E3: A look back on Day Three

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Day Three was a relaxed day for us. Only a handful of appointments and the crowds were a little thinner as quite a few people decided to head home once they’ve gotten their fill of news. I don’t blame them. My feet at this point were turning to mush from all of the standing and walking, but the end was in sight. Almost. Today was a catch up day for anything interesting that I wanted to see for myself so we weren’t under any pressure to run from one booth to the other.

Then again, the Lakers were defending their title at the Staples Center that evening making getting out early something of a priority. When Angelinos tell you to go home instead of hanging around to see burning taxis win or lose, it’s probably good advice.

EA’s booth hummed with a ton of activity, though you could tell that many of those there were grateful that this was the last day of the convention. Lines formed in front of the games that I wanted to check out that day: Crysis 2, Dead Space 2, and Bulletstorm. Red had already told me a bit about it from yesterday that if there is anything that I should play, it’s the newest from People Can Fly (Painkiller) and Epic Games (Gears of War, Unreal Tournament III).

As more of a side note, outside of the officially released pics for their games, EA (and most everyone at E3 who did “closed door” presentations), forbade picture taking which is why you’ll find a picture of this instead.

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When we finally entered the room, we were treated to a briefing video sketching out the controls for us and the creative ways in which we can score points. Bulletstorm’s points are awarded for how stylish your kills are and which can be used for a variety of weapon upgrades. This also turns a regular FPS run’ n gun into an addicting hunt for more bad guys to skewer.

The weapons also do their part in helping to design the best deaths that your trigger figger and fevered imagination can paint the screen with. With a lash-like whip, you can snap enemies towards you and into the air in slow motion, allowing for a few seconds of sadism to decide whether kicking your victim into a giant cactus is more fun than in wrapping them with an explosive bolo first before giving them the boot.

We were finally given the chance to try the game out and the demo was based on the level that the clip circulating in the wild had shown off. Stranded on a wild planet after taking a shot at revenge in space, you and your AI led friends have to survive long enough to find a way off. The bad news is that there are plenty of bad guys that have made this abandoned colony of overgrown ruins their home. The good is that each one of them is an opportunity to flex your creativity.

The action felt fluid, though getting used to the controls took a minute or two. Working in combos of death dealing moves to score also took a little practice, but once I played around with the whip and got better at mixing things up with the bolo and the boot, things started to come together. Instead of thinking that I have to grind through another group of AI, I was busy trying to figure out what I hadn’t tried out yet. Explosive environmental traps and even special hotspots (such as a groin shot) all contributed to how your score can multiply. Even a mid-level boss had his own special spot to shoot him through once he had been softened up for even more points.

Making it to the end, we witnessed the giant plant boss which indicated the end of the demo. I managed a decent score which put me at the top, joining my brother who did the same the day before, but I was hooked. It’s strange how a scoring and upgrade system can change the way an FPS can feel. It’s not so much like Borderlands since it isn’t focused on being as open, but its single-minded pursuit of rewarding creative destruction has made me a believer in what it can do to make the FPS interesting again.

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Next up was Visceral’s Dead Space 2. The demo took place inside a room made up like a chapel complete with pews and a Unitology comic for the taking and before long, we were staring at Isaac’s familiar shoulders as he trudged through the crypts of the Unitology Church on Titan. Aside from the typical scares involving monsters that leap out of cryo tubes or around corners, we were introduced to the puker necromorph. And yes, hitting it with stasis in mid hurl results in slow motion puke ejecting itself through the air. The art director for Dead Space 2, Ian Milham, smiled as he looked over the room while relating to us the amount of concept art for undigested projectiles that he had to go through to get it just right.

It was sometime into the demo, though, that E3 suffered a slight brown out that killed the system running the demo, forcing it to restart. EA’s team got everything back up and running including the sound which didn’t want to work at first. During the downtime, Ian answered a few questions but couldn’t tell us as much as we obviously wanted. Asteroids were mentioned, fan fury was referenced, but Ian could only say that more info will come out later whether similar “mini-games” will actually make it in.

