Sunday, August 31, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo '08 - Day Three  

Games: The third and final day of the Penny Arcade Expo started slow, both for the wife and I, as well as for the rest of the convention-goers.

Taking a look around, more people seemed willing to queue up for coffee or crepes before the show got going. The halls weren't as crowded, and the people who were there seemed to be walking slower, and perhaps sagging a bit. Three days of immersion in pure gaming can take their toll on even the most hard-core games enthusiast, as was evident in our surroundings. That said, it didn't take long to get the fires stoked and the bellows pumping.

The first event of the day was PAX Family Feud, a faithful recreation of the popular game show taking place on the main stage. Like many of the other events at PAX this year, there were some technical issues and things got rolling a little bit late. However, the wait was definitely worth it.

Probably my favorite program of the convention, emcee Alon Waisman of Chatterbox Radio selected contestants from the audience to team up with the developers of PAX 10 titles Schizoid and Strange Attractors, along with two people selected from the listening audience of Waisman’s show. Complete with music and sound effects, the Feud was on.

Unfortunately, it was also off soon after it began. The group of contestants not pictured won the competition in a landslide, completely shutting out the opposition. Even so, it was a treat to see categories based on gaming and Penny Arcade culture. The questions were:

- Name one of the Powerups Mario uses. (#1 answer: Fire Flower)
- Name a popular PA supporting character. (#1 answer: Fruit “Friend”)
- Name the first console you played. (#1 answer: NES)
- Recite a games advertising slogan. (#1 answer: It’s in the game!)
- Name something you do if the power is off....

This final question… well, let's just say that the answers speak for themselves. Also, I’d like to draw your attention to exactly where on the survey those answers placed. Interesting.

Believe it or not, I still didn't manage to complete my tour of the Exhibition Floor by the end of Day Two, so we headed back to polish off the stragglers.

Valkyria Chronicles

First on the list was a brief chat with Sega’s Christopher Kaminski on the subject of Valkyria Chronicles, as well as the upcoming Madworld.

An extremely nice guy, Kaminski went through the finer points of Valkyria for me, making sure to point out that players would have tank units to control and five different classes of infantry, with over 50 characters to choose from. The art style of the game was quite appealing, and the blend of action and turn-based elements gave a slightly different flavor to the gameplay. After stating that he was an X-Com fan, I felt confident that the game was in the right hands.


Although Madworld was not on display at PAX, Kaminski was quite forthcoming in discussing the Wii-exclusive hyperviolent title. When asked what the motivation was behind the game, he stated that the development team headed in the direction they did as a way of generating content for "core" players who have felt abandoned by lack of diversity in the Wii’s releases.

When asked whether Nintendo gave any push-back regarding the quality of the content, the response was that they were extremely supportive and clearly understood the need to fill gaps in their library, though they are hesitant to fill them with first-party titles since such games do not fit the current Nintendo profile. Unable to give any details on Wii-specific controls, the only information available was that the game would use the Wiimote-Nunchuk configuration.

Immediately following, Mabel Chung walked me through Yakuza 2, due to hit stores in approximately 2 weeks with an MSRP of $29.99.


Set one year after the events of the first game, Kiryu Kazama gets dragged into the mob life against his will, and his only choice is to set things right. (Surprise!) I was a huge fan of Yakuza personally, and the fact that this game is getting a release is extremely good news, in my opinion. Although the answer was an official “No Comment” when quizzed on the subjects of the PS3’s Yakuza 3 or the Yakuza game set in feudal times, Chung mentioned that the game will have the Japanese voices with English subtitles, a greater emphasis on “heat” maneuvers in combat, and that a “lock-on” function should help to alleviate problems gamers had with the first title’s one-on-one boss fights.

Moving on to the other end of the hall, Senior Producer Chuck Beaver gave me the skinny on Dead Space. Although it's been impossible not to notice the game over the last few months, finally getting hands-on and seeing the title with my own eyes convinced me that the game can deliver the goods. The disgusting aliens came fast and furious, and navigating through zero-G environments was a little mind bending, in a good way. With the main character’s magnetic boots, it's possible to leap from one wall across a vast, open area and land on the opposite wall, the ceiling, or the floor, with bits and pieces severed from the enemies remain floating where they were detached. I also admired the HUD-free aesthetic, with vital information on the character displayed via lights on the back of his suit, and the traditional item screen replaced by a holographic display manipulated in real-time. Good stuff.

Rounding out the afternoon was a stop at Namco’s booth. Although I'm not much of a fan, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm had some pretty incredible animation, looking like anime brought into the third dimension flawlessly.

