I spent nearly all of Wednesday, my third day at the video game industry’s annual gathering in Los Angeles, meeting with developers, touring booths and just playing and seeing a ton of games in general. Here are the highlights, with more details to come later. I’ve got tons of games to write up and will be trickling out previews over the coming days and weeks. If there’s a particular game I mention that you’d like me to prioritize, feel free to drop me a note or sound off in the comments. I’ll probably start with higher-profile stuff like “GoldenEye 007” and “Rock Band 3,” then work my way down, but I’m planning on writing up most of it eventually, anyway. The order I do it in is largely inconsequential.
So anyway, here are some quick thoughts on what I saw:
“Rock Band 3” might just leave all other music games in the dust: I already knew that the latest full-band game from Harmonix and MTV Games would feature a new keyboard role, and that it would support actual MIDI drumkits and keyboards used by real-life musicians. I also knew about its “pro” modes, which have you playing specially designed controllers the same way you’d use real instruments to play a song, rather than just using five colored buttons and a strum bar. But what I didn’t know was that Fender is making a version of its Stratocaster guitar that you can use in the game. In fact, you can literally plug it into an amp and play right along with the song. In other words, with support for the midi instruments, the new guitar and the pro modes, you can essentially play along with “Rock Band” as an actual, real-life act once you get good enough. All those naysayers whining about how kids need to put down those plastic toys and learn how to play real instruments can shut up now. Thanks. On Thursday, I’m supposed to meet with the folks behind “Power Gig: Rise of the SixString,” a music title unveiled earlier this year that hoped to differentiate itself by letting players use an actual guitar to play along with their music game. I wonder what they’re thinking now.
No more playing songs you don’t like: Another thing I liked about the Harmonix session was that they’re introducing a five-star rating system for songs in the “Rock Band” games. Songs with low ratings are much less likely to come up in the game’s random playlists. And if there’s a song you totally hate – I’m looking at you, Coheed and Cambria – you can rate it zero stars. And you’ll never hear it. Neversoft, the studio responsible for Activision’s “Guitar Hero” franchise, plans a similar feature for “Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock,” another title I previewed. Instead of using a five-star rating system, “Warriors of Rock” will keep a play count for every track, assuming that you’ll queue up your favorite songs more often. Both companies plan to use these new features to recommend new music to you through their games’ online stores. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? OK, no more raving about “Rock Band 3.” I’ve gotta save something for my preview.
I may have to rethink my “Call of Duty” boycott: OK, I haven’t actually been boycotting the “Call of Duty” games. It’s just that, as anyone who’s a regular reader knows, I’m not the biggest devotee of multiplayer-centric, realistic military-style shooters, and these games always come out at the same time as three or four other games more in my wheelhouse. In any case, the two single-player levels of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” that I saw on Wednesday looked like must-play adventures. The second, in which you pilot a helicopter and blow the living hell out of just about everything in Vietnam War-era Laos was a standout. The level, which Activision’s Vince Fennel stressed was not “on rails” (meaning you won’t be forced along a set path) puts a ton of firepower in the hands of the player, who’s tasked with blowing up bridges, attacking enemy units on the ground and facing off against fellow whirlybirds. It’s called “Payback,” although I didn’t hear James Brown’s “The Payback” anywhere in the demo, a squandered opportunity. I’ll break “Black Ops” down in a follow-up post at a later date.
Could “GoldenEye 007” finally give the Wii a breakout shooter?: While the Wii is home to a number of competent, underrated shooters, none of them has exactly gone on to be a megahit, and the most hyped games (“The Conduit,” anyone?) have flopped. It makes sense, then, that Activision, holder of the James Bond license, would want to revisit “GoldenEye,” one of the few top-notch, big-selling shooters released on a Nintendo console. Because Microsoft-owned Rare still holds some rights to the original game, the new “GoldenEye” isn’t so much a remake as a reimagining. When I asked one of the developers about licensing issues preventing remakes of maps from the first “GoldenEye,” he stressed that the license allowed them to re-create anything in the “Bond” movies. So don’t be surprised if some of the levels and maps look eerily familiar, even if they’re not pixel-by-pixel re-creations. In a nice homage to the game’s classic, Nintendo 64 roots, you’ll be able to play “GoldenEye” with a GameCube controller, the Wii’s Classic Controller or the standard nunchuk-and-remote setup. I tried out the multiplayer and thought the controls felt a bit loose, but I imagine that’s something that could be tweaked in the settings. A longer preview is forthcoming.
From a gameplay standpoint, “XCOM” could be a spiritual successor to “BioShock 2”: While the latest from 2K Marin takes its cues from a late ‘90s, turn-based strategy game of the same name, it’s a first-person shooter that lets you mix and match conventional guns with a number of experimental weapons derived from alien technology. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of William Carter, a federal agent who discovers an alien artifact that leads to the creation of the game’s eponymous, “X-Files”-like investigative unit. Carter has at his disposal a number of weapons XCOM’s researchers fashion using the alien technology he finds and photographs in the field and, not surprisingly, they create some cool effects that might dovetail with one another the same way “BioShock’s” plasmids did. In the early-level demo that I watched, I saw a gun that shoots lightning and some special, incendiary grenades made from alien blobs, which the developers called “blobitov cocktails.” Cute. Preview forthcoming.
