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E3 2002: Part 1 - A Gamer's Paradise
By Jake Forbes
Another May has come and gone, and that means another look for the lucky few at the games of tomorrow. Yes, E3 2002 took place at the LA Convention Center last month, and once again the masses converged for three days of madness. Part arcade, part circus, part rave, the flashing lights and cacophony of noise is unlike anything else you'll ever see, and if video gaming is your thing, being there is like being on top of the world.
This was my second year attending the show, and more than anything else, I was shocked by how much things stay the same. 9 out of 10 companies pitched tent in exactly the same locations. Microsoft bought the same hallway to hang its banners from, Activision brought back the same halfpipe and celebrity skaters, Nintendo had the same tastefully dressed booth babes while Acclaim had its hoochie ones. The faces were unchanged and only the games had really changed.
Last year's E3 was a huge event, marking the first public unveiling of the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft's chance to win over skeptics. This year Sony claimed that the console war was over and that they had won, while Nintendo and Microsoft waved flags of gaming goodness to show they're not dead yet. There was a lot to see, and I'm sure I missed many of the highlights (I never got into the much ballyhooed DOOM III screening, for one), but for all the otaku who couldn't make it to the show, here's one fans breakdown of the highlights and lowpoints of next year:
If you've read any of my other gaming columns over the past 18 months, you've probably noticed that I have a slight bias here, but I'll say it again: Nintendo makes the BEST GAMES... PERIOD. Almost every convention of console gaming can be traced back to Nintendo's innovations. They don't just make games, they imagineer them. If last year was full of surprises at the big N booth (what's a "Pikmin?" What's up with Luigi? Where's Mario? New Smash Bros!) this year showed Nintendo's confidence. All of N's games broke in the media weeks before the show, so this year's booth had to convince us that their 21st century upgrades to our favorite childhood games would live up to our expectations. Did they succeed? Yes! And then some!
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA (working title)
GAME OF SHOW!
The overall plot is sketchy (part of it involves Link rescuing his sister), but the world is in place, and oh, isn't it beautiful! The cartoony look may not be for all, but no one can deny the technological achievement of N's Cel-shading. The visuals here are light years beyond the competition--it looks like an actual cartoon, not just a graphics gimmick. The lighting is amazing, the expressions are incredible, and the animations make the characters seem real. Gameplay is vintage Zelda (well, vintage N64 Zelda) with a bit of Metal Gear Solid thrown in for good measure. A new feature is a sailing mode, where Link pilots a dragon ship across the rolling oceans--very cool. Possibly the coolest thing in the game is the puffs of purple smoke when Link kills a baddie. You've got to see it for yourself.
GAME OF SHOW - runner up
A lot of people had doubts about this game going in, but after seeing Metroid in action, those doubts are thrown out the window. Metroid in 3D is awesome. This isn't a traditional FPS, despite the first person perspective. The scanning feature (activated by the D pad) allows you to analyze any item in your environment, making this a game of exploration like the originals. When you roll into a ball, the game seamlessly pulls back to a 3rd person POV, allowing you to roll through air vents and rubble--very cool. The demo shown here lets you start with the ball, missiles, charge shot and freeze gun, so it not known yet whether you'll have to gather these items one at a time like in the original game. This is one to watch out for come November.
This is a beautiful and fun game, don't get me wrong. It's just not the huge leap forward that the two games above are. The new Mario's gameplay is centered on using a water squirting backpack. Mario can spray water forward to wash away oil slicks or water plants, or he can aim the spray downward to make a kind of water jetpack. It's very fun at first, but after a while I started to get the feeling that the game lacked the depth of Mario 64. Perhaps it's only because a few environments were shown on the demo, but the demo felt a little closer to Luigi's Mansion's one-trick-pony-show than Mario 64's amazingly open-ended gameplay. I'll definitely buy this game, but it wasn't the show-stealer I'd hoped for.
This is Nintendo's version of Klonoa, only slightly less fun. I won't waste your time on this one, as the demo was truly uninspiring. A disappointment.
MARIO PARTY 4
Just like its predecessors, only better. The graphics and mini-games are a big improvement, while the gameplay remains the same. I was never a fan of the slowly paced and (IMHO) boring board game segment, but the mini-games are undeniably addicting when you're playing with 3 other friends.
STAR FOX ADVENTURES: DINOSAUR PLANET
One half of this year's demo is identical to last year's, only the lighting problems are fixed and Fox now has fur textures. What's revealed is that there are indeed rail shooter levels in the spirit of the old Star Fox games. This one looks to be a lot of fun, but breaks no new ground.
ETERNAL DARKNESS: SANITY'S REQUIUM
Originally Nintendo seemed to be producing this game as their answer to Resident Evil to show that they aren't just a kiddy company. Now that N owns the R.E. franchise for 5 years, this game is kind of a moot point. It lacks R.E. 1 (the remake)'s visual splendor, and the gameplay is clunky. An adequate game, that better hold some big surprises if it wants me to look at it again.
Last year Microsoft tried to cement their image as the platform for mature gamers. This year their lineup could best be summarized with one word: Generic. There are plenty of good games here, but few of them are unique in any way. Here are the highlights:
This much-hyped platformer introduces the unique ability to pause, fast forward, and rewind your environment. Using the X-Box's hard drive, the game stores the game actions so that it can play them back as needed. It's a cool concept, but one that is wasted on a game that just isn't very fun. The visuals are truly uninspired. Environments are straight out of Klonoa 2, and character designs are some of the worst I've ever seen. The hero, a cat janitor, uses a vacuum to suck up and shoot stuff at enemies. Another vacuuming hero? Nintendo made it look better. This is a game to wow technophiles, but not gamers.
STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC
Another lame-ass Star Wars game? No! If you thought Obi-Wan was fun, this game offers more of that, only with original characters and a new piloting mode. It better get better than this demo shows.
PANZER DRAGOON ORTA (SEGA Smilebit)
Visually, the game is a beaut. Gameplay wise, it's identical to the Panzer Dragoons from the Saturn, which is pretty much a good thing. I wish there could have been a bit more innovation from Smilebit, but I only played 2 levels, so maybe it's in there somewhere. As it's a rail shooter, the game will most likely be short and sweet.
TOEJAM AND EARL III (SEGA)
I loved the original TJ&E on the genesis. I even liked the tomato launching TJ&E for the short-lived "Menacer" gun. This game is very much the sequel to the original game, being nearly identical in gameplay, and in this case, that's not such a good thing. For a music-based game, the sound is a mess. Part of what made the first game cool is the weird cast of humans that you have to escape from and convert. The same is true here, except that with perfect voice sampling, it all becomes a jumble of talking, singing, and yelling. After creating some of the best music games around (Space Channel 5, Rez) and some of the best soundtracks ever (JSRF), SEGA drops the ball this time around. You "funkify" enemies with musical notes, but it's a truly uncool process. This game talks the hipster talk, but doesn't look it or sound it. I'm crossing my fingers, but my hopes of a month ago are smashed.
Microsoft's Mech game is a blast. More Battletech than Robotech, these are mechs of the lumbering, city destroying variety. And lumbering and destroying cities (and opponents, I guess) is a lot of fun.
DEAD TO RIGHTS
This game would be awesome... if everyone else wasn't doing two pistol, bulltet-flying crime-world shooters. As it stands, it looks cool, but not as cool as other games (and movies) that do it better.
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
Not fun. Wait for The Two Towers game from EA.
DEAD OR ALIVE VOLLEYBALL
Taking bounce physics to new levels...
KINGDOM HEARTS (Square)
GAME OF SHOW - runner up
Square's one and only game at their booth (FF XII was demoed in the corner of Sony's booth in the Japanese version) is quite possibly their most polished game ever. Some people might be turned off by the Disney crossovers, but Square did a damn fine job of blending the styles of a dozen animated movies with their Final Fantasy worlds. Gameplay is more action oriented than FF, allowing players to control the action in real time and pull up spells and special attacks at will. Graphics are stunning, far exceeding FFX in real time (but not really in cinemas). Poor Square, going from a dozen games 3 years ago, to just one or two this year (oh, and maybe some GBA ports). I hope this game is a huge hit for them and can broaden the shrinking RPG market.
GAME OF SHOW - runner up
Combining the two-pistolled gameplay of Devil May Cry with the cel-shading of Jet Set Radio and the character designs of Trigun, Smilebit created what may be the coolest action game to date. There doesn't seem to be a lot of variety to the gameplay, or I'd like it more, but if shooting up gangsters and hitting them with tombstones swung from your back is your thing, this game is ace.
Controlling your ninja is amazing. You can run on walls, grab poles, dash through the air, freeze opponents with shuriken, and while you do all this, your beautifully animated scarf flutters behind you. While the controls are great, the graphics look very dated in its current stage and gameplay is generic and repetitive. I'm keeping my hopes up on this one.
SLY COOPER AND THE THIEVIUS RACOONUS (Sony)
A cel-shaded platformer that is adequately fun and not unpleasant on the eyes, but it lacks the depth and beauty of last year's Jakk and Daxter. And what the hell is a racoonus?
Devil May Cry II (Capcom)
The trailer looks awesome, and I'm sure the final game will be great too. Last year I was in love with the demo for the first game, but after buying it, I found it to be too repetitive. I hope this sequel, which is much longer, breaks up the action with some new elements.
Onimusha II (Capcom)
Wow, this game looks cool. Nintendo may have Resident Evil, but Sony might very well still have the bigger of Capcom's horror sticks. The gameplay is deeper than R.E., and the medieval Japanese world is full of more surprises than the now clichéd Racoon City. If this game is longer than the first one, it will be a must buy for all action fans.
ZONE OF ENDERS II (Konami)
This wasn't playable, but the movie playing above Konami's booth was AMAZING. The mech combat easily surpasses the first one. This is truly interactive anime. Once again, I just hope it's longer experience than before.
It's confirmed! DDR is coming to a PS2 near you! And once again it's likely to be watered down from the Japanese version, but not as much this time. DDRMAX arcade features less licensed music, so there are less issues with an English port. The new holding mode is the only gameplay change, but the new patterns and the chance to either burn calories or show off are the real draws. Too bad you can no longer chose from the fun Konami characters.
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (EA)
I know it makes me more of a dork than an otaku to get excited about this, but this game is very cool. It's similar to Dynasty Warriors with you controlling one player on a crowded battlefield, but the fact that these are characters you know and love from the movie makes this much more exciting. The demo only lets you play as Aragorn as you battle orcs in Helms Deep, but the trailer showed scenes with Legolas and Gimli, too, fighting an assortment of goblins, Uruk-Hai and even a troll. This is THE LOTR game.
I know I'm leaving out a lot of titles, particularly the entire sports, strategy, and FPS genres, but for this Otaku, the titles above were the highlights of 2 days of nonstop gaming.
This year's E3 was one of refinements over innovations. A year of sequels and remakes. I can live with this for now as so many of those games are very good, but part of me longs for new truly original game designs. The game industry seems to think that all that gamers want to do is 1.) shoot things, 2.) collect coins, 3.) beat people up, 4.) simulate sports. Maybe the groundbreaking titles (Like last year's Pikmin) were right under my nose and I didn't see them. In any case, the next year looks much better than last-especially if you're a Nintendo fan. Here's hoping the trend continues next year.