Category Archives: Preview

Watch the Full E3 2015 Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Demo

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

You’ve undoubtedly seen the demo for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End from the Sony press conference this year at E3. It was, also beyond the shadow of a doubt, a banger of a demo. With the frozen Nathan Drake, we learned that the project was far along enough to show it live. And we learned that it is a big, beautiful, and exciting game.

I guess we already knew that last part, or at least assumed it. Coming from Naughty Dog and after three other very successful and rather good Uncharted games, that kind of quality and scope is expected. What we saw, though, appeared to be almost exactly what we’ve seen before: shooting dudes, jumping on stuff, and slinging sass.

Apparently, that is not totally representative. Uncharted 4 sounds like it’s going to be skewing slightly towards the ideal of an open world, not that we see it even in this extended demo with Drake’s brother Sam working alongside his explosive antics. (Hot damn is it gorgeous, though.) In this interview with Polygon’s Megan Farokhmanesh, it’s stated that there won’t just be vehicle set pieces like in the past but they will rather play an integral part in exploration.

During the demo, for example, players are free to escape the market at their own pace. All roads will eventually take you to your destination — which is essentially just the bottom of the hill — but how you get there is up to you.

Lead designer Kurt Margenau continues on to say, “Everything you see, you can go to. We’re not going to arbitrarily block you.” They’ll still continue to bring the heat in terms of huge, memorable beats and whatnot, but there will apparently be a lot more flexibility in terms of where Nathan can go.

That’s an interesting decision because I never quite found the linearity of the past Uncharted games to be all that limiting. The entire franchise was built around the premise of bringing the flawed but enchanted heroism and adventures of Indiana Jones to the video game world, and to that end, they succeeded. They hit all the marks of what makes Indy, well, Indy.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

But perhaps this is playing into some idea that this game needs to do something more than just incrementally improve on what many viewed as a platonic ideal for action-adventure games. The series has already gone the predictable arc of trilogies, and there’s certainly nothing wrong in proving you can do something better than you’ve done before (and we have seen the truck-jumping bit before), which makes this seemingly internal pressure to try something brazenly new all the more interesting.

If you recall the demo from the PlayStation Experience last year, we saw Drake clamber around a rather sizable jungle environment and take out a bevy of bad guys. Looking back on it, it definitely felt like the breadth of the geography was indicative of an open world. It’s the kind of setting you would cross a few times between hub-like structures (I doubt it’s going that open) before getting into a scrape.

Or maybe that’s confirmation bias. Who knows. The Uncharted 4 development story gets more interesting considering how much of The Last of Us is going into it. Not only is the enemy AI making a showing (guess that The Last of Us Remastered port to PlayStation 4 is bearing bonus fruit) but since former series creative director Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond’s departures in March of last year, The Last of Us leads Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley took over.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

And in that transition, they apparently scrapped eight months of work, according to voice actor Nolan North (who plays Drake) in a recent MetroCon panel. It doesn’t quite sound like an entire finish product was thrown away but rather Druckmann and Straley took where the game was already headed and added their own creative spice to it, which is totally understandable. It’s difficult to take something in someone else’s voice and both finish it and make it better when both the past and present styles are so specific and recognizable.

Of course, it’s all up in the air. You can’t and shouldn’t judge an unfinished game because, very obviously, it’s unfinished. You can express opinions regarding that thing that it is, but that’s not a product for you to hold with or against a studio, just like you don’t look at a stack of notecards and tell Steven Spielberg it’s a terrible movie. But as it sits now, Uncharted 4 looks like a particularly interesting thing.

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Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – Hands-on at E3 2015

Mirror's Edge Catalyst

“Sweet baby Jesus, it’s happening.” Yes, brain that apparently watched Talladega Nights recently, it is happening. A sequel to 2008’s Mirror’s Edge is in development. Well, one has been in varying states of development since 2011, but it came and went like a Mary Poppins of gaming: swiftly happy and then suddenly sad.

But that’s all behind us and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is mostly around the corner. With a hands-on showing at E3 this year, you are set loose upon the city with a sampling of some side missions to tackle. It’s not much, but it’s enough to say that Catalyst seems to be a wonderful confluence of old and new.

You once again settle into the red shoes of Faith, the series’ parkour-enabled protagonist. The game aims to explore Faith’s origins while exposing the underlying evils simmering in the City of Glass. You play from a first-person perspective, using a complex but rewarding control scheme to slide under obstacles, clamber up walls, and leap from roof to roof.

The two biggest changes, though, are where the meat is at. First off, there is no gun combat in Catalyst. In the first Mirror’s Edge, Faith admonished the use of firearms, a notion the game reinforced by only providing one or two shots per gun acquired. But now, Faith doesn’t wield them at all.

Instead, the focus is on movement as a weapon. As long as you are in a successful and flowing line, Faith is invincible and able to take down the enemies that crop up on your way. It rewards you for skillfully playing the game as both you and the developers desire, not having you work around a strangely long-distance concession for effective henchmen.

