||E3 2003: Tom's Overview
May 21, 2003 Tom Chick
Summary: Tom Chick, critic extraordinaire, set his sites on a plump, juicy target: E3. The plethora of viable targets almost reduced him to a neanderthal-in-a-strip-joint state, but he held his composure. Now he shares his thoughts on E3 itself, Half-Life 2, non-interactive demos, Halo 2 and EA's imposing sound system! We've also got a new mini-game going - spot the Chickisms! (words exclusive to Tom)
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If you're at E3 to cover PC titles, your job is going to be at once easier and harder. You can go up to, say, Vivendi Universal's booth, which is a "booth" in the same sense that Asia is "a few acres", and ask to see their PC titles. They'll explain that of the 38 things they're showing, only 6 are exclusive to the PC. Ah, that's easy.
But not so fast. It gets messier if you consider that in many instance, the PC is regarded as simply one of four platforms, so you'll see a lot of games that are coming out on the Xbox and the Playstation 2 and the PC. There's crossover galore, with platforms bleeding into each other so that just because someone's demoing a game with an Xbox controller, that doesn't mean it's an Xbox game. It's enough to make a guy long for simpler days when console was console and PC was PC and only occasionally would the twain meet in some ill-conceived port that could be safely ignored because no one was ever going to buy it. But for every omni-platform stinker like LucasArts' Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb, there are potential omni-platform spectacles like Ubi Soft's Prince of Persia. The industry is making it harder for us to make a PC/console distinction when we talk about games. This year's E3 drove that point home at every major booth.
Tom likes making new words
And while all the platforms are hybridding into each other, the genres are being winnowed down. Apparently, there are exactly two kinds of games now: World War II themed first person shooters and massively multiplayer online RPGs. If there's anything else showing, it must have been relegated to Kentia Hall with the lonely Korean companies selling their shiny mouse pads and porno DVDs.
It's obvious the MMOs are the highest risk projects, but they're also the highest potential reward for publishers who would love nothing more than for you to buy their game and then pay them a monthly subscription fee. So this year companies were particularly eager to show their MMOs. It's as if every booth had a mandate passed down from on high: "Whatever you do, if anyone walks up with a media badge, make sure you show him that massively multiplayer thing we're doing!" The MMO displays were big and loud and staffed with buxom women in dopey costumes, all as a way of shouting 'Hey, look at me!’
SIDEBAR: Isaac Asimov is credited with creating 3 words. Psychohistory is one, positronic is another – both are staples of science fiction – but he is also given the nod with respect to robotics.
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But I can hardly blame the publishers for pushing so hard. They desperately need to get coverage for these things, because that equals exposure, which helps get retailers on board, which puts it in your hands and then on your hard drive, which puts their fingers in your pocket for $13.95 a month above and beyond the $50 you paid for the box. MMOs are already a fiercely competitive arena and it's going to get even bloodier. The conventional wisdom is that there simply aren't enough players to go around. With the disappointing performance of The Sims Online, there's no assurance that new players are looking to get into these games. The pie doesn't seem to be growing substantially, and with more people competing for a slice, the portions are going to get smaller. It's a scary time to be making an MMO.
The problem at E3 was that there's no easy way to demo an MMO before it’s been released. Many of the MMO demos were top heavy with stuff about character generation and how you can give your avatar any face you want and pick what color tunic you're going to wear. Then you got a canned demo that gave you a look at the graphics, with maybe a few scripted interactions as an example of how the game might play. Reading between the lines, I'd have to say Worlds of Warcraft looks promising if not conventional. Microsoft's Mythica seems to have enough of a twist to recommend it. City of Heroes is bright and goofy enough that it just might work. Otherwise I offer every other MMO a great big shrug.
Medals and Valors
As for first person shooters, everyone and his uncle is trying to do a Medal of Honor style game, including the guys who made Medal of Honor. EA brought the franchise in to be continued by its internal developers, so the original creators are now split into two separate companies, each making another Medal of Honor style game.
And again, here's a problem with demos. They're getting more and more impressive, held in mini-theatres with sub-woofers the size of Volvos. But underneath all the sound and big screen fury, it's easy to forget that you're basically seeing a scripted demo that can't convey the intangible touchstone we call gameplay. In fact, in many cases, it simply obscures what it'll be like to actually play the game. Sure, you might have some guy holding a controller and shooting up bad guys, but many of the interactions are totally canned.
SIDEBAR: Personally, I thought Vivendi had the loudest booth… or at least loudest demo. Men of Valor was LOUD.
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Valorous Men of Duty called to Honor?
For instance, the demos for Activision's Call of Valor and EA's Men of Duty are little more than elaborate cutscenes (to be fair, there was a huge multiplayer session of Call to Valorous Men being held in a faux bunker). These demos are great to watch, but for all we know, they're rail shooters. Before the demo for Men of Duty Calling, a.k.a. the World War II shooter set in Vietnam, the guy announced that we were seeing actual gameplay. But my friend Trevor said that when he went to see it, the Xbox crashed, so they reset it and started again from the beginning. Sure enough, the same things happened this time around. The same guys were hit, the same comments were made, the same enemies appeared from the same places. Trevor said he heckled, but the sound was up so loud no one could hear him.
