Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Post PAX Impressions

So I got to check out some interesting things at PAX East 2014, in addition to just enjoying basking in the geekery.  Without further ado here are some highlights:

The Evil Within
Bethesda brought a gameplay demo of the new Shinji Mikami game, The Evil Within, to the expo hall.  I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't a playable demo, but just consisted of sitting in a darkened theater area while an employee played 2 short levels of the game.  The whole thing lasted about 20 minutes.

The first demo was of a bright outdoor area of a crumbling city populated with zombies of some sort that the protagonist had to fight and light on fire using a quick command.  The terrain actively shifts up and down, buildings move in on the player to create alleys and threaten to crush the character.  I'm going to operate under the assumption that this is some sort of nightmare dreamscape rather than a city being wracked by violent and highly specific earthquakes.  It was pretty odd given how brightly lit it was, but maybe in context the variety is welcome or this is some sort of lead-in before the atmosphere shifts to something darker and more claustrophobic.  Unfortunately, there was no indication given of when in the game either level was.

The second level was a more traditional survival horror environment, which actually felt very similar to the environments in Silent Hill 2 and 3.  It was some sort of dank sewer or industrial area with lots of pipes and valves.   Oddly, lots of fences and caged areas.  But most strikingly was an epic, constantly regenerating, enemy.  According to some reading, this guy is called "The Keeper", but we just called him "Safe-head guy". See, his head is inside of a locked safe wrapped in barbed wire.  This guy is relatively easy to put down, but he has a tendency to regenerate himself.  In one cutscene he rips his own head off in order to regenerate on the other side of a fence.  He looks a lot like Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head with the apron, strange headpiece, and oversized weapon.  Safe-head Guy could represent the same things as Pyramid Head did for James, but I don't know enough about Sebastien to make a good guess.  There's also symbolism in that the head is trapped inside of a safe, so if we're to take the levels as nightmares then it could be something Sebastien is trying to protect from himself.  But again...it's conjecture.

The demos leave me wanting to see more of the game, so that I can put the shown levels into context.  While nothing in the demos suggests the resource starvation that made early Resident Evil famous, it could still end up that way.  The game itself appears to be based on The Last of Us's engine, just more streamlined towards combat, which could go either way.  I hurt for resources a lot in Last of Us which made it very tense, but the streamlining of it may indicate a more combat focused game than the stealthy takedowns that made Last of Us so much fun.  The obvious use of nightmare sequences and unreality definitely makes me excited that we could get something really good, but without more of the game there's no context and in horror context can be everything.  There's plenty of opportunity for them to Dead Space the game and place too much focus on combat and action, removing any tense lulls. Or constantly putting that unkillable enemy up your butt, reducing the game to a frustrated sprint trying to get to whatever checkpoint makes the monster go away.  But I hope they don't.

The Evil Within releases in US on August 26th for PC, Xbox One/360, and PS 3/4.

Murdered: Soul Suspect
This is a new game developed by Dark Void and Quantum Conundrum developer Airtight and published by Square Enix, hereafter referred to as Squenix.  This was a playable demo of the first major mission of the game and also all the opening exposition cutscenes.  The main fault was how heavily it relied on cutscenes to convey really simple things that probably could've been done via gameplay.  I thought the main opening which described the life of the protagonist through his tattoos was great, but when it descended into cutscenes after that I felt like the message could've been put out in a more interactive way.  Though there were times when the opening was interactive that felt way too pointless and should've been breezed through in a second or two of cutscene.

The basics here are that you play as a Detective with a crime family past in Salem who's just been killed by a local mysterious serial killer.  Depressed by the death of your wife (?), you decide to check out a lead without backup like a dumb and the killer kicks you out a window then shoots you in the middle of the street with your own gun.  The gameplay here was really interesting, as there was a brief moment between cutscenes where you got to play as your disembodied spirit that didn't realize it was no longer in your body.  After officially dieing you go to limbo where your wife's soul tells you that you can't cross over unless you return to earth and resolve your life's unfinished business.  It's a decently executed setup, though a bit stock.

The setting is a bit jumbled.  First, the Salem Witch Trials actually took place in nearby Danvers (originally called Salem Village), but I won't dock them points for going for the Salem reputation.  Then your character is an Irish cop named Ronan O'Connor, but could just as easily be Jame Generic-Accent.  They go through the trouble of implying Ronan comes up through the Irish mob before going straight and becoming a police officer, but don't give him a lick of characterization in the voice.  But then the other cops have Boston accents, so the whole setting becomes this sort of amalgam of Eastern Massachusetts stereotypes and references.  Nothing terrible bad or distracting, but I did find it a bit amusing.

Gameplay here is really slick and quite fun, though sometimes jiggering the camera to just the right angle where you can interact with certain people is annoyingly tricky.  The tutorial has one or two clunky moments where the game just has to say "Do this now, because.", but for the most part is nicely interactive.  In game you can possess other characters to make use of their eyes and ears, influence them by bringing up memories, or read their minds.  It's a bit LA Noire-like collecting testimony and other clues from the area, but there are no interrogations and failure if you use the wrong memory to influence a character isn't as spectacular as Cole going off the handle.  In addition to investigating clues to solve mysteries, usually revolving around your death or the death of some other trapped spirit, there are demons which roam the ethereal plane looking to eat you.  Dealing with the demons is stealth or bust.  You can sneak up behind them and perform a takedown, but if they see you all you can do is hide by running away or vanishing into some sort of floating soul remnants which you can travel between à la Batman on Arkham Asylum's gargoyles.

All indications here are that this will be a pretty decent game, but probably won't make any headlines as some phenomenon that people talk about.

Murdered: Soul Suspect releases in the US on May 3rd for PC, Xbox One/360, and PS 3/4.

Race The Sun is a gorgeous looking game in which you race a solar powered vehicle against the sunset on a daily randomly generated and minimalistically rendered course until the sun either sets or you crash into something.  It responds fluidly and is really fun to play.  The game sports Oculus Rift support.

There Came an Echo is an isometric real time quad strategy with a well known voice cast.  The game is notable for using voice commands to control the squad.  And it's actually pretty good at it, even in the noisy expo hall I was able to issue commands with accuracy.  The mouse controls also exist but are definitely lacking and my first attempts to play before I realized how to use the voice controls met with a lot of frustration.  The game is clearly almost done but definitely needs some usability spit and polish before release, which should be in mid-2014.  Should be fairly fun for a while at least.  I was amused that the voice commands basically preclude making a Let's Play of the game...

I would add finally that I was a bit disappointed that there was no really good showing in indie horror, like Outlast at last year's PAX East.  The enthusiasm for horror tailed perfectly into the release of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs.  This year the only real horror game around at all was The Evil Within, and that demo left me nowhere near as excited as I was for Outlast.