The 10th Art

Trade shows eh? So great in theory, so tiring in reality, yet that doesn’t stop us counting down the days until the next one. As a gamer, what could be better than two days spent playing the latest titles fresh from the sweaty grips of assorted developers? Ok, well I guess playing all those games without the need to constantly elbow fat, sweaty ginger kids out of the way would be better, but we can’t have it all right?

Usually this time of year my fellow journalists and I would be making tracks for the ECTS show, but times are ‘a’ changing. Whilst ECTS did happen this year, very few people were there to witness a show only half the size of last years and a shadow of it’s former self. The reason for this? One simple word: money. For the last couple of years another event has run alongside ECTS. Not a trade only event, but an event for the public, the paying consumer. The Playstation Experience, as this event was called, has made Sony so much cash that the industry had finally decided to get a piece of the action. The result? Two events under one roof; firstly, EGN, a trade event that basically comprised a gathering of meeting rooms, and Game Stars Live, a ticketed event where the public are welcome to come and sample the games alongside us trade types. It may sound like a cynical moneymaking scheme but in reality it’s a combination that works excellently.

There were a few omissions from the show however. With Sony shifting its Playstation Experience to northern England later in the month, there were no Sony titles on show. I can live without the latest Ratchet and Clank, but missing out on Killzone and GT4 was a bit of a blow. Also absent were Resident Evil 4, Metal Gear Solid 3 and there was no sign of either the PSP or the Nintendo DS. But enough of what I didn’t see – what was there to enjoy?

Let’s cut to the chase here – let’s talk about Outrun 2, which was for me probably the game of the show. Despite only being 70% complete, the code was already running as smoothly as a baby’s buttocks. Worried that it might not be able to match the sumptuous arcade original? Forget about it – the Xbox version looks set to exceed it. For starters, the visuals are divine. We’re talking bold, crisp arcade graphics that run super smooth at a high frame rate with no hint of a compromised draw distance. We’re talking controls that have been superbly ported to the trusty S Pad allowing for gleeful drifting and split-second response time. We’re also talking extra modes on top of the already exhilarating arcade game that comes intact from the arcades. Add to this the promise of Xbox Live play and Outrun promises to be one of the must-have titles on Xbox this Christmas.

Driving titles seemed very much the fashion at the event with an abundance of quality on offer. Burnout 3 was also on show offering online play on both Xbox and PS2 – yet another superb title. Whilst Outrun 2 is about super-smooth gameplay and super-cool looks, with Burnout 3 the idea is about mayhem! Think about everything that was cool about Burnout 2 and then times it by 10. Not only is the game engine lightning quick but the amount of destruction on offer is glorious. Not only are there other road users and inanimate objects to worry about but now the emphasis is far more on shunting your fellow racers into all manner of obstacles. Cause your pal to total his vehicle by smashing into the leg of a bridge and not only do you receive a points bonus but your boost meter also grows. With this increased penchant for destruction and risk taking in mind, Criterion have been more generous with your Burnout meter this time and even the most fleeting of detours to the wrong side of the road will see yours begin to fill. Although the prospect of online play is absolutely mouth-watering, the single player experience looks set to be just as rewarding. The computer AI is even more convincing the ever, and any pile-ups or smashes caused by your racing are emphasised through cool slow-mo cut-scenes. Consider as well that I’ve been told that over 100 crash scenarios are now included; surely another must-have title.

Another title vying for my attention was Need for Speed Underground 2, though in comparison to the competition it didn’t seem to offer anything especially exciting. Graphically it was quite sumptuous, though the distinctly unstable frame rate was a savage let down. Shunting the arcade immediacy favoured by the racing stars of the show for a more GTA like approach may have seemed wise on paper, but the lust for gaming freedom is starting to feel more and more antiquated. There’s no denying that when set to bumper cam, the overtly shiny tarmac gives rise to a great sense of speed and the nearly photo-realistic backgrounds certainly help feed your eyes, but the rather lacklustre racing of the previous NFS Underground does not appear to have undergone any significant improvement. Driving freely around a city searching for races and challenges does seem somewhat dull when you know you could be indulging in the arcade thrills of Outrun 2, that’s for sure.

