Monthly Archives: June 2013

You Should Probably Play Soundodger

Soundodger

Dancing used to be a whole-body sort of thing. All the way from your head to your toes, the entirety of your being was locked in a compulsive engagement to a rhythm. Whether you looked like a corporeal dream floating across the floor or like someone who missed the point of that episode of Seinfeld, all that mattered was that every inch of you is dedicated to the single task of moving to the music.

Jump to a café with a live band and an America where dancing is frowned upon in any place that isn’t a wedding or an ecstasy-fueled nightclub. It feels almost dystopian in that way where something so natural has been reduced to an regal or illicit affair, so now with this real life musical act in your face, your rhythmic, physical expression of vitality is stuck to hand waving and head bobbing as you sit in a chair. And now when the majority of the world is locked in step toward an inevitable end of working office jobs every single waking hour of the day while your weekends are relegated to suppressing every dream and passion you’ve ever had, no one even has time for that much frivolity.

Enter Soundodger. While that may be a depressing lede into a rather good game, it’s appropriate because it is a further distillation of dancing. Not even much hand waving goes on as it’s really just your mousing hand that moves. Soundodger is a free Flash rhythm game developed by Studio Bean (or rather the one man behind Studio Bean, Michael Molinari) for Adult Swim Games, though it originated during GDC’s 2013 Experimental Gaming Workshop. In it, you move your mouse cursor around a little circular arena as you dodge sound.

Beats and melodies in each song (made by folks like Disasterpeace of Fez soundtrack fame and Lifeformed of Dustforce) are represented by triangles that form around the ring of your navigable area before shooting in towards the center and following out once more. They’ll sometimes fly right through the middle and sometimes they’ll flow around in their own dance, undulating in and out and around as you do nothing more than sit idly by and watch the beautiful Doritos go about their symphonic business. And sometimes they won’t even be triangles.

As you do this and successfully avoid these aggressively mobile shapes, you earn points, and you don’t earn points when you either collide with one or if you click down and hold your mouse button to enter a bullet time mode. The view zooms in ever so slightly and pans around with your movements, giving even the slowed down version of the game a sense of kineticism. Some songs even sound better when you begin to futz around with the electro synth chiptune beat.

The points you get (which are really just a cumulative percentage of successful sound dodging) unlock more songs, but they are further representative of the core tenant of the game, which is to not mess up the song. Feel it, enjoy it, whatever, but the important thing is to not hit the triangles because you will cause the song to skip and hitch and generally sound bad. And it’s almost definitely your fault.

Soundodger

I say that because it never felt like the shapes were necessarily attacking me (save for the diamonds that actively sought out conflict, those bastards). Instead, it felt more like I was within the song and it was my duty to let it spin on. And it’s easy enough to do once you get in the right mindset. Soundodger is definitely less about using your visual acuity and finely tuned reaction time to avoid things as they come and more about feeling the song.

If you play the game right, it feels a lot like dancing. There are no wrong moves in dancing. You don’t even have to move to the beat, but it definitely helps, and that’s what Soundodger is like. The best early example is perhaps “Distant Stars” by Sonic. The early section provides a rigidity that gives you something to musically latch onto, moving in staccato bursts along to a very hard beat. Then whirling circles of triangles flow out to you and encircle you, forcing you move among their little auditory corrals. And after that, dual streams of triangles will come at you, one shooting straight and the other curling back again. They will rapidly fire at this point, urging you along a larger arc of graceful circumnavigation. There’s no wrong way to do all of this, but sticking to the beat is almost mandatory (if you want to make it easier on yourself, anyways).

The difficulty also moves along at a relatively pleasant pace (that’s what the little circles next to track names are for). Whenever you think you’ve got a handle on the game, it will take it up a notch and make you miss such simple times. The problem that arises (though it is also present in the rest of the game) is that when you invariably mess up and hit a note, the game does this record scratch thing where your view twirls and blows up and the song hitches, slows down, and spins back up. It is jarring to say the least and often times leads to subsequent mistakes due to the re-engagement. It’s a real downer.

Soundodger

But for that one thing, Soundodger does so many more things right. It’s no wonder this was all anyone talked about last week. You no longer have to embarrass yourself with sit down dancing let alone real dancing. Now all you need are two ears and a hand. And a mouse, I guess, along with a working computer and Internet connection, but whatever. Soundodger is a fun little game, and for best results, just add dubstep.

Seriously, don’t stop playing until you hit a dubstep song.

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The IndieCade Beyond the E3 Pines

The IndieCade Beyond the E3 Pines

I was confused. This was where it was last year, but all that’s here now is hanging art and sad men. At least, on one side of the wall. On the other side are games, sure, but they aren’t the ones I was looking for. I don’t even know if it was a booth or why they were there; half of these games are already out, and nowhere is there a sign that says “IndieCade.”

Last year, this little alcove was bustling with curious patrons trying out Johann Sebastian Joust and A Mother’s Inferno while a small three-piece musical act treated us to orchestral versions of video game theme songs, but now it’s little more than where people go to stand around tables and talk business and use relatively clean bathrooms.

That, I figured, was a great place for the indie community of developers and exceedingly accommodating PR. To get to this little side area in the Los Angeles Convention Center, you don’t even need a badge. You can just walk into the west entrance, go up the escalators, and turn left and then start playing some of the most original games you’ve seen in the past few years.

So it made little sense that they would move to the South Hall, nestled deep within the realm of the forgotten. Most of E3 is rendered dark yet portentously lit by publishers and developers so as to set a gaming mood. Giant screens spanning over a hundred feet, encircling gaggles of people that stand in a pit of smells and sounds to watch trailers that are easily seen via YouTube, light up the darkness. Signs reminding you of things you’re seeing and about to see stand to compete with pulsating, rotating lights that temp you into PR pitches like sirens into the water.

There is a refuge from such a menagerie, though, if you can call it that. Consider it the unallocated space left in your hard drive that you’ve left to fill. In the space of just over half a football field, they’ve left the lights on, almost as a warning to those that wander into it that this is where the weary and the dying go. The floor is littered with folks bartering usage of electrical outlets, the walls lined with LACC staff standing in bewilderment at the zoo unfolding before them, and, strangely enough, a bar harboring dozens of people fed up with walking, gaming, and, it seems, other people.

It’s less of a bar, though, and more the seating of an outdoor Parisian café multiplied and scattered among the land of artificial lighting. Spread out amongst these loosely coordinated fold-up chairs and tables are bleary-eyed, beaten-down victims of the show, hazy from alcohol, working, or both. And rimming the entire disaster piece is still nearly 60% of the overall real estate, the bowels of E3. The haphazard and casually maniacal nature of it all makes you long for something sweet as the cacophony not 40 yards away.

And here—this place where wayward fools and soon-to-be drunks wander and never leave—is where they’ve put this year’s IndieCade. If everything else I’ve described was the desert and the scavengers of Tatooine, the IndieCade booth would be Mos Eisley where an incongruous amount of people have gathered to show off, look at, and talk about indie games. For the seemingly boundless crowd sitting in line at the Ubisoft booth to look at Watch_Dogs or standing in front of a closed door at Activision to watch Destiny in action, this small 1,000-foot plot feels infinitely more alive.

