Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Report from the Front: SDCC 2013 Video Game Demos

San Diego Comic-Con, when not physically and mentally exhausting, is an opportunity to discover new things or find out something more about your interests. Every year that I go I try to check out some of the games on the horizon, though this visit had the added bonus of checking out both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One before these systems reached the hands of the public. This year, I was able to play demos for four separate games, so I have decided to write up how I feel about them based on my first impressions.

Preview Note: The following write-up represents only the opinions of the writer and is based on a work in progress. Should the final version be reviewed, these opinions may change to reflect the full game.

Rayman Legends (Xbox 360)

This is a game that I wanted to play after it was revealed that it would be ported from the original Wii U version to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as well, so when I saw it at the Ubisoft Booth, I knew that would be a golden opportunity to see if I still had interest.

From what I was able to play, which was a regular gameplay level and not any of the extra modes, I think I still want to play it. I’ll admit right off the bat that to some degree it feels largely the same. The assets (graphics and music) seem as though they are recycled from Rayman Origins, though this might be because it uses the same engine and they already had certain things loaded in to work with. That said, there are still some new gameplay mechanics, as well as new music and animations, to help it feel fresh and new while still retaining some familiarity. I’ll admit that I probably would have bought this anyway, but it’s good to be able to remind myself why.

Ryse: Son of Rome (Xbox One)

Let’s be honest, if you were never going to play on an Xbox One but someone gave you the opportunity to try it out for free, you’d probably do it. That’s how I ended up playing Ryse: Son of Rome as my second game demo on the show floor. It’s also how I knew I’d never willingly pay for the privilege of this game.

To get this out of the way, the Xbox One controller is great. It felt very ergonomic in my hand and there are some changes to help it feel a little more natural than the one for the 360. I wasn’t able to try out the d-pad, but the most noticeable changes were from the sticks. The top feels a little more concave with a very slight lip to keep your thumbs in place and the sides are textured to help out the racing game crowd. Microsoft seems to have made an already good controller even better and have it work for many markets.

The hand sanitizer market, for instance.

Unfortunately, it had to be paired with what may be an early stinker for the console. To begin, the reps were unable to say what the story of this game was (story motivates the player, guys!), but they were able to explain the short scenario that the game is based on. Also, the controls weren’t posted anywhere on the screen, so the rep had to tell everyone in line how to play. When I asked another rep about this later (he’ll be brought up again), he acknowledged this blunder.

As for how the game plays, it’s a little weird. I gathered from what the line rep said, who I will henceforth call Rep One, as that they were not only trying to capture the feel of a movie, but also borrow combat elements from Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. The other rep, Rep Two, reiterated with me that what they were going for was the “multiple enemies” scenario with some differences native to Ryse. While I was playing, I noticed the 300 influence Rep One talked about, complete with slowdown and camera angles native to a movie. It’s an interesting idea, but this becomes distracting when all you’re really trying to do is run across a beachhead to Point B.

A late portion of the demo.

The controls are smooth and the camera is good at helping fixed scenarios feel more real, but it was combat which irked me quite a bit. See, you’re given a sword attack and a shield bash, which is all fine and dandy, but when I talked to Rep Two about my experience, he mentioned something that I began to notice in hindsight, which is that the system they’re going for is going to end up trying to tell you the exact order you should be using your attacks on enemies, since after a while an enemy will dodge to force you to use the shield bash. This probably isn’t too much of a complaint there, but the one thing that got to me was the Quick-Time Events. It’s not their presence, since games like God of War can integrate them smoothly, but rather their execution. You’re probably familiar with how they work, press the button onscreen to perform a certain action, but somehow Ryse occupies a certain warped space where the rules don’t matter.

To elaborate, you don’t need to press a single button to make it work. I read about this, but I wasn’t sure that it was possible until I got to try it for myself. I did everything I could, press it correctly and then purposefully press a different button or let the controller down, and the same cinematic still played out exactly with no repercussions or incentive to try and get better at the game from failing (I apologize for not having video of this). This disturbed me, since I didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to do that, so I asked Rep Two to fill me in. When asked about it, he told me that this was an intentional feature because “you’ve basically already killed the guy” and that a later build will punish the player, but only in the animation that they see if they don’t press the right button; he also mentioned that there would be a leveling up system to unlock more executions (ie. more animations). I also said that the Arkham Asylum comparison wasn’t right with me because that game was more focused on rhythm, but, again, he explained that they wanted the scenario and not necessarily the execution.

