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Extraneous Extremes

Jun 12th 2013

This week's column arrives in the midst of E3. The festivities are still underway, but most of the companies involved set off their loudest firecrackers early this week. In fact, I already noticed a recurring trend at this year's event: a race to see which game can star the biggest jerkwad.

The game industry always had unlikeable protagonists here and there, but the success of God of War's Kratos caused similar jerkwads to pop up like little tattooed, grimacing wildflowers. The current frontrunner from E3 is Infamous: Second Son, an open-world action game from the PlayStation 4's first generation. It offers the superhero-gone-bad antics of prior Infamous games, but this new installment follows a young punk named Delsin Rowe. His frequent arrests cause all sorts of trouble for his law-enforcement brother, and soon Delsin unlocks some Conduit powers and runs afoul of government agents. If the preview video for Second Son is any indication, he goes about this wearing the signature half-smirk, half-sneer of the common jerkwad.

Infamous: Second Son might take the crown from the top jerkwad of last year's E3: Watch Dogs protagonist Aiden Pearce. The multi-platform game's debut trailer saw him engineering traffic accidents and endangering innocents, but the developer toned that down somewhat for this E3. Instead of snooping on everyone's Facebooks and bank accounts, Aiden hacks his way into an underground supermodel slavery ring, shooting most of the perpetrators and exposing the ringleader to the world. In fact, his most pointed jerkwad behavior is smashing the cellphone of a bystander who tries to call the police. Watch Dogs still stokes power fantasies with its mixture of media manipulation and vigilante gunplay, but the hero's jerkwad potential apparently depends on the player.

Tom Clancy's multi-platform The Division buries its jerkwad foundations in a similar manner. The game's introductory trailer envisions a societal collapse wrought by infected money, all told using the same panicked, cocky tone you normally hear in History Channel specials. The gameplay itself isn't all that jerk-oriented, as it finds players cooperating in the chaotic world after civilization falls. Yet between Clancy's name and the underlying premise, the game plays into that ill-planned survivalist dream of roughing it in a future where laws, manners, and that meddlesome government are all stripped away. So you can be a jerkwad.

E3 SPECIAL

MICROSOFT: LET'S JUST TALK ABOUT GAMES NOW, OKAY
Several matters hung heavy over Microsoft at this E3. Geeks all over were skeptical and cynical about the Xbox One's stance on requiring an online connection once every 24 hours, lacking backwards compatibility, and letting third-party publishers decide which games players can sell or buy used. Microsoft made the bold step of not addressing any of these issues in their E3 conference, but they did show off a bunch of games, including the genuine surprise of a new Killer Instinct for the console's launch window.

Yes, people asked for a new Killer Instinct ever since Microsoft acquired Rare a decade ago. And yes, a number of those people probably were just kidding, but there's still demand for the series; Killer Instinct was Nintendo's entry into the fighter free-for-all of the mid-1990s, so it got plenty of exposure when we were kids and arcades were still alive. Nintendo dropped the series shortly after the fighting-game craze died down and now prefers to forget about all things Killer Instinct, but Microsoft evidently doesn't.

The new Killer Instinct is the work of Double Helix Games, which previously handled Silent Hill and Front Mission titles (some would say poorly). The first trailer for the game reveals three returning characters: ninja Jago, icy alien Glacius, and were-creature Sabrewulf. The game looks a bit like Street Fighter IV with its detailed two-dimensional play, though it mimics the excitable Killer Instinct announcer of old. No other characters were seen, and it's not certain if this is a reboot or an actual Killer Instinct 3. Sabrewulf's lack of cybernetic arms suggests that it's not a sequel, though.

Another surprising exclusive came from Hidetaka “Swery65” Suehiro, who's making a murder-mystery Kinect game called D4 just for the Xbox One. It follows a detective on a time-traveling quest to prevent his wife's murder, and it seems to have a few visual motifs in common with the late Kenji Eno's D and D2 games. Could just be a coincidence.

