2013 PAX East Highlights

Early on Friday morning...
Early on Friday morning…

As I mentioned in my more personal blog, this year’s PAX was rather low-key, a fact I attribute to its position at the dying edge of this console generation and exacerbated slightly by my own lack of a Windows or Linux personal computer. None of that, however, precluded my enjoyment of the weekend, and I thought I’d share my personal convention highlights: the few games, panels, and standout moments which comprised the non-friend-driven highlights of this year’s PAX East.

Panels

Panels are always a bit of a gamble at PAX. Often it’s a high risk, high reward system whereby you sink an hour or two into line-squatting and hope that the hour-long panel pays off. Some people decide up front to skip out on panels altogether, but I like to go for at least one a day.

Of course, you can’t always get into all the panels that look interesting, particularly if they’re anywhere near the same time. I’d have loved a chance to sit in on Cliff Bleszinski’s storytime session but by the time I got onto the show floor on Friday I realized I should have been waiting upstairs in the main theater line from the very beginning rather than the expo line. So after a cursory stumble through the expo hall, I headed upstairs to the next panel I’d wanted to hit, Square-Enix’s Recreating an Icon: The Talent Behind the New Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER.

But seriously. Go get this game. Now.
But seriously. Go get this game. Now.

It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that a panel devoted to a franchise once known for trademark misogynist character animation was comprised entirely of women, from the community management side to animation to lighting to localization. Between the panel and a video featuring author Rhianna Pratchett, a wide scope of topics was touched upon, not least of which being the sexual assault fiasco that erupted prior to the game’s release, the difficulty of the puzzles versus their more organic/accessible (rather than arbitrary/gamey) design, and why the Shanty Town is so darn hard to navigate (it used to be impossible). While hardly the most riveting moment of the weekend, it was a friendly and invigorating start to my PAX, and a good segue back into the gaming world coming off the tail of last week’s marathon rush to 100% campaign completion.

Saturday’s doorbusting didn’t go quite as planned, due to a later-than-it-should-have-been start and having to park in the frigid and tempestuous overflow jetty lot (I instagrammed a picture of the lengthy line waiting behind me for the not-frequent-enough shuttles to bring us warmth). Thankfully the main blip on my radar was an early afternoon panel called Behind the Music of Blockbuster Video Games, which featured a surprisingly robust list of participants (though sadly not all of the ones listed in the app were present; most notably Garry Schyman). Having purchased Jason Graves’ Tomb Raider soundtrack on the drive up to Boston, I was pleased to see he was not one of the dropouts. The discussion itself was pretty varied: each composer’s background, games worked on and their relative success or failure, favorite scenes scored, reactions from non-gamers when they explain what it is they write music for. I’ll be honest: I don’t know a lot about music, and I haven’t played a lot of the games these gentlemen have scored, but hearing the thoughts behind people with the thankless job of making the music of Call of Duty memorable was actually really cool, and means I’ll be opening my ears a little more next time I go down to play something I assume is a little shallow.

Yet it was Sunday’s Gearbox panel which will take the prize for most entertaining (and, crass as it may be, rewarding) panel. While the Tomb Raider line received temporary tattoos which could be worn and flashed in return for a copy of the hardback The Beginning comic that came only with the Best Buy preorder version of the game, and while several lucky attendees of the music panel received a free CD, Gearbox participants were showered with prizes, including a myriad of pins on the way into the theatre, a chocolate coin wrapped in a gold SHiFT Key foil, and colored cards for a chance to win what would later turn out to be a lottery for overstocked Loot Chest swag.

Though anyone up on their gaming news likely already knows that was announced at the panel, the fact that Gearbox chose a fan event to unveil so many new things is strikingly refreshing. A new level cap, new weapon tier, and new playthrough were announced as a forthcoming DLC which would be grandfathered into the already value-packed Season Pass or sold for the reasonable price of $5. The fourth campaign DLC got a sneak peek trailer complete with 100% more Tiny Tina and great Vault Hunter cameos. And a new character, who looks insanely (no pun intended) fun to play, was unveiled, demonstrated in the most hilarious of fashions, followed up with by an even more insane demo reel, and then, just as we were about done with all that, we were told that Gearbox was giving everyone in the room that character for free (so…that’s $10 more saved just for being in the right place at the right time).

