As I’m writing this, the last day of E3 is drawing to a close. Spaceship Villain was able to attend the first two days of this year’s presentation, and we had an amazing time. I tweeted a lot of my thoughts and first impressions of what we saw on the show floor, but I wanted to take some time to give some context and flesh out those ideas after the fact. I tried to take good mental notes as we took it all in, but E3 is heavy on sensory overload, so I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff I’m forgetting even in what’s sure to be a massive wall of text. We’re not primarily a gaming news publication or a reviews site, but I just thought it might be fun to let you know exactly what we thought about what we saw and what we played. As a gamer, E3 is probably the highlight of my year, and it would be my pleasure to share with you some of the excitement we’ve had over the last few days.
I was only vaguely aware of this game at the start of the week, but Disney’s entire booth did a really good job of selling me on the idea. It seems to be following in the Skylanders model of individual character figurines integrated into a digital game, only set in a universe (or confluence of universes) which I care about. Like Kingdom Hearts before it, the main strength of this property is the sheer volume of characters and worlds in the Disney Vault, and mashing them together to see what happens. The underlying gameplay looks solid, but the real draw here is the ridiculous crossover appeal of Captain Jack Sparrow driving a monster truck version of Cinderella’s Pumpkin Coach, and so forth. They’ve only revealed a subset of the characters and levels available so far, but it seems like the design is really leveraging the variety of scenarios possible with such a library content. It perfectly reflects the fun, frequently nonsensical nature of children playing with action figures mixed and matched from different sets, and it shows real promise. Disney was also smart to deviate from Skylanders lead in giving away game pieces at E3, by seeding a variety of figures out into the community instead of a single limited edition piece – Skylanders E3 figures are currently destined for Ebay, but the Disney Infinity figures seem likely to actually find themselves in use when the game comes out.
Fantasia: Music Evolved
Disney had a very strong presence at E3 2013, so I was riding high on the wave of fandom when I saw a small theater advertising a game I didn’t even know existed: Fantasia. I’ve always loved the art and music of the original Fantasia, and once I saw it was being developed by Harmonix of Guitar Hero / Rock Band fame I was hooked – this could be amazing! I intentionally avoided any further information about the game, putting on my blinders as the giant screen above cycled Disney trailers through the duration of my wait. I went into the theater knowing only the name of the game and the developer, wanting so badly to be surprised by a perfect hidden gem. And I was disappointed. I was very disappointed. I’m not one of those Disney fans who thinks that everything they do is untouchable or sacred – I know the original intent was for Fantasia to be an ongoing project, adding and swapping segments over the course of years, so I am open to innovation, particularly with this property. But this game really does a disservice to the name of Fantasia. The original movie featured gorgeous animated stories, where all this game really has to offer visually is endlessly swooping particles. The hub world offers very shallow interactions and tries to convince you these pre-programmed actions are manifestations your own creativity. Even the straightforward rhythm game portions are just bad; everything is controlled by Kinect gestures with the promise of “free expression” that pre-recorded audio simply can’t offer. There’s no note highway, but there still seems to be an optimal path you get graded against in a points summation at the end of each song. It’s a mess of a game and a terrible extension of the Fantasia tradition. Seriously, I think Disney should rethink using the name “Fantasia” in this license; I can’t claim to have any thorough knowledge of classical music, but I know that by putting both under the same label this game is essentially saying that Bruno Mars is basically at the same level as Tchaikovsky, and I’m not okay with that.