Smoking that blunt won't make your game play better.

Afro Samurai was also on my to-see list, but the game in person did not live up to the sheer coolness of the trailers. Although the graphics and style are admirable, the demo on display bored me almost instantly with a swarm of generic enemies, each taking a dozen sword slashes before falling to the ground. A focused “super” move was also at my disposal to cleave enemies in two, but it was a hassle to have to use this feature just to get through the peons faster. I realize that this is just a demo and the game could get better past the opening phase, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it… won’t.

At this point, I had completed my tour of the Exhibition Floor, and I realized that with this part of the show getting so much bigger than it was last year, I had virtually no time for any of the panels or programs that were running at the same time. Checking the schedule and seeing that most of the things I wanted to see were already over, the wife and I packed it in and headed out for a nice lunch to celebrate the close of the show for us. As we noshed, we each compared notes and came up with our respective lists for games of show.

1- Rise of the Argonauts (PS3, PC, Xbox 360)
2- Cate West: The Vanishing Files (DS)
3- Dead Space (PS3, PC, Xbox 360)

1- Fallout 3 (PS3, PC, Xbox 360)
2- Rise of the Argonauts (PS3, PC, Xbox 360)
3- Dead Space (PS3, PC, Xbox 360)

Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (and the rest of the PAX crew) did an outstanding job of putting the show together, so our profound thanks and deep appreciation go out to them for hosting it. It was a great way to spend a weekend, and we're looking forward to doing it again next year.

Thanks, guys!

P.S. - What convention coverage would be complete without a photo gallery of the odds and ends? Here's the wrapup. Enjoy!
Dignified. Reserved. These are the people who come to PAX.
A Rain-Slick cake made by Brian Kurtz of Layers of Illusion. His card says his cakes will make guests "crap their pants in disbelief." Great cake, but mine remained unsoiled.
The family of the future grills with nuclear power.
I may not be a fan of Castle Crashers, but this li'l guy was just too cute.
Her eyes match her robe. Neat!
Where else but PAx can you see a giant mountain of pink Godzillas. (Godzillii?)
Was Rock Band was popular at PAX? I'm thinking yes.
Master Chief gives a lesson on the safe use of futuristic armament.
The soundtrack playing behind her was kickin'.
Mario... you've... lost weight.
Stormtrooper costume: Fail!
The line to see Wil Wheaton was fifty-eight million miles long.
No idea what this was for, but it's my policy to snap monster pics when I can.
The award for most incomplete MGS costumes goes to...

After playing the game, I don't envy the Dead Space Engineer one bit.

This also looks like a cake, but it's really a diorama. Pants-crapping avoided again.

Gah, who's that scary-looking dude with Crypto?!?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo '08 - Day Two At PAX  

Games: Day Two at the Penny Arcade Expo started off in true PAX fashion with the sounds of Rock Band flooding the Convention Center.
A group of eager musicians gave their rendition of ‘Learning to Fly’ quite earnestly, with quite a few more would-be rockers waiting in the wings offstage. After a polite golf clap, the wife and I made our way to the press-only Q&A session with webcomic superstars Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.

The relatively subdued session was credited to fatigue from the night before, though there were a few interesting bits of information to be had. In no particular order:

- The sound of dice hitting mats is special to Jerry.
- PAX has discouraged multi-story exhibition booths ala E3 to keep the scene mellow.
- Approximately 75% of attendees are from outside Washington State.
- The favorite swear word of the duo is “twatvomit’.
- PAX East Coast is already selling exhibitor space for the show in 2010.
- The offer was made to run Duke Nukem Forever on the main stage, only to be strangely
denied by the developers.
- The ‘Rain-Slick’ game series will have four episodes, Ep. 2 is currently in production.
- Ctrl+Alt+Del’s Tim Buckley is viewed as an ‘art thief’ by the duo.
- The ‘PAX 10’ spotlight on indie games will continue as a PAX tradition henceforth.

Having unfinished business on the Exhibition floor, my main priority for the day was to hit all the games that I missed on Day One. Unfortunately, the Expo was even more crowded today than it was yesterday, and it was tough at times to make progress through the massive crowds. However, did manage to see almost everything that I wanted to.

