For the most part, Tuesday offered insights into independent games, and their growing influence in the games industry. Tuesday was also, for at least part of the day, a chance to get caught up on upcoming offerings from Microsoft Game Studios. Though MGS doesn't have a keynote at this year's Game Developer's Conference, representatives from several of the company's first and third party studios were on hand to demonstrate the future of Microsoft gaming. I had the chance to sit in on demos for Mass Effect and Shadowrun. Additionally, Peter Molyneux was there to offer up a very unusual slice of gameplay from Fable 2: an adventurer and his dog. Read on for my impressions of these anticipated titles.Mass Effect
I should say up front that I walked into the Mass Effect demo already fairly biased. BioWare's RPG formula has worked for me since the days of Baldur's Gate, and when I sat down in a darkened room with about fifteen other people, I was already keen on the game. It would be an understatement to say that they did not disappoint. The Doctors of Bioware were onhand for the demonstration, and the phrase of the day was "It grabs you and never lets go". For once, the PR actually matched up with what I saw onscreen.
In this demo, we were shown the first hour or so of the game's actual play. He showed us the character creation process, and then moved on into the earliest part of the story. We got to see low-level combat, more of the wonderful conversation system, and caught a glimpse of the arch-villain of the story: a Taurian named Saren.
Character creation allows you to tweak more than just your appearance and gender. The character's background is also subject to your decisions. Did your character grow up on earth, or on a colony? Or were they a station brat? Though it wasn't immediately obvious how this affected the game over the course of the 40-some hours of main quest, it was mentioned in the opening moments of the game. The NPCs who discussed the main character's background seemed to have pre-conceived notions based on where he was born. One could assume that if they know of your history, NPC reactions will change based on this information.
Hopping into the game proper, the player is immediately put onboard the Normandy - the vast space vessel that will serve as the hub of action for the majority of the game. The conversation system was shown off again by allowing us to interrupt, or join, a conversation between two helmsmen. The quick flick of the stick that the was used to select an option was effortless, and it was pointed out again that 'option types' will generally be in the same place. So, if you want to be kind, you can choose the upper right option. Being a jerk is the lower right option. Once you have a mental map in place, the player will be able to respond purely on emotion.
From the conversation on the bridge, Commander Sheppard is led back to a communications room where the ship's captain and a Turian named Nihlus wanted a word. Though the cruise is ostensibly a shake-down for the Normandy, the event also has a diplomatic element. We're to head to a human colony world to recover an artifact uncovered in a dig project. The object is left over technology from the precursor race whose works allow all other races in the galaxy to travel faster than light (utilizing the mass effect). It's obvious throughout the conversation that the main character is a bit in over his head, and it's possible to show that by interrupting and backtalking. A comm call breaks the mood, and we see imagery of destruction and chaos from the planet we're heading to.
Anyone who has seen previous demonstrations for this game knows what's coming: the robotic Geth race have arrived, and in force. Nihlus, Sheppard, and a pair of soldiers land with instructions to retrieve the alien technology and retreat. Nihlus scouts ahead, but doesn't really do that great a job; Sheppard and the grunts are almost immediately set upon by small flying weapons platforms. This allows the team to show off the inventory, skill system, and two of the different character classes. Inventory and skills are very straightforward; anyone who has played a western rpg will be familiar with the object managements system used in the game. Skills are dictated by a character's class, and can be improved via skill points whenever Sheppard gains a level. Initially, Sheppard is the soldier class, which concentrates on weapons and armor skills. After demonstrating some of the combat we've already seen, they switch to a different saved game where Sheppard is an 'adept', a user of the mass effect that can manipulate the world around him. Using the adept powers cover can be created in thin air and drones can be swatted out of the sky. While the early adept powers don't look to differentiate themselves much from weapons fire, judging by the powers available later in the game the adept will be a varied class to play.
We skip ahead a bit, to show some of the extremely dense optional content you can engage in. The squad and Sheppard meet up with a scientist, a survivor of the Geth and their electrozombie deathsquads. She tells us what's going on, as best she can, and tells us to head to the spaceport. There's a conversational option, though, called 'investigate'. Throughout the conversation with the woman, her co-worker is raving and ranting about the end of all things. By going back to investigate we can interrogate her on a number of subjects, including the sanity of her fellow scientist. While she makes overtures in his defense, we are taking none of that ... and cold-cock him. He goes down. The presenters make it a point to say that, though this character isn't integral to the plot, your actions to have consequences. If we were to meet up with this guy later in the game he would definitely remember what we've done. There are dozens of hours of this optional content, and it's totally up to you as the player whether you want to engage with that element or not.
Effortlessly, the story sidesteps to a cutscene showing Nihlus killed by the renegade Saren. We don't get much information about the man or his intentions, but even just having known Nihlus for a short period of time there's a sense of betrayal to the game.
