Tuesday, September 08, 2009

PAX 2009

PAX is really just a three letter word for how to spend your Labor Day weekend being a total, unabashed nerd. It was at least as fun this year as last year - I really don't know how to measure fun but it was definitely a great show. It was surprisingly well run (except for a couple of instances where enforcers were arranging lines in a stupid way or not letting people into an event that wasn't full), and actually quite a bit bigger than last year. I don't remember PC free play being over 400 computers last year, or console free play being anywhere near as big as it was (I swear both these rooms must've more than quadrupled in size). A number of improvements were made that made a lot more sense, like moving the artists' storefronts and moving the Penny Arcade store in favor of better arranging the game booths. I definitely saw a lot of games (by no means did I see all the games there, that's near impossible if you want to see any panels), so I'd like to go into my top picks, some other honorable mentions, and then the games I was really unimpressed with it. I've also got some other fun bonus stuff.

My Top 5

I'm going to work through my 5 favorite titles in reverse order. Unlike last year, I don't know if these were the five best games out there. I saw a lot of stuff I liked so I decided that these would be the 5 games I enjoyed the most.

5. Split Second

When I first glanced at this game, I remember my impression being, "Oh great, another Burnout - I don't need to waste my time here." Hearing Dan's excitement for Split Second at the Totally Rad Show panel pushed me to follow my friends into the booth when they went to check it out, and I was shocked by how fun it was. First of all, it was gorgeous. Yes, I had to italicize "gorgeous" just to emphasize how blown away I was. It's one of these racing games where you're driving super fast all the time and so the fact that I could still notice wonderful detail in the backgrounds is pretty impressive. The twist in this game is that at certain points in the race you can trigger events to screw over other racers. For example, with the touch of a button you can blow up the base of an air traffic control tower to have it crash on the track in the way of an opponent. These animations are slick and feel massive without taking you out of the fact that you're still in a race. We stayed at this booth for a while because we were so sucked into it, and each time one of us played it (we all played the same track), it felt like an entirely different race. It looks like it will be a great cross-platform arcade racer.

4. The New Super Mario Brothers

This game had to make the list for nostalgia value, if nothing else. New Super Mario Bros. takes the experience you had playing Mario on the NES or SNES and modernizes it without sacrificing the joy you had as a kid. Not only that, but it borrows a bit from LittleBigPlanet with the idea of co-opetition - so you can play with up to 3 other people but also fight with them for coins and upgrades and such. For example, you can jump on a yoshi and swallow your friend. The controls are just about as simple as they were back on the NES, and I think it'll almost certainly become a must-have title for the Wii.

3. Scribblenauts

Any list of great games at PAX that doesn't include Scribblenauts is automatically unreliable. This game always had a huddled mass of people around it because of how innovative it is. It may have been the most innovative game on the show floor. The concept is simply that it's a puzzle platformer where you can have anything you can think of to get you out of tough situations. You just write out the noun you want and it will magically appear in front of your character (some proper nouns are covered, too). So if you come upon a bad guy, a ray gun can be created. If you just want to fly through the level you can get a space ship. Half of the fun is really just trying to stomp the game. I love the idea that two people can play the same level in almost entirely different ways. The graphics are about as good as one can expect from a DS game, but it just shows that having great graphics isn't a pre-requisite to being a great game. I'm still marveling at the technical achievement of getting the game to recognize so many different nouns.

2. God of War 3

I've been waiting for this game for months now, so it's not surprising that I had a lot of fun getting my hands on God of War III at last. I actually hadn't even played the first two games in the series, but God of War: Collection is now available for pre-order with updated graphics from the two titles as well as trophy support, so I just went ahead and pre-ordered that. Having no experience with the franchise I did embarrassingly bad compared to everyone else who had played through the demo while I was in line, but I still had a lot of fun. I have a feeling that they're still working out a couple of kinks with the controls (which may be why the demo isn't publicly available), but it was definitely visually stunning and had very solid, epic action. The AI surely didn't mess around - you felt like you were really fighting 5+ enemies at once, not like they were being spoonfed to you. The variety of ways you could take them on was really awesome, too. It's definitely a game to be excited about.

