A round-up from the Gamescom show floor.
Sound Shapes (PS3/Vita)
A curious little platformer from Queasy Games that takes a minimalist approach with its looks. Bold colours combine with simple shapes for an N+ style experience that leaves the music to be the star. Coins scattered across its screen represent notes and collecting them as you move through the screens sets triggers the many beats and notes that layer together to create a full song. As such, missing coins can leave strange holes in your backing track leading to a compulsion to collect them all for the complete audio experience.
Thankfully the very stylised aesthetics are not its crutch. The concentrated platforming, revolving about a set of very simple but consistent rules, brings about some very interesting level setup. Drawing more inspiration from the single screen platformers of old and the flowing Little Big Planet of new, it’s come from nowhere to appear on my Most Wanted list.
Further value is added by the level editor that lifts the veil and allows you to create your own Sound Shape experience that is as much about the music as it is about the play. The touch screen greatly eases your ability to knock something very passable together and with a wide array of enemies and obstacles that join in harmony with your composition the possibilities of sound affecting gameplay and vice versa makes it an extremely interesting prospect.
Skylanders: Giants (Multi)
For those of you who didn’t like the original Skylanders, then I’m sorry to report that this is just more Skylanders. For those of you who did, however, I’m pleased to announce that it’s more Skylanders. In this swiftly produced sequel the simple dungeon questing of the original returns full of background smashing, coin grabbing, block pushing and enemy thrashing.
Rather than just a full-on rehash, the new feature this year are the Giants. Oversized Skylanders they tower over them both in real life upon the portal and equally when they’re scanned in and lurch about onscreen. Offering a stronger yet slower alternative to their smaller brethren they add enough new options for players and toy collectors alike to return to Skylanders.
Smart As (Vita)
Even the assistant in the booth uttered the phrase “it’s like Brain Training.” And she wasn’t wrong; a slicker variant with newer and interesting mini-games but long load times and sense that the boat has sailed left me caring little for Smart As.
Divided into arenas of logic, arithmetic, observation and language, the games rate and track your progress. Interesting concepts include wiring circuits around cubes, using the dual touch screens to drag globules of numbers together to solve sums, and using the cameras to create real-time jigsaws, but the overall draw wasn’t there. Maybe its time has passed.
Little Big Planet (Vita)
The debate after we’d played LBP for Sony’s handheld centred around was it a great game because of the improvements they made to it or simply that it was a great game and this was a well handled port? Either way, I don’t think it matters for contained within is everything that made Media Molecule’s reputation.
Each level that you throw Sackboy around in is packed with lush detail. As he careers over wood, fabric and decals alike the world is chocked full of high quality textures and objects that show no corners have been cut in shrinking down the create-a-world experience. Similarly, that LBP feeling of running through a level – slightly floaty but with a tremendous grace and flow – is similarly found intact. Though it may not be to every platform lovers taste, your ability to swing, run and leap your way around the levels is a joy. The demo levels on offer only help to heighten this enjoyment as they showcased the very best in level design and character from the series.
New to Vita is the ability to use the touch screen to affect the world. Certain elements can be poked into the screen to remove obstruction, pushed towards you to create new ledges, or primed to catapult our cloth man to higher levels. Though the concept itself may not seem highly original it has integrated seamlessly into the world and is used in some very cunning ways.
Book of Wonder (PS3)
In a comparatively quiet E3, this stood out to me and so I was eager to get my hands on it here at Gamescom. The principle and the tech is what had captivated me most, as opposed to the core “game”, but being lead through The Book of Spells I realise that it is the marriage of the two that will see it succeed or fail.
In this Harry Potter spin-off the book and your Move controller transform into a series of annecdotes and lessons that will see you Wingardium Leviosaring with the best of them. The streamlined demo saw me learning to twist and flick with the wand before putting me to the test as I zapped bugs and disarmed dark wizards.
Tied in with Sony’s Pottermore and featuring fresh lore straight from J K Rowling this is a primarily focused at Harry’s fans – and primarily preteen ones at that. It offers pop-up book style stories as to how spells came about and tests to reveal what life is like as a wizard: it is Professor Binn’s History of Magic lessons come to life and somewhere between the tech and the choice of subject matter I was enchanted.
Little Big Planet Karting
Though it is a novel fit for a character that is known for being flexible the concept of a whole game based around Sackboy racing is an odd one. It certainly has the potential to produce some interesting environments, power-ups and abilities, but at first glance it seems that this IP is almost being leveraged for the sake of it.
