Tuesday, May 24, 2005

E3: Best of Show

I’m skipping around again, mostly because I can write this without going through ten pages of notes like the South/West Hall impression column requires.

I don’t think there’s any question that this show, in terms of games, was somewhat disappointing. Like Ben said, it’s the first time in many years that E3 has been focused on hardware, not software. It was also a banner year for derivative games, unfortunately. It was almost impossible to find anything truly original—actually, it was totally impossible. Spore is certainly original, but it was nowhere to be seen, or at least not by us.

I’ve got two categories to discuss. The first consists of games we actually saw in person at the show. Then I’m adding a second category out of the three gigs of videos I’ve watched in the last four days (thanks to http://www.gamershell.com/).

I’m not going to call these “best in show.” At a show where games are presented in so many different ways, that’s a meaningless term. So I’ve come out with my own too-lengthy category titles.

These are games we actually saw at the show.

5. Heroes of Might and Magic V (PC).
I know—I’m as shocked as you are
What did I see? A demo loop running on an LCD monitor. This was not the trailer now available online—at least, I don’t think it was.

Why did I like it? It looked “right.” There was a sense of style that was appropriate to the series—it was both striking and engaging.

4. Destroy All Humans (Xbox, PS2).
What did I see? Actual gameplay—the game was available for play in the Microsoft area.

Why did I like it? It was funny, the visuals were appropriately colorful, and did I mention that it was funny? This game has a terrific sense of camp and style, and given the weakness of games in general, I think it’s going to be a big hit when it ships next month.

3. The Movies (PC).
What did I see? I was lucky enough to get a fifteen minute demo in a one-on-one environment, because this was already one of my most-anticipated titles. As a very high-level description, The Movies combines gameplay elements from Tropico (individual personality of citizens), Theme Park (building your studio), and the Sims 2 (I swear the some of the character models looked almost identical—ugh), while adding a unique “movie maker” module that allows you to both film a scene and then edit it in post-production.

Why did I like it? The game is very striking in a “little world” sense, and I tend to find those kinds of games deeply engaging, at least for a while. I am absolutely confident that this game will be entirely fascinating for the first ten hours. The one question I have is whether it will stand up to thirty hours or more of play.

2. Shadows of the Colossus (PS2).
As a fairness disclaimer, I am hopeless biased in favor of this game, because ICO is one of best five games I ever played.

What did I see? A loop running on an LCD monitor. It was lengthy (several minutes), but I can’t remember if someone was playing or not, so I’m going to be on the safe side and say it was a loop.

Why did I like it? The scale of the world is sensational, and the visual continuity that was so totally captivating in ICO is still present here. The highlight of the footage I saw had the hero (who seems to resemble “realistic Link” quite a bit) climbing up a giant beast. He was climbing this beast by grabbing handfuls of hair and hauling himself up. It was mesmerizing, really. I fully expect this game to be a sensation when it ships in October.

1. Ghost Wars (PC).
What the? Hey, I’d never heard of this game, either. We were walking between halls and decided to go down a corridor that usually has a few of the smaller publishers. In this case, it was Hip Games, and even though I had NO idea what any of these games were, we went inside. At this point in the show, we’d seen absolutely jack. After several hundred games, we’d seen nothing that had really impressed us, and I’d just said something to that effect to Ben.

What did I see? About a ten minute gameplay tour with a very nice fellow who probably works on the game.

Why did I like it? This game is just beautiful. It’s stunning. The lighting effects, the environment details, everything—all fantastic. It’s a game about “simulating counter-terrorism actions,” and it’s primarily seen from the traditional ¾ RTS view. There are also first-person elements, though, including the ability to personally command a single unit during battle, and there are RPG elements as well (which was mentioned but never really explained). I don’t know if the gameplay will hold up, because it’s impossible to even sense that in an environment like this, but it was the only time I walked up to a PC game at the show and was shocked. In a good way, anyway.

One note: I generally don’t give a shit about #3 or #4 in a series. And I also generally don’t care about the game if it isn’t shipping until never.

Another note: To see the hi-res trailers of the Xbox 360 games, go here:http://www.gamershell.com/articles/912.html. That’s a full page of trailers. It also has a hi-res trailer for Oblivion.

8. Saint’s Row (Xbox360).
You’re just a local hood trying to make good. What separates this game from GTA is that it’s seemingly even more open ended—there are major objectives, but the path to achieving them is entirely flexible. And the wild card is that it’s being developed by Volition, who also developed Summoner, which was a terrific RPG and very underrated. Here’s a link to a preview (the available trailer at Gamespot is in low-res, high-rest available at Gamer’s Hell): http://www.gamespot.com/x360/action/saintsrow/index.html.

