Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Eurogamer Expo 2011 Reports (Part I) - Skyward Sword; Resident Evil Revelations; Saints Row The Third

Last week, I attended the Eurogamer Expo in London, where attendees were able to play demos for many major games yet to be released. I'll be bringing reports for the games I played over the next few weeks, with each article covering three games at a time. Games that will be covered include, but are not limited to, Battlefield 3, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Mario Kart 7, Sonic Generations, Journey and a hands-on with the PlayStation Vita.

Today's three games are The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Resident Evil Revelations and Saints Row: The Third.
 
 
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: SKYWARD SWORD (Nintendo - Wii)

There were three Skyward Sword demos on offer: a dungeon, a boss battle and a bird-flying minigame. The dungeon mostly comprised of a wide pathway circling a central room, which was unlocked using the traditional Zelda method of striking a diamond-shaped target high above the door. This could be done through the use of two weapons. The first was the new beetle, a flying mechanical bug remote controlled using twists of the Wii remote to change direction and height. The Motion Plus add-on reads even the smallest twist, making it an extremely precise, if unusual, method of control. If anything, it is even better for making tiny adjustments to the beetle's trajectory than an analogue stick might have been.

The old school bow and arrow is the second option, which has unfortunately been retrofitted with motion controls that are rather more intrusive. Inspired by Wii Sports Resort, firing an arrow now involves holding down the nunchuck's C-button, pulling the nunchuck back and releasing the button. This might make it a more tactical weapon to use in combat, forcing players to get the timing right, but compared to the ease of Twilight Princess' pointer-based firing, it's cumbersome and frustrating. However, beyond shooting the diamond, the dungeon area offered plenty of small diversions and enemies on which to practice with the new toys.

Inside the central area is a mini boss battle against a Stalfos (whose defeat is rewarded with an upgraded version of the beetle), but I'll instead jump straight to the second demo, a fight against a fully-fledged boss called Ghirahim. He's a more androgynous, overtly sexual figure than the series has featured before - Midna's flirtations have thus far represented the high watermark for this chaste franchise - who has a very long tongue and at one point appeared to be necking Link. Hmm. The fight itself is a lot of fun, noticeably more difficult than any Zelda boss has been for some time. Many players required the assistance of a fairy to keep going, despite Link entering the fight with plenty of hearts: an encouraging sign for those who have been demanding that Nintendo beef up the series a little.

The battle is similar in style to that against Ganondorf from the end of Twilight Princess, but with the Motion Plus' added precision. Combat is still a little twitchy - unlike the excellent Red Steel 2, which demanded players make big gestures and read each one perfectly, Skyward allows you to fight with flicks of the wrist, leading to occasional misreadings - but a significant improvement on its predecessor and satisfying without becoming tiring. Whereas most Zelda bosses are a case of repeating a routine to exploit a weakness, the fight against Ghirahim is more about dodges and timing, making the most of gaps in his attacks to get a few hits in. Once he has been sufficiently damaged, his attacking and defensive skills go up, forcing the player to rethink old strategies. (Unfortunately, he proved invulnerable to my Plan B of throwing ringside pots at him). Once he had finally been taken down, Link was rewarded with the usual heart piece, all pimped out in gold lining.

The final demo was the bird-flying minigame, unfortunately the worst of the three by far. You compete against three fellow Skyloft inhabitants to grab a statue from a golden bird's leg, with your first task being to leap into the open sky, whistling for your own bird to catch you as you fall. This would be cool, except that the transition between being caught and starting the game isn't seamless and thus feels like a hollow piece of flash. The game itself involves little more than keeping your bird lined up with the target and hitting the boost button, avoiding rocks and waiting for your boosts to regenerate. Though your bird is guided in the same way as the beetle (twisting the Wii remote), there's not much skill involved. Once the statue has been caught once, you have to do it again, only with competitors throwing eggs at you. These were easy obstacles to avoid and only added a further annoyance to a segment that felt like a chore anyway. Hopefully Nintendo will either make these segments more dynamic, with real stakes (the other competitors never catch the statue), or marginalise them as much as possible.

Potential: 4/5 (The bird-flying game is a dud, but the Ghirahim boss fight shows a welcome increase in difficulty and skill for the series, while the motion-controlled sword fighting is intuitive and not at all tiring)

RESIDENT EVIL REVELATIONS (Capcom - 3DS)

The Revelations demo began with Jill Valentine waking up, fully catsuited, in what appeared to be the bedroom of - wait for it - an old mansion. It's a mildly amusing nod to the series' roots, especially with the solution to the first problem requiring a bathtub to be drained in order to collect a screwdriver from the bottom. For a series that has shifted more towards grizzly-faced action than knowingly eccentric horror in recent iterations, there was something reassuring about the absurdity of that first task. The screwdriver was then used to unscrew a panel next to the door and rewire the system inside, all done using the touch screen. It's a simple and rewarding interaction, adding a bit of depth to something that would otherwise have been done with button presses. Hopefully, the full game will feature more of these.

