I went into E3 not expecting much from Microsoft mainly because I didn’t think there were many bombshells or surprises that could have taken place. Apart from the Natal showing and a few unannounced games appearing during the presser I felt I was, for the most part, right. Nothing huge and shocking (no Halo 4 – level announcements) and many of the games displayed were, in fact, multi-platform.
However, what I did see on the show floor was a variety of products that both intrigued me and excited me as well as perhaps leaving me a little disappointed.
How so? Well, let’s start by taking a look at the first game I came across in the booth.
Halo 3: ODST
Let’s get this out of the way quick: Halo has always been a franchise for the core gamer. Period. It is the equivalent of a summer blockbuster that draws the attention of mass media and encourages people who aren’t gamers to buy it just to feel a part of the “in crowd”. The game’s play mechanic only slightly evolves over each iteration: if you were good at Halo 2, you will be good at Halo 3 (and so on) without even playing it yet. ODST does not change that. It is Halo 3 with a few fresh coats of paint, an alternate take on the story from a different perspective, and the addition of modes found in more popular recent games like Modern Warfare and Left 4 Dead. And for fans of the series, that is totally fine. This is Halo pure and pure, and if it ain’t broke… well, you know the rest.
One of the first things I noticed about the game is the updated visor HUD. Drawing inspiration from previous Halo games as well as Metroid Prime, the HUD removed the radar and cleaned up the allotted space to focus more on the environment and surroundings. The camera angle was lower, due to the shorter height of the ODST in comparison to Master Chief (who is not a playable character in the game…) and the city seemed suspiciously sparse. Was that intended? No idea. ODST played more like a single-player game than previous Halo games; there were no teammates around me as I trudged through the city shooting the now famous side-stepping/dancing brutes. The AI was still relatively unchanged from Halo 3 in that the enemies were extremely predictable and guidable: I was able to get a brute to follow me towards a beacon, only stopping him if I had run too fast out of his perceptive viewpoint from when on he seemed to fall back into his predetermined ho-hum guadr duty.
Playing as the “Rookie” really made me feel as though I was being dropped into the battlefield — as I was learning the game, he was learning the ropes of being an ODST being placed on the spot. The difficulty was ramped up due to the removal of a second wielded weapon, with shot precision becoming more of a factor in taking down an enemy. Taking mission-based orders from the Superintendent was a welcome departure, as the slight sandbox nature of the game helped alleviate the almost on-rails feeling I got from Halo 3‘s linear play. The environments were large and atmospheric and the lighting effects were excellent touches (especially the fires raging in the background).
Overall, this was a solid game that played like past Halo outings while at the same time catching the series up to the levels of more modern FPSes. Halo was beginning to show its age, so here’s hoping that ODST hearkens to the direction that the series is taking in the future.
Alan Wake almost became this generation’s Duke Nuke’em Forever: it was often shown, referenced, but never seemed like it was actually going to be released. I had little expectation then, that the game would live up to the hype of the past.
I was wrong.
Perhaps the extra development time made Wake into extremely polished and unique experience. The overall “spookiness” that the game emits (thanks to its night/day schematic) allows for an extremely mature game that plays out like a novel… with a flashlight. You see, light and dark play an important aspect in the storytelling: while in the dark, light is used to reveal/save/”cleanse” the environment and enemies. It can be a little difficult to explain, but the demo I witnessed flowed very well. I am always intrigued by innovation in gaming and Alan Wake provides that almost to a fault as the game is extremely high-concept and may put off a few players by its intense focus on its deep story over its other gameplay elements. This may be this year’s Mirror’s Edge.
Racing games are this year’s FPS. They were everywhere at E3, with each game employing unique elements that excited gamers. Forza as a series has, in most cases, surpassed Gran Turismo as the penultimate racing experience on consoles. This year saw Forza 3 make its debut, bringing with it the same realism and tight control that the series is known for.
This year Forza adds Le Mans to the mix, something I am EXTREMELY excited about. Audis racing against Porsches and Ferraris at incredibly high speeds with the whirring, zipping of the high-profile engines? FUGGEDABOUDIT.
I never played Forza 2, but the sequel drew me in mightily. The track we raced on looked like a ride through the outskirts of Yosemite park, complete with trees lining the mountain-based road. Railings on the sides made me nervous each time I over-steered a corner. The exterior camera angle is very traditional for racing games, and the shrunken HUD is what you’d expect: map, speed info, and race ranking all utilizing transparent colors to let more of the background show through. Nothing groundbreaking, but clean. The cars looked gorgeous and highly-detailed, and were on par with what I’ve seen from GT5 for their glossy, next-gen look.
The game controlled extremely well, and was apparently an upgrade thanks to the new game engine running at a SILKY smooth 60 frames/s. The controls were slightly loose, and I didn’t get a firm answer on whether I was able to adjust them to my own specifications or not. The major selling point of Forza this year is the connection to the community aspect. I didn’t get a chance to see or try it, but the developers explained to me that the Forza community is a highly-devoted group of fans that place showing-off of their vehicles in high value. Forza 3 brings new high-def video editing and sharing features to the fold, surely inspiring even more competition for “who has the hottest decal on their Aston Martin”. Sign me up.
Mass Effect 2
Out of all the games I knew were being shown at E3 this year, Mass Effect 2 was the one I was most looking forward to seeing. But thanks to my hectic schedule a few short minutes watching a demo is all I got.
And I was floored by it.
The original Mass Effect had its flaws, but upon recently finishing it I fell in love with the story, characters, and the world that the game resides in. It was a stand-out RPG not only for the 360, but for all modern gaming consoles that I felt needed only a few tweaks to improve. So as I laid my eyes on Mass Effect 2 for the first time (I missed the press conference, unfortunately) I was in shock. The game had gone from great to incredible. The visuals scaled the wall along the chasm of realism, the so-called uncanny valley, to the point where they affected my feelings towards the characters speaking. The characters seemed real because they were real… or realistically rendered, at least. Beautiful.
The demo showed to me was of a warehouse-like locale in a darkened, gloomy city. The focus was clearly on the improvements to the shooting mechanic which, in my opinion, was fine in the original. One of the reasons I liked Mass 1 so much was that it wasn’t a pure shooter and it wasn’t a pure RPG. It was a hybrid between the two genres that worked well. I’ll be interested to see how much Mass Effect 2 has gone towards erecting a home in “FPS-land”.
“Early 2010″ can’t come soon enough.
I did not get a chance to see Left 4 Dead 2 or Shadow Complex and didn’t get my grubby hands (or lack of) on Natal either so I chose not to comment about them. Microsoft’s booth wares were very good, covering enough of the core gamer spectrum to make fans happy. There was an apparent lack of anything family-oriented, and if there was something there then it was small enough to be missed. The Xbox 360 looks to have another solid fall & holiday season this year, but the expectations for 2010 will be enormous. Mass Effect 2? Check. Natal? Check. Empty wallet (again)? CHECK.
[Videos coutresy Joystiq.com, Gametrailers.com, GiantBomb.com]