The Veteran's View
From a purely logistical, statistical standpoint, I should probably be sick of visiting the EA Headquarters by now… but I’m not. I gotta hand it to ‘em – they make visits a lot more appealing than the standard rushed, cram-through-the-cubicles schedule of some other game publishers I could mention. The setup of the often day-long editorial sojourns to the attractive, modern EA campus are a bit redolent of ‘festival days’ at Japanese high schools—with a series of rooms, far-flung halls and even a full-sized gymnasium, each spiffed up for the day, dedicated to (and distinctively decorated for) presentation of the many featured game titles.
Such editor’s days usually start off with an orientation presentation in the campus theater, followed by a diaspora of the gaming press to the various far-flung demo areas… and there’s usually an entertaining distraction or two as well.
During visits to the EA campus in the past—particularly during the day-long Summer showcases collectively known as ‘Camp EA’—there has usually been one form of spectacle or another taking place in the central, football-field-sized quad that serves as a kind of ‘campus green’. One year, it literally served as a gridiron so that invited football celebs could have a game of street-rules football. Another time, large inclines of earth had been trucked in, so pro dirt-bikers could launch themselves into the air, extreme-sports style.
This year—as an introductory stage-and-screen presentation was just wrapping up in the auditorium known as Milestone—many of us were alarmed to hear the thudding roar of something loud and terribly military-sounding landing just outside on the grass.
It was an assault helicopter. Ten out of ten for style.
After keeping us clear of the LZ until the potentially-decapitating blades had stopped spinning (funny, they usually make you sign a waiver for this kinda stuff) and unwisely letting the visiting geek-presence clamber about on U.S. military property like a pack of over-caffeinated monkeys, we were more or less free to roam and check out our games of choice.
The Tale of the n00b
Now that I've broken into the journalism crowd, I found myself calmly wandering along the landscaped pathways at EA Headquarters. I must admit this was my first convention/get-together/event in many ways, as I don't think my experience at Digital Life in New York two years ago really counts. I wasn't really there to play games but to compete in a DDR competition. (I was owned, by the way.)
In any case, getting into a media-only event with GR staff was indeed several notches higher than the everyday casual experience. After signing in, wrapping the media badge around my neck, pinning my nametag on my jacket, and wolfing down a bagged lunch and several EA-labelled spring water bottles (my straight-out-of-college instinct spider-sensed the "Free Food!"), I was ready to take in all the sights.
There were plenty of banners along the walls: Boogie, Madden NFL 08, Boogie (again), and everything else EA can put on its resume. Various memorabilia littered the tech-school-esque atmosphere – a motorcycle, some figurines, modern architecture all around us.
There was also a Starbucks in the cafeteria. Yeah, the world is ending.
First up on the schedule was the press conference in the auditorium. Our group was kind of late getting in, but we were able to snatch a seat in the back row of the dimmed room. I didn't know what to expect seeing the conference live and with other industry luminaries. But honestly, the conference started a bit slow. I crossed my arms every now and then, nudging my head to the side.
Then came Peter Moore, second day on the job as president of EA Sports. And yes, he held a controller for the PS3, his "new favorite console", and the Wii, his "other new favorite console". And yes, he called the PS3 controller cute.
But it seemed that Moore was truly in his element relaying info on various sports titles and chatting with Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers on the ins and outs of all things foosball. Really, I was just glad that he wasn't a humdrum speaker or some representative sent from Britain just for the accent (sorry, it's true) – and that he hadn't tattooed himself with release dates or anything manly-fake.
Despite an audio mix-up during the presentation for Gameshow, it was one of the few games to catch my eye (not long enough for a straight-on preview, but hey, I mentioned it!). As you can tell, I'm a hard guy to thrill – just who I am – and most of what they showed was already at E3 and Leipzig.
Anyway, whenever I'm on JetBlue, I play the trivia game with the rest of the passengers – just a standard quiz game that everyone on the plane (hopefully not the pilot) can play. It's an engrossing yet passive way to mingle with your fellow friendly fliers, and what sets Gameshow apart from just being a knock-off was that it had a live DJ. That means real-time trivia and updated questions – and the potential for a whole heck of addictive online play.
Lighting up the rest of the conference were a pretty entertaining display of Skate by its chill developers, a comical skit with The Engineer in the trailer for Half-Life 2: The Orange Box, and the open-ended world of Burnout Paradise. The whole statement from EA this year seemed to be just sheer open-endedness and realism – putting games in a sandbox environment instead of set paths and goals.
I, for one, can't wait to start digging.