The second change is that Faith will be operating in an open world. Rather than moving between discrete levels where the end of one sequence leads directly to the start of another, you will be futzing about within the actual City of Glass.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst

To be totally honest, that bit terrified me when it was announced during EA’s press conference. I loved that the entirety of the first game was aimed at being a single flow, not just between levels but within the stages themselves as well. But the open world actually works.

Even the idea of an Ubisoft-esque map full of blips of courier and hacking and time attack missions doesn’t seem so bad because it feels still like that single flow I liked so much before. Momentum and movement makes dashing around the city while racing Icarus (another runner from the story) or bashing the heads of dozens of guards on a rooftop seem more contiguous than you’d imagine.

It all feels like a natural extension of the core premise of a fluid existence. Go high to mantle a wall and then go low to roll out of the big landing and then go high to kick a dude’s face in. It’s a promising refinement of what we remember from before. Let’s just hope Mirror’s Edge Catalyst can figure out what else to spruce up and what to drop.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst comes out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on February 23, 2016.

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Cuphead – Hands-on at E3 2015

Cuphead

Finally getting my hands on the most intriguing surprise of E3 2014 was both a joy and a buzzkill. Going into it after a year of wondering what it was, my expectations were basically nonexistent save for its visual flair. And it does not disappoint. Cuphead from Studio MDHR is an unequivocally beautiful game. I’m so glad to find out that it’s also a promising one.

First off, the premise: you are Cuphead, and you and your friend Mugman made a bet with the devil. It almost obviously goes sour, and the two are soon locked into doing the devil’s bidding. The pair fill their heads with some fine grain liquor and proceed to go out guns blazing. (And with Mugman in the mix, you can co-op the game with a buddy.)

Its aesthetics throw back to the animation stylings of the early 1900s like that of Max Fleischer‘s Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie but its gameplay is straight out of the 1980s. It’s a side-scrolling shooter that is very much in the vein of Contra and the like except almost exclusively a protracted boss rush à la Shadow of the Colossus. (I guess that’s more accurately a boss game.)

And gosh is it brutal. You run, you jump, and you shoot, but most importantly, you die. You have to have the dexterity and reaction time to survive just as much as you must have the ability to learn and retain patterns until they become habit and intuition instead of studied motions.

You can also time a midair jump to deflect certain enemy projectiles, which will in turn charge your super weapon. If you do it enough, you’ll gain use of an ass-kicking beam attack, but if you miss (and you will; the timing is super tight), you take damage. It’s okay, though. That super is only somewhat essential to beating the bosses.

The noteworthy part in all of this is that it comes with great variety. You’ll face pugilistic frogs, psychic carrots, and ornery slot machines, and all of them fight uniquely. It’s one thing to have an expertly punishing game but it’s another to make so much of it feel consistently fresh.

Cuphead

The audio and visuals certainly don’t hurt either. It’s a lusciously smooth and lovingly drawn game from just two brothers (which might explain why it went with the boss rush structure) with a pitch-perfect original, totally manic jazz soundtrack. The adorable characters and animations do betray the sweaty palms and enraged screams into the night that it holds for your future, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cuphead looks to be shaping up quite nicely. It’s got flair to go along with what seems like a competent core of run and gun gameplay. So what’s the buzzkill? It’s not out until 2016 for Xbox One and PC.

(Read more about the game’s development in this SlashGear interview from last year. It’s fascinating.)

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Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens – Hands-on at E3 2015

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Let’s get this right out of the way: HoloLens, Microsoft’s response to the virtual reality resurgence of late, is incredibly cool. It’s not necessarily impressive, but it is undoubtedly neato. You throw it on like any other VR headset but it instead opts for an augmented reality experience, altering what you can already see rather than replacing it wholesale.

If you saw the Microsoft press conference earlier in the week, then you’ve seen what they’re selling you. The Minecraft demo is the goal for the product, and it kind of delivers on that; you certainly are seeing things that aren’t there. The odd part is the field of view.

Namely, it’s not that great. The stage demo and the special camera rig to display it shows it as an all-encompassing experience. It’s not that. Imagine you are peering through another smaller seamless window in the headset about the size of a deck of cards hovering a foot or so in front of you. That’s what you see. It’s disappointing but not necessarily jarring.

Preceding a demo of Halo 5: Guardians, there was a super high to-do about a multiplayer briefing. The area was mocked up to be a UNSC facility with UNSC scientists milling about. It all felt very much like a marketing coma-inducing simulacrum. The lab coats measured our interpupillary distances and then we were sent on our goggled way.

You look to the left down a corridor and what you see is almost unbelievable. It would have been breathtaking if survival in the video game industry required some amount of emotional culling. It was a Halo waypoint. Not a poster of one plastered on the wall or some styrofoam approximation hung from the ceiling. It was a waypoint, counting down the meters until you reached it.

Once you got there, you were directed to another room. In it was a window. Well, not a real one, but one projected by HoloLens. Peering through, you can see all manner of Pelicans and marines and whatnot. This is no longer some PR-purchased estimation of Halo. This suddenly became the UNSC Infinity.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Turning around, there’s a briefing table with a hologram of the Infinity floating there. You can actually use a virtual pointer to spin it around, which was pretty fun just by itself. But then it’s replaced by Spartan commander Sarah Palmer detailing how the new Warzone mode works.

