Saints & Sinners: PAX East 2012 Edition (Apr. 15)
In the video game industry, the fans are bombarded by two separate yet equally important groups: Saints, who bring with them only the purest form of joy, and Sinners, beings dedicated solely to evoking misery. These are their stories.
The prodigal columnist returns. With my return, I bring good tidings of peace, joy, and swag obtained at this year’s PAX East convention in Boston, Massachusetts! Unlike the former two, I will not be dolling out any of my swag, and I will instead be keeping all of it to myself. I can, however, share with you the experience as it was: ups, downs, middle-points, moments that appeared to be ups but ended up being downs, those that were somewhere between a up and down without being directly in the middle, etc. This week, I’m not mad; I’m happy to share with you the games that stole the show, the titles that lived up to the hype, and the developers that earned their keep.
I suppose there was also a handful of games that disappeared among the spotlights of the show floor, titles that failed to live up to the hype, and developers that did anything but earn their keep. Disregard that earlier sentiment; I am mad.
Best of Show: In the cop-out moment of the evening, I will refuse to reward any one game with the title of Best in Show; there was such a vast assortment of outstanding games on the show floor that to pick one out of the crop would be the equivalent of praising only one song on a Beatles album. Instead, I’ve narrowed down my selection to three prominent figures that I felt stood out in the massive heap of content that was PAX East.
Assassin’s Creed III wasn’t even playable in Boston, but its visual showing alone was enough to slot it among the best products on display. I’m not entirely sure what I’m allowed to speak to as the event prohibited any filming or audio recording, but I’m entirely sure that what I saw was amazing. The stunts pulled off by Connor, the title’s Native American protagonist, demonstrated exactly how far Ubisoft would be straying from the formula as we have known it over the past four games. Ever since Assassin’s Creed III was announced to take place during the Revolutionary War, players new and old have wondered how a traditionally sky-scraping franchise would deal with the rigors of a more varied, natural terrain; the gameplay video at PAX East answered that question with a level of authority that not even Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin could replicate on a breakaway dunk.
Max Payne 3 shared not only its placement in the series with Assassin’s Creed III but also the quality of its showing at PAX East; to say that I was merely impressed by what I saw out of Rockstar’s next opus would be to completely undermine the level of expertise and attention to detail going into the action title. A public relations representative put it best to me when they emphasized that, since its inception, Max Payne was a franchise all about looking cool. It would be easy to wander through the game’s many stages as if they were any other third-person shooter, but that would be a maneuver which robs the product of its charm. I found myself, at many points in the lengthy demo build, leaping and strafing in ways that were not at all conducive to success but were conducive to having inordinate amounts of fun. Max Payne 3 won’t win any Game of the Year awards nor will it be praised for originality, but the game will service well as a summer blockbuster to help waste away those long, hot May nights.
One of the biggest surprises out of PAX East, personally, was Battleblock Theater. I wasn’t surprised by the studio in the least; The Behemoth’s software library is one that reads as a collection of some of my favorite titles from the past decade. It was the concept that had me worried. Upon its announcement, it seemed that this game was destined to be a mediocre Super Smash Bros. clone lost in the shuffle of other, more relevant entries into the casual fighting genre. It wouldn’t be nearly sufficient to say that I was wrong about Battleblock Theater; Behemoth’s latest is, in actuality, more akin to a Kirby or LEGO game in its design. Nothing about the sure-fire independent hit was particularly difficult to accomplish, but all of it was charming. Battleblock Theater is a game that you can’t help but smile while playing; it’s a hoot.
It also helps that Battleblock Theater was displayed in a booth that was designed to resemble an old-school arcade (which, for those keeping score at home, puts The Behemoth well ahead of everyone else at the convention center).
Surprise of the Show: Selecting a winner that establishes itself head-and-tail over the rest of the competition in this category is a little bit less strenuous. This title can belong to only one game at PAX East 2012: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II.
Surely you must be saying to yourself “but Drew, Sega just got done making a great Sonic game! How could this be surprising?” Well, concerned reader, here’s how I see it: Sonic Generations was as guaranteed of a hit as New Super Mario Bros. was on the Nintendo Wii; the game was a physical manifestation of everything that fans had been clamoring for over their years of devotion. All of the game’s nine stages were ripped directly from the past and offered very little in the way of innovation. It was a good game, if not a great one, but it was safe, predictable even. Sonic the Hedgehog 4, despite having been originally intended to accomplish the very feat that Sonic Generations would ultimately aspire to, is a risk.
