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Expo Exposed

by Todd Ciolek, Jun 6th 2012

It's always tempting to see E3 as a vision of the future, a time when new games and new technologies are trotted out before the penetrating gaze of the world. I'm reluctant to use that phrase this time around, however, because it means the games of the future will be all about shooting people, stabbing people, and perhaps shooting them again.

This was the theme consistently displayed throughout the first two days of E3, when an exhibition of the latest Splinter Cell seemed to melt into a preview of Crysis 3, then into clips of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. After a while, the whole thing congealed into one big, blood-spraying mass of WarShooter Commandoman: Battledoer of Vindication, where pointblank shotgun blasts to the face drew cheers from audiences. I was relieved that most of it fell outside of this column's usual coverage.

I won't pretend that the Japanese side of the game industry is any better. It has its own problems, and some of them are worse than anything evidenced at E3. And the indie sector, while more robust than ever, still lacks in budgets. Yet both venues seem more appealing now that I've seen clip upon clip of developers sharing the same grim clichés and rampant violence at this year's E3, often assembling fantasy versions of real-world wars. It's enough to send me back to the latest repackaged dancing game. At least those things are happy.

E3 2012, PART I

The busy schedule of E3 is particularly unkind to this column, which actually has to sum up the news halfway through the event. The following covers the first few days of business, in particular the three major powers' press conferences. Next week's installment will look at other companies, individual games, and maybe even something that other sites haven't already discussed ad nauseam.

MICROSOFT
Microsoft wisely led with Halo 4's newest trailer, which introduced a massive spaceship sent forth as an emissary of peace and discovery. Naturally, it all went horribly wrong by trailer's end, and Master Chief was called upon to investigate the ship's wreckage with the aid of his increasingly unstable AI partner, Cortana. The gameplay shown improved the traditional Halo formula, even if it wasn't all that different visually. It's certainly a more informative portrait than Microsoft's preview of the Xbox 360's other big exclusive shooter, Gears of War: Judgment. It was glimpsed only in a brief smattering of battlefield footage.

The Kinect had a limited showing. With potential selling points like Crimson Dragon and Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor soon arriving, Microsoft turned to a castle-destroying game called Wreckateer to push the motion-sensing Kinect. Audience members quickly derided it as a 3-D version of Angry Birds, but it seems a decent showcase nonetheless.

The Letdown:
Most of the notable titles on display were multiplatform ones. Obsidian's South Park: The Stick of Truth and CAPCOM's Resident Evil 6 were evident crowd-pleasers, but they'll both be available on the PlayStation 3 as well as the Xbox 360. At least Xbox 360 owners will get downloadable Resident Evil extras before anyone else.

In fact, much of Microsoft's lineup was a typical spate of racing games, fitness programs, musical simulators, and, of course, first-person shooters. The few intriguing games were vaguely defined; the trailer for Matter, a Kinect game from director Gore Verbinski, depicted a metal sphere navigating abstract and futuristic environments, all without really saying what the game was about. The biggest news of the presentation was Microsoft's SmartGlass, which allows XBox Live users to interact with apps on their smartphones and tablets. And that's only tangentially related to games.

NINTENDO
Nintendo started their conference not with Mario or Zelda, but with Shigeru Miyamoto's demonstration of Pikmin 3 (below). Footage of the game showed an astronaut leading primary-colored critters through ant-like foraging and exploration. Miyamoto introduced new rock Pikmin, who benefit from the game's improved aiming controls. The game also features four different human leaders, and the original Pikmin's Captain Olimar isn't among them for yet-unspecified reasons.

Less was shown of New Super Mario Bros. U. It looked a lot like the side-scrolling New Super Mario Bros. Wii, albeit with flying-squirrel suits, hungry mini-Yoshis from Super Mario World, and a ghost house with an oddly Van Gogh-ish backdrop. It also sports the multiplayer mode of its Wii predecessor.

