A Boot-level View Of E3 2012

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It’s a typically sunny and mild southern California June day, but for once the crowds aren’t here for the sun. A flood of people stream down the street to the convention center, wearing badges, carrying cameras, wielding smart phones. All of them eager to reach their destination, even a couple hours before the show doors have opened. The mammoth LA advertisements that usually pitch phone plans, designer shades, or shiny new cars instead boast an elf in armor and her Elder Scrolls companions, each a couple hundred feet tall.

Times might be tough for a lot of industries, but an increasing percentage of people turn to games for their entertainment, even if they don’t identify themselves as gamers. From net and app phenomena like Angry Birds to grandmas in the retirement home playing Wii bowling, most people come into contact ‘ directly or indirectly ‘ with games almost every day. E3 may be the place where those of us who like their contact with gaming to be as direct as possible go to learn about the latest and greatest, but whether they know it or not the indirect gamer also has a stake in E3, because it’s the place where many games first learn whether or not they have the wings they’ll need to fly.

The Hits

Judging by the predominant art and advertisements festooning the convention center, "H" is the letter of the day; Halo 4 and Hitman Absolution dominated the eyeball real estate, but not without good cause. Both games look fantastic, and if the demos are anything to go by, they should be well worth the hype and the fans’ eager waiting.

Though Halo 4 fans got a glimpse of this game’s Covenant incarnations, a decent look at the Forerunner planet and its denizens, and a promise of more information on Cortana, the real focus was on Halo 4’s multiplayer content – and not without good reason. The usual new additions to multiplayer were promised, as is typically the case in the latest title of a franchise; more weapons, new ways to upgrade and customize, new armors to unlock. But the real treat in this case is the promise of almost daily extra content for co-op play.

For months after the game’s release, five downloadable co-op missions will be available every week, each of them taking 20 minutes or more to complete – and all of them free. These co-op missions, or ‘Spartan Ops’, will continue the story of the main game, with the developers promising real impact on the story and the characters based on these episodes. And depending on how well the first few months of the Spartan Ops are received, there’s the possibility of more to follow.

Shifting from laser guns to poisoned beverages, we come to Square Enix’s Hitman Absolution. Fans were able to get hands-on time with this demo, and reactions were hugely positive. Visually, the game is striking, with some fantastic lighting, and some impressively interactive environments. The level of visual detail, and the responsiveness of the environment, allowed for a sense of immersion very conducive to the creative thinking that sets the Hitman gaming experience apart.

And though it doesn’t start with an ‘H’, Square Enix had another big offering to make at E3. Behind closed doors, we got a look at the new Tomb Raider, an origin story for young Lara Croft. The demo was nearly half an hour long, and the audience was simply rapt. This is a much more brutal version of the Tomb Raider you know, with Lara struggling to survive after a crash landing on a dangerous island populated by murderous inhabitants. She limps along nursing wounds, needs to hunt to survive (using the bow that is her trademark weapon for this game), and convinces herself that yes she can make that terrifying jump. There’s a system in place to allow for the use of tools in the environment – torches to burn through obstacles, gathering resources to reinforce items. But all of that is well and good, and really we would expect no less than fun gameplay from a Tomb Raider title. But there’s more going on here.

The environments are rendered in breath-taking detail; rarely do you believe you’re looking at real water or leaves quite like this. And there will be ample opportunity to really explore these environments for the player who wants that experience, as the game has no map function. A ‘survival instinct’ mode allows you to know the general direction you want to go for your next goal, but those who wish a deeper level of realism will just have to navigate by terrain landmarks. And those who want realism are going to find other things to love here too. As Lara goes from crash landing, to rain storm, to deer hunt, to cave crawl, and finally to killing her first man at point blank range in a moment of sheer terror, you see the toll of her journey on her body in streaks of mud and blood, rendered with as much impressive detail as the environment around here. This isn’t the glamorous Lara Croft of later years, spelunking and shooting with shiny clean elan.

