Thursday, 18 June 2015

E3 Roundup!

It’s been several years since I looked forward to E3.  

The launch of the current console generation has been tough on everyone, and the budgets of AAA games confine the most creative and risky projects to the indie space. Not that there’s anything wrong with the indie space - quite the contrary - just that it doesn’t get covered in the biggest conferences and thus, my Twitter feed, and isn’t that what E3 is all about? 

Despite my low expectations, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this year’s show. Although there are a lot of risk-averse sequels, they’re sequels to games I thought were pretty good, and since I am an arbiter of taste, this is obviously a sign that things are looking up. Here’s a list of the games that caught my eye, and what I have so say about them.

Final Fantasy VII remake

Let’s get this over and done with. I’m obviously excited about this because I love Final Fantasy and have spent the last 3 (oh dear, sorry) years playing throughthe original Final Fantasy VII. On principle, I shouldn’t get too worked up about this announcement because resources poured into a remake are resources not being spent on original ideas, but in practice this is Final Fantasy VII. Gamers have been asking for it to be remade for well over a decade, but I don’t think one of them ever expected it would actually happen.

Further to this, I have accepted that following the underrated XII, the series has responded to market pressures by jettisoning everything I once loved about it: philosophical scope and turn-based, tactical battles. I don’t begrudge this because I understand that things need to change in order to survive, and I recognize the qualities of the later games, even if they don’t move me. I’m happy that the series is going to continue even though it means leaving me behind.

But of course, I’d still rather have more of my own personal catnip than not, which is why I’m so happy that I’ll eventually get to play an AAA, PS4 Final Fantasy with complex philosophical themes and a juicy battle system. I’m also interested to see what they’ll change or interpret for a modern audience – one of the best things about Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the way much of the game was totally redesigned to take advantage of then-modern physics and draw distances. It might not make me optimistic for the future of gaming in general, but the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake is making me very excited about some rainy weekends a couple of years from now. Bring it on.

Fallout 4

Woo hoo! Fallout 3 is one of my favourite games of all time. I slightly prefer Fallout to Elder Scrolls because of the mischievous humour: this is a post-nuclear world where everyone has cheery 1950s manners and travelling salesmen sell their wares from the backs of two-headed cows. Unlike most other people I really liked Fallout 3's grim, grey aesthetic, so I wasn't as excited as everyone else to see how colourful Fallout 4 was by comparison. I'm more concerned about the writing and the quests; Fallout 3's were almost all structured in a way that let you gather all information from all sides before deciding whom to double-cross. In the context of the post-apocalyptic world where everyone is out for themselves, this is incredibly satisfying.

There's a focus on graphics in the trailer, which I'm not that fussed about, and I'm also not sure how I feel about hearing the player character talk. Part of the fun of Fallout 3 was how deadpan you could imagine you sounded when explaining to people why you decided to blow up the nuke in the middle of their town. But that said, there is a dog, and I am always up for a faithful animal companion.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

I will not be playing this in November because I refuse to be strong-armed into purchasing an Xbox One just to do so. 

Which is a shame, because Rise looks pretty solid. Even though 2013's reboot never really felt like Tomb Raider to me, I really enjoyed it because I liked controlling the character so much. Lara was satisfyingly weighty to control, and her body language as portrayed by Camilla Luddington made her realistic and alive, more so than any other video game character I can think of besides Shadow of the Colossus’ Agro. It also had some really lovely, unusual environments. Rise of the Tomb Raider looks like more of the same with some more actual, you know, tombs. Also, there was a brief underwater snippet at 6:08 in that trailer, and that excites me because my biggest disappointment in Tomb Raider was the lack of swimming. Hopefully it was in-game.

I'm also hoping that Rise of the Tomb Raider will come to PC so I can play it 5 years after release, like I do with all PC games, but if it doesn’t I’ll just stick with the next Lara Croft and the Isometric Spin-off, because those games are great.

The Last Guardian

Speaking of Shadow of the Colossus, how exciting is this? A lot of people, myself included, thought The Last Guardian had fallen into eternal development hell (like the conspicuously absent Beyond Good and Evil 2 seems to have done, noooooo!) so it was really wonderful to see it open the Sony conference.

When I said I was into animal companions, I just meant, like, dogs, but a giant hawk-mongoose is good too.

Dishonored 2

The original Dishonored was one of the best surprises of the last generation, so I’m really happy to see it getting a sequel, especially one that seems to be set on a tropical island. So many games that encourage sneaking around are set in unimaginatively dark, moody environments, and although Dishonored broke a lot of those conventions by taking place largely by day and having a lot of dead whales all over the place, it was still set in a moody, plague-ridden city and had a brothel level. All those games have a brothel level.

Anyway, I hope Dishonored’s holiday paradise is as packed full of secrets as Dunwall. I also hope it is less full plague-ridden, because I can imagine all those rotting corpses getting pretty unpleasant when the sun is out.