That's essentially the end of the demo, and the doctors load up a save game that has us standing in the Citadel, the vast space station that will be home to hundreds of NPCs we'll get to know over the course of the game. It, like the rest of the title, is absolutely beautiful to behold, and a tremendous place to stop.
The folks at Bioware have already said that Mass Effect won't be at E3 this year ... because it will already have been released. Somewhere between now and July we'll finally get to crack into this game, and I can't wait. My only complaint about the entire experience was some framerate hiccups in the midst of the heaviest combat. Assuming that they get things nailed down to 30 fps by the time the game releases, I think the company will maintain its tradition of always making their 'best game yet.'
To put it bluntly, Shadowrun was even more disappointing than I'd expected it to be. I've come to terms with the FPS nature of the title, thanks in large part to various impassioned defenses of the game I've seen around the web by development team members. Just the same, the game I sat down to see yesterday was not a retail title. It was a gorgeous, innovative Xbox Live Arcade title: very much not worth the $49-$59 it's going to cost.
At first blush, though, the game has a lot to offer. You've likely already seen the gameplay that Shadowrun offers. The phrase 'Counter-strike with elves' pretty much sums it up. Twitch shooter players will have the chance to combine technologies, magic, and weaponry in an deadly effective 'builds'. The demo team claimed that they'd been playing the game essentially for three years, and there's no doubt in my mind that's the case. While 45 minutes wasn't enough time to get a firm feel for a competitive shooter's balance, it was obvious just from the gameplay I saw that they've put a lot of effort into tuning. For example: the 'smoke' power allows you to be invulnerable to damage and invisible to radar. It is countered by a 'gust' power that can push characters away or cause a good deal of damage to characters under the smoke power.
What's more, the gameplay did feel fundamentally different than your typical FPS. Based on the choices the demonstrators were making, there was a definite tone of 'super-heroics' to go alongside the title's gritty combat. Teleporting into the air, and then through walls, only to float down into a courtyard on a personal glider feels very 'right'. There were a number of weapons in the game, and each has obvious advantages. As far as I could tell, there weren't any weapons that were in there just to pad out the number of options.
Complaints were leveled at FASA last E3 for the game's looks, and it is now easy to say that graphics are no longer a problem. The game looked phenomenal both on a Vista PC and the 360. Lighting especially gave the crooked alleys and byways of the maps a dramatic tone. Seeing another character teleport, or the growth of the 'tree of life' healing spell, is quite striking the first few times.
The problem is (and I experienced this even during the course of the demo) that players will be seeing these graphics, these weapons, these maps over and over and over again. There is no single player campaign; you can't even play the game split-screen with a guy in the same room. They're planning to ship with about 12 maps, and a handful of gameplay modes ... and in all likelihood they're going to charge about $49 bucks for this. I greatly respect what FASA is trying to do with this game, and it really does seem like a charming title.
Unfortunately, there's just not enough 'there' there to justify that price. PC gamers already have Counter-Strike to chew on, and are slathering in anticipation of Team Fortress 2. Console gamers are playing Gears and Rainbow Six, and in just a few months will be flocking to the Halo 3 beta. I just don't see any room in the lives of multiplayer gamers for this title. While I love the Shadowrun franchise ... who wants to be a foofy elf when you can play the Chief?
Sitting down in the same room with Peter Molyneux is an experience. The man has a very engaging speaking voice. The journalists in the room were all properly cynical (Molyneux has done more than his fair share of overpromising), but even still it's very hard not to take him seriously when he talks.
He begins by talking a bit about Lionhead's philosophy behind games. Sequels should be a reason to play again, get the blood boiling, do new things. They shouldn't just be retreads of the same old thing. After the first Fable they opened the doors to the community, they've listened, and everything you'd expect is going to be in the game. Bigger swords, bigger everything.
But, he says, "Lionhead as a studio means to give you something you've never seen before. I truly believe Fable 2 will be a landmark game." There are three features in Fable 2 that are 'wow' moments, and he showed just one at the event. The other two are for another time. But, he thinks, this one feature will really have us interested. Or, as he put it "You won't get it." Other way, he promises it will give you pause.
The greatest gaming moments of all time, he says, are connected to emotions. FFVII, when Aerith is killed; Ico, when the princess saves the main character. One of the three features, then, is Emotion. Molyneux intends for us to feel something that we've never felt before for a videogame character: love. He wants players to feel love in the game. So, to start with, you'll be able to play as either gender. You'll be able to get married, have protected or unprotected sex, and have babies. If you're a female character, you can get pregnant. As far as he knows, this is the first game where that's possible. There is same-sex marriage, as in the first title, but a same-sex couple can't conceive.
