New Zelda not necessarily the new Zelda

Cast your minds back if you will to the close of one century and beginning of the next. The time when Nintendo announced the GameCube at Space World 2000 and with it, a few technical spec videos one of which showing a realistic (for the time) looking Link battling a detailed Ganondorf in what was then thought as the next Legend of Zelda game. A year later, Wind Waker was revealed to be the official heir and the video shown alongside the GameCube was purely for show. Some people were pissed at the new cel-shaded art style instead of a more mature-looking Zelda but personally, Wind Waker is one of the best looking titles in the franchise and I’m not alone in that train of thought. Train being an appropriate word since the art style continued from Wind Waker, through Phantom Hourglass and onto Spirit Tracks on the DS.

This year’s E3 shares similarities to Nintendo’s Space World in 2000. Both saw new consoles, the GameCube and now Wii U and both had new looking Zelda games that according to producer Eiji Aonuma, don’t necessarily reflect what the final game will look like. Speaking with Wired (via Kotaku) about the Wii U and its E3 announcement, Aonuma called for a level of calm when discussing the next Zelda: “So when we show a graphic demo, people think, ‘Oh, this is what the next Zelda will look like,’ but that’s not necessarily the case.” The words are by no means final but if the video seen at E3 did resemble the final version, I don’t think Aonuma would be dismissive of it in this way.

Is it really such a big deal? Companies do this all the time with the Wind Waker switcheroo possibly the most famous. And more recently, Techland gave the impression that Dead Island was to be a poignant emotionally destructive experience through its debut video but positive previews claim it’s more slapstick than touching. I think for the Wii U’s Zelda showing, it was the first time anyone had seen Link in full HD and since a lot of buzz around the console is its ability to play high definition graphics, so when seeing an HD battle between the green-clothed hero and one mega arachnid, thoughts would naturally be filled with “omg, a Zelda like that would be awesome!”And it would be but Aonuma’s comments suggesting we should not expect it to look anything like that new infamous Zelda video is probably to try and avoid any angry fist-waving when Zelda Wii U is officially unveiled.

Once again, Fable: The Journey isn’t on-rails dagnabbit!

I do feel sorry for Peter Molyneux. Being such a great speaker who calmly relays his aspirational thinking to anyone who will listen, he often talks at Microsoft press conference, regardless of venue. And with Fable being one of Microsoft’s big IPs, Molyneux usually discusses its future titles. But the reason I feel sorry for him is because I get the impression his thoughts aren’t quite at the stage where he should be in front of hundreds of people but still, there he is with a Fable product, dividing the audience on whether ‘it’ll work’.

The recent hotly discussed game was Fable: The Journey at E3, a game demoed on-stage looking a whole lot like it was on-rails. Earlier this month he cleared up any confusion saying for the record, Fable: The Journey ISN’T an on-rails experience and the navigational element was removed at the last minute. Why? According to OXM, Molyneux said “The reason it was on rails was because I told the team to take out navigation, because on stage I thought, right, I need to show off magic, how cool magic is.” Funny thing was, to me, this worked because I did indeed think the magic looked cool and how different hand movements cast different spells. Molyneux went on to say: “If Dimitri doing the demo had had to navigate from one position to another, one, it would have extended the demo to four minutes from two minutes, and two, it would be slightly confusing.”

Another reason for the arguably poor showing was how little time Lionhead Studios had to work on the demo: “This project really only started, well in earnest it started about seven months ago and we started coding about four months ago.” And not straightforward coding either, the team moved from the normal Fable tech to using the Unreal Engine. This generation really is becoming the age of Unreal isn’t it?

So for a lot of people, Fable: The Journey looked iffy at best but Molyneux promises that come Gamescom in August, Lionhead will be able to fulfil their ambition of making something we all want to play. And I can see sleepless nights ahead for the studio. By August, the game would have only had just over six months development time and no doubt there’s even more pressure to get it right after the Molyneux took the negative comments of E3 so personally. I think the press and gamers often forget just how young titles can be at big press shows. It’s rare that what you see in a game stays exactly the same when it’s finally released and being a supporter of in-game demos over flashy CG trailers, I’m glad Lionhead took the risk to show off Fable: The Journey at such a raw stage rather than a random piece of footage which leaves us with just as many questions.

