And so it came to be. Three simple folk from the north of England descended on London’s Earls Court for the 2011 Eurogamer Expo, bright eyed and with high expectations of the gaming goodness on offer. For Lewis it was time to finally play his beloved Guild Wars 2. For Mat, a long awaited chance to try out the PlayStation Vita. For Gregg, the opportunity to chat to some of the industry’s brightest and most exciting indie developers. After braving the sweaty hordes and the horrors of the London Underground (or just London generally ~ Mat & Gregg), we finally made it and the excitement could commence. Or at least it could after we had to take a detour via Boots chemist to buy some toothpaste. Lewis forgot ours, and the prospect of swilling our gums with Timotei shampoo didn’t sound all too appealing.
Mat C’s Impressions
Where do you start with something like the Eurogamer Expo? On a personal level this was the first time I’d ever attended a gaming convention on this sort of scale, and after literally running into the impressive Earls Court exhibition centre with my eyes wide open and my mouth aghast it took me a while to collect my thoughts and take on board the sheer scope of the event. Across the expansive show floor were more games than I can possibly attempt to recall even now, covering everything from the most obscure indie triumphs to the biggest hitting heavyweight shooters. Although at times overwhelming and often tiring, the whole experience was never anything less than brilliant, and to see such a high standard of games across so many genre’s and platforms can only be healthy for our industry. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that, even if it takes the largest gathering of awesome geeks in the UK to do so.
Highlight of the expo: RAGE by id Software (Xbox 360)
Although I’ve been anticipating RAGE for a while, a number of negative third hand reports from the Thursday and Friday Expo goers quelled my expectations dramatically, but upon getting my hands on the game myself it took just a few minutes to realise RAGE was going to be something pretty fantastic. Rather than another post apocalyptic Fallout or Borderlands clone, RAGE appears to be very much a game with its own identity. Blasting enemies up close with the shotgun felt every bit as satisfying as you’ll expect from an id game, but it was the demo station’s extra curricular activities that showed RAGE has more going for it than people may well give it credit for. The buggy racing section and the game-show esque arena based sequence showed signs that RAGE is every bit as keen to be a fully fledged adventure as it is a typically id balls out shooter, and neither of these extra activities felt out of place or bolted on for the sake of it.
Most of all however, I just cannot wait to experience RAGE on my own and in my own time. I suspect that some of the games best moments may appear in the subtle details and in the quieter moments of the world that id have created, and given the chance to explore this world at my own pace I can’t wait to discover them. Given the variety and consistently high quality of everything on display last weekend, I absolutely cannot wait to dive into RAGE properly and experience everything else it has to offer.
Honourable mention: the PlayStation Vita. Unfortunately I’ve got too much to say about the Vita to justify as a section within this article, so you’ll have to wait for my impressions in the near future.
Disappointment of the expo: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive by Valve (PlayStation 3)
My biggest disappointment of the expo was almost certainly Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. I’ve had a good think about this category since leaving London on Sunday evening, but CS:GO edges Silent Hill Downpour as the most underwhelming experience of the weekend for me. The control’s felt loose and unresponsive compared to the other major military shooters on display and the game was notably lacking visually, with some rather off looking textures and eye poking jaggies at a distance. Even for an engine as flexible as Source, CS:GO looked ugly, sloppy and really rather clunky, lacking the overall polish and sheen that we’ve all come to expect from Valve and which they usually deliver with such regularity.
This does all however come with one rather large caveat. The game was running on the PlayStation 3. Now, without wanting to go into the possible failings of first person shooter games on consoles, Counter-Strike is and always has been a game for the mouse and keyboard. I knew this when I lived my life as an exclusively console gamer, I knew this when I attempted to play the original Counter-Strike on the Xbox and nothing from my experience with CS:GO this weekend suggested I was ever wrong. There was something about CS:GO that suggested there was a decent game hiding in there somewhere. I saw a glimpse of something that told me this was a game I actually wouldn’t mind playing, despite never being a huge advocate of the previous Counter-Strike iterations. But whatever that something was, it was largely hidden behind the trappings of a Dual Shock 3 controller and some iffy PlayStation 3 performance. I feel like I need to play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on a PC with a mouse and keyboard. The fact that Valve handed out PC Beta keys to everybody who took part might even suggest they’re aware of this themselves.
