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Rick & Al
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Sarah & Shawn

Four members of the GamesFirst! staff ventured into E3; only one returned. Well, OK, we all did, but it’s not like we wanted to. E3’s an amazing institution, an enthralling yet weird combination of postmodern Japanese/American video culture and late capitalistic decadence.

darthmaul2.jpg (7229 bytes)At first glance, it seems like everyone’s hustling everyone else at E3; the PR guys ply the media with slick brochures and free drinks while their minions--hordes of biologically-enhanced booth babes--shower superbly feigned affection upon middle-aged game store owners. Geeky attendees plead like starving peasants for corporate-stamped trinkets while the suits, seemingly oblivious to the general mayhem, strike deals behind closed doors. And the media work the companies for demos, review products, and the worth-their-weight-in-gold invites to those swingin’ E3 parties. Everybody sneaks furtive glances at everyone else’s name tag, trying to place them somewhere in the gaming community’s hierarchy. The food chain has nothing on E3.

lara2.jpg (11831 bytes)All of this is played out on a glitzy Barnumesque stage that beggars description. Gargantuan company logos tower over gigantic company icons—thirty-foot Laras, Sweet Tooths, Mechs. Beneath them MTV-like emcees conduct stage shows consisting mostly of them making suggestive comments while video nymphs (as played by bored models) pitch baubles into the crowd. The music’s loud, but not loud enough to drown out the hum of commerce, and the entire scene is illuminated by theatrical lighting and the glow of thousands of monitors.

trekkers3.jpg (9371 bytes)It’s important to remember that upon these monitors are displayed PC and console games, the ostensible reason for the exposition. Because whether you regard E3’s crassness as deplorable or whether you roll in it like a pig in slop (and, as far as I can recall, I think I did both), it’s easy to become cynical about the whole glitzy PR and media steamroller. That is, until you put all the hype aside and just look at the games. And my, there are a lot of them. My best moments at E3 had nothing to do with hype; they had to with talking to design crews about their newest games and hanging out with a bunch of thoughtful and engaging people who were as into games as much as I was.

nox2.jpg (13636 bytes)For example, one of the most-hyped games at E3 was Westwood’s Nox; we really hadn’t heard much about it before E3, but once we got to the Convention Center it was everywhere—Nox banners, Nox floor displays, Nox models dressed up like Hecubah, the game’s beautiful and immodestly-attired antagonist. It was a little obNoxious. But when I arrived for my appointment with Westwood, I was shown the game by Michael Booth, the game’s designer. Michael started designing the game in his apartment four years ago, and it’s clearly a labor of love. As we checked out Nox (and a marvellous game it looks to be), all the chaos surrounding us just sort of faded away, and we were just two guys goofing with this really cool game, checking out the graphics, playing a little multiplayer, discussing the features and other games we liked. There were a lot of moments like that—sitting around with the Tribes 2 design team talking about our Everquest characters, chatting with Warren Spector about Steve Jackson and living in Austin in the early 80’s, hacking around on AoE 2 with some kid from Pomona who called himself Black David. There’s no people like game people.

And there’s no way for one person to cover all of E3; in fact, we found out there’s no way for four people to do it. We didn’t get to see everything we wanted, and we got to see some stuff we wish we hadn’t. But out of all the PC games I did see, I’d like to award the top ten of them the first annual GamesFirst! Best of E3 awards. Remember, some of these games are a long way from completion, and might not fulfill the promise that they now show. And of course this is a highly subjective list, and it was damned difficult to limit it to only ten games. We’ll run more in-depth previews of these games later, but for now these are quick looks at the games I’m most looking forward to, listed in no particular order.

