Preview

GSL 2004: Game Stars Live - Day 2

Sam investigates Forza, Flatout, Snowblind, Rogue Agent and many more...

Day two was very much like day one except it was a little bit less intense in the heat department. And a heck of a lot better in the consciousness division, in no small part due to the appearance of Ferrago's webmonkey Jason and his sandwich and coffee delivering expense account. Tagging along today was the newest member of the Ferrago team, Justin, who provided an un-prejudiced and non-jaded view of the games on view. After our first stop for some refreshments we made our way into the arena, starting day two off with a leisurely stroll to take in the stands on offer.

Dipping into the N-Gage experience tent to sample The Sims on this mobile platform was a reasonable way to begin. The format could make the vacuous nature of the gameplay the kind of thing that you could dip in and out of during a commute or a boring lecture without reaching the state of gaming despair that can arise from an extended session on the PC, suiting the game well, and as far as I was concerned was the most promising long-term title on offer.

Giving up on the Nokia stand we made our way past the AMD stand which was pimping the power of their 64-bit processors with the tarty loveliness of the Far Cry engine. We then meandered by the skateboarding competition that was being held at the back of the exhibition space. Here the brave could test their balance against the real world ramps of the mini skate park which had been set up. A less stimulating prospect than it may sound. Yet judging by the frazzled nerve endings that were to result from six hours exposure to constant OTT gaming this would turn out to be fortunate.

Next to that was some more real world sportage, with a cluster of basketball hoops getting a thrashing from another group of young folk. Next to that was the Red Mercury stall, a squad based shooter which, going by the admittedly short blast Justin and I participated in, is free from any of the pressures you would expect from being seen as the shooter to save the genre from turgidness. Beside this stand was a glorious British Army Warrior fighting vehicle, which, hogging the far corner of the hall as it was, cunningly hid the less then salubrious Army recruitment centre that was, in my opinion, making an unwelcome and wholly contradictory presence in the Game Stars hall. I doubt much will be made of this melding of fantasy army death with a four-year contract for real-world death as if it were a recruiting booth for the US America's Army game, but the same unsavoury connection was there. At least the organisers had had the good grace to stick it at the least visited end of the centre, making the best of what is a bad deal to get a real tank in to promote a pedestrian looking game.

After a trip to the press room to file some news reports Ferrago returned to the show floor to sample one of the most impressive titles we have so far experienced at the show. Flatout is a racer of the highest arcade order, where destruction is the game and thrills should be in the name. At first I wasn't best impressed, but after 48 seconds my opinion had reversed quicker than a weasel up a trouser leg taking the ideals of Destruction Derby and to a lesser extent Stunt Car Racer, resulting in a game that could very well become the sleeper hit of the next few months. Flatout is one of those games that grows on you so quickly with its intense blasts of fun that it takes extra time to realise just how special the gaming within this initially innocuous looking package really is. Terrain deformation has become a more popular feature in shooters and RTS games over the years, but the extent with which Flatout takes the idea of breaking everything - everything - in the gameworld really has to be experienced to be believed. Not only can you take out the legs of water towers or drive through wooden fences as if they were the policies of GWB's election campaign but your car, and your opponent's cars, will gleefully break apart with 40 different damage locations. At first this game looked like fun, but after Jason had gained an altitude spin from a combination of rear-ending another car and a precipitous turn in the track and flown into the dense off-track forest with enough force to crumple the car's front-end and send the hapless driver crunching through the windscreen to wrap himself around the nearest tree-trunk this game looked like fucking good fun.

Nothing on the course is impervious to your car's momentum, you just have to hit things fast enough to break them apart. And, while I think that the demo was running in the same God-mode that eased the pleasure to be had from many titles at the show, the fun level was bordering on the obscene, with joy filling the role of the border guards, this was the game played today that was the one which took the most of our time so it was given up to the next gamer in line with the greatest reluctance. It's just a shame that your engine, when it eventually bursts into flames, cannot set the otherwise destructible structures on fire.

Flatout was so much fun that I'm not sure whether we took a break in the fresh air before or after experiencing this revelation. Either way, the BLT sarnies washed down with a plastic bottle of pop in the setting sun that was dusting down the tail-end of the ExCel centre made for a welcome respite. A supping of fresh air enhanced the rejuvenative properties of food to boldly prepare the Ferrago team for another foray into the exhibition hall.

After this restoration the clone army on display at the gigantic EA stand only depressed with its orgy of safely inevitable sequels which Ferrago fears will become the dominant empire. The Sims 2 looks to be taking things in a more risky direction than the-to-date saccharine housekeeping simulator has been so far willing to explore. You will have to wait till we don our French maid's outfit and play it tomorrow to hear what our initial impressions sound like.

The Lord of the Rings RTS under development at EA Pacific, Battle for Middle Earth, gave the impression of a title that could provide the kind of fresh and unusual gameplay experiences that the EA behemoth has been moving away from - with such depressing commitment - since their heyday development days of F/A-18 Interceptor and Archon. While the triangular look of the units was not all that could have been hoped for, the fresh new approach to unit production combined with the direct integration with an overarching storyline to the combat taking place made the two of us who played the game leave the demo booths with high hopes.

Need for Speed Underground 2 made for a very underwhelming demo. Putting this teaser onto the weakest machine that the game was being developed for ridiculed both the beauty that was achieved with number one on the PC while squandering the graphical abilities that the Xbox could offer. Frankly, Ferrago couldn't be arsed to sample the rest of the latest instalments of EA's branded sporting game franchises. FIFA, NHL and PGA did nothing for us. Not when we had the joys of the Joystick Junkies' retro arcade zone.