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster
There was never any question that this game is a day-one must-buy for me. Final Fantasy X was unquestionably my favorite game of the series, so I have been eagerly hanging on every scrap of news that has been trickled out since this remake was announced. So this demo was at the top of my list of things to play at E3, even though I know for a fact I’m going to be buying it anyway. And it didn’t disappoint – the gameplay is as great as ever and the graphics look much better than before. The main characters have of course been given more artistic attention than the enemies, which still showed a blocky texture or two, but the environments and effects are all coming together nicely. My only complaint is in regard to the way it was presented on the show floor. The demo consisted of the very beginning of the game up through the first fight against Geosgaeno. This portion of the game is, ironically, an awkward way to introduce the game to new players, as the beginning of the story is intentionally confusing and this stretch doesn’t last long enough to explain anything. It’s also a lot heavier on cutscenes than it is on gameplay. So even though it was nice to see my favorite game featured prominently in both the Square-Enix and Sony booths, I felt like it could have been presented a bit better with regard to content.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix
This got a bit overshadowed by the (stunning and very welcome) announcement of Kingdom Hearts III, but it was still great to see this in action. Like FFX:HD I am excited to see the upscaled graphics and new character models, but it doesn’t always feel like things have been drastically changed from the PS2 versions. Especially with Kingdom Hearts’ cartoony characters and bright shading, it can be hard to keep in mind that the game didn’t always look this good. Even more than the graphical improvements, this package is probably intended to help get everyone back up to speed with the franchise storyline by the time the next full entry is released. The story was convoluted enough to begin with, but especially since it has now skipped an entire console generation, it’s a smart move to re-release the originals alongside the handheld games that people may have missed the first time around. So again like FFX, this demo wasn’t intended to influence our decision to purchase it when it comes out, this game was already on our pre-order list, it was just nice having the chance to try it out in person.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut
I consider myself a fan of the Deus Ex franchise, and I’ve already talked about the original release of this game on this blog, so I was excited to hear about an improved version being released for Wii U (I know it’s no longer exclusive to this platform, but that’s what they were using to demo it). I played the portion where you first discover the mercenary team outside of the FEMA camp. It was a lot easier than I remembered from my previous times through the game, but it might just be tuned that way to ease players through the demo. The gamepad screen was put to good use for the menus, as well as using using the second screen as a zoomed in sniper scope while still letting you move around on the main screen. The analog sticks were a bit slow and unwieldy, but this might be fixed by adjusting the sensitivity; switching weapons was still as clunky as ever. Fixing the boss fights and adding touchscreen menus will definitely be an improvement, but either way it’s going to be a hard sell at $50 when the original edition can frequently be found on Steam sales for $5 and it’s currently a free game in the library available to PlayStation Plus.
I had been reading more news about consoles than individual games, so this one hadn’t really caught my eye until the demo in Monday’s conference. The gameplay looked really interesting, so I wanted to see more of this one for sure. The demo we saw at Sony’s booth was a small theater-style presentation, in which a developer played live through that same portion of the game. I found it concerning that in this new live playthrough the entire scenario played out in exactly the same way. Moments which had felt unique and organic in the conference demo were replicated precisely, meaning I had now seen two individual presentations of the same exact segment of gameplay. I’m sure this was because both presenters were following the same script, a path through the level optimized to show off the best features and follow a set of talking points, but it definitely left the game feeling a bit more scripted. As for the game itself, the visuals are solid and I really like the cyberpunk aesthetic. The camera hacking sequence was very compelling, guiding a separate character from multiple points of view puts a really engaging spin on stealth gameplay.
Even though I thought it was impressive of Sony to lead their announcement conference with a new IP, the game itself hadn’t made the biggest impression on me until I was able to try it out for myself. The gameplay is fairly standard third-person action with some unique twists. I enjoyed fighting the same enemies from very different scales – when you first start the level a standard enemy might take two or three hits to knock down, but by the end you’re several times their size and can KO multiple enemies in a single swipe. Character design is the strongest component of this game for sure; there is almost no actual body, instead relying on a particle swarm of simple shapes to form the mass and approximate limbs. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, but I still don’t know who this character really is. The demo had cutscenes with friendly characters implied to be your allies, but it seemed to jump into the middle of a chapter with no real specific indications of who you were or what the story had been up to this point. So a lot of the details are unclear, but it’s a solid premise and I’m really interested to see where they go with this game.
