The Video Game Awards 2011

On Saturday night, all eyes were on Spike TV as it hosted it’s annual Video Game Awards. Less of an actual award show and more of a huge marketing stunt for multiple publishers, the 2011 VGAs was heavy on the random celebrity appearances and world exclusives but light on awarding achievement. Nevertheless, take the show for what it is – a good place to see new video game content – and this year’s VGAs did promise some exciting new stories. Prior to the show, companies were hyping their fans by claiming new IPs and titles were to be revealed, making us almost forget that Charlie Sheen was handing out an award (yeah, I don’t know either). And with only minutes to go, one of the big stories of the night, that being the future of Metal Gear Solid: Rising was spoilt online with news outlets managing to get early scoops thanks to the trailer leaking. It then became a matter of whether or not the newly born rumours were true.

But kicking things off were Sony and Naughty Dog whose world exclusive trailer for brand new IP, The Last of Us, sent people into a frenzy. The graphics, as you expect from such a praised developer, were stunning and later claimed to be running in real time from the PS3 for which this game is destined for. Joel and Ellie, one a middle-aged man and the other a teenage girl, are scavenging what they can from an abandoned house when they’re attacked by humans ravaged with some kind of disease. They look mutated and it’s unknown as to whether they’re zombies in the traditional sense but it sure looks like The Last of Us will fall in the zombie/survival horror genre. The end of video sees the two burst out into the street which over looks a city that has been reclaimed by nature. Think I Am Legend. But if you do, prepare to be flamed in forums because this game is proving quite divisive despite so little details. The optimists are quick to say how it’ll be the greatest thing ever with pessimists firing back with sighs of how it’s just another zombie game, ripping off Will Smith’s 2007 hit. And while I am one of those bored with zombie games who did notice similarities with I Am Legend, the important factor is that it’s being developed by Naughty Dog, a studio proven themselves to be more than capable at delivering a fantastic narrative experience. Despite a promotional campaign suggesting otherwise, Dead Island wound up being just another zombie game so it’s understandable for gamers to be concerned but Naughty Dog certainly are a studio who seriously could change the way we play these types of games.

Next up was BioWare who first showed off some more footage from Mass Effect 3 with Shepard and his crew fighting a reaper. It looked very much in-game and a great mix of action and short story sequences that is making the wait between now and March 2012 so much harder. Then came BioWare’s big new game, the next thing to come out of the studio after all this sci-fi shenanigans. And it was a sequel to an existing IP. Command and Conquer Generals 2 is the next instalment of PC real-time strategy warfare coming 2013 (unless the Mayans are right) and the trailer didn’t offer a great deal of info other than it’ll be using the Frostbite 2 engine which currently powers Battlefield 3. So at least we know it’ll look gorgeous. I’m sure RTS fans were delighted but I was a bit disappointed, not being a fan of the genre. I wasn’t expecting any particular title from BioWare but am a little surprised that they’re taking on an RTS. I presume EA are hoping the Canadian developers can sprinkle a bit of their magic onto a once forgotten off shoot of a franchise, bringing it back to profitable status. I do worry that EA are relying on BioWare a bit too much and wonder what other types of games will we be seeing in the years to come from a company whose strengths lie elsewhere. But who knows, the RTS genre could be a perfect fit for them.

The next game that caught my eye was Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a downloadable action adventure game first mentioned back in May. Then it had no name but was definitely not Alan Wake 2 and from the looks of it, this isn’t. In AWAN, Wake is fighting against his evil double, Mr. Scratch, who is after his wife. Naturally, Wake isn’t too pleased at the idea so must stop him using the same combat mechanics as the first game where you shine light onto enemies to burn off the evil, then blow them away with a firearm. Mechanics that I really enjoyed and am really pleased are making a come back. It looks as if Remedy are taking things less seriously with this game and adding in easier to follow storyline too. The other thing about this game is how its an Arcade title instead of store release and so hopefully will be less of a financial risk for Microsoft who could of easily buried any chance of extending the franchise after the original game didn’t sell as well as it should have. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is coming early next year.

