"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

Send all adoration/vitriol to marc@shadowbloom.com

October 21, 2007

E for All 2007 and Video Games Live --OR--
Rock Band Will Soon Own All Our Souls

(To see the photos I took over the course of the day, click here.)

11 hours of video game bliss. A day playing some of the hottest upcoming games at the inaugural E for All Expo followed by a night at a Video Games Live concert...it doesn't get any better than that. The E for All show was founded in response to E3's recent format change that significantly limited the scope of the trade show as well as the number of people who are allowed to attend. It's open to all gamers and features game previews, tournaments, contests, and more. Like any new, ambitious event, though, it's had its share of growing pains: sadly, Sony and Microsoft (as well as a few top publishers like SquareEnix and Ubisoft) questioned the need for a show like this and didn't bother showing up (uhhh, guys...way to stick it to thousands of potential customers). Thankfully, Nintendo signed on as a flagship sponsor and basically legitimized the show. While it's, of course, only a shadow of E3 in its prime, I had a fantastic time and look forward to going back next year. Hopefully, a successful run this year will convince other companies to come onboard and make next year even bigger.

In a word: overwhelming. Considering it was only a fraction of the size of the average E3, I can't even imagine what a nerd overload those shows must have been. While I've never been to E3 or any of the other major game shows across the globe, I've attended smaller events like this before, but they've always underdelivered (one exception: the Nintendo PowerFest in 1990. My Dad actually took me out of school to go to Philadelphia for the show. Filled with tons of upcoming games and an epic tournament (think The Wizard), it completely blew my third grade mind. Man, that was awesome. Anyway...) I wasn't sure what to expect from E for All, but when you walk in, the first thing you see is a huge wall of TVs playing Super Mario Galaxy. Needless to say, I had an immediate videogasm. I won't go into detail about the actual floor layout--just check out the photos I took with my cell phone. I circled the floor, taking in the sights and sounds, and soon started checking out the games. Even with some of the major publishers missing, right in front of me were Rock Band, Mario, and Guitar Hero III, arguably my three most highly anticipated games of the fall. Hard to ask for much more than that (though Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, or Uncharted would have been nice).

Two other fun parts about going to nerd shows like this: while I was waiting in line to play Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I was checking my email on my beloved Helio Ocean (who needs the iPhone?) when someone standing next to me asked what I thought of the Ocean. I told him I loved it and he said he worked for Helio. He pulled out his Ocean and proceeded to send me two free games (about a $15 value). Sweet...

Later on, I was in line for Super Mario Galaxy when a camera crew approached me and asked if I'd like to be interviewed for X-Play on G4. They wanted to ask me a few questions about "what Mario meant to me." I demurred for a moment, but soon accepted. They brought me in front of a huge Mario backdrop (part of the Nintendo display) and interviewed me for a couple minutes. I think I acquitted myself fairly well (the reporter said he really liked my answers) and they told me that the footage will likely air either on the day Mario Galaxy is released (November 12) or some time that week. Who knows how much of it they'll end up using (if any), but you better believe my DVR will be prepared.

Rock Band -- The highlight of the show, Rock Band, simply put, is destined to be a cultural phenomenon. After unleashing the revolutionary Guitar Hero on the world two years ago, Harmonix has yet again outdone themselves. I've been waiting patiently for Rock Band since it was first announced, but now that I've played it, the remaining month's wait is going to be torture. I've seen plenty of videos of it in action, but seeing it in person, I was struck by how "grown up" it seemed compared to Guitar Hero. Guitar's cartoony, over-the-top aesthetic works perfectly for its madcap guitar histrionics, but Rock Band's art direction is more realistic and gritty. In particular, the hazy filter that washes out some of the color and detail helps considerably in making it look like you're rocking out a smoke-filled club.

I couldn't stay away during the course of the day, so I was able to get in a few tries with each instrument (though I didn't have it in me to embarrass myself by singing in front of the crowd). Each song was great fun, whether I was on guitar ("In Bloom" and "Say It Ain't So"), bass ("Vaseline" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go"), or drums ("Black Hole Sun"). The guitar and bass lines will be familiar to Guitar Hero veterans (though Expert mode seemed a tick easier than I'm used to), so I was most excited to try out the drums. Since I'm a guitarist and not a drummer in real life, I felt no shame in dropping right down to Easy mode in my first shot. Even though I have years of rhythm action experience, the drums are a brand new beast and it's going to be a blast slowly building up my skills. The kit (consisting of four pads and a kick pedal) and drum gameplay are so solidly developed that Harmonix claims that a player who can master Expert mode on the drums will actually know how to play the drums in real life, something you certainly can't claim with the guitar and bass. Considering that Easy mode is no picnic on the drums, I can't even imagine the insanity Expert will offer.