Even the Half-Life 2 demo, a wildly successful crowd pleaser that had people whipped into a frenzy of messianic proportion, is a cause for suspicion. I think part of the reason people were so impressed and willing to trust what felt uncannily like a Trespasser demo is that Valve showed off the original Half-Life the same way, yet they still delivered an amazing game. They've built up a lot of good will among players and their cool confidence about delivering a complete game on September 30th is reassuring. It’s also refreshing next to interminable 'when it's done' mantras like we’ve been hearing from 3D Realms, whose Duke Nukem Forever was conspicuously missing at this year’s show. The fact that Valve is so cool and certain and laid back reinforces the idea that these guys really know what they're doing. Nevermind some marginally credible rumors that there's no way in hell they'll make that date.
A date which will live in infamy
I'm skeptical about more than just the September 30th date. Valve has made exactly one game. They've shown a remarkable talent for fostering a community of fans in the wake of that game. They've revolutionized third party mods with the way they've nurtured Counter-Strike. If you consider how many people are using the technology, Valve has certainly out-idded id in terms of engine building, much to id's chagrin (I once had an id representative ask me to change a reference to 'the Half-Life engine' to 'the Quake engine'). Unlike id with their sometimes soulless technical acumen, Valve knows the ins and outs of narrative. With excellent pacing and carefully controlled action set pieces, they've tricked everyone into thinking Half-Life has a great story.
But with the Half-Life 2 demo, they seem to be implying some sort of wide-open, physics-driven, emergent gameplay. For instance, during one 'cut scene' in which a scientist is noodling away at his experiment and a female character is delivering a bit of exposition, Gordon (i.e. you, the player) accidentally knocks over a monitor. The scientist reacts to the fumble: "Oh, do be careful," he says. The audience watching the demo laughed, not because there was anything inherently funny about some guy knocking something over, but because we never see this in a game. So is Valve implying their characters will work this dynamically, even in the middle of cut scenes? At another point, while demoing a group of soldiers fighting in a city and running through a conveniently unattended opening to flank some guards at a barricade, Gabe Newell said that you'd rarely be alone in Half-Life 2. He said they're designing the friendly AI to figure out what you want it to do. How does this work? Will I be wetwired into my computer through the USB port?
SIDEBAR: The fake game titles are simply to demonstrate Tom's uhh.. felings for the 'me too!' crowd.
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Finally, all the physics look great, but how exactly does this translate into gameplay? There's an elaborate sequence where a character tries to block a door with furniture while eluding a soldier. In every other first person shooter, you'd just shoot the soldier. Who's going to bother with closing doors and running away? Similarly, there's a scene with a rather elaborate Rube Goldberg ambush using a swinging beam and a toppled cargo container. There's a bit where you hide under a spinning blade and some zombies walk into the blade and get hacked apart. Then there's a scene where you throw bug bait at some soldiers and giant ant-lions attack them. But in a first person shooter, most players would just shoot the bad guys or lob a grenade at them. These are clever ideas, but the million-dollar question is this: how do you translate these ideas into gameplay when you’re essentially making a shooter? This is one of the dangers of extrapolating from a demo. (As Jakub is about to quickly learn in his Half-Life 2 editorial. -ed.)
Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to Half-Life 2 as much as the next guy, but not because of the physics stuff they showed in the demo and not because a character's eyes now glint convincingly and the 43 muscles in their faces let them waggle their eyebrows suggestively. In short, I’m not looking forward to Half-Life 2 because of the demo I saw. I'm looking forward to Half-Life because Valve is a company that does things its own way, a company that showed off some remarkable technology, and a company that once demonstrated it knows how to combine Hollywood and Silicon Valley far more successfully than anyone else by using pacing and action, rather than resorting to misguided concepts like story, physics, polygonal T&A, or licensing. It was a really nice demo, Valve, but you had me at hello.
Tom’s Game of Show?
And this is why the best thing I saw at E3, in terms of presentation and promise, was Bungie's Halo 2 demo, which showed gameplay, gameplay, gameplay, all familiar from what we know in Halo, but with pumped up action and interaction, in bigger arenas, with even more friendly and enemy activity. Bungie has proven time and again they know what they're doing, spanning hardware and genres. The Halo 2 demo was the most exciting thing I've ever seen at an E3, not because it was unique and innovative and driven by fancy new technology. It was uniquely thrilling because I got a sense from watching it just how Halo 2 is going to play.
Finally, the trend towards amazing graphics continues, but it's been a few years since that's been enough to make a game stand out. Doom III is positively yawn inducing, but that's par for the course for id (the widespread reaction to everything id has done since Quake has been 'nice engine, can't wait for someone to do something with it'). When everything looks great, games like Chrome, Trinity, and Far Cry, which are certainly competent but unexceptional, fall by the wayside. Graphics are no longer the domain of the guys writing the engines. They are now in the hands of art directors, where they belong and where they'll live or die based on the power of creative vision rather than technical prowess.
It takes something with a unique aesthetic to stand out, like Ubi Soft's XIII. It takes powerful animation and cinematic sensibilities, like Ubi Soft's Prince of Persia. When everyone else is showing a World War II shooter, these were games that stood out in terms of artwork and movement.
Oh, and one last thing: the noise level at this year's E3 was completely out of control. Electronic Arts was the leader of the whole unruly overloud pack in terms of ear-shredding decibel overkill. So if they ever recover their hearing, could someone tell EA we can hear their damn games just fine?
SIDEBAR: The Chick rants! The first of many? His rant about demos and sound makes it sound like he hates E3, but like a chick chasing bad boys, he keeps coming back for more. Does he have some points though, or is he full of it? Sound Off!