The first day of a new expo is always daunting. I don't understand the rhythms or the culture. I don't know my way around the city. So I drifted into the Washington Convention and Trade Center in (surprisingly) beautiful downtown Seattle with a little apprehension and a lot of confusion. Yes, it would have helped had I read the press orientation email a little better, but after two trips up and down the three levels of escalators before I pulled up the email on my blackberry and discovered that check-in was actually at the hotel across the street.
After that, the first day of the totally sold out PAX 2009 was extremely pleasant, despite the oddly persistent smell of laundry that had been left wet in the washing machine too long.. The dire sense of urgency I feel at E3 was noticeably missing, because PAX is, as one rep put it, "98% fans".
The exhibit hall is tiny compared to E3's sensory overload, and the booths aren't nearly as swanky. But the swag flows like honey mead.
Like that simile? I think I've been playing too much Dragon Age. It's good to have friends in the right places. Thanks to Chris at Bioware, I got to skip the 3 hour line for the preview. Although I did help a fella in a wheelchair move around inside the cramped booth, so karma is happy all around.
I feel under-dressed, however. A significant number of cosplayers are among the fans, and I'm in business casual clothes, used to the "who are you and do you have an appointment?" glares of E3. Tomorrow I'm going to have to spice up my wardrobe somehow: dressing down at these things, for me, is denying myself a large part of the fun.
And it now occurs to me: holy crap, this is fun! What is this strange substance known as fun? Granted, not having a camera trailing me has a lot to do with that, but it's also the free-roaming nature of the event: I dropped into quite a few booths without an appointment and got on a demo quickly. The demos are also far less structured than at E3, so I could get a better sense of what it's really like to play these games.
So... what did I play? Read on!
League of Legends: This free-to-play RPG/strategy multiplayer falls neatly into the "it's so crazy, it just might work" category. According to the dev team, there's no tricks to the micro-commerce. The add-ons available for purchase are apparently just that: add-ons. But the game will have shelf presence in stores through a partnership with THQ. The $19.95 US purchase price is a collection of content you can also buy online, but the value is better if you buy it in this bundle. It's like the starter kits tabletop games put out.
Even at $19.95, the game provides clear value. The Champions - League's playable characters - are straight out of the mind of someone like me who has played too many RPGs and can no longer take them seriously.
For instance, there's Gangplank, a pirate, because Riot Games staffers insist cool games must have pirates.
There's Anivia, the Cryophoenix, because taking a majestic mythological creature and making it do the opposite of what it's supposed to is also something cool games must do.
There's Twitch the Plague Rat and Rammus the Armordillo because cool games need furries.
And then there's both my favourite character and arch-nemesis, Amumu the Sad Mummy. Seriously. The little bastard is so cute I didn't want to hurt him, until he hit me with his bandages of doom, and then it was on!
The world is cute and bright, and seems to check emo at the door. RPGs need much more of this.
Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer: This game was in such high demand behind-closed-doors at E3 that I didn't get to play it. Getting my hands on it at PAX was not a disappointment. On display were two of the four playable characters: the father whose son will be taken by the titular serial killer, and a Private Investigator. In playing the P.I., I was struck by how the realism of the game made stopping a convenience store robbery extremely exciting. Knowing that getting shot would alter the game going forward instead of just resulting in a respawn made the whole thing extremely exciting. Because my thumbs were fast and accurate enough, I beat the robber down, and the convenience store owner presented me with a clue to the Origami Killer's M.O: he sends origami animals to the fathers of his victims, and they have four days to complete four trials to get their child back. I asked the rep if that meant a developed morality to the murderer. The answer was a coy "maybe".
Dante's Inferno: I stood in line for a half-hour waiting to play God of War III. I had to get out of line when I was the fourth person from the front because I had an appointment with EA. It was an odd coincidence, because Dante's Inferno plays like God of War with extremely crappy controls. While the level designer from the God of War team ensures there is plenty of neat stuff to look at, it was a disappointing play-through. It looks great. With a Gary (Bioshock) Schyman musical score, it will sound great. But it's not a purist's adaptation of the first part of The Divine Comedy (not that anyone really cares) and there isn't a single thing in it so far that doesn't play exactly like a Kratos clone. I guess if you only have an Xbox 360 so you can't get God of War goodness, it'll be okay, but I feel let down. Hopefully after the controls tweak the rep assured me is coming, I'll feel differently.
APB: The EA booth was not without its pleasant surprises, however. I ducked into a demo for this persistent world action game by the creator the original Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown. I'm not a GTA fan, and persistent worlds usually overload me with information, but this demo impressed me. Repeatedly, the dev team stressed that APB is easy to play. They also insisted that this game is not an MMO, because it's "not a gear contest". I think I believe them.
Dragon Age: Thanks, Bioware, torture me. Make a timed challenge demo for a game I want to savour like a fine brandy! In all seriousness, it was nice that the DA dev team put some effort into their presentation, which was focused around an in-game ritual called "the joining". I didn't finish the quest, so I don't know how "the joining" gets accomplished with a party of four dudes. Maybe I can sneak back tomorrow, get past that one last archer that took me out with a cheap shot, and find out.
Mass Effect 2: There were Krogans on the wall art, but there were no Krogans featured in the first public hands on in North America! There was new race of aliens called the Drell, with a playable character named Thane who ninja kills an Asari NPC, then prays because he feels bad about it. A Krogan would not feel bad about it. Apparently the new Krogan character for Mass Effect 2 is named Grunt, and he's kind of unhinged. Why was this unhinged Krogan not in the demo? More Krogans please!
I also had a great discussion with ECA President Hal Halpin about combating the negative stereotypes against gamers and gaming, their fight for net neutrality, and what games he and his family play (right now it's iphone games). They also recently discovered that they have to amend their free membership offer for Canadians students, since we don't use the .edu suffix required for the promotion.
We talked about gaming as a teaching tool, bringing various types of gamers together, and the ECA's future plans to use their membership for SCIENCE! In the next few years they hope to turn to their large membership base for research about game consumers not skewed by a trade association bias. Apparently there's currently a lack of solid data to present to government and educators.
Come the evening, I went to the Dead Space: Extraction party to check out challenge mode... and free food and an open bar.
I got extra Dead Space iphone skins for Andrew, because for us it is a game of peace and love. I tried to play some campaign too, but it was so loud in the bar that I couldn't hear the shrieks of terror, and quickly gave up, bringing an end to day one.
Goal for tomorrow: FINALLY get on the God of War III demo. Between E3 and PAX, this is now three failed attempts. I want to gut some centaurs, damn it!
Check out our Facebook Photo Gallery for all our photos from the show.