It’s been a busy month for conventions, with Eurogamer, the Tokyo Game Show and GAMEFest. And whilst this weeks content is very much Eurogamer centric we were fortunate enough to visit the NEC in Birmingham to check out GAMEFest. Matt Pitman shares his thoughts on the convention.
GAMEFest 2011, NEC Birmingham, UK
16-18 September 2011 (Saturday only)
Being a Midlife Gamer entitles you to certain things: one of these is the right to a proper moan every now and then; another is the ability to talk about “the good old days” with something approaching a self-assured authority. So what better place to exercise these entitlements than at a game convention laid on by GAME, perhaps the largest physical retail hold-out in the UK?
I love conventions, me. There aren’t many places that combine so many of my favourite things in one place, namely: long queues, overpriced food, people whose conversations favour volume over sense, and those with questionable personal hygiene. It was with this in mind that I strode bodily into Hall 9 of NEC Birmingham, arms spread wide to stand among my people, and bear witness to the very best the world of games development had in store (pun not intended).
GAMEFest is a convention exclusively for members of GAME’s Reward Card loyalty scheme, which meant that the vast majority of those present were already predisposed to shopping at GAME (whether at one of the numerous stores in the UK, or online). I paced guiltily among the throng, sheepishly avoiding the marketing teams trying to ask me what I thought of my own (non-existent) GAME Reward Card experience. I’m more of a GameStation shopper myself, and not just because I picture the average GAME shopper as a bewildered fiftysomething plucking up the courage to ask where the Ravey Rabbits are kept. Probably more of a dogged refusal to acknowledge that GameStation was acquired by GAME, and a belief that some manner of healthy competition still exists in high street game retail. There was far too much on show that day to possibly talk about everything I saw, so here, for your consideration, are the highlights:
The first game I got my hands on was Capcom’s Street Fighter X Tekken, which as far as I can tell is the continued natural progression of the tried and true formula followed by Capcom’s beat ‘em up series for the past twenty years; that is to say, more characters for habitual SF players to ignore in favour of Ryu and Ken-like combos. All of the seemingly melee-only Tekken characters I attempted were hopelessly outclassed in the face of fighters who could, y’know, shoot fire from their hands. The demo reel looked fancy enough, but even that served to demonstrate the new challengers from Namco’s stalwart game relying on short-range, heavy-hitting attacks that are all well and good when your character is fast or can deflect projectiles, but suggest characters like Marduk may be sadly overlooked for some time to come. Tekken is a fantastic series and I actually prefer it to Street Fighter, but the movesets and indeed entire fighting dynamics of Tekken are absent here, meaning anyone wanting to adopt their favourite Tekken fighter will be at a considerable disadvantage versus a seasoned Street Fighter. In short, while the graphics and some of the mechanics on offer here are quite spectacular, this is a novelty title at best, with numerous well-established characters that it’s safe to say won’t be in many future sequels and are thus hardly worth the effort of mastering.
I got to see a fair bit of Batman: Arkham City, but had absolutely no chance of getting near the consoles. The queue time versus play time was mildly insulting, even for a convention, so I opted to stand back and check out the various screens as others had their go. Despite the characteristic murkiness, the game is visually incredible. Much like its predecessor, Arkham City’s combat combines stalk-and-subdue elements with mass melee and it looks an absolute treat to play. With a wider setting than the original and additional plot devices (such as playable Catwoman segments) the game promises to be a worthy upgrade to Arkham Asylum. Everyone I saw playing it seemed to be having a blast, but time will tell whether it ends up being more than an extended re-skin.
I then spent over an hour in a queue next to perhaps the most obnoxious kid I’ve ever encountered, during which time I got to see Bethesda’s current highlight reel, as I waited to catch an extended glimpse of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As well as seeing gameplay and promotional media for Rage – which looks like Borderlands-meets-Fallout 3, to be honest – I caught a teaser and trailer for Prey 2. The original Prey completely passed me by, despite being something I had considered picking up second-hand, but what was on show here really piqued my interest. Part one of the teaser involved a first-person perspective of an alien encounter aboard a domestic airline flight, during which many people are killed and others abducted. Later, an armoured man decked out in a multitude of futuristic weaponry throws himself off a roof and lands in a crowd of alien bad-guys, who he quickly dispatches as their leader (the Prey in question) flees. Our hero gives chase through a vast alien cityscape, fighting off various ne’er-do-wells as he goes. The promo suggests a Deus Ex level of gadgetry and versatility to its gameplay, with mass combat versus squads of enemies and giant organic tanks alike. First genuinely surprising premise of the show.
I had read half a novel by the time I got inside the Bethesda booth, which grew louder with the relieved sighs of its inhabitants resting their weary feet. A Bethesda representative gave us the usual spiel about cameras and unfinished products before unveiling a twenty-minute Skyrim demo, which showcased everything from the game’s breathtaking scenery and updated visuals to its vastly improved NPC AI and combat mechanics. One of the big talking points was the dual wielding system, which allows the player to use both weaponry and spells simultaneously, as well as combining various weapons and spells to unleash combinations based on your preferred play style. I couldn’t tell for sure, but the combat engine doesn’t look too different from Oblivion’s, in that chopping someone’s neck still seems to do as much damage as chopping their foot; the ragdoll physics engine, too, looks just as daft in the Skyrim demo as it did in earlier games. These are minor niggles, though, especially in the face of a number of interesting new gameplay elements, including the ability to slaughter gorram Dragons and steal their vanquished souls to power yourself up. I don’t think Bethesda are going to disappoint us here, and fans of the previous titles in the series have every right to get very excited.