If you’ve never been to Tokyo or New York, then I’m not sure what you could possibly understand or I could ever impart what it means to be in a crowd, but this year’s IndieCade was a commensurate crash course in the intricacies of standing shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt. There were no carelessly constructed walls holding everyone in, but it reached the point where personal space was no longer a meaningful concept and that you’ve just become intimately (and biblically) familiar with the eight people currently surrounding and touching you.

No one, however, seems to mind. Whereas when you navigate the swamp of swag bags and costumed mascots on the main show floor and no one seems happy to be there, the entire population of this hub is wholly content with packing it in. Ass to ankles, people just want to see what these eclectic and interesting developers have to show.

There are those with official spaces along a ring of black clothed tables and straggling stands around their indie patch of land, and then there are those just walking around with a laptop or sitting on a translucent inflatable orange couch with an iPad. The entire right wing of the estate seems dedicated to housing a line of showgoers wanting to try an Oculus Rift game about trees and in the middle are people yelling about wormholes and asteroids as quick sessions of Spaceteam take place. To the left, at the front-facing entrance (if there is such a thing when there are no walls, barriers, or signs), is a delightfully Danish fellow trying to coerce passersby into spinning the proverbial and an actual, digital bottle in his game. That Dragon, Cancer casually shatters emotions and expectations.

I guess that isn’t so different from the main floor where games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts are being shown, but the key difference is that the people trying to get you to play and then watching you play and answering your questions are the same people that made the game. They know everything you could want to know, like how the project started, where it’s currently at, the design team’s personal and career inspirations, development troubles and anecdotes, eventual goals and aspirations for their relatively small endeavors, and so on and so on. And for even those rare show floor game’s that include such a knowledgeable representative (such as it was with LocoCycle and Twisted Pixel’s Jay Stuckwisch), the exceedingly noteworthy thing here among the lost and misfit games is that these developers can’t wait to talk to you about it all.

Their energy simply explodes out of them. Knowledge and PR-vetted answers indifferently ooze out of those working booths at Disney and EA, but even when you know they’re about to answer the same question for the 50th time that day, these indie developers are still excited. They’ve been locked up by themselves in their own world of code and ideas for so long that they absolutely can’t wait to dump everything out of their brains and into your ears. The mere fact that another human is looking at something they’ve poured their entire being into is enough, but such as it is with their already explicit drive, they want more. They want to give you the show and then lead you around behind the curtain.

It is, without a doubt, an intellectual oddity when for the other seven hours of the day, you have to hear station attendants and PR folk spit out canned responses and constantly rebuff inquires with “we’re not talking about that right now.” Even with a design lead or systems programmer a mere 20 feet away, questions have to be filtered, relayed, and scheduled for a later time, if not an entirely different date. Can I just talk to him for a couple of minutes? “Sorry, he’s about to be in a meeting,” an answer referring to the man just settling down on the floor to drink a Coke and eat a sandwich.

The physical separation—walking for what seems an interminable distance and time into an irresponsibly well-lit din of exhaustion and depression lining a beating heart of passion and agility—is indicative of the sharp transition in tone and intent. Check into your appointments, get your press kits, and politely turn down a Sprite or coffee. That’s what goes on out there. Here you’ll watch developers program and deploy fixes as fascinated guinea pigs play their games, exchange high fives and hugs instead of business cards, and answer candidly about problems and bugs. This broken exterior betrays the colorful and lively blood flowing through these thumping veins.

Walking upstairs into stark white and oppressively bland meeting rooms (save for the dark and moody CCP den), you know to expect nothing more than vocalized press releases and get nothing more.

But not here. Not in this place beyond the pines.

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A Little Touch in The Last of Us

A Little Touch in The Last of Us

Orson Welles can be a pretty depressing dude, and The Last of Us can be a pretty depressing game. There’s a quote, actually, from Welles that puts both in a succinct little package of words: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” But there is hope in these words; it’s about the moment. A successful life is simply about stringing together as many of these little moments as possible, though the actual act of wrangling in these wild horses may not be simple at all.

We’re lucky that in video games, these little refuges of the harsh storm of a daily life are specifically crafted just for us. Designers and writers and developers and actors and so many other people pour their lives into making these tiny bits of hope and happiness. They spend countless hours, sleepless nights on making sure you don’t feel alone in their virtual worlds.

In effect, they’re making digital funhouse mirrors. These reflections of life show to us a warped version of reality, an idyllic one that fits neatly into categories and slots into a whirring machine of spinning cogs and steaming pipes that does nothing more than makes us feel less alone. And The Last of Us is all about fighting that overbearing sensation, that paranoia that once the book closes on your life, it will be nothing more than a story bookended by loneliness.

The title itself is a reference to its dramatic themes, chief among them being the last of a society. Whether last to leave or last to die, you are the loneliest of them all despite, in terms of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungal maniacs, finding the greatest amount of success. You have, after all, outlived everyone else in the world, and yet you will die alone.

But there is a little touch in the game, a small effect that combats that overwhelmingly depressing notion. It is that moment of love and friendship that Welles talks about, the same one that creates the illusion of not being alone before having it shattered by heartbreaking tragedy. When you take cover, this minute affectation of character animation occurs that is endearing, encouraging, and altogether frustrating because you know it can’t last.

When you crouch down behind a broken wall or flipped desk or rusted car, Joel puts his hand up against it. It’s something he does when he walks closely to walls, too, much like Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake would do in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. In this case, it not only builds worldly interaction that supports narrative immersion but also is a realistic thing that someone would do when they are crouched down. Hand up, head down, and quiet all on the Cordyceps front as another Clicker meanders by.

Your ward, though, comes roadie running up to you and takes cover, too. Ellie will sidle up next to you and then slip in between you and the wall as you push out to accommodate her. The first time I saw this happen, my heart erupted with warmth. It was one of the most affecting things I’d yet seen in an already affecting game. And it’s such a trivial thing to happen otherwise, just a trifling animation throw in there for good measure. But it ends up being so much more.

And it’s not about protecting Ellie, though the father-daughter relationship that fosters would suggest Joel feels that way anyways. No, our 14-year-old bundle of attitude and aptitude is fully capable of taking care of herself (a wonderful break from the traditional damsel trope). This is a comforting motion. This is as close as you can get to a warming embrace or holding hands when you’re hiding and running for your life. It’s an interaction that tells you both that you’re okay because you’re both facing this together.

These small moments run rampant through the most powerful pairings in video games. These seemingly throwaway bits actually lay a foundation for things beyond the discrete narrative and the game’s base systems and mechanics. In Ico, the way you hold down the button to hold her hand crafts a physical relationship with a physical manifestation of wonderment. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, having Monkey pick up Trip reinforces the idea that his physicality and her technical prowess makes them each one half of a whole.