But I got the impression that Visceral takes everyone’s opinion into account, so I’m willing to go out on a limb here and guess that we won’t be shooting rocks in space anymore. And though multiplayer was confirmed, not much more could be said about it yet. After everything was back up and running, they gung ho’ed through the demo up until the point where everything had died and showed off what else lay beyond Unitology’s frosty crypts.

The new game takes place in a city on Titan, the site of the first planet crack and where a new Necromorph outbreak has surfaced leaving Isaac to figure out just what is going on. There’s also more of an emphasis on Isaac as an engineer with puzzles promising to use his unique skills in creative ways to get around the infested city. We saw some of this as Isaac rewired and then repaired a gravity generator.

We also witnessed his knack for survival when a gunship appeared outside a viewing room window and blew through it with its guns, sucking the air out and forcing Isaac to hang onto floor plating against a decompression hurricane. A huge Necromorph appeared, was sucked into the vacuum and pulled Isaac out into space towards the gunship. While Isaac grappled for dear life on the rear end, the Necromorph started tearing it apart sending everyone crashing down into the city, finishing off the demo.

Ian had joked that Dead Space 2‘s awesomeness had caused the blackout, that E3 couldn’t handle it, calling it an “awesomeout” instead. It cut out at a key part in the demo and I thought they intentionally shut the game down to avoid revealing too much. But from what we were shown and how fun the first game was, I wouldn’t doubt that there might be some truth to it.

The work-in-progress PC version of Crysis 2 was also being shown off behind closed doors, continuing the story of Nomad and humanity’s efforts to save their world from an alien invasion with NYC serving as the front line…or their last stand. The devs were tight lipped about system requirements, though, saying that they weren’t “determined” yet, but the visuals (including familiar sights such as the Pan Am building and Grand Central Station), were active set pieces in bringing the alien wrought shock and awe to life. There were a few points where the demo froze up for a second or so but the rest of the performance was silky smooth despite how much crazy action was onscreen.

This was more of a straightforward demo showing off part of a mission in NYC along with a few new enemies. The aliens from the last game? They’re on foot now in exoskeletons, some of which are hulking power suits that can take some serious punishment before they even notice you’re scratching the chrome. After showing a little of the human element being worked into the story with civilians begging the military to hang back for a few minutes while they save loved ones as a towering skyscraper falls from above, it’s clear that Crytek is aiming squarely at improving both the action and the way it can convey a story. I just hope that my PC can actually boot the thing when it arrives.

After EA, I wandered on over to WB booth where they had gone all out with their Lego display for Traveler’s Tales’ Harry Potter: Years 1-4. There was a Lego station where visitors could mix and match parts to create their own little Lego guys along with the Harry Potter crew in block form.

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WB’s multi-platform tie-in game for Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s Quest, was also on display looking at lot better than its initial debut at last year’s E3. It also didn’t have to compete against Batman: Arkham Asylum this year and it looks like it will give LOTR fans something new to look forward to.

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WB also had Super Scribblenauts out for play. Boasting better controls, the sequel will also make use of adjective strings to create even more bizarre solutions to the puzzles in the game. For example, one of these was in trying to turn a man into a dragon by feeding him special potions such as a “fire breathing potion” and a “scaley potion”. In sandbox mode, I created a pink Cthulhu to go head to head against an angry orange koala. Despite its fury, the koala predictably lost to the Great Old One.

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THQ’s booth went all out this year with a number of attractions to get people excited for their titles. Warhammer 40K is getting its own MMOG which sounds like it could be a winner if only because of the mountainous amount of PnP fiction lavishly illustrated with gritty art chronicling its universe in every detail over the last twenty three years. Whether the developer, Austin based Vigil Games, can filter all of that down into a competent game will be their biggest test as we wait for more news on how they intend to do it.

And of course, to help promote it, a few of the Emperor’s finest were found wandering the booth.

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Homefront was also being shown off in force. If the fake invasion on the first day or the checkpoints at the neighboring parking lot weren’t enough, the soldiers and barbed fencing surrounding the demo briefing should convince anyone how much THQ is hoping that the near-future fiction based on a conquest of America by a Korea united under the Brilliant Comrade will do for storytelling in an FPS as much as scoring will in Bulletstorm. We were even handed little propaganda pamphlets detailing how to live together with our conquerors, er, “liberators”.

