PAX 2009 Report
My brother, Evan, lives in the Seattle area, so of course he attended PAX. Nick, Eddy and I might have gone, except we were busily working on a Smooth Few Films mystery project. Maybe next year? Anyways, enjoy his extremely detailed report on the con! He only had to fight off a bit of the flu to bring it our way.
I think I understand what a journalist must feel like at times: There was so much going on that I just want the chance to tell people about it all, because you could go through the entire show for all three days and still not run out of things to see.
Splinter Cell: Conviction
What it is: That latest in the Splinter Cell series from Ubisoft.
What was shown at PAX: Ubisoft had an hour-long demonstration in the main hall for both Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed II. A Splinter Cell booth on the exhibition floor repeatedly showed the same demo.
What I saw: An Ubisoft guy walked us through what appears to be Sam Fisher’s first mission in the new game, and explained some of the decisions around the new mechanics. Storywise, in Conviction Sam Fisher has gone solo to try to get revenge on the man who killed his daughter – but soon gets caught back up in intrigue, as the mission ends with troopers breaking into the room to take Sam into custody and bring him in out of the cold.
- The Ubisoft designer colorfully explained that although Conviction is a stealth game, they wanted Fisher to be stealthy like a panther, not stealthy like a wuss who has to hide from everything or get the shit kicked out of him. The designer said, “Well, what if we made it so stealth doesn’t f***ing suck?” Rather than hiding because getting caught out of cover makes you lose, you hide because hiding itself is fun and makes you win. At least, that’s Ubisoft’s hope.
- Part of that hope is the new “Mark and Execute” system. You can pick out targets beforehand while sneaking (“Mark”), then jump out of cover and press a button to have Fisher quickly and automatically drop his targets (“Execute”). I noticed an icon displayed at the lower-left hand corner of the screen as this was demoed – it appears that you get a limited number of “marks” that you can queue up at a time, as there were two icons in a gauge, and the icons changed color and shape as the mark/execute cycle was performed. When Fisher changed weapons the number of icons changed to three, so it looks like the number of targets you can mark and execute at a time depends on your weapon.
- At one point, Fisher snuck up to a door, and small, unobtrusive icons appeared showing that he could either use a tool to look underneath the door crack or open the door normally. It was a nice bit of polish no doubt meant to remind players of their options without breaking the flow of the game.
- Ubisoft might have a hard sell with some of the new stuff. During the Q&A session, one person got up to the microphone and said that he had never liked Splinter Cell, thought they were boring, etc. (boos from the audience!) so did Ubisoft think that the new focus on “panther” stealth would give him a reason to change his mind? Then the next question was from someone who had followed Splinter Cell from the beginning and loved it… and thought the changes were a bad idea that would ruin it for existing players. Ouch! I sympathize for Ubisoft getting stuck between a rock and a hard place with a franchise where you can’t afford to stagnate but also don’t want to alienate your old fans. I think we won’t know the answer to either question until the game is out and we can see how it really plays.
Assassin’s Creed II
What it is: The sequel to Ubisoft’s Templar-conspiracy-assassination simulator, now with a number at the end of the title.
What was shown at PAX: The other half of Ubisoft’s main hall presentation was a demo of Assassin’ Creed II.
What I saw: Similar to Splinter Cell, an Ubisoft designer (this time an art designer, apparently) took us through a live play demo of part of the game. We went on a cheerfully sociopathic tour of 18th-century Florence, one of the towns in AC2.
- Money is now a part of the experience, as Ezio, the Assassin this time, is able to pickpocket money from passerby or loot dead bodies, then use the coins to purchase equipment and the like. The designer also showed Ezio picking up a chunk of change from a treasure stash, suggesting that you might hunt coins rather than flags this time.
- You have an expanded arsenal of weapons, including a poisoned needle that makes the victim lose his mind and swing his weapon wildly at phantasms, with fatal effects for nearby people. The designer amused himself by doing this and then throwing coins in the area around the poisoned madman, with the result that passerby alternately dived for the coins and ran away from the axe-swinging guard, often not fast enough to get out of the way.
- Aside from using coins as a distraction, you can also purchase mercenaries and sic them on your target – then stroll on by while the mercs do the fighting and dying for you. Being a rich bastard never felt so good.