Episode I didn’t innovate and was punished dearly for it; fans panned the game and returned to their typical cycle of bemoaning Sonic for the calendar year. It would be fair to say that Episode I went for the jugular but came up short, a failure that only furthered the idea that it was a tremendous letdown. Episode II, if it can be derived from my short time with the game, goes for the jugular and fully extracts it. The level design, which in the first episode were verbatim copies of stages from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, is fresh without feeling too far removed from the proven formula. Sonic moves fast, but he doesn’t move so fast as to alienate those that understand the value of careful platforming in the franchise that blue blur built. Everything clicks, nothing feels out of place, and, most importantly, it feels like a natural progression of Sonic the Hedgehog beyond the Sega Genesis and into a new era of consoles.
It has only taken 18 years, but it appears that a wholly unique, new Sonic the Hedgehog game is about to rock the industry.
Disappointment of the Show: I can’t say that I expected the world of Firefall, but I certainly expected more than I ended up receiving.
My disappointment with Firefall is twofold in its reasoning. Superficially, I had expected something out of Firefall because, hot damn, did it ever have an enticing display; a massive display spun about the convention center ceiling advertising that Red 5 Studios was in the building and they were ready to begin taking names and kicking a socially irresponsible amount of ass. The best way to describe it might be to say that the product as it were gave off the sense of it being an event, something that drew the attention away from other titles and left an impact on everyone that saw it.
The other, less shallow motivation for my disappointed feeling was the fact that I had been promised all along that Firefall would be doing something radically different from the rest of the massively-multiplayer online role-playing space. It did not; Firefall felt exactly as one might think it would upon hearing only the concept: World of Warcraft with guns. Unlike World of Warcraft, Firefall offered little in the way of a distinct, aesthetic presence. Surely enough, the game was cel-shaded (as if this is a trend that hasn’t been done to death) and appeared to take place in a pseudo-futurist environment that contrasted sprawling beaches with dishearteningly small patches of urban architecture.
Nothing about Firefall helped to elevate it above the age-old World of Warcraft comparison. I’m not even sure that it did enough to elevate itself above the less-favorable Hellgate London allusion. PAX East, with its abundance of MMOs on display this year, allowed Red 5 Studios to show off exactly how far ahead of the pack they were. Instead, they were passed up by titles that I wasn’t even anticipating such as Neverwinter and Raiderz, two games that showed a stronger dedication to innovation than Firefall in almost every aspect.
With it being so far along, I can’t imagine Firefall getting much better for launch. Of course, that being said, the game exists in a genre that embraces drastic, post-release changes. For now, I’m disappointed with Firefall, but I could see a future where it is a more compelling game that has a much stronger sense of self than the build I saw on the show floor.
Activision, EA, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony: Something tells me that none of these studios were interested in putting their best foot forward for the fans at PAX East; EA’s presence was largely relegated to a terminal playing The Old Republic while Microsoft and Nintendo seemed content to present a slapped-together display of an assortment of products new and old alike. All of those are better than the exhibits laid out by Activision and Sony, two major industry players that completely no-showed a major industry event.
Believe me, I understand that PAX East is about more than just the big publishers showing off their wares to the general public. I also understand that PAX East is known widely for its integration of independent titles into the mainstream conscious. These two concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive; PAX East should have no problem celebrating both sides of the industry. The only way to do that, though, is to find a way that brings these larger studios out of hiding for one extra weekend of the year.
It may be true that E3 is right around the corner, but why is that any reason to avoid a show altogether? Do these prominent figures truly believe that their games can only be disclosed in a sterile, media environment, or does the idea of putting effort into more than one show in a single year fill their addled minds with an undeniably grim level of terror? Borderlands 2 was on the show floor and I’m fairly certain that 2K is doing well, if not better, for it. A major title like Halo 4 or a Call of Duty would almost doubtlessly be received with a similar level of fan enthusiasm. I see very little possibility in a presence at one of these public events doing damage to a developer’s reputation; in my eyes, it can only do the opposite.
Honestly, does anyone at this point (Presidential candidates excluded) in time need the good press that a PAX East would produce more than Activision, EA, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony?
Judgement has been passed