Dishonourable mention: Silent Hill Downpour. I’m a huge fan of the Silent Hill franchise. Or rather, I was a huge fan of Team Silent’s Silent Hill franchise. Downpour looks a damn sight better than the terrible Homecoming, sure, but apart from that the game looked sloppy, unpolished and, well, just unfinished to me. The controls felt awkward and I drew absolutely no sense of horror or tension from the experience whatsoever. A large portion of that might well be the environment I played the game in, which obviously isn’t particularly conducive to tense horror gaming, but at the same time nothing about Downpour suggested to me that it was in the same class as Amnesia or Penumbra, or even as psychologically terrifying as Team Silent’s past achievements. The bar has been raised, and the Silent Hill franchise disappointingly looks like it might continue to fall behind.
Surprise of the expo: Renegade Ops by Avalanche Studios (PlayStation 3)
This might be down to my own ignorance more than anything else, but other than briefly recognising the name I knew nothing of this Offroad Racer-meets-Jungle Strike twin stick shooter for PSN, XBLA and Steam. Between the three of us we had an absolute blast with this. Cheesy characters and voice work add to the absolutely chaotic gameplay and old school feel, and hurtling around at high speeds destroying this beautiful island (after being dropped in to apparently save it, arf arf!) was amongst the most exhilarating experiences of the show for me. Along with RAGE, I left the Expo on Sunday evening knowing that this was one of the games I most wanted to play in future.
DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA
Best looking game of the expo: Battlefield 3 by EA DICE
A tough category this one, but for me Battlefield 3 was just too good looking to ignore; both in terms of the game itself and it’s Nvidia branded booth babes. DICE’s latest is just a jaw-dropper. I’m still waiting to get my first in game glimpse of the gorgeous Operation Guillotine single player mission, but the central Paris multiplayer map I experienced on PC offered more than just a taste of what this game is capable of. The sheer level of detail on display, particularly with the smoke effects, lighting and environments, is probably the closest example we have now of what the next generation might well look like. Simply put, Battlefield 3 has to be seen running on a high end rig to be believed.
Honourable mentions: These must go to RAGE, Journey and Fotonica. Despite the limitations of the Xbox 360 hardware, id have obviously worked incredibly hard to get RAGE looking so impressive, and despite some glaring texture pop in the game looks and runs fantastic. Journey was also notably exceptional in the graphics department, with some of the most impressively stylised visuals and art direction of the show floor. Fotonica might be a strange choice for this particular accolade, but there was a quality to its Vib Ribbon-style aesthetic that I really fell for. The way the environments changed colour as you proceeded through the world reminded me of WipEout HD’s Zone mode, evoking the same sense of under pressure progress and ramping up the tension as the game got faster and faster. It’s one of those games where the visuals tie directly into the gameplay and overall experience, and I thought it looked brilliant.
Most LPMs (LOLs Per Minute): Saints Row: The Third by Volition
Easiest answer of the day. Volition have taken the more humorous elements of Saints Row 2 and gone absolutely mental with the concept. This is everything you thought was fun about Vice City and San Andreas with the volume dial turned up to 11. Watching Gregg’s topless muscle bound freak fly across the screen in a fireball after battering a Hummer to explosion with a 4ft purple rubber schlong had the two of us – and everyone around us – in hysterics for some time. Deep schlong thrombosis indeed.
Special praise has to be reserved for the hit new game “Alliance of Awesome: Booze Hounds” (working title); a new drinking simulator with an emphasis on social and user interaction. With a choice of characters including all your favourite Tap regulars, Martin Watts and Tom Rippon of BnB Gaming fame and Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance, this charming indie treat had the critics raving. Taking place in a pub we can barely remember the name of, Booze Hounds challenges you to consume as much alcohol as possible on a north of England budget and at central London prices. Minigames include trying not to sound like an ass when interviewed by Joel after three beers and the “Find a Lager For Less Than £4 Challenge” (I won — Gregg). Featuring awesome character design, hilariously witty dialogue and the most visceral drinking gameplay in all of London, this is one not to be missed in 2012.
Gregg B’s Impressions
Being an expo virgin I found the whole show overwhelming. Everywhere I looked there was something of interest and only now do I appreciate how easy it is to overlook things at these events. As such I wandered around exploring for a good chunk of the first day dabbling in a few things here and there and planning and prioritising what I wanted to check out for the rest of the show. Below you’ll find, in no particular order, my shotgun-to-the-face impressions of pretty much every game that I played over the course of the weekend. Lo:
Xenonauts by Goldhawk Interactive (PC)
Xenonauts is essentially an updated retooling of UFO: Enemy Unknown. When I spoke to Chris England, the game’s Project Lead, he was keen to get across just how much Goldhawk are wanting to maintain the elements of what made the original X-COM so good but at the same time squash the things that make it a difficult experience to palette today, namely the interface and the brutal difficulty curve. Playing the game it’s easy to see just how much they seem to have gotten right.
