Features// Electronic Arts Winter Showcase

Accosted by a Stormtrooper

Posted 6 Nov 2009 17:13 by
It's not every day you're greeted in the morning by a 5ft, Geordie Stormtrooper. He was largely unthreatening – I was simply shivering because I was standing outside the venue to an Electronic Arts Showcase event, and London November mornings are bitterly cold. Honest. I even had conversation with the armed guard. Made a joke about Darth Vader. I probably shouldn't have done.

I was able to enter the venue before the Stormtrooper was able to do anything about it though, and my mind was focused on the size of The Old Dairy, not to mention the offering of EA titles ready and waiting to be played. A couple of years ago I would have said that the choice of venue was ironic for a publisher like EA. But there's no milking to be had here – the company has been on something of a refresh since 2007 and as a result have a Winter lineup that most others would be very envious of.

After a brief presentation by EA Vice President Keith Ramsdale on the company's growth (apparently it's clawed back the #1 publisher spot from Nintendo); its sports dominance (“PES is struggling like most non-mainstream franchises. It really is a FIFA world” - ooh, get him) and the future of gaming (“Single player experiences are no longer the future”), I sat down and enjoyed some games, dammit! Here's a selection of what I saw.

Mass Effect 2

Described by BioWare CEO Dr. Ray Muzyka as “Our Empire Strikes Back”, Mass Effect 2 was quite rightly one of the headliners of this showcase. Taking a darker theme than its predecessor, Shepard is back and needs the help of as many different allies as he can find to reveal the secret of the Collectors, a legion of aliens that are abducting humans and other species for unknown purposes.

My playtest involved finding answers about my mission from an apparently well-informed Asari that socialises in the After Life bar on planet Omega. The graphics have been heavily improved and BioWare have taken a lot of care and attention to remove the framerate issues that was apparent in the original Mass Effect. It's easily one of the best looking games I've seen this year (Uncharted 2 notwithstanding) and the whole atmosphere of the planet and club seems inspired by Blade Runner, with all kinds of orange neon pulsing around the club.

After a few discussions and role play gameplay it was time to get stuck into combat – the demo skipped forward to a rather nasty situation that Shepard had gotten himself into, and with the help of his two teammates had to take out a seemingly endless torrent of violent androids. Here, I noticed that the gameplay has been changed up somewhat – gone are the infinite ammo, overheating weapons in favour of manual reloads. According to BioWare this is to improve the flow of the game, and I truly didn't mind the change.

It seems that there's just enough changes and improvements – particularly in the graphical department – to not mess with the formula too much, but still keep it enticing and fresh. Even in its cutscenes, there were moments of interaction where I had the chance to snipe a few droids during a re-encounter with a familiar face from the first Mass Effect game.

Of course, the main draw to Mass Effect is in its story, which obviously is not being spilled too much. I did notice that Shepard looked very different however; there are noticeable ridges around his eyes, discreet yellow marks on his chin and he appears to be wearing eyeliner. Whatever's happened to the lead character, it's certainly got people interested. Only three more months to go...

Left 4 Dead 2

Valve's crazy zombie-survival game is coming in just a few weeks, and EA happily let us play as much of the final version as we had time to between interview sessions. The gameplay remains largely the same as the original, in that you join a team of four unfortunate souls travelling from point A to B, surviving all kinds of zombified mutants along the way. Health packs and ammunition are less frequent this time around, and the difficulty has been ramped for more mayhem.

In a scenario that immediately brought back thoughts of the fantastic movie Zombieland, one level has the four survivors trying to escape an amusement park, running through Love Boat-esque rides and resulting in a dash around an entire roller-coaster track to turn off an alarm that's alerting all the undead.

Another episode from the same scenario took the team through barns and ticket fences, before a big zombie crescendo that threw about two Boomers and three Witches in our faces. It wasn't a pretty sight. A Versus stage I played was set in a rock concert arena, with the survivors having to set off pyrotechnics and electric guitars to signal for an SOS. As the zombie hoard, players can become one of the various types of mutants with different abilities – climbing up walls, spitting acid, leaping on survivor's heads... that sort of thing.

It was all great fun, and should give gamers plenty to scream about over Xbox Live. Speaking of which, I was told that yes, Mike Patton (legendary rock singer of Faith No More fame) is still doing the voices of the zombies.
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