- Ubisoft has heard your cries for succor, and making sure that missions aren’t as repetitive is part of the plan for the second outing. Apparently this will happen in part by giving the player side-quests that have special restrictions, or which might involve traveling through side-shoot paths that require focusing on one part of Ezio’s abilities.
- I don’t think we’ve yet seen how the fighting system works, and that was one of the sticking points of the original. It tended to be either too simple or too frustrating, with little in between. For most of the game, enemies didn’t have the ability to break your guard, so simply holding down one button made you invincible; later on, as long as you didn’t press guard until they had started an attack, enemies never used the guard-break move and you could easily counterattack them. But if you didn’t notice that, the game became hugely frustrating as the oh-so-reliable guard stopped working, but it wasn’t always easy to tell whether an enemy was about to guard-break you.
Left 4 Dead 2
What it is: A sequel to the zombie-em-up co-operative game, shambling onto Steam some time soon.
What was shown at PAX: A playable demo of one section of the Dark Carnival campaign was available on the show floor.
What I saw: The lines for playing were too long, but at several points I stopped to watch players go through the map on the big overhead screens. By luck, I also caught the attention of a Valve staffer and asked some questions about things I had seen.
- There are three new types of Special Infected of which we are currently aware: The Jockey, which jumps onto a player like a Hunter but forces them to run around madly rather than pinning them in place; the Charger, which runs at players and scatter them like a zombie-shaped bowling ball, grabbing one victim to slam against the ground; and the Spitter, which can launch globs of noxious acid in an area denial attack much like the player’s molotov. In separate interviews, Valve staffers have said that the new specials are intended to help break up players that stay very close together and/or camp in one spot.
- Melee weapons are now available, taking place of the pistols and letting you zombie-chop from close up. These range from katanas to fire axes all the way to an electric guitar. Yes, it makes a satisfying KA-TWANG! noise when you hit a zombie. Common zombies take one hit and splatter the player’s viewpoint “camera” with blood upon death; it looks like Special Infected mostly take 2 or 3 whacks to die, although it was hard to tell in the chaos.
- Weapon upgrades are now a part of the game. I saw players pick up laser sights from an stockpile, which (according to in-game text) makes their weapons more accurate. It also makes a cool red laser beam sweep out from the muzzle, letting other players see where you’re aiming.
- I saw a tip on one of the loading screens that informed players that incendiary ammo sets zombies on fire while exploding ammo makes them stumble back. I asked the Valve staffer about this, and he didn’t seem to know whether such special secondary ammunition was really in the game. It may be a feature that was cut but accidentally had the tip left in – or a feature that isn’t implemented yet. If so, you heard it here first… along with everyone else at PAX who bothered to read the in-game loading screen text, I guess.
- You know the controversy about making Left 4 Dead 2 rather than more DLC for the original? Yeah. I could see that there’s a lot of new stuff in the new game, including graphics upgrades, better sounds and designs for pre-existing weapons, new maps, and so on… but is it really different enough to call it a sequel? If somebody had told me that Left 4 Dead 2 was an expansion pack rather than an entirely new game, I would have believed them.
Elemental: War of Magic
What it is: A kind of spiritual sequel to PC classic “Master of Magic” from the creator of Galactic Civilizations, Elemental is a turn-based strategy game in a fantasy world.
What was shown at PAX: A non-playable demo showed off some of the pieces of Elemental, and Stardock’s CEO also appeared to make a presentation on the subject.
What I saw: Stardock’s Brad Wardell made a presentation on Elemental and answered some questions. The main idea: Before you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons or any PC fantasy game where you band together as a group of adventurers and go on a hack-and-slash journey through fantasy kingdoms. In Elemental, you play the part of the King whose kingdom is being turned upside-down by such adventurers.
- Apparently there will be several possible paths to victory, which Stardock hopes will prevent the problem in such games where once you hold 51% of the map your victory is assured, yet it takes hours of additional mop-up to steamroll the opposition and make it official. One faction might build up military force, only to find that another faction has studied world-bending magic that can crush that army to dust – the demo showed a spell that created a volcano, instantly annihilating an entire city and all nearby forces.
- You very specifically play the part of your faction’s leader, the Sovereign, rather than being an abstraction of the kingdom’s government. In other words, the Sovereign is you, and is a unit on the map. If the Sovereign unit gets killed, you lose. Contrarily, assassinating other Sovereigns can decapitate their empires. The Sovereign can either hoard magical power and become extremely powerful in his/her own right, or dole it out to grow cities and gain power in other ways.