It's an invigorating experience playing with three other people, a joyous communion rarely provided when so many games are kill, kill, KILL (not that there's anything wrong with that). If you've got three other like-minded people nearby to play with, more power to you, but hopefully the online experience won't diminish the multiplayer's impact. What I'm wondering now is where Harmonix goes from here. Adding a ton of downloadable content will keep them busy for quite a while (Mastodon or Dillinger Escape Plan pleeeeeease), but I'm guessing they have their next title in the pipeline already. My prediction? Additional instruments would seem obvious (keyboard? turntable?), but I think they'll take the Rock Band formula and put it towards gamers writing their own songs rather than just playing along with others. They've brought the band together, now it's time to move on from being merely a cover band. How about bands creating their own songs that can be shared with the community? The possibilities are endless here and I'm sure that Harmonix knows this. At this point, the only thing I can see standing in the way of Rock Band's global domination is a mass market-unfriendly price point ($170 for the game, guitar, microphone, and drum kit...though that's really a bargain considering how well-constructed the instruments are). In the meantime, once it hits stores, keep an eye out for me on Xbox Live (feel free to send a friend request to Wintermute00) because I wanna rock!!

Super Mario Galaxy -- No surprises here either: this game is going to be amazing. First of all, it's beautiful. Easily the best looking Wii game to date, Galaxy and its vibrant colors and ultrasharp detail would seem fitting on a 1080p 360 and are downright shocking to see coming from the 480p last-gen-powered Wii. I just hope Nintendo can work the same wizardry on their upcoming slate (I've now started fantasizing about how sexy F-Zero or Animal Crossing could look). I only played two quick levels (since the game's coming out in just three weeks, I didn't want to spoil too much of the adventure until I can really dedicate some time to it in my own home), but the design is pure Mario gussied up with new mechanics like the brain-twisting "planets" gameplay and Wii motion controls. There's already an impressive variety of environments on display in the demo and I imagine there are countless more being held behind the curtain for now. After the running-in-place series iteration that was Super Mario Sunshine, it looks like Mario 64 has a true successor at last. Praise be to Shigeru Miyamoto!

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock -- The series may now be in the hands of Tony Hawk creators Neversoft rather than Harmonix, but thankfully they know not to fix what's not broken. Neversoft actually had to rewrite the entire game engine from scratch (due to ownership issues), but you'd never guess it since it plays just like a upgraded version of GHII. The graphics continue to improve and the song selection is the largest in the series yet. The new multiplayer battle mode is a fun diversion (think back to Harmonix's old hits Frequency and Amplitude), but my guess is most people will continue rocking the Pro Face Off. There was a fun quirk with E for All's displays of the game, though. Target sponsored a huge display for the 360 version with at least a dozen kiosks and a GHII tournament. Unfortunately, the kiosks were only running the demo version (now bundled with Tony Hawk's Proving Ground and the latest issue of OXM) that includes a paltry five songs (though Tenacious D's "The Metal" is one of them, so that's at least one plus). It didn't take me long to eventually run through all five.

However, over in the gigantic Nintendo setup, there were two more consoles set up running the Wii version...including ALL of the songs. Needless to say, I kept making my way back there to try out a few select tracks (of course, I had to try "Cherub Rock" by the Pumpkins--it plays well on GHIII, but it was still weird since it's one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar a long, long time ago). By the end of the day, a small group had gathered to watch some of the crazier tracks (a lot of people were playing Metallica's "One," I think, because it's so damn long). It was then that two people discovered the bonus tracks were unlocked as well and decided to get adventurous. That's right, it was time for Dragonforce's "Through the Fire and Flames." If you've been diligently following GHIII news, you already know about this song. It's basically a seven minute solo...think "Misirlou" mixed with "Jordan." Like "Jordan" in GHII, it even gets its own achievement in the 360 version: simply beat the damn thing in Expert mode. No small task. Here's a taste. Remember, that's a third of the whole song. After watching in awe as two players fought their way through it, I was up and my opponent asked, "Want to give it a shot?" Hell yes, I do! As exhausting as it is, it is a TON of fun (for the record, I won our matchup). As crazy as the song is, though, I don't think there's a single stretch as horrifyingly difficult as the middle solo in "Jordan." It just maintains a breakneck pace over a much, much longer time. That said, I doubt I have any chance at beating it in Expert in single player without an excessive amount of practice, but I'm already pumped to give it a shot (though the thought of playing through the whole song only to die at the end sounds terrible).