Preconceptions aside, behind the wheel of your cart the game is at least solid if unspectacular. The classic racing staples are there including power sliding and weapon pick-ups, but into the mix are also thrown the ability to cling to beams that are suspended above the track to access short cuts. They’re easy enough to grab but mistime your grab and you’ll plunge to your death.
Sadly the level demoed was very bland, even discounting LBP’s rich and colourful heritage, and can only be compared to a rejected Wipeout course. Full of grey blank walls and futuristic panels it lacked any individuality or character. Sackboy’s got some work to do if he wants this to even be considered in the same breath as Mario Kart.
A curious little game that first caught my eye when a I saw a man controlling a deer, going from point to point “marking his territory”. You see, in the future mankind has been wiped out and the cities have fallen back into the hands of the animals.
Though I played as a dog, I’m assured that you can play everything from a crocodile to a tyrannosaur, each having the same aim: survival. Through stalking prey and taking them down by rudimentary combos and attacks to marking out your territory, it’s a fight to become strong enough to earn yourself a mate.
More than a curio, this surprise addition to Sony’s booth certainly grabbed my attention once I’d got my hands on it. At times it felt like a strangely reskinned Double Dragon, though one where you ate those you beat up and intermittently peed up lampposts.
Dishonoured has what it takes to be game of the year. After an hour’s hands-on I came away buying into a game I had previously dismissed as being hyped due to the barren summer. Set in a steam-punk Victorian England it brings together action and stealth in a first-person adventure you could quite easily mistake for Bioshock. Though Big Daddies are replaced with Tall Men – armoured soldiers standing on robotic legs that see them tower over normal folk though they should be equally feared.
A variety of weapons from sticky grenades to swords, pistols to incendiary arrows sit alongside paranormal powers. Whirlwinds, warp jumps, and the opportunity to slow time all blend together to produce a truly open fighting environment. Warping up to next someone can produce and insta-kill with your sword, whilst summoning blood thirsty rats to consume your enemies can be complemented by a swift fire arrow to the heart to end their misery. The combinations are many and an hour was nowhere near enough for me to say I had found my “style” of play.
The truly great wonder though is that the entire game can be completed without killing a single soul. Multiple routes, branching goals and the ability to mind control others means that blood shed is not always the answer. Not even just men, though; be it a rat or a fish, if it’s close by you can take it over and gain access to otherwise locked areas. This kind of stealth, i.e. the one that produces a minimal body count really appeals to me and so once again Bethesda appears to have delivered.
After leaving I felt I had to separate my initial opinions on the Wii-U with that of Zombi-U. For Nintendo’s new console I was impressed with the light and responsive nature of their touchpad, however the control scheme placed upon it for Ubisoft’s flagship title left a lot to be desired.
A first-person survival horror, the deliberate choice to put the inventory management on the touch screen alone may simulate the delay in swapping weapons or reloading but in the world of videogame undead it proved frustrating. Running out of bullets and being forced to look down to swap out to another weapon was annoying, pulling you out of the action and refocusing on a very artificial environment. Furthermore when swinging a bat takes both triggers the controls as a whole need rethinking.
The shame is that the premise is great. Having one life and then reencountering the zombie versions of your previous selves is brilliant. I’m willing to give it another go and put my initial impressions down to a learning curve but as first impressions go it was poor.
Joe Danger: The Movie (Multi)
The premise for Joe’s sequel is not simply “more.” Our favourite daredevil feels he’s done all he can when it comes to leaping over buses to amuse crowds so he switched careers and became a movie stunt man. From the level select screen alone you can see just what a boon this is as sending up the likes of James Bond, Indiana Jones and alike proves instantly appealing.
Depending on the movie, Joe’s riding/driving/flying different vehicles, from his trusty bike through to minecarts, unicycles and jetpacks. Each control slightly differently and so add further to sense that the team are pushing the experience. Zipping through a level is still a mix of speed, ensuring you don’t crash and performing tricks; depending on the stability of your chosen ride that’s not always easy. There’s almost a feeling of experimentation which is lovely to see as simply aping the original or going further down the Trials Evolutions route I think would have harmed the series. Here they keep their own identity and humour completely intact.
A further great addition is multiplayer, something that was sorely lacking in Joe’s debut. Taking on the look of the classic Excitebike, racers vie to cross tracks, out trick each other and reach the goal having the highest numbers of lives left. It’s fast and it’s frantic, and given the short nature of the runs mixed in with the variety in the vehicles and levels it’s easy to get sucked into the “just one more game” syndrome.