Epic announced their new game and did prefix the reveal with how it’ll be something entirely new and different from the studio. And it sure did look it. With Epic and its Unreal Engine, a certain art-style is expected but Cliff Bleszinski took to the stage of the VGAs and showed Fortnite, a cartoonish, tower defence shooter where the key is to survive. From the video showing teenage-looking kids rooting around old buildings for scrap, there’ll be a day and night cycle with the day dedicate to strengthening and building your fortress and the night spent fighting off zombies (yep, zombies). Could be interesting but tower defence and/or fortress management never quite appealed to me as it has for many others. It’s good to see Epic expanding on the fortress mechanic from Gears of War 3 however and even better that the art-style is so dramatically different for them.

The show was full of other games with the awards bunched together in montages and respectable heads of studios being T-bagged on stage by a dude in an army costume but the game that closed the show is what I’ll end this piece with. No one was sure what had happened to Metal Gear Solid: Rising after its E3 2010 showing. Konami and Kojima hadn’t said a great deal about it with many suspecting it had been canceled. Which was true, according to Andriasang but that clearly didn’t last long because the game has now been given a different title of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Gone is the Solid and storyline set between MGS2 and 4 with Revengeance now taking place after the fourth game. Platinum Games are in charge of development and Hideo Kojima will produce so expect the absurdity of Kojima’s stories and frantic action from a team who gave us Bayonetta and Vanquish. Cosmetically, Revengeance looks more like a Platinum title and moves in much the same way. Stealth is to be replaced with balls to the wall action too making the game the kind of thing fans joked about after MGS4 was released. Back in 2008, we saw Raiden change from the dorky pretty-boy of Metal Gear Solid 2 to the ultimate badass that everyone wanted to play. And soon, I heard more and more people say how cool it would be play an action game featuring the cyborg ninja. Bizarrely, in order to get that, an MGS game had to be canceled and reborn as something else. Still, I cannot wait.

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And on the seventh day they went to the Eurogamer Expo

Last Sunday, like many thumb-bandits, I ventured to London with a mate for the sights and sounds of Eurogamer’s 2011 Expo at Earl’s Court. Six hours were spent queuing, gaming and chatting to like-minded individuals all eager to get their hand on games either already available or in the very near future. There were a couple of things that I really wanted to see in particular like Bethesda’s romp back into the wilds of the Elder Scrolls Skyrim. However, I was thwarted by a rather long line up of people keen to wield a sword or shoot a fireball or two. I did stare longly at the obscenely thin Samsung TV screens that showed the gorgeous graphics of Bethesda’s (allegedly) new game engine. It was hard to tell whether it was running on the Xbox 360 or PC with a game pad but it sure looked mighty fine.

Next up was the 3DS booth where I dabbled in Super Mario 3D Land and have to admit, left feeling a smidgen of disappointment. It looked and played much like expected, a combination of New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Galaxy with visuals that felt perfectly suited for the 3DS. But when there was any hint of stereoscopic 3D, navigation became harder and smiles turned to frowns all too quickly. When first announced at GDC in March, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said the 3DS’ instalment of Mario would put an end to the troubles caused when platforming and jumping by shifting a traditionally 2D game to 3D. That sounded like a swell idea to me, someone who is more at home with the earlier Marios. But what I found from playing Super Mario 3D Land was that stereoscopic 3D did the exact opposite and made it harder to figure out where I was jumping. Off, and the game played great, on and I fell down every hole possible. Hopefully, this is more to do with the fact I hadn’t played from the beginning and eased into the new 3D looks though if not, well then I guess the 3D switch will permanently be off for that game.

Some games that did do 3D very well were Resident Evil Revelations, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D and Kid Icarus. Sadly all I could do with Resident Evil was peer over the shoulder of another player (in the ‘sweet spot’ too) to watch the superb graphics Nintendo’s little handheld can deliver. Jill Valentine was rendered beautifully and moved just as nice with the environments suitably creepy and the 3D enhancing the immersion (until you move your head. Top tip, don’t move your head). While Resident Evil Revelations had a constant flow of people wanting to play it, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D did not so I had a chance to get my grubby mitts on what is considered the best game of the series. And now in 3D. As expected, it looked as nice in motion (I had feared otherwise after some early screenshots looked a bit muddy) but as with the PSP games, Metal Gear Solid works best with two analog sticks. Since the 3DS second-stick add-on was absent from the show, the face buttons had to suffice in controlling the camera and unfortunately is wasn’t pleasant. I couldn’t see a way of using the stylus in lieu of another stick as that used to be an acceptable substitute on the DS. But hey, it’s Metal Gear on the go and if that go will have to include a bulky cradle then so be it. The 3D effects certainly worked well and the 3DS is where I want to be playing that game again in the hope the Kojima will do something interesting with all the new features of the system. Speaking of which, Kid Icarus was quite a joy to play. Fast, frantic shooting in a Space Harrier kind of way with 3D that didn’t intrude but sat nicely with the art style. I don’t think an expo was the best place to experience a game with narration and what looked like an interesting story but I left feeling confident that Kid Icarus was definitely a day one purchase.

