Thursday, June 12, 2014

Report From the Front: Ubisoft Uplay Lounge (E3 2014)

Since I am a member of the Ubisoft (pronounced you-be-soft) Uplay service, I got an email where I could sign up for a chance to go to their Uplay Lounge during E3 2014. Since I wasn’t even sure I was going to win anyway, I decided I might as well sign up, only to be surprised later that I would be getting the opportunity to go. I had to select one day, so I went with Wednesday, June 11, 2014, since it was the longest day, lasting from 2 to 8 P.M., and I brought my brother along as my +1. I saw this as a unique opportunity for myself and Trophy Unlocked, so I went to Downtown L.A. and found a parking structure nearby before walking about a block over to the Standard Hotel to go inside.

When my brother and I got to the site, I presented my email along with our NDAs (everything I’m about to say shouldn’t really be in violation of them) and we received a lanyard…to share. Two orange circular stickers were also placed on the back with “5:45” written on them, though at the time we had no idea what it was for. It was very quick to get to the Uplay Lounge, as it was a simple trip up an escalator and clearly visible from the top. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photos or video, so I’ll just have to describe everything with text and try to find screenshots as substitutes. Once we got inside however, we noticed that what we thought the experience would be like in our heads was very different from the reality.

First off, the room was actually very small and obviously filled to capacity, sort of like Comic-Con in a box; in fact, the experience ended up being pretty good practice for the upcoming convention. There were a few games set up for people to play, although I didn’t really end up playing most of them because either A) the game was already out or B) I just simply wasn’t interested. To one side was a small kiosk to purchase Ubisoft merch, most of which related to Assassin’s Creed. In one corner was a photo booth, where the two of us decided to get our photos taken against a backdrop because we could. As advertised, there was also an open bar, although when we took advantage of it they weren’t serving any alcohol (though I wouldn’t have had any anyway since although I’m 21, I don’t really drink if I don’t have to). They were also serving free food of different varieties, including pizza, carrot/celery sticks, burger sliders and cookies/digestives just to name a few. As an interesting surprise, they were also offering the ability to scan your face for a 3D printed model of Arno from Assassin’s Creed Unity, but with your face in place of his, all for the low, low price of $99.95. Naturally I didn’t take advantage of this, since I was really in no position to blow that kind of money, even if the service was exclusive to the Uplay Lounge.

That’s kind of it really, a tiny room with maybe 100 people in it and, to top it all off, no A/C. Most of the time, we didn’t really know what to do, so we kind of looked around at the games and ate a lot of the free food. I’m grateful that they fed us, but the food tasted about what you’d expect free food to taste like, though admittedly the cookies and pizza weren’t too bad. Out of an early bar selection of Lemon Water, Lemonade and Iced Tea, we had a couple glasses of Lemonade, which was actually pretty good; I guess they must have mixed that fresh for it to have that quality. We also perused the kiosk but didn’t really buy anything out of lack of interest (plus I’ll probably get a free shirt later at SDCC for pre-ordering Assassin’s Creed Unity). Sometimes they would be giving out free swag, but only in waves and in very limited quantities, so of course I never got any that way.

After a while, like maybe an hour or so, we did finally play a couple of games. For the record, these were the games available for everyone to play:

2. Tom Clancy’s Endwar Online
3. Shape Up
4. Just Dance 2015
5. Trials Fusion
6. Tetris Ultimate
7. The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot

Of those seven games, here are the two we actually played:

Shape Up (Xbox One)

So far, I have no incentive to buy an Xbox One, mostly because I’m afraid that Microsoft’s 180 on their draconian DRM will reverse again and become a 360. However, when I saw this Xbox One exclusive game on display while watching Ubisoft’s E3 2014 Press Conference via Twitch, I actually found myself having a minor interest in this game. It wasn’t until sometime into the events that the game was available to play anyway, so when I got the chance I took full advantage of it.

Basically, Shape Up is a workout game, though each option is more of a mini-game/exercise hybrid to make the workout more fun. My brother and I both competed with each other in two exercises: Piano Step and Abs Blaster (not sure if that’s the actual name of that exercise but that’s what it was for anyway). Piano Step is sort of like DDR except the track looks similar to Guitar Hero/Rock Band and is meant to exercise your legs by requiring either precise or rapid steps. The other mini-game has you sitting down, shifting your back down every so often as you hold your arms out together to blast incoming aliens a la Space Invaders/Missile Command, all the while supported only by your abs.

Piano Step gameplay, which is similar to DDR and Guitar Hero.

Playing this game is a real workout. I managed to do pretty well considering how out of shape I am in general, but the fact is that the exercise part really works. I was out of breath when I finished Piano Step and felt pain in my abs after the other game. The most interesting thing though is how accurate and responsive the Kinect sensor is, since I know it as being a peripheral hardly any compatible game is responsive with. With the Kinect, the game could tell my exact position in relation to the piano keys and knew that I wasn’t leaning back far enough to blast aliens with my arms. If I could recommend an exercise game, it would definitely be this one. After my time with it, it also became the closest reason for me to ever get an Xbox One, although I’m still not wholly sold on the system.

