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E3 2010

E3 2010

I went to my first Electronic Entertainment Expo this year. Los Angeles was loud, slow and relatively cold, with only the rioting Lakers fans generating some excitement outside of the show. I don’t much care for the city. We stayed in Santa Monica, which is a lot nicer, but the over one-hour transits on the freeway to pretty much anywhere begin to grate in no time at all.

As for the show proper, there were definite highlights and definite disappointments.

Bad: Front Mission Evolved

I am a sucker for mecha and I’m sad to say that it looks like there’s no way I’ll be picking up Front Mission Evolved, not unless it comes with Front Mission 3. Everything from the handling to the setting to the mech designs and animation was seriously lacklustre. It’s a shame.

Bad: Twisted Metal

The new Twisted Metal looked like it was from the previous generation. Barebones arenas with little effects or satisfying destruction going on, it feels like it’s trying to ride on its bygone charms alone.

Bad: MotorStorm Apocalypse

MotorStorm Apocalypse in 3D should have been a wild ride, but turned out to be a poor framerate show of questionable worth. Some of the rollercoaster pacing was spot on, but overall I wasn’t impressed at all. The story mode does sound intriguing, though, and I’ve been expecting them to deliver on the initial promise of the franchise for three games now. Still one to watch.

Bad: 3D | Good: Nintendo 3DS

Speaking of 3D, I am not impressed. Some of the games are nice enough, but they really need to be 60 FPS to work. Super Stardust HD and Gran Turismo 5 are probably the best examples so far. But you won’t see me wearing a pair of glasses.

Which is one of the main reasons that the Nintendo 3DS was so impressive. No glasses required, great 3D effect, some great demos. Pilotwings was the best one. I am likely going to finally upgrade my DS Phat. Sony and Apple have some catch-up to do!

Bad: movement

Both Microsoft Kinect and Sony Move failed to generate much buzz. Not very surprising as there were no proper games on show. Out of Kinect only Ubisoft’s yoga exercise program and Harmonix’s Dance Central seemed to interest people. Somebody did mention Kinectimals in a positive manner, but that’s about it. I didn’t see anything I would’ve been interested in on Move.

Bad: Epic Mickey

Epic Mickey was featured in a major way, with a huge booth, plenty of demo pods and live performances. Too bad the actual gameplay failed to interest at all. It doesn’t help that it’s on the Wii – the lack of HD is beginning to really hurt Wii. (Some of the Nintendo booths did have very high quality visuals, though, I can’t figure out how they did that.) When it looks and feels like a barebones platformer, it’s hard to get that much into it. But then it might be a game which just needs more time than what you get at an expo.

Good: Dance Central

Kinect was going to play host to a good dance game and I’m super glad that it’s Harmonix doing it. I am a Rock Band fanboy and in my eyes Harmonix can do no wrong. There was a very nice buzz to the title. It feels like a title I might have to get and it’s the only Kinect game which felt like a potential system seller to me. But that’s mainly due to Harmonix’s pedigree, too early to say how it’s going to properly work. But four friends dancing together and Harmonix’s taste in music – it probably can’t go wrong.

Good: Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2

Need For Speed has been on the wane for years now, the golden days of Underground and the original Hot Pursuit a fading memory. EA has now put Criterion on lifeguard duty and what do you know – returning to Hot Pursuit, the game the fans have been crying out for for years now, seems to work. The game mechanics aren’t quite there yet, but it sure looks and feels nice. The handling isn’t as twitchy as Burnout, but a huge improvement over the previous NFS titles nevertheless (Shift excluded). The simple cops versus racers scenario just works.

Super good: Vanquish

Game of the show for me was Platinum Games’ Vanquish. Whereas Tecmo Koei’s Quantum Theory looks like a poorly deconstructed rip-off of Gears Of War, Shinji Mikami’s new title is Gears on amphetamine. It’s a sci-fi third person shooter, but this kind of speed and spectacle is not on offer anywhere else. Apparently the section on display was the first level of the game and I find it very hard to imagine the action becoming even more intense later on. Everything in the game is a sci-fi off-white, and yet it looks more spectacular than anything else on show. Certainly the days of Japanese developers not being able to wring power out of the current-gen consoles are over.

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Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain

The bar has been raised.

There’s been a lot of discussion on Heavy Rain. It’s deserving of all the talk.