oni.jpg (5654 bytes)Oni—What was it with the Lara Croft obsession at E3? She was everywhere, and someone not familiar with gaming could be forgiven for thinking that she was either the star of the greatest game ever (not bloody likely, given the last two rather undistinguished Tomb Raiders) or that they had inadvertently stumbled into a Hooters. The odd truth is that she’s become a sort of cultural icon, like Elvis, and the decline of both their careers has done little to diminish their popularity. And in her case, it’s mostly because she’s got really big breasts. Gimme a break. And while you’re at it, give me a kick-ass female action game hero who isn’t just eye candy. Well, that’s just what Bungie, best known for Myth and Myth II, might be giving us with Oni, a stylish anime third-person action/adventure that’s equal parts fighting game and shooter. The shooting interface is quite smoothly handled by a standard keyboard and mouse configuration—but the real surprise is the ease of play with which one can fight. Standard punch and kick key can be used in conjunction with move keys to generate spectacular fighting moves, the equivalent of anything seen in console fighting games. And the game looks damn good, too—the animations are extremely smooth, with some really cool cut scenes thrown in here and there to advance the game’s plot. You play the role of Konoko, an special agent whose quest to inflitrate a crime syndicate is complicated by the sneaking suspicion that all is not quite right in her own house. Bungie is working very hard to make this a game that includes three-dimensional characters who react in varying ways to threats. If Bungie can carry off this ambitious game, they could have a big hit. It looks action-packed, beautiful, and smart. What’s not to like?

shogun.jpg (6568 bytes)Shogun—The EA booth at E3 this year was dominated by sports titles—in fact, the center of their area was taken up with a wrestling ring, which was in use for, oh, thirty minutes of the three-day exhibition. As a result, such very cool games as Dungeon Keeper 2 and Shogun were pushed to the periphery of the exhibit. I don’t know how EA came to this decision, but I can’t imagine the relationship between EA Sports and EA’s other divisions as much warmer than cordial. In any case, as an old strategy gamer, this is one I can’t wait for. From what I saw at E3, Shogun might be the game that takes PC strategy gaming to the next level. First, it has an unbelievably cool theme: the samurai wars of 16th-century Japan. Why game companies have not seized upon this subject before is beyond me. Shogun also hopes to be the strategy title to successfully integrate an in-depth strategic game--in which you make broad political and military moves--with a realistic tactical engine that allows you to fight out epic battles. Both parts of the game are attentive to detail and good-looking. The strategic game will take into account economics, marriages, religion, assassinations, and the intangible but important Japanese concept of honor. The tactical game allows you to command massive armies on a real-time 3D battlefield, and it looks fabulous, like a cross between Myth and Kurosawa’s Ran. EA has been consulting with Dr. Stephen Turnball, an expert on samurai warfare, and the game’s AI will employ tactics derived from Sun Tzu and historical battles. You’ll also be able to play the strategic and tactical games separately as well. If EA can combine the two parts of the game successfully, this could be a strategy gamer’s dream—a deep strategic game, an action-packed tactical game, historical, educational—and with samurai.

deus.jpg (6104 bytes)Deus Ex—One of the catch phrases I kept hearing at E3 this year was "thinking man’s"—as in "this is a thinking man’s shooter" or "this is a thinking man’s space combat game." Of course, nobody’s going to market a title as "a really stupid guy’s strategy game," but it was still edifying to hear designers talking about games that emphasized critical thinking as much as quick trigger fingers. This is particularly nice to hear in relation to first person action games, which are almost universally known as shooters. (Except in that paragon of journalistic responsibility, Time Magazine, which refers to them as "splatter games.") Last year the first-person genre broke out of its "shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out" mentality with two great titles—Half-Life, which had a fine narrative and some interaction with NPC’s--and, I think more importantly, Thief—a game that was about stealth more than strength, problem-solving more than puzzle-solving. Deus Ex, the latest game from Warren Spector, will attempt to follow up on the cerebral Thief’s success—in fact, everyone I talked from the design team insisted that the game was not a "shooter," but rather a "first-person role-playing game." The game’s premise is sort of "X-filish"; you’re a secret agent who uncovers a global conspiracy; unfortunately, only a few other outcasts credit your story. Cracking the conspiracy takes you around the world; and it’s a very atmospheric one—the graphics are rendered using a modified Unreal engine, and looked excellent. But what really impressed me about Deus Ex was its emphasis on dynamic interaction with NPC’s—depending upon how you choose to treat them, they’ll respond differently—as well as the game’s non-linear narrative. You’ll be forced to make decisions in the game that will lock you out of certain game paths, but open up others. Since the game is "winnable" in different ways, this adds to replayability. But more importantly, it teaches that decisions have certain consequences—a valuable lesson, and one not likely to be picked up from Quake III. If this is the future of first-person gaming, count me in. When people think Ion Storm now, they think John Romero and Daikatana; I predict that in a year they’ll be thinking Warren Spector and Deus Ex.