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The line was painstakingly long. It moved only every fifteen minutes or so and it was packed with people that were hoping to cram into its tiny room to watch a non-interactive movie showing off a resistance safe house and their attack against Korean forces at a superstore for lumber. But watching it was worth it if only because of the incredible promise that it hopes to bring to the table with its blend of action and scripted shock of fighting in America’s backyard.

While playing the RTS, World in Conflict, I had always wanted to see what fighting on the ground would have been like from a first-person perspective. Now I guess we’ll get the chance to find out what Red Dawn (John Milius, the scribe behind that film, is also working on the story for Homefront) would have been like if the technology had been available at the time to make a decent game out of it.

I still have a few misgivings about the actual premise (so world just sits back and watches a united Korea effectively annex Japan and a large chunk of the western half of the Pacific Rim by force?), I have faith that the story as it takes place on American soil will evoke the same kind of emotion Milius’ Red Dawn had brought on with “Wolverines!”. Looking forward to this invasion when it hits.

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Into The Pixel returned to E3 this year to highlight works by artists in the industry, showing off some of their creativity with a series of displays.

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And last but not least, I finally made it over to Nintendo whose crowds were far more forgiving than they were in the last two days, especially with their new 3DS handheld creating its own attention tsunami.

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Its biggest advantage is that it can create a 3D effect without the need for glasses, incorporating that wall over the screen instead. Thus, you just need to open it up, start up a game, adjust the 3D slider which can tune the image to be more 3D or 2D, and go.

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Models stood along the line with 3DS units attached to them by security links to help ease the wait while a few display cases showed off the 3DS’ colors outside basic black. I tried watching a neighbor in line which taught me the first thing about the units: you have to be looking at the screen dead on for the effect to work (and avoid a migraine). It’s a good thing that the slider can attenuate the image into 2D when needed, especially if your hands…or wherever you might be…is less than stable enough for staring.

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We finally got up to the 3DS platform where we got to sample a 3DS version of Starfox 64, Pilotwings Resort, Hollywood 61, and a few non-interactive ones such as Kingdom Hearts (does it really need Kingdom Hearts in 3D?) and Animal Crossing. It was a timed experience, but it was more than enough to get a good sampling of what we can expect.

Impressive doesn’t even describe how neat this is. Even if it feels like you have to stare at the screen with just the right angle, it’s an incredible effect that games like Pilotwings Resort had used well even at this stage. With a huge library of titles in development to back it up, it’s not hard to guess that the 3DS is going to be a fantastic game gadget for the Nintendo geek in all of us.

Nintendo’s booth also showcased a few 2D treats for the Wii including a new Donkey Kong Country and the new Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword which had a line almost as bad as the one for the 3DS at this point.

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And those were some of the highlights for me this E3, a show which did as much to promote 3D and motion controls as the next big thing in lieu of a new console. From that perspective, I’m a little thankful that we don’t have any new hardware to look forward to other than the motion stuff which neither Microsoft or Sony were forcing into developers’ hands. As an extra option that could inject more life into the consoles we do have, it’s a welcome one. But absolutely necessary?

The questions have already started to hit the devs, though. “Will this have support for Move or Kinect?” was one that I heard at several demos. 3D is also going the optional route, though I also suspect that a few hardcore gamers will be saving up for that upgrade.

In the end, though, we’re getting more great games and that’s something to celebrate. Even if you’re not a fan of the 3D thing or the motion controls, or even cloud computing, the next year promises to give most players more of what they can expect. Is that good for the industry as a whole? That’s debatable depending on what you consider entertaining. As one example out of so many others that could be made, I’d love to see Hideo Kojima flex his imagination and game design chops on something other than Metal Gear Solid. But at the same time, when the man does something with MGS, it’s almost always a win for those that want it.

But we could also use another Zone of the Enders. And Yakuza 4 is on its way without the kind of censorship that plagued the third game (You want hostess bars? You’ll get hostess bars.). And with that, here are a few final snapshots taken on my way out of another year at E3. Enjoy.

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