One nice surprise as the venue wasn’t the superb Joker and Harley Quinn cosplayers but my experience with Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Tucked away in the over 18s section it wasn’t something I gravitated towards not being a big fan of the franchise as a whole. And the press haven’t been too kind either after its E3 showing in June. But the multiplayer match I played was more fun than I had expected it to be. A lot more. Maybe it’s because I’m Lancer deep in Gears of War 3 at the moment but Ghost Recon‘s movement felt similar when running from cover to cover and popping out occasionally to take out my foes which isn’t a bad thing at all. A neat addition is a reticule that you can place next to cover showing exactly where you’ll be running to. It made navigating the war torn street map really easy and combat quite fun. Though for a game in development for so long, it did look rough with questionable textures and jagged edges around pretty much everything. I hope Ubisoft can get it cleaned up and eventually released because it felt more tactical then, say, Gears and has promise but could so easily bomb at retail if left in its current state. The Kinect implementation wasn’t part of the demo either, not that I think it’s a deciding factor in whether people will pick it up.

On the topic of motion controls, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a game that I originally thought would have to slip to 2012’s list of purchases for me what with a full winter ahead but from what I saw a the Expo, I may have to reconsider. It may end up being the last Wii game that is worth our attention but what better franchise to go out on than Zelda? Everything looked bright and busy with a lot of things going on in the back and foreground making the world come alive. How was the Wii MotionPlus? Well, a bit hit and miss. Swinging the sword had less precision than I thought it would but enough to get the job done. Shooting arrows worked pretty much identically to Wii Sports Resort by holding the Wii Remote towards the screen and pulling the nunchuck back as if drawing a bow. And like Wii Sports Resort, you could quite easily lock you view at an odd angle making you wonder if a simple press of a button would have been better. I imagine the more time invested in Skyward Sword would help players get used to the quirks and there’s a charm that all Zelda games have that I’ve not found on any other franchise.

All in all, Sunday was a very good day for gaming. I didn’t brave the queues for Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3 but both looked stunning with MW3 slightly edging out ahead in terms of frame rate and graphics at least on the 360 anyway (the console I saw them running on). The lack of booth babes made the Expo feel creditable and not a nerd cliche though the ones that did strut about with a large percentage of buttock on show were harmless enough. As were the many guys trying to take pictures of them from behind. But it was a good day and as soon as we left, conversations of what will be buying and how broke we’ll be intertwined with what we’d like to see at next year’s show.

The casualties to Gears of War

Discussing the third instalment of the Gears of War franchise at the San Diego Comic-Con, Epic game designer Cliff Bleszinski said Gears 3 will include a casual mode for both online and offline play (via Eurogamer). The main feature in this mode will be an aim assist that should allow less experienced players to lay waste to the Locust threat without becoming worm food themselves. But the mode isn’t available for everyone because if you’ve had even a whiff of Gears of War, you’ll be locked out. Anyone who has played the first or second game or took part in the multiplayer Beta earlier this year won’t be able to select the casual mode. Nor will can they play in the dedicated casual multiplayer channel, giving newbies the chance to learn the ropes instead of repeatedly dyeing.

Having a casual mode in any game makes a lot of sense with the stigma that online gaming has of being an area unfriendly to anyone who doesn’t spend their life with a controller in hand. If only Modern Warfare 3 were to include a similar mode then maybe it would escalate to an even greater fan base than it already has.