Heavy Rain proves that A) you can actually do movie style, down to earth drama in videogames, and that B) the videogame part of the equation is valuable.

I have often wondered why there are no adventure games where you would “solve problems” by making decisions and talking with people instead of hunting for suitable items. This is the way you usually solve problems in the real life and by extension, in movies. Heavy Rain proves that it’s possible. You can do meaningful human drama without any fantasy crutches. It’s still a story about a Hollywood-style serial killer, but I can see that Heavy Rain’s character-based drama could work with any type of drama you might expect from the movies. In itself, this is a major breakthrough for videogames.

Some have said that Heavy Rain could just do without the player controls, as it can feel like you’re just going through the motions of “controlling” the characters. First, this is false as the story can and does take different turns based on your actions and second, it’s all in your head. If you decide that this is something you’re not interested in, well, then changing the baby’s diaper or sitting at a table, depressed, are unlikely to provide you with anything you might enjoy. If you do buy into the drama and go under the skin of the lead characters, you’ll find a very, very engaging experience. I found the many tense scenes in Heavy Rain far more engaging, more exciting, more scary than anything I can recall from other games.

Going through the motions of controlling these often very mundane things the characters do, like turning door knobs, brushing your teeth, deciding to take another drink, and so on, really makes you relate to the characters and immerse (yes, there’s that word) yourself in the story. This makes the admittedly very barebones, if competently told, Hollywood story much more interesting than what it would be, seen as a movie.

Also the whole notion of “movie-like” games has been now validated. Done properly, cinematography rules work in a game context. No other game has taken these nearly as close to heart as Heavy Rain, and it’s much better for it. Lots of points for the courage to throw videogame plot exposition conventions out of the window, as well. The story often cuts to a new scene without lingering and lets the audience fill in the blanks. It all feels very natural.

Heavy Rain is one of the very few games I would call mature. Can I please have more? I am only worried that we have to wait until Quantic Dream’s next game before we see the envelope pushed even further. I hope that the sales convince publishers that more mature games for increasingly mature audiences are warranted.

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The best of 2009

My 10 best games of 2009
My 10 best games of 2009

For the most of 2009 I spent my gaming time playing games from 2008 – Far Cry 2, Fable II, Rock Band 2, lots of cheap PSP & DS titles, Company Of Heroes, Dawn Of War (the first one) – but I thought it could be fun to put together a list of what was the best 2009 had to offer. For future reference, see.

I have not played many of the big hitters of 2009 so there’s bound to be holes, but these days, gaming is too big a pastime for one man to wholly take in with his free time (and income). Major omissions include Halo: ODST, Modern Warfare 2, Resident Evil 5 and Dragon Age: Origins, to name a few.

My ten best games of 2009:

  1. Space Hulk (board game)
  2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I haven’t written about Rocksteady’s phenomenal take on Batman (because I’ve been too busy playing it), but it ranks as one of my all-time favorite games. Play it.
  3. Demon’s Souls
  4. GTA Chinatown Wars (DS)
  5. Shadow Complex
  6. Torchlight. I’ve been playing this for most of the holidays, it’s crazy good. Too bad about the lack of variety and the still missing multiplayer.
  7. Killzone 2
  8. Plants Vs Zombies. This Popcap title stole a ridiculous amount of time this year. Probably the best value for money all year. [Update April 2018: looks like the original isn’t available anymore. This Flash version looks like it might work:]
  9. Street Fighter IV
  10. Rock Band Unplugged

I’m surprised by how many “small” games there are – mobile games and cheap PC games. Remarkably, the only one I was looking forward to before it hit was Killzone 2, the rest of these have been more or less very happy surprises.


Demon’s Souls

Demon's Souls
Demon's Souls

I picked up Demon’s Souls for the PlayStation 3 from the friendly guys over at GameStop Santa Monica while visiting LA a month ago. It’s the only game I was looking forward to import, because I reckon it’ll be a while before it sees a European release, if ever. I have since put in more time into it than with many games I’m already done with (20+ hours), and I have barely scratched the surface.

Demon’s Souls is a third person action roleplaying game. You portray a brave warrior who wonders into a demon-infested land and attempts to purge it. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Nethack and other roguelikes in its uncompromising handling of the player and the need to very carefully tread a little bit further into the darkness on subsequent goes, after you’ve died quickly and messily upon stepping into something you’re not familiar with. I am really surprised at how well it’s been received, considering that it really goes out of its way to shove off newcomers.