When Elizabeth throws a coin to Booker in BioShock Infinite, it puts in your head that she worries about you as much as you worry about her, that a platonic love is never far out of sight. Hell, even pressing a button to fist bump in Army of Two creates a similar facade of emotional dependency in a fictional world of bros being bros. Having you necessarily utilize a completely inanimate but impossibly charming Companion Cube in Portal to get you through doors and over gaps lays the foundation for feeling compassion for a box with a heart painted on it.

But they are all moments, moments that fade away and get lost like tears in the rain. They’re tiny bastions that stand up against the onslaught of shooting faces and smashing heads, moments that don’t tell you are not alone and instead remind you that you are creating your own isolation. Every step to the end of this tiring journey is just burning up these instances of solidarity (time, after all, is a nonrenewable resource). In Welles’ own words, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But when Ellie nudges you aside and shelters herself in your keep, all her faults and perfections that fit neatly alongside your own that make you hate and love her reminds you that, if only for a moment, you are not alone.

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The Last of Us Review: Living Among the Dead

The Last of Us

I’ve been punched twice in my life and both were directly in the gut. If you’ve never been in a fight, you should know that they are intense. Your hands are shaking from a briny cocktail of adrenaline and nerves and your vision narrows as it blurs out everything but the guy in front of you. It’s something you don’t really forget, so those two punches and their effects are still rather fresh in my mind. The ambiguously placed pain, the need to double over and just breathe, and way your lungs feel like they’re collapsing from the lack of air in your entire body. I know what it’s like to be hit in the stomach.

And I still wasn’t ready for The Last of Us.

In the latest from developer luminary Naughty Dog, The Last of Us tells the tale of a hardened fellow named Joel and an oddly sprightly young girl named Ellie. The two are stuck together in a journey across the country as they try to survive the perils of suburbia, public transit, and shopping malls. Oh yeah, there are also zombies everywhere. The very real Cordyceps fungus that infests and controls the minds of insects and arthropods (before bursting out of their bodies like the most tragically beautiful piece of modern art you’ve ever seen) has taken a terrible turn and started to infect humans. So they’re not really zombies, but they’re the closest analog you’ll find.

The Last of Us

Anyways, it’s 2033, years since the outbreak began, and Joel has since gotten over—or rather managed to cope with—such an incredibly well done and immensely heartbreaking opening 30 minutes to a video game I’ve seen in quite some time. The rest of the world hasn’t done much better, though, as quarantine zones are overly militant compounds of malnutrition and smuggling operations while the outside is full of murderous bandits and unknown infected. Joel, however, has made a name for himself here in Boston as a smuggler not to be trifled with and eventually falls into an encounter with a rebel group known as the Fireflies, other smugglers, and a whole mess of trouble.

I won’t go into much detail about the story like how Joel and Ellie end up together, their histories, and their eventual destinations along this bloody road trip, but I will say that their relationship is so…genuine. It is disgusting how well realized and heartfelt every word and movement is that comes out of their mouths and bodies. Every prop and compliment must be given to voice and motion capture actors Troy Baker (who is nigh unrecognizable as an old Southern fogey) and Ashley Johnson (who plays 14 years old so much better than anyone over the actual age of 14 has the right to) but the writing is also just terribly immense. Little touches like the conversations they have about music and whistling to how Ellie sidles up right under Joel’s arm whenever they take cover really adds to their relationship so that when you get socked in the stomach, it hurts all the more.

Which is good because without those two and their bond carrying the story, it would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill tale of the undead and a cross country trip (to wit, when things go wrong). Most of the story beats were easily guessed, but the way they are presented and the way they develop are masterful. Even the genre itself of survival zombie horror is a bit tired, but it’s a bit of meta tragedy when you hope against hope that the things you don’t want to happen inevitably happen and you curse yourself for allowing your heart to be fooled again. By the end of it, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve been through a fight.

The Last of Us

The combat itself, however, is less pugilistic than you’d think. For the most part, you’ll spend a lot of your time crouched behind desks and tables and slowly walking behind dudes. Joel—for reasons I won’t get into—is a fairly proficient killer, but he is also still realistically fragile, or at least compared to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted hero Nathan Drake. At least in the beginning, it only takes a few hits for you to go down, so it’s often best for you to sneak around enemies rather than engage them directly. Not to mention that one of the more terrifying enemy classes called Clickers are a one-hit kill, so mind your surroundings.

Clickers are a totally blind enemy, what with their entire head engulfed in Cordyceps fungus, but they can sufficiently navigate based on sound and touch. They emit this unsettling croaking sound that will eventually haunt your dreams, so they’re impossible to miss, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to avoid. A listening mode allows you to similarly echolocate enemies through walls and floors which facilitates your sneaking—which unfortunately and strangely doesn’t work when the game wants to deliberately hide enemies from you to scare you—but you’ll often find yourself battling a mix of Clickers and Runners (generic, fast fodder enemies) and such, which makes it quite interesting to navigate each encounter. And that adds into the feel that each arena feels unique while remaining open, so running away and simply poking and prodding at the rather impressive AI until your hand is forced into action is a totally viable and heart-pounding tactic.

The problem is that each encounter is a specific type of encounter, and you don’t really know which type it is until halfway through. You either have to kill everything in the area before being allowed to proceed, forced to actively engage in open combat with throngs of foes, or you have to sneak by the best you can. Of course, you can always go for open combat if you want, but unarmed melee doesn’t work on Clickers and getting overwhelmed by Runners is a common effect of your brutish cause. But the game seems to present to you the notion that stealth is always the best option early on and then throws that out the window by forcing you to get violent.

The Last of Us

It’s really quite unfortunate because sometimes these encounters devolve from intricate stealth to chaotic brain-bashing due to ineptitude or carelessness, so those moments of pure, abject terror are lessened, a quality further brought to light with somewhat ineffectual boss fights. Especially towards the end where enemies and bullets far outweigh sneaking and shivving, you start to feel like these are less instances of your scraping your way out of a skirmish and more like you are playing into the game’s hands.

Those hands, though, are quite nice as this is a spartan survival game through and through. At first, it feels like you don’t have nearly enough of anything to get you through any meaningful portion of the game. Health packs hover around one, ammo supply can’t fill an entire magazine, and your crafting supplies are dwindling. And as the game progresses, you eventually squirrel away enough to have what appears to be a stockpile before you’re forced to use most of it just to survive a single chapter. This inventory economy and progression is nicely done, and feels even more appropriate when you play on Hard difficulty.

The great thing about it is that you have to make choices. Molotov cocktails are great at taking out clumps of infected and dudes, but they take the same supplies as health packs to craft. Shivs can take out any Clicker or Runner quickly and silently but they also can crack open locked doors that hide workbench parts and valuable training manuals. And you simply won’t have enough parts to upgrade all of your weapons, so you have to choose what attributes and what guns are most useful to you. It’s a nice contrast from most other games that make you choose what to do first and instead asks you what can do you at all.

