The last day of PAX Australia seemed to be a lot mellower than the first two days. The line to get in at the beginning of the day was smaller, the queues for food were actually reasonable and if you wanted to get into a panel... well, you still needed to be there half an hour early, but by today people had gotten used to that.
I had already been around most of the video game stalls on the first two days, so I decided to return to the Big Top and look into some more of the traditional-style tabletop and card games.
I’ve never really gotten into tabletop wargaming, but I absolutely understand its appeal. I mentioned yesterday about how some of the most valuable gaming experiences could only exist in the non-electronic gaming format. The freedom to make or change rules with words allows for gameplay as infinite as the mind permits; Dungeons and Dragons’ many settings such as Eberron, Planescape and Ravenloft and innumerable fan-created worlds go far beyond anything a sane video game developer could hope to make. The wargames section of PAX was populated by enthusiastic players of all ages, moving around meticulously hand=painted miniatures and enacting well-rehearsed strategies.
Painting the figures is to many players even more fun than playing the games themselves, and there were many beautiful examples of this. Convention goers were provided with free miniatures and paint to have a go at customizing their own.
Speaking of war games, the smaller lines today meant that I was able to get in and play the free-to-play online game World of Tanks. It had been extremely crowded the first two days with massive lines. They actually had a tank in the display hall for people to take photographs with; a large red carpet was heavily patrolled by women in the skimpiest tank commander uniforms conceivable. I couldn’t help but think about how inappropriate high-heels and a miniskirt are in a warzone. Whichever army these ladies are from clearly hasn’t put much thought into the safety of their soldiers.
Really, this just threw up a red flag for me. I haven’t attended many gaming conventions, but when you need to lure people to your booth with sex appeal, that’s just telling me that you’re unable to lure them in with your actual game. When I got in, I was only able to play for about a minute. Regardless of whether you were used to the game or not, the second that you die your demo time is up, and you get kicked out of the booth. I barely had time to get accustomed to the controls before a group of three tanks converged on my position and blew me to smithereens.
Because of this, I can’t really give an accurate comment on how the game plays, but it didn’t really seem all that great. I mean, it’s tank combat. You’re in a tank, you’re rolling around shooting at other tanks. I mean, sure, they are very nice tanks, well done, but that’s all they are. There’s nothing new here. It’s polished, and I can understand the multiplayer appeal, but it’s not even close to revolutionary.
A second vehicular combat game was at PAX that, in comparison to World of Tanks, nowhere near enough people were paying attention to. There were several booths for universities offering courses in animation and game design, and one of these was showcasing a game called Collateral. It’s presented in a visual style that clearly draws from Tron, Blade Runner, and similar sci-fi worlds. The player controls a taxi driver in an expansive cyber-punk metropolis. You have full movement in three dimensional space, as well as a variety of weapons to take down enemies who, for one reason or another, are gunning for your client. When I was playtesting the game, I picked up a guy from a hovering garden and took him to a large building, whereupon he started to break into a bank with me as his intended getaway vehicle. The police, obviously, were not thrilled with my aiding and abetting, so promptly commenced pursuit.
The major difference between World of Tanks and Collateral is the same sort of difference as between, say, an endless bowl of Doritos and a single five-star dessert. Sure, if you want, you can live off your Doritos forever, and you’ll never run out. The saltiness makes you eat more and more, but World of Tanks is missing a metaphorical salsa dip to add flavour. You’re just sitting there, mindlessly snacking on a substandard meal. Meanwhile, Collateral is something that you start with the intention of finishing. It’s sweet, it has substance. It has some chocolate sauce on the top, and some textured flakes to boot.
Collateral is valuable because it has non=standard objectives that don’t always equate to “shoot bullets at other things”, it has sections that basically feel like Crazy Taxi with a flying vehicle. The free three dimensional movement is like the dash of raspberry sauce that really makes it great. The beautifully crafted world is very much a three-dimensional landscape, a well-realised hive with an astonishing number of hidden nooks and cranberries. I mean crannies. What I am trying to say is that you should back Collateral on Kickstarter right now and also that I am currently extremely hungry.
It’s interesting to note that, as much as I’m talking about these fantastic indie games, a lot of these went unnoticed by passers-by. Many of these games, sadly, don’t seem to have received ANY coverage by media outlets. This is why I’m trying not to talk about the “big six” indie showcase at PAX, since they’ve almost certainly got enough coverage. But let me do a quick list of them with impressions for completeness’ sake:
Duet: Hyper-simplistic arcade style game where you rotate two circles around a point to avoid being hit by squares. Looks fairly fun but to someone like me I think it would get boring fast.
InFlux: Rolling a sphere around glass houses set in environments that look gloriously engaging in the same manner as thatgamecompany’s Flower. Interesting looking puzzles, will probably pick it up when it comes out.