MySims, My Rules
Stop #1 for me was the designated Sims area (after having to run a short gauntlet of fire-dancers and fire-eaters—no, really. Here we got hands-on time with MySims, a particularly user-friendly branch of The Sims family tree (the game also bears some surface visual and mechanical kinship to the Animal Crossing games).
Underneath its cute, cartoony exterior—oh, who am I kidding, the whole thing is cute and cartoony—MySims is about civic revitalization. Players are charged with bringing new life (and literal essences) to a candy-colored town by making its buildings, attractions and landscaping as appealing as possible to a range of residents of different sensibilities. A gloomy/emo goth kid, a video-game-playing dorkwad, a little girl who fancies herself a ruthless pirate and many more are looking for the sorts of buildings, decorations and activities that will make them want to hang out with you.
Players are given free reign to make whatever crazy, cobbled-together constructions they want to. A haunted-looking house with turrets, gambrel roofs, gravestones in the yard and a style that looks like seven architects got into a fight and all lost? Sure. A pulsing, day-glow game arcade featuring asymmetrical amusements that look like Frank Lloyd Wright knocked up a bunch of videogame cabinets out of fishes, cordwood and slabs of bacon? Go nuts.
If you present the residents of your town with items and/or places that really make them happy—or really offend their sensibilities and even piss them off—you’ll be rewarded with ‘essences’ (spooky, tasty, nerdy or what have you) which are the currency of this big-headed world and which open up new areas for construction.
Customizable player characters, just like the various buildings and objects, allow for massive creativity and the (virtually) tactile sense of playing with a mini town full of toys to create your own little world], and the DS version is loaded with mini-games for a slightly different take on the same gaming theme. If previous Sims titles were just a little too vague and sandboxy for you, the rather more direct, goal-oriented nature of MySims might just draw you into the franchise—in much the same way that the live baby monkey and Mai-Tai tiki bar initially drew us in the Sims demo hall.
(Did I mention that the Sims demo hall had a live baby monkey and a tiki Mai Tai bar? Well, it did.)
While Chris was glued to the MySims monitors, I took a look around the rest of the Tiki-themed Sims lounge. I'm not really a Mai Tai guy, but I definitely wanted to get a look at SimCity Societies. Like MySims, Societies is all about earning and spending different vibes to create atmosphere.
Laying down the city was easy enough. Societies does away with some of the SimCity minutia, like stringing up power lines and carving out sewers. Nope, the focus is on customizing your town with hundreds of buildings of every shape and size, each one giving or taking their own vibe. Many buildings either have special abilities to use at your leisure (like having a movie premiere at a theater), or introduce new characters into your town. A "creepy barn" brought in business but sent ghosts around my town, haunting the locals.
I just wish they stayed still for a moment. I wanted to catch one and make it the new Mayor.
Nonetheless, the twenty-minute demo grabbed me by the horns and steered me through making a Creative city, complete with public murals to generate Creativity points.
What did all of this hippie Creativity nonsense buy me? A mime school. Damn.
Originally, I thought I had violated some deep personal ethic by bringing more mimes into the world. But then I used the Mime School's special function to unleash 30 mimes on my small town… of population 30.
The situation quickly got out of hand, because my demo town was no larger than two blocks square, so I immediately started investing in chain link-fences and police precincts. Someone was going to have to unleash some American Law upon these mimes, and I needed Special Police to do it. But the short bus never showed up, and I moved on.
The Sims 2: Castaway
Sometimes I'm glad I don't have a decked-out computer. If I did, I imagine I would have WoW written all over my face, or The Sims 2 would have taken away all of the passions and inhibitions of my real life. Through the Seasons, I would be cramming for my University finals, trying to make time for myself by taking care of my Pets and experiencing the local Nightlife, all the while making future plans to Open for Business.
So many expansions, so little time.
But The Sims 2: Castaway is not a part of the pack, as much as it is a Sims-based adventure. As you're sailing through the high seas with your motley crew, the warm breeze melting your cares away, you are suddenly capsized and end up drifting onto the shores of a deserted island. For those screaming foul at this Lost/Survivor wannabe, Castaway is inspired by the more technicolor Gilligan's Island. Things are brighter, more tropical, and pleasant, especially given your newfound crap-my-pants situation.
This doesn't mean that survival is a walk in the park. In fact, your Sim can actually die without burning down some unfortunate kitchen. You must loot berry trees, make rag-clothes, build huts, and test your manliness (or womanliness) against grunting boars. Since your clothes rip over time and your huts can be destroyed by the wanton forces of nature (no, I'm not talking about foreplay), constant maintenance is the key – as it is for all Sims titles.