The middle-aged Xbox

More often than not, platform holders develop and release a new system way before its predecessor has really come of age and it’s usually towards the end of this imposed life cycle that developers really understand the power and architecture of a console. So it came as a bit of a surprise when both Microsoft and Sony said enough’s enough, this generation is built to last at least ten years. Since the Xbox 360 just past its fifth year anniversary last November, that would suggest it’s about half way through its life. Chris Lewis, emea vp of Xbox reminded every one of that fact when talking with MCV (via Videogamer) and how the release of Kinect has will help the 360 go the distance.

“Xbox is defying the normal curve you might expect,” he said. “There’s no doubt that Kinect put a huge shot of adrenaline into the business.” This week’s all format chart can support Lewis’ statement as it sees 505 Games’ Zumba Fitness for Kinect stick firmly in the number one spot with a 33 per cent week-on-week sales spike. It’s amusing that health and fitness has become such a huge part of gaming considering gamers are usually depicted as lazy, unfit layabouts. But then realistically, the types who gobble up such games aren’t necessarily the traditional gamer and Microsoft know this: “What we are now seeing is massive swathes of families and younger audiences flocking to it. As you saw at the press conference, we are now in line with what we projected at E3 2010,” Lewis added.

It was feared, and still is by some, that these casual games will consume the industry leaving little or no meaningful experiences for the rest of us as publishers clamber to make the next Wii Fit – or in this case, Zumbe Fitness. However, it’s evident from this year’s E3 that the core gamer is still incredibly important. After all, casual consolers tend not to buy numerous games a year and even if they do, they’re more likely to be the budget party games. Nintendo’s development of the Wii U shows how they’re very keen to get the hardcore back on board with their system and in Microsoft’s case, there was a good number of titles either being enhanced by or exclusive to Kinect that didn’t involve a handful of mini-games. And before more neigh-sayers prophecies the destruction of traditional franchises, Lewis underlined a point which until now has been more common sense than fact :“What you will see is us using Kinect to enhance the experience and not detract from it. I don’t think our core gamers will tolerate anything else from us.”

Back to the point at hand, can the Xbox 360 last another five or six years? With such an emphasis on Kinect I believe it could well do so. It’s a bit alien for the games industry too that a peripheral has become so popular but since the Kinect is selling like hot, delicious cakes (or is that refreshingly cool ice cream what with today’s temperature…) and working incredibly well with this generation of Xbox, there isn’t a great need to upgrade any time soon. Contrasting this however is the widening gap between top end PC and even PS3 graphics and those on the Xbox 360 plus the use of DVDs rather than bigger media like Blu Rays. It wasn’t all that apparent for a good number of years but in the last few more games have come out looking ‘better’ on the PS3 and when a beautiful game like Crysis 2 is being criticised for not being as pretty as it could be, we could be nearing another imposed end of life cycle. What would you rather have? A new system in the next couple of years that is compatible with the current Kinect or a wait of around five to six solar cycles with said peripheral potentially being the driving force?

Reasons for not owning a 3DS – solved!

What I took from Nintendo’s E3 press conference was a feeling of excitement for the future of its hardware. The Wii U may have a silly name but the controller itself looks like it could be a lot of fun and full of potential for developers. The 3DS has a number of first party games heading its way which usually means gamers will be in for a treat since Nintendo titles are rarely a bad thing.

However Sony are nipping at their heels with the PSVita, the all powerful dual-analog PSP successor that’s set to launch later this year for exactly the same price as the 3DS, $249. Nintendo were wise to release their handheld so early, avoiding too much comparison to the PSVita because at the time, its details were sparse. But was it too early? Did Nintendo shoot themselves in the foot by launching the 3DS without all the glitz and glam we’ve come to expect from a new piece of hardware? Nintendo of America boss, Reggie Fils-Aime doesn’t think so. He told Kotaku that day one sales for the 3DS were very strong as they were for the first week. There was a lot of love for the device from the people who bought one. But it was the people who didn’t that interested Nintendo more and when asked why they hadn’t parted with their cash, the response summarised the two main issues with the 3DS that Reggie believes has now been addressed; no big first party title and a weakened online experience. The missing eShop was apparently a bigger deal than initially thought.

