Casual - Hoard
Tabletop games have an impressive presence at PAX, but it is a rare treat to see the combinatory effects of video and board games into one omnipotent entity. Hoard fuses the artistic style of board games - all the way down to wooden borders and a background table - into a simplistic, elegant title focused on amassing the largest pile of gold humanly... err, dragonly possible. The game seems designed for an "E" audience, but that shouldn't deter the more hardcore among us from looking into Hoard. Following an arcade-like progression, I spent my time at the booth kidnapping princesses, slaying knights, burning medieval structures, and accumulating an enormous pile of treasure. The developers demonstrated how upgrades to the player-controlled dragon change his appearance: adding more 'cargo space' made him fatter, more armor added actual metal plating, and so on. I was told about co-operative and competitive modes, matching up to four players simultaneously. The game is planned for an October release on PSN and Steam, with XBLA following sometime in 2011, and makes for a fantastic casual game for family or friends. Visit www.HoardGame.com for more info.
Skepticism: The scope is small, which could make for a bad case of repetition, though $15 could balance out.
Action-Adventure - Darkspore
The original Spore received a barrage of negative criticism immediately at launch. Smitten by thousands of angry gamers on review sites, Spore found itself engulfed in downbeat media, attributed primarily to DRM and an ADHD approach to game design. The hype surrounding Spore led to great expectations and even greater disappointment, but Maxis has changed their model for the better.
I played Darkspore at PAX, and was instantly enthralled. The game has gone dungeon delver, bringing to the forefront strategic use of characters in co-operative play. Software Engineer Dan Kline assembled a party of monstrous hero-types for me, each contributing a unique array of abilities to the overall party. A chrono monster enabled a party-wide teleport skill, a tank supplied big damage dealing attacks, and a necromantic queen bee (equipped with staff and stinger) did the DOTing (that's damage over time, for you non-RPG vets). Within minutes I was at the level's boss battle. Other PAX attendees at my side, we instinctively took up our places on the flanks. The big baddie started powering up for a thunderous slam attack, but impulse kicked in and I teleported behind him, dodging the attack completely. After thanking Kline for choosing the character, I went back to work, switching out characters and debuffing the behemoth into his doom, followed by a good smacking from the tank.
I found my time in Darkspore to be unwasted - it was fast and strategic. The Maxis guys demonstrated their equipment mechanics, specifically an option to hide/show different pieces of armor, but retain the benefits of the best ones. Don't like the way that sword looks, but think it's the best one? Choose a different look, but keep the stats. Darkspore maintains a similar story to its predecessor, keeping the popular customization elements, yet downsizing the scope to the popular creature phase. Player versus player and co-operative modes incorporate some much needed human interaction in the series. Get more info at www.Darkspore.com
Skepticism: Spore was plagued with evil DRM and failed to deliver on big promises. Will Darkspore be no different?
Shooter - Nexuiz
If nothing else, it's "that game no one can pronounce." Nexuiz (according to one developer, pronounced 'Nexus') revives the dated arena shooting genre. Creative Director Kedhrin Gonzalez expressed an unthinkable longing for the simplistic shooters of the past, his desire for a modern Quake all but physically materialized in the room. Emerging from the modding community, Illfonic knows the market is bloated with recyclable titles, and they want to bust that habit.
When asked about his ultimate dream for the game, Gonzalez told me, "I just want a game I can enjoy, I want to bring back arena shooters." He continued, "it has to be fun for the competitive people, too. We have an awesome clan system that will be built-in, there'll be regional and global tournaments, and player cards." Interested in the clan system, I questioned further on the topic. The small developer wants to supply team managers with a means of organizing their players on- and off-line. "For example," Kedhrin said, "a smart phone app that lets the clan manager organize players, view upcoming matches, stuff like that." The developer fell in love with CryEngine 3, subsequently ditching the dated Quake engine in their push for a shooter with a modern feel. Even with only a few months of development behind it, the game is well on its way to becoming the paragon of arena combat. I watched Kedhrin tear unsuspecting noobs to shreds with his rocket launcher. He curved missiles around corners, and blasted the poor bastards off cliffs; his passion for the classic-style game is two-fold: part nostalgia, part disappointment with recent FPS games. Nexuiz is making a move toward reflexive combat, targeting the twitch players, while also offering an 'auto-target' mode for the more casual (although it decreases the amount of points gained, more on that in our preview later).
Nexuiz's pièce de résistance is its emphasis on dynamic mutators, which add unlimited combinations to gameplay by rewarding players on kill-streaks, though currently there is limited information on the options. Time will tell if the ambitious approach to competition will pay off, especially with the expected release on all major platforms, including PC, in Quarter One of 2011. Get more info at www.Illfonic.com
Skepticism: Limited to 4v4 combat, although geared more toward strategic gameplay, something about the old shooters screams "big servers." A relatively short development cycle could be damaging without a big beta effort.
