Through my 5 full years at RPGFan, the undoubted highlight of my video game press career was my first trip to E3, the industry's largest trade show in this nation. So as the 2003 show began to approach, I began to feel intense anticipation for what would surely be another unforgettable week. And now that this year's show has come and gone, I've concluded that my pre-show excitement was suitably warranted; this year's trip ended up being even better than last year.
No longer a virgin to the visual and aural intensity of the show floor at E3, I failed to experience the feeling of wonder that pervaded my senses during my maiden voyage to the convention. However, I also was less distracted this year, allowing me to focus better on my duties for RPGFan: seeing and playing RPGs, conducting a couple of interviews with industry insiders, and last but certainly not least, assisting editor-in-chief Eric Farand with a picture gallery of the numerous promotional spokesmodels employed by the various video game companies.
On the game front, the turnout was rather disappointing. I remember being less-than-enthralled with the selection of RPGs at last year's show, but this year's offerings made 2002 look like a banner year for the genre. Not only were there far fewer RPGs in 2003 than in 2002 (not including PC MMORPGs, which I don't play), only a small handful of them impressed or even held my attention.
Out of all of the RPGs that were playable, Square Enix's Star Ocean: Till The End of Time on the PlayStation 2 was the most awe-inspiring. Sporting colorful graphics and intense, action-packed battle scenes, the newest installment in the series promises to be perhaps the best RPG of the year.
Sony's Arc The Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, also on the PlayStation 2, proved to be another strong title, promising to atone for the disappointing third installment in the series. With improved polygonal graphics and more freedom of movement, Twilight of the Spirits should help satiate strategy RPG fans who have been waiting patiently over the past few years for a decent title in the genre.
Speaking of strategy RPGs, perhaps the only other impressive title I played at the show that can be considered an RPG was Square Enix's Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the Game Boy Advance. It doesn't look quite as sharp as the PlayStation original, but FFTA plays just like its PS counterpart and looks to live up to its name.
Climax's Sudeki, developed for the Xbox and one of my interview subjects, turned out to be the surprise of the show, featuring pretty graphics, sharp control, and exciting gameplay. Although I had known next-to-nothing about the game before E3, it's now one of the titles I will keep a close eye on until its projected October release date.
Two other games, Bioware's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox, and Square Enix's Drakengard for the PS2, looked really good, but I didn't get a chance to play either of them.
The rest of the RPG turnout at the show was mediocre, disappointing, or unplayable. Square Enix's Sword of Mana for the Game Boy Advance was probably the best of the rest, but this remake of the Final Fantasy Adventure on the original Game Boy didn't grab my attention as anything beyond a decent action RPG. Konami's Castlevania: Lament of Sorrow on the PlayStation 2, which may not even turn out to be an action RPG like most other recent releases in the series, disappointed with poor control, frustrating camera angles, and graphics that lacked the coherence of the visuals in today's more aesthetically pleasing titles. Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI MMORPG for the PlayStation 2 shows some degree of promise, but I really didn't like not being able to control my character directly in combat (you issue attack commands to your character instead of actually controlling him or her). Sega's Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution, for the GameCube, somehow ended up being a card game than an actual MMORPG (what else needs to be said here?). Perhaps the weakest RPGs of the show were Square Enix's Final Fantasy X-2, which carries none of the feel or drama of its awesome prequel and makes you feel like you're playing an RPG version of Fox's American Idol, and Unlimited Saga, which is essentially a board game with turn-based battles. Fable, potentially the best RPG of the coming year, wasn't playable at E3.
This year, due in part to the fact that I averaged about 2 hours of sleep a night in LA (more on this later), I didn't really bother playing any non-RPGs. Of those that I played, though, Sega's NHL 2K4, on multiple platforms but most impressive on the Xbox, was the best of the bunch, beating out the new Sonic game and Woody Woodpecker (the only two other non-RPGs I tried). The non-RPGs that I wanted to play the most, Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden and Konami's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, were both unplayable at the show.
As great as it was to be able to play so many games free of charge, other aspects of E3 were even more enjoyable. The promotional spokesmodels were, once again, both beautiful and cordial, making head honcho Eric's and my job of capturing them on film extremely pleasant. And, like last time, seeing the other editors of the site in person was the highlight of the show. It was great to be reunited with old friends Eric, Mike, Liz, Stephen, Evan, Nicole, and Justin for the first time in a year, and meeting E3 rookies Rob, John, and Chris was exciting and enjoyable.