Once you get comfortable hunting and gathering, you will begin to explore other areas of the island, finding new treasures, mini-games, monkeys, and your other shipwrecked crewmates. Sorry, no volleyball this time, Mr. Hanks. Hopefully with enough luck, skill, and grunting Sim-speak, you will, er…, get off the stinkin' island and actually win a Sims game.
The Sims 2: Bon Voyage
You had to feel for Jerome Collin, an associate producer on The Sims 2: Bon Voyage, who was seated next to the demo station for the karaoke game Sims On Stage. He looked like he could use a 15-minute vacation from The Final Countdown, so it's probably good he was showing off Bon Voyage, the vacation for your reality simulator.
I don't understand why you would need a vacation from your fake life. Does fake life get that bad too? But Jordan quickly laid it out for me – if your Sim has a good vacation, as calculated by Science as you play Bon Voyage, then it can get temporary bonuses back at home.
You spend the actual two to five days in one of three themed resorts: a mountain forest, a beachside pirate ship and an Eastern-themed garden. Each resort has about forty items and local customs for you to learn and take back home. I know you want that sushi bar in your backyard.
Much of Bon Voyage involves meeting new Sims and trying activities long enough to pick up the customs. I stepped up to a target range, where some little girls were throwing axes into the bullseye at an alarming rate. My Sim's first few throws were cold-blooded attempts to murder nature, but after scratching the forest floor he started hitting the target as well. Score! Now the virtual ladies love me because I can chop firewood at a distance. Just like in real life!
Bon Voyage takes the Sims into a slightly more hardcore experience. Many of these activities can earn you collectible stickers, and the game encourages you to complete your book. Other features like a snapshot tool let you pose around the resort, if you can get another Sim to take your picture. These photos are saved on your computer, can be captioned, and even ordered from EA.
I can see the endless opportunities for this kind of stuff… like an alligator eats your wedding album, so you make your family in The Sims: Hot Date and reshoot the wedding photos shot-for-shot. What, the wife is STILL mad at you? Hmm, better take one of those fake vacations and cool off…
EA Family Play Feature
When NBA Live 08 appeared on screen with the new "EA Family Play" feature (this year's Wii installments for Madden and FIFA will also feature "EA Family Play" but neither were on display), I immediately thought of NBA Jam. The last basketball game I actually played.
Fortunately, that made me the perfect guinea pig.
In keeping with the "approachability" that EA believes its games need to have on the Wii console, "EA Family Play" is just as it sounds. Everyone in the house can pick up and play the mini-sports title without having to memorize complicated button presses or understand why buttons have shoulders.
Using the "Family Play" control configuration, shooting the ball is as easy as doing a mock jump shot: flick the Wii-mote toward your body and then curl it forward. Every move on the court, like passing to your teammates and driving into the paint towards the basket, requires one-button presses and simple swipe motions with the controller. Hardcore players can switch to the more intricate Nunchuk configuration for more control over the movements of the players, but not so much that your grandma couldn't whoop your ass with some luck.
It's a concerted effort to even the playing field between hardcore players and newbies who don't want to go through being owned and embarassed for trying. Sure, there's something to be said about having to suck it up and learn. But when the ones sucking it up are your mother, father, and those who can make your non-virtual life hell, you start thinking about fairness.
At least let them think they know what they're doing.
As we surpassed 70 straight hits during our Wall Ball rally, EA Playground producer Thomas Singleton and I started to crack up. All we were doing was swinging the Wii Remote to slap a tennis ball against a wall – it's racquetball as simple as can be. And yet here we were, locked in a mortal battle that lasted over two minutes, just hitting this ball.
Even though it targets younger players, is EA Canada slipping the next Wii Sports past our ultra-high-tech American teenagers?
In EA Playground, you choose one of two dozen unlockable avatars that come right out of a Wednesday afternoon yogurt commercial, then partake in one of seven core games or one of the other simple mini-games, strewn across four locations. The games vary from guiding paper airplanes to the aforementioned Wall Ball and good old-fashioned dodge ball.
Along the way, you collect stickers (notice a pattern in casual games yet?) and take on schoolyard bullies to become the king of each zone. Or you pass everyone a Wii-mote and play Wall Ball for two hours.
I can't tell if Playground will be too demanding for Grandma, and it's going to be a hard sell to anyone besides preteens, but EA Playground consistently felt at least as smooth as Wii Sports, which would be a hell of an accomplishment regardless of your age group.
