Eurogamer Expo: Deus Ex: Human Revolution Developer’s Conference

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending all three days of the Eurogamer Expo, the event which kick started this year’s London Games Festival. Because of prior engagements, my time at the expo on Friday was mainly consumed by a talk given by Deus Ex: Human Revolution art director, Jean Jacques-Belletete, from Eidos Montreal. Well, actually, I’d say my time was divided equally between said talk, and queueing up for said talk, but it was well worth it!

The talk was mainly a showing of the game’s E3 2010 demo, where protagonist Adam Jensen visits the island of Heng Sha, off the coast of Shanghai, looking for hacker Arie van Bruggen. To get to him, Jensen needs to find his way into a bar called ‘The Hive’, and find a man named Tong who knows the whereabouts of Mr van Bruggen. Anyone with any interest in Deus Ex will have devoured its E3 coverage, so I’ll try to skip over everything that’s common knowledge, and focus on what really set this game apart from others.

Before the demo began proper, Jean talked us through Eidos Montreal’s vision for the game, and reassured the room that his team had ‘played the hell’ out of the original Deus Ex, and Deus Ex 2. The prequel, Human Revolutions, a cyberpunk saga set in 2027, is promised to bring as much freedom, and be as open-ended as the original Deus Ex. Human Revolutions is to be based on four ‘pillars’, which are combat, stealth, hacking, and social. Apparently, whichever path you take, or whichever combination of tools you use to get through the game will leave you with a distinctly unique experience. Sounds thrilling so far.

The demo booted up (interesting to note is the fact that it was played on a PS3, whatever you want to infer from that), and we saw Heng Sha for the first time. Jean interjected that his team had gone on a fabulous scouting trip on Google Earth, in order to ensure that Heng Sha was the right place for this level. How right he was. The first thing that struck me was the cut-scene in which Jensen jumps out of a helicopter type device, and is told to call in if he needs any help. The first Deus Ex was a game that relied heavily on a story that was relayed not only through cut-scenes, but mostly through memos, hacked e-mails, and public access terminals. This cut-scene, lovely as it was, suggested not a departure from these origins, but a suggestion that the story might play out more through cut-scenes, this time around. I’m sure Square Enix would have it no other way.

This is kind of, exactly what I saw. Note: this is concept art!

As we leave the cut-scene, and the player gains control of Adam, he belts down a flight of stairs until he reaches a bustling street filled with dozens of NPCs. Jean assures us that Eidos Montreal approached the game’s cities with the intention of creating a ‘living, breathing world’. I’m reminded of Hong Kong from the original Deus Ex. The original doesn’t look like much now, but back when I first played the game, it just seemed so real. Comparatively, this definitely has the same feel. There are window shoppers plodding around, glaring into neon lit shop windows; there are clubbers grouped together, traipsing up and down the road; there are even homeless people begging. This feels so Deus Ex. Jean also assures us that we can talk to everyone, which is something that added insane amounts of realism to the original, which was released in 2000.

Jensen navigates his way to the doors of ‘The Hive’, and his path is blocked by a bouncer asking for a membership card. At this point, Jean reminds us that there are many ways to get Adam into the club, whether he kills the bouncers, sneaks in through the sewers, or finds an open window on the roof. Sadly, for me, the gentleman playing the demo took the considerably hassle-free way out, and bribed the bouncer to gain entry. One thing that particularly struck me, however, was the booming, muffled sound of bassy club music from outside. I was getting more and more excited as the demo went on.

Inside the club, where the music was gladly not as atrocious as it would have appeared, Adam hops up some stairs, approaches a bartender, and a dialogue ensues. There are a series of options which can be selected (insist, pinpoint, provoke) to influence the flow of conversation, as opposed to selecting set dialogue options. What really impressed me were the facial expressions of this bartender. Of particular note were the eyes that screamed, “I’m lying!”, when his mouth was busy telling Jensen he had no idea who Arie van Bruggen is. Eventually, Jensen angered the bartender to such a degree that he halted the conversation, prompting the player to find a way into the club’s VIP area, where he’d hopefully find Tong. A quick spot of eavesdropping (another fall-back to the original Deus Ex) next to some bouncers informs us that one of them lost his PDA somewhere. A quick visit to the men’s room, and we’ve secured a door code for the VIP area. Shiny.

This is Tong.

"So, I hear you know Arie van Bruggen?"

