X10, Microsoft's annual showcase of gaming wares, took place in San Francisco last week and played host to more than a dozen games set for release on the Xbox 360 later this year.
I've already reported on many of them, including Final Fantasy XIII, Splinter Cell: Conviction, and Lost Planet 2, but there were five fresh titles on display that I hadn't previously seen in person. With the exception of all but one, I was suitably impressed.
I'll get straight to the big one: Halo: Reach.
A prequel set shortly before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, the final Halo game to be developed by franchise originator Bungie will also be the Xbox 360's flagship title this fall.
In truth, I had lost interest in the series after the third game. It was a perfectly competent shooter with fine online play, but I found the increasingly Byzantine story and repetitive level design to be uninteresting.
However, last fall's semi-sequel, Halo 3: ODST , unexpectedly brought me back into the fold with its gripping narrative about a group of new heroes and a sandbox-ish world that lessened the franchise's typically linear feel.
Happily, Reach seems to draw more inspiration from ODST-though inspiration might not be the right word, as the two were developed in parallel-than the first three games in the series.
We're provided a new cast of characters in the form Noble Team, a squadron of SPARTAN III uber-soldiers who, I was told by Bungie Creative Director Marcus Lehto, are less technologically advanced than the Master Chief, a SPARTAN II, but make up for it with improved tactics and teamwork.
There are six members in the squad, each with a distinct personality, though Bungie says it's striving to avoid archetypes such as the "brainy guy" and the "muscle." They're a tight-knit bunch. Unfortunately for us, we take on the role of an outsider; a soldier sent in to replace a team member recently killed in action.
It looks as though the entire game will be set on the eponymous planet Reach, site of a famous pre- Halo battle that was detailed in Eric Nylund's novel Halo: The Fall of Reach. The parts of the planet I saw appeared lush and sprawling, potentially offering players greater freedom in how to approach their objectives.
Given the period during which the game is set, it will come as no surprise to franchise fans that our enemies will be the Covenant. However, Bungie has taken the liberty of making these aliens seem more, well, alien. They don't yet speak English, and character models have been updated to look more ferocious and exotic. When asked how that might affect such things as comic relief (much of which was provided by the goofy chattering of terrified alien grunts in earlier games), Mr. Lehto responded that Reach will, in general, be much darker than previous entries in the series.
We can expect art design to have a new feel, too. Mr. Lehto said that his team completely revamped the Halo game engine and hired plenty of new creative talent, resulting in a game that he says looks like "a next-generation title." I wouldn't go so far as to say Reach seems as though it belongs on Xbox 720, but the characters, weapons, and vehicles are certainly much more refined and animate more believably than anything seen in Halo 3 or ODST.
As for multiplayer, Bungie didn't show much besides a single, expansive outdoor level that will also be seen during the campaign. However, they did say that when the Reach beta goes live it will be a "much meatier" experience than most players expect, featuring almost all of game's weapons.
Expect the beta in May, and the game proper sometime this fall.
Next up, Alan Wake.
Developed by Finnish studio Remedy (makers of the original Max Payne), this action thriller has been in development for nearly seven years, and was at one point meant to be a launch game for the Xbox 360. Normally, such a long development cycle sets off warning bells in my head; games that spend more than three or four years on the workbench run the risk of looking dated and proffering play concepts that may have been pilfered by less scrupulous studios during the extended development process.
Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case here.
Alan Wake looks to be a terrifying and beautiful game filled with stunning lighting effects.
I'm still a bit unclear on the story, save that it has been broken into a series of television-like episodes, complete with "previously on" recaps. Sam Lake, the game's lead writer and an admitted television addict, told me that he thought the length and flow of a game is more like a television series than a movie, which is why he modeled the game after stories told via the boob tube rather than theatres. He also mentioned that there are multiple themes concerning "light and dark" in all its many meanings.
Indeed, light and dark are actually part of the game's core play mechanics. It seems as though the creatures (and objects) we go up against in Alan Wake are somehow possessed of darkness and, consequently, vulnerable to light. Shine your flashlight on a villain and he'll stop in his tracks. Throw a flashbang grenade and you'll be able to damage multiple enemies. Swivel a powerful searchlight beam onto an enemy and he'll explode.
What's more, the dynamic light effects are at least on par with those that I've seen in other games, featuring dramatic shadows, realistic throw distances, and movie-esque set lighting (meaning that though much of the game is in the dark, we can still see our surroundings).
One of our allies even wears a string of coloured Christmas lights around his chest. "It's like wearing garlic around vampires, man," he explains in a snippet of dialogue I overheard.
Colour me excited. After more than half a decade of teasing, we'll finally get to see this unique Xbox 360 exclusive for ourselves on May 18th.
According to distinguished British game maker Peter Molyneux, most people look upon titles in his Fable franchise as "those funny little English games with lots of farts and belches."
Renowned for picking apart his own games (he laments that half of the players who played Fable II explored fewer than half of the game's features), he says that the third entry in his role-playing series is less traditional, focused not so much on slowly gaining power but instead wielding it.
"In every game-including the Fable games-you become most powerful and defeat the villain just moments before the credits roll," he said. "In Fable III, you defeat the evil king halfway through and take his power. Then it's up to you to see if you can use it better than he did."
It's an interesting idea which, unfortunately, he was unable to discuss further, save to say we'll have the option of doing things like turning factories into schools and cleaning up the environment (the game is set in a world that serves as an analogue for industrial revolution-era England).
However, he did talk about some other role-playing game conventions that he and his team have rallied against.
For instance, the familiar concepts of gaining experience and levelling up have been tossed aside. Our characters will grow in skill and power, but instead of watching numbers slowly increase, we'll simply notice improvements made to magic and combat abilities based on how we play the game.