torment.jpg (10840 bytes)Planescape - Torment—Interplay had a lot of terrific games in their booth—I think it was the most impressive at the show. It looks like their Star Trek franchise is finally on track, and the follow-ups to Descent and Descent:Freespace looked like they’ll better the originals. But one of their games that really blew us away was Torment. It’s a tribute to Diablo that two years later no one has really managed to successfully match its combination of isometric perspective/action role-playing. Torment may be the game that does that. Set in the Advanced D&D Planescape universe and using a modification of the Bioware engine used to drive Baldur’s Gate, Black Isle’s Torment is an RPG that allows you to take the role of an immortal character who awakens in a strange setting with no idea why he’s there and no memory of his past lives. As the game progresses, you’ll gradually piece together your memory, mostly through interaction with an engaging and sometimes horrifying collection of NPCs, including Morte, a smartass disembodied skeleton. The very cool members of the design team that we spoke with—Guido Henkel and Feargus Urquhart--emphasized the game’s non-linear plot and replayability—again, this looks to be a "thinking man’s" game—witty, deep, and with a compelling narrative. But we would be remiss if we did not mention the more visceral pleasures of the game’s graphics. The characters are twice the size of those in Baldur’s Gate, and the art is stunning—the team had over a year to work on art as they waited for BG to ship, and it shows. From the dynamic backgrounds to their superb 2D rendering of 3D effects (really, the 2D magic effects we saw looked as good as any accelerated ones), the game is a visual feast. There had not been a lot of buzz before E3 about this game; there will be.

messiah.jpg (5435 bytes)Messiah—Yet another Interplay game, this one developed by Shiny Entertainment, the long-delayed Messiah looks like it might be one of the year’s biggest hits. The game’s premise is intriguing—you take the role of Bob, a cherubic angel who decides that the earth of the near future is an evil place that needs some serious cleaning up. Bob thus begins a quest for redemption that will eventually lead him into a showdown with Satan himself. What’s fascinating about the game is how Bob does this. Bob, you see, has the ability to possess any living being—and there are over 50 types of characters in the game. Since each has different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different psychological makeups, this makes for a truly diverse gaming experience. You do all this from a third person perspective that looks spectacular; Messiah was one of the best-looking games at E3. Add to this excellent AI and 14 sprawling levels, and you’ve got a game that seems a sure thing. There’s probably a lot of pressure for Shiny to get this baby out the door, but let’s hope they take their time and get it just right. If they do, it’ll be well worth the wait.

giants.jpg (9797 bytes)Giants: Citizen Kabuto—Besides having the best name of any game this year, Giants is also the most difficult to categorize. It’s more a less a 3D real-time strategy game that takes place on planet consisting of 30 separate islands. You can either single- or multi- play one of three different races: the Sea Reapers, who have magic and control of the seas on their side; the Meccaryns, more or less standard military types, whose strengths are weapons and technology, and of course Kabuto, the giant. It looks great, and even though it appears the game has a way to go yet, we’re much taken with it. Plus it’s got a terrific trailer.

