Life after EGN and Game Stars Live
Another year, another ECTS. But no! Hang on a moment; this doesn't appear to be the usual, somewhat conservative ECTS. No no no. This year marked a distinct change for the UK gaming scene as ECTS was all but replaced with two events combined under one roof - The European Games Network (for trade and press) and Game Stars Live (for everyone!). Some things never change though. Like the lack of seats at the press briefing early on Wednesday morning, or the Americans from some US fanboy site sitting behind me using words like "sick". In this same press meeting a Japanese journalist asked about how EGN and ECTS are to exist together in the future. Roger Bennett, Director General of ELSPA, tried to be as diplomatic as possible, but it's clear that the EGN / Game Star Live combo is here to stay. "European gamers need their own event for their own identity" was the official line, but the truth is that there's simply more money to be made with this format than with the ECTS setup. And maybe it's no bad thing, because by most accounts the show was a great success.
EGN itself was quite interesting for a games journo like myself, providing the opportunity to meet with developers and demo games without the need to beat snotty ginger kids away with a rolled up Playboy poster, but what you want to hear about were the games, right? So be it, and it seems somewhat fitting that for me the whole event kicked off with Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on the Xbox. Not only was it a delight to beat one of the Game Network guys 5-0 (bad luck Gareth) but also it was pleasing to see Konami's sporting masterpiece running so smoothly on Microsoft's system. The PS2 version also seemed crisp, though some slight slowdown was still evident (although it seemed greatly improved from Winning Eleven 8). Still, no such compromises with the Xbox code that was smooth, crisp and responsive. Playing PES with an S Pad was fortunately not as bewildering an experience as I had envisaged. I do admit that without any explanation of the controls I was left to figure out that whilst the left trigger was used for changing man, the right trigger seemed to mimic the R1 button from the Duelshock 2, though no doubt the controls go deeper than I was able to sample in a couple of games.
The most exciting news however came after a brief exploration of the options menu, which uncovered the one screen that many of us have been hoping for in games since the launch of online gaming - the Xbox Live Menu! Now, nothing has yet been confirmed, but if the rumblings doing the rounds at the moment are true we can expect a very exciting announcement to emerge in the next few days. I certainly found it exciting enough to go out this morning and buy an Ethernet cable and Xbox Live Starter Kit.
Next it was straight to possibly the game of the show, hidden away on only 3 machines at the back of the Xbox area - Outrun 2. Forget arcade accurate, the Xbox version looks set to surpass the arcade original with a host of new modes and online play. The title itself plays like an absolute dream, with the S Pad allowing for precision drifting whilst the hardware was bashing out a wonderfully lush image with no hint of fogging or any noticeable limit to the draw distance. The new Heart mode has you performing tasks for the pleasure of your female passenger and is a welcome addition to the arcade racing. Another must have title for Xbox owners.
Forza Motorsport was also on offer in the Xbox area, though the build was only 40% complete. None the less, even at this early stage it's obvious that Microsoft is onto a winner. Even though some textures were missing and the reflections were only partially implemented, the racing itself is already incredibly solid and lives up to it's billing as a rival to the mighty Gran Turismo series. Damage in particular was highly impressive, with scrapes and bumps clear to see after any collisions with roadside scenery. GT4 with damage? Quite possibly... Star Wars Battlefront (Xbox) was also on show and whilst not amazing the finished code on offer could well turn into a multiplayer favourite. With so many different races and locations available, all taken directly from the movies, the use of the license is unquestionably fantastic, but like so many Lucasarts titles of late, it just seemed to lack that final bit of polish that elevates an ordinary game to a good title. Still, with such a brief play it's impossible to pass a final judgement, even when the code is apparently complete.
After chuckling at the fact that Atari had the bravery to demo Driv3r (I mean, why on earth would they actually want people to play it?) came another highlight - Burnout 3, online on both Xbox and PS2. Both versions were running well, though as you'd expect the Xbox version was definitely the sharper. Think of Burnout 2 on steroids and you'll have some idea of what to expect. Not only is it faster, but it's noticeably more brutal offering ample opportunities for shunting the opposition off the track and rewarding you with points and boost accordingly. The single player game also boasts some nice slow-mo replays of damage you cause as you race and to all intents and purposes is nearly as enjoyable as the multi player, especially with the convincing AI on offer. Still, expect another Live classic to be unleashed upon its release.