Another long queue awaited me at the Saint’s Row The Third demonstration. To THQ’s credit, they’d pulled out all the stops in setting their booth up in the style of an exclusive nightclub complete with rope fences, a real bouncer and a replica bar stocked with mineral water. I queued for less than an hour, but only got to spend about five minutes running around Stilwater (dressed, inexplicably, in nothing but tattoos and a thong) and beating various thugs to death with a gigantic purple sex toy. I discovered that, similar to the police threat levels in the Grand Theft Auto titles, repeated offences against criminal gangs resulted in ever tougher gang members pulling up in their custom vehicles, toting everything from meat cleavers to grenade launchers. It was quite a fun blast, as you might expect if you’ve played the earlier games, but the brief experience gave me no time whatsoever to discover what kind of storytelling was on offer, or whether the insanely hilarious mission style of the prequels had been faithfully replicated. It would have been nicer to see a bit more of the game, as all I saw was little more than an engine demonstration. I’ll be waiting for the reviews before spending any money on this title.
I’m not much for portable gaming, but took a look around the Nintendo 3DS booth all the same. In short, Driver – Renegade 3D was so rubbish it hurt my brain as much as the lousy 3D hurt my eyes. I had a quick blast on Mario Kart 7 and Ocarina of Time and, while they’re both undeniably good games, I couldn’t get on with the fiddly controls and – again – the 3D did my head in. In the case of the former, I’d rather sit around a living room playing against friends on a huge TV screen than against randoms or ‘ghosts’ on a tiny awkward device like the 3DS. It’s great that the techology has come along so far that a game like Ocarina of Time can be played with updated graphics on a portable device, but I can’t help but feel that much of the atmosphere of the original is lost on such a small screen.
Returning to fighting games, I had a go on both Tekken Hybrid and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. The former was more of a gorgeous-looking tech demo than anything, so I concentrated on the latter. Featuring more characters than any previous title, frankly incredible graphics and ultra-slick gameplay, this is everything a dedicated fanboy of the Tekken series could ask for. I found myself trying combinations that appear to have been removed from this version of the game, which is just about the only complaint I could level at it. Enough time has passed since Tekken 6, and enough appears to have been added, that it’s unfair to call TT2 another cynical addition to the series. Capcom could learn a thing or two here.
I stopped off at the Bioware stall to take a look at Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’m a bit jaded when it comes to MMOs, having played about a dozen in the past decade and feeling like I’ve pretty much seen it all. I’ve done the Star Wars MMO thing too, back before Star Wars Galaxies went belly-up. I spent fifteen minutes or so watching various people play TOR and all I can say is that there had better be more at the table when the game finally launches. Everything I hate about modern MMOs was on show in spades, from imbecilic AI to dodgy physics and repetitive, uninspired combat. The graphics were mediocre and the enemies uninspiring. Don’t get me wrong: I want to like this game; goodness knows, World of Warcraft needs a worthy competitor, having obliterated pretty every challenger to its dominance since it first rumbled onto the scene seven years ago. But if anything, The Old Republic looked like it was trying to emulate Blizzard’s monolithic cash cow, which is something time has shown is a poor strategy, with those tempted away to other MMOs soon lured back by what they see as further improvements to WoW’s clearly successful format. Star Wars is losing its sheen, and if Lucas’ mythos is really the most bankable feature of this title, they might as well launch it as free-to-play.
On my way out of the arena, having decided that I’d rather go home and cut my toenails than queue for two hours to see Modern Warfare 3, my attention was caught by a couple of interesting titles I’d been previously unaware of. The first was titled Journey, and is a title in development by the team behind Flow and Flower. The concept behind Journey is that of a nameless, masked individual walking through a vast desert with no directions to follow besides a strange mountain in the distance. The game appears to follow the minimalist design credo of the developer’s previous releases, and features interesting gameplay elements such as the ability to join other players on the PSN without any clue as to their identity (they appear as you do, have no visible name, and cannot communicate by any means beyond a wordless, attention-getting shout). It looks beautiful, its concept appealed to me, and most importantly it seems unlike anything I have played before.
The second game to catch my eye on the way out was Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. Created by Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions, OUaM is a Kinect-based title featuring Elmo and Cookie Monster as they explore a storybook world populated with weird and wonderful Henson-style monsters. The main reason this game caught my eye was it is the first time I’d seen Kinect used for something that I hadn’t already seen done to death elsewhere. Like Sesame Street itself, the game has the potential to span generations and appeal to people of all ages and genders, making it an ideal candidate for family games the Kinect hardware is absolutely perfect for. No matter how cynical you may be, there’s just something about Cookie Monster dancing in front of a giant troll-thing, causing said troll-thing to join in with the dance, that cannot fail to bring a smile to your face.
And so it was on that positive note that I took my leave of the NEC. Having spent the day either playing or being talked at about the latest sequels and rehashes that keep the modern high street game retailer in business, I was nonetheless reassured that some originality does still exist in the game development industry, despite the apparent best efforts of many developers to prove otherwise.