Eurogamer Expo, the biggest video game show in the United Kingdom had a change of venue this year moving north of the Watford gap to my home city of Birmingham. This happy change of location meant that I could attend multiple days of the show for the first time and get a real hands on with both games and developers. This is basically as close to an E3 or PAX that we are going to get; a large arena space full of thousands of people trying out the latest games and hardware along with a huge variety of indie titles.
The timing for EGX is always excellent as there are a ton of great triple A games scheduled for release in the next few months. Gamers eager to get their hands on Fallout 4 or Uncharted 4 however would have been disappointed as neither title was on show. Never fear though as there was still more than enough to to keep everyone occupied. Here is our take on the AAA showing this year.
Rise of the Tomb Raider:
One of my most anticipated games of the show, I loved the reboot of the franchise and I went into the event believing I would be walking away with a shiny new XBOX One once I had played a few of the exclusive titles. Hidden away in an enclosed booth with minimal lighting was the perfect environment to settle down and play through the game. This wasn't a timed demo either so I could really take my time and enjoy the experience. So on go the headphones and I drop into Lara's world for a pleasingly familiar experience. The controls and how the game plays haven't changed. The hint mechanic where the screen turns grey and your next step is highlighted orange returns and you feel instantly at home. The puzzles are as intuitive as the first game, here you need to raise the water level in a couple of chambers to escape and everything just falls into place without any infuriating "what do I do now" moments.
In the demo you make your way through a desert landscape and locate a ruined temple set into the cliff face. It's very reminiscent of Petra in Jordan and looks beautiful in the cut scene. As you enter the ruins you have to undertake the usual blend of exploration and problem solving on a mission to recover a lost treasure. It all looks great and runs very smoothly. Sure the visuals are definitely upgraded from the recent re-mastered version of her last adventure but not quite as crisp as some of the videos I have seen. I'm not sure if this is just due to the passage of time or simply if other games have impressed and raised the bar in terms of visuals (The Witcher and Metal Gear spring to mind), but I wasn't as blown away as I thought I would have been. With the performance of the Xbox One lagging behind the PS4 on some titles, I would imagine most of the footage we have seen so far has been on PC. Nevertheless this is certainly one to look out for.
Star Wars Battlefront:
Probably the most anticipated title of 2015 along with Fallout 4, the force was strong at EGX with a replica tie fighter and Darth Vader on display for fans of the movies. The set up was split across two booths; one focusing on the huge 40 player Hoth battle and another showing the local co-op horde mode on Tatooine. I jumped straight into the Tatooine level with a random queue buddy (who saved my skin on a couple of occasions!) and we got down to business. This is pretty much your standard FPS with Star Wars skin. You can tweak your loadouts and pick your special weapons and abilities to best suit the encounter. Options include a funky portable shield which will repel blaster fire and an awesome Boba Fet style jet pack that you can use to jump over large distances; in the rugged landscape of Tatooine this is a must. The Hoth battle ramps the feeling of immersion to the next level. A 20 VS 20 player team battle puts you into the heat of the battle and perfectly recreates the opening scenes of Empire. As the rebels, you need to keep your communication arrays powered up so you can call in air support to help target the AT-AT walkers as they slowly make their way towards the shield generator. The Hoth landscape is replicated beautifully, complete with trenches, heavy blaster towers and bunkers just like in the movie. The bunkers house X-Wings and Snowspeeders that are ready to join the fight and give you some cover from the barren icy wasteland.
The game looks great. I have played the PC and both the XBOX One and PlayStation 4 versions and it looked very pretty indeed on both. PS4 had a slight graphical edge for the console versions but PC looked even better still. Battlefront captures the look and feel of the Star Wars universe completely and the sounds are spot on also. Blaster fire is straight out of the films. It brought a smile to my face as it splatters around you and the sounds of the engines and environments just help to immerse you in the hectic battles. The multiplayer is top notch and It certainly gets my vote but with a whopping $50 price tag announced for the season pass we will have to wait and see just how committed some of these Star Wars fans are to their respective causes.
Plants Vs Zombies Garden Warfare 2:
Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare was one of my favourite games in the last few years and a brilliant introduction for younger gamers into the often unfriendly environment of the competitive multiplayer scene. No one was that concerned when the original game was scheduled as an XBOX One exclusive (albeit timed), but when people started to play and saw how accessible it was to everyone that perception soon changed. With the sequel there is a real buzz around the game. The queues for GW2 were as real as many other AAA titles as many fans were eager to try out the new characters and abilities. On my playthroughs I used two of the six new characters,; the zombie superhero and the tiny engineer robot. Both were fun to play with and have some cool moves, including a handy close quarters AOE move and various timed abilities. I had the most fun with the tiny robot though as he is very handy in his standard form. If you hold down the Y button he calls down a mech suit to help him squash (literally) the plant hordes. The great thing about this is that it isn't a timed ability and you can stay in this version the whole time if you wish depending on the scenario.
I had a chat with one of the EA representatives afterwards and they have now made the game fully playable offline which is great news. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to play a favourite game when your internet connection is down. It looked and played like it was almost finished but staff were keen not to have any photos or footage taken so it may well be that there will be some significant changes or surprises. Slated for a Q1 2016 release it will be available on XBOX One, PlayStation 4 and PC and I can't wait for more crazy action!