Microsoft also debuted CAPCOM's Dead Rising 3 as an Xbox One exclusive, an unexpected turn given the previous game's multi-platform status. Dead Rising 3's trailer shows its hero scaling cars and traversing rooftops to escape a zombie swarm, but his methods are distressingly mundane next to prior Dead Rising games. Those titles had paddle chainsaws and skateboards and golf clubs and giant Servbot heads and all sorts of other fun weapons. Microsoft's conference promised that we'll see a large arsenal in Dead Rising 3, but the trailer didn't venture beyond guns, cars, and a wrench.

The Xbox One game that matters most to me, however, is Yukio Futatsugi's Crimson Dragon. It began as a Kinect-utilizing Xbox 360 project back in 2011, and after years of delays and a leaked demo, it's now an Xbox One game. The footage shown at Microsoft's E3 didn't look all different from the Crimson Dragon previews we've seen over the past two years, but at this point I'm relieved that it wasn't canceled.

Capybara Games had Below, an intriguing little dungeon hack similar to the developer's Sword & Sorcery. Very little was shown, but the game's scenery has a nicely laid-back style. After all of the explosions in Battlefield 4, it's good to see some restraint.

Aside from some rather uncomfortable trash-talk during the Killer Instinct demo (was that seriously a rape joke?), the biggest starter of conversations was the Xbox One's price: it'll be $499.99 when it ships this November. That inspired plenty of balking, stupefaction, gawkery, and befuddlement. It's not all that expensive when compared to the PlayStation 3's launch (or some other successful consoles, once you take inflation into account), but it didn't put the Xbox One in anyone's good graces.

What We Didn't See:
Microsoft avoided further discussion of how the console handles used games and Internet connectivity, which led the crowds to assume that the Xbox One is still taking on needlessly complicated stance on sharing games and keeping the system online. And that left the poor system open for an attack from…

SONY: NEENER, NEENER, NEENER
Sony didn't need to be amazing at E3. They just needed to be better than Microsoft's camp, which did little to allay criticisms about forcing players to keep their systems online or jump through assorted hoops just to sell or share the games they own. Sony had an opening, and they drove several large tanks through it by audaciously proclaiming that the PlayStation 4 will handle used games the same way prior PlayStations have. In other words, the retail games you buy are yours to do with as you please.

Oh, and the system's $399.99, ships with a 500GB hard drive, and doesn't need an Internet connection to work. It's enough to bring back memories of the 1995 E3, when Sony undercut Sega's new console by a hundred bucks.

These two announcements, which wouldn't be out of the ordinary for next-generation systems, had many proclaiming Sony's victory at this year's E3. The rest of the presentation was by no means perfect, however. A paltry introduction of various Vita games started things off slow, and then Sony turned to the closing round of PlayStation 3 games. The most intriguing of these is Rain. It follows a boy and girl visible only by their silhouettes in the rain, and they aren't the only denizens of this strange world.

The PlayStation 4 swiftly took over the proceedings, of course. Sony showed off Ready at Dawn's The Order: 1886, which presented a competent but tiringly unoriginal fusion of steampunk London and zombie-hunting. The same went for a preview of Quantic Dream's The Dark Sorcerer, in which a melodramatic mage and his imp assistant didn't so much break the wall as they poked feebly at it in a gag that wouldn't slip into the worst Family Guy episode. Yet the PlayStation 4's first round of exclusives covers the important bases with Killzone: Shadow Fall, DriveClub, and Knack, all of which were announced before E3.

More impressive was Sony's roll call of smaller developers and niche games. Supergiant Games led off with Transistor. The diagonally oriented action-RPG resembles the developer's earlier Bastion, though the game's art-deco future, gorgeous illustrations, and motorcycle-riding heroine set it apart. Also coming to the PlayStation 4: the open-ended action game Don't Starve, the side-scroller Oddworld: New 'N Tasty, the lovingly animated commando throwback Mercenary Kings, and the masterful OctoDad 2: Dadliest Catch. Some of these titles will be on the PC (if they aren't already), but they're just as welcome on Sony's new system. Especially OctoDad.