In the VIP area, Jensen sneaks into some vents (another fall-back) and spies a meeting between the bartender, who is revealed to actually be Tong himself, and another menacing looking guy who is hassling him about your questioning into the whereabouts of Arie van Bruggen.

All of a sudden, the scene changes to some docks, where Jean informs us we’re going in gung-ho, macho style. This is the first time we see Adam’s augmentations being used, where his strength augmentation is used to lob away a crate obstructing a convenient hole in the perimeter fence. He switches to a crossbow, by way of a quick inventory (far removed from the RPG-style inventory of the first game) and pins some guards to walls, and other objects. There’s also quite a bit of third-person cover action, which flips from first to third-person with considerable smoothness. The third-person viewpoint also lets you get the most out of Adam’s takedown attacks, which include puncturing the heads of guards with some arm-mounted blades, and punching through walls to annihilate guards standing on the other side. They add a cinematic feel to the game, which is admittedly very cool, despite initially behaving like a purist who was against the idea of third-person segments to the game. However, Jean did inform us all that it’s possible to get through the entire game without killing a single person. I was unsure of whether this means you can simply avoid all combat altogether, or find some way to non-lethally pacify your assailants. The way Jean was talking about non-lethal takedowns, however, led me to believe it’s the latter.

The demo ends as Jensen drops into a warehouse, and takes out a rather menacing looking boss with a rocket launcher. We’re shown another cut-scene where a heavily augmented fellow with guns for arms enters, and looks ready to shoot Jensen’s head off. The lights go up, and the room bursts into applause, even though we’ve already seen this all before. It’s only testament to how heavily anticipated this game is. People are yearning for it, and more than that, they’re yearning that Eidos Montreal don’t screw things up.

Robots love rockets.

Eat my boomstick!

You know what? Having seen it first-hand, I’m sure they won’t screw it up. It’s going to be a very different game than the original Deus Ex, but it’s going to be very familiar game at the same time. Whatever it turns out to be, I’m sure we’ll all enjoy it. I honestly can’t wait.

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Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing: An opinion

Before I begin this entry, let me first say that I love Sonic, and love Sega. What I don’t like, are games that do their best to go out of their way to emulate another game. I think Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (quite a mouthful, no?) is an example of this. Let me also say now that I’m basing all of the opinions here on the game’s demo. For all I know, the demo could be a dumbed-down version of an absolutely epic game. What’s I’ve seen, though, leads me to believe otherwise.

Mario Kart has been around for as long as I can remember, and has established itself as (arguably) one of the best multiplayer racing experiences around. I believe, like most titles under the ‘Mario’ banner, that this is because the series keeps it simple, like I’ve already expressed in a previous blog entry. You instantly know where everything is, what all the powerups do, how the majority of the characters play, and it all makes you feel wonderfully right at home. Because of this continuity, tactics are transferable, to a great extent, between games in the series. In short, Mario Kart is awesome.

Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is a shot at the Mario Kart crown, and in my opinion at least, falls far short of it. Don’t get me wrong, the game is very pretty, and the characters seem faithfully recreated, but I just didn’t enjoy playing it.

Samba the monkey, and one of the Super Monkey Ball crew battle it out.

The game instantly hurls confusing design choices at you, right from the start. The opening trailer showcases the majority of the racers available to play as, but I was left wondering if some of the characters on the roster are Sega all-stars, or even all-stars at all. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Shadow make appearances, as would be expected, but they’re joined by a somewhat eclectic and questionable bunch of characters, from throughout Sega’s history. You’ve got Beat, from Jet Set Radio (later Jet Set Radio Future, on the Xbox), Billy Hatcher, from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, which enjoyed fleeting success from a single Gamecube release. You’ve also got Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter, who are hardly Sega all-stars, and Amigo the monkey, from Samba de Amigo, a rhythm game for the Dreamcast which involved shaking maraca peripherals that were supplied with the game. Great fun, but it still enjoyed only a single Dreamcast release. Not what you’d call an all-star, then.

The one thing that got me most excited about this game is the inclusion of Ryo Hazuki, from the Shenmue series, as a playable character. For me, this is huge news, as the Shenmue games, whilst not commercially successful, gained a huge cult following. Unfortunately, the series was cut short after the release of Shenmue II on the Xbox, but that hasn’t stopped gamers speculating when, and if the final game in the series will ever appear. Hit up the link, and you’ll see the furore created by Ryo’s inclusion in S&SASR.

