In case you were wondering what last week's excuse for the lack of blogging is, I've just returned from Los Angeles where I spent three or four days at E3, the world's largest and awesomest video game convention. On reflection, this is an odd excuse for not blogging, since it's pretty much one of those events that everyone who attends is required to blog about. In that spirit, and in a tip of the Raider Wastehound Helmet (DR +5) to the awards every gaming site gives out at the end of the show, I offer my own highly subjective, utterly meaningless 2009 E3 awards.
Most buzz for something almost nobody actually saw: Project Natal
OK, a handful of people saw it in person and were blown away by it. Everyone else professed intense skepticism � would it really work the way Microsoft said in the promo vid? would there be any non-gimmicky games for it? � but nobody was ignoring it. The Nintendo developer who shrugged it off as "Wii too syndrome" didn't sound quite as confident as he wanted. Still, the general tenor of the buzz remained: let's see how it looks next year.
Best game with no buzz whatsoever: Joy Ride
Off to one side of the Xbox booth was a single station set up with this cartoony racing game. I must have passed it a dozen times before finally picking up the controller for what may have been my most purely enjoyable ten minutes of the show. A near-perfect pick up and play game � it's a cute as hell use for your XBL avatar and pretty much crash-proof � Joy Ride features not only the usual racing modes but a giant freeplay sandbox for performing ridiculous stunts. The best thing about Joy Ride is that it'll be a totally free XBL Arcade download. Xbox hopes to make money on micropayments for things like new tracks and fancy paint jobs for your car, but the basic game won't cost a cent for XBL Gold OR Silver members.
Game I most wish I could play tonight: Batman: Arkham Asylum
A brutal fighting game � not visually gory, but the thudding sound of the Caped Crusader pounding his fists into bad guy's faces will stay with you � Arkham is also an imaginative stealth game and a well-acted adventure puzzler. I got to play all three modes and they blend together organically and seamlessly. Maybe not the most original game out there, but done in a very satisfying way. I got stuck on a three-tiered room full of thugs, trying to take them out one at a time without being spotted using gliding attacks from the rafters and well-placed baterangs. Never did manage to do it, but I've been thinking about new strategies ever since.
Also seen above playing The Beatles: Rock Band, which brings us to...
Game most likely to be way more fun at home than at E3: The Beatles: Rock Band
I'll have a bit more to say about this game down the road, but what it promises as its chief selling point is an immersive experience in the Beatles and their music. That's not something you can really taste playing a couple of songs on the crowded convention floor. True, at home you won't get to play with the G4 girls, but most people don't at E3 either. I shared the platform with some more typical E3 attendees.
Best implementation of an unnecessary game mode: Bioshock 2 multiplayer
Bioshock was a massive success, commercially and artistically, because it was a solitary, narrative, exploratory experience. I never met anyone who thought it also needed online multiplayer battles. But if they had to add that mode, and apparently they did, at least they did it with some sophistication. Most importantly, it hasn't forsaken narrative. The mode is set in Rapture a year before the first game, and the fights are supposed to be the civil war that we saw remnants of in the first game. Players will have different weapon and plasmid options depending on which of several sides they fight on, and skirmishes take place in restructured versions of the original levels.
Worst implementation of an excellent game mode: Guitar Hero 5 momentum
It's one of those ideas that when you see it, you wonder why no one thought of it before. Momentum mode adjusts the difficulty level to your playing on the fly. Do well and the game shifts into a harder setting. Screw up, and instead of failing you out, it drops you down to an easier level. Ideally � and I have to think this is how Rock Band would have done it � momentum mode would be a way for individual players to challenge themselves without getting frustrated. But the GH team, with their focus on hardcore gamers, have made it a competitive mode. Momentum isn't a choice for each player to make on their own, it's a race among all players, with the goal being to top your opponents' difficulty levels, complete with terribly intrusive graphical elements.
Least improved game mechanic: shooting on the Wii
Stick to swords. As a gun, the NES zapper was more accurate than the Wiimote.
Hands-off demo that most made me want to get my hands on: DJ Hero
Watching someone else play DJ Hero is a pretty frustrating experience. It looked like it could be intensely fun to do all that faux scratching and fading, with the same opportunity for performance flair as Guitar Hero or Rock Band. But until I actually get to try it myself, I'm reserving the right to declare it a bust. (Got to see Jay-Z, Eminem, and Travis Barker & DJ AM at the launch party, though.)