The Last of Us

A perfectly viable option for not progressing in the game but thoroughly enjoying it is to just stop and look around. In a delicious Cormac McCarthy-ish slant, the world has been reclaimed by the whole of nature. Trees take root where construction workers had once laid down foundation and vines climb up skyscrapers like they would a sheer cliff face. It’s a direct visual metaphor for things The Last of Us and McCarthy’s The Road address: the conflicting will within ourselves for protecting those around us with only keeping yourself alive. There’s a character that you meet about halfway through that shines an especially sad light on this contrast.

Ellie and Joel will, in fact, remind you to breathe every once in a while. Walking through the woods, Ellie remarks to her grayed and grumbling companion that it’s a remarkable sight to be seen. It’s a reminder that all the horrible things that they do and see (both of which Ellie will comment on with stark relatability) are still in service of a blissful hope, and that’s necessary in such a dark game. The Last of Us is unequivocally tough to play; you will feel exhausted and drained at the end of each session.

There is one thing, though, that tends to break this cohesion created by the world: your companions. All of them are fully capable of handling themselves in combat, but as a concession to you as a player, their actions are nipped in the bud during stealth sections and never alert enemies or anything. So they never ruin a perfect ninja run for you, but seeing Ellie run headfirst into a Clicker and bounce off with zero consequences is rather world-shattering. The incredibly impressive enemy AI with its flanking and retreating and searching tactics more than makes up for the necessarily blundering companion AI.

The Last of Us

However, that is a fault I’m willing to give considering how much better off the gameplay is for it. And there’s still so much in The Last of Us that just works. Joel and Ellie are now ranked among my favorite duos in any sort of fiction, let alone video games. They help spin an unbelievable and somewhat rote tale into a humanized and empathetic story of loss and compassion. And the combat and systems therein craft an interactive version of that narrative where a strident brutality manifests in figuring out when to kill and when to let sleeping Clickers lie. How many other games have enemies react differently when you brandish a weapon?

The Last of Us is a massive story and enormous emotional undertaking and substantial mechanical device. It presents a complex woven fabric of morality and questions of what it means to live and love and need that occasionally gets torn by the game itself, but perhaps that’s because of its heft. Such a heavy game is bound to put stress on the struts, but I do love it all the more for that. Even after getting punched in the gut and the face and everywhere else, even after feeling like I just finished a fight with the biggest kid in gym, The Last of Us is something that simply won’t be forgotten.

+ Believable and heartbreaking relationship crafted by amazing actors and fantastic writing
+ Genuine horror moments brought to you by Clickers and darkness
+ The immensely depressing and overbearing world of an infected land is totally engrossing and tonally and thematically consistent
– The dopey companion AI breaks the narrative fabric you envelope yourself in
– Pulls a bait ‘n switch on open stealth tactics with generic gameplay scenarios

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Last of Us
Release: June 14, 2013
Genre: Survival horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: 1, 2–8 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.thelastofus.com/

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Hands-on with LocoCycle

Hands-on with LocoCycle

Jay Stuckwisch, marketing director over at Twisted Pixel Games, gets serious for a moment, looks me right in the eye, and says, “We’re not talking about that right now.”

Of course, that doesn’t last. He is, after all, here at E3 promoting LocoCycle, a video game about a talking motorcycle with an unlucky fellow named Pablo hopelessly stuck to her chassis. But that is what happens when you ask about Pablo’s pants. In the game, I.R.I.S., the aforementioned chatty bike, is cruising at almost 200 miles per hour with Pablo dragging behind her as she shoots at cars and melee battles flying robots. Normally you get a response like this when you ask about multiplayer (there is none), but not in this case. Those pants, man.

There is, of course, more to it than that. In my time spent with the game with a show floor demo, I went through a few stages and got a feel for the game. Not much was presented in the way of hints at what the narrative might bring—still no sign of Robert Patrick’s S.P.I.K.E., the primary antagonist—but I do have a better idea now of what the gameplay is laying down on the line.

LocoCycle

Running on an Xbox One, I get to put my hands on one of the new fancy controllers. It feels nice and all but the gratuitous amount of crashing I’m doing as I gain control over I.R.I.S. is rather distracting. She is rather squirrely and takes some getting used to. This particular mission opens with me and Pablo taking a leisurely drive through a canyon/desert area while, I dunno, twirling katana missiles embed themselves into the ground around me. With this do-or-die lesson presented to me, I was obviously going the dying route.

I.R.I.S. handles a lot like an actual vehicle in that when you push a certain direction, she goes through a gradient of steering. Rather than snapping to the degree of your stick movement, she leans into it like a real motorcycle would handle (a “deliberate design decision,” according to Stuckwisch). And when you release, she doesn’t immediately snap back to neutral; she somewhat slowly saddles back up to the middle. If you’re not careful or just used to steering things like a Halo Warthog or a Forza car, you can oversteer and erroneously correct to the point of exploding. Once you get the hang of it, though, it feels very natural, almost rewarding in a way when you dodge a bomb with a graceful arc.

There’s a boost button, but I didn’t get much use out of it. Or at least, I didn’t see the point of it. There seems to be two discrete types of combat: air melee and ground shooting. Cars will often come up and get in front of you while shoot back or throwing stuff at you, but you can fight back with your guns (which can overheat). Boosting up to them to get just a couple of Pablo attacks in never felt worth the effort, so I just gunned them down instead. And then when flying cyborgs or motorcycle lackeys come up around you, you just start pressing one of the two attack buttons and you immediately jump in the air and don’t come back down until you’re done—or get hit.

LocoCycle

When you fight said cybernetic foes, you press X for an I.R.I.S. attack and Y for a Pablo attack, the former being a direct tactic and the latter seemingly one for groups. You can pull off combos and have a meter for the number of consecutive hits you land (eventually gaining fire tires and status like OVERWHELMING and BRUTALin various, amazing WordArt-like treatments), but I don’t think I ever did any on purpose. I am sure, though, that when a little warning icon pops up over an enemy, if you press A, you’ll counter the attack and see a nice little ridiculous animation.

My impression before playing the demo was that it would play a lot faster than it does, but the combat is actually quite slow. It focuses on getting those counters in and moving between dudes with your attacks. From what I played, it can get pretty fun, but its longevity remains to be seen. Though every once in a while, you’d get a timed objective like destroy a certain car or all of the enemies to get bonus points, so that might help.

At the end of each stage, you get graded on your performance from your accuracy to number of kills to your combo string. The highest I got was a C and I thought I was doing pretty well, so there’s obviously some nuance to be found here. And despite these clear delineating screens, you roll (badum, chssh!) pretty quickly and seamlessly into the next mission, so it seems like it’ll be pretty hard to stop in the same way it’s hard to stop playing a Call of Duty campaign.