In the end, Ryse looks like it’s a game designed to attract the 300 and Assassin’s Creed crowds. I know that two people in line, a little boy and a man who pre-ordered the Xbox One for some reason, were both sucked in by these promises, but the intense cinematic focus and lack of repercussions during an execution put me off of this game even more than I already was. But hey, at least the graphics are really good.

Knack (PlayStation 4)

A while after playing Ryse, I decided to try and play a game for PlayStation 4. The line for Knack was almost nonexistent compared to the ones for Octodad/Drive Club and Gran Turismo 6, so I decided to check that out; it’s the one my brother wanted to play anyway. Since we knew that the PS4 was something we would eventually try to get from the Eighth Generation of consoles, Knack was a pretty good game to try out anyway, but playing it pretty much solidified getting the console.

After letting a television crew finish filming there (I actually had the controller handed off to me on-camera before they left), I finally got to have a good feel for the PS4 controller. While I still don’t know how the d-pad felt, I do know that the DualShock 4 felt very natural to hold as always. However, the L2/R2 buttons are improved to allow for the fingers to stay on even when sweaty and the L1/R1 buttons seemed to have been angled in the middle, presumably so the index fingers could naturally curve around them and keep them held down better. The sticks were also greatly improved upon, adopting a sort of concave layering to keep the thumbs in place. In other words, the controller is familiar, but with some elements improved to let it feel good to a wider variety of players. Also, the “Options” button functions exactly like “Start” and the touch pad is not only smooth, but is also a button that can be pressed, which I can see opening up many gameplay options for developers.

The console, this time enclosed behind glass.

While I wasn’t told the story, a rep did tell my brother about how a robot named Knack was developed by a scientist in order to function as a line of defense against invading goblins. The premise is interesting, but from what I could tell it didn’t really matter to the demo, which was cut off halfway through for everyone playing in order to keep the line moving. That should say something, since the demo was pretty long and lasted more time than Ryse.

The level design is very good, going for a classic platforming feel, and the gameplay mechanics compliment this. Knack sort of operates like a living Katamari ball, as he can absorb elements in order to grow larger and increase his strength. Knack was also pretty easy to play, thanks to the simplified control scheme which can allow kids and adults to play by putting most of the action on the face buttons. There is definitely a stealth element present in certain levels, but it’s done in a way that works for the game and doesn’t really detract much.

Knack is both a graphical and technical marvel, mostly in what they did during development to make it so accessible. I had fun while playing and I think it’ll be one of the first games that I play when I finally get my hands on the PS4. It seems like a game that would be fun for the whole family.

Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures 

(Xbox 360/Nintendo 3DS)

To my surprise, the Namco booth had almost no-one trying to play Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, so while I waited for the 360 version to be free, I tried it out on the 3DS. After playing both versions, I’m not really all that excited for Pac-Man’s return.

Both versions of the game control well, with an emphasis on platforming and eating different types of ghosts while collecting power pellets, but it just couldn’t draw me in. I suppose it’s a little clever how they managed to use the different elements of the original Pac-Man in a 3D plane and it’s interesting how they introduced the ability to wear different costumes for new abilities, but again, it couldn’t hold my interest either way. Maybe I’m missing something, but what?

Maybe it’s the lack of a story to go by in the demo. I wasn’t really sure why I was doing the things I was doing, which is probably explained by the fact that it’s meant to tie into a show airing on Disney XD. Still, a little bit of plot would’ve been nice to have.

Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is a game I’m not looking forward to picking up. This disinterest is not nostalgia or anything, just a perceived lack of focus and the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about a certain other video game character for some reason while playing. Kids will love it no doubt, but it’s just not for me.

So that’s my two cents on the four games I was able to play at SDCC this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to play more next year and see what I think of the future.

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