Hitman: Absolution (Multi)
The tricky thing about playing a game like Hitman in a place like Gamescom is that the hustle and bustle of other bloggers and journalists tend to detract from the very measured nature of Agent 47. To do him justice levels need to be cased out and victims’ patterns watched for any sign of an opportunity.
From what we saw, despite various E3 trailers, the Hitman franchise remains as stoic as ever. Our demo took place in a market teeming with shoppers and the sight of so many people was very impressive. What it also means however is there are many times more witnesses too and so we poked our way around the level looking for our best options. The market was full of alleyways, blind corners and accidents waiting to happen. If all missions in Absolution are as full of possibilities then we’re going to be very happy come release.
Reconvening away from the massive Square Enix booth the scope of the game became evident. All three of us offed our targets in different ways: Manny found a tower to snipe him from; I stole a chef’s outfit and tracked one victim to a food storage area before garrotting him silently and tucking his body away in a corner; whilst Weeman took a rather direct approach by bludgeoning the poor man to death with a brick. Subtlety was never his strong suit.
Lego Lord of the Rings (Multi)
Pithily I toyed with the idea of leaving this particular write-up simply at “it’s Lego.” And, in all honesty, that’s not too far off the mark. Depending on your exposure to the series you know exactly what to expect. Things need to be broken and rebuilt, levers want finding, and baddies require a sound seeing to. It’s tried and tested and for the most part still stands up to solid inspection.
This time Traveller’s Tales slots in the Lord of the Rings brand. I’ve always preferred the Lego games based off of films as I feel their parodies are far stronger than their original storylines such as in Lego Batman. And the minifigs do not fail us here as dwarves get short jokes thrown at them aplenty, kings are shown as idiots, and japes are had in each scene. The battle of Helms Deep, to be specific in this demo, and the depiction of the castle and the orc onslaught with all their numbers against the thick walls is recreated wonderfully.
For the gameplay itself the only new additions that I could spot was Gimli now possesses a butt-stomp manoeuvre to break through panels, plus his ability to be thrown to places to similarly shatter blocks. Though the demo did finish with a flourish as Aragon set out on horseback to ride down the oncoming greenskin horde. Very reminiscent of Kameo.
Tank Tank Tank (Wii-U)
As another excuse to play with the new Wii-U we leapt on Tank Tank Tank, a curiously chaotic Japanese game where everybody controls – wait for it – a tank. It’s a brightly coloured shoot-em-up, not too dissimilar at first glance to Earth Defence Force. Patrolling a relatively open city, buildings readily tumble, large monsters often appear from the sea, and the air is always filled with fire.
It’s very light hearted, especially the multiplayer that sees each tank pitted against each other in a simple deathmatch. Power-ups can be switched out for new weapons which will see you toting everything from machine guns the size of an oil tanker to powerful water hoses that cause other tanks to spin out of control.
It wasn’t a bad game by any means, and battling against your friends tanks with snapshots of their ugly mugs hanging over their armoured beasts has its moments. Its failing seems to be that it lacks replay value, showing no signs of depths or progression past basic customisation. Brightly coloured it may be, but it’s also forgettable.
Tomb Raider (Multi)
When Uncharted first came on the scene it stole Tomb Raider’s crown as the archaeological action adventure game. Now Lara’s taking inspiration from Nathan. Our demo opened with a bruised and battered Lara walking gingerly as she searches for the rest of her party who have been shipwrecked on a strange island. Within minutes she’s negotiated her way over a log spanning a ravine and climbed over a rickety plane before it disintegrates. Throw a half-tuck shirt on her and you’d barely notice the difference.
Only then do things get interesting as a hungry Lara alone the island hunts for her food. Basic bow in hand she tracks and brings down a deer before dragging it back to basecamp to eat. It shows off the lesser known side of the new Tomb Raider, a more open world where the main protagonist learns to be the kick-ass, no-nonsense treasure seeker we’ve previously seen. Everything she does, from finding new areas to catching wildlife to cook, earns her XP that can be spent on survival skills. We default to being able to retrieve used arrows from her victims but there’s a wide range of talents that would impress even Bear Grylls.
Almost disappointingly however, that is not the main focus of the game. Though well promoted at the start the game becomes more and more action orientated as the myriad of baddies on the island come out to play. It’s impressive stuff that sees use of bows, shotguns, traps and ziplines to keep the action ticking over. There’s even elements of stealth and surprise if you can work your way around the villages and ruins that litter the island well enough but ultimately you will be shedding blood far more often than you will be discovering long lost treasures.