Left 4 Dead – PC, Xbox 360

In some ways quite surprising, and in others not surprising at all, Left 4 Dead was quite impressive in terms of presentation and energy level. Zombies in the game attack in large numbers and with great speed, and the image of ten or fifteen undead enemies rushing the player at once was genuinely horrific. I spent most of my time watching a multiplayer session where teammates’ glowing silhouettes were visible through walls and architecture as an easy way to locate people in need of help. The action was fast and quite furious, and in one particularly brutal scene in the sewers, three out of the four members of the harried group were taken out of action in the span of just a few seconds. The game presents pretty much what I expected, just a lot faster and more raw than I had imagined.

Monster Lab – Wii , DS

This was a cute little game aimed at the younger set, though the needs of older players haven’t been completely ignored. Tasked with creating mix-and-match monsters, kids venture out to perform tasks including a variety of minigames and turn-based one-on-one combat. The art style was attractive, and who doesn’t like designing their own characters? Assistant producer Devon Detbrenner made a convincing case for the title.

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames – PS3, Xbox 360

Associate producer Ali Zandi put Mercs 2 through its paces for me, and I have to say that I walked away with a much higher opinion of the game then I initially expected. I was not a big fan of the first Mercenaries, deciding to bail on the title when I discovered that none of the munitions at my disposal could destroy a chain-link fence. When asked if such fences existed in the sequel, Zandi assured me that everything was destructible in the game, and that choosing your own path was encouraged. To demonstrate, airstrikes were called down on fuel refineries for satisfying explosions and physics-based damage. I didn’t have any plans on checking the game out prior to the demo, but this display changed my mind.

Mirror’s Edge – PC, PS3, Xbox 360

To be perfectly honest, I just don’t get with the big deal is about this game. After demoing and watching one of the developers give his spiel, I’m just not at all impressed. If the game wasn’t in first-person, it seems like it’d be about simple navigation and combat, which isn’t anything new or noteworthy. The viewpoint shift didn’t seem to add much in my estimation, and although the title seems solid enough, no excitement is generated.

Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe – PS3, Xbox 360

What is there really to say about this? Although the graphics were nice and the character models were more visually attractive than they were the last time out, it’s basically just a ludicrous idea. Actually seeing the Joker fight Scorpion was about as cool as it sounds, which is to say, not at all. Although most of the characters were still locked, representing MK were Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Sonya, Shang Tsung, Kitana. On the DC side were the Joker, Catwoman, the Flash, Superman and Batman. Mortal Kombat fans will want to check it out since it looks like more of the same, but I couldn’t help shaking my head and scoffing. Yoda in Soul Calibur almost seems like a good idea compared to this.

LittleBigPlanet – PS3

Another one to file under “huh?” the fact that Sony is pinning so much on this title doesn’t make any sense to me. The demo on display featured three or four different worlds, and four players at a time took them on. After a brief session customizing avatars, the action was quite simplistic and hardly anything that looked interesting. Granted, a big hook to the game is going to be the player-created content, but even so, I can’t imagine this disc having much more than niche appeal. I’ve been wrong before and I may be wrong now, but I just don’t get LittleBigPlanet.

The Pax 10 were clustered together and surrounded by beanbags in the Exhibition Hall, and if these selections are any indication, there are a lot of extremely talented game designers just waiting to be discovered. The highlights were:

The Maw

Probably the most ‘traditional’ of the bunch, it’s a bright, colorful adventure I name-checked in yesterday’s coverage. Having already secured a deal for distribution through Xbox Live Arcade, look for this one soon… it looks like a lot of fun.

Sushi Bar Samurai

At least six months away from being released, this title was already looking good. Developer Casey Muratori was on hand to explain the intricate mechanics. Presented in a charming ghost world, the player takes on the role of a sushi-crafting samurai who must assemble the proper dishes to satisfy the spirits he meets on his journey. By combining different food elements in unconventional puzzle-type gameplay, this one looks like a real sleeper hit. At the time of this posting, there are no console distribution plans.


A crowd favorite, Impulse was created by students at RIT. The goal is to guide a sphere through use of magnetic polarity and well-timed explosions. The school has cleared the title for sale to interested parties, though no other specifics were given.


Another school creation using magnetism as a mechanic, the visual design was crisp and clear and the platform style of play was instantly relatable. Unfortunately, the game is reportedly only 20 minutes long and since the development team has graduated and gone their separate ways, the future of this title is uncertain.

Leading the Exhibition floor behind, we made our way to the Main Theatre for Bethesda’s developer walkthrough of Fallout 3.

In a word: WOW.

Being a fan of the Fallout franchise and having respect for Bethesda’s work with Oblivion (even if I wasn’t its biggest fan), the footage shown and the elements highlighted by the devs went further than I was expecting and will undoubtedly be one of the biggest titles of the year. Socks were definitely knocked off.