In addition to Nethack, it reminds me of the phenomenal original Xbox title Otogi, although it isn’t as beautiful or over the top. There’s the structure of exploring new monster-inhabited lands and revisiting them to uncover secrets and the variety of foes and play styles you need to explore to be victorious. This is not surprising considering that they’re both From Software titles.

The game is all about making you work for it. Most likely you will die upon finding something new. When you die, you respawn at the beginning of the level as a phantom with only half of your health bar. You lose all your accumulated souls – combined experience points and currency, gained by slaying demons – upon death. If you manage to reach your bloodstain before dying again, in your weakened state, you’ll regain the souls you lost. You only get your body and your full health bar back upon vanquishing a greater demon boss. The outcome is that you spend the majority of your game as a phantom. If you do manage to play with your body intact, another player can invade your game and kill you, taking your souls!

The whole online aspect of the game is draconian, utterly foreign in how hard it is to understand how it works. Under certain circumstances, you can invite other players into your game to help you out. Under other circumstances, you can invade the games of others to hunt them down. You can also leave messages to other players to help them out in their games, warning them of traps and notifying them of treasures… or leading them astray with lies. The initially most intriguing aspect is touching the bloodstains of other players, which then plays back their last seconds before their death as ghostly apparitions in your world.

Despite bracing myself for a challenge, I was initially frustrated with the game, because over twelve hours, I just couldn’t make progress beyond level 1-2. I died something like 50-100 times. I begun to wonder that either this is way too hardcore for me or I’m doing something really wrong. It turned out I shouldn’t have picked the character class of Knight I initially went with, foolishly thinking it would be a safe, straightforward choice. I read some FAQs and message boards and discovered the Royal class, dubbed the “unofficial ‘easy’ mode”. This is so true I can’t emphasize it enough. After restarting as a Royal, I breezed through the first three levels in 90 minutes, dying only twice. (This is because he has a very useful magic attack and a ring to regenerate magic points with.)

Very soon after that, things turned hard again. You need to understand that the game’s five worlds are not supposed to be tackled linearly. You dip your feet into 3-1, discover that it kills you within a minute, and try 4-1 on for a size. You discover some great loot there, barely hanging onto your life, and figure out a way to take on 3-1 with your newfound abilities. It continues to go back and forth like that – you wander into the unknown, find something new, and think of a way it could help you elsewhere. Loot has never felt so good as with Demon’s Souls.

Unforgiving, uncompromising, a harsh lover; this is the most unique game on the PlayStation 3, and right up there with Uncharted on the (short) list of reasons to get a PS3 instead of an Xbox 360.

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Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

Here’s a sequel I did not expect to see. I really liked the original and I’ve been meaning to go back to it.

It’s great to see that Eidos and Io are ready to go at it again, despite the somewhat lukewarm reception of the original game. We’ll see if they can polish the gameplay and take the narrative even further.

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Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3 on Game Informer cover
Max Payne 3 on Game Informer cover

Alright, you have my attention now. I have faith in Rockstar delivering a sequel of the highest calibre, but Remedy’s style was always a tough act to follow up on. Maybe it’s now been long enough to kickstart the series again.

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Warhammer 40’000: Space Marine

Warhammer 40'000: Space Marine
Warhammer 40'000: Space Marine

Warhammer 40’000 is all about violent action and it’s something of a wonder that its rich universe hasn’t spawned any decent action games. I haven’t played the 2003 title Fire Warrior, but the word is not in its favor. Relic has been very good to the licence with its Dawn Of War series and I greet the news of them doing an action-RPG about the Space Marines with fanboyish excitement. The trailer is really very good.

I am still left wanting for a modern strategy game take on the franchise – Dawn Of War is too wrapped in RTS tropes to really scratch that Total War itch I have. I’d settle for a turn-based version, I think.

I dream about getting to make a great Warhammer 40’000 videogame.


Far Cry 2

I completed Far Cry 2 yesterday. I did not expect to get that far, much less complete the game very nearly 100%. I think I missed a single cellphone tower contract and two Jackal tapes. (Those I blame on bad design.)