All the while, you can walk around the table, circling the future like a hungry shark. It tracks just as well and you’d like it to with no stuttering or jumping. With no hanging circuitry or wires, the headset is light, too, almost leaving you to forget it’s even there on your noggin.

The magic, however, begins to falter due to the aforementioned viewing real estate. You pretty much have to be backed up all the way to see everything in a way that doesn’t feel like peering through a mail slot. Forcing you to physically accommodate the limitations of the system breaks the sensation of being aboard a UNSC ship and suddenly you’re back in a room with several strangers wearing things on their heads.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

It’s an odd feeling, for sure. I’ve worked with this technology before from the engineering and programming side, so knowing its actual limits based on current research and development has tempered by excitement, but experiencing it all in the context of a world I know fairly well makes it smile-inducing all over again.

And knowing it’s still not all quite there similarly curbs giddiness. The field of view is the biggest problem, but it also leads into an issue with proximity. The closer you get, the more the illusion of immersion breaks not only because you stop seeing everything at once but also because you start to see jagged edges and some slightly ragged tracking. It’s at a low degree and a rarity, but it’s enough.

There’s not quite an applicable use for this just yet. There wasn’t much to get from this that you couldn’t get from the Warzone trailer and it’s definitely not plausible for this to exist in every player’s house (not that Microsoft would even consider that option, but still). It was slick, though, and absolutely does the job of getting the idea of what’s possible with HoloLens stuck in your mind.

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The Doom Reveal at QuakeCon 2014

Doom Reveal

“This brave new world is going to hell.” Marty Stratton, executive producer on Id Software’s upcoming Doom, apparently has a thing for understatement. Or perhaps literality, given the premise of the game. Either way, the troubled project formerly known as Doom 4 has found new life as a Bethesda-published product and made its big re-debut at this year’s QuakeCon event.

The publicly streamed portion involved a trailer, some PR-infused speech, and concept art showing the transition that the team made from old school to reimagined new school. In fact, you’ve mostly likely already seen the trailer as it was released back during E3. It’s gone unchanged.

But here are the quick facts: Doom takes place in a UAC research facility on Mars right before a demonic invasion begins, it will run on brand new id Tech 6 (dubbed “id Tech 666” by the team, says Stratton) for 1080p and 60 FPS, and will be coming to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Most interesting was perhaps the exact words Stratton used to describe the team’s ambitions with Doom. He says this is a return to the franchise’s roots (hence the rebranding as just Doom) but they will also “evolve the way you play.” It’s an “origin game” with “fast, fast-paced” gameplay, where along the way he dropped the word “relentless” somewhere between five and 67 times. No regenerating health and a full arsenal. Sure sounds like Doom.

Then, watching the two back-to-back live gameplay demos, it’s very obvious that Stratton meant it all as a single gestalt statement. This looks precisely like a Doom game made to be an interpretation of modern sensibilities. The first demo was a slightly more subdued chunk of gameplay. It seemed to serve to mostly highlight the blend of new and old.

The character puts on a helmet and activates a HUD that is very reminiscent of Metroid Prime, giving a diegetic reason to why you can see real time data like objectives, enemies, and the like. One of the first things we then encounter after entering the UAC station is a locked red door, obviously meant to be an HD version of the franchise’s classic keyed obstacle. Then, rather quickly, the enemies start to appear.

Doom

They will literally materialize out of nothing, ostensibly teleporting from Hell itself. Demons and Imps are the order of the day, as are some rather brutal melee finishing moves. Enemies will flash briefly as they taken sufficient damage, telling you that you can close in and rip of their head or rip out their heart or kick off their head or split their head in half. There’s a lot involving the head. In fact, by utilizing the double jump, you can Mario them to death as you leap off of some conveniently located crates.

While not as ridiculously fast as the old games, Doom is still a rather fast-moving experience. There’s a sprint button that hits that nearly ludicrous speed, and dumping ammo into demonic flesh looks as quick and easy as breathing. Mantling and double jumping adds some much-desired verticality to a traditionally and unrelentingly horizontal franchise, though it’s certainly no Uncharted (nor should it be). Also, unconfirmed, but it looked like there might have been a lateral dodge move? I’ll ask for clarification.

There certainly was a lot of dude-shooting, but definitely nothing on par with the likes of Doom II. This was a surprisingly meted demo. Minutes at a time would pass where enemies would not attack, allowing you to even solve a “puzzle” where you ripped the hand off a nearby fallen guard to bypass a biometric scanner. But when the classic double-barreled shotgun made its appearance, the shooting came back with a vengeance.

Doom

The second demo was seemingly more oriented towards combat, as there was an entire segment where we saw all the different ways you could slice up Demons with the chainsaw. It was a one-hit kill, but it looked rather satisfying regardless as you lopped off limbs and heads and entire sides of bodies with a reckless abandon. You also see more clearly how time dilation affects the moment-to-moment action whenever you open up the radial weapon menu.

It also appeared that at least some portion of weapons will have an alternative fire. The double-barreled shotgun had this thing where it seemed to charge up three shots (out of two barrels?) at once and would unload in rapid succession. That served to really highlight how enemies would actively deteriorate as you damaged them more and more, chunks flying off before turning into straight-up gibs.

