Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Lessons to be learned from E3 2009.

More of the same can apparently be good thing or a bad thing.

Earlier this year, the teaser trailer for Bioshock 2 was released. Featuring a mysterious girl on the edge of an ocean, objects rose from the sand to envelope her surroundings.

A few things were out of the ordinary. Firstly, we were on dry land. Was this going to be the setting for the sequel? Secondly, who was the girl? Was she a Little Sister grown into her early teens? And what were the objects rising from the beach? A small city? A collection of weapons?
Well, E3 revealed all aaaaaand...we're going back to Rapture. The first gameplay footage looked suspiciously similar to the first time we visited Andrew Ryan's fallen metropolis. Now, considering Bioshock was an incredible experience from start to finish, why would we desire anything but an additional adventure in the same vein? It seems some are not pleased with a return to underwater city.

That said, ponder another sequel - Modern Warfare 2. In Microsoft's press briefing, the first gameplay footage was revealed and showed the world how developer Infinity Ward would deliver the second punch in their presumably bottomless arsenal. And it was pretty much like the first game. Regardless of snowmobiles, ice picks and Soap's icy beard - the core gameplay hadn't changed too drastically. And guess what? Thank Christ that's the case. The industry and fans around the world reacted to the new footage with unbridled enthusiasm and we all cannot wait until November to get our hands on the game and start capping ultra-nationalists all over again.

You have to wonder where the difference lies. While people are ready to upgrade their PCs to the tune of hundreds of dollars for Modern Warfare 2, most of us are a touch ambivalent about returning the world of Bioshock. But neither have changed all that much. So why the different opinions? If they are both doing simply 'more of the same', why is one more revered than the other when the first entries of each franchise were equally acclaimed?

Secrets no longer exist.

Jack Tretton, the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, cracked a joke or two at his company's press briefing on Tuesday. He joked that he was surprised any journalists actually turned up to the conference considering the amount of details that had already leaked on the internet. He was right, and he wasn't the only one. Everyone in the industry were already well-informed about the PSP Go, the PS3 motion controller, Wii Fit Plus, Wii Sports Resort, Halo:Reach and the Xbox 360 motion controller. While there were a few shocks (Left 4 Dead 2!), it's interesting to try and imagine being ignorant to the introduction to these things without pre-E3 knowledge.

The PSP Go, for example. When it finally appeared on stage, the reaction was simply "Okay, so it's official. Let's get to the next thing". Preferably, it should have been more along the lines of "Holy Jesus! A PSP with slide controls and no UMD? Sign me up!". But is it even possible to think like this in hindsight? For those of us who saw the leaks, we'll never know.

Who's to blame? Well, first you have to consider whether blame is warranted. Some of us may want to know these things before the day. Journalists hungry for an exclusive, consumers hungry for excitement. If you are looking to place blame, it must lay on the doorstep of modern technology. With such things as text messaging and Twitter, secrets are now impossible to keep concealed completely. But with upcoming video games, do we want them totally under wraps anyway?

Relief comes not from expectation, but faith.

One title that definitely had people leaning forward to hear more about was Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake. It was first announced at E3 2005 and it wasn't until E3 2009 that we finally saw the game in action. The story of a horror writer searching for his wife had slowly but surely captured the attention of the industry over its lengthy development cycle for two simple reasons. It looked really interesting and it was taking too long. A lesser title would be quickly ignored and/or punished for such a long time between drinks; an attitude created by the ridiculousness of Duke Nukem Forever's situation.

But it was the story and the concept that kept people coming back to a guy named Alan. And when the game was finally revealed at E3, the whole industry breathed a sigh of relief. The game was on track and looking good. That's a load off our minds, huh?

Is it, though? Why? This isn't a sequel. It's an original intellectual property and even though Remedy made the highly entertaining Max Payne games, Alan Wake has absolutely no track record. All these facts don't matter. Because everybody wants this game to succeed. And that is just strange. Cynicism is rife throughout any media industry and video games are no different. So why is everybody willing to give this game the benefit of the doubt after almost half a decade in development? The game does indeed look amazing and thrilling, it as simple as that? Perceived quality that conquers all doubt?

Finally, how goddamn awesome are video games anyway?

It was painfully obvious Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney were uncomfortable talking about a product in which they had little to no experience. Ringo mentioned the 'very good graphics' and Paul described the in-game versions of themselves as 'androids'. But no matter. Anyone who saw that slightly awkward bumbling from the two surviving Fab Four were more concerned about The Beatles: Rock Band and how entertaining it looked to play.

When I was a little lad, two friends and I proposed quite a hare-brained scheme. The three of us were going to pool our money together and buy ourselves a Sega Megadrive. We had seen Streets Of Rage 2 in action and we knew immediately that it was totally necessary to throw caution to the wind, give a two-finger salute to our financial troubles and start headbutting our way to glory. Thankfully, the plan never came to fruition. Which was probably a good thing.

But the same enthusiasm remains today. Nothing creates the same excitement than a brand new video game on launch day. And E3 this year crystallized this attitude to a fine point. The revenge violence and dynamic gameplay of Splinter Cell: Conviction pleasantly surprised me. Modern Warfare 2's action set-pieces had me on the edge of my seat. Nathan Drake's use of the phrase "Holeeee shit" in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves made me laugh. New Super Mario Bros for the Wii had me recalling the fondness for every game in the series and excited for this one.

What other media has grown and developed this much in our lifetimes? Music? Movies? I don't think so. Video games are special. And they're special because we feel that they are ours. The majority of the population of the planet are just like Ringo and Paul. They are aware of the existence of the concept of video games but only we know just how special they can be. And that's what the best of E3 can produce. Feeling good about ourselves via the awesome medium of video games. And really, what more do you want?

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