Another Wii U title, Nintendo Land is a simulated theme park with mini-games based on different Nintendo properties: Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong, Luigi's Mansion, The Legend of Zelda, and the lesser-known Takamaru's Ninja Castle, for starters. Much attention was paid to the Luigi's Mansion attraction, which boiled down to a session of multiplayer Pac-Man. At least Nintendo Land won't be far off; it launches alongside the Wii U later this year.

Zombi U showed the most promise. Despite the hackneyed premise of an undead uprising, it cleverly uses the Wii U's controller screen for sniping, scanning, and unlocking a door on the small screen while watching an encroaching mass of zombies on the large screen.

Platinum Games revealed a notable Wii U game, though they didn't give it a full title. Project P-100, as it's now known, pits a band of superheroes against an invading alien army, with numerous innocent citizens caught in between. Those citizens are the key to victory, however, as players can use them to transform into planes, tanks, and other weapons. Directed by Hideki Kamiya of Bayonetta and Devil May Cry fame, Project P-100 got surprisingly little attention during Nintendo's conference.

Nintendo saved most 3DS titles for the following, but their main conference gave New Super Mario Bros. 2 an August 19 release date. Nintendo also showed Paper Mario: Sticker Star, due out during the holidays. Another winter title, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon emerged with 3-D visuals and at least one adorable ghost that looks like Poochy from Yoshi's Island.

The Miiverse is a similar concept, bringing Nintendo's somewhat restrictive Mii feature closer to Sony and Microsoft's online communities. Players can see who's playing what, what friends are saying, and what game details they have to share. Of course, it's all communicated with little Mii icons, emoticons, and dialogue balloons.

The Letdown:
If Nintendo's showing was refreshingly upbeat, it was also a bit boring. Hopes for a Metroid, Zelda, or Kid Icarus rollout were quite thoroughly dashed, as was any vision of a Wii U lineup bursting with original third-party titles. Nearly every game shown in a Wii U montage was a multi-system port, including Mass Effect 3, Tekken Tag Tournament, and the ubiquitous Assassin's Creed III. The only exception was Namco's Tank! Tank! Tank!

Other releases, such as Wii Fit U and SiNG, look to continue the Wii's tilt toward party games and “lifestyle” titles that, while practical, don't really satisfy as traditional games. This was particularly apparent in a post-conference video where a happy family unit engaged in mirthful and exuberant recreation by utilizing the key features of the latest high-quality Nintendo products and services.

SONY
Of the three major conferences, Sony's had the best opener with Beyond: Two Souls. It's a highly cinematic offering from David Cage and Quantic Dream, the same team that brought us Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy. The ambitious tale has players follow a young woman named Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) through 15 years of her life, all with some supernatural force looming around her. Cage described the game as an exploration of the world beyond death, and the preview suggests another dialogue-driven title in the style of Heavy Rain.

A little device called Wonderbook served as the other major revelation of Sony's E3 session. Working with the PlayStation Eye camera attachment, the Wonderbook projects various on-screen images to correspond with whatever's happening on the book's pages. It was shown running the Harry Potter-themed Book of Spells, which uses the PlayStation Move as a stand-in for a magic wand. The results were striking, though clearly tuned for younger audiences.

Naughty Dog's The Last of Us provided a memorable conclusion to the conference—and also the most awkwardly disturbing moment. Set decades after a virus fells all civilization, the game follows teenager Ellie and hardened survivor Joel through the ruins of North America. It looks quite impressive in its half-destroyed cityscapes, and the combat gives off an uglier, more realistic aura than the glossy cinematic action of other games. The preview showed Joel and Ellie go against a band of murderous scavengers, and their struggle concluded with the two of them overpowering a foe. Thrown to the ground, the attacker begged for his life moments before Joel blew his face off with a shotgun. The trailer abruptly ended on this deliberately uncomfortable note, and the audience at Sony's conference burst into immediate, unquestioning applause. Creepy.

The Letdown:
Many of Sony's other titles were choked with tedious violence. God of War: Ascension looked much the same as its predecessors, as the franchise's unlikeable mainstay Kratos mauled his way through groups of goat-headed creatures and an ancient Greek version of Babar. Some may be surprised at Sony declining to call it God of War IV, but the game's a prequel, after all.