Then we entered a large arena-type room, which was appropriate given that a bunch of large boss-like enemies proceeded to attack you. This is where it felt most old school, as you were given an open-ish area with a bunch of weapons and a veritable deluge of bad guys would come after you. I’m talking Cyberdemons, Demons, Imps, and even a couple of Mancubuses (Mancubi?). Here we see prolonged usage of the plasma rifle and rocket launcher, two more classic weapons that did not disappoint.

QuakeCon 2014 Stage

This was absolutely a great showing for the revamped Doom. Nothing all that surprising, but it highlighted how Id was blending the classic tenets of the franchise with the lessons learned from modern shooters. And even in these nascent stages, this is already a fantastic-looking and sounding game. Most impressively, blood actually looks like blood.

Of course, there are reservations. Tentative ones given that this was purely eyes-on with a supremely vertical slice, but reservations nonetheless. Melee seems to have greatly affected the cadence of the game’s combat. It’s now more geared towards tireless forward progress, always moving to another stomped head. It feels a lot more like diving into the middle of the fray rather than dodging around and firing shots into the cluster.

We’ll try to find out more. Not sure you’ll be seeing these demos anytime soon; they were diligent about restricting camera usage in the theater. No release date or timeframe announced either, but Doom will be making its way to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 once it does come out.

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Early Edition: Action Henk

Action Henk

While I’m not entirely sure about action figures sporting exposed beer bellies, I am quite positive that RageSquid’s Action Henk is shaping up to be a rather fun time. Having entered Early Access just under a week ago, Action Henk actually made its initial debut as a two-month experiment for an event back in 2012. Its gestation has been well spent, as it is a game to keep your eye on.

Action Henk actually gins up a fair amount of nostalgic gaming sensations, mostly because of its simplicity, though its aesthetic certainly helps. You play as an action figure named Henk and you are to traverse obstacle courses comprised of toy car tracks, wooden blocks, and an imaginary lava floor turned all too real in what appears to be a kid’s room. And for all the challenges to overcome, you are only equipped with the ability to run, jump, and slide on your butt. (You gain gadgets, too, but we’ll get to that later.)

The game’s framework is structured very similarly to something like a Trials game. You pick your figure (variations of the standard Henk or Betsy, the only other playable character in this version), pick your course, and set out to get a bronze, silver, or gold medal. As you earn medals, you unlock more levels as well as the ability to challenge the aforementioned Betsy to unlock her.

Along the way, there are checkpoints, though they’re really only useful when you’re learning a particular level. When you actually get going, the game is wholly about momentum. If you can, you’re better off jumping entirely over small inclines. Sliding down hills on your tush is the best way to build up speed, but sliding otherwise will slow you to a stop.

In the beginning, it’s all about maximizing technique. Instead of holding the jump button, you just tap it so you can catch the top of the decline for even more sliding surface. It’s a mostly addictive exercise, restarting eventually becoming easier than quitting, settling you down for just a few (dozen) more attempts.

The fun (and frustration) really builds when you start racing medal ghosts, learning tricks for shaving off fractions of a second and trying them out yourself. It’s incredibly satisfying when you cognitively understand a somewhat advanced move and then finally pull it off somehow better than the ghost, pushing you to try one more and really tinker with the mechanics of the game.

Action Henk

It all really opens up, however, in the second block of levels when the hookshot gets introduced. It always points forward and towards the ceiling at a 45-degree angle, and with the press of a button, it fires off and sticks until you let go or you hit another surface. It’s quite the interesting tool because instead of you min-maxing the surfaces laid out for you, you now control a device that effectively generates momentum for you.

It really trades height for speed if you use it right, slinging straight with rapid hook releases instead of taking a single, massive swing over an unjumpable chasm. It turns the lax portions of the early stages where you simply run into exciting segments of interaction and engagement. Combining the technical precision offered by its initial simplicity with the freedom of the hookshot is a brilliant move.

But the really crazy thing happens towards the end of the second block of courses (and the completely incomplete WIP chunk where medals and the like haven’t even been implemented): the game gets tricky. Difficult, even. Instead of just figuring out how to get the most speed out of an obstacle, you are figuring out how to just get past it. It’s nice to see a game not afraid to be frank with its deviousness.

Action Henk

In fact, at the end of the WIP levels, there’s an Ultimate Test that is supremely punishing. The first jump, for instance, took me well over a dozen attempts to clear, and that was after the previous few dozen trying to figure out how to even do it. It not only requires incredible precision but a deep understanding of how the game works (and what feels like the teensiest bit of imagination). Someday.

Action Henk, however, is very much an Early Access game. It might even better be called an Earliest Access game. In addition to the entirely experimental block of levels, it also only features those other two tiers. In all, it probably takes about half an hour to run through all of them. Perhaps not master or even do well on all (or any) of them, but you can see everything the game has to offer in under an hour.

For $9.99, that may seem a bit of an absurd offer. And it totally is, but the potential here is significant. After I spent an afternoon running train on its diminutive offerings, I woke up the next day and played it again. It’s a setup that hard to resist, putting the opportunity to master something so close but forcing you to work for it.