Funny that most of the big rollouts at Sony's presentation weren't PlayStation 4 exclusives. Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts III, and a new Mad Max action game are all headed to the Xbox One as well as the PS4. Sony also paid a lot of attention to Bungie's first-person-shooter Destiny, which aims to replicate Halo's production design and multiplayer cooperation in a war between aliens and humans. But it'll be on the Xbox One, too.

Did Sony really win? Despite the lack of exclusives, Sony outdid Microsoft simply by not doing much of anything. The victory is not without caveats, either. Unlike the PlayStation 3, the PS4 needs a PlayStation Plus account for online play, it's not backward-compatible, and third-party publishers may still regulate used games. Sony's just the lesser of two evils.

What We Didn't See:
Sony's Vita offerings were pathetic, and the company seems to regard the handheld as though it's well into a graceful retirement, like the PlayStation 3. Nothing of note was announced for the Vita; no new spin-offs of PlayStation 4 stuff, no interesting original games, and, worst of all, no Gravity Rush 2.

Fumito Ueda's The Last Guardian was conspicuously absent for the second E3 in a row, and Sony hasn't said if the game and its adorable griffin puppy are still bound to the PlayStation 3. But E3 didn't pass without some mention of The Last Guardian: Sony CEO Jack Tretton told GameTrailers that the title is “on hiatus right now.” [Edit: And then Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida assured the press that it was still in development.]

NINTENDO: WE HAVE CATS AND MEGA MAN
The pecking order of E3 was established well before the presentations: Sony and Microsoft would go head-to-head with their new systems, and Nintendo would look out for Nintendo first and foremost. In fact, Nintendo wouldn't even go through the trouble of a full-blown E3 presentation. Instead, we'd get an hour-long Nintendo Direct streamed for everyone.

The Wii U's Super Mario 3-D World plays a bit like the earlier 3DS game, but with larger stages and a new cat-suit power-up that lets the character climb walls and scratch foes (make your hairball jokes now if you must). It also reflects Super Mario Bros. 2 in its playable cast of Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach, whose problems with dress-based physics were apparently rectified. Each character excels in one particular way: Peach can hover just as she did in Super Mario Bros. 2, though Toad's traded in strength for speed. That makes sense, since there are no vegetables to uproot and throw around.

Mario Kart 8, the first Wii U outing for the series, has the underwater and aerial modes of Mario Kart 7 and the motorcycles of Mario Kart Wii, but there's one interesting change: messing with gravity. Courses include tracks where characters speed along the underside of the courses, and it's visually arresting at the very least.

Another familiar sequel, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze puts the side-scrolling mechanics of a Donkey Kong Country into an HD title. While it's still a 2-D game at heart, the new entry features unique mechanics and more playable characters, including the aerially inclined Dixie Kong.

Platinum Games teased Bayonetta 2 with footage of the title heroine in action. She's traded in her beehive hairdo for a shorter bob, but she's still an agile warrior-witch who wears guns on her shoes, whirls her hair around for attacks, and strikes sexy, in-your-face poses that I'm sure some people will find empowering in a backhanded context. The gameplay looks utterly spectacular, though, and many will be chagrined by the vague 2014 release date.

Monolith Soft's X also showed up in greater detail, emphasizing the transforming mechs so briefly glimpsed in the game's first trailer. Also seen were huge cities and mechanized fortresses, which are all partly of a massive world traversed by jet-car-robot hybrids. It's still called X, and the giant mecha and red paintbrush logo recall director Tetsuya Takahashi's old rough-cut RPG Xenogears as well as his more recent Xenoblade Chronicles.