Sony spent a good deal of time shilling PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, a multiplayer fighting game already notorious for lifting its look and mechanics straight from Nintendo's Smash Bros. series. Little was shown to defuse that accusation, even if the game offers the option to play across the Vita and PlayStation 3 versions. The game also displayed a rather tepid roster of Sony-backed characters, including Kratos, Sweet Tooth from the Twisted Metal series, the lead from Fat Princess, and Sly Cooper. Uncharted's Nathan Drake and Bioshock's Big Daddy were also shown in the lineup, though the latter is hardly exclusive to Sony's catalog. At least Parappa the Rapper's on board.

All-Stars exhibition and a preview of Assassin's Creed: Liberation. Sony made some cursory mention of PSone Classics games coming to the Vita, but it was a rather paltry gesture for a system that launched only a few months ago.

THREE SURPRISES
The biggest surprise of E3 so far? Ubisoft's Watch Dogs. Stylishly introduced as a near-future thriller, the game lets players loose in a city's computerized network. The result is a douchebag simulator, if the trailer's any indication: one character used his hacked online controls to disrupt bouncers' cell phones, eavesdrop on conversations, get the jump on security guards, and cause a massive traffic jam. This made it all the more disappointing when the trailer degraded into a shootout that caused several civilian deaths, but the final game seems to present less sociopathic solutions with the electronic devices at the player's command. Ubisoft Montreal is developing it for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, with no release date yet nailed down.

Atlus pulled off a smaller surprise by licensing Code of Princess, the 3DS brawler that initially drew attention on account of its underdressed heroine. Then it drew attention for taking after Treasure's classic Guardian Heroes, with which it shares a few staff members. Atlus announced a fall release for the game and showed off a work-in-progress cover, complete with judiciously positioned logo.

Why was this a surprise? Well, Agatsuma Entertainment showed some interest in bringing Code of Princess to North America, but it didn't look like Atlus would be the one to do it. Atlus once took chances on all sorts of lesser-known DS games, from Touch Detective to Steal Princess, but they've played it much safer in recent years. Code of Princess reflects that older, riskier style, even if Kinu Nishimura's illustrations make the game stand out from the anime-heroine milieu. And for those who like Nishimura's drawings, reserving Code of Princess gets you an artbook and a soundtrack CD .

In one more surprising move, Tecmo KOEI chose E3 as the place to announce Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2, a sequel to the Dynasty Warriors-ish adaption of Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's big beefy post-apocalyptic fighting manga. Fist of the North Star was never a popular franchise in North America (and the original Ken's Rage was savaged by a number of critics), but Tecmo KOEI is clearly aiming for an international release. For now, the trailer is unclear about the story being adapted, and even the title is tentative. If they want the game to fit in at this year's E3, I suggest renaming it Lord Punchington's Killvalcade of Revigilance.

NON-E3 NEWS

ATLUS ANNOUNCES SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI IV, AIN'T SAYIN' MUCH ELSE
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise spins a wide web of sister series and spiritual successors. So wide, in fact, that it's easy to forget there are only three properly numbered Shin Megami Tensei games. The first two were Super Famicom titles and the third was a PlayStation 2 affair, but the fourth reportedly skirts home consoles and heads for the 3DS.

And that's really all we know so far. Atlus has a website up for Shin Megami Tensei IV, but the teaser image doesn't say much, aside from showing a somewhat ancient city in the top half. That's news in itself, as most Shin Megami Tensei/Persona games depict modern heroes combating and summoning demonic creatures. A medieval-themed take on that would be fairly interesting.

THE LAST STORY GETS A SPECIAL EDITION, NICE AND SUBTLE-LIKE
There's a hazy line between a “special edition” and a first-print edition that's decked out in fancy extras, but let's not quibble over XSEED's upcoming release of The Last Story. All first-run copies will ship in this downright classy special case that holds the tastefully subdued cover (even the XSEED logo matches the tone) and an artbook featuring the work of character designer Kimihiko Fujisaka. And it retails for the normal game price.