Wolf Blitzer. Blitzkrieg. Krieg. Not even kidding.
Wolf Blitzer. Blitzkrieg. Krieg. Not even kidding.

On top of all the swag, however, the real perk was just how enjoyable the Gearbox crew is. They demonstrate a sincere love for what they do, and even candidly played off the heavily negative response that their recent Aliens: Colonial Marines has received while trying to discuss their ongoing support for it in as succinct and damage-controlling a way as possible. When the panel’s start was delayed due to the need to fill the room, Mikey Neumann ad libbed his way through random audience participation and Randy Pitchford came out to perform a couple card tricks in front of the camera. Maybe there were more enjoyable panels in this weekend’s lineup? But consider me a skeptic.

Games

I’ll be honest. There weren’t too many games that got me excited this year at PAX East. I saw a lot of decent stuff but very few things made me feel like I needed to sit down and try them out. But there were a few that did make me pause (sometimes for excessive periods of time).

The first of these was the impossible-to-miss upcoming MMO from Carbine Studios called Wildstar. I don’t play MMO’s. I don’t have a PC. But after standing there gazing like an idiot up at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of trailers (they had a handful, and I watched them all), I was about ready to go build one. It’s not that the game looks ground-breaking (maybe it is? but i wouldn’t know). It’s not that I was blown away by the graphics or the gameplay possibilities or anything of the sort. It’s just that it looked really fun. It had a great personality. The two ever-battling sides were immediately recognizable and relatable. The various species and specializations distinct and engaging. And yeah, the art, I liked it. It’s not for everyone, it’s a bit exaggerated, but it was perfect for me. I watched a lot of Wildstar and at the end of the day I can honestly say that if I had a PC, I’d definitely be looking to give it a try.

Potentially my favorite game of the show was one I’d seen a blurb about in some magazine a month or so ago and had actually created a note on my phone specifically to remind me to go find out more about it: the gorgeous and inspired Contrast from Montréal-based indie developer Compulsion Games. Part Portal, part Braid, part Bioshock, and bursting with whimsy, the game is easier seen and felt than described. It focuses on a little girl and her mysterious magical friend — whom you control — who possess the ability to transfer at will between her physical form and her shadow — adding a new dimension of depth to devious platforming puzzles as you navigate both obstacles and the shadows they cast. It looks great, it feels great, and, with a completely original score ripe with jazz, it sounds great. After speaking at length with several of the developers I confidently told one that he couldn’t get it on Mac or a console quickly enough. If Contrast were available today I would already have purchased it. Seriously. Go check it out.

The only other developer I made such a bold declaration to was the guy who put me in front of a camera after my twenty-minute (and well-earned, might I add, considering the 2+ hour wait) demo of Supergiant’s newly-announced project, Transistor. Shocked that such a fun experience still had another year of development to go before its projected released, I flat-out told the man “if this were released tomorrow, I would buy it.” Once more inspired by jazz, but of a different bent, Transistor switches up Bastion‘s signature narration by adding a second character but keeping the omnipresent voice. Players control a woman I know only as “Red,” the lovely singer whose voice opened the demo over top a written exposition I was loathe to advance out of fear that advancing it too quickly would make the incredible music end prematurely (seriously, I sat there when the music ended waiting just to make sure it was over). She wanders over to a massive sword-like weapon sticking out of the corpse of a man — led there by the voice that seems to come from within the weapon itself. It seems she has tragically lost her voice — and he, his body.

Transistor looks to be an intriguing blend of action and turn-based RPG, with abilities requiring time to charge and then an attack-mapping system which allows you to freeze the action and carefully plan out your various attacks and even get behind cover, triggering increasingly-impressive combos before the enemies can properly react (but then it’s back to running for cover as you wait for your power to recharge). Supergiant teases a rich world filled with mystery and revelation, and our gruff narrator’s voice screams noir against a tragic cyberpunk world. It’s hard to explain how less than twenty minutes of a nascent game can justify waiting hours on one’s tired feet, but suffice to say, Transistor did just that. Bastion won the company all kinds of respect, and I firmly believe Transistor will outdo its predecessor. Too bad we’ll have to wait a year to find out.

