Sunday, September 30, 2012

Eurogamer Expo 2012 - I was there and I don't even have a stupid t-shirt

So, I was at the Eurogamer Expo. My first videogame convention, amazingly enough. I figured out I should share some thoughts.

After a surprisingly short time (about 1h) in the longest queue I've ever seen (it was surprising because it was the longest queue I've ever seen, not because I was actually expecting to spend more time in it), I made it into the exposition hall at Earl's Court, London. It is pretty damn big. That was my first thought upon entering. My second thought was something along the lines of "wow, there are a whole lot of games I don't really care about".

About 90% of games were either shooters or sequels. Occasionally, in an unsurprising turn of events, they were sequels of shooters.

Off the top of my head and in no particular order, here are the biggest titles I've spotted: Crysis 3, Halo 4, COD: Black Ops 2, Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed 3, Hitman: Absolution, yet another Medal of Honor game, God of War: Ascension, Devil May Cry 5 (not a shooter, but it had guns), Company of Heroes 2 (apparently a really good WW2 RTS), Dishonored (not a sequel and not quite a shooter!!!), Warface (not a sequel, but rather bland), Sim City (look, guys, you're not fooling anyone by not adding a number. IT'S A SEQUEL.), Aliens: Colonial Marines (think AvP without Predators), Metal Gear Solid: [subtitle], Dust 514, Battlefield 3 Platinum Edition, Lost Planet 3, Tomb Raider: [long subtitle], Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (fighting game). And a bunch more.

My reaction can be summarized as follows:

1) This year sucks if you don't like shooters.
2) The game industry sure isn't going anywhere.

I'll get back to point 2 in a bit.

There were a bunch of games dedicated to nonstandard controllers. They ranged from the established (dancing games and a new guitar game, Rocksmith), which seemed to be good and enjoyed by the audience, to the... really sad, like Kinect games which seemed to have been built on the general principle of "who needs good design, we have arm-waving". There was at least one overly pretentious artsy game (The Unfinished Swan on the Ps3). There were quite a few driving games too, but I don't remember the titles, other than F1 2012 (hasn't that been released already?).

WAY TOO MANY of the (multi-platform) shooters did not bring a PC version. This seemed like a REALLY bad idea to me, but maybe I'm just too old and the intended audience can play first-person games on a controller without any problems. I tried Dishonored, found it unenjoyable on the Xbox controller, and gave up on the idea (would have liked to have tried out Hitman too, at least).

WAY TOO MANY of the shooters had a ridiculously (in my opinion) small fov of around 70, I'd say. I know this was popularized by the more successful games of the last decade (Modern Warfare, I think), but for all gods's sake, you don't ALL have to follow suit. Hopefully the PC versions of these games will allow some way to change this, as they (thankfully) often do. I find my enjoyment of shooters skyrocketing when I don't feel like I'm wearing horse blinders.

Fun fact: I spotted Kratos fighting an elephant man in the new God of War game and, given the guy's history, for a moment I was convinced he had moved on to the Eastern pantheon and was taking on Ganesh. Well, it was just an elephant man. Still: elephant man!

By far the most interesting game on a console was Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (conclusive proof that game writers do indeed get bonuses for alliterations) on the Ps3, a rather charming JRPG with pretty traditional mechanics (but real-time-ish combat) and a very distinctive art style reminiscent of Miyazaki movies (a visit to the game's homepage did reveal Studio Ghibli as being indeed responsible!), as well as interesting characters&story and funny dialogue.

Hitman: Absolution looked really good (no surprise, the series never disappointed).

Dishonored looked good, but I think it will be rather different from what I expected. From what I had read, I thought it would be a blend between the core gameplay of Thief and the powers of Bioshock. It's not quite as stealthy as that. For one, you have to press a button to go to stealth mode, which is already a pretty telling sign. I also was not quite able to avoid being spotted, although it was probably due to my clumsiness with the controller. I will definitely play it, but I think it's better to go in without any expectations.

I ALMOST missed Firaxis's XCOM remake. Managed to get some play time at the end of day two (many thanks to the people with the XCOM bags, which tipped me off). The version which was showcased is, however, just the demo which you can get online (here, apparently, rather than from the game's site), so you can try it out for yourself if you're so inclined! Oh, and it's very good.

Let's talk innovation.

Normally, when I want to showcase innovation in games, I point to indies. Well, there were indie games at the venue. However, I did not see anything stellar this year. In fact, if there was one thing both mainstream and indie games at the Expo had in common, it was that they all seemed to be slightly improved rehashes of stuff which had been done before.

There were a few nice indie games which I feel I should point out:

The #1 prize must go to DRM: Death Ray Manta, for (either ironically or straight, I couldn't tell) including the phrase "Hail Satan" on the screen before each mission. It's also the only game that gave me a headache. STAY WAY CLEAR if you suffer from epilepsy.

Sokobond is a chemical-based puzzler which comes about one year too late to bank of the success of SpaceChem, I'd say. Still, pretty good.

Tower of the Gorillion (link is playable) is a pretty great platform puzzler. You control two characters which can each interact which a different subset of the level (a light side and a shadow side - correctly called "front side" and "back side" according to the game's site) and must help each other to advance. Think Lost Vikings with a twist. The only demo I've played to the end on day one.

There was also a game where you fly around in a ship on a 2D map, shoot things, collect keys and try to find the exit. I found it unremarkable in every way and I'm actually only including it here because I played it. The graphic style was very minimalistic and somewhat charming. It was apparently called Genix.

Don't Starve is probably good. But I didn't play it.

There were some more ambitious indie titles with larger budgets, and I had pretty much heard of all of them before: Prison Architect, Air Buccanneers, Strike Suit Zero, Natural Selection 2 (a shooter sequel to a successful indie mod, no less!), Carrier Command, Hotline Miami. The latter deserves a special mention because: 1) I've played it and 2) it's brilliant. Hotline Miami was, in fact, way more entertaining than I expected. It's the full package: solid, challenging gameplay, unique art style and an intriguing story. Highly recommended.

Right, innovation. The thing about innovation is - well, it's good. There's no denying it. Some of the best fun I've had was with games which brought something new to the table. But at the same time, look at all the praise Black Mesa got (which I'm playing for the second time now). Halo 4 and CODBlops 2 had HUGE audiences at the Expo. I think that we like it when our favourite games are brought up to speed. We need sequels (although I'd say that in most cases yearly sequels are a bad idea). Doom 2 is a sequel. The Hitman series is great. And so on.

While I have and probably will continue to complain about the lack of innovation in the industry, I enjoy sequels very much - as long as they are good (as we all know, many aren't, and most of the time it's because they are rushed). Some of the stuff at the Expo looked pretty good, actually. God of War: Ascension, Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution looked like they will be spectacular, and some other games from series I'm unfamiliar with seemed pretty solid as well (e.g. Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry). Some others, of course, seemed rather crappy, and the majority were rather unremarkable - technically sound, but not standing out in any way. I imagine they will be enjoyed by fans of the series and few others (e.g. Assassin's Creed 3, Tomb Raider, Halo 4).

While I'm actually very happy that the game industry is producing such well-polished content right now, a word of caution is in order: these were pretty much all one-level demos. They might not be entirely representative of the final product.

So I'd say we might get some decent sequels this year, but probably little else.