Something that did strike me with Xenonauts was the entirely new air combat system Goldhawk have integrated which allows for potentially huge tactical dogfights between numerous ships and UFOs. Planning flight trajectories, selecting weapons, adjusting movement speeds, evasive barrel-rolling — it seems a welcome addition to the Geoscape layer of the game.
I only played Xenonauts briefly but so far it’s looking very polished and solid, especially given how complex and ambitious the project is. Goldhawk should be commended for not only getting this far but for also keeping everyone in the loop because all too often projects like this die a slow and silent death. There’s still another six months to go in development for Xenonauts but if you’re hankering for X-COM and not XCOM then you’ll definitely be wanting to keep an eye on this.
Trackmania2: Canyon by Nadeo (PC)
Ravious has been raving about Trackmania2: Canyon for some time here on Tap so it was only fair that I went and had a thrash around some of the tracks while I had the opportunity to. And I’m very glad I did. Canyon is just stunning; the lighting, the texture work, the solidity of the cars and their satisfying damage models. What really got me audibly cooing however, was the handling of the Canyon cars. The drifting. The beautiful, beautiful drifting. It was as if I’d been driving them all my life; they just felt so fun and precise and heavy. One of the stewards manning the stand even asked me if I’d ever played it before because I looked so comfortable drifting around (the admittedly simple course). I didn’t get much of a chance to sample many of the other tracks or even partake in an actual race but I came away very impressed.
The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword (Wii)
Ten minutes, that’s all I got with this. Apparently Modern Warfare 3 gave you forty-freakin’-five minutes. Anyway, my time with The Skyward Sword was quite underwhelming mainly because the demo didn’t do a very good job of showcasing what separated it from previous entries in the series. The first five or so minutes I spent flying Link around on a bird trying to catch another as part of some sort of competition, presumably very early on in the game. It wasn’t too taxing but hinted at all sorts of potential air sequences later on in the game. The latter half of my slot I spent bumbling around in a dungeon. Now, I’ve not played Zelda on the Wii before so I wasn’t very hot with the controls but from what I played it seemed like more of the same really. Perhaps the biggest difference I noticed was the painterly effect applied to the environments which gave it a passing resemblance to Love. It looked lovely but was let down by the standard definition resolution of the Wii which amidst all the crisp high definition games at the show was really starting to look nasty.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (360)
“I want to play this on PC” is pretty much the phrase that sums up my measly twenty minute experience with Skyrim. The graphics and performance I felt were a real step back after playing the 360 version of RAGE and the pad controls… well, I’m not a great fan of first person pad controls to begin with. Something which I hope is just a console ‘pad thing’ is the ‘favourites’ menu that Skyrim uses. It’s a customisable list that can be brought up to allow you to ‘quickly’ equip and use items or spells. The only thing is: it’s not quick, it’s horrible. You have to press a button to bring up the menu, then you have to scroll to the correct item and press another button to use or equip it. As I said, I hope this is just a console pad thing but even so, console players shouldn’t have to put up with something as… clunky as that, it just disrupts combat whenever you want to switch to something else.
Which brings me to my greatest reservation with the game: the melee combat. I didn’t use magic much and focused on biffing all and sundry with my iron hammer but I was staggered to witness that hand to hand combat was just a case of occasionally blocking and mashing the attack button. I did that in Morrowind. To make matters worse, enemies barely flinched when I hit them, usually letting out nothing more than a whimper and a spack of blood; there was no staggering about or falling backwards. It just felt so lifeless, especially after the body impact dynamics of RAGE which made the action so visceral. It’s probably a minor issue to most but I honestly expected more from this area of the game. Having said this, I still can’t wait for Skyrim; it feels mighty in a way that’s unlike anything else.
Highlight of the expo: At a Distance by Terry Cavanagh (PC)
From a distance At a Distance looked as confusing as anything my eyes were likely to see at the expo. From the developer who brought us the downright wonderful VVVVVV, At a Distance is a first person two player co-op game that’s played locally on separate screens so that players can discuss and decipher what they are seeing and doing. The aim of the game is to– well, that’s the thing: At a Distance is a game best enjoyed without explanation. Playing it gave me this sensation I used to have as a kid when I didn’t understand what a game was or was about; it felt alien and new, like there was something big to discover. That sort of experience is rare for me these days.