LocoCycle

The very last bit you play is all about Pablo. I.R.I.S. seems to be immobilized and needs repairs to get going again. Pablo can get it done, but there’s a large 18-wheeler barreling towards the duo. There are several areas that are all busted up and need to be fixed, all of which are represented in the corner of the screen (along with a meter showing how close the truck of doom is). You’ll push the stick in a direction to move Pablo that way and look for things to patch up which will then present you with a little WarioWare-style minigame of screwing screws or rewiring wires or welding…things.

This, at first, is pretty cool. There are no prompts that come up to tell you what to do, so it can be a little frustrating at first, but it’s intuitive enough that after the first repair, you’ll have no problem with the others. It does, however, go on a bit long. Between looking for where I.R.I.S. is all busted up and actually fixing her up and then checking how close the truck is, you’ll be worn out by the end of it all. But it does add quite a bit of variety that I wasn’t expecting, so it’s appreciated all the same.

This little changeup also highlights the relationship between Pablo and I.R.I.S. Stuckwisch says that it’s to point out that the sentient motorcycle isn’t the sole hero of this adventure and that they will rely on each other to get it done. Seems to make sense given how strangely caring I.R.I.S. can come off as when she talks to Pablo before, during, and after battles, though I’m sure he would love to get better pants, perhaps something with more padding. But I guess they aren’t talking about that right now.

Look for LocoCycle on Xbox One at launch (possibly November 27th?) and Xbox 360 sometime, uh, later.

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Hands-on with Killer Is Dead

Hands-on with Killer is Dead

Off to one side of the South Hall at E3, there was a menagerie. It felt so incongruous with the rest of the show that it might still be going on, stuck in some Star Trekkian time loop of always existing. The lights overheard are, like, on and shining down to so boldly illuminate the floor and its various treasures (others might call it “trash”). People are milling about with no particular goal in mind and seem content with just being somewhere that isn’t a zoo of swag bags and Payday 2 masks. I mean, at least there weren’t Oswald the Lucky Rabbit hats everywhere this year.

I guess it’s not surprising given that this is where the bar is. Stop by and buy, open, and guzzle a beer before you rush off to play more games. But this is an area even beyond the mini corporate booths, a tiny region of sweaty handshakes and cotton blazers where only true industry folk wander. This is where they’ve put the Indiecade booth, which is heartwarmingly bustling, and a confused-looking SiriusXM table, which is depressing. But out here beyond the wild also is the Xseed booth where, along with a slew of RPGs, you’ll find Suda 51’s newest game.

Killer is Dead is an upcoming action game from Grasshopper Manufacture, Goichi Suda’s studio and the devs behind Lollipop Chainsaw and Shadows of the Damned. In it, you play as a fellow named Mondo Zappa—following Suda’s grand tradition of absolutely amazing protagonist names like Travis Touchdown and Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur—who is an executioner under the employ of the Bryan Execution Firm. You’ll fight off criminals, assassins, cyborgs, and weird floating eyeballs with your sword and your cybernetic left arm as you travel the world and discover love.

Killer is Dead

The first thing to notice, as is common among Suda games, is the art style, and it’s definitely worth noting here. There is a spectrum of color at work here, but imagine that the middle was ripped out and replaced with contrast. It’s a deep palette but its range has been stretched out to the point of delirium. Whereas No More Heroes had a lack of gradients, it feels like Killer is Dead simply has a lack of color while still managing to paint a complete picture. It’s a really interesting look. I dig it.

Next are the controls, which is very much action-oriented. A button is dedicated to slicing, another is for your gun arm, one for switching between the four modes of said arm, and one more for dodging. You’ll notice there is no jump button, so dealing with aerial enemies often came down to running away to kite them down or using a gun mode to shoot them down. But this simplicity also opens up an intriguing avenue for combos. Instead of being based purely on button inputs, you’re also trying to level up a meter in the corner. As it gets higher (up to level five), you begin to pull of more powerful combos, but get hit or take too long and that meter resets. So in the interest of being an efficient executioner, it’s best to stick and move with skill.

And that’s where I probably found most of the fun to be had in the demo. Fighting itself is not terribly complex (I often found myself just mashing the two attack buttons with a blatant disregard for what they were doing), but the dodge button adds a necessary and important wrinkle. It can move you out of danger at a moment’s notice, but it also functions as a parry button, so depending on the timing, you’ll either dodge, initiate a mash-the-X-button counter attack, or get hit for being too slow. It made me really feel like some sort of hyper ninja in an anime, slicing and dicing (and shooting) while darting and stopping between enemies like a god damn hummingbird. And once you fill up your blood meter, you can enter blood mode and go all monochromatic psycho on them fools.

Killer is Dead

It was, however, a fairly short demo as it was a condensed version of a single episode (the finished game will be 13 episodes and this was just part of the seventh). This barely gave me enough time to get an idea of what it was like playing the game, but it didn’t tell me how it planned on keeping it fresh. Trying to keep my meter up for better combos certainly added import to my actions and switching between the standard, freeze, drill, and laser modes of my gun arm kept distance fighting varied, but monotony in the mechanics of Suda games is always a concern. I’m not saying there is or isn’t, but I did eventually grow weary of mashing the two attack buttons.

Not all of Killer is Dead seems to be about fighting, though. Or at least not in this form. For some of my hands-on time, I was to wander around and look for scrolls to shoot. Doing so would trigger a miniboss, sure, but for a bit, at least, I wasn’t just cutting things up with my sword. And then in a hands-off segment, Zappa was chasing/being chased by a guy on a spirit tiger before having to fight both said man and spectral feline.

Killer is Dead

This could be the conceit of Suda’s episodic structure of the game, where each one has a special thing to engage with. Each episode narratively is self-contained, which would make it pretty neat if the gameplay also had discrete chunks of unique snowflake-ism. But who knows. Killer is Dead looks great, has an interesting premise, and contains some fantastic ideas, but the final execution remains to be seen. That is often where Suda games tend to stumble, so we’ll see.

Look for Killer is Dead on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on August 27, 2013.

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A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

“Shut up, man. Don’t you know who that is?”

He doesn’t. His friend, apparently, does and apologizes for speaking out of turn. The pair was simply lingering out on the street, leaning against a wall and talking about the rather mundane activities within the quarantine zone. Walking by, I stop and listen for a while. What they’re saying is filling in a lot of blanks that I have about where I am and what’s going on, but I drop one too many eaves and the confrontational fellow instigates with a hearty “what the hell are you lookin’ at?”

I don’t know what I’m looking at. In fact, I don’t know who I am. I’m not capable of answering either question, despite both being mostly rhetorical in nature. Gruff as I am, though, an apology is thrown at my feet, one that I dismiss. “No harm, no foul.” But what if there was harm? What if these two fools had crossed me in some way? The hasty verbal retreat, the confidence with which I respond, the assertiveness I bear as I stand my ground. What exactly am I capable of?

Having played so many franchise titles as of late (in this year alone we saw DmC Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Crysis 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum), it’s somewhat rare now that we get to experience a triple-A title in hazy wonderment like in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Reboots and spin-offs skew only slightly from the source in Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Sequels like Crysis 3 continuing pulling out the thread their predecessors had already teased loose.

