The E3 2006 show is one of the best I've been to in my three years of attendance. As a convention, as a trade show, as an expo, it worked so well. Despite sore feet and little sleep, I managed to survive and am all the happier for it.
For me, the show began before the doors ever opened. The footage from the Nintendo and Square-Enix press conferences got me psyched up early, showing off gorgeous footage of the Wii's new capabilities and the tremendous cinematic delivery of Final Fantasy XIII (in all three of its incarnations). From there, it could only go up, and like a bird on the wind, soared.
The show floor on Wednesday was a pulsing throng of an eager and hopeful industry. Once we had set up in the media room, it was time to hit the booths and start gathering information. Atlus and NIS America was my first stop (as always). On the Atlus front, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner was a hot ticket. Fans of SMT: Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga should wait with eager hopes. It looks spectacular. Of course, Devil Summoner isn't that new to more invested fans, as its Japanese incarnation of Kuzonoha Raido vs the Super Power Army has been out for some months now, but for the North American market, it's a polished gem waiting to be laid before the buyer.
Persona 3 was also on display, sporting cel-shaded visuals and a macabre story worthy of its lineage. Longtime fans of Persona can look forward to very similar visual themes from the older games, including the student cast and Velvet Room where Personas -- empowered selves used in battle -- can be summoned. Controversially, one of the ways these are invoked through the main character is via temporary suicide: A gunshot to the head. This is certainly not a game for younger players, or even those with an easily upset stomach. Regardless, it looks to be an excellent game.
NIS America had Disgaea 2 on display, as well as Blade Dancer and Steambot Chronicles. I spent very little time with the latter of the three, but Disgaea 2 and Blade Dancer occupied a good deal of my attention at the show. Disgaea 2 picks up where the last left off, with a new hero Adell and his loyal companions attempting to overthrow a ruler of the underworld. The wacky humour, tactical battle system, and anime-style visuals of the first game have returned, improved and upgraded, but much the same. By no means is this a bad thing however, as the first game proved to be a highly amusing romp through otherworldly locations, fighting through a comical horde of enemies.
Blade Dancer I could remark on more long-windedly than I'm about to, but as I don't have a PSP yet, I'm not sure how qualified I am to comment on it as a gaming experience. Visually, it's a great departure from most of the titles that NIS America publishes. It's a 3D action-RPG, sporting some gorgeous visuals for a handheld title. It's also one of the few new role-playing titles available on the PSP, as most have either refurbishings of PS2 titles, or unavailable in North America due to SCEA's requirement that remakes have at least 30% new content. It's a slick game, and well worth investment.
I should probably step out of fanboy mode right about now, since I've cleared Atlus and NIS America. But there were still plenty of great games to see. One of the more attractive booths this year was NCSoft, sporting its usual compliment of MMORPGs. New was Exsteel, an online big mecha (re: piloted robots) MMO. It's an original concept for the most part and hasn't been visited nearly often enough, even in the single-player market. For those Gundam, Macross, and Armoured Core fans, this is a game to keep your eyes on.
Two other titles were Aion and Dungeon Runners. The former seemed very similar to traditional MMO's like World of Warcraft, which is unfortunate as it may be a worthwhile title lost in a sea of similarity. The latter was much more a modern Diablo incarnation; a dungeon crawler for the action-RPG crowd. I'm not a big fan of dungeon crawlers, but there's certainly an audience out there, and it was by no means a bad game.
Let me start this next part by saying that I am huge fan of Richard Garriot's work. Garriot is better known as Lord British, the man behind Ultima and Ultima Online. After leaving Origin and EA some years ago, he and several key members from UO's development have been working on a large-scale sci-fi MMO called Tabula Rasa. I saw it three years ago when it was in its infancy. Now, it's almost ready to release, and boy have things changed. What I saw back in 2004 was a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, with detailed, ornate environments that had a touch of the celestial about them.