This all nicely makes up for the game's one-month delay. It'll now arrive on July 10, if online retailers are to be believed.

ETHER VAPOR DEMO UP FOR ALL
A shooter like Ether Vapor Remaster really drives home just how the industry changes. Fifteen years ago, a game of this visual caliber would've been a high-end arcade creation, perhaps too much for the PlayStation to handle. Today, Ether Vapor Remaster is an independently crafted 2-D shooter from Edelweiss, and Nyu Media is bringing it here at the end of this month.

A demo of Ether Vapor Remaster recently went up via Capcom, and it's a good sample of the game's variety. It begins with a basic vertical perspective, but the player's point of view often switches around in a manner similar to (but much cleaner than) the old Playstation shooter Philosoma. Ether Vapor Remaster also avoids the ancient shooter problem of underpowered weapons; you've got three different shots at the game's start, including a homing laser straight out of the Rayforce/Raystorm series.

THIS WEEK'S RELEASE

VIRTUA FIGHTER 5 FINAL SHOWDOWN
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: PLAYSTATION Network/Xbox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $14.99/$29.99

Deep within Sega's corporate divisions, there must be one unfortunate soul tasked with figuring out why Virtua Fighter never caught on in North America as well as it did in Japan. “I can't understand it,” this researcher's reports read. “Virtua Fighter has all the typical fighting-game stereotypes. Virtua Fighter has female characters who can wear revealing outfits. Virtual Fighter has more depth than any other 3-D fighter! Why don't they like it?!” The answer, if it's anywhere, might be in Virtua Fighter's serious and simple tone. It was never as openly silly as Tekken, as sexualized as Dead or Alive, or as grandiose as Soul Calibur. This hasn't kept Sega from trying, though, and now they're bringing out the latest Virtua Fighter in a rather convenient package.

And Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown still keeps it simple. Sort of. All moves are pulled off with combinations of three buttons: punch, kick, and block. From there, the game builds an astonishing matrix of combos, fake-outs, and voluminous move lists. It's also a very well-balanced fighter, even with interactive stages and a 19-character roster that ranges from impish girls to sumo wrestlers. The Final Showdown package includes an extensive online mode, plus a training feature that explains all about this “frame advantage” thing competitive players so enjoy. And for those who find the stock character designs too dull, there's a pile of increasingly ridiculous outfits. They'll cost extra, of course; you can either buy the costumes separately, or pay $29.99 for the complete edition of the game. I have no doubt that devoted fans will buy the full deal anyway, in the hopes of showing Sega that some people on these shores really do like Virtua Fighter.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

GRAVITY RUSH
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1
MSRP: $39.99

Gravity Rush is the first truly important Vita game. There are some impressive titles on the handheld, but they tend to be either direct ports or scaled-down regurgitations of well-known franchises. Gravity Rush is something new, at least in its central gimmick. Its heroine is Kat, a young woman with somewhat typical anime stylings about her, right down to her initial case of amnesia. As she plods through a sepia-hued city called Hekseville, she discovers the ability to suspend gravity. With the touch of a button, players make Kat and nearby objects float around in the air. With another button and the Vita's motion sensor, they can anchor her to a surface, allowing her to run up buildings, drift through the sky, and generally just have fun messing with the planet's gravitational pull. She can even make Hekseville citizens levitate in confusion, if she feels like being a brat.

In all of her anti-gravity exploits, Kat searches for her identity, and she's forced to follow both a mysterious feline and a disdainful woman who shares the same high-flying powers. Stylized monsters also crop up throughout the game, and Kat's attacks are at first limited to kicks and other basics. Fortunately, her gravity-related maneuvers expand her arsenal, and the same special moves help her solve various puzzles. Gravity Rush even looks property different: the characters are cel-shaded, the city architecture is an eye-catching mix of ornate styles, and the story's told through rapid comic-book cutscenes. It seems like a solid showcase game for the Vita, but with any luck there'll be more to Gravity Rush than a few broken scientific laws.