It’s a specific type of mystery, though, that I’m talking about. BioShock Infinite had plenty of questions to answer, mysteries to solve as you played the game. But those were tied to telling a compelling narrative. Even by forcing myself to limit the amount of marketing I took in, I already knew the setup to the story. I knew Booker was looking for Elizabeth, I knew Elizabeth had unknown powers, and I knew we would be in a city in the sky that was ruled by a fellow named Comstock. I knew all of the ingredients to the soup. I just didn’t know how it would taste.

But I also knew Booker. I knew all about him before we started the adventure. He was a Pinkerton, he obviously regrets the things he did, and he is in a bad way with some unsavory people. Finding out about who Booker is and used be was not the point of BioShock Infinite‘s story. Instead, it was all about finding out how he fit into the skyward city of Columbia and the blossoming life of Elizabeth. The mystery shrouded the story, not the character.

These men on the street, though, seem terrified of me and I don’t know why. The opening chapter of The Last of Us is powerful and intense in ways I haven’t experienced in video games in quite some time (maybe ever), but it shows a different man. Joel pre-plague and Joel post-plague only share a name and a past, but now they are different people. Would that same family man with a brother and a daughter be the one that scares people just be staring at them?

Slowly, things begin to come into focus. We take our lens and point it at Joel and Ellie and the image gradually sharpens. And it’s not because we can but because we want to. Situations like this where two men are visibly scared of a single man beg questions and questions always deliciously demand answers. They had vocalized what I’d been wondering for the past 10 minutes. Who is this man?

It’s a subtle psychological affirmation of your gaps in knowledge. Something diegetic to the game doesn’t know the answer to your question, so it feels reassuring that you don’t know either. But that makes your thirst that much stronger. To find the solution to the riddle, to crack open this peanut of answers and be able to push back against this substantive intellectual pressure is an intrinsic human desire. We may not have the answer right now but we’ll get it, god dammit.

This type of desire is reinforced with the introduction of Ellie. Joel doesn’t care to find out who she is and doesn’t even much want to go through with the deal that brought them two together in the first place, but pertinent questions arise that tie back to things we want to know about Joel. The implications of who Ellie is and what she’s capable of invite a deeper analysis of what Joel hopes to gain from this newly ravaged world. And it opens up a wound long sewn shut that left little more than emotional scars and a strident personality.

Same as before, we know what we’re making. We know this is going to be a stew, but what are the ingredients? We know Joel takes Ellie across the infected country, but we know nothing about either of them. Joel is a man, Ellie is a girl, and that’s it. With BioShock Infinite, I could have at least pumped out two paragraphs on both Booker and Elizabeth before the game even started. The Last of Us crafts a more complex narrative around the question of what we’re doing with who we are. It adds texture and layers to a rather straightforward tale and set of tropes and is refreshing amongst a familiar world of well-met cyborg soldiers and space miners.

“Don’t you know who that is?” No, but neither do I.

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Hands-on with Wolfenstein: The New Order

Hands-on with Wolfenstein: The New Order

2009’s Wolfenstein was more or less a straightforward first-person shooter. The supernatural stuff was neat but the potential never seemed fully realized under the weight of dead Nazis. Using the Veil was interesting but it actually negatively impacted the gameplay, so most of the time I had to resist the urge to activate it. At the end of the year, it came and went with little fanfare, falling in the bucket of memories most people keep stocked with “oh yeah, that came out” games.

So imagine my surprise when the hands-off portion of the Wolfenstein: The New Order demo in the Bethesda booth at E3 2013 opened with not a shooting gallery but a test. More than that, it opens with you doing perhaps one of the most mundane and boring and absolutely fascinating things I’ve ever done in a video game: carry a cup of coffee.

It opens with you as series hero B.J. Blazkowicz walking along on a train holding a tray with two cups of coffee resting on it. Physics are in full effect as every jostling motion you make fills you with anxiety and excitement all at once. The dirt sloshes around in these two ceramic vessels, inspiring fear in everyone wearing a white shirt over a brand new carpet. Blazkowicz had just woken up a 14-year coma in a world where the Nazis won World War II, so who knows why he was serving coffee.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

He’s stopped, though, by a woman, a Nazi officer by the name of Frau Engel. She and her effeminate companion ask Blazkowicz to sit across from them in their booth, though it’s less of a question and more of a command giving the presence of a large Nazi-branded mech robot thing a mere 10 feet away. Engel wants to test you for impurity, though she does compliment your fantastically Aryan features. She places some cards with pictures on them on the table as well as a gun and warns you that should you go for the gun, things will go poorly for you. From there, she presents pairs of cards and you must pick the ones that fill you with joy or the one that sickens you, etc.

We fail the test anyways as we pick the third card, Engel takes the gun and points it at us, saying that a truth Aryan would have gone for the gun. After some fraught talk, we eventually get to take our coffee and go, walking out of the car and entering a cabin in the next one where we meet our partner Anya. I guess the coffee was for her, but the point is that this was such an incredibly unexpected scene and with both me and Blazkowicz knowing nothing about what was going on, the potential for where this opening went was boundless. It was so amazingly exciting considering where the Wolfenstein series started and ended up. Was this going to be the surprise of the show?

Well, uh, probably not. The demo then proceeded into a section from the late part of the campaign where Blazkowicz must navigate a wrecked bridge and, I think, some portions of a train (the same one?). We get a glimpse at some of the advanced weapons we’ll get a hold of including a laser blaster thing that can also cut out certain walls à la like basically every heist movie ever. We also get to hear some of our protagonist’s charming personality come through as he proclaims that he’s gonna stick it to one particular “motherfucking space Nazi.” (It was actually kind of funny.) He does a lot of shooting and they do a lot of dying. Pretty standard fare.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

But then we jump to the hands-on portion of the demo outside of the theatre and it opens with us driving into a Nazi base with falsified credentials. The driver is explaining a great deal of the problems with the situation and things and whatnot (it was hard to get a handle on what he was talking about given our lack of story context), but the gist is clear: this is a one-shot deal. Whatever this mission is, they had to work hard just to get to this point. He drops us off and then proceeds to drive into a guard wall and blow it (and himself) up. It was actually kind of intense.

Then we start playing and it’s kind of just more shooting. The first bit required me to navigate the debris from the wall as a large robot dog thing tried to hunt me down before getting itself stuck under some concrete. There are mechs to fight with shotguns and soldiers to shoot with machine guns. They really kind of soak up the damage, so you’ll find yourself dumping a lot more than you’re used to with more modern shooters, but it’s kind of fun when you dual wield big-ass guns.

But I really didn’t find anything out of the ordinary with the base game mechanics. You can sprint and slide, but that comes in handy precisely once in the demo, and the plasma cutter gun is used in very specific, required instances. The enemies don’t seem especially smart or aware of their surroundings as I had little to no problem maneuvering around them for the better angle (the mechs, in fact, seem to have trouble navigating stairs, a challenge I took advantage of).