Need for Speed Underground 2 was also present in the EA stand, though it was notable that more emphasis had been placed on Criterion's racer. Visually the game was really quite divine, with luscious neon streets and overly shiny tarmac. What let it down however was a somewhat unstable frame rate, though at this stage in the game's development this isn't too concerning. Rather than offering an all-out arcade experience, NFS seems to be placing more emphasis on placing the player in a free-roaming environment where races and challenges can be sought out at will. It's a familiar concept now and I can't help but wonder if the trend for free roaming when it isn't strictly necessary is perhaps beyond us. As adequate as the title seemed (and adequate is a good word to describe it) it's hard to see why you would choose to play this over Burnout 3 (or Outrun 2).
Along with the big hitters there were a few curiosities tucked away waiting to be discovered. In the Activision stand was Sharks Tale (PS2), an aquatically themed bemani title that has you pressing buttons in time to dancing fish. It seemed colourful and lively enough, but without headphones it was impossible to enjoy to any great extent. Ribbit King (GC and PS2) offered some surreal jollity (helped considerably by the lovely Atari assistant showing me the ropes). Think Mario Golf, but then take away the clubs and golf balls and replace them with frogs and some bizarre mallet-activated propulsion device. Childish? Possibly. Simplistic? Yes, I'd say so. Fun? Oh yes, lots of fun. It's not simply a matter of aiming for the hole; all manner of obstacles and bouncy things litter the courses and a well-aimed shot into an opportune target will see your frogs tunnelled toward the flag by a path of squishy things and cobwebs.
Perhaps the surprise of the show was Bugbear's Flat Out (Xbox and PS2). Overshadowing the distinctly average Driven to Destruction on the Atari stand, Flat Out is like a cross between Destruction Derby, Stuntman and Burnout. Boasting superb physics and highly destructible scenery, the game tasks you with racing around a range of US themed tracks. Not only does the car crumble around you as you collide with other players and all manner of objects, but hit something too hard and your driver is launched through the window. Seeing his body tumble across the ground (rag-doll physics and all) is guaranteed to raise a smile. Speaking of smiles, more laughs were heard coming from people playing Flat Out than any other title at the show. Whether or not the game will offer any considerable longevity is yet to be seen, but it's certainly a title to look out for come its November launch. For the record, unfortunately the Xbox version seemed far superior more than it's PS2 counterpart with better visuals and a more solid frame rate, especially in 2 player mode.
The demo available of Splinter Cell 3 Chaos Theory (Xbox) was short but still managed to impress. Graphically the series seems to have once again taken a huge leap forward, now being more akin to the graphically fantastic Chronicles of Riddick. Without any explanation of controls or objectives you were left to more or less sneak about as in previous games, picking off bods as they appeared. Being a section of level 10, you quickly came across enemies armed with sub machine guns and the whole experience was over all too quickly. Also on show was Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within (PS2 and Xbox). Again, the title was visually lush but the opening level on show seemed to be more concerned with combat than exploring the 3D environment. Most people will agree that the combat was the weakest element of the superb Sands of Time, but it's questionable whether the best approach is to enhance the combat further or shift more emphasis to travelling across the fantastic 3D playgrounds. Judgement will be reserved until we get to grips with a longer version of the code.
Next was a personal demo of the new PS2 peripheral, The Gametrac. It's basically a motion-sensing device using two gloves attached to a central control unit via cords. Speaking to Head Developer Elliot Myers (who was a top man), he told me that the system has been in development for 4 years and what we saw before us represented a lot of hard work and development hours. Two games were on offer; a golf title still in the early stages of development and an interesting first person fighter named Dark Wind. After an initial calibration I was soon bashing virtual enemies with my fist and on the whole the game seemed like a lot of fun. The main problem seemed to be with blocking - when an enemy was about to strike a block icon appeared on screen. You then had to move your hand over the icon to block the strike. This seemed to work fine on the first few levels but once the speed was ramped up against later opponents it became nearly impossible to get your hand in position accurately enough in time. It's an undoubtedly interesting prospect, but as with many peripherals you do have to question the longevity of the appeal. Still, there is much scope for the project if official backing eventually arrives - imagine a Star Wars game where you square off against Darth Vader with a lightsabre!
