I was complaining to Tomo how the lines to play the games I'm interested in were too long, and it made E3 not worth going to. He pointed out that I should be playing the games that people aren't interested in...I'm going to play those big games eventually anyhow, and I might learn something from the ones that don't have lines. So, yesterday, that's what I did.
Jade Empire: it's hard to demo a role playing game at a trade show, so Bioware focused on the new action combat system when demoing it to me. Now, I really admire Bioware; they and Monolith are the only developers I can think of that have multiple games in development at the same time without letting quality suffer. (Although I expect Treyarch to join their ranks soon.) But they're really going outside their core competency here. We've been making action combat systems at Treyarch since we were founded and we still haven't caught up to the Japanese. There's a lot of competition in this arena. If anybody at Bioware is listening, I know it's too late to scuttle your plans for an action-oriented combat system...but I think you should do something about the latency - when an action gamer presses a button, he likes to see the results of that button press pretty much on the next frame. That's why the slashes in swordfighting games and the punches in punching games usually only take a couple frames to connect, and they connect the dots with motion trails. When you play Jade Empire, the combat feels scheduled. You mash on the dodge button but don't actually see the dodge until it's your turn. Or something. That may be part of your design--maybe you're not allowed to attack/dodge until you've recovered from your last move--which is okay, but then you probably shouldn't bill it as an action game, because people are going to expect the responsiveness of a brawler. (And you can't ship your designer with the game to tell the player, "Your attack didn't work because he blocked you. Give it another try.") You know, I remember reading in the post-mortem for KOTOR that E3 helped refine the combat system. Sounds like you should be doing some gameplay testing on virgins before E3, so when you get to E3 there won't be nasty surprises. Anyhow, I remember that KOTOR didn't show well at E3, either, and Bioware turned it into videogame gold before it shipped, so I expect the same to happen with Jade Empire.
Mercenary: GTA meets modern warfare. I was playing it in the Sony booth. It seemed promising but the demo crashed on me before I really got into the action, and there was no one around to reset the box.
Republic Commando: I ordinarily wouldn't pay any attention to a Star Wars game since Episode 1 betrayed my childhood, but a friend demoed it for me and it's pretty cool. It's closest competitor is Full Spectrum Warrior, but the play mechanic is much simpler - with one button you can order your squad to do cool, useful things. I didn't get to play FSW but I watched people wrestle with the controls and it seemed like a chore just to get your squad to walk in a line. So although these games are the same genre (squad level combat), they're actually targeted for totally different markets. The hardcore military geeks will want to play FSW whereas people who want to get straight into the thrill ride of commanding an elite squad will go for Republic Commando. My prediction is Republic Commando will outsell FSW, although right now, "Republic Commando" game gets 88500 hits on Google, but "Full Spectrum Warrior" game gets 114000. LucasArts has some advertising and PR to do to catch up.
Siren: This made me not regret going to E3. It's a horror game heavy with atmosphere, Silent Hill style, but with interesting play mechanics. The opening text for the demo says that you're at a serious physical disadvantage to the enemy and you'll have to use your sight powers to negotiate the levels. Fantastic, I think. I prefer sneaking around to a straight fight. I like having that opportunity to actually think. So you've got this sight power - you go into a mode where the screen goes all snowy (like a television set tuned to a dead channel, thank you Gibson) - and you search with the analog stick to lock onto one of your enemies. Then you're seeing through their eyes, hearing their hoarse breath, and watching them hunt you. It's like the monster-cam from a horror movie, except you're the one being hunted. Very creepy. Adding to the creep is that the levels are saturated with fog (must have been easy on the renderer) - in this one level you have to escort a blind girl to safety, Ico style, except if you go too far ahead she'll get lost in the fog behind you. (It reminded me of losing my mom in a mall as a child. Terrifying.) The sad thing is, those play mechanics they talked up in the text before the demo weren't actually useful in the demo. I could have won the thing just by walking and fighting. Hopefully in the full game they'll realize their potential...I can almost imagine the marketing blunder as it must have happened. ("You can't have a level that requires people to think at E3!" "But that's what this game's about!" "Doesn't matter! Take the thinking out." And so a game with some subtlety becomes a brawler, and they lose both the people who want the subtlety and the people who want brawlers, because they're all playing Devil May Cry 3 or whatever.)
I was hoping Ubisoft would introduce something new, because one year they gave us Splinter Cell and then another year they gave us Prince of Persia. This year was all sequels for them. Looking back on it, I guess Splinter Cell was 3 E3's ago? So maybe they take every other year off. They're going darker with Prince of Persia 2 - he's more buff, he has decapitation moves. Trying to capture that American kid who thinks Manhunt is the pinnacle of game design, I guess. (There's one particular kid - let's call him "Nazi Boy" - I had in focus tests who fits the bill. For him, if a videogame isn't a murder simulator, then, well, what's the point? Oh, and he had this to say about Spider-Man 2: "You guys should have crates you can smash to get health." Happily, he represented a minority of our focus testers.) Probably not a mistake - I'm going to buy PoP 2 for the gameplay, and if they can sell more units by making it darker, well, okay. But part of me hopes they'll lose a lot of sales because the people who bought Sands Of Time aren't actually into that.