Tuesday, June 7, 2011

E3 2011, Day 1, 6:53pm

Wow, the Trade Show floors were more hectic than even I was imagining! I'd been to a car show at the LA Convention Center before, but nothing like the wall-to-wall booths packed with exhibitors, fanboys, journalists, booth babes, and tourists (many of whom come from parts of the world where it's socially acceptable to not wear deodorant) just itching for a glimpse at everything new and exciting in the videogame world. I had no time to park myself down and liveblog, but you can follow my adventures via Twitter: @Hunter_S_Batman

Today, I followed by entourage through the West Hall: location of Microsoft's booth and a plethora of third parties, including EA, Activision, Square-Enix, Sega, Ubisoft, THQ, and (wait for it) Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment! In said hall, I witnessed or played such games as Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Lord of the Rings: War in the North, Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and (wait for it) BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY OH YEAH THAT'S RIGHT!

Follow me through the jump for a blow-by-blow account of some of the most exciting/newsworthy events that I was privy to on this, the first day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2011. Or just skip to the very end for my experience with the Arkham City demo...

* Battlefield 3 (DICE, EA)

Our first stop was the first media presentation of the day from the Battlefield 3 team. First, a short talk from Karl-Magnus Troedsson, GM of DICE Sweden, the game's developer, wherein he sang the praises of the game's Frostbite 2 engine, which allows for both large- and small-scale destruction of everything from the ground as tanks drive over it to entire facades of buildings. He also went over the four playable classes in the game: a combination general infantry/combat medic, engineer who can drive tanks/repair vehicles, a heavy assault type who can mount his weapon and lay down suppressing fire, and a recon (read: sniper) who now has to hold his breath (shift key) to aim, meant to discourage "shoot from the hip" run-and-gunners.

The gameplay presentation featured a co-op multiplayer mode, which involved charging through different areas, blowing up various checkpoints along the way. We got to see the mayhem tear through downtown Paris, into the cramped subway tunnels (showing off the seamless light-dark mechanics of Frostbite 2), culminating in a firefight in the financial district. The graphics were smooth, the destruction was definitely realistic, but I don't know how much of it players would actually notice with the bullets flying...

* Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, Activision)

A hush fell over the crowd at Activision's booth as a giant 7-minute countdown flashed up on the main screen and more screens descended to enclose the audience in full 360-degrees. As the numbers approached zero, dirty bass blared through the speakers as a timeline of events from the first two Modern Warfare games crept across the screens. Then the trailer started - soldiers locked in deadly combat in the metropolises of Europe and America. You can watch the same trailer online, but the effect is not nearly as phenomenal or ear-shatteringly loud.

Afterwards, in the super-secret demo room, we got a sampling of one of the co-op multiplayer modes that pitted you and a partner against wave after wave of ever-intensifying enemies. They start with just regular grunts, but gradually increase in difficulty to include dogs, suicide bombers, suicide dogs, and even helicopters. To make matters worse, the AI will adapt to use strategic tactics and flanking to pin you and your partner down wherever you decide to make a stand. I lasted about 45 seconds, due to my general lack of FPS experience, but the game played beautifully and cleanly.

* Lord of the Rings: War in the North (Snowblind, Warner Bros. Interactive)

As I've said before, I will play anything with the Lord of the Rings brand - I've whizzed through Two Towers, Return of the King, The Third Age, and Aragorn's Quest, and enjoyed every minute of all of them. This game looks like a cross between all four of the above: a co-op action-RPG style, adventure game set in a questionable point in the LotR timeline with characters we've never heard of. The gameplay was rather hack-and-slash, with a first-person mode for projectiles and various special attacks. But the scenery was of the classic, breathtaking fare we've come to expect from depictions of Middle Earth, and some minor characters from the books show up (Elrond's sons Elladan and Elrohir anyone?), so I'll be sure to enjoy it. Plus, I got a free T-Shirt for my interest.

* Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Sega, Nintendo)

The two biggest rivals from my gaming childhood have teamed up once again to bring us a sequel to 2008's smash hit set at the Beijing Olympics. The game plays just like Wii Sports, except with classic Mario and Sonic characters in place of Mii's. It was pretty funny to see Waluigi ride a horse in the equestrian mode, and to see Sonic team up with Daisy in a canoe. I really was only drawn to the Sega booth because of the really cool castle set and GIANT REVOLVING SONIC STATUE. They really pulled out all the stops, with a full-on bunker housing the new Aliens game, and an actual prop costume for Captain America: Super Soldier.

* Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady, Warner Bros. Interactive)

Now for the crowning moment of my E3 experience, maybe even my entire gaming career. I was able to sit down in front of a press demo of 2011's most highly-anticipated game. After an opening cutscene, in which some of Two-Face's thugs try to steal some junk from a safe, just when everyone is sure that Batman will jump out of the shadows and kick some tail, we see... Catwoman jump out of the shadows! And we not only see her, we get to play as her! This particular fight was basically in slowed-down tutorial mode, but all the better to see our favorite feline-themed anti-villain combine style, panache, and power with her attack style.

When you start the Batman portion of the adventure, you begin on a rooftop, overlooking the gigantic, overwhelming sprawl of Arkham City. And in his earpiece you hear... Alfred! Should be a welcome enhancement over Oracle, nothing against Barbara Gordon. He is just such a pivotal part of the Batman universe, that it will be nice to have him around. Anyway, Alfred tells you to access your Cryptographic Sequencer. I thought, I'm not near a door that needs unlocking or a bomb that needs defusing. How will this device help me? When I opened it up, a heads-up display popped up in front of me with a lot of confusing lights and colors.

That was when I noticed a helpful-looking man in a Rocksteady T-shirt watching me excitedly fumble through the game. He spoke to me in his French accent and told me that I wanted to select the big orange blinking light to lock on to that frequency, which would then tell me where to go on the map. I thanked him and we started chatting about the game. I headed to the checkpoint - Two-Face's lair, a courthouse divided perfectly into pristine and dilapidated halves. I remembered seeing that in an early trailer and remarked how cool it looked. The man responded, "Thanks, I'm the art director."

So I was chatting with David Hego, the art director! I knew he looked familiar, from those special features on Arkham Asylum. I told him what a big fan I was and gushed about how I'd played the first game through at least four times and reached 100% completion. He explained to me the struggle of balancing the hyper-reality of HD graphics with the abstract quality of the comics they were trying to emulate, and how it affected his approach to character development. He talked about the increased scope of the game, and how they didn't sacrifice attention to detail: "The game is five times bigger than the first one, but it took us five times longer to make."

This entire conversation took place as I dangled on a wire over no less than 47 of Two-Face's best thugs. I know it was 47 because of the enhanced detective mode, which acts differently than in the first game, to discourage playing the entire game through with it on. Mr. Hego encouraged me to go on: "I think you'd better drop down into the thick of it." I think he was eager for the demonstration to go on, so he could talk about how Batman's attack animations had been doubled, and walk me through the new and improved takedowns and environment interaction built into the combat system. When I was done, I felt like Catwoman looks in the picture at right.

Mr. Hego was called away to a meeting and I played the rest of the demo through under the supervision of a charming Rocksteady PR rep, Sarah Wellock. She guided me through the first predator mode tutorial and a battle with the Penguin's troops. She explained the difference between henchmen belonging to different villains: Penguin has been reimagined as a gritty mafioso brawler (with the bottom of a glass soda bottle in place of a monocle), so his henchmen are slower and powerful, while the Joker doesn't necessarily take that much time picking out who works for him. I marveled at the sheer size of the playable area (think more Grand Theft Auto than Arkham Asylum), and she explained that their "goal was to make the city come alive, a place that can be both friendly sometimes and terrifying." She demonstrated the ability to hitch a ride on a TYGER helicopter and teased re-creations of classic Batman locations such as the Monarch theater and Crime Alley. What better way to kick off Arkham City by paying your respects to Thomas and Martha Wayne.

Well, that was pretty much it for my first day on the show floor. Tune in tomorrow as I visit the Nintendo and Sony booths in the South Hall!