It's all gone. I knew from what I saw in 2005 that things were changing. The world had become a darker, meaner place, and the players were warriors in the Starcraft sense of the word. Black body armour and heavy artillery were the name of the game, and it's just gone up from there. If there's one online RPG I'm sure to play this year, it's Tabula Rasa. With action-based combat, world-spanning missions, gigantic nation-destroying enemies to fight, and Lord British at the helm, it's looking like a truly epic adventure. In space.
Did I mention I'm a huge fan of Lord British's work? I should probably move on.
Other games of note at the show include the Age of Conan: The Hyborean Adventures. My fellow editor Damian and I got to see this one on Thursday. Funcom's caught my eye in the past with The Longest Journey, more recently with its sequel Dreamfall, and now again with the Age of Conan. This game has a lot going for it, from action-oriented combat to a system of gameplay introduction designed to educate players long before they come online. The world of Conan is a dark and gritty one, and Funcom's done all in its power to recreate that. Character creation is incredibly in-depth, allowing for adjustments to just about every part of the face and body. A combo levelling system, controlled via the numeric keypad, will allow users to learn the "Dance of Steel", an integral element to winning battles. But perhaps most interesting, the game will remain offline until a player has reached level 21. This ensures that by the time you're face to face with another snarling Cimmerian, you and he or she won't be a total n00b. Hooray!
Now, to talk about one other RPG I'm very excited about: Excite Truck! No, not really, but I'll have a note on that a bit later. It's Rogue Galaxy that has me pumped. It's been coming for awhile now, having already seen a Japanese release some months back. In a vein similar to that of Star Ocean and Skies of Arcadia, the game unites both science fiction and the swashbuckler's romantic lifestyle into a unique experience not to be found elsewhere. Fans of action-RPGs can rejoice as the combat takes place in real time. While the system isn't as detailed as say, Star Ocean, it still holds its own and is very fluid, providing endless hours of amusement as the hero hacks his way through enemy mobs. Not to mention the aural and visual achievements present. The game looks and sounds marvellous, utilising cel-shading in the most pleasing way I've seen yet.
There was also Natsume's Harvest Moon DS. Harvest Moon fans haven't had much to be happy about lately, but this new DS title promises to fix all that. Players are charged with unsealing the Harvest Goddess and her Harvest Sprites who have been locked away thanks to a mischievous witch who's come to town. By collecting Harvest Sprites, the player can undo the damage done and restore prosperity to the land once more. It takes place in the same region as A Wonderful LifeFriends of Mineral Town, but expands upon many of the previous games' features, including the amount of potential marriages, endings, as well as tools and animals. The DS itself is the perfect system for Harvest Moon in my opinion, seeing as it has such a tactile interface available for grooming animals and interacting with the various objects in game. Definitely a title I'm set on buying.
Lastly on the RPGs-I'm-hot-for list is Seed by Danish developer Runestone Software. Seed is Runestone's first game, as well as their first foray into the online world. But unlike most companies which run Everquest and Diablo clones out of the gate, Runestone has decided to go with a unique approach: A non-combat MMORPG. Now if former players of A Tale in the Desert are about to groan, hold it. Seed is largely community-based, though in a way different from games like Second Life which are virtually run via mob rule. Seed pits the player against their environment, spawning a series of problems the player must work with others to repair. The use of tools, machines, and quests, is decided upon democratically using large groups called "rings". The community can then direct its efforts upon certain tasks, be it repairing the tower that serves as the main starting area of the game, or expanding outside by terraforming parts of the planet into liveable environment. It's up to the players, and I'm happy to see such a creative approach coming from a small, but determined developer.
In terms of companies, Atlus, NIS America, and Hudson showed a lot of promise, as did Natsume and NCSoft. Hudson is one company whose games I didn't bring up above for good reason: It doesn't yet have a North American publisher. While Hudson's busy securing that, let me just say that fans of RED Company can rejoice. No, it's not Sakura Taisen, but it is Tengai Makyo Ziria, the first chapter in the Far East of Eden series. It looks really nice, and while I don't yet own an XBox 360, this may just be my reason to pick one up. It's behind a bit in the graphics department, but everything else is in place, including brand new animated sequences and battle system.