Not just one for nostalgia the reboot of Starfox certainly looks the part next to all of the new titles on the Sony and Microsoft platforms. A big presence in the Nintendo booth it was certainly attracting it's fair share of interest. If you played the original then you will feel right at home as it handles, for the most part, just like previous games. The graphical style, whilst updated, does harken back to the glory days of the Super Nintendo giving a pleasant retro vibe on new tech. The game is fun and frantic; doing barrel rolls, boosting forward and braking all feel natural and you of course get the opportunity to rescue your comrades from enemy fighters. The main sections of the game are on rails and handling is great but this suffers in the boss encounters and the open zone areas. The set up at EGX consisted of two monitors per booth - strange as there was no multiplayer modes on display. The reason for this second screen quickly became apparent. It replicated the second screen of the Wii-U's gamepad on these open areas where I was finding it significantly more difficult to handle and target enemies. The idea is that you use the screen on the pad and move the pad itself to target the guns on the boss by using the gyroscope built into the controller. This pad-based targeting system was a massive turn off. Sure the second television made it easier, but this is not a common set up in your own home and as such feels awkward.
There are parts of Starfox Zero that are very promising, and if I am honest I can't help but be a little excited even if it is just another re-hash of an old game. I can see why Nintendo have delayed this into 2016, and I hope they sort out the handling. The player needs clearer instructions and intuitive controls when you enter the more open areas. Better yet, I hope they allow players to disable the gyroscope controls in favor of an option to use the tried and true controls we're accustomed to with the Star Fox franchise.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate:
Although the many releases in the Assassins Creed series have left me feeling burnt out on the whole experience, I was still anxious to give the new one a try. After completing Assassins Creed 2, I couldn't wait for the next instalment but have been less and less enthused with each game release. The setting of Assassins Creed Syndicate however has piqued my interest in the series once again. Based in London at the heart of the industrial revolution, AC Syndicate promises to be a little darker and more brooding than it's predecessors. Ubisoft has certainly gone all out with their advertising with a full set emulating the interior of a clocktower set piece complete with costumed characters happy to pose for photographs.
With a small queue at the time, I hopped on and played for a little while. I won't go into the gameplay, as let's face it, you've seen it all before but I will say that this is a very good setting for the franchise. It's very atmospheric and I felt a genuine desire to keep to the shadows and the murky back streets. The controls felt a little more responsive than usual but the game did have some graphical issues, pop up, tearing and just a feeling of general roughness but this could have easily been an older build. I will wait for a little while after release just to ensure that there are no issues, but this is one I will certainly pick up towards the end of the year.
Need for Speed:
I've always been a fan of the Need for Speed series and the old Burnout games. Having skipped Rivals (the last Need For Speed game) from being a little burnt out with the franchise, I was ready to get behind the wheel once again. Visually the game looks great; the weather effects and lighting are simply gorgeous. Standing water on the ground reflects everything beautifully and this is easily one of the best looking racing games to date. I wasn't that thrilled with the handling of the car, it felt sluggish and heavy and took a little while to get used to, but I got to grips with it after a while. I didn't leave EGX with the best impression of the game however because of the handling. Doesn't matter how gorgeous the graphics are if it doesn't handle well.
My initial fears were put to rest however when I received an e-mail inviting me to the closed Beta test last weekend (thanks EA!) and this allowed me to really get immersed in the game - clocking around 7 hours of play. If I was impressed with the game's graphics at EGX, I was even more surprised at just how good it looked back at home on my TV. The cut scenes and characters are all recorded with real actors in old school full motion video - this gives them real personalities which you grow to love (and hate) as you play through the game. After taking part in various events you get the chance to meet up with your buddies every so often back at your garage or in the diner. These scenes are shot really well and help to move the story along and push you in the right direction without feeling like you are having your hand held. After a couple of races the garage is unlocked which allows you to fully adjust your ride to provide either more grip or drift. There is no deep knowledge of car tuning required, thankfully, as there is a slider system with "Drift" at one end and "Grip" at the other. Car noobs such as myself should have no trouble getting the best out of their ride.
One machine . . . . ONE MACHINE? This was my response when the staff at the XBOX booth told me how many units they had which were showing Cuphead. Since I first laid eyes on the gorgeous classic cartoon graphics (which are based on the 1930's cartoonists such as Max Fleischer), I have never wanted an XBOX One more. This game promised to be a real throwback to the glory days of gaming. I was expecting more of a scrolling platform shooter but none of the levels in the build were of this ilk. Instead they were all fixed on one screen and involved a boss fight. This might have raised an eyebrow when I first picked up the controller, but I soon forgot as I jumped into one of the best looking, slick and downright difficult shoot em ups I have played. Any fans of the classic 16-bit days will feel right at home with the gameplay mechanics; it's typical bullet hell stuff where patterns in the boss attacks slowly reveal themselves as they get closer to defeat. You have a useful parry mechanic with which you can deflect various coloured objects. Doing so fills up your super meter to unleash your special move.
Whilst the format of the game is a little bit of a surprise; a series of continual boss fights will still provide a very enjoyable experience. You have infinite lives overall and you get to keep your weapon upgrades between character deaths which does help to balance out the scaling difficulty of each encounter. You can probably tell from listening to the podcast just how much I am looking forward to Cuphead. After talking myself out of picking up an XBOX One after playing Tomb Raider, I am right back to square one! Fingers crossed it may make it to other platforms but if you do have an XBOX One or Windows PC, then this should be right at the top of your shopping list.
To hear more about my experiences at EGX - listen to A Band of Gamers Podcast Ep75 and check back later to read Part 2 with even more games coverage from the event.