It’s a terrible thought, but I think it’s probable that the eclectic character roster is nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick. Hardcore fans, like me, willing to do anything to see characters from their most beloved games again, will most likely buy a game in which said characters are included. I know that Shenmue fans everywhere are wondering if Ryo’s appearance means the possibility of Shenmue III appearing soon, and in some cases, I’d guess, are launching campaigns to mass-buy the game to show Sega they’re still faithful to the Shenmue series. I’d imagine this is the same for hardcore followers of Jet Set Radio, Samba de Amigo, et. al.

My only complaint is that Ryo is not driving a forklift truck.

Back to Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, which certainly is an intriguing name. It appears that Sega are trying to boost the worth of the title with the inclusion of the Sonic moniker in the title. Call it co-branding, brand-dilution, or whatever you want, but it seems as if Sega are trying to boost the title through its association with the Sonic brand. This is not right, and I’d imagine is partly why Sonic the Hedgehog has fallen on tough times recently. You can’t expect one character to sell an entire game, and the fact that the game has been heavily discounted since release leads me to believe there’s some truth in this.

The game itself seems like an ordinary racer, with an emphasis on ‘drifting’ around corners, which gives you intermittent boosts when you do so successfully. The full game incorporates courses from many Sega titles such as Sonic, Samba de Amigo, Jet Set Radio Future, and House of the Dead, interestingly enough. The demo is restricted to one level: ‘Lost Palace’, which is from some Sonic game I haven’t played. I hate to say it’s uninspiring, but it felt a little unfulfilling. You drift around corners, boosting into corners that follow shortly after, you hit boost pads, and that’s about it. The most exciting part of the level was the choppers (remember the mechanised piranhas from just about every Sonic game ever?) that jump out at you as you hop over various jumps. The ironic thing is that you’ve got to avoid them, and the inherent nature of a racing game means that you can’t time your jumps. Clever.

The power-ups are confusing, too. You get some familiar Sonic staples, like his Speed Shoes to speed you up, but everything else is a bit of a mystery at first, including a cone-shaped proximity mine, a flying boxing glove, and a rainbow. In Sonic’s words (straight from the loading screens), “The Pocket Rainbow can be dropped to block a racer’s view with colorful [sic] goo.” If running into one results in a goo explosion across your screen, then why call it a rainbow? Surely something like ‘goo bomb’ or ‘gank mine’ would be more appropriate. Sort it out, Sega.

SONIC, LOOK OUT!

There are also ‘special attacks’ that when used, do something character-specific. Sonic’s transforms him in Super Sonic (which is admittedly very awesome) and Banjo-Kazooie’s (the other playable character on the demo, go figure) grants Kazooie the ability to wave around her voodoo wand from Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, and make giant jigsaw pieces, or ‘jiggies’ fall from the sky. This does seem a bit gimmicky, and I would have liked to see something more innovative than, say, Amigo’s ability to make GIANT MARACAS appear above his car, which don’t really seem to have any logical use, but seem to work nonetheless.

One thing that really bothered me is that instead of letting you win most of the time and making you feel awesome (indeed, I believe that the point of a demo is to sell a game), the demo’s default difficulty is set to ‘Expert’, which is extremely difficult! I didn’t finish above fourth place, before I gave up. I’ve also failed to mention, up until this point, the annoying announcer who insists on narrating everything as irritatingly as possible; especially the fact that you’re losing. I do hope there’s an option to turn him off (ala Burnout) in the full game.

Overall, I’m unimpressed, but I think the game itself raises some good questions about Sega and its franchises, and suggests plenty of improvements to this end. Such as not including all your most beloved characters in mediocre racing titles. Boom.


Afro Samurai: First Impressions

In an attempt at writing something awesome, (I’d hate to bore you, dear reader), I’ve figured that I should probably fill my blog with things that are of interest to other people. As such, I’ve decided to write not a review, but a little bit about my first impressions of Afro Samurai (X360), which I picked up for a  bargain at Tesco a few days ago, as a little post-dissertation treat. That’s right. I’m proper smart, me. On a side-note, Tesco is a pretty great place to buy games, as they seem to be cheaper than most other stores, in some cases, both on and offline. You also get Clubcard points, which I’m sure we all know are great. In case you didn’t know, they’re pretty great. Every little helps!

