E3 2012 – My Sony Tour
This year, Sony’s E3 booth again carried that slick design vibe that reminds you Sony isn’t just a video game company. The curved archways and lighted floors could just as easily been hawking new 3D flat screens or Vaio laptops. Naturally PS3s and Vitas were everywhere, with some demo areas further enhanced depending on the game… like seated areas for Little Big Planet Karting and miniature living room setups for the various Move titles. Yes, they had Move titles to show. Handouts included water bottles, free months for AT&T data plans on Vita, and Sony lanyards… no doubt intended to replace the convention-supplied Nintendo lanyard holding up everyone’s badge.
Sony’s media balcony was a second floor level encircling the chaos below. Just about everything Sony featured at the press conference was playable, with the maddening exception of the two biggest games – Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us (these were featured in invitation-only breakout sessions in meeting rooms separate from the two expo halls. And my packed schedule meant I had to pass on both, which sucks when you realize I was probably seeing a new Harvest Moon game at that time instead of hearing how players will be able to shave Ellen Page’s head in an enthralling Move-enabled mini game.) I had an hour for my media tour, making it impossible to see everything, so I tried to focus on games that were not being demoed at thirty kiosks down below, with the obvious exception of the one that I’m dying to play, PlayStation All Stars.
First up, I got my hands on Retro City Rampage, running on a Vita and hosted by the game’s creator Brian Provinciano himself. You guys might know I’d rather stab my eyes out than see more damn video game pixel art, but the Saints Row-level of nonsense in RCR has won me over. It’s just so gleefully stupid, from the 1980s pop culture callbacks to the withering highlights of the ongoing cliches of gaming. And it handles like a real game, which, given the low fidelity appearance, might be a surprise to you. The other thing that keeps me coming back to Retro City Rampage is the game’s documentary-worth path of development, beginning as a homebrew GTA-on-NES parody project started by Provinciano a decade ago. Provinciano showed off the three indie game cameos that appear in RCR as sidebar mini games: Virtual Meat Boy, which pokes fun at Nintendo’s Virtual Boy; a version of Bit.Trip Runner; and a happily pixelized edition of ‘Splosion Man.
Smart As. This is Vita’s take on Brain Age, and I’m ashamed to say that the obvious language gag “Smart Ass” did not occur to me until I flew back to the East Coast. SCEA Developer Nicolo Accordino stressed that Smart As‘s advantage is that it’s downloadable and therefore lives on your Vita, so you’re more likely to fire it up and run through your daily mental exercises then if you have to swap carts in and out. The game’s name comes from the intensive stat comparison angle. Every score you receive will be tallied on leaderboards showing your regional rank. At the show, they were running a contest: a free Vita to the top scoring player each day. So, yeah, I had to take a shot at that. The games are rapid-fire brainteasers. One puts four words on a signpost of arrows, and you’re supposed to tap the word that does not belong. Another quickie asks you to write in (with your finger) the number missing from a simple equation. My final score put me at fifth place for the day (although note my appointment was early, 11am) among all attendees who took the test. When the stats were broke out according to professional category, I was ranked number 1 on the “Press” board. I half-jokingly asked if I would have to kill the four guys above me in order to win the Vita. I was discouraged from doing that.
When Vikings Attack. This one is coming to PSN and Vita and features complete cross-play between the two. The hook is reminiscent of Pikmin or Little King’s Story, except with a focus on arena-style combat. You control a mob of villagers that are essentially your life meter. As the vikings attack (or as other players smack you around), you can lose people from your mob. The bigger your mob, the larger arena items you can pick up and throw, from trash cans to cars. It has a fantastic cel-shaded look, and continued play unlocks new types of embattled villagers that can be added to your throng. It is very fast, very fun, and immediately tops my list of upcoming games I’ll expect to buy at a discount thanks to PlayStation Plus.
Same story with Guacamelee. Probably the best pun going, right? This side-scrolling adventure has a great look, incorporating Mexican artwork and cultural elements. Seeing as we had three white guys (including me) at the Guacamelee demo, I gently asked how they were handling cultural sensitivities. The demo guys emphasized that they have been very careful, and they have Latin staff members whom they trust to guide the game away from what could be considered offensive. Which is awesome, because there are certainly games out there that seem entirely oblivious to that sort of thing. Gameplay-wise, Guacamelee is in the style of Metroid where you explore the environment and defeat enemies while opening doors that are locked to specific power-ups.