Far Cry 2 took a long time to grow on me. In essence, the game never did, but its portrayal of Africa did, and in a huge way. I was constantly hoping that there was something else to do here, in this grand open world, full of life and character, than just shoot people.

The true western citizen that I am, I resorted to collecting stuff to keep myself busy. Printing out a map from the Internet, I set out to collect every last one of the 221 diamond cases, scout every guard post and unlock every safe house and collect all the weapons and their upgrades. I ended up using perhaps three guns out of the couple of dozen. It was great fun. I wouldn’t have done it without the hard copy map, though. Sure, the GPS mechanic was meant for that purpose, but it wasn’t easy enough.

After I had collected everything I wanted, I contemplated just letting the game be, but ended up playing through the story anyway, uninspired as it was in its beginning steps. It suffers from repetition and very limited interaction (kill/blow up, with very few exceptions), but there’s something interesting happening between the lines. The team has set its sights a lot higher and all the characters feel like there’s supposed to be more. More interaction, more things to do. But it never materializes. Almost until the very end of the game, all you get is a couple of cool scenes and lots of nice locations and endless long-distance engagements with guard posts.

Then something happens, as the plot starts to veer towards its climax. The game shows its hand. All this time, you’ve been acting like a nondescript FPS mercenary on a mission – you don’t have a face, you’re two hands holding a gun – and suddenly you’re supposed to care, put your actions into context, make a moral standing. This is very difficult considering how little exposition the characters, let alone yourself, have got. It seems obvious that all the character and plot support that was supposed to be there just isn’t, and all you’ve got is a plea to care. I answered that and cared, but I imagine that most people won’t.

The last couple of scenes, with the clumsy but powerful alliance with a former enemy, the betrayal of former friends (I was actually hurt“Surely not you, too?!”) and the sacrifice to effectively make your actions in the game void – it’s very potent stuff and something which just could’ve been so much more.


Killzone 2

Helghan APC papercraft
Helghan APC papercraft

Helghan APC papercraft, instructions
Helghan APC papercraft, instructions (page 2/12)

I’ve played through 28% of the singleplayer campaign on Veteran difficulty and three hours online. Statistics thanks to the excellent So not all that much into it yet, but I’m liking it so far.

The reason I haven’t played more is that it’s so intensive. I like the feeling of the combat in the campaign, as you really need to fight for every inch and push as hard as you can to make headway. Some encounters I’ve replayed dozens of times to get through, and it’s something I’ve longed for ever since playing the original Halo on Legendary. Killzone’s combat is not as refined, but it’s good – and crucially, not frustrating. (Save for the goddamn RPG troopers.)

But after an hour and probably an encounter or two cleared, I’m feeling short of breath and overexcited. That’s when the multiplayer experience, dubbed Warzone, comes in. I usually find online games rather too exciting, but with Killzone, it’s the other way around. It feels like a blend of Battlefield with its 32 player games and Call Of Duty (4) Modern Warfare with its tight, quick games.

There are three things I really like about Warzone.

First is the scale of things. Console online has not really done 32 player games before, or at least I haven’t come across any, and that just feels so much busier and more interesting than what I’ve used to.

Second is the game mode – there is just one, and it rotates different goals during the match, typically every five minutes. It keeps the player base focused, in one place and the action dynamic. So you go from search and destroy to defending against assassination to capturing and holding areas.

Third is the progression mechanic. You get points for playing well and those points give you rank. Rank gives you benefits. I have my sights set on some of the goodies coming down the line – I have a goal beyond winning this round. This is just critical for me to enjoy an online game. My time has to go toward something.

What I don’t like is that it looks like that if the connection is broken or I have to stop playing during a match (which can take half an hour), I’m not getting any of my accumulated points. Surely they should update the points right away, only counting the multipliers and ribbons at the end of the match.

Also, the unlockables rewarded for collecting Helghan intel in the campaign? Pretty cool stuff. Propaganda poster, wildlife guide, food preparation guide, mask maintenance instructions and papercraft thus far. The only lame item is the strategy guide excerpt.


Killzone 2 Battle Replay

Right, now I’m really bummed that Play didn’t deliver my preordered copy Killzone 2 on Friday. The battle replays take a while to load, but it’s fascinating stuff. I want one of these for every multiplayer game I’m going to play from now on.