Riot Games

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It’s funny how I always seem to be behind the times when it comes to trends. Everyone has been playing League of Legends for seemingly forever, but not me. I tried it very briefly but that was a mostly failed experiment in dual-booting. Once more a victim of the not-having-a-PC affliction, I turned a blind eye to Riot’s sensational hit and assumed that was that; until of course they announced an open Mac beta and I immediately downloaded it and got a new character too. For those so-inclined, my name is WORDSLING3R, and I have Ashe, Annie, and Twisted Fate. My wallet is terrified of what might happen if I let myself truly embrace this game.

Anyhow, no matter how you feel about MOBA’s, one thing is very clear about League: they have incredible artwork. And it was just my luck that as Friday afternoon began to take its toll on me and I no longer had any clear idea why I was still on the expo floor, I happened upon the tail end of a cosplay show and paused as I was told that three major employees of the company — artists and animators — would be doing a Q&A session while simultaneously designing a new player skin from scratch. I imagine a few others stuck around when that skin turned out to be a beach-themed Leona.

What unfolded before my eyes over the course of three days — because coming back to watch their progress each day became a necessity — was nothing short of magic to my I-can’t-even-draw-stick-figures-properly non-artist eyes. What began as a completely blank .PSD gradually evolved into smudges, rough lines, clear shapes, a woman, and then a colorful, shaded, and shadowed piece of art. And while all this happened on the large screen above the stage, the three presenters — Michael Maurino, Katie Desousa, and Mike Laygo — took turns juggling questions from the audience which leapfrogged all over the place: League lore, design, art, skins, animation, office habits, and working in the gaming industry in general. You got a real sense of passion on both sides of the microphone: people who loved working on this game, and people who loved playing it. And those groups weren’t even slightly mutually exclusive. You hear often of game devs who want nothing to do with the game they work on, but Riot’s employees come across as genuinely enthused, people who can’t wait to actually use the new skins and champions they spend their weeks putting together. It’s a contagious passion: it kept me coming back throughout PAX, and it has me quite ready to really put that open beta to the test. And if they ever release a collector’s artbook of some sort, may God have mercy on my budget.

Cosplay & Conclusion

Somehow, somewhere along the way, some people with extremely misplaced and inflated egos called cosplayers “lame.” But in recent years I’ve been blown away by how ridiculously untrue that is. The talent and dedication that these artists — let’s call a spade a spade — put into their craft is humbling. Sure, there are the few who “didn’t even try,” whose ensemble is more fittingly called homage than cosplay. And yes, there’s the occasional cosplayer (typically, though not always, female) whose outfit seems to have been designed with the specific intent of wearing as little clothing as humanly possible. But aside from the few bad apples, cosplayers are a diverse and talented crowd, and I saw some magnificent displays over the course of my three days. Silly old me decided this year it’d be worth not hauling around my DSLR, so my iPad was made to suffice. It worked well enough, a few blurry or missed shots notwithstanding. For the most part, cosplayers were the only thing I felt worthy of photographing this year. Below is a small gallery consisting of most of the ones I managed to capture.

A handful of fulfilling panels, a smattering of great games, and charming folks to photograph in between. These things are the PAX experience I chose to embrace, and in retrospect I have no regrets. I may not have pulled the largest swag bag, played the most games, or gotten professional grade shots of every cosplayer I wish I’d photographed, but all in all I’d say I did alright. As I said in my earlier blog, PAX is so much more than a gaming convention. But for a gaming convention, it sure was awesome.

Oh, and speaking of swag, my modest haul:

First four people to ask me can have the four Might & Magic: Duel of Champions Bonus Pack codes ^_^
First four people to ask me can have the four Might & Magic: Duel of Champions Bonus Pack codes ^_^

Borderlands 2: No Rest for the Wicked

Ah, Pandora. A world of wonder, of beauty, of majesty and riches beyond your imagination. And also, just a little bit, a world of midgets and murder.

The first Borderlands introduced players to this crazy, dangerous world through the eyes of one of four Vault Hunters — mercenaries cut from the same cloth but dyed different colors, united (or alone) in their quest to open the fabled Vault and bask in its glorious booty. And as anyone who finished the game knows, that didn’t exactly end as planned.