1. Shank

Shank was definitely my biggest surprise at PAX. I heard about it at the Totally Rad Show panel, but playing it really is believing. I can show you a video of it, but it's not going to really seem as special as it does when you're playing it. I don't think I smiled or said "holy crap this is awesome" more times while playing any other game at PAX. I grew up on beat em ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, so this game definitely took me back. Apparently, from talking to one of the guys at the booth the game's creators were inspired by the games I fell in love with growing up. First of all though, the visual style was excellent. It did justice to forefathers of the genre while still feeling like a comic book brought to life. More importantly, the gameplay mechanics were simply and addictive. It's definitely really violent, but in a really cartoonish way that I tend to enjoy. It brought me a frightening, boyish glee to pounce on a guy a drive a chainsaw through his chest. I'd never do that in real life, but my mind rationalizes doing it in a game just fine.

Other Great Games

There were a number of other games that I checked out that I was impressed with as well.

  • I got to play The Beatles: Rock Band on a stage (I took bass guitar) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I actually didn't know that it supported multiple mics. The special bass, other than being a great replica of Paul McCartney's, didn't seem to be especially different from my normal Rock Band guitar. Anyway, the visual style of the game is pretty much perfect and I think I'm going to have to pick this one up once I get through all the games sitting on my shelf begging to be played.
  • I only watched other people play BrĂ¼tal Legend, but it still looked like a blast. I laughed multiple times and it had plenty of visual polish.

  • I really regret running out of time to play Heavy Rain, but I did spend a while watching someone else play and I think it basically feels like Silent Hill but with heavier focus on the storyline and trying to really put you in the shoes of a character in a story rather than a character in a video game. You get to make choices that are important to the story and it seems like an interactive story done right that feels more than just an interactive story. I'm definitely going to keep my eye on this one.

  • Fat Princess just looked like a lot of fun. I didn't get a chance to play it, but I really wanted to from seeing how much fun other people were having and how cute the gameplay looked.

  • I had kind of stumbled upon Need for Speed: Nitro, but I'm glad I did. It's one of the very few Wii games I've played that I feel used the wiimote well. It controlled really well and was genuinely fun as a racer. The graphics were definitely subpar, but it was still enjoyable.

  • Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't playable, but I sat in for an hour-long demo if it and was very impressed. If it wasn't enough that all character interactions are voice acted, you can make choices throughout the game that permanently change the future for your character. Not only that, but the combat looked less like MMORPG combat and more like a dungeon crawler's action might look like. In other words, it looked like really slick combat for an MMORPG (though I'm sure you just click to get the cool combat, I still thought it was neat). I'm actually afraid to see more of this game because I'm trying to steer clear of MMORPGs even as this game is starting to suck me in.

  • I had played a beta for Uncharted 2 multiplayer and didn't even play for long because it seemed so bland, but the single player stuff I was watching at PAX was actually really gorgeous. I regretted that I didn't see this until the last minute, but it puts Uncharted 2 back on my radar.

  • Starcraft II was at PAX, once again, and still looks great. I didn't wait the 60+ minutes it would've taken me to be able to play it, but it looks like the sequel that Starcraft fans have been waiting on for years.

  • Castle Crashers was playable for the PS3 and was just as fun as has been on the Xbox 360. I had no idea it was being ported and now I know that I have to get it. They had a fighting game (akin to Super Smash Brothers) available for play, too, but it wasn't nearly as fun as Castle Crashers.

  • I played Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time for a few minutes, and I didn't quite figure out the controls but I still enjoyed it. I think it's a little more grown up in terms of gameplay mechanics than its predecessors but still maintains that charm the series has always had.

  • Almost all of the PAX 10 games were lots of fun and very innovative. My favorites were Tag and Fieldrunners, which I'd buy if I could. Tag lets you paint surfaces to be sticky, fast to run on, or bouncy, and you basically navigate levels in first person view with just these three paints. Fieldrunners was a tower defense game that just happened to be super addictive.