But like Mass Effect 3, it does seem a little odd that an easier mode is included after two games have already shipped. Back in May, John Riccitiello spoke of how BioWare are adjusting Mass Effect 3 in order to appeal to the largest market possible. In short, he wants casual players to pick up the game as well as veterans. Though I suppose in Gears 3‘s case, it’s a bit different since the story is enjoyable but not essential to the entertainment. If you miss the Gears 1 and 2, sure you’d have missed out on two fantastic shooters, the first being incredibly influential on this generation of video games, but you’d be able to catch up on the story pretty quick. And it’s better late than never to try and wrangle in even more customers to a very expensive franchise.

So Cliff, is Gears coming to PS3?…

Full console specific exclusivities are fast becoming a thing of the past. Unless a platform holder funds a project in some way, the likelihood of one system only ever having a certain game for its lifespan just doesn’t make sense economically for the publisher and all a dev team really want is their game to be played by all. But questions are still always asked as to whether Game X will ever come to system Y and with all the hype surrounding Gears of War 3 what with its insanely popular multiplayer beta just a few months ago, Cliff Bleszinski is regularly fighting the rumour of a PS3 version.

The most recent dispelling of said rumour originates from IndustryGamers where he said: “I would say in the foreseeable future there’s zero chances of Gears of War being on the PlayStation 3. Can we bury that now? Seriously. It’s like, we have a great deal with Microsoft, they’re a great partner…” but before he could finish, IG mentioned Mike Capps’ previous comments saying he’d love to see Gears on PS3 and cater for the Killzone / Resistance loving audience. Cliff’s comeback was to joke about how a quote like Capps’ makes for a good news story and is little more than that. He did mention how the DualShock controller would need tweaking and quickly ended that part of the conversation.

It’s interesting that the PS3’s controller was brought up at all though. I have to admit, it’s one of the reason why I tend to prefer shooters on the Xbox 360 and know of others who feel the same but again, rumours and headlines are being created out of nothing so I won’t pursue that train of thought. If not anything else, the real reason why Epic Games and Microsoft are so pally over Gears of War is down to the amount of support it gets. A good marketing campaign can do wonders for a game and Microsoft pump a shed load of money in making sure gamers know when a new Gears title is out and why they would want to play it. And as one of those exclusives which could become multi-platform (seeing as Epic own the IP), Microsoft need to do all they can to keep hold of it. Not only does it look great on their system but is a powerful triple A title for the holiday season. When the first Gears of War came out, the PS3 was just launching and its shooter, Resistance, was (somewhat unfairly) pitted against it in the usual console war. Journalistically it was a little trite but from a consumer’s point of view, it was hard not to and I would imagine the same will happen this year too when Resistance 3 is released a few weeks before Gears 3.

So will Gears ever come to the PS3? Most probably not but I’m sure the rumour isn’t dead yet, no matter how many times the design director himself denies it.

Double the E3, triple the fun for Kinect

Microsoft’s E3 press conference from 2010 was all about their Kinect. An elaborate production put on by Cirque Du Soleil to signify the ‘next evolutionary step in game controls’ kicked off a very hands-free conference. Hardly surprising when the device was launching later in the year. Most of the games for Kinect were released when it did in November last year and few new titles have appeared since. With the latest NPDs showing Microsoft’s continuing dominance in a number of areas, the company were quick to gloat via a press release which also happened to mention what to expect from Kinect going forward: “Microsoft announced the size of the Kinect games portfolio will triple by the end of the year.” According to Joystiq‘s findings, there are 26 current Kinect specific games and 26 still in development. The press release would suggest that a further 26 are waiting to be announced.

Microsoft product manager David Dennis spoke with Joystiq regarding the future of Kinect and its public perception. “We’ve seen some of the media start to ask the question, ‘When are we going to see more Kinect games coming?’,” he said. “As we sat there and looked at it we realised we’ve got a lot of games coming and we’re going to show a lot of them at E3.” I think a lot of media and consumers were asking for more Kinect games right from the beginning but there has always been an unspoken promise and fairly strong optimism from supporters that it’s more than just a kid’s toy. So many rumours have slipped about a number of hardcore Kinect titles coupled with incredibly strong sales would point to a greater variety of genres to be shown at E3.

What of non Kinect games? Like maybe a few more first-party titles other than the handful already known? Have Microsoft neglected their biggest audience for too many E3s? Dennis doesn’t think so and was adamant that core gamers were top priority: “We know that the core what took Xbox and made it the home for core games, whether they’re first-party games or third-party games. We would certainly never leave that audience behind. So for us and for Phil [Spencer] and the folks over at MGS, it’s not about deprioritising one or the other. It’s about how we go big on any and all: Go big on Kinect games; go big on core games.”