Possibly the surprise of the show was to be found at the Atari stand. No, I’m not talking about Driv3r (though I certainly am surprised that Atari are brave enough to allow people to play the title before they buy it) but instead about Flat Out, a racer probably best described as a hilarious blend of Burnout, Stuntman and Destruction Derby. The premise is simple – race your derby-style vehicle around a range of US themed tracks whilst crushing your opposition and trying to avoid the vast array of destructible scenery. Whilst the racing is a lot of fun, it’s the physics engine that rally makes Flat Out stand out from the crowd. With accurate handling akin to Stuntman, it’s easy to chuck your car from pillar to pillar; smile with glee as the telegraph pole you collide with sways back and forth, scream in delight as your driver is thrown flying through the windscreen after a particularly brutal collision. Definitely a title to watch out for.

Despite being beset with some power problems on the first day of the show, the Nintendo stand was an absolute delight. Whether you were playing Mario tennis, Mario Golf, the wonderfully surreal Wario Ware or the wondrous Animal Crossing, there was so much on offer that I felt like a kid in a candy store. Super Mario Ball on the GBA was a particularly interesting title. Take pinball and add in curious adventure elements, then infuse it all with the Mario universe and you’ll be thinking along the right lines. Graphically it has to be one of the greatest looking titles to hit the GBA since Iridion II. Mario Vs Donkey Kong was also on offer, but I know that you guys stateside have been enjoying that one for a while – lucky you too because it’s a cracking little title.

There was nothing little about Metroid Prime 2: Echoes however. Very much following the design laid down by its predecessor, fans of Prime are no doubt going to lap this up. Not only is the game graphically sharper, but the whole light/dark duality touted in the press release sounds very interesting indeed. The multiplayer experience is also a very interesting one. Far from ignoring the theme of exploration present in all of the Metroid games, multiplayer Echoes seems to have embraced it. Strategically advantageous vantage points are available for those bold enough to search them out, as well as hidden opportunities for cunning use of the morph ball. It all adds an interesting slant do the usual death match formula and whilst it might not suit the more action-hungry of you out there, it’s certainly a title that looks set to offer another fantastic experience.

By far the highlight of the Nintendo area however, and the only title fighting with Outrun 2 for the game of the show award, was the fantastic Donkey Konga. You probably know the deal – hit the bongo peripheral in time with the music on screen. It may sound a bit dull, but rest assured I cannot remember the last time I had this much fun with a game. When I heard that the J-Pop soundtrack featured in the Japanese release was to be replaced with a more Westernised score I do admit to being a little concerned, but I was totally mistaken. It all works fantastically. Whether you’re playing along to Dancing in the Streets of “Alright” by Brit band Supergrass, the whole package is so enjoyable that I am literally salivating to get my hands on the game again.

Of course, the main talk of the show was Bungie’s latest, Halo 2. Boasting a 2 hour queue throughout the entirety of the show, the small sample of the game on offer barely justified the time it took to get into the booth, but that’s not to say the game was a disappointment. After watching several members of the public (and one highly embarrassed editor of a UK Xbox fansite) literally trip over each other to get to the front of the queue, I was at least able to use my press pass to get my turn first thing on the second day of the show. What can I say about it really? It’s everything you’ve been expecting, like the original Halo on steroids. The five minute 5-on-5 capture the flag match didn’t give me any opportunity to really explore the nuances of the new title and there was no opportunity to experience the one player game, but let me say this – I enjoyed it enough to go out the next day and get a cable and starter pack to get me connected on Xbox Live. ‘Nuff said.

All of this is only a taster of what the show had to offer (Ribbit King, Fight Club, Battle for Middle Earth, Sharks Tale and Star Wars battlefront to name a very select few), but with so much fun, so many gorgeous rent-a-girls promoting the stands and so little sleep, this writer’s brain is only able to process so much. The whole concept of a gaming show may be a little self-serving in many respects, but if nothing else it’s assured me that there’s plenty of life left in this generation of machines. I hope that the industry refrains from forcing the transition to the next generation too soon. This Christmas is going to be a classic. If by next year we’re each having to shell out ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£300 on a new machine the festive spirit might not be quite so prominent.

Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m sad to announce that this will be my final 10th Art. Thanks a lot to all those whoâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ve mailed me in the last few weeks. I hope youâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ve all enjoyed the column and best of luck for the future. Itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s been a pleasure!