Hands-on demo that might as well have been hands-off: Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain promises narrative depth and drenching atmosphere, two things I'm always fond of in a game. Having already watched the gameplay video, I was eager to try it myself. So I did and... it's just like watching the video. Action in Heavy Rain is controlled almost entirely by quicktime events, which means that at no point did I feel like I was actually doing anything. From what I saw, it's more interactive movie than actual game. There is one intriguing narrative device that allows you to project a cloud of emotions around a character and select one to hear/drive their interior monologue. In a real RPG that might be pretty cool but it's not enough to save this game.
Game that most made me want to buy a DS: Scribblenauts
The premise is absurdly simple: presented with a puzzle, you can conjure anything you think you'll need to solve it simply by writing the word or words. For instance: rescue a beached whale. I'm not sure which did a better job of selling me, the appalled look on my friend Jake's face when I wrote bulldozer, or my own surprise when it actually worked. The guy running the demo said other people had used a boat and a rope, or even a shovel, also with success. And yes, you can also generate a chainsaw, but it just makes the whale disappear in a puff of failure. This is a family-friendly game.
Mini-game that will have the most people making fools of themselves: Bird's Eye Bulls-eye for the Wii Fit Plus
I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't get the appeal of the Wii. Sure flapping your arms like a chicken might be fun for 15 minutes, but then what? Oh yeah, then you play the Segway mini game.
Biggest letdown: God of War III
The only time I ever longed to own a PS2 instead of an Xbox was when I'd hear people raving about the God of War franchise. After a nice solid amount of time playing GoW3, I can't say I get it. Yeah, it's slick and fun, if a little gratuitously gory for my taste, but basically it's just a hack and slash game with some platforming elements. Maybe there's a really compelling story I didn't get to experience, but it didn't seem like a must-have.
Creepiest overheard comment to a booth babe: "I�m making a video about the shoes of E3. Can I film your feet?"
Game I should have tried harder to find the hands-on demo for: Alan Wake
After seeing the latest footage for this eerie thriller, I really wanted to try it out for myself. The thing is, E3 is not unlike Arkham Asylum � full of crazy people and harder than it should be to fight your way through. Some games are being demoed by their developers, others by the consoles they're on. If I'd put in a little more work I probably could have figured out who was showing Alan Wake, but after a while all plunging into all that chaos isn't worth it.
Hardest to judge from 3 minutes of playtime: Ghostbusters
Chasing Slimer around a posh hotel with my proton pack (and crossing streams left and right with no apparent consequence) felt a bit clumsy, like trying to catch popcorn with an oversized, flaccid stick of string cheese. But I know this game is going to rise or fall on its Ackroyd and Ramis approved script, and there wasn't enough of that available to judge. One thing I know for sure is that my Ghostbusters nostalgia on its own is not nearly strong enough to suck me into a half-assed game.
Game that most made me feel sorry for the person hyping it: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and The Lord of the Rings: Aragon�s Quest (tie)
There were worse games out there, I'm sure, but most were simply dropped off on the con floor and abandoned to their fates. The developers of these sad tie-ins (the former clearly tossed off without a thought, the latter more ambitious but clunky and stale) had tethered shills by their stations to talk them up. Three seconds with the controls of each was all I needed before I was ready to move on, but these folks were trying so hard, going on about the stories and the characters and the gameplay. It would have been too rude to just walk away, so instead I just stood there consoling myself that at least I would be able to walk away soon, while they'd be stuck there for three days.
Dumbest gamble: Def Jam Rapstar
An otherwise ordinary hip hop karaoke game with some decent licensing, Rapstar, from brand new developer 4mm, is betting the farm on a deep social networking component that will allow players to post videos of their performances, complete with crappy FX, to a battle site, where they can challenge their friends and form crews based on interests or geography. It could be fun for people in the demo (which I am not) but it all depends on having a camera hooked up to your console. Who has that? The producers insist it's the wave of the future � look at Project Natal, they told me � but this game isn't coming out in the future. Well, it is � winter � but not that's the future-future of Project Natal. Hard to see anybody sticking with it until everyone they know has a camera that makes it worthwhile. On the other hand, they gave me a ride to the off-site demo in a Bentley. You know, just like a rapper.
Best trend: Xbox Live phases in pricing in dollars
As opposed to "Microsoft Points," an annoying conceit designed to trick you into thinking you're spending less money than you are. MS wasn't showing off this trend. What they were proud of was that XBL will soon be offering selected 360 games for download. But when I noticed that these games were priced at $30, I asked about it and was told that yes, this is only the first step in what will likely be prices listed in real money across the board.