In front of both monitors Terry Cavanagh had written a note outlining a few ‘tips’ explaining some of the more obtuse elements of the game. I had my reservations about this because for me the game should be understandable without external influence but nevertheless, it was a welcome guiding hand for a game that treats unknowing as a vital part of the experience. A very nice chap and I managed to get relatively far with it but I pulled myself away to savour the unique experience at home and with sound (which was unfortunately drowned out by the Just Dance 3 booth situated right outside the Indie Arcade). Joel Goodwin a.k.a. Harbour Master of Electron Dance told me later on that day that At a Distance was a game specifically designed for local play ie. right next to each other, so I may have to lynch my girlfriend or some unsuspecting visitor for this.
Honourable mention: Fotonica by Santa Ragione, a game perhaps best described as a first person Canabalt with a monochromatic Rez or Vib Ribbon aesthetic. Unlike Canabalt, Fotonica’s single action button is held down to gain speed and released to jump. Once in the air it can be held down again to hurtle back to the ground to carry on running. There’s an elegance and hypnotic sense of rhythm in Fotonica, in fact, I’d say it’s as much about rhythm as it is free-running. This rhythm is complemented by an excellent ambient soundtrack which patters along almost synchronously with your often exhilarating momentum, making loosing it all the more disheartening. I absolutely adore Fotonica and urge you all to check it out. It’s currently pay what you want, features 4 levels, a procedurally generated endless level, a 2-player split-screen mode, stereoscopic 3D support (which I suspect is perfect for this) and did I mention it was pay what you want? Fly! Fly, pay and play!
Surprise of the expo: Renegade Ops by Avalanche Studios (PS3)
I expected little more than a fun co-op diversion from Renegade Ops — and I’m not sure Mat had even heard of it before we sat down to have a thrash on the split-screen co-op mode — but suffice to say: ‘diversion’ would be sorely underselling it. Think of it as S.W.I.V. or Jungle Strike spliced with Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road.
Unlike many of the games at the expo, Renegade Ops was an absolute blast from the get-go. It was easy to pick up and instantly gratifying thanks to the gleefully chaotic pyrotechnics rendered by the Just Cause 2 engine powering the thing as well as the rough and ready handling of the vehicles themselves. Your four-wheeled weapons of mass destruction bump and bounce around, banking over as you turn and hurtle through and over things, kicking up a trail of dust and giving the finger to anything that happens to get in the way. They just feel so right.
Also of note was the game’s unique dynamic split-screen mode which rotates the split depending on where each player is in relation to one another. The split even disappears if both players can fit on a single screen together. Very neat and surprisingly natural and unobtrusive.
The demo exhibited one of the four available characters and only allowed a brief but tantalising glimpse of the skill tree, but from what I played however, I couldn’t be more excited by the impending Steam release of Renegade Ops. With up to 4-player online co-op, a hardcore difficulty mode and an assortment of weapons, skills and enemies to obliterate in the most spectacular fashion it’ll be an instabuy for me.
Honourable mention: Monstermind by Bossa Games whose Facebook game managed to win me over based on its concept alone, never mind its charming visuals and sense of humour. If you threw Theme Park, Sim City, Plants vs Zombies and Facebook into a blender you might get something like Monstermind: a quirky multiplayer strategy sim and tower defence game that makes perfect use of Facebook’s social networking features.
In a nutshell: you build a city, generate resources to expand and spend on defences, mount monster attacks against your friends (who should be doing exactly the same as you), and complete missions for more resources and experience. Infinitely better than a poke and a surefire way of losing friends; I might find a use for Facebook yet. Expect more coverage on this soon because at present I’m rather addicted.
Disappointment of the expo: The size and position of the Indie Arcade
For all intents and purposes, the Indie Arcade was an enclosed corridor situated right next to an unnecessarily huge open space for Just Dance 3. It was the loudest, most cramped and stuffy area at the expo. Considering the value and importance of such an opportunity for the indies to promote their games face-to-face with the press and paying punters, the Indie Arcade setup was downright obnoxious and disrespectful.
Dishonourable mention: Being given a meagre twenty minutes with Skyrim. I think I spent ten of those minutes wading through a sea of white after accidentally casting Night Eye in broad daylight, surrounded by snow. Pro Tip: don’t do that. Short of a giant jizzing into my eyes I don’t think I could possibly have seen more white.