Your children grow up as you adventure along, and eventually they start to look like you do. In Molyneux's view, game worlds just don't appreciate protagonists enough. You save the town from dragons, and everybody treats you the same as before. In Fable 2, villagers will be like "oh, it's that guy that saved us, everybody come see!" Likewise, when your kids come running up to you saying "Daddy, daddy, I heard about the scorpions! Tell me all about it!", he figures you're going to feel something.
As an aside, he says "Oh man ... we're training game testers to be mass murderers." This is in reference to the long hours they have to repeatedly play game content over and over again, and is hilarious with a British accent.
This love/emotion stuff is a core element of the game, and he feels very strongly about it. Just the same, he understands that not every player is going to want to go down the romance/love trail. So, to ensure that every player has to deal with it at least somewhat, every character is going to have a dog.
The dog, he says, loves you. It loves you unequivocally, and the entire thought process behind the dog's design was that it can't aggravate you. If he's in any way aggravating, then he's already lost you. On the other hand, the first time the dog makes you smile, the first time the dog makes you care ... then he's *got* you. And he can exploit you.
One of the folks in the room pipes up with "Can the dog die?" Molyneux demures; he has to save that topic for another day.
The inspiration for the dog was the lower case d in nethack. The dog is completely autonomous. There are no buttons to control the dog. You control the dog by playing the game. The dog understands what you're doing, and that's how you control him.
To give an example of how you teach the dog, he deals with the dog's 'bloody squeaky ball.' The dog digs up the ball, which Molyneux has previous hidden. To tell the dog that he doesn't like the ball at all, he scolds him a few times, but then relents and tosses the ball anyway. Somewhere in the discussion of interaction with the dog, farting comes up. You'll have a command to fart on command. "For an english audience, breaking wind on cue will sell millions."
On an adventure, the dog's job is to watch your back. He keeps watch for new stuff, new enemies, new objects, new opportunities. As an aside, he says that he found it hilarious that they spent many millions of dollars making the original game and 'you could play the whole game on the minimap.' The dog is the way they've 'gotten rid of the minimap'. He shows an example of the dog in a fight, and he points out the high level of the dog's intelligence. The weapon you use dictate's the dog's behavior in a fight. If you have a gun out (there are guns in Fable 2), the dog will attack a melee fighter. If you have a sword in your hand, the dog will attack a ranged opponent.
In the course of the fight, the dog gets hurt and begins limping along. You have the choice, Molyneux says, to not have a dog. They give every character the opportunity, but you don't have to do anything you don't want to. If the dog gets hurt, and you just don't care ... you can just walk away. Then he says "Sometime you'll be in a tavern, though, and you'll hear a scratching at the door." The dog will try as hard as it can to get back to you. While I've been with him most of the way so far, this feature strikes me as something that will be quick to go when the development cycle starts looking too long.
As you develop in the game, the dog follows the same lines. He'll develop skills, the same way your character does, and will change in appearance to match your character's personality. An evil character will have something like a doberman; a good character will have something much more fluffy. Voice recognition will be in the final game, allowing you to train the dog to perform things on voice command. It's not currently in the demo, so we can't see how it's shaping up so far.
You don't have to feed him. They tried working with a feeding mechanic, but it was just too aggravating. He'll feed himself (hunting rabbits is the example), and you can feed him if you want. It's just not a crucial game mechanic. You can end up with a fat dog if you feed him too many treats.
With that portion of the demo completed, he loads up a movie that shows a quick flythrough of the game's capital city. In the first game, the city was just 40 houses. In Fable 2, 500 years in the future, it's a sprawling metropolis with three complete districts. Every house and shop and stall in the city is purchasable, apparently. He takes a great deal of pride in pointing that, while they're still nailing down the emotion stuff, the in-game economy is done, solid, nailed. It's fully reactive too; if you buy a bunch of houses and then jack up the price, you become slum lord. That area of town changes, too, with more trash in the streets and the look of the buildings getting sketchy. As Molyneux says: "Buy a grocer, and decide not to sell oranges one day. See what happens."
Every shop and house that you purchase has the possibility of unlocking quests. You can become the city tailor, or grocer. Why not own a castle? Own a dungeon! Own a temple of Evil. All of these elements are completely optional, and represent possibly hundreds of hours of gameplay.
This immersion extends out into the countryside too. In the first game he was famously quoted about acorns and trees. "We've gone beyond that." The whole countryside is changeable based on your decisions. If you help a gypsy camp early in your career, dozens of hours later you may come back to find a small village has cropped up. If you wipe them out, on the other hand, there will a pristine glade. My game of Fable won't be the same as your game of Fable.
Wrapping things up, he says that he can't talk about combat today. They're nailing things down, and it will get implemented this summer. He feels, very passionately, that this is Lionheads magnus opus. It has to be. "If I don't get this one right, I shouldn't be in this industry." He concludes by confirming the game won't be out this year, and the session ends.