PlayStation All Stars: Battle Royale. The gentleman demoing All Stars for me had the stones to bring up Smash Bros, which is the first bit of honesty I’ve experienced on that score. Because, yes, this is pretty much Smash Bros. And that’s no bad thing. Sony has enough characters in the library to pull this off – and the press conference reveal of Big Daddy in the roster shows they’re even willing to bring in some deserving third party characters.
I chose to play Sly Cooper, which I was then told was intended as an “expert play” character. And it did take me a bit to get my bearings, because the gameplay is complete chaos with four players. Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve played Smash Bros, but it felt faster and therefore I had less precision than I would have liked. Although of course this was my first time playing, and I’m doing a guy cold who is geared for experienced players, so who knows. My biggest disappointment was that there is no way to see who is winning when you’re in a match. The demo guys said the HUD was still in development, but I pointed out that I sort of demand a live 1st-2nd-3rd kind of score count. Otherwise, you don’t know who is leading, right? So if we get that feature in the final release, I’m taking full credit.
I’m still 100% in for this title, since this kind of oozy fan service is right up my alley. And, to be less fanboyish, it will be interesting to see just how deep Sony dives into the library. After years of Smash, we know that Nintendo is going to include Game & Watch shit, NES Mario, and all the usual suspects… but how far will Sony take their version? Obviously PaRappa represents the PS1 era, but will Sony negotiate with any of his contemporaries that slipped out of their hands, like Crash Bandicoot? Will Sony pretend we care about their pre-PlayStation accomplishments, like the Walkman? Will they fall prey to their own memes by putting Kevin Butler on the roster? Will they, as Joe Haygood insists, include a playable microphone to represent the SingStar franchise?
Lastly, I spent some serious time with Book of Magic, the Harry Potter-infused marquee name for Sony’s kooky Wonderbook peripheral. I know, I know, you’re thinking BUT WHUT ABOUT GOD OF WAR? Screw that noise. I had enough of that crap at that interminable press conference demo where we watched Kratos tear horns off goatmen for fifteen minutes. And that thing with the elephant guy’s brain, Jesus. Is there anything defensible about that franchise by this point, or is it all just torture porn for action addicts?
But back to Wonderbook. The book itself is a regular old paper hardcover book, with several thick pages that hold giant symbols that resemble QR codes. The PlayStation Eye tracks the book, decorating the pages onscreen as if you’re actually holding Miranda Goshawk’s legendary wizard-in-training handbook.
Look. Nobody is saying Wonderbook is the greatest video game concept of all time. But if you’re Sony and you need a property to launch the thing, seems like Harry Friggin Potter is a fantastic place to start. In my experience, both Move games and Kinect games work about 80% of the time. I’ve been frustrated with stupid motion controls in Move games like Kung Fu Rider and Medieval Moves, and I’ve wasted far too much time waving at buttons and waiting for Kinect to figure out what’s going on. So Wonderbook is going to land right in the “it will be really cool… when it works right” zone. And in fact, we all saw the press conference demo for Book of Spells splutter (in my one-on-one, the demo guy revealed that someone had screwed with that particular demo station just before stage time and sort of cocked it up). This is all very fiddly technology, despite each company’s assurances that their devices are the most accurate thing on the planet (until they invent something newer.)
Anyway, Book of Spells is, ahem, charming. The wand is responsive, the book effects are convincing – note that I enjoyed Nintendo’s similar stab at augmented reality, the book-focused 3DS game Spirit Camera – and if J.K. Rowling her bad self is supplying some measure of credence to the project, it could scratch the Harry Potter itch. It’s made for younger fans, to be sure, but the veneer is intended to match the visual style of the film series. This could be a killer app for the Move if Sony can get a reasonably priced bundle on store shelves, but it is going to have to fight hard to prove its worthiness if Sony puts it in the $80-100 range like previous Move bundles. And although Sony wants us to assume publishers are lining up to create Wonderbook content, my gut feeling is that it will end up being supported by one company only: Sony.