Despite that, I was impressed with the reboot. It shows a lot of potential, especially if the island is one continuous playground. With looted salvage scattered about the landscape capable of upgrading your equipment too it seems that Crystal Dynamics are refocusing the series as much on character growth as they are on the new action orientated storyline.
Ratchet and Clank (PS3)
Being my first Ratchet and Clank game, I was surprised to see find out it was not just a platformer famed for its crazy weaponry but also a tower defence game. As before Ratchet goes bouncing around the world, happily smashing enemies and blocks alike but now he must also protect his base from the waves of enemy attacks.
It’s a novel twist to differentiate itself from the rest of the series and pleasantly done. Currency is earned through bashing the invaders or discovering and cracking crates that are strewn throughout the world. Once armed with a full enough piggy bank, flamers, machine guns, mines and barricades can be erected to deter your enemies. You’ll need a fair amount too as some of those storming your castle are particularly huge.
Ratchet himself gets access to a variety of weapons, including plasma and freeze rays, and overall I was left thinking that the concept as a whole had a lot of potential. The trouble with a lot of modern day platformers is that they tend to focus on action whilst throwing in average-at-best platforming sections in between. This seems to nip that in the bud by bringing the action to you.
Unfinished Swan (PS3)
I’ll admit it; I liked Unfinished Swan as soon as I saw it simply because it was “different”. Being a very visual game it’s hard to explain it completely in text, but imagine a purely white world; no shades of grey or shadow, stark white. Standing in a room surrounded by vases, tables, seats and sculptures, you would have no idea they existed as you would not be able to discern even the slightest hint of an edge. That is the world of Unfinished Swan and you must navigate its sensory deprived maze.
What you do have, however, is paint. Launch a ball of pure black paint and it will splatter on the walls and floor, defining the previously invisible layout. Throw enough and might discover a doorway or a staircase, unveiling exits as if from thin air drawing you further in. And it’s worth going deeper too because it’s not just about completing the maze.
Despite mainly operating in black and white, it is a very visual game. Isolated spots of colour serve to highlight points of interest whilst pink collectibles lie hidden in corners. Each time the colour catches your eye its very arresting such is its rarity. The creatures of this monochromatic world also play their part, with oversized toads leaping from ponds and large fish gobbling up your paint pellets if they fall in water.
Some may say it’s as much an art piece as it is a game, but frankly I don’t care. The nature of the exploration, the strange scenes the paint splattering creates and the haunting story of a boy losing his mother all join together to create something magical.
IHF Handball Challenge 13 (Multi)
If it weren’t for the Olympics I would have never considered going anywhere near this odd European sport sim. An at-times crunching mix between basketball and football, it caught my eye with its swift passing of its tiny ball and almost desperate attempts at goal scoring by each team. The hook is that to score you have to be in the air when you lob the ball goalwards, leading to some very impressive slow motion replays.
The game itself seems to get the basics, with responsive passing back and forth before your team and an easy to grasp targeting when shooting. Sadly past that it’s all a little clunky. Defending is almost non-existent or at best ineffective– though this could be down to inexperience – and the general level of polish is sorely lacking. For instance, at kick-off, players would take the ball back to the half way line and play would begin with a pass. Except that then the screen would fade to black and the process would repeat, although this time continuing.
It’s hard to expect FIFA levels of polish from such a developer, but when some of the basic flow gets in the way of the play it’s disappointing.
Rayman Legends (Wii-U)
This was my third dabble with the Wii-U and, unlike the previous outings, it was a splendid one. The lush, crisp sprites that enamoured me to Rayman Origins return and are as full of charisma as ever. The pure spirit of 2D platforming remains too and Rayman forever bounding across collapsing platforms, collecting coins (I forget what they fluffy critters are actually called) and jumping on the head of anyone getting in the way of his fun.
What the touch screen brings to this party is another playable character. Not too dissimilar from the second-player’s Star in Super Mario galaxy, it is prodded and pushed round the screen to complement the primary player’s actions. He cuts ropes to release bridges, activates coins for Rayman to collect and stuns enemies should our hero find himself in a pickle. It may seem a support role but over the space of a single level I found myself always engaged on what was going on. It was very rare that you were actually without something to do and what you did do never felt tacked on.
