's perfect for someone looking to inhabit a world that's morally in the gray. There's a good deal of customization for characters that goes beyond the RPG norms, allowing one to change weapon behaviors and handling to fit playstyles. Multiplayer and a content-creation suite are in the works post-launch to keep players invested. All of Daedalic's games are digitally distributed, expected to hit by the end of the year, and are (for the moment) headed for the PC.
I also spent time with Focus Home Entertainment's Final Exam and Magrunner. Magrunner looks and plays like a mashup of Portal and Quantum Conundrum, with a dash of DOOM's space-based horror. You magnetically charge items to help solve puzzles. There's hints of Lovecraftian horror in the space program that you're involved with, perhaps with an Event Horizon-styled freakout concerning pierced veils and the limits of where man should tread. The demo didn't quite communicate that, but at it's a decent action puzzler for those that need a Portal fix.
Final Exam is a side-scrolling action title that throws teens against undead hordes. There's a decidedly cartoony style to the game, somewhat like TF2, that keeps it all from being another slog through zombie brains, along with a combo system that should promote friendly rivalry. Definitely a game I'd bust out with a friend.
Both Final Exam and Magrunner are cross platform (PC, 360 and PS3), so they'll be available in whatever flavor you prefer.
With a few hours left in the show, I wandered a bit. The Last of Us (PS3) makes the zombie apocalypse all about careful exploration — ammunition is scarce, and the world is filled with hostile survivors. Even small skirmishes feel important, in that way that System Shock 2 made you wary of encounters. I'm reminded of TellTale's dour environment in The Walking Dead, with Resident Evil's emphasis on conservation of resources.
Dragon's Crown (PS3, Vita) has all the usual Vanillaware flare, with a combat and item system that's reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow Over Mystaria.
Finally, I watched a group play through Super Mario 3D World (Wii U). If you've ever wanted to see what Super Mario Bros. 2 would look like as a multiplayer game, your question has been answered. Peach floats, Luigi kicks his legs, and Toad darts around like a speedy little demon, all in a cartoony world that seems tailor-made for parents to play with their children. SM3dWorld recalls the playfulness of Galaxy, the exploration of Mario 64, and the quirkiness of SMB2. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come for Nintendo this year.
[Ed. Note -- Title previously called Obscure changed to Final Exam at request of publisher.]