Action Henk

Action Henk is set to be in Early Access for six or so months, during which it’ll add more levels, characters, and gadgets. If that intrigues you, then go for it. Personally, I’m interested in seeing where this ends up.

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BattleCry – Hands-on at E3 2014

BattleCry

Exiting the rather tepid theatre presentation outlining the character classes and fundamental mechanics of the game, anticipation was rather low as I walked towards the hands-on multiplayer demo of BattleCry, the first and eponymous title from Bethesda’s new Austin-based Battlecry Studios. After going through two rounds, however, I came away optimistic, though not as much as I’d hoped.

The set up is quite interesting and lends itself to creative designer Viktor Antonov’s (of Dishonored fame) particular brand of visual flair. It is the early 20th century and the world is in full-on war mode with itself. However, due to a treaty, the countries fight not with guns and bombs but with swords and fists and arrows. More over, they do so in specially sanctioned “war zones,” setting up the idea of citizenless arenas for players.

While eventually you’ll have access to five different character classes (each one mimicked across the different factions), the demo only afforded us three. The first is the Enforcer, a character focused on using its massive sword and its transformative capabilities as a shield to get in close and do tons of damage. The Duelist rocks two quick and snappy blades while the Tech Archer fires arrows from afar and throws daggers in close quarters.

Each character also has a special ability in addition to their regular class abilities. Cooldowns limit the use of skills like the Enforcer’s dashing and smashing abilities but accumulated adrenaline allows for the specials to be unleashed. Adrenaline can also be used to simply amplify all damage output and reduce damage intake, offering a nice counterbalance between amplitude and frequency of devastation.

The key to the game, however, is mobility. While we played in a setup of six on six, the game actually supports 32 total players. And getting around these accommodating maps is important, with automatic sprinting, quicker dodge-rolls with a double tap of the jump button, and hitting grapnel points on and round buildings. Remaining mobile allows you to avoid overwhelming encounters and engage in tactically advisable ones.

It was, though, that the game actually became much easier once I switched to the Tech Archer, the one ranged class in the demo. So long as I was able to keep my distance, I could contend with two or three melee-bound opponents at a time, and keeping my distance was easy with the aforementioned traversal mechanics. Getting in the mix with the Enforcer and the Duelist was novel compared to the usual online shooter experience, but both were far less effective when it came to actually killing other people.

BattleCry

Not to mention that with the reduced number of players on this map, it was a nuisance trying to find where the action was. I’d say about 80% of my time was actually spent running around, simply poking my head into every building and alley just to see if an enemy was there to fight. I’m sure there will be more appropriately sized maps later, but it’s worth noting anyways.

What’s interesting, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be a direct one-to-one correlation of character classes to each faction. Yes, every Enforcer is basically the same as the other, but the implementation seems to differ slightly. For instance, the Tech Archer of the Royal Marines has a longbow while the Cossack Empire’s Tech Archer has two crossbows. Gender, perhaps, could also alter how a class plays per instance.

It’s worth noting, too, that the game is free-to-play, Bethesda’s first of the sort. Playing the game earns iron, and iron unlocks skills and can be used to craft new items like armor and skins. This obviously lends itself to the F2P model, but given the short time with the game, there wasn’t much to glean as to how treacherous this structure goes in BattleCry.

BattleCry

Most interesting, however, is that the game concludes each match with a post-round bit similar to Team Fortress 2, but instead of being based on the idea of shaming your fallen opponents, it is about respecting your battlefield brethren. You’ll run around and salute those that you wish. Some designated MVPs, others just people you had solid scraps with, each time doling out medals as well. Of course, you could not do it at all and leave respect for another day.

Visually, BattleCry looks great and definitely fits the strange pseudo-history of its setting. Mechanically, it’s sound, moving nimbly and decisively and allowing for intuitive and responsive tracking even up close with swords and fists. However, the imbalance of ranged players is worrying, as is the unaccommodating map for our small demo. Both can be dealt with, but it’s not certain they will be.

Find out for yourself when it comes out in 2015 with a beta coming sometime before that.

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The Talos Principle – Hands-on at E3 2014

The Talos Principle - Hands-on at E3 2014

This is perhaps the first game I’ve encountered where there was someone that could even potentially hold the title of lead philosophy designer. Of course, many games evoke philosophical quandaries. Braid, for instance, harbors a twist that begs the question of what defines a hero, whether perspective matters. But The Talos Principle from Croteam centers itself around the existential.

The mention of Braid is no accident. Much like Jonathan Blow’s upcoming The Witness, The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game that takes place on an island. You take the reins of a robot (something mostly revealed when you press X to restart and you press a button on your own mechanical arm) and go about the world exploring old ruins and solving seemingly artificially constructed puzzles, working your way towards…something.

There’s a lot of unknowns going into the game, especially going into a mildly humid Airstream trailer in a Hooters parking lot at E3, but finding out how it all works is part of the experience. In fact, as narrative/philosophy designer Tom Jubert of The Swapper and Penumbra writing fame says, the experience of uncovering the game’s offerings will be crucial to any revelatory turn you take after finishing the last puzzle.

