I sampled a wide variety of demos during my first day of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo and overall was pleased with the breadth and quality of the products on hand.
Scarecrow Studio's 3 Minutes to Midnight
I played a pre-alpha build of this indie point-and-click adventure game and was walked through its intricacies by Game Director Jan Serra. The single-player story emphasizes exploration and interaction with characters and the colorful 2D environments.
Players control Betty Anderson, a young woman in 1940s New Mexico who awakens with amnesia along with everyone else and begins to unravel a sci-fi plot to extinguish humanity. (Later, Eliza, the mayor, becomes playable.) Using a mouse, the left button is the action button to talk, grab, push, etc.; the right button is for looking around the environment.
One key element of gameplay is dialog. Every interaction offers choices for responses that can include polite, rude or demanding comments. While each ultimately leads to the same result, one's choice will provoke different reactions and can impact how helpful a character is and whether they are part of the solution to a problem or the player has to explore other alternatives.
In fact, puzzles are the other key element and can range from easy in the beginning to difficult later on, though hints (including from characters) can help. Puzzles come in the form of conversations, inventory (where thoughtful combinations of items can influence progress), environmental actions, and object-based interaction (i.e. whether players choose to use something or to give it to someone else).
In my demo, I was impressed with the playful cartoon aesthetic and colorful palette. Jan said that each environment is drawn by hand and takes about three weeks each to complete day and night versions. Despite the attention to detail, or perhaps because of it, I sometimes found that objects were difficult to notice or recognize they were important. Hovering the cursor over interactive elements did identify them.
The gameplay is fairly straightforward, involving moving your character, choosing what to interact with, and selecting dialog options or item combinations. In this regard, controls work well and the camera is unobtrusive (remaining static, following your character and zooming as appropriate). Sometimes, moving and combining an object can be imprecise, especially when waiting for a scripted scene to play out.
The story is promising, the dialog generally well crafted and the voice acting behind the lead character is enjoyable. However, some dialog felt that it dragged on a little too long, some humor was a little forced, and some other voice acting was over the top. But that's a fraction of a 12 hour game, and an early build on top of that. NPCs had character, and will have backstories to add depth.
The foundation is solid, and I think this title will succeed or fail on the basis of its puzzles. The demo was about two hours into the game, so puzzles weren't difficult or too easy. Still, I don't know that I would have thought to craft a citronella candle to ward off mosquitoes, or combine a plunger, rope, fire extinguisher and fourth item to retrieve a boat for its oar. Thankfully, hints have been added to steer choices as necessary.
What I found is that playing this as a hidden objects game can help with the challenge. Knowing to scour every corner of the screen for items, then recognizing that obscure combos might yield helpful devices should make progression more accessible and enjoyable. All told, the playful artistry, meticulous detail and elaborate design could lay the groundwork for a compelling game.
Coming on Windows, Mac and Linux the first quarter of 2019. Later for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android.
Pixel Crushers' ARia's Legacy
I'm a fan of escape room games, VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) in some circumstances. ARia’s Legacy advertises itself as the first mobile escape room game using AR technology. The result is a unique game that places objects in a 3D space around you when viewed through a mobile phone or tablet. Players will be able to explore 50 different levels anywhere they are.
The premise involves your team of archaeologists unearthing a chest at your site. An attempt to open it throws you into a locked room that is at both familiar and eerily foreign. Your only clue is the chest your team found and the name “ARia" ringing in your head. The demo places a stand with vase and key; a three-drawer dresser with clock, snow globe and lock box on top; and a kind of armoire in one's immediate surroundings.
These items are viewed via a tablet I hold upright in front of me as I pan around me from one side to the other. Each discovery -- whether keys, candles, scrap of paper, combination device, knob, etc. -- is a clue that leads to the next in true escape game fashion. Using AR to set these objects in the world around you at any given moment is a clever use of the medium.
For this to work, the presentation needs to be realistic and the interface work seamlessly, and I'm pleased to report that's the case in general. Every object is rendered well in 3D with believable detail, and interacting with them on screen is intuitive and without complication. Keys are placed in locks, drawers are opened, other objects are likewise easily moved, and changing position allows for different perspectives that reveal hidden items.
The only drawbacks to the experience were the setup and a perhaps related issue that during gameplay. Namely, my handler had me stand farther back than seemed practical on the mat that supposedly was where I was to stand, before trying repeatedly to swipe an on-screen marker over the top of the mat, I assume to properly configure the contents of the room around me. Later, the armoir to my right was almost too close to easily interact with.