7. NHL2K6 (Xbox 360).
The finest continuing sports series makes its debut at 720p. I have no reason to think it will be anything less than absolutely stellar.

6. Gears of War (Xbox 360, PC).
The best Xbox 360 trailer of the show, at least to my eyes. Epic Games is the developer and the game looks absolutely stunning. Gamespot preview here:

5. Ghost Recon 3 (Xbox 360).
I’m sure there will be a PC version of this as well, but the 360 hi-res trailer was just shocking—tremendous animation, beautiful visuals, and an excellent design for getting information on-screen as an organic part of the game. Tremendous.

4. Alan Wake (PC, Xbox360, PS3).
A psychological thriller from Remedy, makers of the outstanding Max Payne series? You had me at “A.” This is another one of those games with an impeccable pedigree, and that’s a common theme of the games on this list. Every single game in this list except Chrome Hounds has an established pedigree of excellence.

3. Chrome Hounds (Xbox 360).
Wow. I saw this trailer as part of a compilation of Sega Xbox 360 footage (sorry, I don’t remember where I found the link). The trailer is composed of in-game footage, and it’s freaking fantastic. Giant, giant mechs, insanely detailed, with near-perfect animation. It’s slipped under the radar screen, for the most part, but this game has absolutely enormous potential.

2. Oblivion (Xbox 360, PC). We almost got in to see this demo (emphasis on “almost”), but just seeing the trailer is enough for me. Morrowind was a tremendous, incredibly thorough game, and it featured one of the most comprehensively created worlds I’ve ever seen. There is zero doubt in my mind that Oblivion will have that same comprehensive, thorough feel with some off-the-charts visuals. This is my early favorite for Game of the Year—the pedigree is just too strong to think anything else.

1. Final Fantasy (PS3).
One of the greatest role-playing series of all time now has a console that can fully realize its extraordinary striking graphical vision. Final Fantasy has always been my favorite series for imagination and beauty, and the trailer is astonishing—there’s no other word to describe it. When I said I wanted to stand up and cheer when I saw the trailer, I wasn’t joking.

Here are a few games that I think are worth watching, even though they’re much lower profile and haven’t attracted much attention up to now.

3. Jaws (every system in creation).
It’s a wonderful idea to be able to play as the shark, and just the fact that the same team that made the cuddly Ecco the Dolphin game is making this just cracks me up. And I thought it looked pretty sharp at the show, even though all we got was a very brief look.

2. Paraworld (PC).
A real-time strategy game that is highly stylized and very striking. Download the trailer at Gamer’s Hell and you’ll see what I mean.

1. Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Clue (PC, Xbox).
Very, very clever first person shooter. Eat someone’s brains and turn them into a zombie who will then fight for you. Since you’re a zombie, you can rip off your hand, throw it, and then control it to do all kinds of dastardly deeds. Plenty of B-movie humor, very over-the-top, and it looks unique compared to the hundreds of FPS clones we saw at E3.

As always, there are disasters at E3, full-blown abominations that are a shock to the system. If I listed all of these, they would run ten pages, but there were two games that particularly stood out this year.

2. Call of Ctulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Someone I highly respect had a lengthy guided tour of this game and came back horrified, but not for the right reasons. He’s highly respectful of H.P. Lovecraft, and the tour seemed to focus primarily on all the awesome guns that could be used. Turning a Lovecraft game into a first-person shooter: bad, bad idea. This game has been in development for almost five years now, and I think there’s a reason. Since I like Lovecraft, though, I hope I’m wrong.

1. Tabula Rasa
When we saw the plasma screen running the demo loop for Tabula Rasa, two things happened: we saw about five seconds of the gamepla

y, and we both shouted “Oh no!” at the
same. Why? Because Tabula Rasa looks like a cross between Halo 2 and Unreal 2. That’s not what I want from Richard Garriott. Does ANYBODY want that from Richard Garriott?

I lived and died with the Ultima series from IV on. Ultima IV was the first computer game I ever played—how lucky was that? I totally respect what Richard Garriott has meant to gaming, and whenever I see him, I still feel awed. At some point, though, people have to acknowledge that Ultima IX (a disaster) came out in 1999. It’s been a long, long time since he’s put out a great game, and in spite of what everyone else is saying, I don’t think Tabula Rasa is going to be one. I don’t even think it’s one of the best games at NCSoft—City of Heroes, Guild Wars, and Auto Assault all look more compelling to me.

Okay, that's it for now. I'll still have the South/West Hall impressions later and a few hopefully entertaining notes about the show itself.

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