Many were looking forward to a new Smash Bros. title on the Wii U and 3DS, and Nintendo saved it for last. The game picks from Metroid, Zelda, Mario, and Kid Icarus once again, but Megaman himself showed up at the last moment, complete with the Metal Blade (a.k.a. the Best Megaman Weapon) and other attacks, plus a remixed tune from Dr. Wily's Castle in Megaman 2 (a.k.a. the Best Megaman Music). This isn't the first time a non-Nintendo character appeared in Smash Bros., but it's quite satisfying to see Megaman recognized. Perhaps this heralds some new Megaman game from CAPCOM. Or maybe he's just settling into the guest-star roles that a faded icon merits.

Yet even Megaman was a predictable inclusion next to the Wii Fit Trainer, who's also part of the Smash Bros. lineup. An Animal Crossing joins the crew as well, but that was pretty easy to guess.

What We Didn't See:
There was no sign of Dragon Quest X, which arrived on the Wii and Wii U in Japan. Nintendo seemed likely to localize it, given the company's handling of Dragon Quest IX, but no news emerged about a domestic release. Also absent was the next full-blown Wii U installment of The Legend of Zelda, which has appeared here and there. Don't look for it any time soon.

The E3 Nintendo Direct may suggest a scant year for the company, but several notable 2013 release simply weren't shown during the presentation. Pikmin 3 hits the Wii U later this summer, and the 3DS has Mario & Luigi: Dream Team lined up in August and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds arriving by the end of the year. So it's not so bad.

SQUARE ENIX: FINE, LET'S JUST CALL IT THAT
Square Enix looked ready to show off Final Fantasy XV at E3, and everything from industry rumors to perfume brands suggested that the game would be a renamed Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Sure enough, director Tetsuya Nomura introduced a big, sweeping Versus XIII video at Sony's conference, and the preview ended with the logo changing into Final Fantasy XV.

But what else has changed about the game? The storyline looks to follow all of the prior glimpses of Versus XIII, as it mixes Final Fantasy cliches with mobster clichés. Our hero is still Noctis Lucis Caelum, the prince of a noble family waging a war over magic crystals, and he's involved with a woman named Stella Nox Fleuret. She hails from the highborn family of another country (or perhaps another dimension), and they're all wrapped up in some mixture of fantasy-mafia power struggles and crystalline energy conflicts. Final Fantasy XV retains a more contemporary touch than previous games in the series, but the dialogue hurled around in the preview suggests that this is the good ol' melodramatic franchise that most fans want.

More impressive were the flashes of Final Fantasy XV's apparent gameplay, the subject of the game's second trailer. Noctis hurls himself through mansion hallways full of gunfire, leaps aboard a Leviathan-like creature, tears through a phalanx of guards with his two sidekicks, fights on the side of a building, and seemingly warps around by throwing a sword at various surfaces, like a magical Bionic Commando grappling hook. It all unfurls without conspicuous menus or timed button presses, which is enough to hope that there's a fluid action-RPG at work here. It's also a good ways off, considering the lack of a release date, and it'll arrive on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Similar misdirection introduced Kingdom Hearts III. Both it and Final Fantasy XV were first shown on Sony's big screens, but they're multi-platform. Kingdom Hearts III's debut trailer didn't reveal anything, really, unless you count a brief shot of hero Sora picking up a Keyblade and dodging a swarm of shadowy heartless creatures.

For the current generation, Square Enix still has Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which puts the long-suffering heroine of the original Final Fantasy XIII in a race to prevent some metaphysical doomsday (complete with a ticking clock). The latest preview footage of the game shows Lightning chasing her would-be brother-in-law Snow through a tower, where she and a mysterious girl have a conversation that's cryptic even by Final Fantasy standards.

Lightning Returns is notable for giving players direct control over the protagonist as she moves around and attacks enemies. It unfolds much like an action game, but Lightning still uses specific battle stances, each with their own active-time meter. That recalls the multiple party formations of Final Fantasy XIII, but Lightning seems much more spry this time around. Lightning Returns will be out on February for the PS3 and Xbox 360. Then Final Fantasy XIII will finally be laid to rest, and Lightning can go lie around in her pajamas and catch up on her Netflix queue or whatever.