Less impressive were Konami, SOE, and Sony itself. Konami is of course, a hot company for Metal Gear Solid 4, but since I'm not a series fan, I can't really give comment. There is a new Castlevania for DS which looks tasty, but I didn't spend enough time with it to make much comment. What was with all the Frogger anyway? I know it's popular on mobile and such, but it seemed really odd with how much they were pushing it.
SOE only had one title that really caught my eye: Vanguard. It's the spiritual successor to the original Everquest, developed by Sigil Software. Sigil is a child studio of SOE, formed by Brad McQuaid after he left the company some years ago. However, Sigil recent called upon SOE as a publisher, a deal which has caused some jabs from spectators but was a smart industry move otherwise. Vanguard is perhaps noteable in my mind for only three major features. One is the ability to build your own boats, the second to own actual non-instanced land(!), and also the utter lack of true instancing in the game. Instead of instances, they'll be running a system where when you engage in a certain quest or event, that event becomes 'yours'. No one else can interfere with it, but they can watch you and even buff you if need be. In this, it's similar to Final Fantasy XI where the player and enemy become linked to the exclusion of all others, and by no means is a bad move on Sigil's part. It's not a must-have on my list, but I'm keeping an eye on it nonetheless.
Now, for consoles. Sony showed very little promise. Yes the system is the next step up from the PS2, but there's a combination of problems that Sony's going to face in the next little while. One is the price tag. It's truly unkind that the full system costs $600 US (probably $700 CDN). That alone brings up development costs, and come the Christmas season, it's going to sit right next to Nintendo's much cheaper, more exciting Wii and give shoppers a rather easy decision. Do you go for something much newer and cheaper, or do you buy the overpriced upgrade? I should note I'm not trying to downplay the PS3 as a potential competitor for the XBox 360 and Wii, but the fact remains that it has inherent obstacles.
Blu-ray is hard to justify. Do we need it? No. Even with 'all that space', there's really no call for Blu-ray yet. Not perhaps even for another system generation. It's too expensive and too big a media for consumer use. The PS3 would have done fine with standard DVD, especially considering their price point. As to the controller, it's probably the system's one huge "why?" factor. It's a blatant copying of Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wii controller and without the same use out of the box. No more rumble feature. Instead, there will be a motion-sensing capability that few, if any launch titles will use. It's better than the old batarang/boomerang design, but still a big disappointment. I want to like the PS3, but I can't justify it in my head. I'll wait until price drop to pick this one up.
Nintendo is a whole other story. The reaction to the name "Wii" has not been great. It's easily mockable and comes with a running list of jokes. I'm sure it sounds great in Japan, but the reception here has been less than cordial. Thankfully, it's just about the only problem Nintendo will face from the onset. Even then, I have to say the name is growing on me, especially with how they've decided to use it in marketing. It's become a very neat visual concept. In the Nintendo promo video we were shown, the two "ii" figures bounced around, becoming different objects inbetween clips of the games they were representing. One was the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, in which the two "ii" figures became swords, arrows, and boomerangs, all in keeping with the Zelda theme. It's an excellent marketing campaign, and should earn Nintendo some acceptance of the Wii name.
Past games and companies, I have to say the best part of E3 is the people you meet. My fellow staffers are always great company and we had a really good time this year. Running gags abounded as always thanks to John and Damian. Excite Truck, Nintendo's new successor to the now ancient Excite Bike caused no end of shouting "EXCITE TRUCK!!" throughout the show, in the car, and over the phone. We love Excite Truck, but the name is just that goofy. I sincerely apologise to Stephen if we contributed too greatly to his headache on day 2. Also, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has made its way into my heart thanks to John. Arise Chicken, Arise. Amen.
Thanks to all my fellow editors, the fine folks at NISA, Atlus, Hudson, NCSoft, and Natsume for making this the most enjoyable show yet. E3 2006 may be over, but its memory shall live on. Here's to seeing everything and everybody again at 2007.