Wolfenstein: The New Order

At moments, I was having fun. I thought yeah, I could do this for an afternoon. And then I would sometimes feel a malaise with it all. But then I would remember the purity test and the drive into the base and get excited again. I really don’t know what kind of game Wolfenstein: The New Order is going to be, but I’m excited to find out, even if the answer itself isn’t all that interesting.

Look for Wolfenstein: The New Order on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC in December.

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Hands-on with Dark Souls II

Hands-on with Dark Souls II

I was way behind. The day started with a 12:00 PM appointment, the same time as when the doors open on the first day of E3. The unwashed masses descend upon the South and West halls and inexplicably form orderly queues despite the rampant disorganization that soon follows the opening bell. This is how E3 meetings and demos fall behind schedule; they simply start out late. This, however, is also how I got my hands on Dark Souls II for nearly a whole 30 minutes.

Settled into the waiting pen for Namco Bandai, machines appeared before me unattended. So I grabbed a controller and set about playing a game I knew only in passing and had seen a trailer for once just the day before. I’d played both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls but finished neither; to me, they were casual games I would pick up, get stumped by a battle, and put back down all in the span of 15 to 30 minutes.

But let’s talk about Dark Souls II. It opens with me standing in a dimly lit room. It gives me a moment to refamiliarize myself with the controls, which are largely unchanged from Dark Souls, and scope out my current location. There’s a hole in the ground and a door that doesn’t open, so I position myself above the crevasse and peer over.

A bit too far, it seems, as I fall in, gleefully ignoring the ladder right beside me and losing about 75% of my health from the 15-foot drop. So far, so Dark Souls. It’s much darker down here, but I do see that there’s a body lying on the ground shambling back to life to try and take the last quarter of my vitality. He does so quite easily. Time to start again.

This time, I manage to remember the ladder. Success! Oh, but I forget to use it. Dammit! Back down to 25% health, but I slam down a health potion and I’m almost as good as new. In related news, that corpse goes down a lot easier this time around. Some well-timed rolls and not-so-well-timed swings of my sword put him down and me only slightly down. All that animation priority goodness you love from Dark Souls is back, so don’t worry. After crossing a bridge and entering a nearly pitch black basement, though, I’m reminded of the other chief property of the series: the opportunity to make stupid mistakes.

Combat is all about mitigating risks and knowing when you have an opportunity worth seizing. Navigating the world, however, is all about not being a complete fucking idiot, which I fail to do in the most spectacular fashion in this subterranean dungeon. First off, it’s almost completely and totally dark in there and yet I go in without a torch. Second, I haphazardly run around like I own the place. (Note: I do not, in fact, own the place.) Third, which is a net result of the first two failings, I show how I can be equally ignorant to helpful things like ladders as dangerous things like the giant hulking Turtle enemy right in front of me. He’s about a third taller than me but way bulkier, covered from head to toe in armor, and just killed me with his humongous hammer.

Dark Souls II

Third time’s a charm, though, and I finally do it; I used the ladder! However, I die at the Turtle’s hands again because, I dunno, I thought maybe I could be a hero or something. Anyways, if I’d learned anything from the first Dark Souls and life in general, it’s to run away from your troubles, so I take another bridge outside, run away from a few more life lessons, and warp into a long hallway.

This hallway looks kind of familiar. It’s the throne-like runway from the trailer where all the dudes are swiping at you as you run towards the camera. Well, I don’t see any dudes, but I do see a lot of statues with pikes and a, uh, statuemancer at the end. While he casts spells at me, I put two and two together and decide to take a page from the trailer’s playbook and haul ass down the corridor. Recklessly and fruitlessly, I take damage from his dark fireballs and the numerous blades shivving me in the side to the point where I only brief touch a wall of mist just behind the wizard before collapsing in a heap of failure, regret, and poor risk analysis.

A few more attempts at trying to defeat the statues (they go down rather easy as long as you don’t let them overwhelm you and take proper cover from the incoming projectiles) and the dark magician (he is much more resilient and now the bane of my existence) pass by before I decide to just try to bee line it straight for the mist. It’s a tense affair of pushing slowly into the sparkling barrier and hearing my doom slowly encroach on me, but I push through…

Dark Souls II

And am immediately greeted by death. Well, not death, per se, but the massive Mirror Knight you also see in the trailer. He is, however, the harbinger of my imminent doom, so details like who he’s PR for aren’t all that important. I run up to him and dance around, trying to feel him out. I want to tease him to find out where his head is at. Is he a brute? Does he cast spells? What’s with that big shield? All of these questions go running through my head as he jumps into the air and brings down a swift and brutal end to my life. His blank, unchanging face taunts me as I fade to black.

And so this goes on for the next 10 minutes or so to varying degrees of success and ways of being crushed. It takes a lot of patience and nuance to get around his large, sweeping but fast attacks and spanning lightning spells. He has a pose that could lead to one of three moves that become harder to predict the closer you are to him (it just so happens that the moments prior are the best for inflicting damage). And when he slams down his shield, a soldier busts through the mirror and comes after you. He’s easily handled if you rush up fast and unleash naive hell upon him, but that depletes the stamina you would otherwise be using to avoid the Mirror Knight’s attacks. Slogging through just a fourth of his health is painful and takes more concentration than I’d used the entire day prior. It is, basically, everything you’d want from a Dark Souls game.

From what I can tell, From Software has made no effort to make the game any easier—there is no easy mode—but they have tried to facilitate the ways you play it. There’s a new engine powering the game that gives more clues about enemies with greater visual and audio capabilities; improved enemy AI will result in less outcomes where you feel cheated; and there is now persistent bonfire warping. There’s also a character generator now that asks your questions and guesses the best match of what type of play style you would want based on your answers.

Dark Souls II

Gameplay changes are indeterminate, however, in regards to difficulty impact as there are now life gems that can regenerate health without stopping to down a potion, you can dual wield weapons, and you can carry three weapon or shield items now. Some more die hard Dark Souls fans I spoke with said that the movement felt a bit faster (perhaps it was their particular loadout) and that a few combat things felt different (in what ways, they could not readily articulate given the short demo time), but from what I saw, the philosophy of the franchise was there. It was brutal, it was mean, and it was consistent. Just in the brief time I spent with Dark Souls II, I failed at so many things, learned a few lessons, and overcame a couple of obstacles. For the first time that day, falling behind wasn’t so bad.

Look for Dark Souls II on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in March 2014.

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Eyes-On With Call Of Duty: Ghosts

Eyes-on with Call of Duty: Ghosts

Naming the latest Call of Duty game after invisible but potentially effectual specters seems exceedingly appropriate; it is a franchise, for the most part, comprised of vestiges of years past. Its games go on and on and annually haunt the industry. But that’s also to say that it is the progenitor of so many things we take for granted now, like experience points-based multiplayer and nukes in space.