Outside the bedroom, the game continued to recall Resident Evil games past by drawing on familiar locales like dimly-lit offices, store rooms, laboratories and and lavish dining halls to host the action. The retro feel was also apparent in the combat, where you had to fight off vastly stronger mutants - no zombies this time; these are faceless freaks with spiked clubs for hands - with only a very limited supply of ammunition. For those who arrived at the series with Resi 4, it will probably be something of a culture shock to need to make every shot count.

The only weapons available were the pistol (which Jill starts with) and a shotgun, which was conveniently left lying around, plus a few grenades for those willing to investigate every nook and cranny. The majority of ammo found was for the pistol and, given how more bulky mutants appear late on, I was thankful to have been conservative with my shotgun ammo. Even regular enemies were bullet sponges, taking several pistol shots to take down and with their wild lurching making aiming difficult. Not only that, but the game also revived the old practice of not allowing you to move whilst aiming: an artificial but reasonably effective way of heightening tension, even though the game otherwise struggled to create a scary atmosphere on a small screen.

The demo ended rather abruptly after following new character Parker, with whom Jill had been talking on her walkie-talkie, to the bridge of what is revealed to be a ship. (Not a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the game, though you'd think the rocking would have been heavier given the storm raging outside). Graphically, the game looked terrific, very much in line with the art design of recent Resi games and showing off some impressive lighting and texturing for a handheld. 

POTENTIAL: 3/5 (Plenty for old-school Resident Evil fans to enjoy, turning away from large-scale action and towards a more tense approach to combat, favouring careful use of limited ammunition. The visuals were impressive, but not much in the demo felt new and the small screen proved a challenge in building an atmosphere. Revelations promises a well-designed Resi experience, but one that has yet to show its credentials for being considered among the series' finest)

SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD (THQ/Volition - PC, PS3, 360)

Saints Row is often considered the comedy cousin to Grand Theft Auto's more dramatically ambitious take on the sandbox action genre. The third game in the series appears to play up to that reputation more than ever, with cartoonish art design drawn in the most obscenely garish colours, and weapons and features that go for broke in the ridiculous stakes.

Although the demo offered the usual range of pistols, explosives and machine guns with which to raise hell in the limited accessible area of the city (transparent walls blocked any attempts to escape the set boundaries, which were amusing to smash a hijacked car into at full speed as others rolled casually by), there was also a weapon which fired octopodes not entirely dissimilar to Futurama's brain slugs. These attached themselves to the target's head, hypnotising them (represented by a flow of comedy yellow stars) into fighting on your side once the police arrived. It's a one-note gag, albeit opening up the enjoyable possibility of sending an army of unarmed civilians to fight your battles for you, but perfectly captured the series' chief pleasures.

There were a small number of side-missions available around the city which also demonstrated the game's absurdist streak. The escort mission did not involve anything so vanilla as taking a fellow human being to a safe location, but put a new spin on the old 'tiger in your tank' motto by actually placing an actual tiger in the passenger seat and requiring you to chill him out by powersliding around the city, while animal activist vans attacked from all sides. (You'd think they would be more concerned about the tiger's safety). Should your powersliding not prove entertaining enough, the tiger would instead make its own fun by clawing at your character's face. There was also a shooting-based mission involving gunning down people dressed as mascots and giant hot-dogs. Speaking of which, customisation options for the player were plentiful, allowing for the creation of the kind of pimp who would make Rudy Ray Moore drop to his knees.

Holding all the lunacy together were rock-solid foundations, with a city that was easy to navigate (a little sparse compared to the likes of GTA, but with much more comfortable driving mechanics), a convenient weapons wheel and context-sensitive combat. It's a slick package with a strong sense of humour and identity, although how long the joke will last before wearing thin is anyone's guess. For a ten minute demo, though, it did what it had to do with flair to spare.

POTENTIAL - 4/5 (A distinctive graphical style and ridiculous sense of humour put clear distance between Saints Row and GTA in terms of tone, but the basics - driving, navigation, controls - are every bit as solid as they need to be. Will the constant immaturity and blaring colour schemes eventually become tiresome? Possibly, but there promises to be enough fun to hold that point off for some time)

In the next Eurogamer Expo Report... Batman: Arkham City, Mario Kart 7 and Rayman Origins.

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