In terms of a big first party game, I think Nintendo may have overestimated the appeal of Nintendogs + Cats. That was their big-hitter for launch but unlike the original Nintendogs, didn’t get systems flying off shelves. But now The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is out, Reggie is confident it will scratch the itch of anyone hungry for a Nintendo classic. And the coming months only brings more of these potential hits. “We’re going to follow with a steady drumbeat of Star Fox and Kid Icarus and two Mario titles (Super Mario 3D and Super Mario Kart 3D) and the Luigi title (Luigi’s Mansion 2).” That’s all well and good but the downside of course is the 3DS could then become just another Nintendo player with all the buzz surrounding their games and not those of third parties. Part of the reason why the big N didn’t release a true triple A game at launch was so that said parties weren’t then competing with Nintendo for sales. Commendable yes but evidently not what the consumers wanted.

As for the online experience, Reggie was defiant that the lacklustre efforts of last generation tech was a thing of the past. “We’ve just done the first network update. We’ve got the eShop up and running. We’ve got the 3D movie service still on track for the summer. We’ve got Netflix still on track for the summer. So I think we’re well underway to having that addressed as well,” he said adding, “we’re going to be back with strong momentum on the 3DS.” The eShop is considerably impressive compared to what we were given on the DSi and Wii. It kicked off with some great games and hopefully will continue to do so plus a 3D movie trailer for the Green Lantern begins the motion picture content Reggie speaks of. There is still the Aardman Animations exclusive shorts supposedly coming to the store plus 3D TV streaming from Sky so more interesting stuff on the way. But it’s still quite out of reach at the moment so not a back-of-box bullet point just yet.

Now that the two main objections for buying a 3DS have been rectified, will it be plain sailing from here on? I hope so for our sake but what is always going to be challenging for Nintendo is getting the message across to non-gaming enthusiasts that the 3DS isn’t a slightly upgraded DS but a whole lot more. You can’t show stereoscopic 3D through traditional adverts and the online functionality needs to be experienced first hand really. Back to the main point, did the 3DS launch before it was ready? I guess the argument really is doesn’t every system?

The sequel to success

The business of video games is a sequel-driven industry. Just look at this year’s E3, we had a number of franchises well into their third iteration and the most commonly criticised annual series, Call of Duty, will be on its eighth release this holiday. Some refer to this trend as an unhealthy obsession from publishers to basically milk a name for all it’s worth but others have a more forgiving outlook like id Software ceo, Todd Hollenshead, currently working on Rage. He believes (via Eurogamer) not only that sequels are a good thing don’t deserve all the hate they so often receive: “Sequels are unfairly criticised. One regard is they’re not original. You can do a lot of original things in a sequel as long as you’re consistent and true to the universe that game comes up in.” You certainly can. Take Portal 2 for example. It added liquids to the puzzle-solving mechanics and felt as fresh as the first time you entered a testing chamber. But in all honesty, games like Portal 2 are somewhat outnumbered by the new-setting-same-old-experience types of games. However, that doesn’t mean the idea of a sequel is unoriginal, it’s the money-hungry developers and publishers who lack originality.

Hollenshead went on to say how beneficial sequels can be because it shows the developers are doing something right. If enough people are left wanting more at the end of a game – and not because they felt short-changed by the experience – then the devs have done a good job in creating a universe that gamers want to play in. How many times have you played a game and thought it was so close to being great and with a bit of tweaking it could be? That’s where sequel can play an important role in keeping a good idea alive. I would argue L.A. Noire falls into this category for me. The facial tech and attitude towards story and maturity is outstanding but the its average shooting and chase sequences weaken the game for me. Make a second game (not necessarily using Phelps as the protagonists) without all the ‘action’ and it could be amazing. As Hollenshead says: “Why throw it all away and have to start over every single time?” For as bewildering it seemed for Human Head Studios to be developing Prey 2 with barely any linkage to the first game, it makes sense when you think all the hard work of creating the initial fiction had been done for Prey 1.

