PAX ’08: The Whole Bloody Affair

PAX ’08

Allow me to remove my pseudo-game critic gloves for a moment and put on my raving fanboy shame tarp. This year’s Penny Arcade Expo was a phenomenon. The tagline, “Welcome Home” couldn’t have been more accurate. It was a three day gaming utopia. Yes, navigating your way past the occasional WoW-grinding lard-fest or being nagged by live e-penis-waving nerds can feel shameful. But when MC Frontalot, pioneer of “nerdcore” hip hop, plays to an audience of thousands waving illuminated electronic devices, you feel like part of something special.

Maybe it’s just that we were all there, and the 50,000+ of us will disseminate back into the larger populous without making a dent. But maybe this is where our culture is headed. Apple products have taken geek gadgets to the mass market, the Wii is a phenomenon, and games are bigger than ever. Is gaming culture the next big thing?

Whatever happens in the future, PAX is something every gamer should experience. And with that said, I’ll try to bring a bit of it to you here. The following impressions (not reviews!), photo collages, and random thoughts document my experiences over the weekend, organized into a neat table of contents to peruse and read at your leisure:

Table of Download Contents:

Under the Radar:


In Spark Unlimited’s demo of Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, I was paraded through a fixed rollercoaster ride of girders, ladders, and crumbling buildings. Each event was carefully scripted to box you in and limit your choices. Their latest game, Legendary, seemingly spoofs Turning Point, marching you through one absurdly linear path after another.

The concept is cool; a thief breaks into a bank and opens pandora’s box, granting him super powers and releasing a city-leveling swarm of random creatures. Unfortunately, it amounts to “exciting” destruction that creates a convenient route to the next cutscene. They attempt to mimic the Half-Life games, which put you on a simple point-A to point-B trail, but what made those games great was that you always felt like you were taking a natural path through the environment. Here, as the bank crumbles away and you make your escape, long paths of debris lead you along. Once outside, griffins toss cars around, creating a perfect hallway-width gap for you to traverse.

The fact that there were several unskippable cutscenes throughout my short demo made it all the more unbearable. If I wanted to watch monsters destroy New York City I’d watch Cloverfield. If I wanted to actually play a video game, I’d probably avoid Legendary.
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Magic: The Gathering XBLA

With the success of strategy board games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride on Xbox Live Arcade, it’s no surprise to see Magic: The Gathering make the same transition. What is surprising is that it will not use the PC version’s pay-by-card model. While I only had a brief chat with the person demoing the game, I learned that they plan to offer the full package at $5-$15, or standard XBLA pricing. The game will include 10-12 decks worth of the most current cards, with possible expansions later on. Up to 4 players will be able to battle it out in what looks to be a very slick interface. The game is slated for a Spring ’09 release.
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Bang Bang Mini

Bang Bang Mini sounds like the title for a new Leisure Suit Larry game. Thankfully the “Bang Bang” part refers to colorful fireworks rather than repetitive humping, and it’s “Mini” because it’s on the DS, not because the protagonist has a micropenis.

In Bang Bang (Bang) Mini you drag the stylus to toss projectiles at enemies flying around on the top screen. Missing a shot creates garbage that rains down on your little ship, which you tap on and drag to move around. As you progress it introduces new mechanics, like a shield that you can draw anywhere to reflect bullets.

Initially it seemed the art style was ripped from Boom Boom Rocket (not to mention the title), but later levels introduce completely different visuals. Some areas feature comic book-style art, while others resemble Geometry Wars.

While sampling levels from each stage of the game, it seemed like there was a nice ramp in difficulty, and enough variety in gameplay and visuals throughout. My favorite part of Bang Bang Mini is that it uses the stylus controls exclusively, rather than trying to shoehorn dual stick controls onto the DS, like Geometry Wars, or any number or hand-cramping first-person shooters.
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Biology Battle & Colosseum

Games like Braid, developed by small, independent teams, champion creativity and art – originality takes precedence over big budgets and high technology. With XNA Creators Club poised to light a fire under indie game development on the Xbox 360, one would hope for a renaissance of creativity in games. But I have to say, with the two titles I played at PAX, I was not impressed. Biology Battle and Colosseum attempt to mimic mainstream titles rather than offer fresh ideas.

Imagine Geometry Wars in a petri dish and you have Biology Battle. You play as a tiny ship trying to fight hordes of single-celled organisms. I was impressed by the number of enemies on screen, drop-in 4 player co-op, and the inclusion of a dash move for making quick escapes. The problem I had with Biology Battle was that it took far too long to ramp up in difficulty. Geometry Wars 2 proved that it’s better to overwhelm a beginner player than bore more experienced ones. Biology Battle was fun, but the Geometry Wars-clone genre overflowed long ago.