South Park: The Fractured but Whole

The first Stick of Truth game was great. It wasn’t particularly deep or challenging, and the mechanics alone would not have carried a game without such a hilarious script, but it was exactly what a South Park game needed to be. Every section went on for the perfect length of time, and ended just before I started to get bored of the joke. The only drawback is that having seen every single South Park episode, Stick of Truth felt a bit like a Greatest Hits compilation album, touching on all the series best and most famous gags – Canada, anal probes, Shitty Wok, Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo, Al Gore etc – so that often I knew what I was in for as soon as a level began.

That’s not to say I enjoyed it any less, just that it never felt as surprising as the best South Park episodes. My guess is that this approach was taken for the first game in order to reel in the South Park fans who weren’t committed gamers, giving them a soft landing, and leaving them wanting more. Given that they have now used up all the most famous jokes from the TV series, I would have thought it would be hard for them to repeat this tactic, so I hope they take a few more risks and come up with some entirely new ones for South Park: The Fractured but Whole.

Wait, wait. Wait. Fractured... but... oh, gross.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Is it possible for Naughty Dog to drop the ball on this one? After The Last of Us? I’ve said in the past that I really hoped they wouldn’t make a fourth Uncharted because I thought Nate’s character arc came to such a satisfying end after Uncharted 3, but I think if anyone can give this series a fitting coda it’s Neil Druckmann and the rest of the team that brought us the harsh yet almost unbearably poignant The Last of Us and Left Behind.

While the gameplay demo shows that Uncharted 4 is as much a jaunty action-adventure as its predecessors, there’s a vulnerability to Nate and Sully that’s been hinted at in all previews that we haven’t seen since Nate had to curl up under a rock to shelter from the desert sun in Uncharted 3. Sully looks very old, and even Nate’s looking a bit crinkly around the eyes. Oh, and that title’s pretty ominous too, come to think of it. What could have happened to Nate to make him go back on everything he said at the end of Uncharted 3? Will he – and Sully, and Elena – survive this final adventure? I can’t wait to find out.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided:

I'll be honest, I started getting really excited about this last week when EDGE gave it an in-depth preview, so I was on board before I saw the trailer.

The niggles that everyone had with Deus Ex: Human Revolution game (you know, the big, metal-jawed, minigun-wielding niggles) have apparently been ironed out in the sequel. I mean... that trailer makes Mankind Divided look pretty good, but I loved the previous game so much that "more of the same but a bit better" has pretty much sold it to me already.

Also, what's with all the fruit in that trailer?

Mass Effect Andromeda:

I go back and forth between being excited about this and not caring. Mass Effect 2 is one of my favourite games of all time because of its imaginative characters and the relationships you could have with them, even the ones you weren’t getting taking back to your cabin for sexy times. I was a bit disappointed in Mass Effect 3 because while its predecessor put you on the wrong side of the law fighting an evil the authorities wouldn’t even acknowledge, the concluding part of the trilogy put you back with the alliance. Being in the military does not seem cool after you’ve spent a whole game playing by your own rules as Captain Badass.

Further to this, the final third Mass Effect 3 was comprised of several consecutive endings, like the many appendices of Return of the King, which provide a slow come-down from one of the most climactic battles in literature in the form of a list of all the times Samwise Gamgee was elected Mayor of the Shire. The scenes are all beautifully scripted and meaningful, and it’s tough to say goodbye to the characters you’ve had so many adventures with, but for a lot of the time it felt less like an adventure and more like a farewell tour.

For this reason I’m happy that they’ve started on a new story set in a new galaxy, with a new hero. As long as the characterization is still at the forefront of the experience, I guess I'm in, but after the third game I don't think I'll be getting it on release.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

New IP! And it’s an RPG! With a female protagonist! Hurrah! 

Unless this turns out to be absolutely terrible I will be happy to support it, and from the trailer it looks lovely, so lush and colourful.

One thing I will point out though, is that Aloy has a bow-and-arrow. What is it these days with plucky heroines wielding bow-and-arrows? They are the new Space Marines. Ellie, Ygritte, Tauriel, Lara and Katniss all have one, they’re all white (ok, Tauriel is an Elf), and the first three have red hair, just like Aloy. I feel a bit churlish about complaining about this given how much I complain about the lack of good female protagonists, but if they all look the same and have the same weapons, then diversity is still an issue that we can’t stop fighting for.

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That just about wraps it up for the actual games at E3. It's pretty clear from reading the above that I'm on track to eventually buy a PS4 as opposed to an Xbox One (No, I still haven't upgraded. Yes, I am actually a games industry professional), but with that in mind there are a couple of things I'd like to mention. 

Sony's Shenmue 3 Kickstarter turned what should have been a welcome game reveal into something a bit odd, for reasons well-expressed by David Houghton over at gamesradarFurther to this, while I wasn't particularly excited by any of the actual games on show at the Microsoft conference, they deserve praise - and a few sales - for all the work they've done on actually making the Xbox One a better console, and better value for players. Again, there's a good gamesradar piece on this.

I won't talk any more about console wars because those are bizniz things, and there are proper websites for that. Well-Rendered is more about analyzing hairstyles and having sex with aliens.

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