What We Didn't See:
Square Enix isn't talking about any international plans for Drakengard 3. Technically I should call the game Drag-on Dragoon 3, since that's the Japanese title and it hasn't been announced for a domestic release yet. Nothing was said about the game during E3, not even in Sony's roundup of PlayStation 3 exclusives. Is Square put off by Zero, the game's bloodthirsty and promiscuous heroine, and her coterie of boyfriends? Or is it just that one of those paramours looks disturbingly young?

ELSEWHERE: METAL GEAR AND MIKU
Konami's major E3 showing revolved around Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Its existence was not new, but the trailer filled in a load of new details, not least of them the fact that Snake can now sneak around while riding a horse.

The Phantom Pain trailer finds the original Snake (a.k.a. Big Boss) and Revolver Ocelot infiltrating a desert compound and in the process showing off the game's variable weather conditions, optional vehicles, and freedom of stealthy movement. It's all set in 1984, not long after the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.

The trailer finds Snake rescuing Master Miller, who was a supporting character way back in Metal Gear 2 and the original Metal Gear Solid. Also introduced are the tellingly named scientist Emmerich and a snotty little kid named Eli (who just might be a young Liquid Snake). Rounding out the cast are the aged Code Talker, the suit-wearing Skull Face, and the mute sniper Quiet, who probably shouldn't wear a bikini out in the blistering desert sun. For several reasons.

Fifteen years ago, Sega was a powerful force at E3, where their whims might shape the game industry. At this year's E3, Sega's new Sonic Lost World game and Castle of Illusion remake were overshadowed by something announced the week before the convention: a Hatsune Miku game coming to North America.

After slowly conquering Japan's pop-culture nooks and crannies for the last four years, Hatsune Miku will appear in Project Diva F on the domestic PlayStation 3 and PLAYSTATION Network. The rhythm game features 38 different songs, though half the attraction seems to be the 90 costumes and 100 accessories for Miku herself to wear during her music videos. And what prompted this localization? Fan demand, Sega says.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: CHRONICLES OF MYSTARA
Developer: CAPCOM/Iron Galaxy Studios
Publisher: CAPCOM
Platform: XBox Live/PLAYSTATION Network/Wii U
Release date: June 18 (Live, Wii U)/ June 19
MSRP: $14.99

Brawlers came and went quite rapidly during their most vital years in the 1990s. Some were limited to two players and others allowed more, but nothing really beat one of CAPCOM's Dungeon & Dragons games in a cabinet fully outfitted for four people. They were surprisingly deep diversions for the arcade, and you could spent considerable time rampaging through the game with three other allies, so long as your token supply held up. In an age of ephemeral beat-'em-ups where you pelted street punks for a forgettable half-hour, the Dungeons & Dragons brawlers were worth visiting several times over.

Popular rumor had it that CAPCOM couldn't bring back their Dungeons & Dragons games due to losing the rights, but that clearly wasn't much of an obstacle. Chronicles of Mystara bundles together both titles, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara, and then adds CAPCOM's usual upscaling options: HD graphics, the original look, a view of an actual arcade cabinet during play, and various achievements.

Both games are well-preserved. Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara take the idea of a D&D adventurer party and sculpt it into a belt-scrolling brawler, complete with RPG-ish leveling, some rudimentary platform jumping, and branching story paths. Players name and control one of four fantasy archetypes in Tower of Doom, including a Fighter, a Dwarf, a Cleric, and an Elf (who's also the sorcerer of the team). Shadow Over Mystara adds a Thief and a Magic-User while granting all of the characters special moves performed with fighting-game motions. And like most examples of CAPCOM's arcade prowess, there's a surface of wonderfully detailed hand-drawn art atop the gameplay. I mean, each character gets an alternate outfit instead of just a different color. How many sprite-based games do that?


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter. He's really not all that upset over Gravity Rush 2.


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