And so, the sun sets on another PAX Prime. Now that the whirlwind of swag shilling, dubstep wubbing, device sharing and subsequent germ swapping has ceased, it’s time to reflect on my key takeaways from this madness.
Unsurprisingly, Saturday saw the Washington Convention Centre packed to the seams - I distinctly recall the difficulty in navigating through the sea of people, particularly considering the number of hefty attendees who would suddenly stop their plodding pace to gawp at one of the convention’s many impressive sights. It was a day of nerdy mosh pits around whatever booth happened to be passing out free stuff, queues that stubbornly wrapped around booths far past the “End of Line” signs, and an overall feeling that videogames deserve to be a Big Deal indeed.
My Saturday kicked off with the GamerUnplugged Panel - Toronto's own Justin Amirkhani regaled the Seattle audience with tales from his backpacking adventure across North America, sharing tales of illuminating lunches with games industry icons, and lewd stories of the kind of things he had to do to get by on the road. The panel was more weighted towards his jumping into barfights, fleeing from meth fumes, and skipping out on bar tabs than divulging deeper truths about what makes game developers tick, but the majority of the crowd seemed happy to listen to what seemed to be largely unfiltered overshares.
The Metal Gear Revengeance demo was an unexpected highlight - I cannot call myself an ardent fan of the Metal Gear series or developer Platinum Games, and yet the way the two styles combined into a hyper-violent arcade action game had me gripped enough that I was hugely disappointed once I was dumped back at the title screen. The core hook is the ‘blade time’ mode; time slows to a crawl, except for Raiden’s preposterously fast sword-swings, and the camera pulls in close over his shoulder as you manipulate the right analog stick to direct the deadly swipes. I immediately fell into a combat rhythm of doing a few combos in real time, then uppercutting foes into the air and frantically dicing them into meaty little kibbles, or chipped piles of scrap metal. Time will tell if such bursts of gleeful violence will sustain one’s attention, but in the meantime I’m going to be keeping an eye on this ahead of its release on February 19th.
Over at the Bethesda Booth, I got to go hands on with Doom 3: BFG Edition. I played the game on Xbox 360, running in very impressive 3D, with a gloomy graphical presentation easily on par with modern console games. Where the game’s 2004 vintage shows is in the core design, for better or ill. I spent 10 minutes circle strafing demons, imps and zombie soldiers, dodging fireballs and while pumping out rockets and plasma bolts. It’s a skill set that hasn’t been properly exercised in a while, but it’s good to see that it’s still as fun a design as ever. id is saying that they’re steering towards more of an action focus than the original game, as evidenced from the way ammo is more plentiful, and the flashlight can be used while guns are at the ready.
Also at Bethesda, I checked out Dishonored, a wildly ambitious first person action game set in the city of Dunwall (think of a Victorian era steampunk London), with elements from Thief, Half Life, and Deus Ex all working harmoniously to present the player with an impressively reactive world that seems to make a habit of plunging them into moral quandaries. The mission demoed had me infiltrating a masquerade party, and attempting to figure out which of the disguised hosts was my intended target. This could be gleaned by pressing the guests for information (and running simple fetch-quests), sneaking upstairs to hunt for evidence, or just killing all of them and fighting my way out. That premise alone should be enough to whet your appetite, but throw in a preponderance of fantastical weapons and magical abilities (which can be dual wielded), and you’ve got a solid recipe for a damn good time right there.
I got to spend some hands on time with Aliens: Colonial Marines and its new multiplayer mode, Escape. In this game type, a team of four player-controlled xenomorphs attempt to foil a team of four player-controlled marines as they attempt to traverse through a level completing objectives along the way. The bursts of combat are chaotic throwdowns as the aliens try to separate the humans and pick them off, with the downtime in between filled with tense monitoring of the motion tracker. Teamwork is essential, which normally makes such demos impossible when playing with strangers, but something about the atmosphere and daunting odds made me and my teammates willing to call out enemy positions and coordinate our movements.