Also on show was the Action Stick, a fighting game accessory. The device stands about 4 feet high and contains several motion sensors. PS2 buttons are assigned to different areas around the pole. For instance, a left punch activates the X button and a right kick the circle button. Being a USB device with no software, it's compatible with all existing titles but has primarily been designed with fighting games in mind. It was being demoed with Soul Calibur 2, and whilst the idea of burning off calories whilst gaming is in theory quite sound, it only allows for the most basic of controls. How a player would hope to land any combos is unclear, so any hardcore fighting enthusiasts are unlikely to find it satisfactory. Seeing as it's compatible with all existing software I do wonder if it's perhaps more appropriate for use with rhythm action games such as Parappa The Rapper, though again the later levels that require a greater amount of manual dexterity are likely to be rendered unplayable.
On the combat front, Mortal Kombat Deception (PS2) seemed much the same as the under-rated Deadly Alliance, though with the brutality level ramped up somewhat with more fatalities and gory deaths. Knock an opponent through a wall or over a cliff and after a short animation you follow them down to continue the fight. In all honesty, the mini-games that have been touted seem to be the biggest reason to get the update, though unfortunately we weren't able to demo these at the show. Fight Club (Xbox), which was received with much surprise when announced earlier in the year, is an altogether different proposition. Forget spectacular combos and chained attacks - this game is all about gritty reality, much like the fighting sequences in the film. Blood splatters on the screen, players get bruised and cut and every punch or kick is accompanied with a very realistic slapping noise as flesh strikes flesh. The damage models are good and the characters as close to life-like as I've ever seen on a console. Although not instantly accessible due to its realistic leanings, there are some nice touches that proved interesting. Although we weren't able to pull any off, special moves are possible that automatically cut to an x-ray shot showing the internal damage being caused. Whilst playing large-breasted Bob (complete with cleavage sweat) my arm was broken, and I wasn't able to use it for the rest of the fight. Despite lacking the likenesses of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, many of the characters from the film were present and the whole package was unique enough to warrant a second look - definitely one to keep an eye on.
On the PC front Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl was providing some tense multiplayer fragging. Set in the bleak desolate surroundings of Chernobyl after the nuclear catastrophe, the visuals ably recreated the feeling of an environment left to ruin. A solid physics engine provided quite a few moments of entertainment, such as when a dead player was left hanging from a window with his arm stuck in the shutter. Big chunky weapons and meaty sound effects really put the polish on what appears to be a very atmospheric title. The Sims 2 was on display but like any simulation or strategy title it was hard to assess it on such a brief encounter. Still, customisation options seemed plentiful and the new emphasis on family and growth is bound to have a whole new generation of players hooked on the series.
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (PC) is a RPG based in Tolkien's universe. Our brief glimpse offered nothing of particular note and we'll have to wait and see whether the title has enough unique ideas of it's own to stand out in the crowded RPG market, though on first impressions it seemed worryingly generic. Another LOTR PC title, The Battle for Middle Earth, seemed more interesting. A huge scale RTS, the idea of strategically controlling units of orcs, elves of humans seemed instantly more engaging. Crisp graphics promise a very authentic use of the license. Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault provided a brief, tough but enjoyable level. Expecting an assault from distance, the player is suddenly swarmed with hordes of Japanese soldiers desperate to shove a bayonet up your rear. In many ways it felt more like Doom than a MOH title, though that is in no way a criticism.
It may have been a little late to the party but after some power problems for the first half of the opening day the Nintendo stand was possibly the strongest in the show. Made up like a scene from an English seaside pier, Nintendo obviously aren't concerned with their kiddy labelling, and with games like this on offer why should they be. The GBA was hosting a couple of interesting titles, most noticeably Super Mario Ball. Best described as a pinball title infused with the entirety of the Mario universe with added exploration elements, the really amazing visuals really compliment what seems an interesting title. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap will offer players even more puzzle related fun in the Zelda universe, the twist this time being the addition of a talking hat to proceedings. For all you Poke-manics out there both the Fire Red and Leaf Green iterations of the series were present, though does the fact that they were often deserted hint that the public's love affair with all monsters pocket-sized is nearing a close?
Paper Mario 2 (GC) is impossible to judge after only a few minutes play but it's wonderfully vivid graphics and underlying creative flair is a real joy to behold. Wario Ware (GC) seems to have competently picked up where it's Gameboy Advance cousin has left off, offering the most surreal of multiplayer experiences. I heard one player describe things as "slightly strange" but that doesn't even come close. You thought the GBA version was bizarre? Ramp up the graphical clout then and prepare to enter a whole new world of bizarreness. Mario Tennis (GC) kept up the great graphical theme and certainly has a good sense of honour, but with the emphasis being placed on special moves and abilities as opposed to the simple idea of playing tennis, I do wonder if Nintendo has added a little too much. The N64 title was a fantastic game that offered a skilful game of tennis. In much the same was as Mario Kart Double Dash, skill now seems to have taken a back seat to special abilities. A step in the right direction? I'm not convinced.
Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (GC) most certainly is a step in the right direction however. The already superb alien locales of the first title have been enhanced yet further, and coupled with the new multiplayer mode this is bound to be a title that most Cube owners will be keen to snap up. Any worries that the Metroid Prime engine is not suited to multiplayer gaming seem utterly unfounded. The series' penchant for exploration has been carried over and the arena of play here offered plenty of opportunities to gain a geographically strategic waypoint, giving you an advantage over your foes if you're cunning enough to discover them. Fortunately the visuals remain just as lush when playing with friends.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Nintendo stand, and possibly of the show, was the majestic Donkey Konga (GC). For those not aware of it, it's a rhythm action title that uses a dual-bongo accessory that you beat in time with the music. It may sound dull but few games on this planet are as fun. When I heard that the J-Pop soundtrack from the Japanese version had been replaced with a more Western-orientated track list I admit that I was a little concerned, but this was thoroughly unfounded. Songs like "Dancing in the Street" and "Alright" by Supergrass are ideal for the title and work terrifically. I only reluctantly left the game when I got tired of the fat snotty kid behind me complaining that he wanted a go and feared that his snotty hand may start tapping me. Round all of this off with a couple of machines playing the magical Animal Crossing (GC) and all in all Nintendo gets a huge thumbs up.
So, with all of this gaming splendour there's only one title left to finish off a great show. It wasn't until my second day at the show, the Friday, that I made sure I was at the venue early and at the front of the queue to play multiplayer Halo 2. Getting in a few minutes ahead of the public I was there early enough to see punters literally falling over each other (and I mean literally) to get in early enough to avoid the 2 hour queue that awaited anyone else wishing to play Bungie's latest throughout the whole of the show. All of that for only 5 minutes with the game, but for many that was a price worth playing. To be honest, it becomes harder to judge a title when it's surrounded by such fierce hype, but rest assured that none of you are going to be disappointed. Graphically there weren't any obvious major enhancements but with duel weapons, Warthog's and lots of death on offer it was certainly an exhilarating experience. The one game I played was a capture the flag event. Manic, polished, refined and dramatic, even this brief play was enough to confirm that Halo 2 is destined to become one of the premier Xbox Live titles when it's released on November 11th. Disappointingly there was no opportunity to sample the single player game, but I'm not sure I would have braved another 2-hour queue anyhow.
I'm sure now you understand why it was all so exhausting. So many games, so much gorgeous hired totty and even a retro zone where I was able to trounce a few unfortunate youngsters at Street Fighter II and relive past memories of Galaga. The combination of the trade and press event under one roof, no doubt inspired by the previous success of the Playstation Experience, is certainly a winning recipe. No doubt we have witnessed the future for British games shows, and rightly so. ECTS will be missed if it's not to return, but be happy in the knowledge that its been superseded by an exciting event that you're able to experience just as much as us journalists. So, job well done people - pats on backs all round. Now, I'm off to bed...
Game of the Show:
It's impossible to choose between the outstanding Outrun 2 or the unbeatable fun of Donkey Konga (I'm still drumming out "Dancing in the Street" on my PC desk as I type).
Hardware of the Show:
The Zodiac handheld stood out as a fine piece of kit, though for the life of me I still can't imagine who will ever buy it.
Disappointment of the Show:
Why spend huge amounts of cash hooking up every console to a plasma flat screen TV when you're going to use £2.50 composite cables to hook them up? This was true of every single demo game meaning that none of them were experienced in their true graphical splendour.
Moment of the Show:
Seeing the editor of an unnamed Xbox fansite taking a rather violent tumble whilst sprinting in an effort to get to the front of the Halo 2 queue (you know who you are Mr. Cram). And having my picture taken with a real-life Storm Trooper!
With Sony's Playstation experience happening later in the month at Alton Towers, there were no Sony games on show (meaning no Killzone). Also, Resident Evil 4 only made a brief ECTS-only appearance and Metal Gear Solid 3 was so well camouflaged that even if I had walked right past it I probably wouldn't have noticed. Most sorely missed however was the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. A pink GBA alone simply won't cut it. Also, no GTA San Andreas, but that's not exactly a surprise.