Tetris Ultimate (PlayStation 4)

Since 1984, Tetris has gone on to become one of the most well known games of all time, having been ported to just about every system imaginable. If you can think of a gaming platform, there is probably a version of Tetris for it. As this year is the 30th anniversary of the game, Ubisoft will represent it by releasing Tetris Ultimate later this year. At the Uplay Lounge, we got to try out the PS4 version of the game, but once we started, we found it difficult to stop.

Tetris Ultimate has a number of different play modes to allow players the opportunity to customize their experience. However, the only mode we got to play was Battle Ultimate. In this mode, players compete against each other as power-ups appear for every seventh Tetrimino placed. By clearing a line with at least one block featuring the power-up, which disappears after a while, the power-up is triggered and briefly alters the game in some fashion, be it raining junk blocks on your opponent or automatically clearing the bottom three lines in your well. You can even force your opponent to deal with nothing but square blocks for five turns. It’s a very fun mode that brings forth the spirit of competition without any negative side effects. In fact, we were playing with a group of other people seated around the TV and everyone was very civil about losing and having to pass the controller on to someone else.

The controls for the game are very intuitive and responsive, with a controller layout that makes the most sense for a console version. As a neat little touch, when observing the other players, we noticed that the color of the light on the controller (the light indicates some limited Move functionality built into it) changes color to match the piece that the player is currently working with. For example, an “O” block will generate a yellow light and an “I” block will generate a cyan light. On top of that, the game appeared to use the Game Boy version’s gravity, which actually makes it more challenging and, to some degree, more fun to play. We’re definitely going to try and get this version of the game as soon as we possibly can.

Tetris Ultimate in action.

After we played Tetris for about an hour or so, it was close to 5:45. Earlier in the day, they called for people with a certain sticker color from their badges to meet in the theater area for a special presentation. When our color and time was called, we went outside the Lounge and lined up with a few other people, where we stood for about ten minutes until shortly before it was actually 5:45. After we sat down, we found out exactly what was inside the small theater room: they were going to give us a small presentation (while we got actual A/C). Picture their Press Conference, but on a much smaller scale and with only three games to show us. These games were:

1. Assassin’s Creed Unity
2. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
3. Tom Clancy’s The Division

The Assassin’s Creed Unity presentation was more or less going through the exact same mission and steps as the Press Conference presentation, only this time we got more insight into the inner workings of the game; more on this later. I will say here though that the game looks really amazing and I can’t wait to play it (I already plan to pre-order it at SDCC 2014 if they have the option available). The Valiant Hearts presentation was less about the game and more about how the Ubiart Framework Engine works, showing us step-by-step just how flexible the tools are in creating varied and complex environments and characters. This was interesting in a way, but also pretty boring as it was more like watching Ubisoft patting each other on the back. In contrast, the presentation for Tom Clancy’s The Division showed off more of what we can expect from the game, going into gameplay details and how enemy encounters work.

Tom Clancy’s The Division is graphically impressive, but there is more to it than just that and a post-apocalyptic world. They showed us that the player can create a virtual map on the ground, which displays quite a bit of information. As the team we were following walked through an abandoned subway station, they also briefly touched on Echoes, which allow you to reconstruct a scene from an earlier point in time, such as before whatever caused the world go all dystopian; I was reminded of a similar mechanic from Batman: Arkham Origins which allows Batman to solve a crime by reconstructing a crime scene moment by moment for clues. Outside the subway, the player reached ground level and an enemy formation entered into view. However, a tablet player controlling a small drone noticed another group of enemies not too far away and highlighted them on the field. The team then engaged in a firefight, but one of their targets got away, alerting the initial enemy group. It was then that we were told that everything in the environment can be destroyed eventually, necessitating the need to move to find cover. Soon all of the enemies were killed except for an Elite enemy. Teamwork was used to kill him, which is necessary to defeat a single powerful target, unlocking a Base of Operations, where players can manage their team, upgrades, etc. At this point the presentation ended and I was left thinking that the game has some interesting ideas, but I wouldn’t personally rush out to buy it.

The virtual map one can create in The Division.

After those three games, we were ushered into an exclusive demo room (also with A/C), granting players the opportunity to try any of three games:

1. Far Cry 4
2. The Crew
3. Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Unfortunately, there wasn’t really enough time to try out all of them, which is pretty weak for an event like this, but I did manage to play the one demo without a lot of people around it, so here are my first impressions on it:

Valiant Hearts: The Great War (PlayStation 4)

The idea behind Valiant Hearts is that the story is based on actual letters from World War I (WWI), following four characters, strangers on the battlefield, as they eventually help a German soldier find his love. As you play, the perspective shifts between these characters, though I only got to play as three of them. I don’t quite remember the little details about the narrative, though the third part was actually pretty sad and showed that Valiant Hearts is capable of displaying complex emotions through somewhat limited 2D animations.