nox.jpg (8993 bytes)Nox—I went to my appointment with Westwood expecting to spend a lot of time with C&C 2: Tiberian Sun (which, by the way, does look really good). Instead I spent almost all of it with Nox, one of the biggest surprises of the exposition, and along with Interplay’s Torment the game that might make gamers forget (at least a bit) about Diablo II. It shares with Diablo the 3rd person isometric perspective, but is more colorful and action-oriented. However, the game’s most striking difference from both Torment and Diablo II is that it will offer competitive multiplayer gaming, including deathmatch and capture-the-flag. You can choose from three character types—wizard, warrior, or conjurer—and with over 70 spells and a plenitude of magical weapons and accoutrements, characters will have plenty of variety. Even though action-packed, the emphasis in Nox is not so much on hack-and-slash (though you can go that route if you wish) as it is on coming up with clever spell and trap combinations; a truly elegant interface ensures that even the most complicated combos are easy to cast. And Nox’s single-player game is no slouch, either—you’ll face the undead forces of Hecubah over levels that will consist of a combination of fixed and randomly generated maps. The game’s innovations include a great true line-of-sight engine, as well as a truly dynamic and interactive environment—if you cast a blast spell, tables near the area of effect will move a little; smaller items will move a lot. As I said earlier in the article, this was one of the most-hyped games at E3; at least for now, it more than lives up to the hype. Look for a more in-depth review of Nox in these pages very soon.

pangen3.jpg (10384 bytes)Rites of War/Panzer General III—In what looks to be a really weak year for wargames—even Talonsoft didn’t have anything that looked like a traditional wargame on display—SSI has a slew of them coming out. They’ve picked up the Close Combat series, are also publishing Fighting Steel this year. But the wargames that really had us going are the last game of the Panzer General II series, the Warhammer 40K-based Rites of War, and the next of the new Panzer General series, PG III Assault. We’re big Games Workshop fans, and SSI’s last Warhammer game, Chaos Gate, was brilliant, so we have high hopes for Rites of War, which features the until-now neglected Eldar race. The build we saw looked great, from its colorful oversized units to its terrain, which is modeled after the tabletop terrain in White Dwarf. Since the game is based upon a story about the outnumbered Eldar defending their planet against swarms of Tyranids, expect plenty of nail-biting scenarios—including one based upon the battle of Thermopylae!. Panzer General III, on the other hand, returns the series to the historical world, keeping its focus on the Western Front of World War II, including North Africa. The big change is of course the 3D graphics, which make an already nice-looking series even nicer-looking, and allow for 3D rotatable maps. But just as notable are the additions of a new combat system and a redesigned interface. The first Panzer General is often credited with resurrecting a moribund wargame market; here’s hoping the third in the series can repeat that feat.

aoe.jpg (12536 bytes)Age of Empires II—Bruce Shelley, the mastermind behind AoE and AoE II, showed up briefly at E3 to hand out posters for the new game. When I picked mine up, I told him that I taught medieval literature, and that I was really looking forward to the game. To my surprise, he got a little defensive. "I’m not a historian," he said, "this is a game." I knew both of these things already, but I took his point. AoE is not historically accurate. However, my lifelong love of history began with historically-based but inaccurate movies and novels, and if AoE II gets even a few people interested in the Crusades or Joan of Arc, well, Mr. Shelley will have accomplished more than a lot of history professors ever do. Age of Empires II—The Age of Kings looks a lot like its predecessor, but with larger maps, better enemy AI and pathing, the ability to use formations, and of course medieval cultures. A new victory option, economic victory, and a deeper trade and resource system (as well as a choice of technology trees) will also allow players to win through cunning. From what I saw, the game seems to be based a bit more on siege warfare than the last game’s almost C&C-like rush tactics; if AoE can combine historical flavor with even quasi-historical combat and politics, this could be the high-water mark of real-time strategy games.

diablo.jpg (9919 bytes)Diablo II—Well, duh. Blizzard’s Diablo II booth wins hands-down the "most crowded" display award, with Quake III finishing second. We’ll have a preview of it up soon, but for now let’s just say three things; it’s Blizzard, it’s four times as large as Diablo, and it should be out by the end of the year. Prepare to see the national productivity index take a huge dive in Q1 2000.

 --Rick Fehrenbacher