Best looking game of the expo: Journey by thatgamecompany (PS3)
Beautifully restrained and achingly gorgeous, Journey, in very much the same way as Shadow of the Colossus, was never anything short of stunning. From the heat hazy vistas and sunbaked ruins scattered about the rolling dunes to the flowing red garb of the game’s slender character and the way that the almost liquidous sand rippled and quivered under her (his?) feet. I really enjoyed my time with Journey and I can’t deny that it reminded me of Flower and to a certain extent The Wind Waker. I’ve high hopes for it.
Honourable mention: RAGE on the 360, which nearly pipped Journey to the post. I wouldn’t even know where to start describing RAGE’s visuals because they’re just so damn rich and detailed. On the 360 there was noticeable texture loading in places and the necessary lower resolution made things look a little jaggier than my born again PC eyes are used to but it ran consistently smoothly and still looked head and shoulders above nearly every other console game at the expo.
On the gameplay front the combat was as punchy and satisfying as I’ve come to expect from an id game but most surprising of all was the solid handling of the ATV I had a chance to bomb around in as well the neat ‘self-revive’ mechanic the game employs. Basically when you die you have to shift both thumbsticks into particular positions and hit the shoulder buttons; the more successful you are at this the more health you revive with. I think there are limitations to how often this facility can be used but it’s a nice way of preventing instant death and offsetting the reliance on checkpoints. All in all though, I came away from RAGE wanting more; I wanted to wander around more, I wanted to talk to the locals more, I wanted to drive around more, I wanted to grapple with the combat more. I look forward to finally being able to in October.
Most LPMs (LOLs Per Minute): Saints Row: The Third by Volition (360)
Leathering thugs and blowing vehicles up with a gigantic purple rubber schlong was crazy enough but what really cracked me up was the bazooka that fired little toy octupi that stuck to enemies and inexplicably converted them to my cause.
Honourable mentions: Renegade Ops simply because the destruction caused by you ‘saving’ your enemy’s victims practically equated to what they were going to suffer from anyway. God knows how many wooden huts (=homes) me and Mat took out.
Dark Souls by FromSoftware, also deserves a mention if only because its strapline was “Prepare to Die.” No messing about there: you’re going to die, so be prepared. Gotcha.
I had my problems with Demon’s Souls. On the one hand I loved the deathly grim world and the tense, careful exploration of it, but I had real issues with the loose targeting system and the laggy dodging. I also had an infuriating run-in with a suicidal crystal lizard that I don’t want to talk about. Suffice to say however: Dark Souls very much retains everything that made its forebear so alluring only it looks noticeably crisper and more detailed. The warrior I’d been given control of was clad in several metric tonnes of armour so I wasn’t able to dodge around but the targeting felt a bit squishy again. I died several times, obviously, but a gaming first for me was maneuvering around a huge terrifyingly armoured boar to spot that its fleshy, hairy arse was unprotected, so to speak. Naturally I heavy attacked it and sure enough, the sword gorily went in and up and killed the beast. I laughed out loud but Lew and Mat C weren’t amused.
Special mention: SpecialEffect
SpecialEffect is a charity dedicated to helping people with disabilities who are unable to use traditional interfaces enjoy computer games, a privilege that nearly all of us I suspect take for granted. At the Eurogamer Expo, in addition to raising awareness for the charity, SpecialEffect were holding two world record attempts. The first was to get the world’s fastest lap time on a specific track on Trackmania: Forever using only eye-movement sensing technology, the second was to have the largest number of people competing in a videogame tournament using only eye control technology. I stood waiting my turn for about an hour watching various people in amazement try and beat 00:27:94 using just their eyes — it looked very difficult. In order to accelerate you have to look slightly above the horizon, to turn left or right you look to the left or right of the screen and in order to slow down you look towards the bottom. It sounds easy.
Just before my turn a guy appeared called Alex who was in a wheelchair and unable to use his hands to play games. I recognised his face from some of the graphics accompanying the stand and it seemed he was closely connected to the charity. Anyway, it wasn’t long after the eye control technology had been calibrated with his eyes that he was effortlessly whizzing around the track. It was just incredible to watch and even more incredible to see him come within 00:00:01 seconds of beating the world record. I bet he set it. After he finished I managed to have a go and, as miraculous as the technology was, I was bloody awful at it. I blame the booth babes. Simply put: Alex owned.
The SpecialEffect stand caused me to take a step back from the expo madness and appreciate my ability to be able to play anything I want. Moreover, it drew my attention to an inspirational and noble charity that deserves our support, not least because we know very well the joy that can be gleaned from gaming. For more information visit www.specialeffect.org.uk.