Despite the early complication, this version of an escape game played out in much the same way that any other similar game does, with the benefit of exploring your immediate surroundings for a surprisingly effective, seemingly real world puzzle that immerses you in a more significant way than before. If Pixel Crushers can extend this achievement for the full 50 levels, it should be an entertaining title.
Woojer's Ryg haptic vest
I was excited to try on this haptic vest and experience how it can enhance a VR experience as advertised. The vest itself is impressive to behold, with thick padding in back and over the shoulders, and black coloring set off by orange accents. It's weighty too, but was comfortable even when straps were pulled tight around my torso.
The demos consisted of a variety of videos, ranging from more serene atmospheric presentations to a T-Rex confrontation and a shootout from the movie Deadpool. The latter two definitely showed off the ability of the vest to literally amplify the noises accompanying the on-screen action to the point of experiencing intense vibration on cue.
While this has the affect of enhancing one's immersion in such videos, as it's designed to mimic the impact of surround sound on your body, the effect too often is inconsistent and can break immersion. In the case of the latter two videos, despite the threats being in front of the vest wearer, vibration was triggered in seemingly random spots on the back of the vest.
For me, the best test of haptic gear is VR but I was disappointed that no such demo was available. I was assured that this vest is designed to work with the SDK (software developer kit) for video games and thereby better mimic on-screen action with respective positional vest vibrations. For now, it's promising tech for surround sound based entertainment, but a better test will be with the SDK.
Bethesda Game Studios' The Elder Scrolls: Blades
One of my most anticipated titles to come from Bethesda's E3 showcase was The Elder Scrolls: Blades for mobile devices. A franchise fan, I've wanted a mobile experience outside of Skyrim on Switch, and this announcement appeared not only to satisfy that craving but to offer a new experience.
The demo on an iPhone was a smaller screen than the tablet I was hoping for, but nonetheless provided a good basis for which to judge the move to mobile devices. Not unexpectedly, the gameplay is streamlined, almost to a fault. But core elements are present that help smooth the transition and provide a sound basis for hopeful upgrades.
Players choose a castle or forest route. The latter, like the castle, is more linear than open world. There are multiple paths, but the terrain is not always passable. Presentation standards are top-notch, including animation (clouds, foliage, water, fire, characters, etc.), textures and sound (though score was hard to detect in the noisy E3 environment).
Controls are mobile-friendly, with left presses enabling a shield and elemental attack, and right presses instigating attack and shield bash. Pressing anywhere on screen moves your character, selects pottery to break, and picks up loot in the form of coins or jewels. When asked about the opportunity for more loot grinding, staff indicated it's not an option right now.
Combat, likely the key gameplay element, is a mixed bag in so far as it's solid fare that's well executed but nonetheless fairly standard. It often boils down to trading blows with your enemy -- in the demo, this was goblins, spiders, skeletons, etc. -- in between gulping health potions. My time was admittedly limited; I've read it can be a somewhat deeper experience.
In some respects, this is a bare bones experience, at least to judge by the demo. But given that this represents a franchise first on mobile phones and tablets, the overall impression is that this is an auspicious debut. Atmosphere goes a long way in this franchise, and Blades excels in this department. I'm hoping the full game and upgrades broaden its strong foundation.
Avalanche Studios/id Software's Rage 2
The trailer gave me hopes for this sequel. From the kinetic action to the varied environments, cinematic moments and over the top design in general, my interest in this title piqued. The playable demo at E3 offered essentially the same gameplay present in the trailer -- namely, the player's assault on the Eden Space Center.
I mostly skipped tutorials to jump right into the action and take advantage of my limited time with the demo, however, that might have undermined the quality of my gameplay as I didn't experiment too much with the arsenal at hand. That meant I relied on whatever gun or power was equipped at the beginning of each scenario.
Still, players can create a massive amount of carnage even using a limited arsenal. The game throws enemies your way so targets are plentiful. They might even be varied, but I was too busy eliminating them to notice. AI seemed to be standard opposition that leaps out and stays in the open, but they make up for in numbers what they might lack in smarts.
The assault rifle is effective enough, especially when killstreaks charge one's overdrive and lead to even greater destruction. The shotgun, by contrast, seemed somewhat under powered unless used virtually point blank. Grenades and the slam airborne attack effectively mow down foes, though the latter can expose you while instigating the two button takedown.
Staying agile and hyper aware are helpful to avoid taking too much damage amid the barrage of bullets, explosives and enemies that attack from myriad positions ahead, behind, above or below. Areas are well designed for dramatic firefights and the framerate remained stable despite the near-constant combat and related destruction.
