What can I say about this year's E3? This was my second show and certainly the most stressful of the two. My trip out to LA didn't get off to a good start either. First, there was the security checkpoint. Amazing how having a videogame console or two in a carry-on can cause such an uproar. "Honest officer, it's not a bomb... No really, it's a PlayStation 2 and an Xbox. Excuse me? Which one is better? Isn't that an odd question to ask after assuming i'm here to blow up the plane?"
Then came the rental vehicle...
Hertz had managed to "misfile" my reservation so I ended up getting driven out to Budget Rental in the hopes of finding a vehicle. Providence shone upon me as I was granted access to what we would come to call the RPGFan Tank: a Ford Expedition. While this was great for cramming nine editors into at the airport, it was not so keen on the LA freeway or local parking.
Then there was the parking ticket among several other niceties including several failed attempts to be a responsible adult and role model to the staff. Obviously there are those whose names shall not be mentioned, but there were several instances where I wanted to put a certain editor through six inches of glass for terminal stupidity and the other on the street to turn tricks. My bitching aside, on to the show.
The convention itself was packed, boasting the largest attendance of E3 in history (over 14,000 attendants if memory serves me correctly). Sadly, there really wasn't much to get wild over compared to last year. The PC industry took center stage at this year's con, which was unusual. Titles like Half Life 2 and Doom III etc. dominated the show floor. While Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft certainly had their sizeable displays, the PC gamut simply outnumbered them in content and, suprisingly, originality.
While some of my collegues would beg to differ with me, I thought this year's convention had very little to offer for consoles that wasn't a sequel or knock-off to an already tired franchise. Of course, the staggering amount of First-Person Shooters and MMORPGs in the PC camp didn't help either. There were a few titles that were noteworthy such as Lineage II, Knights of the Old Republic and Legacy of Kain: Defiance, but even then, the pickings were slim.
In the Sony camp, what we saw of Gran Turismo 4 was certainly impressive and is sure to have gearheads frothing at the mouth for months to come. Though I'd not hold my breath over the online component of the game. Can you tell I'm a skeptic? Sony's RPG offerings this year were also pretty paltry. Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits looks to be an interesting (yet old-school) diversion this summer, though gamers expecting alot of flair should be better off looking at FFX-2.
Since Sony is publishing Final Fantasy XI for the PS2, the game was playable in their arena of the show floor. While the graphics suffer from lots of aliasing and an overly complex menu system, I had fun with it once I managed to familiarize myself with the control scheme. I'm dying to know how Sony is planning on marketing the game and the HDD early next year. Possible hardware/software bundle with collector's goodies? I sure as hell hope so.
Who can talk about Sony without talking about Square Enix. Their flagship title was of course Final Fantasy X-2, but even that did little to impress me. I already own the import and my feelings about the game don't stem too far from Ryan's review. The game is disgustingly pretty, but everything else about the game is derivative compared to their previous games. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a pleasant diversion and while a little difficult to play with a Game Boy Advance, the game was alot of fun. Then there's Unlimited SaGa *shudder*. I was a fan of SaGa Frontier 2 - great story marred by horrible non-linear chapters, but Unlimited SaGa broke my heart. The game boasts phenomenal artwork and a luscious soundtrack, but falls completely on its face when it comes to gameplay. I can only describe the game as "Wheel of Fortune" meets "Chutes and Ladders" with more menus than you can shake a stick at. Bad Square Enix... BAD! Sadly, I didn't have time to play Sword of Mana but from what I saw, the game seemed to capture alot of the beauty and feel of the 16-bit Seiken Densetsu titles. Final Fantasy XI on the PC was far more visually appealing, but the control scheme wasn't well-mapped to the keyboard. Hopefully they'll allow players to customize their controls when the game ships next year.
Then there were the Enix developed titles, Drakengard and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. I was initially impressed with Drakengard until I spent more time with the game and its flaws. While it may "seem" cool to meld Panzer Dragoon with Dynasty Warriors, Drakengard does it quite blandly. The dragon controls were sloppy and the bashing of a 1,000 identical enemies got real old, real quick. Capcom's Chaos Legion shares the same genre in terms of bodycount, but pulls it off with infinitely more finesse. Still, there could be some merit to Drakengard if the storyline holds water. I just hope they spend some time fine-tuning the controls and adding a little more flavor to the combat.
Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was probably the most amazing title at the Square Enix booth, and probably the most understated. The visuals were drop-dead gorgeous and the gameplay system was fantastic (though a tad confusing at first). It's a shame the game's been pushed back to 2004 (probably to give FFX-2 some breathing room). I was pretty heartbroken at the announcement, but it gives me time to catch up with all the other games coming out this year.
Konami had an impressive showing with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. I wasn't the only person who snickered at that title. While seeing Snake in more outdoor environments was cool, I kept thinking of Chris' comment, "Since when did Solid Snake turn into Rambo!?" and that just ruins it for me. Hopefully Kojima-san has thrown away his books on conspiracy theory and existentialism and gives us a more meaty experience. Silent Hill 3 was exceedingly impressive with shockingly complex character models, a return to the occult settings of the first game, and scares that just about left a pile in my shorts. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was visually appealing, but the dyslexic camera and lack of combat versatility left me disappointed. I really didn't see the need for them to take the series in the directon of Devil May Cry. While the game still has a few more months in the oven, here's to hoping they add interactive backgrounds and more gameplay diversity.
There were a ton of other console games I could talk about, but probably the one I was the most impressed with besides Star Ocean was Legacy of Kain: Defiance. As a huge fan of the original title, I was delighted to see that emphasis was put back into the gameplay instead of the real-time drama of Soul Reaver 2. The ability to play as both Kain and Razael was well received as was the fine-tuned combat system which now includes aerial attacks and telekenetics. The visual upgrade to the backgrounds was staggering and the new Victorian Gothic-feel to one of the playable levels was refreshing. Fans of the series will certainly have something to look forward to when this unsung jewel hits retail. While not an RPG, the game can be classified in one word... "Yum!"
I could write a novel on the plethora of PC games at the show, but there were only a few that left a lasting impression. First there was NCSoft's Lineage II. Running under the Unreal II engine, this Korean anime-styled 3D MMORPG made Final Fantasy XI look like utter crap. While I didn't get a chance to play the game outside of our private presentation, the game was a visual tour-de-force. The dragon mounts and compexity of the engine were truly awe-inspiring. The game also bore a tangible likeness to Record of Lodoss War. Fans of that anime will most likely pass out when they see Lineage II in action. I just hope that NCSoft manages to streamline their controls as most MMORPGs have incredibly complex button schemes and steep learning curves.
Next there was Blizzard with World of Warcraft. As Blizzard was responsible for redefining the real-time strategy genre, it looks like they will reach a second renaissance with their MMORPG. The game was incredibly polished and was a total blast to play. While not on the PC, Starcraft: Ghost will probably do as much for the Xbox this year as Halo did at launch. All hail the return of the story-driven shooter!
Funcom had an impressive showing with their upcoming expansion to their long running MMORPG, Anarchy Online. Besides showing a significant visual upgrade to their existing engine, these boys from Norway have integrated many new ideas into Shadowlands which may solve some of the longstanding gameplay headaches associated with MMORPGs since the advent of EverQuest. They still have THE best graphic design team on an MMORPG in the industry. Simon Bisley and H.R. Giger would be proud. Major props go out to those guys for holding onto their ground in the ever-burdgeoning MMORPG market and showing the newcomers how its done.
Speaking of Everquest, EverQuest II showed just how pretty your PC games will look in about 5 years. That's right, SOE stated that since they want the game to last for at least 5 years, they've made the visuals so advanced, the game will probably bring most of today's machines to their knees on its maximum visual setting. They described the end user as being able to bump up their settings a notch each videocard generation. Sound thinking or marketing ploy? Either way, it sounds evil to me. Regardless, looking at the game running on a GeForce FX 5900 on conservative settings made me drop my jaw. I see EQ fans selling their children into slavery to build boxes powerful enough to run this beauty. "Can I get an SGI workstation for this plump little 10 year old with the freckles?"
In closing, there was a bevy of software at the show, and while the vast majority of the games were for the PC, the console crowd had a strong showing. "Online" was a buzz word at last year's show, but this year, this has become a reality. With at least a dozen new MMORPGs and innumerable MMOGs across all platforms, expect to kiss your video game receipt goodbye and welcome your online subscription bill in the upcoming months. While I was disappointed in the industry's lack of originality this show, there was a significant shift in emphasis to multiplayer and interconnectivity technology. Change is always good, but I worry at the sudden rush into the online component. I'm not so sure gamers everywhere are really ready to "pay-to-play", especially if they want to play more than one game. Online aside, there were more than a handful of games I'd gladly part money with to play - too bad they're all sequels.