As the other Croteam members in the cramped trailer nod along knowingly, I have my doubts. While the narrative pedigree certainly is there, this was the team that created (and subsequently and righty milked) the Serious Sam franchise. But I embark nonetheless, approaching a crossroads with posted signage directing me to several puzzles. As I look at each pointed sign, parts of my HUD light up. Apparently each puzzle gains me a needed tetromino, some of which I’ve already acquired.

I approach one hazily digitized wall and enter it. Each puzzle is entirely self-contained and immediately discloses its difficulty. This one in particular is a more difficult one, so I move on to another, the easiest of the bunch. It’s a rudimentary puzzle with the goal in plain sight. The tetromino floats at the top of a platform that, as it stands, is unreachable.

Leading to the stairs that lead to the prize is a path, but along it are two impassable blue light barriers. Luckily for me, however, there is a jammer nearby, which looks an awful lot like a more high tech surveying tripod. I pick it up and jam the first barrier, but the problem becomes quite apparent: those devices can’t jam and move at the same time. Using another jammer, I have to disable the first barrier, bring the second jammer across, point it at the same barrier, and bring the first jammer across to take down the second barrier.

The Talos Principle

It’s a simple puzzle, though it’s at least satisfying to solve while the ominous voice that speaks you to after each solution unsettles you just a bit. The godlike narrator compels you to solve more and more but with little reason to do so. But proceed I do to the second puzzle, which is similarly quite simple, involving additionally an automated turret and a locked door and keys. But then the third puzzle turned out to be quite the challenge.

In it, the tetromino was locked behind a gate, and it could only be opened by a blue laser. The problem was that there was a bunch of red laser connections via gem redirectors needed to be made to get to the blue laser generator. Redirecting lasers is quite tricky, as the puzzle itself is physically laid out to require placement optimization, and laser beams stop once they intersect another laser. The key was to utilize the holes in the wall and reducing your redirector count as you move them to the blue line from the red. There was also a small tetromino puzzle that could afford you an extra redirector, but it proved unnecessary.

As I head across the bridge to the final puzzle, the team members murmur something about a terminal. “Terminal? What, like the one with the Tetris puzzle?” A light comes across their eyes as they realize now, apparently, is the time. They direct me away from the bridge and back down and around the wall that stands between me and that puzzle I just solved.

The Talos Principle

A little way down towards the shore is, oddly enough, a little computer terminal. It’s somehow striking even as I’d just spent the past 20 or so minutes dawdling around scenes entrenched in the juxtaposition of nature and technology. I approach it, and use it.

It appears to be just a computer terminal. It has a few rudimentary functions available, like listing files and accessing help pages and reading files. However, opening and reading parts of the terminal revealed it to be much more than a computer. It was talking to me, asking questions and responding to me in kind. It asked me about the pieces and the narrator. It questioned my ostensible allegiance with it by solving each puzzle.

Though not entirely alarming (way weirder things have spoken to us as gamers), it was a remarkable experience. It’s rare you have a seemingly artificial construct question an omnipresent one within a wholly digitized form of interactive entertainment. It’s stranger, too, that only through unprovoked exploration could this terminal be found. There are no random collectibles and there are no side quests. It appears that these entirely missable elements are just as vital to the game as the puzzles are.

The Talos Principle

That is where The Talos Principle truly intrigues me. The puzzles, sure, show promise for being a tortuous yet pleasing mental exercise (the fourth one across the bridge had me especially stumped for the longest time as fans and grates and whatnot enter the picture), but this idea of a game blatantly questioning its own premise is an interesting and novel one.

Not only that, but I like seeing Croteam step out of its Serious Sam comfort zone to work on a puzzle game and to work with a writer as inventive as Jubert. He cooked up the crux of the atmospheric and eerie The Swapper; he was part of the team behind the mind and nerve-racking Penumbra series; and he even helped gin up the nutso premise to Driver: San Francisco. I’m excited to see where The Talos Principle ends up when it comes out later this fall.

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The Evil Within – Hands-on at E3 2014

The Evil Within - Hands-on at E3 2014

The half hour I spent with Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within felt eerily familiar. While the debut title from Mikami’s new studio Tango Gameworks, the game itself borrows a lot from his past directorial efforts. Most notably, unsurprisingly, is now classic Resident Evil 4. There is, however, enough to make this a new experience, and a rather unnerving one at that.

Preceded by a hands-off theatre demo that functioned more as a collection of quick tips to not immediately be confused with the subsequent hands-on session, we are told that we will be given the choice of two different demos. The two options are offhandedly referred to as level four and level eight, the former of which was Mikami’s recommendation for the best The Evil Within experience. And who am I to argue with the guy who created Resident Evil?

You start off at the inclined walkway up towards a house, darkened by the night, and led by a stranger. From the words coming out of his mouth, it sounds like he’s a doctor because we’re looking for his patient. As we approach the house, I notice two things: 1) there’s a bonfire just 20 yards or so away and there are some angry-looking people circling it, and 2) this game feels a lot like RE4. It controls nearly the same, from the ambulatory systems to the gunplay and the like.