Ditto for weapons. Rather than providing hundreds of different swords and axes for players to buy or find, there are just a few, and they'll change in appearance and ability based on frequency of use and the sorts of enemies slaughtered with them.
What's more, weapons will be named using our gamertags, be affected (in ways yet to be explained) by our gamer scores, and become trade-able with other players. That means I can create, say, Chad's Flaming Dagger of Defiance, grow its prowess in combat in unique ways, then put it up for sale online. I could even buy it back after someone else has altered it. Neat idea.
But perhaps the game's most interesting facet is a mechanic Mr. Molyneux referred to simply as "touch." In almost every social situation players will be able to physically touch other characters, whether it's a hug, a punch, or pulling a beggar against his will to go work in a factory. The goal, explained Mr. Molyneux, is to create a new emotional link between the player's avatar (and potentially the player himself) and computer controlled personalities within the game.
Alas, one of Fable III's most talked-about elements-integration with Project Natal, Microsoft's upcoming motion-detecting control technology-was not on display, and Mr. Molyneux was under strict orders not to reveal how it might be used.
Hopefully more will be revealed before the game's holiday 2010 release.
I'm not sure of the general public's interest in Dead Rising 2, the follow-up to Capcom's popular zombie action game, but it's been high on the list of games I'm anticipating this year.
Developed primarily by Burnaby, B.C.-based Blue Castle Games, this sequel moves the action from a shopping mall to a Las Vegas-esque gambling town in Nevada. The developers refused to divulge much about the story, but our hero looks to be a capable, ruggedly handsome, race-jacket wearing fellow who's handy with tools.
The demo I tried wasn't part of the game proper, but instead a sort of mini-game created just for X10 to let media get a feel for some of the game's mechanics.
It began in a fashion that would be familiar to anyone who played the original. I found myself walking through a hallway using whatever objects were at hand-a sledgehammer, a water bucket, a garbage can-to beat down a small horde of slowly shuffling undead.
Then I opened a door and stepped out onto the Strip, a brightly lit boulevard filled with what I was later told was about 1,200 living dead. There were loads of items lying around that I could use to dispatch zombies, including benches, street signs, and police pistols, but I headed into a nearby maintenance closet instead, which, I discovered, is where Dead Rising 2's real fun begins.
In a manner reminiscent of the character Ash from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films, my avatar used the shed's tools to create gratifyingly powerful and completely ridiculous implements of death.
My first invention was a canoe paddle with chainsaws strapped to each end. A remarkably effective instrument, I used it to dismember scores of zombies in under a minute. Other combinations I tried included a battery and a rake, which allowed me to electrocute my enemies while slashing at them, a baseball bat with spikes drilled into its head, and an improvised explosive device created using a propane tank and a basket of bolts.
Once I'd carved my way through some 600 zombies I was rewarded with a motorcycle that had chainsaws attached to its handlebars. I drove up and down the strip over and over again, enjoying the sheer audaciousness of the spectacle.
Afterward I asked one of the game's developers about what seemed to me to be Dead Rising 2's obvious tribute to Evil Dead and was only partially surprised to hear him say that it wasn't their intent to create an homage. It might seem silly to deny such obvious similarities, but it's only prudent of them to feign ignorance. After all, Capcom was sued by George A. Romero for similarities between Dead Rising and Dawn of the Dead. Clearly, they aren't anxious to attract any new legal action.
They were, however, happy to confirm a launch date: August 31st.
The final game shown at X10 that I had a chance to check out was Crackdown 2.
Heading into the demo I couldn't help but wonder whether this was a franchise that really needed a sequel. The original was a modest success, selling about 1.5 million copies worldwide, but its open-world action, which had players taking on the role of a super-powered agent who could pick up and hurl cars and literally leap buildings in a single bound, seemed somewhat crude and, thanks to a listless plot, a bit pointless.
After Ruffian Games' 25-minute presentation, my position hadn't changed.
To their credit, the two developers showing Crackdown 2 admitted the original game had a lot of problems, not least of which was repetitive mission design, uninteresting driving objectives, and useful rewards that required so much effort to earn that most players never actually saw them (an example cited was a truck that could drive on walls).
Clearly, they've worked hard to resolve these issues.
For example, missions are now broken into several sections each with its own original objective. Plus, re-supply points will be established along the way so you won't have to slog all the way back to headquarters to grab a cool agency ride.
The mission I was shown began with our agent fighting off waves of gangsters and creating strongholds populated with backup cops. Then, as the sun went down, the gangsters were replaced by crazed "freaks," lab experiments gone awry that rule the city after dark and, consequently, can change our objectives.
They've also put some work into the game's co-operative multiplayer element. We'll be able to fly helicopters with up to four players riding shotgun on the landing gear, and there are trucks with multiple turrets on their beds so groups of players can cruise through streets as a team. I even watched a pair of the game's developers perform a tandem skydive.
But while the improvements seem well conceived, I'm still not completely sold on the game as a whole. The core action seems by and large unchanged from what I remember of the original. And, based on the few sketchy narrative details we were provided, I'm not convinced that the sequel's story will be any more satisfying than that of its predecessor.
Plus, it's the same city. Granted, much of it has been demolished in the intervening time between games, and some impressive new skyscrapers have been erected in the midst of the ruins, but Ruffian confirmed that the street layout is essentially the same. Part of the fun of an open-world game is exploration, and I'm not sure exploring a merely revamped city will be as satisfying as discovering a brand new urban environment.
Still, it's too early to make any final judgements. No release date has been set, but I was told the public will get its crack at Crackdown 2 before the end of the year.
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