- The presentation revealed that diplomacy in Elemental wiil be based in part on family trees and dynasties, with George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” series of books as the inspiration. You might seal a deal with another empire by arranging a political marriage. Like the Sovereign, the nobles are living units that can be placed on the map and moved around – and killed. Nobles tend to have special bonuses that make them more powerful than ordinary units, but your “allies” won’t be happy if you get their children killed, so deploying nobility to the battlefield is a high-risk high-reward strategy. As a bonus, if you manage to arrange it so that your heirs and relatives are in the line of inheritance for another kingdom, you can take over that land by knocking off the current Sovereign and letting your children take the reins.
- It seems that strong modding support is part of Stardock’s plan for the game, as the presentation included a display of the map, unit, and object editors. Stardock’s Wardell made a point of mentioning that you could easily make a party-based fantasy RPG in the same engine. It was designed from the beginning to support looking like a world where party-based fantasy RPGs might be held, and the plan is that Python scripting will be able to drive a lot of game logic.
- There’s still clearly a lot up in the air about the game, which is rather worrying when a beta is apparently starting in the next two or three weeks. The diplomacy and magic screens were not implemented at all in the interface, and at several points in the Q&A session, the answer turned out to be “the beta testers will decide that by giving feedback”. Stardock might have bitten off more than it can chew in this game – beta testing is great for refining ideas but no substitute for having a clear direction to begin with.
Mass Effect 2
What it is: It’s like Mass Effect, except again.
What was shown at PAX: A playable demo was available on the floor, which involved an action sequence sandwiched between two of Bioware’s patented talky-talky sequences.
What I saw: I got a bit of playing time on the floor and was able to see most of the demo available.
- Unlike the original Mass Effect, where your ammunition was a “heat bar” that went up as you shot, here you actually have a clip that depletes. I think someone from Bioware has explained that the lore reasoning is that you “eject a heat sink” rather than waiting for the gun to cool down. One way or another, you now have a clip rather than a bar, and now exactly how many shots are available.
- On that note, you now can also use heavy weapons such as a missile launcher. The show-room Shepard had a missile launcher available, which appeared to have limited-but-not-rare ammunition, a bit like the first game’s grenades. The missile would home in on targets. It also looks like Soldier-Shepards will have more to do than duck and shoot, as Shepard’s ability wheel contained some abilities that temporarily added poison or knockback to his weapon.
- On the other hand, Shepard’s teammates have had their weapons simplified. You no longer equip your party with 4 weapons each when most of them actually use 1 or 2; each party member appears to only have the weapons they are actually skilled at using.
- It was hard to get a read on the acting subtleties of the cutscenes with the entire rest of the convention screaming in my ear, but it looked like what I expect from Bioware: Good, interesting conversations, with the ability to choose your response from a wheel like in the first Mass Effect, ranging from nice guy response to “GTFO before I shoot you, freak!” A bit of the “dark middle chapter” part of Mass Effect 2 was visible, as the demo section ended with a scene where an assassin dropped in and cold-bloodedly murdered the person you were talking to.
- Remember that woman from the first Mass Effect? The one that would show up as an enemy in battles, and then yell “I will DESTROY you! ” over and over again like a broken record? She has a sister. “Feel my POWER! … Feel my POWER! … Feel my POWER! … Feel my POWER! … Feel my POWER!” Apparently Bioware hasn’t caught on to the idea of making sure characters have enough combat lines that they don’t repeat themselves.
What it is: There’s this company called Blizzard that I bet you’ve never heard of – some kind of fly-by-night operation that probably works out of a guy’s garage or something. They made some game called “World of Warcraft” that was supposedly good even though nobody really heard about it. Did you hear about that? No? Oh, OK. Anyway, this is the latest entry in their Diablo series. Whatever that is.
What was shown at PAX: Players could select one of the four classes revealed so far and play through a short section of desert hack-and-slash.
What I saw: I got a short hands-on with the Wizard and was able to spot some things by watching others play the Barbarian and Monk while I was in line.
- OK, enough kidding: It’s Blizzard, possibly the most famous game company in the world and doubtless one of the best. Like all other Blizzard games, Diablo 3 oozes polish and attention to detail, from the tight controls to the subtleties of style and theme. In the short section available, I was able to see a nice variety of enemies, including the old Fallen enemies from Diablo 2 updated in look and feel for a “next gen” experience. Enemies moved, fought, and died beautifully – often in horrific fountains of gore, if affected by the Monk’s Exploding Fist.