Castle of Illusion
This is a remake of an early Sega Genesis game starring Mickey Mouse. I’m a fan of classic games, Disney / Mickey Mouse, and contemporary 2.5D games, so this should have been a natural for me. I wanted to like this one, but I honestly had a pretty major issue with its difficulty. I stood in line for about 15 minutes watching the people in front of us playing different levels across the 4 different stations, but in that time I don’t believe I saw a single person complete any of the demo levels. Both of my own playthroughs ended in failure, by running out of lives in one level or just giving up in frustration after falling all the way down a tall platforming section in another. The tone of the game and the storybook narration imply that this is still a game for children, but I think this audience is going to quickly get frustrated with the game in its current state. I’m not sure what exactly the problem is, but I would speculate that it’s just too literal a remake that was scared to sacrifice accuracy by making improvements or tuning the experience for contemporary gamers. Hopefully there is either an Easy difficulty level that was not yet featured, or there is still time before release to scale back the difficulty to a more practical level, because there is a gorgeous game here that is so close to being good, but I can’t recommend it as is.
Even with two full days to enjoy E3 it’s impossible to see everything, so we had to budget our time. We only spent a little while in the Microsoft booth, but I knew I wanted to get my hands on at least one game for the XBox One. I figured that the new IP Ryse would be the single best showcase of what this new system was capable of, so that’s where we decided to wait. This was another demo that was exactly the same as the segment shown in the conference, which makes me think that this game is still pretty early on in production. Even the associate who was guiding me mentioned that he considered this a very alpha build, and that things like the QTE-style button prompts were likely to change. That being said, the game looks very polished. The beach landing scene was chaotic but it felt really immersive as I could see my fellow soldiers fighting their own battles all around me. The battle system can be tough to grasp at first but they strongly emphasize that it is not a button masher, your character positions his body to attack or defend and you need to time your hits and your blocks to correspond with this posture. I died several times over the course of the demo but it felt like a system that I would adjust to eventually. The battles are very cinematic when played well, but something about the camera movement left me constantly getting blindsided by a new enemy every time I finished one. The graphics were consistently impressive as you would expect from a next-gen title. I don’t honestly know that it’s the kind of game I would play outside of a spectacle event like this, but it definitely has the potential to be a popular new franchise.
This game reminded me a lot of Little Big Planet, in that it is a game about game creation. Both are designed to make levels for a specific game type right out of the box, but can be manipulated to create a surprising variety of genres with a little more effort. This game had been shown in the Microsoft press conference, but I will admit I dismissed it at first glance. It wasn’t until we were waiting in line for Ryse that I was compelled to watch the demo in the next booth over, and I was suddenly more interested in Project Spark than the game we had been waiting for. The live demonstrations were very interesting, from a gamer perspective and from a developer perspective. As a gamer, I was intrigued by how quick it was to just make things; start with a flat plane, raise some mountains, paint a trail, and drop in some trees and house and you could walk around your level after only a minute of work. As a developer, I drew immediate parallels with professional game creation suites like Unity; how is it possible that this game has better terrain manipulation than Unity? I’m being serious, Unity terrain works on a simple plane with elevations but no built-in support for concave surfaces, and on top of that you can paint textures. Project Spark terrain worked more like virtual sculpting, with paths stretching up from the ground and over other layers in full 3D, as well as 3D surface objects like grass and flowers. I understand the need for trade-offs – Unity is more rigid but more extensible for making unique games, whereas I’m assuming every Project Spark terrain will have to use the same assets and be more visually similar to one another. But still, that was a very impressive demonstration.