As for Colosseum, I didn’t see much of a game there. Four fighters enter a barebones arena and battle with a limited array of attacks. Combat moves are on the right analog stick for no particular reason, and even in my short time with the game the combat seemed boring and repetitive. The graphics were impressive, but independent developers should leave flashy graphics to the big guys. Indie games are all about fresh ideas, and Colosseum is fresh out.

Here’s hoping that some of the nearly 70 completed titles in the XNA Community Club have more to offer than what I was shown.
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Ten Ton Gorillas:

Mirror’s Edge

Crowd psychology at the Mirror’s Edge booth would have made for an interesting study. As each player waited on line, watching at least ten people before them run through the same demo, it seemed to feed into the choices they’d make. Mirror’s Edge offers freedom to freerun from rooftop to rooftop in a variety of ways, yet nearly everyone took an identical path at an identical pace.

Maybe it’s because the game uses the color red to string you along the most obvious path. Maybe there really isn’t any freedom in how you get around. But, after watching my own queue of 10 players take the exact same path, I got a sense for where the shortcuts might be and where players can spice things up and actually have some fun with Mirror’s Edge. Sure enough, each time I broke away from the red brick road I got an excited reaction from the line behind me.

The developers have said that perfecting a path through a level will be the addictive sauce in Mirror’s Edge. If the crowd at PAX is any indication, then I worry the game’s ultimate goals will go unseen. But for the ones that get it, this will be one hell of a ride, and the kind of thing that YouTube videos are made of.
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Gears of War 2

Something’s up with the color palette in Gear of War 2. The first game’s muted visuals came under fire for being too drab. Now not only are the bloody reds and the leafy greens more vibrant, but the grays are more gray. The result is something that conjures up thoughts of Schindler’s List or Sin City. I’m not really sure that’s what they were going for.

On display at PAX were several of Gears 2‘s 5 vs. 5 multiplayer modes. Playing team deathmatch on a remake of one of the original Gears maps made it hard to see the improvements. Honestly, it ended up boiling down to the same absurd roll-and-shotgun tactics from the first game. There wasn’t a single firefight that didn’t look incredibly awkward. I’m hoping this was simply a consequence of getting 10 new players together, as the announced features they’re adding to the game are pretty impressive. It would be a shame if the same exploits that plagued the original rear their ugly head again and detract from Gears of War 2‘s big, better, badass-ness.
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Dead Space

In my short time with Dead Space I learned a few things. It looks stunning. It combines the pacing of Resident Evil with the gravity-defying antics of Super Mario Galaxy. It relays everything you need to know (health, ammo) through the environment, rather than clogging up the screen with gauges. Did I mention how great it looks?
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Resistance 2

If I were interested in Resistance 2 I’d be worried. Maybe I’m not the person to be talking about it, but honestly the showing at PAX was embarrassing. Networked multiplayer was on display, and despite playing against people immediately next to me, I experienced some pretty terrible lag. Yes, this could be fixed between now and it’s November release, but wasn’t doing itself any favors on the show floor.

I also wasn’t seeing much original content. Humans taking on ugly, grey aliens can be seen in at least 5 different exhibits at PAX. The environments and objectives reminded me of Star Wars: Battlefront, or the Battlefield series. I was constantly getting experience points a la Call of Duty 4. Absurdly huge alien rifles take a million bullets to kill anyone and yet I was constantly dropping dead with no feedback from what killed me. Resistance 2 simply wasn’t any fun.
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Left 4 Dead

The player ahead of me sits down to take his turn after a grueling hour and a half wait. I watch intently as he makes his way through a run-down building, shotgun in hand, following his three teammates. They come across a smattering of zombies in each room, many of which are riddled with bullets before they even get wind of human flesh. The player reloads his shotgun as he makes his way towards the exit. He pauses, and his teammate makes his way out into the alleyway. As another smattering of zombies is dispatched, he hangs back in the threshold, his teammate now further down the alley, out of sight. Suddenly his teammate is yelling and the threshold of the doorway frames an endless mob of reanimated corpses, running at full speed.