RPG - Torchlight 2
Decimating the boundaries set by Diablo's gargantuan footprint, Runic Games' 2009/2010 Torchlight release swooped up thousands of the most hardcore, dedicated fan-base known to gaming. They're the gamers you want promoting you - the modders, the enthusiasts, the 'if-I-die-I-make-a-new-character' guys. Swiftly falling in line with the debut title, made by some of the original Blizzard North team, Torchlight 2 has remarkable parallels to Diablo I and II; the team has stepped into the light, offering randomly generated external environments in league with their highly acclaimed dungeon crawls. Runic President Travis Baldree gave me a run-through of the familiar territory. I asked Travis about the similarities, and after acknowledging the correlation between the rival titles, I was told that Runic went outside "because [they] wanted to." Travis explained, "It's just something we've wanted to do for a long time. We can play with environmental effects, rain, snow, lighting." I created a wanderer, sort of a nomad class, and jumped into a co-operative match. The loading screen brought me back to Torchlight instantly - I saw brilliantly illustrated concept art, complete with steam-punk influence and monocles (obviously a projection of Runic's wealth). I followed another developer around the wilds, trying my metal on skeletal minions. My character leaped into the air, polearm brandished high, and crushed the skulls of a pile of undead. The animations are top-class, but the multiplayer efforts were yet to be fully demonstrated.
I prodded Travis for the player limit in co-op games, to which he answered, "Currently it's set at six or eight. It might change for release." Travis endorses modders though, and made quick note that "[Runic] may leave the option open should modders decide to increase it." The mobs share loot with any players in the same zone, but the amount of loot per player is essentially the same as singleplayer. "We're trying hard not to detract from the singleplayer experience - we're taking baby steps before we dive into anything big." Runic has gained renown for being one of the most supportive developers, even the Torchlight 2 trailer directly commented on the impact of community cries for multiplayer (below). They want everyone to know that they listen, and the new classes, pets, monsters, environs, and multiplayer options make it clear. Get more info at www.Torchlight2game.com
Skepticism: at present, co-op gives the impression of being best utilized with friends via Ventrilo or physical proximity. The flare is lost in random play, and modding could greatly impact the balance of things (an inherent risk, though other games require both players to utilize the same modifications).
MMO/RTS - End of Nations
Everyone and their crazy uncle has an MMO, but very few leave the gates with a dependable audience - oh the contrary! We can't tell you how many MMO subtypes have drowned under the impressive weight of a thousand now-dead competitors. It has become the 'graveyard genre,' and what once was considered to be the most powerful six letters to slap onto a box has fast transformed into a potentially detrimental deterrent to gamers. Immortalized are the days of EverQuest and Ultima, but how fares an RTS in the genre? If Trion's presence at PAX is any indication, there's hope yet.
Many GN staff consider strategy to be home turf, that's why we took the genre-specific questions to Trion at PAX. Not unlike Dawn of Fantasy, End of Nations plans to appeal to a relatively untapped spectrum of RTS. The group developed a sophisticated in-game 'web 2.0' interface, intent on localizing all game content. "We want all of the information to be right there. You shouldn't have to minimize," I was told by Trion, "we have a robust coalition [clan] system, completely manageable in-game." Clan organizers have stepped into the limelight this year, as has competitive focus, "sure, there'll be leaderboards, leagues, ladders. We're still in early development, but it is in the scope." The Trion guys had a great sense of what strategy players want, and the presence of the original designer of Command & Conquer (yes, the first one) made it clear how serious they are.
Players focus on building up a headquarters, which is never attackable (yes, you can actually sleep without fear of destruction), and then swarm nearby enemies on a familiar world map. "It's not fun to lose everything you've worked on for months. People have lives." Somewhat inspired by World in Conflict, each player specs out a tier of units (not unlike the infantry and tank commander types in WiC), hopefully complimenting the units of their clanmates. A ticker informs everyone of the global events, such as recent conquests or coalition uprisings, and highlights any players worthy of worldwide recognition. One of the most intriguing promises Trion plans to deliver is a semi-persistent world, follow me on this: Four players start a 2 v. 2, and unfortunately, one player loses connectivity. In most games of the genre, it has now become a 1 v. 2, with the player on the solo side being thoroughly screwed. However, End of Nations' model allows another player to join at any time (including the one that dropped, once he re-connects) in the match. A step in the right direction, for sure! Get more info at www.EndofNations.com
Skepticism: all RTS's have native balance issues, and although EoN is developing a system to counter this, I won't believe it until I see it.
Hopes are high for all of these games, but the night is young! Be sure to check back for more previews, interviews, and other exclusives!