LEGO Marvel Super Heroes
I had wanted to play this game ever since the cover story in Game Informer a few months back. The LEGO series has been a bit hit-or-miss for me personally, but I always like to see what they’re doing next. This game didn’t impress me as much as I had hoped, but I think it has a lot of potential. The Marvel universe is one of those that offers up so much for a game designer to work with, it can sometimes be a little hard to focus. I like the heroes and villains they have shown so far – this demo featured Iron Man and The Hulk as playable characters fighting Abomination and Sandman in the Sand Central Station level discussed in the GI article. As is kind of always my complaint against LEGO games, the boss battles were fun and well put together but the regular enemies get a bit tedious to fight. But half the appeal of a LEGO game is just destroying the environment to collect studs, and Hulk is a character very well fit for this goal. I’ve always found it impressive how LEGO/TT Games continue to get these amazing licenses to work with (that they have both the DC license and the Marvel license seems to me the stuff of legends), and it offers some interesting edge cases for this game. For instance, the design of the characters seems to be very heavily influenced by the recent Marvel Studios films, and The Avengers in particular, but also features characters like Spiderman and Deadpool who have not been previously rendered in this universe. I have to wonder how much guidance and direction these elements received from Marvel, and whether or not those decisions might factor into future films. Other players joined in and dropped out over the course of my playthrough, which gave me the opportunity to see the dynamic splitscreen option; apparently this has existed in previous LEGO games but I had never had occasion to use it before and I was thoroughly impressed. The game renders both characters onscreen from a single view whenever they’re close enough to each other, but divides the screen with a shifting line as needed when one goes out of range. This happens unobtrusively and really optimizes the view for each player; it might not be a “new” feature but it was one where I could immediately see the benefit for local co-op.
Sonic Lost Worlds
I always try to like the Sonic franchise, but I just never enjoy them. So I can’t really recommend for or against this specific game, only offer my thoughts. I played the Wii U version, which looks very nice but did not make any apparent use of the gamepad screen in the segment that I tried. The gameplay felt very reminiscent of Mario Galaxy, from the perpendicular gravity around curved land masses to the brief shift to front view as you’re propelled from one to the next.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
This was probably the most fun we had with any of the games we played at E3. The two-player mode had a lot of good combination moves, and was cooperative in a way that I could see myself actually playing at home. The level design was dynamic, with a lot of hidden paths and alternate routes to discover and a lot of collectibles scattered throughout. It all felt very detailed, right down to the fur on your characters finally existing as more than a painted texture. Maybe this is shallow of me, but I am so glad to see Nintendo finally embracing HD graphics; even a good-looking Wii game like Donkey Kong Country Returns felt limited by its hardware, but the sequel looks every bit as good as I had hoped. We only got to see two levels, but so far the environments feel much more dense and populated, while maintaining and enhancing the cartoony visual style. I was thrilled when Nintendo first decided to revive DKC, and now I am excited all over again for this followup.
Super Mario 3D World
I’m really excited for this game, because I only recently discovered how much I enjoy the “3D” branch of the Mario franchise. I had bought Super Mario 3D Land when I first got the 3DS, but had never actually played it because I was so burned out on mobile games at the time. I rediscovered it a few months ago and was really blown away by how it “felt” like a Mario game in a way that the Galaxy franchise never had. After getting 100% completion in 3D Land (which is a rare achievement for me) I am really excited to have more of this style of gameplay to look forward to on the Wii U. We got to the demo station at a relatively uncrowded time, so I was able to stay on for three of the four sample levels. All of them were fun to go through, but the one with the clear pipes was a particular standout. The new powerup “Cat Mario” actually plays pretty well – the attack has a good reach and the wall-climbing is well implemented for some fun action and light puzzle sections. One thing that I was very happy to see was the return of Princess Peach as a playable character; I was always baffled by the decision to feature two Toad characters in the New Super Mario Bros games, so it’s great to see this return to the classic SMB2 lineup. Of course this also means the introduction of simultaneous four-player gaming. I am primarily a single-player gamer, I enjoy co-op at an event like E3 but I will literally never have four people in my living room all wanting to play Mario; that’s just not a scenario that exists for me, so it’s not the most compelling direction for Nintendo to have been moving these last few years. But as long as I can play the game (hopefully even to 100% again) by myself, this is a game I will definitely be buying.