Fractured Soul: A 3DS title that, in a refreshing twist for the 3DS, uses both of the screens for gameplay rather than just using the 3D one. Seriously, am I the only one who has noticed that now that the screens aren’t the same size, these kinds of games just ceased to be? It’s all about the 3D these days. Looks like a gimmicky platformer but at least the gimmick is a good one.
MacGuffin’s Curse: Ehhhhhhh. It’s clear a lot of heart and soul went into this game, but it just doesn’t catch my interest. The puzzle mechanics don’t appear to do anything particularly original, but it won an award for writing, so it could be alright. Just not my cup of tea I guess.
Black Annex: This looks like the kind of game that I’d have a lot of fun playing but be absolutely terrible at. It’s basically a given that I’ll be getting this when it comes out.
Antichamber: Without hyperbole, the second best puzzle game ever, losing only to Braid and directly followed by the Portal series. BUY ANTICHAMBER.
Speaking of things that have gotten enough coverage, let me return to the topic of the Xbox One, and why it might not be as horrendous as everyone seems to think it is. See, let’s forget about the whole E3 games locked to one account debacle, and focus on what the console has going for it. The Kinect technology that was showcased during the presentation was impressive stuff; it now includes a much higher resolution camera, and seems to handle fabrics substantially better than the original, where the scattering effect of cloth would often result in no distance information being returned.
An infrared camera permits it to “see in the dark”, which a lot of people allude to being some kind of conspiracy to spy on people doing what people do in the dark. You know. Like... sleeping. Yes.
But in reality, this tech allows for the Kinect to handle areas of extreme contrast with no loss of detail, and even operate in otherwise pitch darkness. And to the people who still insist on saying things about the Kinect being a useless piece of technology that deserves to die out, you’re forgetting its valuable applications outside of the gaming sphere.
The current Kinect is a cheap and standard platform for researchers to use for all sorts of image processing experiments. In time, the new technologies created and techniques discovered because of the accessibility of the original Kinect will have effects more far-reaching than the fact that maybe it wasn’t great for playing video games. The new Kinect is an innovation that will definitely alter the course of many peoples’ work, and not just in video games.
Moving on to the new controller, I have to add a disclaimer that I’m a bigger fan of the PS3 controller layout than the Xbox 360 one. That said, the alterations to the control sticks and triggers look like useful additions. They report that the control sticks now have reduced physical resistance. While this is something that people playing fast-paced first person shooters will undoubtedly enjoy, many games benefit from subtlety in the tilt of the control stick. Subtlety that, with a less resistive control stick, may be much more difficult to utilise.
Of course, nobody outside of Microsoft staff has actually had their hands on the controller as yet, so my critique is pure speculation rather than personal experience.
The one thing I’ve heard about about the controller that I really, REALLY like is the placement of individual rumble motors in each shoulder trigger. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t expect to add much, but if well-executed it could add a degree of immersion that, while only a few people may consciously appreciate, could subconsciously draw people into a game in a manner similar to the internal speaker in the Wii remote. Of course, the internal speaker in the Wii remote had such terrible sound quality that it was sort of ruined, but it was a good idea nonetheless.
I’m glad that Microsoft is finally putting its game face on in terms of hardware design. Historically, the consoles that go well aren’t the ones with the most RAM or fastest processors, or even the best games. The console that wins is the one that innovates in terms of immersive hardware, giving devs more freedom to try new things. It’s an idea that isn’t exclusive just in video gaming, but business in general: innovate or die. This is something that Nintendo truly understands, and has for a very long time.
The logical progression of its handheld systems has always added something valuable to the mix; the shoulder buttons and wide screen of the GBA, the touch screen years before the advent of the smartphone on the DS, and the new 3D features are all useful additions that go beyond mere “gimmicks”. The PS Vita is only just catching up with a touch screen now, and Nintendo definitely has dominance in this field. The handheld area at PAX may as well have been the 3DS area; I did not see a single PS Vita in anyone’s hands.
Speaking of which, Nintendo’s PAX lineup was rather conservative. In comparison to the number of playable demos at E3, there were only a few titles available here. I was disappointed to find out that Nintendo’s new IP The Wonderful 101 wasn’t available to play at PAX; however, they did have Pikmin 3, which seemed to be presented as the “Killer App” for the Wii U. There were similar sorts of demos for the 3DS; I had been hoping to play Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, but unfortunately the crowds around the Pokemon and Mario Kart 7 tournaments made this impossible.
The next indie game I’d like to talk about is Burden. I don’t normally go in for tower defence games, but Burden caught my eye with its original gameplay: you’re building your turrets on a colossus as it carries its... burden. At the moment, there are only three kinds of buildings; an anti-land for people crawling up your legs, an anti-air for the flying enemies that plague you like bats and one that generates more energy for you to build the other towers from.
Not much to say on it at the moment beyond that, but it’s an interesting enough concept to mention. It also looks great; the colossus’ motions really conveys a sense of enormity. It’s hard to get that sort of hulking motion correct, but it’s done well here, and the graphics alone are honestly stunning.
