Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo 2008

My First Con

When I was little, I always wanted to go to E3. Heck, I would've settled for any event where I could go around playing video games that hadn't come out yet. PAX was that and so much more. Lots of people will probably say this, but I have to say it as well: the crowd at PAX is just incredible. I definitely felt like I was at home waiting in line for panels and video games, and for 3 days it was like the nerdier you were the cooler you were. Isn't that a funny phenomenon? A lot of nerds spend their adolescence hiding their hobbies and interest whereas at PAX people literally wear them on their sleeves (I actually saw several of these people). There was something cool and refreshing about that (even though you also get the bad aspects of nerds, like being occasionally condescending and typically sarcastic). It was an incredible experience and I often felt as giddy as a 12 year-old at, well, a gaming convention.

Before I get to my picks from the show floor, there are a couple of other neat things from the weekend I want to quickly touch on.

The nerdcore concerts felt like rock star concerts - the energy was palatable. Except for Jonathan Coulton, I hadn't heard of any of the groups but they seemed to have sizable fanfare, and I couldn't help but flashback to Rock Band (I guess I've played it too much). Freezepop, a veteran synth pop group, had a pretty impressive cover of "The Final Countdown" that I really enjoyed but cannot find a recording of (let me know if you do, please). Jonathan Coulton was really awesome (I got an autographed copy of his Thing a Week Box Set and I love it), and he did most of his hit songs except for his excellent cover of "Baby Got Back". One of his best was when he brought out Felicia Day (from The Guild and Dr. Horrible) to sing "Still Alive" from the Portal video game. I loved his performance of "Mr. Fancy Pants" (he wrote it during his campaign of writing a song a week when he was close to his deadline for one week and had to get a Zendrum to stretch out the 1:15 song for live performances), and he also Rick Roll'd the audience after performing "Flickr". I never imagined that someone could perform so well with just an acoustic guitar (and a Zendrum), but JoCo put on one of the most fun shows I've ever had the good fortune of attending. I can with confidence say that at least 90% of that audience was having a great time and we even managed to get two encores out of (before the second one he told us that he just wanted to go to bed). I think you had to laugh at least once every 5 minutes, especially when the audience started calling out song titles, to which he told them that he had constructed a set to maximize our entertainment and (comically) that we weren't the boss of him.

We attended both Penny Arcade Q&A sessions (plus a live drawing of the Monday comic), and this is how they came onstage for both of them:

That was from the second, but I wish I had recorded them coming out for the first one because it actually started out with a live orchestra before that song came on. It was pretty epic. It's kind of scary how much some people idolize them (to the extent that one guy referred to them as "m'lords"), but I realized that they've come to be the mascots for gaming that gamers seem to really need. They've become an outlet for the spirit of the community (criticisms, joys, and charity), and PAX is truly a culmination of that. The Q&A sessions were hilarious, and one of my favorite parts was when Tycho (Jerry) didn't know who Dr. Manhattan one so Scott Kurtz (from PvP) yelled out, "He's from Alan Moore's graphic novel The Watchmen you fucking noob." Also great was Tycho singing. The most impressive gifts given to them was a plush doll of Broodax and a mosaic of buttons that spelled out "PAX 08" (I couldn't get a good shot of it, I was too far away) (EDIT: thanks to Ben for sending me this link to pictures of him and a fellow member of the button exchange presenting this).

Also great was the Totally Rad Show meetup on Saturday night! We got a picture with Alex Albrecht (from Diggnation and the Totally Rad Show, and who was formerly on TechTV's Screensavers):