Controls performed well, whether targeting, hit detection, movement or powers. Animations in general are smooth, particle effects are impressive, textures are detailed, and voice acting was effective, even taunting me for running past some foes. The combination of gunplay, powers and movement make combat rewarding and bodes well for this game overall.
Survios' Creed: Rise to Glory
Survios helped make a name for themselves with Sprint Vector, and its influence on Creed: Rise to Glory is apparent. The use of one's arms in both VR titles is key to victory, whether swinging to run forward in the former or blocking, hitting and moving in the latter. The single-fight format for the demo allowed only limited playtime to explore their impact.
The game follows Adonis Creed, son of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, as legendary fighter Rocky Balboa trains him and manages fights against iconic opponents. It's designed to allow a variety of punches, dodges, rolls, knockbacks and knockouts, with authentic hit reactions and responsive player control for an immersive VR boxing experience.
The demo begins in a gym during training. Players alternate between hitting sequential targets on a dummy or punching bag, and flurries of punches thrown against the latter. Following training, players enter the ring and stand toe to toe with an opponent while trading punches. Learning when and where to punch or block is important to success.
The mechanics allow responsive control in general, though seeming lag related to the left motion controller was attributed to the poor lighting. Holding one's forearms together in front of one's face helps defend against punches, as does dodging punches, while alternating between jabs and wider punches (presumably including hooks, crosses, uppercuts, etc.) can hurt opponents.
When the player takes a strong punch, action slows and the avatar leans backward with arms raised. To right one's stance, the player has to mimic the avatar's gloves with raised hands, pulling back to zero in on respective indicators. The goal is to have players' actions reflect their boxing avatar, even when staggered.
The game does succeed in putting players in the shoes of professional boxers facing off in the ring against opponents. Less clear from the brief gameplay is the extent to which players can move side to side around the ring. I'm told that here, too, arm movement -- as in Sprint Vector -- will help determine to which side players can move.
With a solid license, authentic boxing action, generally responsive controls and a stylish presentation, this game can carve a niche. The two modes of Career (which follows Creed's story and fights) and Exhibition (which offers more freedom including choosing between fighters) should add depth and replayability.
Akupara Games' Desert Child
I was drawn to Desert Child by the effective retro aesthetic and seeming Akira inspiration in gameplay videos and the trailer. In fact, that anime classic as well as Cowboy Bebop were inspirations for the sidescrolling 2D racing game, though this indie title looks to create an interesting hybrid that adds RPG elements.
The context for the player's journey is the pending end of ticket sales for flights off a dystopian Earth. The player has 14 days to earn $500 and a trip off-world. The main method for obtaining cash is winning races, but there are missions that likewise can earn money. However, an element of strategy is involved because costs can sap one's budget.
That's because vehicle repairs and meals to satisfy the player's growing hunger require money. Vehicles take damage when colliding with obstacles such as cacti or walls, or getting attacked by one's opponent or deadly TVs (yep). If not addressed, these issues will shorten one's turbo bar and make it take longer to fill, respectively.
Therefore, avoiding obstacles while using Turbo to stay ahead of one's opponent becomes paramount. Make a mistake, and the opponent might leap ahead. Thankfully, power-ups in the form of TVs can yield cash (green TVs) or ammo (red TVs, but only if boosted through, not if shot). But beware of purple TVs that attack.
In between races, players can stop at shops to eat, repair their vehicle or even buy songs that will play when purchased. Players can even steal parts from parked vehicles, but doing so runs the risk of being caught. Later, in the second act, players can upgrade their vehicle, or hoard power cells to use instead of sell as in act one.
But another key element of the game can be undertaken in between races and involves conducting missions. These include pizza delivery, herding kangaroos, bounties (which involve chasing and killing one's target), and throwing races for the mob (which require leading for most of the race before losing at the end).
The demo shows off the game's beautiful retro aesthetic, from the nostalgic side-scrolling races in between a variety of obstacles and across various environments, to storefronts, shop interiors and NPCs that populate the world. The score and soundtrack likewise entertain with an '80s video game sensibility.
While the RPG elements are a unique and most welcome feature, the real appeal of this racing game obviously lies with the gameplay. Races are fast, furious and appealing in their retro style, responsive controls and entertaining action. Avoiding obstacles, obtaining or maintaining a lead, collecting power ups, and defending oneself all combine for a rich experience.
Similarly, missions include many of the same elements while throwing in quirky objectives that might involve shooting pizzas at waving customers or using the vehicle to ensure no kangaroos fall behind. The variety of racing and RPG elements, all well implemented and thoughtfully designed, should find a broad and enthusiastic audience.
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