Ten minutes later their demo is over, and I find myself waiting at the very same threshold. This time nothing happens. My group confidently makes our way further down the alley, out into the streets, and then we are mobbed by walking dead on all sides. The AI director at work in Left 4 Dead aims to make each co-op experience unique, even when playing the same levels over and over. It keeps you on your toes, which is good because the smooth controls allow you to make short work of a crowd of zombies. The game looks amazing, and in my short time with it, it’s quickly jumped to the top of my most anticipated games.
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Fable 2

Fable 2’s cooperative mode is not what I was expecting. It’s a very intimate experience, with two players sharing the same screen real estate whether they’re playing in the same room or online. You can’t go wandering off on your own, and it actually felt more like an old-school beat ’em up than an action RPG. Two players will typically want to stay together anyway, but why limit them in a game that champions the freedom of choice?

Another thorn in Fable 2’s side is that while two characters can play together, they can’t progress together. A friend can join your game and fight alongside you, collecting gold and leveling up, but any quest you complete won’t be reflected in their game. An option to share the same world and quests would have made cooperative play much more interesting.

The original Fable was a fun game, and Fable 2 looks to be better in many ways. I’m looking forward to it, but the display at PAX was showing off cooperative play, and honestly I don’t see it having much appeal. I’d love to play through Fable 2 with a friend, but then I’d either have to sucker them into joining my game, play through the game two times, or forgo completing quests altogether. None of those options sound very appealing, so unless the developers come up with a solution, this will be a strictly single player affair.
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Guitar Hero World Tour

Ever since Harmonix left Activision to make Rock Band, the Guitar Hero franchise has disgusted me. Guitar Hero 3 dumped precision in favor of excessively difficult note charts. The art style was coated with an extra layer of sleaze. The incompatibility with Rock Band instruments was childish and unprofessional. Now the developers of Guitar Hero World Tour are claiming themselves the pioneers of the genre–a flat-out lie.

But even with all that, I must admit playing drums in Guitar Hero World Tour is a lot of fun. The extra dimensions of the set adds a lot to the feel. The design feels sturdy and the pads are quiet.

The game itself isn’t so great. Many of the flourishes from Rock Band, like big rock endings and custom drum fills appear to be absent. Saving bandmates isn’t an option, rather the game just lazily makes it much harder to lose. The difficulty is still absurdly uneven, though pausing mid-song and dropping to a lower difficulty is quick and streamlined. The note charts are arranged identically to Rock Band‘s, though they’re somehow sloppier, with odd color choices like a light gray bar for bass drum notes.

I maintain that the Guitar Hero franchise disgusts me, and World Tour isn’t doing it any favors. However, the drums are awesome, and Harmonix could do with a lesson in peripheral manufacturing. If these drums work well with Rock Band 2, I may even consider replacing my old set.
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Little Big Planet

Everyone wants Little Big Planet to be amazing. This upcoming PS3 title allows players to create their own sidescroller levels and share them with friends. While I hate to naysay, having negative impressions of some of the bigger PAX exhibits, I will say there is one thing that worries me.

Little Big Planet is a three dimensional game. While it may look like Mario, there is some room to move towards and away from the screen. It wouldn’t be a problem except there are jumps that not only factor this in, but are really hard to judge. Ultimately it will come down to how people design their levels, but it’s something that bothered me and I wouldn’t feel right leaving it out.

That said, Little Big Planet has huge potential. The quirky character design is adorable. Riding a giant skateboard down a hill with four players left me grinning from ear to ear. The creative potential here is astounding. Assuming the core game underneath the customization is solid, this is the game that will make everyone want PS3s.
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Photo Collage Afterparty
The Good

The show floor featured some amazing exhibits. Fallout 3 easily had the best of the bunch, and while I didn’t have time to actually play the game, the booth was a site to be seen. The airstream and charred 1950’s family? Yep, that’s Fallout 3.

The bands I saw put on an amazing show. The One Ups awed me with their jazz rendition of music from Toe Jam & Earl. Freezepop rokked the house harder than anyone. Jonathan Coulton Rick-Rolled the audience with a portable MIDI controller.

The Bad

The booth babes and promotional mascots were in full force at PAX.

(Click to Enlarge)

They couldn’t top the cosplayers though.

Well, most of them anyway.

(Just to clarify, since it seems to be bothering some people, I don’t think the cosplayers were actually “Bad”. But it’s not my cup of tea, and certainly not as cool as the exhibit hall or live performances. Logic denotes they’d go in the second tier of “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”. Keep up the costumes, people!)

And The Ugly

Now with 100% more fragdolls and babies!

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Update! I nearly forgot to include the obligatory shot of all the shit I bought:

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