“Civilization V” might be the title that gets me back into PC gaming: Some day soon, I’m going to do a post that explains why I’ve missed out on a lot of gaming’s classic franchises. But the short explanation is that I spent a decade or so going to college and establishing my career, so while I gamed, it was PC strategy titles like “Civilization II” and “Warcraft II.” Oddly, since I started writing about gaming for The Press Democrat a few years ago, my passions have gone in the other direction. Both my computers are laptops and I think of them very much as work machines. So, not much gaming gets done on them. But what I’ve seen from “Civilization V,” which is due out Sept. 21, looks fantastic. I’m most excited about the in-game mod hub which will allow user-created levels and mods to be shared through the game itself, as opposed to on sketchy, third-party websites that might make you question whether you’re compromising your PC each time you download a mod.
An interesting experiment in budget-priced, first-person shooters: I only had a few minutes to play Ignition Entertainment’s “Blacklight: Tango Down,” but what I saw intrigued me. “Blacklight” is a multiplayer shooter with 12 maps, seven gameplay modes, four-player co-op missions and support for up to 16 players. It’s also a $15 downloadable game for Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network and PC. What I saw of it at Ignition’s booth looked promising. Obviously, with a $15 price point, you’re not exactly talking about cutting-edge graphics, but it looked better than the “GoldenEye” game on the Wii and sported an interesting piece of equipment. The hyperreality visor, or HRV, replaces radar. You can activate the feature for five seconds and see literally everything around you – power-ups, enemies, etc. But here’s the trick: You can’t shoot while it’s active. A grenade in the game distorts the visor’s view over a limited area. I’m thinking the new equipment, endlessly customizable weapons with a slew of unlockable parts and a robust slate of maps and game types makes this a minor cult hit. My hands-on time with the game was only somewhat useful because …
Playing betas with no option to invert the Y-axis is hard: I’m one of those degenerates who inverts the view when playing first-person games. In other words, I press down to look up and up to look down. I blame all those hours spent playing “Top Gun” on the NES. At any rate, “Blacklight: Tango Down” and “Resident Evil 5,” with PlayStation Move support, both lacked an option to invert the Y axis because they’re still in beta. That meant I died a bunch in “Blacklight” and didn’t get much of a feel for the controls. “RE5” worked a little better, probably because I was using a pointer and not an analog stick to look around. I actually made it all the way to the final boss at the end of the demo before I ran out of ammo and threw myself on his chainsaw. Despite this difficulty, I came away with favorable impressions of both games.
I “Move” it for the first time: The time I spent playing with “Resident Evil 5” at the Capcom booth represented my first hands-on time with Sony’s new motion controller. In general, it felt a lot more responsive and fine-tuned than Wii controls, but at the same time, its addition into “RE5” seemed more like a curiosity than an essential new way to control the game. I’d probably still prefer to play the game with a DualShock 3. Shaking the controller to knock bad guys off of me was intuitive and fun, though, so much so that I almost tried to shake the Xbox 360 controller in “Dead Rising: Case Zero,” the game I played right after “RE5.”
I’d better start wrapping things up, or this post will double in length and no one will make it to the end. Other stuff I saw and liked on Wednesday included “Okamiden,” the DS sequel to the cult PlayStation 2 and Wii hit “Okami” and “Spec Ops: The Line,” a new realistic shooter from 2K that has brainier writing and more easy-to-relate-to characters than what we’re used to seeing in the genre. It’s set in Dubai. The gameplay was somewhat standard shoot-from-cover kind of stuff, but I’ll play it for the story once it comes out.
I also saw “Mafia II” for the third time. Wednesday’s session was a hands-on session. I think 2K Czech has nailed the postwar mob chic look and feel they’re going for, but it’s hard to pass judgment on it. How much I like the game will correlate directly with how much it deviates from now-rote mobster movie clichés. If it’s a paint-by-numbers homage to films like the “Godfather” trilogy and “Miller’s Crossing,” I’ll probably play it and forget it. If the story goes places and the game features a cast of memorable characters, I’ll treasure it. Really, the game seems almost done to me. They just need a little visual polish here and there, especially on the character models, and they’re good to go.
I also saw another open-world game in Activision’s “True Crime.” This reboot of a PS2 and Xbox franchise is another, “Grand Theft Auto IV”-style open-world game, complete with GPS and minimap. Thankfully, this one, set in Hong Kong’s criminal underworld, isn’t due out until 2011. I’m not sure I’d have the willpower to get through three similar, massive open-world games, and both “Red Dead Redemption” and “Mafia II” appeal to me more because of their historical settings.
Oh, and how could I forget “League of Legends”? My half-hour look at this game was mostly spent looking at menu screens and hearing about developer Riot’s plans for a spors league-style season and tournament, but I got enough useful information out of this session for an upcoming post. Also, these guys were super nice and made me wish I had a fourth day at the show to see more of the stuff the smaller publishers and developers are showing.