A less successful teamplay experience was the Halo 4 multiplayer demo. I got to go hands on with the capture the flag mode, on the new Exile map. Most noteworthy is that the flag carrier is now capable of wielding a sidearm while carrying the flag in their left hand, and the impact on the running speed while carrying the flag appeared to be less severe than in other titles. The map should feel familiar to Halo Fans, featuring a grassy motif with plenty of caves and overpasses, and crammed with vehicles. The classic Halo combat is still present and correct - my usual tactic of whittling down shields, and finishing players off with a melee attack was working well, but once the enemy found the Scorpion tank, my final few minutes were spent in a respawn / death loop that we were unable to escape from for long enough to address the issue (that said, the heart-racing new electronic soundtrack almost made up for this gripe). Minor misgivings aside, it’s clear that the Halo franchise is in good hands, and my limited time has made clear that it’s going to set the world on fire all over again when it launches this November.
Resident Evil 6 was also playable on the show floor, offering samples of the three different campaigns poised to please fans of the previous games. I started with new character Jake’s demo, running through hordes of zombies on wide city streets while clumsily trying to infer what the game wanted me to do to get by locked doors, regularly resorting to melee attacks when my ammo supply ran dry. The overwhelming number of enemies on screen and the resulting tension of trying to cut a line through them (all the while hoping they don’t hatch into the more powerful lizard-creatures when defeated) made for a harrowing experience. The pace of Leon’s demo was more in line with what I was used to with Resident Evil 4 - making my way through a high-security University campus, I battled through narrow corridors of zombies, getting up close and personal enough to observe the gory new locational-damage - flesh can now be blasted clean off, exposing bloody vital organs - my favourite touch was how a shot to the forehead often split an opponent’s noggin open, leaving him alive, but walking around looking a bit like a flower in bloom. Given how the game is attempting to combine multiple stories and gameplay styles into one title, it will be interesting to see how cohesively it comes together. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to playing through Leon’s campaign at the very least.
And then we get to my game of the show, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Firaxis have done a stellar job of reinvigorating a PC franchise so beloved that even its spiritual successors have been subjected to lofty expectations and exacting critiques. For more on why XCOM is the most impressive game I’ve seen at PAX, check out my full preview coming soon!
The last bit of my PAX experience was the Inside Gearbox Software panel - for a studio that tends to unwittingly stir up dumb controversies for itself by not being cautious enough with how it doles out information to the press, it was great to see the studio heads relaxed in front of a sympathetic audience. Among the more notable updates were founder Randy Pitchford’s continued commitment to doing something with the Duke Nukem franchise, the road-map for Borderlands 2’s DLC (consisting of four single player campaigns comparable in size to General Knoxx’s Armory, as well as a new character shortly after release), and plenty of insight on the writing process, which regularly involves the Gearbox staff and Randy’s wife up all hours the night before a recording.
They asked the fans to feel free to ‘challenge’ the panel during the Q&A, and wound up addressing how they’re ensuring that the Borderlands 2 story won’t ‘suck’ the same way the original’s did, and whether they intended on thwarting modders to maintain gameplay balance in Borderlands 2 (they’re not - the team enjoy the work of modders, even though the trolls can abuse them). It was a boisterous environment, the excitement levels unfettered by the two hour wait or the days of show floor traipsing that preceded the panel, and it served as a reminder of how enthusiastic rank and file gamers can be.
There’s so much more about the PAX experience that I haven’t touched on here - for each one of the unfortunate gamer stereotypes that were apparent (such as wretched stench of BO on the show floor within ten minutes of opening on Sunday), there were an equal number of heartening sights, such as watching a new generation of gamer get excited about the Plants vs Zombies characters parading around, or the small miracles of courtesy that kept the queues ordered and the swag tables from being flipped over.
The smart money is saying that PAX Prime may be the first time the general public will get their hands on next-generation console hardware, so I have little doubt that PAX’s cultural significance has yet to plateau. With a fourth day added to the weekend, I’ll be sure to pack more comfortable shoes this time.