Call of Duty: Ghosts, however, seems to make a solid argument for exhuming the military shooter and breathing new life into it. There’s a dog, there’s a story that so far sounds reasonable, and the box art doesn’t even feature a guy holding a gun. Hell, you can even see part of his face! That seems like a small detail, but for a franchise that eventually became about undead extras and prestiging multiplayer. To me, it signifies an attempt (the execution remains to be seen) of a much more personal story and an attempt to go beyond spectacle.

That’s not to say, however, that there won’t be any spectacle. The behind-closed-doors demo I saw walked us through three missions (and was preceded by a video about the new tech powering the game which seems cool and closes in on some of the things the latest CryEngine has been doing like adaptive tessellation, dynamic surface subdivision, and HDR lighting). The first is “No Man’s Land” and takes place just outside of San Diego, California. The second is “Federation Day,” a BCD-exclusive mission that puts us in The Federation’s capital of Caracas, Venezuela. The third is “Into the Deep” and has us navigating the waters of the Caribbean Sea.

No Man’s Land

This piece of the demo seems like its sole purpose is to show off what our war dog Riley can do (is he named after Simon Riley, the original “Ghost” from the Modern Warfare series?). We and another soldier are hiding out in some grass, waiting for an enemy patrol to pass by. Or so it seems. Instead of going the patient route and risking being caught, our partner suggests we send Riley out to attack them. So we do, and off our pup goes, taking down one bad guy while we gun down the others from afar. Pretty neat, but I wonder if we could have also just shot them all up or sneak by without using our bloodthirsty quadruped.

We continue on and make our way through an abandoned house. Out of the back, we see the devastation caused by whatever cataclysmic event triggered the US falling from global superpower status. It’s basically a giant crater with rubble and debris filling in a minute portion of the otherwise overwhelming hole. To our right, a church crumbles into the enormous pit, and we walk on as we comfort Riley, who seems to make a lot of noise for a military-trained ninja dog. He does, however, animate extremely well and I find him endearing already and I haven’t even played the game, so good job with the mocap, Infinity Ward, but I swear to god, if you kill that dog, I will Schwarzenegger you in half.

Next, we use our remote control capabilities with Riley. That’s not to say that he’s a robot and we use joysticks to maneuver him around, but it’s not far off, either. In the narrative (and, ostensibly, the real world), war dogs are equipped with a headset so they can receive verbal commands, a vibrating collar to tell them where to go, and an over-the-head camera to feed back to the soldiers where they are.

Riley first sneaks up on one dude and stealth kills him. Then we make Riley bark to call over another dude and we snipe him (automatic since we’re still in Riley Cam; the same goes for another sniper). We exit dog mode and prepare to breach a door, except it’s a reverse breach. Riley jumps into a window by the door, we hear some barking and yelling, and then, in slow motion, three dudes stumble out and we shoot them in the head/body area. While I like Riley himself, these dog sections seem exceptionally linear and the Call of Duty equivalent of quick-time events.

Federation Day

Call of Duty: Ghosts - Federation Day

Your three-man team is sitting atop a skyscraper in Caracas while fireworks go off all around you in the night sky. It’s a stealth operation, so you put on your Ghost team balaclava and set about sneaking across to some other building. You all fire off some grappling hooks that will allow you to zip-line over. About three-quarters of the way across, you cut the anchor and end up positioned to rappel down the side of the building.

Wind is blowing pretty hard up here, so it’s pushing both you and your aim all over the place. Through the windows, though, you can see enemy patrols wandering around the floor, and they must die. If you recall past Call of Duty missions involving you listening to a spotter on what to do while you snipe dudes, it’s a lot like that. All you do is shoot when they tell you to and move when they tell you to. This goes on for another few floors.

Once you reach the proper level, you and your squad will bust out torches to cut out holes in the window. Your goal here is to hack into the power system of the building so you can safely descend the rest of the building (how the bad guys don’t notice the lights go out is beyond me, but whatever, I’m not a trained henchman so what do I know). As you watch a meter fill—err, hack the Gibson, your point man will point out that another enemy patrol is approaching, so either finish or hide. We choose to finish with plenty of time to also hide. One man lingers behind and he takes him out before dragging him into the shadows.

Call of Duty: Ghosts - Federation Day

Then we head back out our window holes and continue to rappel down, eventually doing a drop kill and throwing knife kill on two unsuspecting dudes on a balcony. We then time warp ahead to a crumbling building and a necessary escape in high demand. We run through corridors and yell a lot at each other and into our headsets. Apparently the mission has been “compromised,” so we have to haul ass.

Eventually we find ourselves in a large room where some bad guys are, but no one is particularly focused on killing anyone else as the building that they happen to be on the 2,000th floor of is fucking going down. It reminds me a lot of the building sequence in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves except from a first-person perspective and without the elegant escape at the end. Instead, our Ghost team ends up jumping and falling through some glass and…well, we don’t get to find out because it’s an E3 demo.

Into the Deep

This final mission actually is the most interesting of the three. It takes place entirely underwater as you and a partner scuba around somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. It is described as “the most visually stunning Call of Duty level” yet, and I kind of agree. The underwater effects are really neat with a proper haze and warping occurring as you flipper about, and seeing all the coral and the fish around you is pretty cool.

As we navigate our way through some coral, a sonar patrol drops down from the surface. Our best option, apparently, is to take them out, but my partner warns me that “bullets aren’t as effective underwater,” that it’ll take more than just a shot or two take someone down. Point taken, and it in fact sounds like it could have interesting ramifications on the traditional find-cover-then-shoot-everything tactic of Call of Duty games, but all it really means is I hold down the trigger half a second longer than usual.

We then encounter another underwater patrol and hide from them. Following the familiar pattern now of first mechanics, then spectacle, we then time warp further ahead in the mission to when shit, undoubtedly, has gone wrong. We’re forced to dart from cover to cover due to an overwhelmingly powerful sonar blast coming from an enemy submarine. We eventually get close enough and hunker down in some old sunken wooden ship so we can remote control a torpedo into the hostile vessel.

We nail it (yay!) but our cover begins to fall into an underwater ravine (boo!) and drags us down with it. As the wreckage settles, we see our air tube flopping around in front of our face, though we can’t do anything since our entire body is pinned by debris and now filling with water and gurgling noises. Luckily, our partner swims up, hooks us back up, and frees us. We begin our escape as chunks of the destroyed sub are now falling all around us only to then be stopped by a sizable group of enemy divers. Fade to black and end the demo.

Conclusion

Call of Duty: Ghosts - Federation Day

Once again, there are a lot of promises being made in the new Call of Duty game. Once again, the previews and demos prove that both Infinity Ward and Treyarch are perfectly capable of doing what they do. Given what I saw with my half-hour demo of Call of Duty: Ghosts, I saw nothing to suggest that it would be any different. It looks full of spectacular set pieces and some riveting moments of “oh shit” followed by “fuck yeah” and everything in between. The question, of course, is whether or not that’s what we still want, or is Activision just selling this to ghosts?

Look for Call of Duty: Ghosts to release November 5th of this year for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC.

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