Wednesday, May 17, 2006

E3 Data Dump: Part Whatever

Okay, here are the game-specific E3 impressions. I'm writing this totally out of order, of course, because I left off with the major theme column yesterday, but I'm just trying to dig out any way I can, so here goes.

Here's what you'll notice about E3 every year, although this year it seemed even worse: lots and lots of games look like lots and lots of OTHER games. We skipped (literally) hundreds of games because they looked just like something else. As an example, if it was an FPS set in WWII, we ran. The most common phrase between us was "That looks good--and I've already played it a hundred times." That, unfortunately, seems to be the trend. That's also why the Wii demos seemed so cool in comparison--they were a huge gust of fresh air. Like I said, there will be a ton of crap game for the Wii, but the games that use the controller well are just going to be a blast to play. I’ve really cracked on Nintendo for being downright bizarre at times, but they’re going to blow people away this time.

Guitar Hero 2
Hey, it's the most important game of the show for me. I played the new 2-player mode with Ben within thirty minutes of arriving, with the sound cutting out periodically, in a noisy environment, with bad lighting, on a small screen--and it still felt perfect. Again.

I played War Pigs with Ben (on Hard difficulty level) in the new multiplayer mode. Finished the song in the green, thanks very much. One player plays bass/rhythm, the other player plays lead. Each player can also select their difficulty level. And it's now possible to fail the song in this mode, unlike the first game. If you're wondering how much of a difference it makes to each be playing separate tracks, it makes a huge difference. The mode had a totally different feel, much closer to the level of immersion you feel in single player mode.

And now there are three note chords. That was also very cool.

I think that one of the big reasons this game feels so perfect is that the transcription from song into notes to play is so carefully done and feels so "right." And it still felt like that. The game ships in November, it will sell a jillion copies, and I'm glad. I hope that we get to play so many versions of this game that eventually, years down the road, we can all say that we're sick of it. That's going to take a long, long time, though.

We also went by the Red Octane booth and I shook hands with two booth dudes and thanked them for making a great game. We missed Shaimus by one day--they performed at the booth on Friday.

Xbox 360
Here's the one sentence summary for Microsoft: a TON of games, a wide variety, and lots and lots of eye candy. I saw ONE game on the 360 that looked sub-standard--F.E.A.R., surprisingly. Almost everything else, though, looked excellent.

Microsoft had a unique and very effective booth setup. There was an interior, circular hub with seats and stations to play. Each system was linked to two LCD's--one on the inside of the hub facing the player, and one on the outside facing the audience. Great setup--while you were playing, you could concentrate, and while you were watching, you could see.

Chrome Hounds looked excellent (again), although the environments I saw were very simple. I'm a complete sucker for mech games, though, so I'm all in.

Dead Rising is, on the surface, a wonderful idea. What's not to like about battling hordes of zombies in a mall? And it looks fantastic. But after about fifteen minutes I think it's going to be boring as hell. I've read other impressions that were highly positive, so I hope I'm wrong.

Moto GP 06 looked absolutely phenomenal--every bit as good, to my eyes, as Gran Turismo 4. There's also a demo available now on the Marketplace.

Huxley looks "really good"--sorry, that was the full extent of the note.

I didn't actually play Viva Pinata--just saw a looping video on a wall--but anyone thinking this game is going to tank is in for a big surprise. It has all the elements of a game that's going to be very, very addictive, and I think it's going to move a huge number of units.

I wasn't really interested in 99 Nights, but there were at least ten display units for the game and ever single one of them was jammed, which must be a good sign.

Splinter Cell: Double Agent was one of the best-looking 360 games I saw. Just the parachuting sequence alone (you'll be jumping into missions, apparently) was fantastic. Ben saw a sequence where you could swim under ice, break through the ice, and off someone. Very, very impressive. In this environment, some games just give you a good vibe right away, and this was one of those games.

The 2K sports games, as always, looked impressive. NBA2K7 looked particularly fantastic, although they seem to have amped up the on-court lighting effects in terms of reflections and colored lights from the scoreboard, and it actually looked TOO busy to me. 2K designs great games--the X-factor is always whether you can work around the inevitable features that just don't work properly.

I was talking to Ben about NHL2K7, which looked "nice," and I mentioned that what they should do is totally scrap the skating animations and start over from scratch, because skating was the foundation of the game. Later, I saw an article that said they'd done just that, and I hadn't even noticed the difference. Oops.