There are some key differences, though. Pulling up the inventory keeps time ticking along much like in Dead Space, though there is mild time dilation as something of a halfway concession between the two stances in action horror inventory. Next, there is a dedicated melee button rather than pulling out a knife and awkwardly aiming it, though melee in this game merely pushes foes away, not kill them.

That is perhaps the sharpest contrast. Enemies go down from gunfire and whatnot, but to kill requires either extreme force via an explosion or fire. A separate inventory tracks how many matches you can hold, which tops off rather quickly in the single digits. When an enemy falls after enough shots, you need to run up and torch them, but vigilance is still required as they have a tendency to lash out from the ground and ding you with annoying but meaningful amounts of damage.

Some things, however, remain the same as I approach the front door and double tap the interaction button to slam it open rather than slowly and cautiously eek it ajar. On this bottom floor, we come across what appears to be another doctor friend, but as he turns around from his mutilated patient on the table, he lunges towards us. (It’s not entirely unexpected as it is nearly beat-for-beat identical to the opening moments of RE4.)

The Evil Within

I drop him with some shots from my pistol and light him up. I poke around the desk and drawers behind the operating table and find an x-ray printout. It shows a chest with a key somewhere around the spine. Turning around to the body, I’m given the option to interact with it and do so. This affords me the opportunity to hover around the scarred, pale chest with a knife. Moving it around makes absolutely no sense as stick direction has no correlation to knife movement. And out of frustration, I keep mashing every button on the controller with little to no feedback.

Eventually I find the right spot and drive the knife into the body and only get some money out of experience. It was disappointing to say the least. But after killing a few more dudes upstairs, I leave and sneak into the next house adjacent to the intensely uninviting bonfire. Very directly the only option is to head down to the basement, which I do reluctantly. How many basements end up being good news in horror games?

However, all we find here is the lost young patient. Rushing over to him, the doctor friend escorts him back down the hall to the stairs while I loot the place for ammo and upgrade gel, the latter of which will be used—according to the preceding tutorial—in weird electrical chair-looking things to improve skills and abilities. But when I catch up with them, there’s a problem: the stairs are gone.

The Evil Within

Bewildered by the blank wall, I turn around and the hall goes all hazy, riddled with static, and then the doctor and patient disappear after the kid gives some sort of creepy psycho premonition speech. The hallway ends at a door that wasn’t there before, and the other side appears to go on interminably. It’s disconcerting to say the least.

I go through the door and I come back into the hallway again. I go down the hall, and the door is still right there. I approach the door again and suddenly a wave of blood comes gushing out and I’m dropped into an impressively dark room, its centerpiece a massive pit of broken metal walkways and hundreds of gallons of blood. Going around, I pick up some ammo and disarm a trap. Spotting more traps and more ammo, this is beginning to look a lot like a battle arena.

Which it is. After fully exploring the area (there’s a stairway that connects where a ladder leads and some platforms and rooms interconnected to the blood pit), I approach the one well lit door and Ruvic, the spooky white hooded fellow that appears every once in a while, appears. He summons a bunch of bad guys for me to kill and then peaces out like a wholesale dick.

The Evil Within

I immediately and unintentionally (but gladly) take out a few dudes right off the bat by tripping an explosive trap, unfortunately damaging me quite severely. No time to heal, though, as dudes are on my tail. I scamper away, though, to the ladder and climb it, seeing if old RE4 tactics hold up. While the other side of the ladder platform is a staircase, the bad guys can’t jump the gap between the two like I can.

So I camp out on the top, letting them stand up one at a time before downing and torching them. Soon, however, I’m out of matches and running low on ammo. Even with the ammo load-up beforehand, I never held more than two full clips for both my shotgun and pistol, and that was the most I’d had for the entire demo. The bigger problem, however, was the lack of matches.

There were, however, some explosive canisters lying around. Two, actually, which was quite fortuitous considering there were only two enemies left. One was easy enough, forcing him to chase me by one and shooting it as he passed it. The other was a bit tougher since the canister was at the top of the ladder and jumping the gap caused him to climb back down for the stairs. In the end, I healed up and exploded it right under both our feet.

The Evil Within

It was a tiring exercise. Not necessarily exhilarating but also not mindless, but the entire ordeal of kiting the last two dudes to make up for the lack of matches was rather boring. But I dip out through the diegetically highlighted door anyways. After a few more discombobulating mind tricks, I end up in another hallway, though this one seems disturbingly sterile.

Walking down the singular path, I end up in what appears to be an operating room. Recognizing it from trailers, the scare of a giant spider-like, multi-armed hair monster emerging from the ground isn’t all that startling. My awareness, however, doesn’t do much to impress the creature, so I turn around and run, recalling in the tutorial that some enemies should just be run from and not engaged. No idea if this was one of those enemies, but I run anyways.

However, with a sealed door at the other end, I figure I might as well try shooting it. It eventually stumbles and I run back into the operating room. I waste more shots into canisters that were apparently not explosive. I dump the last few rounds into the monster before trying to close the door on top of it, hoping it would be chopped in half or something. No dice. Out of ammo and out of options, I just let it kill me.