I purposely did the Longhorn sign because it was the eve of UT's first victory of the 2008 season (52-10 against Florida Atlantic), I know that Alex was doing the rocking out sign. Anyway, at first we sat at the only table in the area with two guys not there for the meetup, who were kinda being dicks and telling the waitress like 3 times that they weren't buying our drinks even though the waitress didn't ask if they were. So we moved to a table with guys that had PAX badges and they were really cool (though younger than us). The TRS guys were going around to each table and chatting for a few minutes, and it was so awesome talking to Dan and Jeff because they acted pretty much just like they did on the show. It was very nerdy and surreal for me, like I was meeting Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid or something. They were super nice (though I felt like kind of a buzzkill when I explained to Dan that my job at Amazon was not one of the cool customer-facing things he liked but something behind-the-scenes that I still think is fun), and even brought attention to a guy proposing to his girlfriend. Surprisingly though, both of them made Dead Space their first choice from the floor though I ended up not liking it (keep reading for more on this). Alex I think kept getting held up during his rounds with the tables so we left before he made it to our area and got a picture with him, though he definitely acted exactly as he would on Revision 3, which I thought was great. He has a great personality for video, though I wish we could've gotten a picture with all 3 of the hosts.

I'm dragging this on too long, but there were two more things I have to mention before getting to the games. The first is this 3rd Space gaming vest to the right that rumbles as you shoot or are hit in a first person shooter (FPS). I tried it on and was definitely impressed. I think it's a tad expensive at a $169 list price, but I think it'd be worth it for like $100 if you love PC gaming. I know it sounds like a lame peripheral, but it really helps put you in the game (it's compatible with all the big FPS games). The other thing was that I played Gears of War on a PC with 3-D glasses and it was pretty crazy. I felt like it was more gimmicky though than the vest because it really didn't help put you in the game by much, and it's not true 3-D because it just pops out 2-D figures rather than rendering them in true 3-D, but it was still neat.

Top 5 Games to Look Out For

Now for the good stuff: the countdown of the 5 games I saw on the show floor that you may be shelling out for very soon.

5. Prince of Persia
I beat Prince of Persia: Sands of Time for the PS2 and loved every minute of it. The combat system could've been better, but being able to manipulate time in a way that didn't copy The Matrix was very revolutionary and handled really well as an important part of the game. Now Ubisoft is re-imagining the series in a big way with Prince of Persia (for the PS3 and Xbox 360), which follows a different prince's story from the previous two games. I saw a live demo of it (it was a demo demo, so he followed a pre-determined path), and the art style works a lot better than I thought in the first cinematic trailer that was released. I was concerned that it would look too much like a cartoon, but they really executed it well and it's just beautiful, especially when Eleka (your new sidekick) breathes life into an infected land. Speaking of which, she becomes an important part of helping you get through the puzzles in the game, fighting enemies, and finding your way if you get lost. They've created a semi free roaming world and I just love how they're getting creative with really giving you an innovative adventure title. I was a little concerned by him saying that you can only fight one enemy at time, but the combat looked super cinematic so I think the coolness factor outweighs my concern. By the way, the Penny Arcade guys are making a 32-page comic about a story Eleka hears as a child, and they announced that you can get it for free if you pre-order.

4. Left 4 Dead
This was probably my biggest surprise from the show since I hadn't heard of it and we totally ignored it until we heard rave reviews from the Totally Rad Show meetup. Valve's multiplayer co-operative survival horror game puts you and three others right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and is what Resident Evil Outbreak should've been. It actually requires teamwork (especially when you get mauled by zombies) and the zombies really do react to what you do (if you're too loud they will overrun you). I was completely blown away by how much it feels like you're in a George A. Romero movie, and I'm really jealous that it's only going to be out for the Xbox 360 and PC. You might be able to find some bootlegs online, but they don't do justice to how nice it looks and how real the zombies feel. I wish I could say that I played it, but the line was crazy long and we just didn't have the time to wait.