The Simpsons Game
Just below the ‘Sims Hall’ was the demo area for The Simpsons, where we got our hands on what is arguably one of the more promising titles to shoot from the, uh, canon of America’s favorite four-fingered, yellow-skinned family.
There’s just no nice or uplifting way to say it: The majority of Simpsons video games thus far (with the thankful, glaring exception of Hit and Run) have been pretty lame and about as appetizing as a flat, discolored, warmed-over Krusty Burger. The simply-named The Simpsons Game looks to change that.
Spread over sixteen episodes in four acts, the idea is that the Simpsons have come to realize that their likenesses have been hijacked for presentation in — D’oh! — a video game (and not simply their ‘own’, but a series of parodies of high-profile, real-world games including Medal of Honor, Grand Theft Auto, Katamari Damacy, and pastiches of elements from others).
With surreal, Land of Chocolate environs, Japanese-style gameplay odes to “Mr. Sparkle” (complete with Comic Book Guy sumo wrestlers), and Pokémon-based battles against Jimbo, The Simpsons Game also has the references factor nailed down. The actual mechanics are a little on the simple side, but we have yet to see the final game. Even as it currently stands, however, the game definitely caters to the longtime Simpson fans with the sheer depth of its humor.
The Simpsons Game has a blazingly cartoonish, cel-shaded look, of course, and its combination of free-roaming and platform elements has generous amounts of original dialogue and cinematic sequences. It’s almost like getting two never-before-seen episodes.
Each of the principal characters has a range of appropriately-goofy powers:
– Homer can transform into a massive, lardy bowling ball of flesh or a ball of molten lava (courtesy of the Insanity Pepper), or can bust out with a mega-belch to neutralize his foes.
– Marge can use her megaphone to control hordes of on-screen characters and send devastating sonic waves, and don her cop costume and power-up the mobs.
– Bart has his slingshot, his Bartman alter-ego for hookshot, zipline and grappling-hook abilities, and can even employ a spectacular RoboBart power-up that gives him lethal laser eyes.
– Finally, Lisa can bust out with stunning saxophone melodies that can turn foes on each other or cause massive cyclones and even manifest as the Hand of Buddha, reaching down from the sky and ‘into’ the game to flick away pesky enemies or even re-make the landscape.
Hell (or Heaven) hath no fury like a spiky-haired eight-year-old chick scorned.
The Simpsons Game will ship for all console platforms (including PSP and DS versions), and will be available this coming October. It’s been a long, Duff-less dry spell since the last decent Simspons outing—and this is looking to be the long-awaited Flaming Moe of a game that virtual Springfieldians have been parched for.
And after those Krusty Burgers, thank God EA had a makeshift Moe’s Tavern waiting for us outside.
I didn't get too much time to play the DS edition, especially when they started bringing Krusty Burgers in from across the street… in any case, the 2D side-scroller follows the plot of the game. It has just as much parody or more, and it's got more than 2,000 lines of dialogue packed onto that little card.
Surprisingly, the DS animation looks like the Tracy Ullman Simpsons, where the next-gen versions feature the modern Simpsons. You can tell that they have greatly reduced the character size to fit all that lovely Simpsons scenery into the background on the DS, but at least levels like the Land of Chocolate play just as lovely (and hilariously) as they do on the big screen.
The Simpsons Game will be a single-player outing on the DS, with a few action-oriented versus modes. Varying combinations of Barts and Homers square off in large, vertical deathmatch and capture-the-flag levels, in a lag-free translation of the platformer game.
Bart and Homer felt much like your typical 1990 side-scroller game, and I'm assured that Marge and Lisa will use the stylus. Extra DS features like an interactive map of Springfield and the much-anticipated Homer-Nintendogs parody offer their own unique yuks on Nintendo's touch-screen.
Left For Dead
Like a handsome young Indiana Jones, I delved deep into the heart of EA in search of the fabled Valve Lounge. I discovered a small room, filled to the brim with PCs and Xboxes, and snuck in. Nobody looked up from their screen for fear of death.
The main event was Team Fortress II on a LAN of 360s. The game looks as lovely as ever, its Pixar-quality animation holding up even with a dozen people slugging and stabbing each other. I watched one spy chase down twice as many kills as any other player, and we both chuckled evilly every time his switchblade felled another unwitting soldier. It is a real treat to see that Xbox Live fans can join PC users in enjoying this addition. It adds great value for the Orange Box package, and from what I hear, PS3 owners will also get their chance at the action.