The extended demo was about 30 minutes of gameplay selected to highlight features, and not the same 30 minutes that the average player will first encounter upon starting the game themselves.

Neither of these Bethesda guys is Todd Howard.

The first noticeable feature was a draw distance that goes “all the fucking way”, to quote Bethesda’s Todd Howard. And it does. From the portal of the Vault where the game begins, objects were clear and discernible all the way to the horizon. The level of detail in the environment was stunning, surpassing anything I can think of currently running on the 360 and with the frame rate allegedly locked at 30fps, it’s extremely smooth.

Now you're playing with power.

Several weapons were shown, notably the Powerfist (a huge metal hand used to inflict melee damage capable of exploding skulls) and a rifle which shoots railroad spikes that can impale parts of enemies on the architecture behind them. Complementing the weaponry was the game’s ability to be played in real-time or slowed down to give players a chance to focus on specific parts of enemies. Damage incurred by the opposition will have specific effects on their performance, and items will be able to be salvaged after victories.

The lockpicking minigame displayed later actually used a bobby pin and screwdriver, and the computer hacking game resembled going through the BIOS of a computer, line by line of code. The detail and care given to the re-imagining of these features was quite heartening, and began to reinforce the idea that the developers were going above and beyond to craft an experience that at this point looks to be second-to-none in terms of open-world role-playing.

Groin targeting was noticeably absent.

I was already fairly excited for the title, but after the demo I was ready to go down to Gamestop and pay for my copy in full. Can't wait.

That’s it for Day Two coverage. Check back tomorrow for Day Three’s final.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo '08 - Day One At PAX  

Games: Once again, the good people at Penny Arcade are hosting their Expo in the heart of the emerald city.

Although the idea may be discouraged by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, (the super-popular webcomic’s writer and artist, respectively) the fact remains that the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX for short, is quickly becoming the de facto place to go or those in the games industry who want to be seen, now that E3 is a mere shadow of its former self and E for All seems to be a non-starter.

Taking place in the Washington State Trade and Convention Center in downtown Seattle, the joint was packed -- and although no official numbers had been released at the time of this posting, certain Expo officials have anecdotally estimated that attendance was estimated to be close to double last year’s.

Today’s post will summarize PAX Day One, starting with the biggest draw for me, personally… the games.


I arrived early to take advantage of the press-only window of opportunity in the Exhibition Hall, and I was glad I did since the line of convention-goers waiting to get in was thick and deep. Once inside, the display space was markedly larger than last year’s.

Although still not on scale with the behemoth that was E3 in its prime, the scene is definitely beginning to leave its humble beginnings behind and evolve into something quite respectable. As an example, I covered the Exhibition floor in just a few hours last year, and this year I only got through half on my first day.

Here’s some quick impressions of what I saw so far:

Alien Crush Returns - WiiWare

Out of all the games I took in, this one probably got me the most geeked-out. Being a huge fan of the Crush titles on the TurboGrafx-16, I’m of the opinion that a new installment in this series is long overdue. Basically a pinball game taking place on Giger-esque fantasy boards created from bits and pieces of alien biology sporting updated graphics and new modes… I’m already sold.

Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ - DS
As if the title itself wasn’t enough to clue you in to what sort of experience to expect, this screenshot sort of says it all. Jeremy Zoss of Destineer gave a short demo of gameplay, and it was looking good. Red hangs out at the bottom of the screen while the environment auto-scrolls to bring zombies, monsters, and all sorts of baddies to be blasted.

Animal Boxing – DS
Another in Destineer’s stable, Animal Boxing is the first game to play with the DS inverted, meaning that the touch screen is held at the top. All punches are thrown via the stylus, and the art style was bright and attractive. When I asked whether or not there would be anthropomorphic hook-ups between matches, Zoss declined to comment.

Mushroom Men: the Spore Wars – Wii

Looking much more interesting and attractive in person than it does in screenshots or in previews, Mushroom Men appears to be a quirky adventure game with a great sense of weirdness and dark overtones. After her hands-on, I’m much more interested in this title than I was before… I think knocking a box fan onto a rabbit with my ‘spore powers’ and chopping it up into bits of fur may have had something to do with that.

Legendary – PC, Xbox 360, PS3

This one’s been getting a lot of coverage lately, and with good reason. Going after mythological creatures with heavy-duty fire arms seems like a can’t-miss. The demo looked very solid to me, so I’ll be giving this a closer look when it hits.