The Bad Games

There were a few games that I was sorely disappointed in.

Firstly, Avatar didn't impress me at all. I even watched a 20-minute demo of it with 3-D glasses. It seems like another over-the-shoulder shooter. I respect that its going to have its own story within the world set by the Avatar movie, but nothing else really impressed me here.

Every year there's an embarrassing game on display that you'd disown your friends if you saw them playing it, and Just Dance was that game this year. The people playing it looked really stupid. If you want a game that teaches you how to dance then I'm sorry but you need to get out more. This game isn't going to teach you how to dance well - going to clubs and taking dance classes will.

I watched some guy play Mass Effect 2 for like 10 minutes because he would not get off and let me have a turn, but I walked away because the controls looked so complicated. The game looks visually great but totally unappealing from the standpoint of game controls.

I watched Left 4 Dead 2 for a few minutes and it looks as good as the first game, but I agree with the crowd crying out that it's too soon for a sequel. I would've preferred that they waited another year or two to bake some more ideas because I didn't see the innovation this time around that I saw last year. The line was at least 2 hours long to play it so I didn't get any hands-on time.

The Sega booth was depressing. It was tiny and their big game on display was Bayonetta. This game takes a female lead, strips her down to as little clothing as I'm sure the ESRB will allow, and has her violently killing people in cliche ways while still trying to evoke sexual innuendo. For shame, Sega. I still remember the days still when you used to make great games, too.

The last game to disappoint me was Wet. It looked glamorous visually and had a strong sense of style, but it seemed way too complicated and difficult. There was one part where the main character was on a car trying to shoot at guys in other cars, and her reticule was super small. I know that's more realistic, but it also seemed really frustrating.


Last year, every other game at PAX was a first person shooter. This year, it was super bloody third-person (or over-the-shoulder) action games. There were actually a lot of games with way too much blood at PAX. I wish that less games would rely so much on blood, but I guess blood sells games like sex sells movies.

Of course, there were quite a few games without blood and even though I saw a lot of re-hashes of old franchises and sequels, I still also saw a healthy amount of creativity. Some people would argue that the industry has gone downhill, but I'd argue that things are no worse than they have been in the past. There's still enough creativity out there to keep things afloat.

Aside from the games, PAX had some great concerts. I think the Saturday night concerts were the best I've been to in a very long time. Freezepop was even better than last year, and Paul and Storm were a great surprise. I think they had hundreds of people clamoring for them by the end of their performance (including me) that hadn't even heard of them before. They were genuinely funny and had great stage presence.

I got my picture taken with Jonathan Coulton the day before his show for free, unlike celebrities at some conventions, and he seemed so cool in person. Anyway, his concert was great and I wanted to share a couple of his more unique performances from his show as best as I could record them from where I was standing.

If you enjoyed those, please head over to his site and support him - he makes some awesome music.

Back to the games: one thing I realized at PAX is that video games have come so far in the past decade, even. I played Doom II and Tribes 2 a bit while I was there and it reminded me of why I started playing video games in the first place. It's incredible how every other game was visually stunning. In fact, the only games that looked consistently terrible were on the Wii. I don't know if it's hard to program for or if the manufacturers just don't care or what, but those games felt like they weren't even up to PS2 standards. In any case, it was cool to see how far we've come over the years, and it's funny how selective we've become as games have become more and more interesting and innovative.

Ultimately, PAX is a place where people who don't belong can really belong. It can be hard sometimes to find other people who enjoy some of the nerdier things you indulge in. Some people, my ex-girlfriend included, think it's silly that I still play video games. I'm not ashamed of it at all though, and I think PAX is a great way to re-affirm that nothing is wrong with enjoying video games or tabletop games. In moderation, it's really not a bad thing, and that community experience people talk about at PAX is still very much alive. Now I just have to wait 12 months for PAX 2010.

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