An offshoot room of the already offshoot Valve Lounge (which I believe in Europe is called a closet) was lit only by the glow of computer monitors – the hanging Left 4 Dead sign drew me right in. I immediately jumped onto a computer and started to fumble on the controls while my teammates ran around like friggin' Delta Force.
Left 4 Dead is a like mash-up of Counterstrike and Dawn of the Dead. Not the original Dawn from the 70's, the 2004 one where zombies run like Olympic sprinters. In the demo, we played as four gun-toting survivors, looking for a way out of a zombie-infested metropolis.
It is a wonderful take on Counterstrike. Bullets are still extremely lethal and the controls are tight as hell, but now you're up against a million disposable monsters. Sometimes a zombie will jump on a teammate, and you can help by shooting or bashing him off. Other times, your party will be ambushed by one of the four zombie heroes – like the Boomer. Don't shoot the Boomer unless you are standing a mile away, and don't shoot him if he's standing right next to your boy either. Sorry, team.
With only four levels, I hope Left 4 Dead is not as short as it sounds, or maybe they are expecting user-created levels to give the game legs. In any case, it was a riot to play, and the intensity and the co-op aspects are definitely there.
Army of Two
How do you follow up a saccharine-sweet experience like EA Playground? You wander across the gym and sit down to watch Army of Two, EA's cooperative Xbox shooter.
First things first. A lot of people complain that this game, with its two private military contractors, is really, really gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But I didn't see anything that was remotely gay, except for maybe the tank-top flak jackets. What the hell are you people on?
Anyway, whatever Gears of War lacks, Army of Two makes up, with a robust gun customization and more contextual co-op mechanics.
A meter that flat-out says "aggro" makes the focus crystal clear: EA Montreal wants you and your buddy to take point and flank every chance you get. In addition to shooting, you can feign death or make other plays which change the enemies' attention. I was taken aback by how stuff like aggro was just posted up there, but it seems like just the thing to help hardcore buddies explain strategy with their more casual teammates.
The armory was extremely impressive, with a dozen upgrades or more available for each gun. From first glance, I like how the weapons are organized into categories, and how they have so many upgrades. I am definitely putting a shotgun on my rifle "for kicks". Again, the best news was how the hardcore can reach out to the noobs, this time by lending your maxed out weapons to a friend for a whole mission.
Here, take this pistol… it fires pure agony.
And, as the EA day wound to a close—just a mere hour or two before most of us had to get back on the freeway and head home—what was the last game we exposed ourselves to? (I mean that in the best possible interpretation.) Burnout Paradise, of course. Because, apparently, we have a collective death wish.
Developer Criterion took the Burnout model down to the metal on this one and started over, the result being one immediately evident and interesting new course – namely, a single, totally free-roaming continuous environment spanning many different urban districts as well as some open-country winding roads. Everything in the world and all racing events are made available to the player from the get-go.
So much for “not futzing with the formula”.
Getting newer, better, faster cars is another matter, of course—those, you still need to earn the old-fashioned way. By driving like a maniac.
Players can tool freely around the city and surround environs and call up ‘Freeburn’ challenges during online multi-play: Once they are connected (a simple matter of a few D-pad presses; in virtual-reality terms you “never get out of the car”), players will find a multitude of competitions and challenges (we’re hearing around 200)—drifting competitions, speed, jump and barrel-roll challenges.
While one’s initial exposure to the huge, sprawling, go-anywhere city is a little intimidating, actually starting any given race is as simple as pulling up to any traffic light and hitting the appropriate buttons. This brings up a display of start and end points, and the rest is knowing the streets (or learning them the hard way), cheating with any short-cuts or dubious jumps you can find, the flow of ambient traffic, and maybe the will of the FSM.
The free-roaming environment really is huge—for the better part of an hour and a half, Joe Accorsi and I were trying to hunt each other down, but somehow managed to keep getting distracted by various waylaying challenges. We mostly wound up endlessly circling each other at the farthest fringes of the city, two widely-separated arrows on the main-world map, like the Enterprise and the Reliant circling that moon in The Wrath of Khan.
We were, however, each regularly informed via onscreen updates whenever the other plowed into another vehicle or parts of the landscape. And a cute use of each player’s camera peripheral would bring up a snapshot of the expression on his or her mug at the instant they pulled off something especially interesting – or stupid.
The frame-rate and sense of speed are as incredible and jaw-dropping as ever, if not more so. My only complaint at this time is that the developer seems to have completely removed Crash Mode, which in past iterations has been worth every bit as much playtime as the main racing challenges themselves.
More on this as we see more of Burnout Paradise, which ships in Winter for the Xbox 360 and PS3.