F.E.A.R., surprisingly, looks like ass on the 360. Really, really disappointing, and far inferior to the PC version. Sierra had another 360 game on display (Sorry, I've forgotten which one), and it looked weak as well.

Madden looked like Madden. They had PS3 and 360 versions running within about fifty feet of each other and they looked absolutely identical. Oh, and the field textures for Madden look horrific--they are so overemphasized that they looked totally wrong.

NCAA 2007, on the other hand, was really a pleasant surprise. The animation isn't on par with Madden (it never is), but it was much improved from last year's Xbox version. The fields and stadiums look terrific, and they looked more visually cohesive than any other sports game I saw, if that makes any sense. I have zero faith in EA Sports at this point, but NCAAA is going to look very, very good.

We actually went to the Sony booth as the first thing we did when we entered the show. That's how much I wanted to see the PS3 games. And they looked very good--but no better than the 360 games, at least not to me. Sony used some high-end plasmas to display their games, while Microsoft used smaller LCD's that weren't adjusted nearly as well, but when games were showing on the same displays (Madden, for example), they were indistinguishable.

Like I said previously, a lot of games at E3 look like a lot of other games. And the games on display on the floor for PS3 in the Sony are looked so much like existing games that it was a contest to identify the clone.

Gundam Mobile Suit? Looks great. Also looks exactly like Chrome Hounds.

Resistance? Looks great. Also looks exactly like Call of Duty 2 (although the story arc is supposedly quite different)

Genji 2? Looks great. Also looks exactly like Dynasty Warriors.

Heavenly Sword? Looks great. Tekken 5, anyone?

Gran Turismo 4? Really, really looked great. Also looked no better than Project Gotham Racing 3, although they didn't look identical.

These games aren't really exact visual clones, but as soon as I saw a game I thought of another one instead. That's a problem. I expected Sony to have at least one game that looked unique or at least striking.

Warhawk 2? I can't remember what it looked exactly like, but I do remember that I was really unimpressed.

All of these games seemed to be taking place in worlds that had very low-object environments. That's a common trick for an E3 demo, but this machine is supposed to be substantially more powerful than the 360. I think it's safe to say that either
--it's not more powerful, or the additional power won't be tapped by programmers for a while, or
--developers are even farther behind schedule than we thought.

As I've mentioned, I did see PS3 Madden in the EA "bowl." It was about fifty feet away from the 360 version, and they were showing on the same displays, so it was an apples to apples comparison.

I saw three games, in particular, that looked fantastic on the PC.

World in Conflict, which is being made by the same developers of the innovative Ground Control, looked spectacular. Both Ben and I were blown away by the level of detail in the world. It is, of course, not shipping until next year.

Crysis was also stunning. The jungle foliage and the level of detail was astonishing. I'd heard people talking about the game and convinced myself that it couldn't look THAT good--but it did.

Here's the surprise: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic looks GREAT. It was just absolutely stunning. For me, that was the single biggest game surprise of the show. I don't know what I expected, but I sure as hell didn't expect what I saw. Fantastic.

For me, the most interesting PC game of the show was Paraworld. It's made by SEK, a smaller developer (which I naturally identify with), it has unique subject matter (including freaking dinosaurs, which look fantastic), and they've done a wonderful job of designing a powerful and flexible user interface that addresses many of the traditional control weaknesses of RTS games. I'm writing a large follow-up just for the game, because we had a long session with the developers (including DQ reader Julian Dasgupta). I will say this, though: their control scheme is so good that playing other RTS games feels incredibly clunky and awkward in comparison.

It was a strange show this year. Other than the Wii and Paraworld, almost nothing surprised me, and that was a disappointment. Some people go to E3 to see 500 games. I go to see 5--the 5 I weren't expecting. I really didn't see them this year. Although I think when I look back a few years from now, having been able to test the Wii is going to be a favorite moment, because that system is going to be a landmark. I'll write more about that tomorrow, I hope.

I didn't mention Kentia Hall this year because it's just not Kentia anymore. It was always my favorite hall, filled with Korean developers promoting totally incomprehensible MMO's and the strangest assortment of vendors you could ever imagine. And while it was a strange assortment, there were also a ton of nice people, and I very much enjoyed talking to them. This year, though, within thirty seconds of walking into the hall, Ben said "What happened?" Kentia had a totaly different feel to it this year--much more hurried, much more mainstream, much more--normal.

I know that had to happen eventually, but I'm still sorry it did.

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