Another interesting game in early development stages is Ancient Future Fighter, a very early alpha of a Muay Thai boxing game. It already shows some interesting mechanics, letting you use your mouse to target different parts of the enemy’s body rather than using pre=set moves. It’s a physics-driven system which shows a lot of promise, and the gameplay has plenty of possible future directions. I imagine it would work particularly well on portable devices, using a touch screen to aim your kicks and punches at the opponent’s body. It’s also got a nice cel-shaded graphic style that seems similar to Street Fighter 4. Click through the link to play the free web demo.
Johann Sebastian Joust is a game where two to seven players all hold a PlayStation Move controller and have to jostle other players’ controllers to eliminate them, without being eliminated themselves. I’d seen video of it in action last year and been intrigued, and it’s just as interesting to watch in real life. It is important to note that JSJ is not a video game. A video game requires video output of some kind; JSJ in fact has more in common with, say, Twister or Operation than with any video game. It’s a puzzle game, it’s an action game, it’s a fighting game. It’s about controlling your own body, defensively manoeuvring, striking unexpectedly, teamwork, backstabbing.
It is a game that straddles the line between not just genres, but whole classes of gameplay. It is, in fact, a lot like Dungeons and Dragons. If you want, you can enforce new rules to make it into a completely different game. I saw a one-armed match of JSJ which required an entirely altered strategy than with both hands free. This brings to mind any number of possible gameplay routes; my favourite to contemplate is taping the Move controllers to everyone’s heads and forcing them to head=butt each other in order to knock each other out of the game. Maybe they might knock each other out in a more literal sense by accident, but that would only add to the fun!
I imagine most people reading this will be at least peripherally aware of the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. Personally, my first trading card game was Pokemon and the first one I really got into was Yu-Gi-Oh. However, I stopped playing it due to major flaws in terms of the way that card rarity and interoperability is handled. In Yu-Gi-Oh, rarer cards are almost always more powerful. In more recent batches, card themes are so profoundly interdependent that your entire deck needs to have just one theme of monster in it not to be wiped out immediately, with very little leeway for creativity or customization.
Before PAX, I had only played Magic twice before, and never owned any cards. While I have been here, I have acquired four starter decks and maybe seven booster packs, as well as the limited, PAX exclusive card. An entire area was set up to learn how to play the game, and after a few matches I understood its international popularity. Magic handles rarity far better than Yu-Gi-Oh; rarer cards are typically more specialised for certain strategies than just flatly “better”. In terms of game design, Yu-Gi-Oh commits the cardinal sin of enforcing artificial value.
Given an infinite number of Yu-Gi-Oh cards, you could easily compose a deck that no pre-built starter deck could hope to beat. Given an infinite number of Magic cards, any deck that you make is going to have some kind of weakness. There will always be strategic trade-off with any deck that you design. Quite simply, the people designing Magic: The Gathering set out to make a good game. The people designing Yu-Gi-Oh set out to make loads and loads of money.
The final game I wanted to talk a bit about follows on from this idea of well-balanced trade-offs quite nicely. Dread Chase is a 3D stealth game set in space. As such, you have the full six degrees of freedom in terms of your movement. You have to make your way through tight corridors in enemy bases, making as little noise with your thrusters and weapons as possible. Or, if you’d prefer, don’t. I find Dread Chase unique in that it genuinely doesn’t punish non-stealthy gameplay as the “wrong” way to play.
This was one of the few niggling issues that I have with the Hitman series, and also annoyed me a fair bit during Dishonored. Despite the fact that you can often methodically clear out an area of enemies lethally, you are directly punished for this action, either in terms of a sub-optimal score or getting a worse ending. In Dread Chase, the only consequences to going in all guns blazing is that they are going to come right back at you in kind. You need to be fast enough to get away from them, or tactically capable of making your assault without terminal results.
If you don’t want to hack your way through a wall, there is always the option of exploding it open. In a lot of other games with this mechanic, this is balanced via resource scarcity of grenades or rockets. Here, all the balance comes from the enhanced danger in that approach. From a game design perspective this is something that I can really appreciate. If you balance by scarcity, this often results in hoarding behaviours, and the player never ends up actually using their explosive munitions.
Visually, it feels clinically cyberpunkish; the first comparison that springs to my mind is with System Shock 2 and Deus Ex’s graphical style. Conceptually, it’s an impressive idea and a nifty game, and a free demo can be downloaded from the website if you want to check it out.
I remember on the first day, as I walked out of the showgrounds, I noticed something I couldn’t see because of the crowds in the morning. Along the side of the entrance to the queue room there was a large poster simply saying “Welcome Home”. I understand why this phrase has become PAX’s unofficial motto.
At any time, in any place, you can just start talking to the person next to you, and they’ll understand where you’re coming from. It’s a unique cooking pot of every type of nerd, an all-inclusive amalgamation of the cultures that we all know and love. PAX really does feel like home.
In conclusion, if you missed it this year, come to PAX Australia in 2014. It is a magical place that makes fanfiction dreams come true.