Established fans of the Tomb Raider series will want to play this game for nostalgia’s sake alone, but newcomers may want to give this one a try as well when it hits shelves in March of 2013. If the demo was anything to go by, it’s going to be quite an experience.

The Eye Catching

The Master Chief, Agent 47 and Lara did have some competition, however.

Few things at E3 this year caught the eye quite like NetherRealm’s Injustice: Gods Among Us. With banners everywhere you looked, and stylized trailers, it was almost impossible to tear yourself away from it. And it was easy to find yourself getting excited before you even knew what you were getting excited about. But though the promo art for the game is simply stunning, it’s important to remember what the gorgeous packaging is for, as it would be easy to assume one is getting a sprawling action game, especially if one isn’t familiar with the developer. Injustice is definitely Mortal Kombat for DC heroes, and if that tickles your fancy then you are probably going to be pleased with what the game has to offer in terms of the combat system itself, especially with the cinematic flair involved. But whether or not the overall experience manages to live up to its packaging remains to be seen.

One game that doesn’t need packaging to sell – because its iconic imagery is packaging enough – is Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines. This FPS game looks fantastic, with a dark, gritty atmosphere appropriately reminiscent of the movies – particularly Aliens, to which this game is, canonically, a sequel. Characters from the movie do appear here, sweetening the deal for fans of the series. The main gameplay itself looks fun enough, but throw in some Alien vs. Marines for multiplayer, and it’s almost impossible to resist.

But it can be said that miniskirts catch the eye of some as effectively as freaky aliens do, and as such the mini-skirted Star Fleet officers flanking the Captain’s chair outside of Namco Bandai’s Star Trek booth did their job well. For those of us who may not be captivated by mini skirts, but who are captivated by starships, the booth itself did a fair job of attention-grabbing. Inside the theater for the 3D demo experience things were a little less eye-catching, but still intriguing. Star Trek the video game – a third person shooter – picks up where the recent movie left off, and the game showcases the film’s actors as voice talent. Visually the game isn’t breaking any new ground, nor do there appear to be any great innovations to the third person style.

But the game does have charm, stemming from its embrace of the source material. The game is fully co-op, with players taking on the roles of Kirk and Spock, and the regular stream of dialogue will tickle established fans. There’s some added fun in the use of Spock’s tricorder scans, which can point out enemy weaknesses, reveal plot elements, and pinpoint useful bits of terrain to manipulate – but as we all know, it’s really all about the Kirk combat roll.

Perfect World’s new addition the Neverwinter Nights name shows promise. This newest incarnation of the fantasy game looks like a cross between your typical MMO and your typical single-player action game. Control of your character is more direct than in any of the previous Neverwinter games, with a real-time combat element even though it still incorporates the wide variety of abilities one is accustomed to key-mapping (though nowhere near the amount of abilities the old Dungeons and Dragons based games showcased). Even random experimentation with unfamiliar ability icons yielded interesting and entertaining results, and some colorful and engaging animations. The gameplay is easy to pick up, and that ease stems from its familiarity; this can be a boon, but it could also represent a lack of original vision. Only more extensive time with the game will tell if the overall experience manages to break new ground, but sometimes all that is really required is a simple but steady entertainment value, and at first glance Neverwinter Nights does seem like it will provide.

The Force

One game that didn’t have a presence on the exhibit floor, but which will undoubtedly have one heck of a presence in the gaming field at large, was LucasArts’ Star Wars 1313. If you were lucky enough to get into the behind-closed-doors demo, it became obvious you were in for a treat on a Star Wars scale as soon as you stepped into the theater – a small space designed to appear as the interior of a ship, with images of Coruscant’s cityscape passing slowly by the view port "windows," giving the illusion of descending into the under-levels of the city. All the way down to Level 1313, to be precise – where the new game from LucasArts is based.

The game is being presented as the "first ever mature expression of Star Wars" in the words of the game’s project director. That much was proved true in the demo alone, which not only features much edgier dialogue than seen in any of the films, but some equally edgy action, all of which will likely kick the ESRB rating of this game higher than any Star Wars game before it.