Damnation – PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Billed as a shooter with vertical elements, Damnation reminded me strongly of Gears of War blended with more open levels and some light platforming. The brief demo consisted of starting on a cliff and making my way to a bridge in the distance. The rep on hand stated that there were several ways to get to the objective, and that scaling buildings and finding your own path are part of the appeal. I liked what I saw.

Rise of the Argonauts – PC, Xbox 360, PS3
More than anything else I saw today, this game stands out as one I’d be fairly confident buying new, and at full-price. Taking some brutal combat and combining it with Greek mythology and some streamlined doses of RPG structure, I was getting pretty excited to get my hands on the title as Liquid Entertaiment’s Andrew Rubino gave an outstanding talk-through and demo. Actually reminiscent of BioWare’s console efforts, the ship used as transport between the islands serves as a ‘home base’ of sorts where you can chat with your teammates and access various resources. Also sporting dialog trees and outcomes in the game which are greatly weighted by the player’s choices, the developers seem to have made some great choices in their design phase.

The Conduit- Wii

Eric Nofsinger of High Voltage Software was a great ambassador for this anticipated Wii title. Graphically, it looked a cut above any other action title on the Wii, and some of the weapons looked interesting. When asked what made his game more than just a standard shooter on a system lacking them, Nofsinger commented that the title has a very deep back story and history tucked away for those who care to seek it out, in addition to Wiimote-specific twists on weaponry.

The Rest of Day One's Games:

Darksiders must have been running a very early build, since it was quite choppy and tough to play. The character design was nice, but it was hard to get a good sense of what the action would be like.

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, the sequel to the incredibly addicting Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords was looking good despite a lackluster presentation by the rep. New features include variable gravity to affect the refresh patterns of the gems, and a wealth of different spacecraft to use in “battle.”

Nintendo’s booth (except for The Conduit) was looking quite sad and pathetic. I can’t help but think they must have some secret weapons up their sleeve for the holiday season, because what was on display was less than impressive, to say the least. A snowboarding title, Wii Music, a Mario baseball title, a Wario title, and Animal Crossing which looked exactly the same as the N64 version. None of the above had the sort of star power associated with Nintendo’s top franchises, and I can’t help but think that many Wii owners are going to be disappointed come Christmastime.

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad was only on display as a video trailer running on a monitor, but it was enough to set off my fringe-o-meter. From what I can tell, this game has been tagged for a while as one of the most outlandish examples of Japanese wackiness, so I was little surprised to see it on display. Then again, zombies, swords, and girls in bikinis… what’s not to like?

The Maw, for Xbox Live Arcade, was looking quite fresh and interesting. From the video I saw, it appeared that two aliens escape from captivity; one with brains and one with a mouth. The player seems to control the smart one, and feeds enemies and obstacles to his companion in order to give him a new powers and grow him in size. For an XBLA title, it was impressive.

The cinematic shown for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning was one of the most impressive pieces of CG I’ve ever seen, easily eclipsing 99% of anything Hollywood’s ever turned out. I’ve got no interest in the game, but I definitely recommend viewing the trailer online.

At about this point in the afternoon, my schedule was telling me that it was time to head over to the main theater and get ready for the keynote address, given this year by Ken Levine of Bioshock fame.

Starting thirty minutes late and after attendants had filed into the hall haphazardly and disorganized, Levine launched into his presentation which was quite amusing at times, supported by some hilarious visuals on PowerPoint. I must say, his speech with tons of D&D references was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone refer to his birth as “parents rolling his character.” The gist of his time was about nerds and geeks (as he called himself) finding their tribe, and it struck a chord with most of the audience.

Following Levine was a symphony heralding the arrival of Holkins and Krahulik onstage for part one of their traditional audience Q&A. Always amusing, their back-and-forth banter seems more like a polished comedy routine than two comic strip creators on a stage.

Dude, I'm NOT looking at you, I swear.

Highlights of this segment included everyone in the audience cracking their knuckles simultaneously (the result is an incredibly horrific and disgusting sound), a brief snippet of Holkins’ song “Are You Really A Woman”, and the announcement that there will be a PAX occurring on the East Coast sometime in the year 2010. Although no specific date was nailed down, it was confirmed that the East and West shows will not overlap. After that, general hilarity ensued.

In what can only be described as the most pathetic display of fandom I've ever seen, this girl clad in tentacles and what looked like a headcrab waited in line to get her chance at the mic... only to grunt, groan and flail before skulking off into the crowd.

Way to make gamers look normal!

That’s it for Day One coverage, check back tomorrow for Day Two.