Another way of looking at it, suggests Hollenshead, is to consider Mario games as sequels or at the very least off-shoots to the original Donkey Kong: Mario Kart, just because you’re not calling it Donkey Kong 17, doesn’t mean it still doesn’t have Mario in it,” he said. “The reason why Nintendo has been to a great extent inoculated from criticism along those regards is they execute very well in the games they make.” Which brings me back to the point of Portal 2. Yes it’s a sequel, but a mighty fine one at that and I would hate to not be able to go back into that universe and story for the sake of not advocating sequels.

True enough, annualising a game to ride out its previous success and hype often ends in tears for us gamers who get an awful feeling of familiarity but like Hollenshead, I agree that sequels can be awesome and deep down if you love one game, chances are you won’t scoff at the idea of it becoming a franchise.

Fable goes off the rails

The next game from the wilds of Albion was announced a week ago at Microsoft’s press conference when Peter Molyneux walked on stage with charm only he possess to show off Fable: The Journey for Kinect. In the days following, some media outlets weren’t all that impressed with what they saw, even though it very purposefully proved Kinect can track the motions of someone sitting, with poor Mr Molyneux slapping his own wrist in frustration.

The on-stage demo looked rather a lot like an on-rails experience with the camera guiding the player’s movements as he shot spells out of his hands. With the use of Kinect of course. I thought the idea was kind of cool and like the way different hand movements created different spells but a purely on-rails Fable game goes against the whole idea of what Lionhead have been creating with the series so far. Its about open worlds and exploration, not hand-holding.

So as you can imagine, Molyneux was quite annoyed with how Fable: The Journey was portrayed. Speaking with OXM (via MCV), he said “I made an horrendous mistake on the press demo on taking out the navigation allowing players to move. I’ll state on record now that Fable: The Journey is definitely not on rails.” In the past, the English gentleman has made a lot of promises that he nor Lionhead can keep but this one seems less like an unreachable goal and simply a neglect to mention 1:1 navigation. Does that make Fable: The Journey suddenly more interesting? To me, yeah, regardless of wavering quality, I’ve always enjoyed the Fable games. For everyone else though, I’d imagine they’d probably have to see a bit more about it first. After all, it’s one of the new breed of supposedly hardcore Kinect experiences and no one quite knows how they’ll be received.

Wii U is pretty much Wii HD

The big reveal of Nintendo’s press conference at this year’s E3 was of course the Wii U, or rather, the Wii U’s controller leaving a lot of people wondering what exactly the hardware for the Wii U consists of. Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata spoke with the Evening Standard (via Eurogamer) about the announcement and how he regrets not focusing more on the Wii U itself. His reason for doing so wasn’t out of madness but common sense. To him and the rest of the company, the Wii U “is not drastically different and [its] about the controller. The console itself will be almost invisible.”

What we do know is that the Wii U will be able to produce the same kinds of graphics as the Xbox 360 and PS3 and is capable of 1080p video output. Whether it’s more powerful than the competition isn’t all that essential right now because for Nintendo, this isn’t about a new bit of hardware, it’s about technically catching up with those who are slowly chipping away at the lead they have in the market and be considered a serious piece of home entertainment.

The Wii U doesn’t need to be drastically different from the Wii either. How often have you found yourself thinking that a Wii game would look great in HD and that’ll you wished you could play it that way? Games like Super Mario Galaxy have that unique art style that makes us love Nintendo but imagine it in high definition. That, plus a better use of online (which we’ve already seen steps towards on the 3DS) would be enough for me.

But the real majesty of the Wii U is said to be in its controller – again, why Nintendo decided to put all the emphasis on it instead of the unit which would sit under your TV – and Iwata said people won’t truly appreciate how impactful it will be until they play with it. He believes the new way of traditional video game interaction it offers will once again allow Nintendo to dramatically influence the industry. Bold words but pretty much all I read regarding the controller is how brilliant it is so he may just be onto something with these claims.

However Sony has the opportunity to offer a very similar experience with the PS Vita if it linked seamlessly to the PS3. For all intense purposes, it comes with pretty much the same technology as the Wii U controller so like the PlayStation Move, we would see Nintendo’s idea replicated on a rival platform.