It may seem weird that I spent so much time playing GHIII considering it's coming out in only a week now, but I don't care. This game fucking rules.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl -- Like GHIII, Brawl is more evolution than revolution. That's more than enough for the millions of Smash Bros. fanatics who have been waiting for six years for the next installment (and they'll keep waiting: in perhaps the least surprising video game announcement of the fall, Brawl has been pushed back to February 2008...and I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Nintendo delays it again until next summer once they're finished selling Wiis over the holidays, though that's just the cynic (and experienced gamer) in me talking). Judging by the enormous crowds gathered around the many Brawl stations, Nintendo will be making money no matter when they decide to release it. I've played plenty of Smash Bros. Melee, but I don't consider myself a fanatic by any means. I waited in line for one matchup, got my ass kicked, and was satisfied. Like Melee, it's a souped-up version of its predecessor...more characters, more bombastic special attacks and weapons, more over-the-top level designs, all running at an unflinching 60fps. If only Nintendo could join the 21st century by offering a real online strategy rather than the half-assed "friend code" bullshit it's currently foisting on us...

Everything Else -- Those were the big four, but I also had a little time with a number of other games. Here are some quick impressions of a few notable ones. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games seemed like it might have some potential for multiplayer fun, but it was hard to enjoy in such a bite-sized portion. Since every event has different controls (and the Expo wasn't conducive for reading lots of on-screen instructions), it was a bit of an exercise in futility. I'm intrigued enough to at least keep an eye out for reviews once it's released, though. The new Wii Zapper attachment was on display as well and I had a chance to try it out on the upcoming Ghost Squad. It remains to be seen how many games will end up supporting the Zapper, but it was a lot of fun getting a taste of light gun action on the Wii. Both of these games, though, are begging for online play. Thanks for not caring, Nintendo.

There was a very cool setup way in the corner of the floor for "indie games," games without the marketing power of one of the big dogs in the industry. Thankfully, two of the better games there, Everyday Shooter and Braid will make it out to gamers outside of trade shows (Shooter has just been released on the PlayStation Network and Braid will hit Xbox Live Arcade in early 2008).

There were plenty of games I didn't bother with, though. For example, I enjoyed getting a sneak peak at the latest expansion packs for Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander, but those aren't exactly pick up and play titles. The Simpsons Game and Conan were both on display, but they'll both be out in the next two weeks and demos are already available on Xbox Live, so no need to fight through the crowds for those.

By far, though, the biggest title I didn't have a chance to try out was Metal Gear Solid 4. Konami practically had the game under lockdown--it was playing in a small enclosed space that had a metal fence running around it and multiple signs saying "No Photos. No Videos." Easily the most popular title at the Expo (along with Smash Bros., though Smash was much more accessible), the wait reportedly was over an hour for 15 minutes of gameplay. Frankly, I appreciate the MGS series, but I haven't been an obsessed fan since its NES heyday, so I wasn't really interested in waiting over an hour for a taste of a game that really demands a lot more time and investment. From what I saw by peeking through the fence, though, it looks like it's coming along nicely...

It took me a long time to finally get to one of these shows. When the concert was making its first tentative steps towards a nationwide tour, I bought a ticket for their show in Philly. Since I was camping on Ticketmaster to get a ticket when they first became available, I landed a ridiculous 2nd row seat right in the center. I was pumped. Of course, the tour ended up selling less tickets than they expected and it was abruptly cancelled. I think I still have the ticket lying around somewhere... Anyway, when I read that they were performing in LA in conjunction with the E for All show, I knew it was finally time.

If you're not familiar with Video Games Live, it's basically an orchestra playing the soundtracks to a variety of games while huge video screens run footage behind them. There are some special interactive events and guests tossed in, but that's the basic idea. There are the staples, including Mario, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Halo, but newcomer Bioshock was a welcome addition and Vertexguy's live rendition of "Jungle Jam" from Contra was awe-inspiring. It's a great night, but, unfortunately, Castlevania was a glaring omission from the lineup. I'm hoping there's some sort of rights problem about playing its soundtracks because that would be the only decent excuse. The soundtrack from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is widely considered one of the finest from any game and Castlevania III's is on my short list for personal favorite of all time. They were missed.

If you'd like a taste of what the show is like, YouTube actually has a nice selection of clips from various dates. Here's Mario, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, and Tetris. If you enjoy the clips, this is definitely the show for you...

Overall, a glorious day of video game nerddom. The E for All Expo may not be a big deal to E3 veterans or industry insiders, but the chance to play Rock Band and Mario (among others) weeks before their releases was too good to pass up. I'm excited to see if it can build on this success next year. I know I'll be back for more.

(To see the photos I took over the course of the day, click here.)