I’m not really a big animé fan, excluding a brief fascination with Dragonball Z and Gundam Wing which I garnered as a young teenager, courtesy of Cartoon Network’s Toonami, so I’m not really sure what attracted me to Afro Samurai. Probably the fact that it had £20 slashed off the RRP, which is more often than not a bad thing when you’re talking about a fairly recently released game. I think I was mostly attracted to the big RZA badge emblazoned on the front of the box. I’m a great fan of the RZA and Wu Tang Clan, particularly his soundtrack work on movies such as Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.  However, as I walked out of Tesco, I noticed that the badge smugly proclaimed, in small-print, that the RZA only ‘supervised’ the music in the game. I almost cried. I’ve been foiled again by bureaucracy. Even so, it still stands that I’m completely fascinated by Samurai lore (let’s face it, ninjas suck, in comparison, unless we’re talking about Batman, of course) which makes this one heck of an appealing package. Oh, and Sam Jackson also has probably the biggest vocal role in the game, voicing Ninja Ninja, Afro’s light-hearted sidekick. Think Flavor Flav from Public Enemy (minus the clock) and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the role he’s playing. I’m about three levels in at the moment, and sadly, Mace Windu hasn’t made an appearance (yet), but I have faith. Watch this space.

The actual game itself is a sordid hack-and-slash affair, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wouldn’t have expected anything else from a game which asks you to play the role of a samurai with a huge chip on his shoulder, matched only by his immense afro. It’s a pretty awesome concept, no? The story is your standard revenge-like, ‘you killed my father’ offering, and tasks you with tracking down the fabled warrior who wears the much coveted #1 headband, who of course, murdered the father of Afro. Nothing stupendous, but I it carries the ‘story’ along as you’d expect in a heavily-discounted hack-and-slash title.

Now, I must stress, that the game looks lovely. I’ve only been playing it on my CRT TV (my lovely 1080p LG flat-panel is at university, I’m afraid) so I still need to see how the game scales up to HD, but from what I can see, it looks really, really nice. Afro and Ninja Ninja are modelled particularly well, and the cell-shading works a treat, giving off a ‘cartooney’ feel, while retaining some level of maturity, given the inevitable masses of blood that you’ll encounter during the game. Combat is a treat, with attacks (of hard, light, and ‘kick’ varieties) stringing together fluidly, and making you look like a total samurai legend. There is also a ‘focus’ mode, which requires focus points, that you get by stringing together combos, which slows down time and allows you to utilise various powered-up forms of your regular attacks. Focus mode also grants you the precision to decapitate your enemies just as you choose. Think a certain enemy has an ugly mug? No problem! Slice it off! Does said enemy have gorilla-like, disproportionate arms? No worries! Do you want to cripple your enemy’s chances of ever being a professional footballer? Feel free! (I hear football was pretty big in feudal Japan) The decapitations are gory and satisfying. Not that I’m into any of that, or anything. It’s just a heck of a lot of fun to do. I particularly like splitting enemies right down the middle. It nets you bonus focus points too, as if you needed an excuse to try it out! Win! The voice acting is also pretty top-notch. Not just Sam Jackson, mind, but the whole cast seems pretty solid, making you feel like you’re in any old samurai epic involving a samurai with a humongous afro. All jokes aside, the voice acting gets the thumbs up from me. The game also ‘feels’ pretty animé-esque, or what I feel is animé-esque, seeing as I haven’t actually seen the Afro Samurai animé.

The game does have its drawbacks, though. It is painfully linear. I got bored of the repetitive routine of button bashing while making my way from checkpoint to checkpoint, in a matter of levels. I have no idea how the game can sustain an audience throughout its entirety, but I’d like it if I was pleasantly surprised. But, yes, it’s very linear, not only in its narrative, but in its level design too. The levels I played did have platforming sections, which were essentially scripted sequences, just requiring you to push a certain number of buttons, while pushing forward, to navigate them. Think QTE with a tiny bit more common sense, or possibly even some parts of Sonic Adventure. Add into the mix a dodgy camera, and rather lazy AI, which allows you to essentially button-bash your way through levels, minus boss-fights, which force you to utilise the game’s creaky block-and-parry mechanic, and you’re left with something that I can see getting quite tedious.

That’s not to say it’s a bad game. It’s a very stylish game, with the dialogue being exactly the right mix of ‘bad-ass’ and ‘kick-ass’. The graphics remain authentic to the animé roots of the title, and the music, which despite only being ‘supervised’ by the RZA, much to my ire, proves to be both quite hip and hop. If you’ve got time to waste, or are just eager for some hack-and-slash action, I’d give it a look. I’m still banking on an unlockable Mace Windu costume, too. I’ll let you know.