- During play, occasionally a little announcement would appear in the lower-right hand corner of the screen stating that a new record had been made, and bonus experience awarded. For example, killing a lot of enemies with one blow gave you a little heads-up that said “Mighty Blow!” and told you just how many baddies had been sent flying. A kill streak gave you the “Massacre” event, and one player unlocked a “Survival” award for losing almost all of his health but still squeaking by.
- It was easy to see which classes were settled and which weren’t. Taking a glance at the Wizard’s skill tree showed a plethora of skills, while the Monk’s screen showed only five or six, with skill trees given the placeholder names “Monk Tree A”, “Monk Tree B”, and “Monk Tree C”.
- On the note of Wizard skills, it was interesting to see that the Wizard has defensive abilities and close-combat skills as well as long-range monster-frying spells. The demo Wizard could use a Spectral Blade spell to chop up enemies in close range, or summon a mirror image to take off some heat.
- You now restore health through red orbs dropped by enemies rather than potions – notably, the demo characters only spawned with exactly one potion to fall back on, rather than Diablo 2′s beltpack of up to 16. From what I’ve heard, Blizzard wants to open up more design space by limiting the player’s ability to heal – basically, when players can instantly heal and/or escape through Town Portal all the time, like in Diablo 2, it’s hard to threaten players without doing something that kills them so quickly the game stops being fun. On the other hand, in Diablo 3 where recovered health is limited by the pace at which you kill enemies, it’s possible to get worn down if you take more damage in combat than you heal through pick-ups.
- There are two big things we don’t know so far: First, what’s the fifth class? Second, how does Diablo 3 fit in to the whole Battle.net experience that Blizzard has revealed for Starcraft 2? Obviously the records and awards you can get during gameplay will tie in to the new Battle.net, but what does the planned Diablo 3 community actually look like in terms of how to find a group of people to play with/against, etc? Would there be modding, ladders, different game modes, etc., or what? I don’t doubt that Diablo 3 will be a blast to play, but I really wonder what it would be like to log in to Battle.net in the Brave New World of multiplayer.
What it is: From the same publisher as Muramasa, this JRPG for the DS focuses on old-school adventure and exploration in an alternate-Earth involving airships and magic.
What was shown at PAX: Some DSs were set up with short demo sections of the game, including a town sequence and a dungeon.
What I saw: Nostalgia’s big idea is pretty much wrapped up in the name – remember the days when men were real men, women were real women, and RPG main characters didn’t have angst, spiky hair, and ridiculous swords? In Nostalgia, your party of four characters travels the world to locations like London, Paris, and Tokyo in what seems to be an airship-based treasure hunt – think Indiana Jones with sword, spells, and airships rather than whips and snakes.
- Airships look to be a big part of the game, with character skills split up into hand-to-hand combat and airship combat.
- Otherwise, it’s pretty much an old-fashioned RPG: Explore grid-based dungeons that sometimes have trap floors dropping you to lower levels, engage in turn-based combat against randomly-encountered critters, pick up treasure and equip new weapons and armor found from red treasure chests in out-of-the-way locations.
- That’s not to say it’s without new ideas at all. In battle, characters take turns in order of their speed, like in Final Fantasy X. You build up the map of a dungeon as you explore it, which adds to the feeling of being an adventurer in an unexplored locale. In general, however, it looks like the typical JRPG plan of town-dungeon-cutscene-repeat, with the travel inbetween happening in an airship that sometimes gets attacked by other airships.
- What’s the word I’m looking for… basically, Nostalgia looks mediocre. In much the same way that Blizzard’s skill shows through in getting all the small details right, there are details in Nostalgia that suggest it isn’t really a world-beater – the way that dungeons are clearly made up of a small number of tiles repeatedly copy-and-pasted, the slightly clunky menus and not-quite-fast-enough display of text in dialogue boxes, or the paint-by-numbers party made up of exactly one warrior, one rogue, one cleric, and one wizard. Nostalgia could turn out to be a good game if it lives up to the potential charm of getting in your cool airship to travel to unknown areas and explore them with likable, well-developed characters. However, it might just be a me-too game that doesn’t really have anything to hang itself on except… well… nostalgia.