Borderlands 2 picks up several years after the events of the first game. The Hyperion organization — whose “Angel” served as guide, friend, and sometimes seeming turncoat in the last game — has taken over Pandora under the iron grip and masked watch of a man named “Handsome Jack,” who in his path to the annals of ostentatious heroic history has killed anyone he considered “savage” and driven those lucky enough to escape him to take refuge in a shielded city appropriately called Sanctuary. This bastion is the player’s first destination, as he or she steps into the shoes of a new generation of Vault Hunters, in search of a new (and hopefully less lethal) Vault.

Knowledge of the first Borderlands is hardly a prerequisite for play, though certainly not a hindrance either. Most important NPCs are holdovers from the prequel, including its four Vault Hunters — Lilith, Roland, Mordecai, and Brick — whose liberation from player control and interpretation affords a wonderful (and mostly realized) opportunity for truly fleshing their personalities and skill sets out. All the people you love (or love to hate) are back, including Scooter, Dr. Zed, Marcus, Moxxi, and of course your good friend Claptrap (whose newfound affinity for dubstep is forgivable in the wake of a nigh constant supply of hilarity).

Thankfully, Borderlands 2 is far more than a rehash. In addition to the smattering of familiar faces we meet a very colorful and memorable new cast, with noteworthy standouts like Scooter’s sister Ellie, the rambunctious but lethal Tiny Tina, and the hilariously evil Handsome Jack himself. The new Vault Hunters, too, are far more compelling, due both to a wider variety of callouts (things said when reloading, sorting inventory, getting kills, etc.) and to the inclusion of in-game audio diaries which give insight into the histories of each character and what led them to Pandora.

These four (five, if you preordered or have since purchased Gaige, the Mechromancer) avatars are far more than the husks you occupied in the first game. Hundreds of customization options can be won, earned, or found throughout the game and then applied to your character (namely color schemes and face/hair/head modifications), allowing a far deeper level of visual expression than before.

More importantly, the leveling system has been vastly improved, and each character has three distinct skill trees to be explored. Each tree provides very specific advantages which promote specialization in play style and guide the player in deciding where best to spend the precious points they earn over the course of the game; for example, Zer0, the robotic ninja assassin, has one skill tree which emphasizes stealth and close-quarters combat and another which emphasizes sniping and long-distance attacks. The sparseness of points requires the player to choose one route or the other to avoid having a character with mediocre abilities, as the most beneficial skills must be accessed by pouring points into the specific skill tree of which they are a part.

The result of this set-up is that the path you choose feels far more important, and you must play to your chosen skill-set. Thus two people may play through the game as Zer0 and have radically different experiences, for one may be constantly weaving in and out of enemies on the battlefield while the other remains completely out of the danger zone. Situations which prove challenging for one may be a pushover for the other.

Moreover, in a stroke of brilliance, Gearbox offers players the chance (at a negligible in-game fee) to reset their skill points at will and redistribute them elsewhere, meaning that a player who regrets going the sniping route halfway through the game can instantly become a melee powerhouse and, in a word, begin playing as an entirely different character. To that end there are more like 12 Vault Hunters than 4, and the desire to experience all those permutations keeps the game feeling fresh regardless of how many times you revisit a storyline or begin a new game.

As such, reviewing a game like Borderlands 2 is a bit of a fool’s errand. It’s a vast, sprawling experience with so many avenues for deviance that hundreds of hours of play leave you feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface. That proves to be the game’s only real problem: you’ll never have enough time to play it all the ways in which you’d like. It seems there really is no rest for the wicked.

That Game With the Crazy Guns…

A decade ago a company I loved released the first in a series I would come to adore. A sprawling universe filled with exotic locales, a few zany heroes, and an absurd arsenal, baptized in hilarity with a fart joke or two on the side, Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank games became synonymous for me with the PlayStation — indeed, the gaming — experience. They were about exploration and discovery, about friendship and betrayal, and about destroying a lot of stuff to collect a lot of stuff so you could afford to destroy more stuff more efficiently. I spent a great deal of effort in each entry striving to unlock the promise to “rip you a new one” with a weapon more ludicrous than most other guns in the game combined, and the aim was always one of two extremes: awe or amusement. Rain fire from heaven or turn enemies into chickens, and let the 1812 Overture play on.