There were a couple of moments that your focus had to switch from the touchscreen to the main TV and back again, which did prove disruptive but all was forgiven come the end of the stage. Origins saw a number of stages based purely around speed runs and when this was combined with a Guitar Hero-esque role where P2 poked enemies in time to the music it brought about a high octane finish.
Brick Force (PC)
Still fresh off of my Minecraft addiction, the idea of taking the cubic world genre in different directions is one that piques my interest. Brick Force’s twist is to add guns. In all other respects it is like most free-to-play shooters in that you team up with other players and try to blast the bejesus out of the other team, but here you can run around on levels easily created by users.
Obviously user made maps are nothing new, having been around since the very first days of the FPS, but these are simpler to make than most. Head to the Creation mode and your gun will shoot bricks as opposed to bullets and from there your creations can take shape. The level of familiarity and reduced complexity is bound to bring about some fantastic community made maps.
Sadly the actual shooter is distinctly average. You run around with avatars that are a cross between Minecraft’s own blocky men and Lego minifigs with brightly coloured guns but there was no hook to firefights. Snipers, rifles and pistols are all there but the only distinguishing feature is the blocky landscape.
Last of Us (PS3)
No hands-on here, but a half-hour viewing of someone playing through the scenes seen at E3 alleviated many of my fears. Like others I was worried that what was shown in LA promoted a far more violent approach to survival than what had originally been promised. What we saw was more of the relationship to the two main characters had developed and that it’s just as easy to avoid a fight as to start one.
The initial section saw the pair trying to reach the first floor of a hotel. Stuck in the lobby they eventually managed to scramble up, gain access to a ladder and reach their goal. There’s a puzzle solving element reminiscent of Uncharted and their calibre having worked on such a series shows in every line uttered and action taken. Once again you will be playing through a movie.
Having reached the upper floor the shit hits the fan as group of looters block their route. Rather than brutally dispatch them, this time bottles are smashed to divert attention and one is knocked out enabling them to slip by unnoticed. All the time the young girl’s AI appeared to go a solid job of keeping pace with you and staying out of sight and in turn trouble.
Although a floor further up and there’s no escaping the rather bloody mess of an encounter. The scarcity of bullets showed as our player was very careful with his shots, all the time a cat and mouse game being played as we skittered in and out of the hotel rooms. The most interesting aspect here for me was the need to outflank and outwit. There are no more Nathan Drake shootouts, no more hunkering down and waiting for them to pop their head above the parapet as you know they’ll be equally trying to outflank you.
F1 Racing Stars (Multi)
Personally, I’ve been shocked that previous F1 license holders haven’t done this before. Leveraging the franchise beyond the obvious, Racing Stars is in all respects a karting game. Taking the many recognisable teams and racers they turn them into caricatures and drop them into dumpy, cute versions of their high-performance cars.
Though, this isn’t even pretending to be based in reality. The track we played was obviously set in Germany but as we set off around the lap we passed through castles, forests and autobahns, all brightly coloured and drawn as though from a cartoon. The almost obligatory power-ups appear too, but they seem a little lacklustre given they all seem to be a variation on firing giant bubbles in front or behind you.
Unlike most carting games, this F1 take doesn’t require powerslides. Strip away most of the above and it’s a straight racer, it even features warnings counting down into particularly tight corners so you know when to brake. In that respect it not only sticks a little more to its simulation cousins but sets it apart from the Mario Kart clones.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist
Call me old fashioned, but I used to like it when stealth action concentrated more on the stealth and less on the action. Splinter Cell continues its steady move towards removing the S word completely with its later outing. We may see Sam sneaking around enemy encampments, and carefully picking off one or two mercs but two seconds later he’s facing down a truck mounted heavy machine gun. What happened to popping the lights and hiding people in cupboards?
Stepping away from my own disgruntlement, if you accept Blacklist for what it is it looks promising. Sam can seriously kick some arse nowadays and readily leaps into the middle of most fights. He’s able to effortlessly tag and shoot three adversaries – accompanied by a succession of gruesome camera shots – before beating down anyone left standing. There were even times, as the demo took us through a rural Iranian village, that we could have been playing Uncharted as Sam brandished an AK47 from behind a wall of sandbags.
He’s still got his gadgets though; for one, futuristic sonar that can scan the area allowing you to see through walls and scope the opposition. There are the classics too, with electric shocks bullets and breaching charges. The last pair being used to great effect in the demo, bringing back flashes of the more tactical angles that the series used to offer. If it can be played at the more considered pace using more stealth and less air strikes then I may be back on board.