3. Far Cry 2
The only things I knew about Far Cry before checking out the demo for Far Cry 2 was that it was set in the jungle and had revolutionary graphics. This new iteration uses what looks to be a more advanced graphics engine than even the one used for Crysis, and the physics engine is at least as impressive. I went to a demo that was actually him playing the production build live, and I was caught off guard by how great this game was. Mind you that it's hard to impress me with an FPS since every other booth was pimping an FPS game (the worst offenders being Resistance 2 and Gears of War 2) and I've played many FPS games, but the second he started a fire and I saw it dynamically spread based on what kind of vegetation was around it and the wind I was in awe. Everything that could realistically be destroyed could be obliterated in-game, especially when it comes to blowing up cars to kill enemies (you can do this in games like Metal Gear Solid 4, it simply looks more realistic here). The game puts you in a free-roaming world where you rely on missions from your "buddies", and if you get taken down in battle then a "buddy" (a non-playable character (NPC) who you designate as such) helps get you out of harm's way. The game is so realistic that if you let a buddy die in combat, he is really gone for the rest of the game. It was interesting how he had to play attacks by scouting, and how he could draw out the enemies with distractions and even create walls of fire to keep them from getting too close. To put it bluntly, the battles evolved into controlled chaos in the way that a battle should. This wouldn't be enough to put it at #3, except for that the map editor was incredible. It looked fairly easy to create a believable, natural environment, complete with weather controls, and he could jump into his map at any time to see it first-hand. He was even able to create a freaking swamp! If you thrive on FPS games, don't leave this one out because it'll be out for the PS3, Xbox 30, and PC this October.

2. Little Big Planet
I cannot say enough good things about this game - it's fun and joy on a Blu-ray disc (yes, it's a PS3 Exclusive). It's a platformer like no other, and there are plenty of videos out there to bear witness to that. The humbling art style is consistently cute yet creative, and the levels are just so clever. I saw a demo of the level editor and got to play it (after a 40-minute wait). The level editor lets you create your own levels and share them online (I think they'll pick some of the better ones every once in a while, polish them, and release them as features levels). It's pretty simple to create a map: you are just Sackboy (the main character) going around an empty space and creating things out of thin air and arranging them as you'd like. It looks like a pretty fun process and quite intuitive. While I waited in line to play the game, I saw one group of people (they let us try it out in sets of 3 people, it's a 4-player game via online or local multiplayer) play a mini-game where you have to fight each other and one where you have to stay on a cow. So I guess there are several mini-games ideal for a party atmosphere, but also a ridiculous amount of just levels to explore various worlds. The controls took all of 30 seconds to learn, and the simplicity is part of what makes this game so great. The customization of your character truly is fun (much like it is on the Wii) and easy, and everything looks really clean. The prospect of a game with seemingly limitless potential as far as number of levels (I think Mm themselves will be releasing some levels every once in a while) is wonderful and it makes me really glad I have my PS3. So if you have a PS3, keep an eye on this game (it's released in October, just a few days after my birthday so I may pre-order it to play on my birthday).

1. Fallout 3
I first saw some footage from this game on G4 and didn't bother watching for long because I didn't see anything special about it (I never had any exposure to the previous games in the series). Man, was I wrong. I went to the demo because it followed a Penny Arcade Q&A and ended up being very glad since it was standing room only (some people who had been waiting in line had to be turned away). They were playing the game right in front of us based on audience input on what should be done, so it was not a fixed demo. The best way to describe the game is as a mix of a role-playing game (RPG) and an FPS with a touch of third-person action. It's comparable, in a way, to Deus Ex. You emerge from one of a small number of vaults in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and you enter a wasteland. From there, it's a free-roaming world where you take on missions and the story advances based on your interactions with the characters. The other RPG element it borrows is level-ing up to improve your skills. What's really impressive is that besides having all these great RPG elements, it handles combat wonderfully. You can fight in first-person, third-person, or, if you haven't done it too much already, using a targeting system where you target a specific body party and a very brief in-game cutscene shows you the attack. The animation in these sequences are amazingly realistic and gratuitously violent. Make no mistake about it, this game is not intended for younger audiences in the least. There's so many other little things about this game that make it cool, like the fact that you can get addicted to drugs, or that you can do things like sneak up behind people and shove live grenades in their pockets, or how you can mod your weapons. For these reasons and many more, Fallout 3 stands to be the best game you have ever experienced, whether you love action or RPGs. By the way, they gave out swag by giving everyone in the audience a card with a skill on it where each skill had a prize, and mine ended up being an awesome hand puppet from a comic they commissioned from Penny Arcade:

Honorable Mentions

There were some other games I saw that I liked a lot, but didn't make my top 5.