As for the gameplay itself, it’s actually quite interesting and not entirely what you might expect. Rather than focus on guns, as most war games likely would, Valiant Hearts is more of a side-scroller with a heavy emphasis on puzzle solving. Searching the environment is the key, as within it you’ll find objects needed to get around obstacles or use a combination of levers and pulleys in just the right way to solve a puzzle. I was able to get into it and each level is pretty well thought out. You can even find collectibles hidden throughout and receive information that enlightens the player on certain events or moments from WWI.

Valiant Hearts has an interesting idea going for it and the art style is pretty good. But while I would play more, it’s not really too much of a priority for me in terms of getting the games that I want to play. We’ll see how things go in the future before I give it another shot.

The general style of Valiant Hearts.

After we were sent back into the cramped Uplay Lounge, I felt about ready to leave. However, a new opportunity for information presented itself as Myriam Martin, who played Assassin’s Creed Unity for us in the theater, was on the floor providing answers to questions people may have about the game (or as much as she could since she works on the game’s cinematics). We asked her a few questions ourselves and stuck around for answers to further questions that others had. The following is the information I now know about the game based on what I asked, what she told us during and after the presentation and what I overheard from her additional answers:

1. Assassin’s Creed Unity (ACU) takes place during the French Revolution because what went on during those events in real life created a lot of unique gameplay opportunities for the series. In general, the French Revolution is rife with moments that work for Assassin’s Creed and gave them an opportunity to give the game a location that was both new and exciting.

2. ACU takes place entirely in the city of Paris. As such, naval battles do not carry over from ACIII and ACIV since they felt it simply wouldn’t work or even make sense for the world to have that sort of mechanic. As a counter, the city is huge, like, really huge. Paris is a city that’s not only as large as all of the islands from Black Flag put together, but it also has multiple layers, with plenty of underground sewers and catacombs to explore. In addition, the world is seamless, with no loading or animations when you decide to walk into a room. In fact, you can basically walk right into any room in Paris, all of which are very highly detailed.

3. There are now a lot of side missions that be done around the city, one of which is a murder mystery that the player can take part in solving. Additionally, while standing or walking on rooftops, icons appear that show the many gameplay and mission options available to you. While running on rooftops, these same icons disappear so as to not bother or distract the player from their task at hand.

The first gameplay moment pretty much looks like this.

4. Crowds are now a lot denser, with the capability to generate around 1000 NPCs at a time. The AI is also very varied and allows crowds to react is different ways to their environment or each other. You’ll also be able to see different factions fighting each other as you go by, but you don’t have to interfere if you don’t want to.

5. The navigation and combat systems have both been reworked from the ground up. It is now possible to move about a lot more freely with the new control method and combat has been made more challenging to prevent devolving into a string of button mashing. You’ll now have to approach enemies a little differently, especially the stronger ones, in order to take them down effectively. Keep in mind though that the combat difficulty cannot be changed, as they wanted every player to be given the same degree of challenge. In addition, you can approach a situation with a stealth approach, something emphasized more heavily in ACU compared to the other games, since the higher challenge in combat means that you don’t really need to go for an all out attack every time enemies are in a room. As such, you can also perform stealth kills, which are instant death on whoever is hit with the hidden blade (or the new Phantom Blade).

6. The new protagonist, Arno Dorian, has a personality different from previous assassins in the franchise. Arno is said to be pretty cocky, but also have a romantic side, though not in the same way as Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Also, his story is motivated by revenge, but it’s unknown at this time what exactly motivates his quest for vengeance.

The new assassin, Arno Dorian.

7. Arno also now has abilities which can be upgraded, including the iconic Eagle Vision from previous games, which can be upgraded to increase how long it’s active. This new system is to give the player another opportunity to customize their character and make their experience more unique.

8. I tried asking if the new four-player co-op would be online only, but I was unable to obtain information regarding this question. In time though, we should know more about exactly how the co-op functions.

9. The official stance on why there aren’t any female assassins is because there are so many animations already with Arno that they couldn’t really do the same for female models. This was reiterated in a question answered for another player, but there’s no word yet on female assassins being impossible to put into the game.

10. Lastly, I decided to actually ask some questions about the real world segments, since I’m not sure anyone has really brought that up. Unfortunately, they can’t say too much about that right now since they’re holding back on that information for now. However, I did learn that, due to Desmond effectively being dead following the events of ACIII, the story would be wholly original. The idea for ACU was to return to the roots of the franchise, so the story around it serves as a sort of soft reboot wherein the story is new, but the universe is still the same as it was following the events of Black Flag. On an interesting note however, I didn’t hear anything about Desmond’s story being completely irrelevant to the events of ACU, so we’ll just have to find out later whether his story relates to anything at all.

Following this stream of information, we left the Uplay Lounge at around 7 P.M. and drove back home. I would say that I had an interesting experience and took full advantage of it, or as much as I could anyway, and had a good time. On the other hand, the lack of A/C and the total crowding of people bogged it down a bit and I wish I had more time to play in the exclusive demo room. Though I was tired and had kind of a headache, I’d probably go back if given the chance (heck I’d go to the actual E3 if I could), though I’d have to try to get there earlier to really make the most of it.

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