In Star Wars 1313 you take on the role of a Bounty Hunter, descending into the darkest, most violent and crime-infested levels of the Coruscant underworld to carry out your mission, in third-person shooting style. There are no Jedi here. What sets you apart – and what forms the mechanic at the core of the game – is the iconic tech and gadgetry that epitomizes the Star Wars Bounty Hunter.

But as fun as all of that sounds, it was simply the stunning visuals that really left you breathless in this demo. And really, what else should one expect when LucasArts, Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and all of the various Lucas-spawned studio powerhouses team up? The characters are the product of full performance capture, which feeds facial expressions straight into the engine, resulting in characters of incredible life-like detail.

The full performance capture also allows for the incorporation of the various adlibs and improvisations the actors might have engaged in on-set, infusing the game performances with a lovely level of realism. As one of the presenters in the demo said about the believability and nuance of the game world and its inhabitants: "If this is what we’re asking the players to believe, we think the characters they are interacting with need to believe it as well."

The demo, though striking, wasn’t nearly enough to really sink one’s teeth into, but it was more than enough to whet the appetite. Perhaps the most exciting comment to come from the developers was the following, about the extent to which the player will control even the most dramatic action scenes of the game, far beyond the shooting of blasters: "You never want to see anything in cinematics that you would rather play." If they can deliver on that, gamers are probably in for a serious treat.

But if Star Wars 1313 isn’t enough Star Wars for you, there was also the opportunity to get a glimpse into the future of Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The presentation for The Old Republic led off with some stats, in case we weren’t sure about the game’s success to date: 1 million accounts created on Day 1 of the game’s launch, making it five times the size of any other MMO launch to date. That’s quite a figure, and what remains to be seen is whether or not the game can sustain its momentum – but the developers do seem to be approaching that challenge with gusto, and there are a lot of new features already on the way, to follow up on the Rise of the Rakghouls and Legacy updates.

In patch 1.3 – "Allies" – we can expect to see extended Legacy perks, even more adaptive and customizable gear options, and the addition of a much asked-for Group Finder feature which will allow you to choose the style of content you’re looking for (Heroics, Flashpoints, or Operations) and designate your role when you put yourself in the queue, and will then group you with other players accordingly. No more languishing on the Fleet hoping someone actually opens the Who window before you die of old age and become one with the Force.

Those players wishing their friends weren’t scattered over so many servers will be happy to hear that starting on June 12th there will be a free character-transfer system put in place. And those players wishing they could entice more of their friends to play will be happy to hear of the upcoming implementation of free-to-play until Level 15, with no time limits placed on how long it takes you to get there.

Fans of the Knights of the Old Republic will be happy to hear that yes, at last, the arrival of HK-47 (or HK-51, as he has now become) is imminent. And HK will be happy to hear he can engage in rampant violence and carnage across the galaxy once again, alongside both Republic and Imperial characters.

A level cap increase has been confirmed, though no word yet on what the new cap will be, and players can look forward to exploring a new planet: Makeb, the planet from which the Hutts plan to start their takeover of the galaxy. As being dominated by giant slugs would put a crimp in the plans of both Republic and Empire, I think we can guess where the patch title of "Allies" comes from.

An interview with game director James Ohlen turned up a few other tidbits:

* Yes, Guild ships are in the works, though there’s no word on when we might see them.

* The team responsible for the space combat missions are working on an exciting new project.

* In designing Makeb, the team is taking into account lessons learned from player feedback; namely, that they "need to focus more on story instead of side quests." Makeb is supposed to provide a more epic and focused storyline for all characters.

* A much-desired ability to summon far-away party members to a Flashpoint is being looked at.

* The lack of variety in available speeders/mounts is being looked at by the team. Mr. Ohlen even hinted at the potential for walkers as future mounts!

* A mysterious "Loyalty Program" is in the works, but nothing more can really be said about it at this time.

That was pretty much my first day at E3. I’ll have a lot more to report in my big E3 wrap-up piece.

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