The Evil Within

Walking out of the blackened demo room, I’m left with quite a few thoughts. First, I wondered what the other level was like. Fellow journalist and Joystiq managing editor Susan Arendt was in the room as well and quite literally NOPE’d out of there. Second, I wonder if the minor changes to the RE4 are enough to set The Evil Within apart, but more importantly if the changes are improvements rather than deliberately breaking what was once working. Find out on October 21 of this year.

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Titan Souls – Hands-on at E3 2014

Titan Souls - Hands-on at E3 2014

Given my record with the game in the past 30 or so minutes, I should have known better, but I ask anyways. “How long do you think I’ll last?” The developers’ eyes flit around, the three of them resisting a wry smile or two. Design lead Mark Foster speaks up. “Three seconds.” Hmm, three seconds, huh? We’ll see about tha—oh fuck I died.

This is Titan Souls, a game from Acid Nerve that originally started out as a part of Ludum Dare 28. Ludum Dare is a game jam competition that gives developers two days to make a game that fits a theme, and the one for LD28 was “you only get one.” In the case of Titan Souls, you only get one hit point and one arrow for your one bow.

It’s an intensely difficult game, often resulting in rapid and accumulating deaths in short spans of time. It’s presents a dude in a The Legend of Zelda-esque perspective and visual milieu but puts you in a Shadow of the Colossus predicament. You must take down several titans, each one unique and powerful and unapologetically bigger than you, with little to no understand of why. At least, in the beginning.

Titan Souls

I’m assured by the developers that there is a reason to all this, an explanation behind you going after these defensive-turned-offensive foes and why you only have the one arrow. Until you fire your single, lonely pointed stick at a titan, they don’t do much except just sit there. In fact, they tell me the most common mistake people make is they attack when they’re standing right next to the titan just because they’re so docile at first.

Luckily, you are mostly well equipped to fight these angry behemoths. You move around with the left stick and dodge-roll with the B button, the sustained pressing of which enables you to simply run around. And then you hold R2 to draw your bow and release it to fire. And to get your arrow back, you hold down R2 again as it magnetically/magically rattles and shoots back to your quiver.

You move impressively fast. Or rather, fast enough to dodge most of what the titans can throw at you. In many cases, it’s just enough to stay alive, and others it’s just enough to get ahead and put the bare minimum distance between you two to get a single haphazardly aimed shot off. It’s an incredibly panicked affair, but it is just as exhilarating as it is stressful.

Titan Souls

And these are just titans, I should say. The first open area is actually comprised of three doors, and each one hides a sole boss in a spacious room that quickly becomes claustrophobic. One is a heart, one is an eye, and another is brain. Once you beat all three, you can open the fourth door and finally attack the real titan, which is more traditionally shaped like an anthropomorphic being would be.

The first boss I attempt is the heart, which really is a heart encased in a blob of…something. It bounces around, trying to squash you, but each time you hit a chunk with your arrow, the chunk splits in half. If you’re not careful, you could end up with over a dozen pint-sized blobs while the heart roams free. But this is also where I’m accidentally introduced to the depth of this game.

When dodging around and attempting to retrieve my arrow, I draw it in just as a blob happens to plop down between my killing implement and me. And it hits. And it splits. And I realize that if I play my cards right, I can make every single shot count for two. I succeed at gaming the encounter slightly, but soon fall folly to my hubris as I deftly expose the heart for the killing blow and stupidly expose myself for a swift restart.

Titan Souls

But in that moment, I understand. I understand that this is a significant and substantial game. It’s overflowing with nuanced mechanics. For instance, rolling up stairs actually results in a halted stumble while rolling down stairs gives you a double roll. And in the brain battle where it is encased in ice, fire will attach itself from the environment to your arrow, opening up the possibility of anything affecting your arrow in any other number of ways.

In that way, Titan Souls is an incredibly fascinating game. It forces you to act quickly and decisively to stay alive but plan ahead and think strategically as if you were playing a puzzle game. For instance, the eye boss is actually a cube that moves solely along the four cardinal directions, stomping along its locked lines as it seeks to squash you. You have to not only maneuver around sufficiently to survive but also plan your moves to expose its single eye-bearing side and fire your arrow into it.

It provides an intellectual rhythm to the combat, if there is such a thing. Every move matters, but it only matters insomuch that you figure out how to keep going and keep killing these titans. No particular action feels wasted or unnecessary, even when you miss a shot, because then it just opens up a new path that leads to your potential victory. Even in death is this game satisfying.

Titan Souls

After I pass the reins to the developers to see what it looks like to succeed at the game with a masterful hand, they lead me into the debug area where four more challenging titans await. They sit behind unguarded doors in a largely empty space (it is a debug area, after all). As I enter the first door, I ask the question. “How long do you think I’ll last?”

It seems they’ve added quite a bit since their initial LD28 version. That one only ever had four titans to begin with, let alone some semblance of a story behind the battles. And movement has opened up, allowing more tactical and tactile rolls and shots. But even then, I never quite made it to the end. Some fun three seconds, though. Perhaps the best I found in all of E3. Titan Souls comes out early next year for PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, and the PlayStation Vita.

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