We brushed yesterday, in our West Hall report, on a swelling feeling that the majority of the games industry is somewhat floundering with its future. There comes a point when every publisher must make a decision as to just how much it should sell out and to what extent it should take risks and it seems that the industry as a whole has yet to decide?
In case of point, this year?s entire show, and especially the South Hall, is awash with clone games, to the point where it becomes almost embarrassing for those charged with reporting upon them and those charged with representing them.
A great example is the illegitimate spawn of Need For Speed Underground that litters the floor. Juiced from Acclaim and Street Racing Syndicate from Namco are shameless attempts to cash in on Electronic Arts? shameless attempt to cash in on The Fast and the Furious. So if we have two companies copying one company, which copied a movie, just what are we left with? And more importantly what games did these insipid clones prevent getting green lighted?
Discussing this feature in the car on Hollywood Boulevard, it was suggested that it should be an examination of what we have been denied of as the darker side of mass-market, marketed en-masse software drowns E3. We couldn?t do this however, because it?s something we?ll never know and therein lies the tragedy.
In something of a shift in strategy, it would seem that Electronic Arts, the world?s leading third-party publisher, has seen fit to make some heavyweight additions to its roster, a welcome move after the company has been (rightly) criticised for churning out the same sports titles year after year. Having signed both Burnout 3 and TimeSplitters 3 has done wonders for the reputation of EA ? but how much better if they had nurtured these franchises from inception, instead of prising them away from their original publishers by the power of the bottomless EA wallet. EA?s Sports offerings are massively popular in the US as ever, though the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise seemed to have lost something along the way ? pods featuring this title were ominously empty for much of the show. Perhaps E3 doesn?t attract this titles core audience.
Buena Vista, the newcomers to the industry played its first ?proper? E3 hand very much by the book. Armed with what has been oft-referred to as a war-chest of cash to invest in its ?move? into games, it bagged a colossal stand right at the front of the South Hall adjacent to that of EA. Though the stand was filled, it with not that impressive at all. The Disney-powered expansion seems to be starting at the very beginning of the book entitled, How to Become a Videogames Publisher, and is making some strange decisions along the way.
In detail, BV is completely unique in the games industry for one simple reason. It has no experience at all in making games but brings to the table some of the most valuable IP on the planet. With most firms in the sector struggling to grab hold of anything that falls from the table of EA, All Buena Vista has is IP ? The result is strange indeed ? AAA franchises housed in games that simply do not (the Square Enix-developed Kingdom Hearts games aside) match up. Game Boy Advance Kim Possible, the spin off from the thoroughly enjoyable cartoon series, is a bland 2D platformer of negligible merit, reminiscent of the sickly days of the GBC boom period. Let us hope that this is not the future of the industry - forcing your way into the market place in this way, denying developers of real games any chance to produce the software that consumers want to buy.
Konami as ever is one of the more exciting stands gracing South Hall and offers what is perhaps the best mix of mainstream and hardcore games on show. Metal Gear Solid 3 takes its rightful place at the forefront, set inside a mini jungle of its very own, reminiscent of E3?s glory days. Over that past ten years, E3 has been at the forefront of modern show set design. One year Activision?s stand was essentially a huge castle with a full-sized vert ramp sticking out of one side! This year, there is nothing to match the shows former excesses. There was a time when simply sticking some kind of motor vehicle on the stand was something of a cop-out. Now, it?s in the premier league of E3 offerings. But we digress.
Back to Konami, it?s great and very much affirming to see games like Neo Contra and Gradius V rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest franchises on the market. Why Konami US refuses to show Pro Evolution Soccer to an American audience still baffles us completely. And as ever, Dancing Stage is a massive series that continues to delight and will likely continue to sell brilliantly.
Konami?s other key offering, Silent Hill 4, has taken an interesting twist, delivering something more than predecessors. Imagine Shenmue in Evilworld and you should get the idea. Following the massive success of the two PlayStation 2 incarnations, the budget has been assigned to significantly up the scale of the third, with Konami no doubt keeping an eye on Capcom?s latest Resident Evil title for GameCube, a triumph indeed.
Other interesting titles of note included the perv ?em up Rumble Roses, which despite its salacious nature, seems to offer the thrills that wrestling fans (and heterosexuals) everywhere are looking for. The Gran Turismo challenger Enthusia is a promising looking racing sim that boasts very impressive suspension physics, if you like that kind of thing. Which of course, you do.