Especially not when such classic titles as Tron, Scramble and an assortment of cocktail table games were tantalising this passing jaded gamer with their offers of free play. Galaga has always been the arcade game of choice for this reporter, and after a less than overwhelming test run yesterday I can exclaim with no shame that, today, for six minutes I was on fire. Quickly having my ship beamed up by the double-shot granting master-ships I literally tanned the opposition for 8 rounds. Then I lost one side of my dual-fighter, a tragedy that shattered my frazzled sensibilities and heralded a steady slide towards oblivion. Which was only tempered by things not reaching the despairing confusion of a helter-skelter tumble to humiliation.

Following this, some impressed impressions playing Forza Motorsport were pumping Jason and I for another spin at the day's champion game, Flatout. That was if it weren't for the announcement that in twenty minutes it was Game Over, man, for Thursday's Game Stars. As we had lost our newest recruit Justin to the gaming maelstrom and I thought that, based on years of friendship with Juzza and an ability to locate him in the dark at the camping end of a music festival, he would have already made his way to the exit that is where Jas and I headed. After Jay and I had spend some time complimenting the nature of the young locals popping wheelies Juzza swept out of the encroaching gloom of the dying Game Stars exhibition. Time for a pint, and after a pleasingly brief ride on the near-modern connected transport system that is the Docklands Light Railway (so good that we actually saw the mayor of London alighting from our train a few stops after the ExCel Centre - maybe EA were giving him a special preview of SimCity 5) we found ourselves in the opulent surroundings of a bar beside the exclusive berths next to Tower Bridge. A good enough place to sup some restoration and plan our strategy for Ferrago's final day at the expo.

Microsoft are only really promoting one game here at Game Stars. Still, they do have a small pavilion showcasing a variety of the titles that will soon be making their appearance on the black box. Outrun 2 is here and very pretty looking it is indeed. The background scenery is something to behold while on the track there's lots of traffic to contend that all moves by smoothly. The gameplay looks and feels very similar to the original arcade game, but I wonder whether it will have enough depth to keep today's more sophisticated gamer occupied for very long. There are plenty of courses available through the return of the branching system and Live support is promised yet while there is a decent selection of cars there's not really much to do other than get to each checkpoint in time.

The Eidos developed future-war themed squad shooter Snowblind looks a little more promising. Echoing the dystopian future that made Dues Ex such an atmospheric romp Snowblind pits you in the role of a freedom fighter against an oppressive regime. The gameworld looks fantastic, with lots of moody lighting and some impressive architecture. The guns show plenty of variety with one weapon, some strange syringe-firing device being both original in its look while baffling in its function. Although the game is only 60% complete it looks quite advanced already and should provide for something a little different in a market saturated by real-world titles.

Forza Motorsport is the Xbox title that all the petrol heads are really looking forward to. Unofficially billed as the Xbox's Gran Turismo offering players near unlimited customization options in conjunction with highly accurate driving models and realistic driving conditions. Although it claimed to be only 40% complete - this allegation was backed up by the drop-through nature of the scenery after a crash - Forza is already looking like a very impressive game. Playing beside Jason I remarked how I was sure that the developers had got permission to include a real damage model for the over-40 licensed cars that will feature in the game. He was unsure as to the validity of this unsupported supposition until I chanced upon the button that showed my car from the front, the crumbled nature of my bonnet attesting to the already implemented damage model as well as my inept driving style at the end of a long day's games testing. The car models in Forza already deserve a special mention. The realistic way damage is modelled is combined with the kind of near flawless high-detail recreations of the worlds most famous performance cars to create a visual experience of the highest order. The primitive state of the driving model seems like nothing of the sort, making me feel like I was playing a finished product.

On my experience of the game at Game Stars, Forza Motorsport looks incredibly likely to take the crown of the best racer on the Xbox away from the as yet peerless PGR2 and could well stick a banana up the tail pipe of GT 4 as well.

The good games that were on display for the Xbox at Game Stars have so far been mighty impressive, too rich in their variety to encapsulate in one article, so come back over the next few days for Ferrago's continued coverage.

Star Wars Battlegrounds takes the gigantic team battles of titles like the Battlefield series and thrusts them into the welcome arms of the Star Wars universe. With battles cribbed from all the five films, including the mouthwatering prospect of trying to trip up AT-ATs with Snowspeeder tow-cables and speeder bike action on the forests of Endor, Battlegrounds could well be the team-based title to look out for. And judging by our time experimenting with the game, we're think it's certainly on track.

One of the biggest franchises that has yet to make its way to the Xbox is Konami's superlative Pro Evolution Soccer. Well, no longer will Xbox owners have to look on with envy as the next installment of the series is coming to the Xbox, and with full Live support as well. And while the graphical differences between the PS2 version and that running on Microsoft's baby are slight it's certainly coming along nicely.

EA has the next Bond game well under development and it appears as though the gameplay will not be taking a back-seat to all the Hollywood talent that has been attached to the project. Although the gloss is there and present the combat that I sampled was most entertaining and showed some impressive combined AI tactics on the part of the numerous foes. One cool feature is the ability to wield and fire two weapons at the same time and it does feel undeniably gripping to mow down the armored bad-guys with simultaneous fire from two assault rifles. The controls are intuitive and the graphics fine; you never know, Goldeneye: Rogue Agent may well be come close to the heights scaled by the seminal GoldenEye on the N64. We shall see.

More soon.

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