The first full day for this year's E3 was quite a momentous one for me. Right off the bat I had the opportunity to check out the exclusive footage of Half Life 2. As the sequel to one of the greatest first person titles of all time, it had a lot to follow up to, and I was not disappointed.
Based on Valve's new SOURCE engine, I witnessed an amazing display of HL2's vivid character expressions and wide open environments that could only be dreamt of back when HL1 was released. Team AI, both involving human and even alien allies was very solid and impressive. Nothing beats throwing some bait to an attacking army and sending your bugs out to slaughter them whole. Visuals have also improved vastly, from the amazing facial features right to the water refractions.
My next appointment was with Rockstar, where I had the opportunity to test out the recently released PC version of Vice City. From what I saw I was very impressed, and if any indications are like those I saw in GTA3 PC, it will be another success. Midnight Club 2 on the Xbox was the only other title I had a chance to try out. I played the PS2 version, which was amazing to begin with, even the online mode. However, when you add a faster frame rate and the inclusion of Xbox Live, MC2 will take on a whole new meaning.
The first big meeting of the event took place afterwards when I had my annual summit with EA Sports. I had a chance to check out Madden's new feature, the owner mode. Taking the ideas of Franchise mode, Madden allows a team owner to do anything to his team: decide on the cost of concessions and ticket prices, moving the team to another stadium (or city for that matter), even deciding on the cost of parking! All of a sudden the Madden franchise has acquired Football Mogul as an extra mode.
NHL 2004 was also tested, and after being disappointed over the arcade-style gameplay of 2003, I received word that EA Sports obtained a new development house in Black Box (who previously worked on the excellent NHL 2K on Dreamcast as well as the NHL Hitz series by Midway). More authentic hockey has been promised for this year. I hope so.
NCAA Football 2004 also looked promising. As if the best college football game couldn't get any better, now we are given the opportunity to play some of the greatest college football games in history (I can finally turn the tables on Wide Right I). The much beloved Dynasty mode has also been improved, as coaches can now be graded in terms of their job security (similar to MVP Baseball). A new stat-tracking mode features the greatest players every week, even putting them on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The EA Sports session ended with a preview of the latest NASCAR Thunder build. Seems everything has now been improved. Teammates will now work with each other (so Hendrick member Jeff Gordon will assist Jimmie Johnson, while Dale Jr. will assist his DEI buddy Michael Waltrip), and now rivalries can build after running a driver into the wall (I found out the hard way today when I smashed Sterling Marlin against a wall). Visuals have been improved with a new particle effects system, showing off fiery engines, dissipating smoke and more realistic clouds. Lastly a new mode called Speed Zone debuts with a new training mode allowing you to test out the ability to drive like a true Winston Cup Champion.
All of EA Sports titles this year will be online (on PS2 only), and these sports titles will be cross interacted with each other. Similar to Xbox Live, if a player is on Madden, and someone else wants to play NHL against him, an invite will be sent out to that player. It will be interesting to see how that will turn out, but I still want to see EA on Xbox Live!
With my EA Sports meeting out of the way, I was not prepared for the shock I was going to receive next"the preview of Medal of Honor: Rising Sun. At first I thought I was going to be seeing the standard cookie cutter Medal of Honor title. Not even close. What I was treated to was an actual recreation of the invasion of Pearl Harbor from the eyes of a Naval midshipman on board an attacked battleship.
He escapes the burning corridors to man the deck cannons, where we are treated to a gorgeous, but stunning, scene of Japanese kamikaze fighters crashing into the battleship, bullets whizzing by under the water (similar to Frontline), a scene of the battleship Arizona being sunk, and four brave soldiers battling to the death onboard a PT boat where we see hundreds of Zero fighters in flight. The event even gets emotional at the end where the PT boat captain says, "many people will never observe what we have seen today. And we can never forget the ones that died."
Several times during the amazing 10 minute presentation I just wanted to say "Oh my God" over and over again. We've seen many recreations of D-Day in the past (Wolfenstein, Battlefield 1942, Frontline and Allied Assault, etc.) but this is the first true Pearl Harbor reenactment, and from what I have seen so far this could be a strong Best of Show candidate.
The other big meeting I had was with Konami, a session I was looking forward to. Since this was Konami's 30th anniversary in gaming, they had a lot to show and I was not disappointed at all. I already mentioned about the two Metal Gear titles but that was only the beginning. Remakes were blossoming all over with a brand new Gradius title (5) taking full advantage of the PlayStation 2 while keeping the suicide-level difficulty that made the game so enticing in the past.
The first Castlevania game for the next-gen platforms (in this case, the PS2 Lament of Innocence) is now on display. At first, the 3D setting worried me, but after getting a chance to play it, my fears are now a thing of the past. What we have here is a fast Castlevania Symphony of the Night-esque title with slight touches of both Devil May Cry and Rygar: the Legendary Adventure. It will be interesting to see how it turns out in the end.
But the best surprise of Konami's bag o'tricks comes in the return of their beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. The latest version plays like a 3D version of their 16-bit beat ’em ups with brand new cel-shading made to look like the impressive new FoxBox TV series. I mentioned last year I was very happy with Konami's new found love for the classics (look what they did with Contra Shattered Soldier and the two Game Boy Advance Castlevania titles) and I'm glad to see it continuing to this year.
Finally the other key title I got hands on was both F-Zero titles, AX for the Triforce arcade system and GX for the GameCube. Both games were lightning fast, and the GameCube version runs without any breakup whatsoever (even in the four player mode). I've mentioned that the ‘Cube is on "do or die" at the moment, but F-Zero might be a change for the better. I still have yet to check out Mario Kart Double Dash and Rogue Squadron 3, but I will look for them tomorrow. By then, I should be able to decide on my picks for the show, but so far it looks like MOH: Rising Sun, Half Life 2, and Castlevania PS2.
Editorial Note: Todd's E3 wrap-up column will appear next week after he has had a chance to collect his thoughts from the show.