Namco this year made good on its promise to deliver a more effective push for market share, with a monster stand housing some very interesting games. The firm?s intent is there for all to see, and refreshingly, Namco seems focussed on building its business with quality products. Ghost Hunter looks as good as anything on offer in this phase of the PlayStation 2 lifecycle, as did Tekken 5, though the rolling demo on show may well have been taken from the RAM monster offspring of Sony?s machine, the System 246 arcade board.
Ace Combat 5 was heavily pushed, as was the inexcusable Street Racing Syndicate and Dead 2 Rights.
VU Games is another firm that is seemingly on the ascendance. Buoyed by an impressive and unmissable confidence, Amiga stalwart Leisure Suit Larry shared pride of place with the impressively awful looking Fight Club, which is a strong contender for Least Promising Game Ever awards. Imagine Pit Fighter, but less impressive and more formulaic. A great shame really?
Vivendi?s platform duo of Spyro and Crash were both received well by attendees, the games are gleaming gems in VU?s offering. It could be argued that both franchises need to evolve to match the requirements of an audience that is getting older and would like to continue to be challenged, though that is another piece altogether. And no Half-Life 2 again, a huge disappointment to fans of the original.
Walking around the South Hall, it was impossible not to feel sorry for the Gizmondo team, its challenge surely insurmountable in the face of PSP and DS.
Remember The Penguin Game, the one where you clubbed a penguin for as far as possible with the click of a mouse? JoWood has signed it and commissioned a massive amount on minigame spin-offs, surely a good thing. To commemorate this, a giant and impressively violent foam yeti set about patrolling the showfloor, it?s taste for inappropriately grabbing female attendees an impressive sight.
We?ve wasted many hours playing the Yeti games, but their appeal lies in their simplicity, which is sure to bring them considerable success as mobile games. But JoWood?s strategy seems to be to publish ?enhanced? versions for the PC... a strategy we remain unconvinced by. This may be the guilding of the lily.
And then it was on to Microsoft?s Xbox stand, the dominating feature of the South Hall. In keeping with the aesthetic that has adorned every Xbox event to date, a minimalist stand, awash with bright white light, played host to yet another intriguing line up from the US giant. The stand was awash with AAA software with some of the biggest names around playable on the stand. Doom 3 is perhaps an interesting place to start and a thorny subject for us aged gamers as if we are 100% honest, the game didn?t really live up to expectations.
With the post-conference frame rate concerns dead and buried, a time for closer inspection of the demo had arrived. Put bluntly, Doom 3 for Xbox looks nice, great in fact, but not the revolution we had all been hoping for, which cannot come as a surpise when one considers the now-aging specs of the machine. TO expect too much of a 733MHz PIII would be unreasonable. The game moves along nicely and doesn?t seem to have any noticeable lag, though everyone we spoke to was somewhat disappointed with what they saw. ?It?s kinda like, you know, just a normal game,? said one punter, perhaps summing up perfectly what might be a problem with the emergence of Doom 3 and any other super-hyped franchise. If you promise the Earth, you have to deliver, and beyond initial expectations. Perhaps Vicarious Visions can build their version of the game up to an unprecedented standard in the undisclosed amount of time left before the game ships, though at present Doom 3 is a great game ? not by any means a revolution.
It was interesting to see Forza Motorsport available to play and the game is well worth a look. You immediately notice that the game does manage to tread the, until-now Polyphony-exclusive, tightrope between arcade and simulator very well, with the cars physics working to great effect. We must, however, point out one very important thing about the game. It was unclear as to whether actual damage was inflicted upon the rides and we were given the impression that it did at Microsoft?s press conference, with the rolling demo showing one car badly scarred from barrier impact. It was assumed that yes, at last someone had managed to convince the auto trade that having gamers smash up their cars in a videogame wouldn?t deter them from buying the actual product. A seed of doubt was sewn when an emphasis was put on performance and handling changes, but we had seen a car mauled ? confusion ensued.
Having spent time with the code today, we can tell you that the paintwork of the cars can be scratched? but nothing more. You cannot smash the wings off or make any impact on the bodywork. Keep an eye on Forza, it has a great chance of becoming one of the best Xbox Live titles to date.
We?ll bring you more from South Hall tomorrow. Until then, we leave with a sense of overall disappointment at what the main body of publishers has on show. As we reported yesterday, a feeling that little has progressed abounds at this year?s E3, which is a great shame indeed. Please understand, there are some great games hidden away, albeit obscured somewhat by the mountains of high-budget shovelware abundant in the current market.
Or perhaps we are just suffering a Nintendo hangover from yesterday?s elation ? we?ll know in time.
Expect full analysis of just exactly what E3 2004 actually means to you, whether as part of the industry or a consumer of it, in the coming weeks right here on SPOnG.