Project Origin takes what was great about F.E.A.R. and improves it. I got to play this one personally and had a blast with it. The ability to slow time was not as gimmicky as Max Payne, the destructible environments were great, and it just handled nicely overall. It didn't stand out as much as Far Cry 2 did among the sea of FPS titles on the floor, but I think it's worth keeping in the back of your head.

Starcraft II was playable, but I didn't bother waiting in line for it because I knew I'd suck. It's probably best to check out the Protoss gameplay video they have at the official site and prepare to be dazzled if you were a fan of the original. I don't think they're likely to botch this sequel to one of the most celebrated video games of all time, and I look forward to seeing more of it.

Mirror's Edge was also playable, but I didn't want to wait in line for it. I didn't see what was so great about it until I saw a normal gamer playing it at the show. The art style is definitely something to behold, and I think that it feels almost like a first-person adventure title. I have to reserve judgement for it though for when I see more footage though, because the demo on the show floor was not very long.

There's really nothing to say about Rock Band 2 other than what's already out there about it: it'll have 100 songs by the end of the year and the instruments are better. I didn't play it at the show because I'm not good enough to play it publicly in front of as large of a crowd as the booth had amassed, but they didn't really show the stuff that's different from the first game, like the music video mode or the online world tour mode or the drummer training stuff. Still, the songs I saw performed looked pretty fun and were easily recognizable (though I cannot for the life in me remember which songs they were that I had seen). I'm definitely going to buy it, I just have to decide if I want the disc or the whole set.

Dishonorable Mentions

There were a couple of games that I didn't like at all.

They were promoting SingStar with little contests where they'd have people get on stage and perform a song, and they'd give a prize to the best of like 6 singers. I actually wanted this game a little before I saw people playing it (I was forced to because it was right next to the line to play LittleBigPlanet) - these people were terrible singers or just plain embarrassing. The bottom line is that I did not want to be them or have people in my home singing like they were. It's better in Rock Band when there's a drummer and guitarist, but with the singer singled out it's just not quite as cool.

I don't know why so many people loved Dead Space because I found that the controls weren't intuitive at all and that it seemed to copy Half-Life 2's gravity gun without thinking it through properly. The guy was basically holding my hand through the demo as I was playing it, which was kind of insulting because I had waiting for like 45 minutes and should've been allowed to figure things out on my own, but it also made me realize that the game was too complicated if the best demo they could come up with involved people talking you through how to play it in that amount of detail. I'll admit that part of it was probably that I'm not used to the Xbox 360 controller, but even if I was, the gameplay mechanics simply didn't impress me.

So where's the real news?

Yeah, about that...I'm too tired to keep writing. There are only a couple of news items that I was chomping at the bit to get to anyhow, so I'll save them for next week. Have a great week, everyone! I always love posting original content so I hope that you found this post at least somewhat informative.


The Boss said...

I, on the other hand, was NOT impressed by that vest. It needs to pack more punch! I mean, you gotta be scared to get shot...

Elton said...

In that case, why don't they just have a spark plug extension for your testicles ;)

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Ben said...

Hey man, I was part of the PAX08 button exchange and helped get the case to the Q&A. Here is a good pic of the case by one of my friends -
Or there are several on Flickr as well with details and close ups -

Elton said...

Thanks, I put in the link!

How did you guys do the PAX 08 logo? I assumed it was a mosaic from far away, but it looks more like plastic from closer up with a cloth back to it? Very creative, in any csase.

Ben said...

We got a scalable version of the logo from Khoo, gave it to a fabricator who LordThanda knows, and he built it. The case is metal with a coloured glass top and inside is a layer of white foam to stick the pins into. I was really impressed with the result when LT showed us.