GUNGNIR
Developer: Sting
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Sony PSP
Players: 1
MSRP: $29.99

Sting's Dept. Heaven saga is one of those multi-part epics released out of order, not unlike the Ogre Battle series. Or that Star Wars thing. Sting previously released Riviera: The Promised Land as Episode I, Yggdra Union as Episode II, and Knights in the Nightmare as Episode IV. And Atlus brought all of them to North America, surprisingly enough. Gungnir is the ninth episode of Dept Heaven, so there's a good bit of distance between it and the rest of the loosely connected franchise. It's set in Gargandia, a nation divided between a ruling, wealthy race and an oppressed underclass (Yasumi Matsuno would be proud). Naturally enough, this social system fuels insurrection, and one young rebel by the name of Julio discovers a mysterious lance, Gungnir, that rapidly becomes the resistance's best weapon. He also encounters a kidnapped girl from the nobility, plus a strange, valkyrie-like warrior who's looking after the lance. There's a lineup of rebels, persecuted politicians, and other allies to join Julio in the game's strategic battles.

Gungnir arranges its combat like a standard RPG: a grid of squares, little big-headed characters, and various levels of terrain that affect gameplay. Julio's party members all specialize in different classes, ranging from mages and knights to the less orthodox fields of “Breaker” and “Cannon.” While the story adds distinct characters to Julio's forces, he's also able to recruit various grunts who can be named and customized to suit whatever classes the player might prefer. The flow of battle depends on the Tactics Gauge, which fills gradually and allows players to break up the normal order of things. Characters can also boost each others' attack power or team up four at a time to strike certain enemies. And if all of that falls short, Julio's special spear lets him summon several godlike beings into battle. Gungnir's tale of revolution isn't a straight line, either, as there are at least half a dozen points where Julio's forced to make a decision and send his rebel group down a certain path. Judging by past Dept. Heaven games, most of those paths lead to depressing ends.

LOLLIPOP CHAINSAW
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99

Perhaps we shouldn't judge Lollipop Chainsaw until we actually play it. All previews show the sort of thing that tiptoes cloyingly across exploitive nonsense and exploitive parody. They also show a perky cheerleader named Juliet Starling taking a chainsaw to hordes of zombies, leaving both carnage and twinkling, heart-shaped fireworks behind her. In fending off the undead that have infested San Romero High (get it?), Juliet's aided by her boyfriend Nick, but only after a zombie attack and some improvised surgery reduce him to a talking head. More ambulatory assistance comes from Juliet's sisters, sniper Cordelia and bus-driving Rosalind (who were introduced in a trailer that includes the line “my sisters and I all wear our vaginas proudly”). To be fair, the game's winking and nudging comes from No More Heroes director Goichi “Suda51” Suda and Super director James Gunn, both of whom subvert pop culture quite often. So Lollipop Chainsaw's all ironic and self-aware about everything! Is that better or worse than a game like Code of Princess?

With questions about its true satire unanswered, Lollipop Chainsaw still has the makings of a perfectly enjoyable action game. Juliet isn't limited to chainsawing enemies apart with perky abandon; she's also able to pull off cheerleader-styled grappling moves, drive several destructive vehicles, run through obstacle courses, play such mini-games as “zombie basketball,” and temporarily put Nick's head on decapitated foes. The stage of battle expands beyond a conventional high school, and the game even breaks out neon-hued tributes to old arcade titles. Boss encounters also show off several different techniques, though the most memorable may be the punk bandleader who shrieks profanity as projectiles. If nothing else, Lollipop Chainsaw is the first game where players have to dodge the word “cocksucker” in huge damaging letters.

ALSO SHIPPING
Publisher 7sixty's long-delayed Phantom Breaker might ship this week, and the Xbox 360 fighter was covered in two previous columns. You're not fooling me again, Phantom Breaker.


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