This year’s Eurogamer was probably the biggest yet; with the imminent launch of the next two big consoles weeks away, devotees of the digital had come from far and wide to queue at Sony and Microsoft’s stands, which dominated the show floor with fans and employees eyeing one another disdainfully across the neutral stretch of carpet. Meanwhile the fortress like exterior of Earls Court had been given a Third Reich visage courtesy of some creative and bombastic advertising from Wolfenstein and a man dressed in the full armour set from Dark Souls 2 was attacking the traffic outside West Brompton tube, making it clear that more publicity dollars had been thrown at the event than ever before. Given its popularity we were only able to secure tickets for the Thursday and Sunday, not nearly enough time to see even a fraction of what was on show. So, taking advantage of our early entry we high-tailed it to our number one priority: Elder Scrolls Online.
Elder Scrolls games, which achieved the apex of their popularity last year with the magnificent Skyrim (I recall queuing for that game first thing at a Eurogamer two years ago), have always felt a bit like single player MMOs with their massive scale, high number of quests and emphasis on player freedom. But as I sat down to play Elder Scrolls Online I quickly realised that it was this solitary aspect that remains the series true soul. Dropped at an inn on an island created for the demo, about 30 dark elf assassins (the character creation menu seemed a little pared back for the show) mobbed the quest giver, acutely aware that we only had twenty minutes to get a taste of Bethesda’s new foray into world building. In Elder Scrolls games I’ve always enjoyed taking the time to smell (not to mention pick and alchemise) the roses, wandering endlessly in the landscape in the hope that I’ll stumble into an interesting encounter and generally enjoying the ambience of the world. This leads me to hope that in the final game the world is big enough and the servers small enough to allow for a wide spread of players, because whilst epic battles might feel great in games like the forthcoming Destiny, here a mob of players dashing around together made my heart sink.
After being distracted by an NPC who believed herself to be transformed into a skeever, I was tasked with infiltrating an enemy encampment and, as a shadowy assassin, promptly changed into my disguise. But no sooner was I at the encampment’s entrance than a dozen other players turned up for a full frontal invasion. So much for stealth. Given the multiplayer nature of the game Bethesda have seemingly added more enemies and given them more health, but the melee combat system in the game is even more clumsy than it always has been. My unfamiliarity with playing with a mouse and keyboard was also a source of immense frustration and I hope that there is controller support in the final game. Swinging your blade wildly in front of you is normally fine, but here with sometimes three people facing down the same enemy on a crowded battlefield (think the civil war missions in Skyrim) more nuanced strikes would feel much better.
It’s an immediate and refreshing novelty to be able to use first person in an MMO and this instantly makes it feel like an Elder Scrolls game, and given the tired state of WOW and the dearth of interesting alternatives, Bethesda may be entering the MMO genre at just the right time, but if the failure of The Old Republic is anything to go by than it takes more than a great pedigree to win over that crowd and it would be tragic to see Bethesda broken by a botched MMO launch like EA and Square Enix before them.
Feeling the need for a good slap round the face to get over the Elder scrolls online, I headed over to the Dark Souls 2 booth for a sadomasochistic fix. We were given twenty minutes to fight our way through the demo and promised a reward for defeating the so called Mirror Knight at the end within the allotted time. Dropping in to an available booth I quickly realised that I had my work cut out for me since I was unable to choose the type of character I wanted to play, being lumbered with a generic fighter, but whatever, this is Dark Souls so I took it as a challenge and within seconds I was slicing up undead soldiers and falling to my death down a pit that looked too shallow to be fatal.
Admittedly I had issues with the demo, but hopefully they are limited to it and not the final game. There was no chance to look at the menu system, which in a game like this is integral to conveying the narrative and managing the ever-important gear and stats. Worryingly the view control was unresponsive and the auto aim was nowhere near fast enough to keep up with enemy movements. I’m hoping that this was simply a bad demo, attempting to show a stripped-down ‘arcade’ version of Dark Souls 2 that is not representative of the final game. Admittedly, the range and effects of the items and spells in the game seems to have improved and the new ability to dual-wield weapons more effectively opens the game up to new styles of play.
Next up was a long queue for Titanfall, Xbox One’s most interesting looking exclusive. The game is by Respawn Entertainment, formed by refugees from Infinity Ward following their spectacular split with Activision. The game features the same solid mechanics, twitch pinpoint shooting and sense of pace that you’d expect from the architects of the Call of Duty empire and as a result I was terrible at it! After an hour of queuing I spent a frustrating ten minutes being killed over and over again by teenagers. That’s not to say the game is not without depth. My competence aside the split between being on foot as a soldier and being astride a huge war mech, gives you a completely different feel for the battle, mixing things up strategically. As Ne-Yo says, it’s the way you move. As a soldier you’re double jumping huge distances thanks to a jetpack and wall running Mirror’s Edge style from building to building, traversing whole environments without touching the ground. It’s hard to believe that Faith’s unique brand of first person parkour hasn’t been re-used before, and it’s very refreshing to see it in a shooter.