It’s been ten years since I first strapped a robot on my back and used his propellers to glide safely from one hilarious encounter to the next, and my memories of the franchise will always be golden as the hidden bolts I slaved away to acquire. But I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured (though some may beg to differ), and while the franchise survives it has done so as a perennial family affair — perfect for the twelve and thirteen-year-olds of today, but not so much for young adults like me. Sadly, for quite some time that “maturity” translated to the mundane, and years ago I traded the R.Y.N.O. for an M4A1 Carbine, the colorful worlds for gritty deserts, the boisterous protagonists for silent, faceless soldiers.

To clarify: I don’t consider the Ratchet & Clank series “kiddie games.” I played three of the PS3 entries last year and enjoyed them well enough. But when it comes to Insomniac, there’s a very clear divide between family-oriented material and adult-oriented material. And sadly, that sterile divide I alluded to earlier is most clearly seen within Insomniac’s own games: in its attempt to provide a “serious” experience in the first Resistance, Insomniac stripped almost all of its signature personality out of the game. Weapons felt uninteresting, and no one was cracking jokes. For the first time in my life, I felt compelled to call one of their games generic. I didn’t even have the heart to push through the whole campaign.

Insomniac’s heart is in making entertainment that everyone can enjoy, and while they excel at this goal, they do so at the cost that comes with eschewing specialization in any field: by being good at everything, they fail to be great at some things. As the most recent entries in the series demonstrate, Insomniac has decided to stop trying to please everyone and instead focus its future R&C games on younger players and their parents, on cooperative groups instead of “hardcore” soloists. And good for them: may they continue to thrive.

As for me, I’ve moved on. I’ve wanted a game that has inventive weapons that made each new acquisition feel exciting and new. I’ve missed in-game challenges, the signature Insomniac “skill point” checklist that functioned on a deeper and more engaging level than any achievement or trophy could hope to. I’ve longed to laugh out loud at character quips, to just listen to radio chatter or the recorded voice on a loudspeaker because everything is too brilliantly-scripted to ignore. I’ve wanted all of these things, but without the chains of childhood reigning them in. I’ve wanted a game that knows exactly what it is and has a blast being just that, and nothing else.

In short, I’ve wanted Borderlands 2.

Now, a “review” proper of this game will have to wait until I’ve finished the main storyline, but suffice to say the similarities between BL2 and the Insomniac games I once loved are uncanny:

  • To begin, the challenges list is the first time I have seen anything like the skill point system implemented in a mainstream shooter, and it is (dare I say) better-implemented than the skill points ever were, contributing directly to player strength and ability through the “Badass Points” system rather than merely unlocking easter eggs.
  • Vault symbols hidden in hard-to reach places are the golden bolts of Pandora, often requiring a great deal of time off the beaten path to locate and affording a similar sense of accomplishment when all in an area have been found.
  • While the weapons themselves never quite accomplish the cartoonish extremes of R&C, their names and effects are more creative than any I’ve seen elsewhere, to say nothing of the oddball unique weapons that some lucky players have been known to encounter. Grenade mods prove particularly compelling, between singularity bombs that create temporary miniature black holes to suck enemies towards them and the many varieties of child-bomb spawning ordinance.
  • Of course, no discussion of Borderlands 2 would be complete without mention of the humor, a point so ubiquitous that it notoriously ruined one prominent reviewer’s experience with its omnipresence. That’s not to say the game plays like a gag reel, of course. A few surprisingly poignant moments pepper the landscape, but the general feel is extremely laissez-faire, with supporting characters I’ve come to love as deeply as ever I loved Captain Quark and an antagonist as dreadfully endearing as any that ever threatened a lombax. Hyperion’s propaganda (especially at the Eridium mining facility), spouting with great pleasantness the expendability and worthlessness of its employees and citizens, brings me right back to the malls, factories, and cityscapes of years past, albeit with a more malicious edge surpassed only by that of a certain Aperture AI.

New, modern, and mature as it is, Borderlands 2 has been for me a game ripe with nostalgia, reminder of why I first loved games and why, despite years of ennui, I never truly lost that love. It proves that even if there is truly “nothing new under the sun,” there are endless, exciting ways to reconfigure the past.