There you have it. Microsoft’s E3 in a nutshell; Lots of Kinect games and lots of core games too. If there’s a crossover between the two, things could be very interesting come June 6th. It’s safe to say Gears 3, Forza 4, Star Wars Kinect and some kind of Halo anniversary piece(possibly a remake) will be on show but we could also be seeing the Gears of War Kinect rumour become a reality and the hardcore Kinect shooter by newly created Microsoft Games Studio Vancouver too. Roll on June!

Gears isn’t as good as you remember (apparently…)

What was your first real HD gaming moment? Mine was less triumphant than I would have liked considering for a good year or so I only had a standard SD TV for my Xbox 360. And in that time I played the hell out of Gears of War which looked pretty fantastic in a lower resolution. But for a HD game, Gears, or rather the Unreal Engine certainly raised the bar for console graphics. So much so, executive producer Rod Fergusson told Eurogamer how he felt the start of Microsoft’s stop-and-pop franchise defined high definition gaming: “We were far ahead of a lot of games when Gears 1 came out. Everybody’s been catching up, and a lot of people are fighting for ownership of that title. But we continue to push the box and what HD means. At the time it defined what HD was. It defined what your HD TV could do. People remember that.”

A mate of mine actually bought a HD TV just so he could experience Gears of War in all its glossy glory and we did spend a good amount of time zooming in on textures and dead enemies marvelling at the detail – after it had popped in of course. Even after the beauty and additional colours of Gears of War 2, I still regard the first as being something special. But Fergusson and the Epic team have these rose-tinted memories to contend with for all future titles. They not only have to visually improve the looks on paper but in our minds too: “Your memory is far better than reality,” said Fergusson. “When I was a kid, Gilligan’s Island was the funniest show on television. When you watch Gilligan’s Island now, it’s just plain terrible. With Gears 2 we were competing with the memory of Gears 1 and what people remembered it was like. We got to the point where, at the review event in San Francisco, I suggested we put up a single station of Gears 1 so the press could play it and realise it wasn’t as good as they remember. They were saying, ‘Oh, it kinda looks like Gears 1.'”

I can see where the reviewers were coming from, the style does indeed look similar but there is also a very noticeable upgrade too. The textures for one have greater depth to them and remember the meat cube tech demo? That showed how improved the graphics engine was in Gears 2 by rolling a cube of wobbling flesh towards a COG team member.

That being said, I wonder how well the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta will go down with gamers today as it launches for those who bought Bulletstorm Epic Edition. Will it be met with the same kind of unrealistic expectations as Fergusson explained? Or will people be having too good a time slicing up each other on the battlefield? I hope it’s the latter and can’t wait to have a go myself!

Marcus returns this September

Picture this; eighteen months have passed since Marcus Phoenix and Dom Santiago saw the demise of the human stronghold Jacinto. A loss they were behind. Now they rejoin Baird and the rest of the COG team to hunt down the Locust Queen and find out what exactly the deal is between her and Phoenix’s father, Adam. Sound good? That’s a very basic round up of Gears of War 3, everyone’s favourite dudebro shooter which has been given an official release date of September 20th worldwide. The game was originally planned for an April launch (which would have coincided nicely with my birthday) but for strategic purposes, Microsoft decided to delay the game in order to give the Xbox 360 a triple A exclusive in the holiday season.

For all intense purposes, Gears of War 3 is practically finished but Epic games are now using the extra time to polish the multiplayer experience which has already been beefed up with the addition of Beast Mode. This lets gamers play as one of the Locust, starting off as nothing more than a Ticker and working their way through the different species by means of a levelling system. That’s probably what excites me most about Gears 3 as the Horde mode in Gears 2 is a favourite among my gaming friends. Adding a new twist like playing as the enemy and climbing up the grotesque ladder of Locust sounds as if it could usurp Horde’s throne.

But we don’t have to wait all that long to try the multiplayer portion of Gears of War 3 because of the beta key found in Bulletstorm‘s Epic Edition, out this Friday. Further information about this is said to be coming soon.