At the end of a two minute countdown, which is accelerated per kill, you can call in your mech which can either shadow you as a walking turret or ferry you around the level. Despite its massive firepower potential, the mech has a lumbering quality that makes it vulnerable to being flanked by multiple mobile soldiers, giving the game a cat and mouse feel, with the cat and mouse constantly changing roles. Even after being taken down in the mech you can eject and use your descent as an opportunity to fire down on the battle field, turning a defeat into a tactical advantage. Adding to the tactical nature of the game is the fact you can marry up different classes of mech and pilot, specialising in long or short range attacks or more supportive classes. In short there’s a lot that can potentially set this apart from the crowded FPS genre but more than that, it has the sense of fun that is so often lacking.
If the queue for Titanfall reinforced anything it was the sense that here the videogame had fallen to the status of fairground attraction, with the staff of any of the show’s biggest booths clearly well versed at feeding people through intricate barrier systems or weeding under eighteens out of lines they shouldn’t be in (you must be this tall to ride this game). Feeling a little flagged by it all I decided to explore the cafe area, where the guys from Shut Up and Sit Down were running a board game arena. This is the first year this has been at the show and, whilst well attended, had nowhere near the bustle of the rest of the show making it perfect for a gaming detox.
Taking a seat and meeting the other players, including Quinns and Paul who started Shut Up and Sit Down, a great site for board game reviews and general high jinx, and we were taught the rules for Ladies and Gentleman, a wonderfully farcical game with a tongue-in-cheek satirical look at gender roles of the early twentieth century. Players are divided into pairs of husband and wife (and are encouraged to role play) with an odd numbered player assigned the role of courtesan. Whilst the husbands make money on the stock market, in the form of a frantic tile matching dexterity game that might be the best stock market simulation out there, the wives sell and choose dresses at their boutiques, presenting them to their husbands to buy at the end of the round. After six rounds the couple with the best dressed wife wins, provided the husband didn’t buy the least amount of items for the courtesan, who spends the game playing the husbands off one another and threatening to cause a scandal at the end by turning up without a dress. It seems strange to say this about a videogame show, but this was my highlight of the event and proof to me that more and more gamers are (or should be) embracing board games, which are currently exploding with creativity in much the same way that the indie games scene is.
The indie section of Eurogamer was awesome. There was a wide range of games on offer and it was easy to get settled on one. Each game had the developers on hand who were willing to talk enthusiastically through their ideas, a far cry from the impersonal pit crews or hired in PR guys surrounding most of the triple A games. A stand out for me was the charming platformer Teslagrad, which sees you take on the role of a young boy (who I assume is either famous Russian inventor Nikola Tesla or a relation) traversing a steam punk environment made up of clever puzzles utilising magnetic polarity and electricity in fascinating ways. The art style is a beautiful watercolour animated aesthetic that is slightly reminiscent of Japanese anime by Hayao Miyazaki with a lead character sprite that has the look of Astro Boy. The artwork gives the game a satisfyingly nostalgic, melancholic tone. Teslagrad has just gotten through Steam Greenlight and I can’t wait to play more of it.
Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more fresh ideas in the realm of the platforming genre indie developers just keep on thinking them up. Chroma is a case in point. In it you control a cute pixel art character made of pure light and moving him throws shadows amidst the game’s scenery. At any point you can switch to his shadow, and walk on these and other shadows to traverse the environment. This is an incredibly smart central mechanic which, like Fez, constantly alters your perception of the world and how you interact with it.
Another game that shows a clever approach to 2D platform puzzle solving is Rock Pocket Games’ Shiftlings which sees two players controlling alien astronauts attached via an umbilical cord. When one is super inflated the other is normal sized, and the press of a button switched them around. Like the recent Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, each character can be controlled with an analogue stick or two players can team up to tackle the physics based puzzles. The game also seems to relish the fact that things can break in unexpected ways, which is frankly what you’d expect when presented with a see saw, an electric fence and the ability to increase your mass by several stone mid jump. The result is an hilarious but brilliant brightly coloured mess that will have co-op gamers arguing over puzzles and ‘accidentally’ killing one another in a quantity not seen since Portal.
Other standout games included Prison Architect, a kind of theme hospital over laid with some social discourse; Eden Star, a graphically flashy and physics based take on Minecraft’s harvest and build gameplay loop; and Fist of Awesome, a kind of twisted pixel art streets of rage that replaces Axel with a disgruntled lumberjack punching his way through a forest of bears and dears (which apparently went down very well with Bill Bailey who was at the show, and whom we also sighted at the Titanfall queue).
We ended the day by attending the Live Eurogamer podcast, with a panel of indie game devs discussing the nature of being indie and the often vulnerable position they have to place themselves vis-a-vis the public in order to get the recognition they need. It was an appropriate ending to the show in which, for the first time, I felt my interest shift firmly from the triple A space to the indie space. My impression of the show as a whole was sore-footed disappointment, mixed with wide eyed amazement, the latter courtesy of all the talented creators who are bursting into the industry via the ground swell of the indie revolution. That alone reminded me of why I fell in love with videogames when I owned my Megadrive back in the day.
Words > Dean Bowman & Thom Haley