It's approaching a month since EGX wrapped up and I have still not shared my thoughts. As soon as I got back to Glasgow, my PhD kicked off properly and I've barely had room to breathe, let alone digest my thoughts on a games expo. However, I'm committed to sharing the ideas and experiences I had in London last month, so for anyone who cares to ingest some ramblings about the things I'm excited for in the coming months, do read on!
Given how much I enjoyed DOOM (2016), I had high hopes for DOOM Eternal. I was not disappointed. The 20-odd minutes that I played of the game were pretty much exactly what I'd hoped: fast, brutal and weighty.
Since Bethesda's E3 press conference I had had concerns about additions to the navigation system: wall climbing, swinging from horizontal bars and a neat double dash have been added, which bear the threat of turning DOOM Eternal into a platformer. Thankfully, barring a tricky jump in the tutorial and a brief section of the demo, the navigation was primarily a neat enhancement to combat.
A few of the abilities and special kills have been revamped: the chainsaw gives ammo on a kill, glory kills give health, and the new flamethrower ability now causes enemies to drop armour. Frag grenades are much the same, except launched over the shoulder now. Performing glory kills builds up a super-punch melee ability which deals huge amounts of damage. These tweaks and additions - including the navigation enhancements - made me think of Rage 2, but in a good way. It feels as if Rage 2 may have been Id's R&D tryout for some neat new bits and pieces, the best parts of which have been polished and slotted into DOOM Eternal with the benefit of being fully tested and trialed.
I am very much looking forward to picking up DOOM Eternal when it is released next year: it promises to be a raucous, loud adventure with no holds barred - more of what we love from the Id team!
I only came across Horace by chance. I was meandering around the live stage as an Outsidexbox and Xtra show was winding down, turned around and saw an empty seat. It was towards the end of the day and I'd spent a good deal of time standing around waiting to play games, so I took a seat almost reflexively. Before I had gathered my thoughts, I was introduced to a recently-constructed golden robot with a droning computerised voice called Horace.
Horace is an incredibly charming 2D platformer with a very quirky sense of humour. Its puzzly and challenging, with notes of Celeste in terms of the frequent deaths but a very quick loop, dropping you right back into the game. Horace is about collecting and exploring, picking your way through an array of platforming challenges to find hidden odds and ends around levels. The controls were simple and satisfying, making use of just a few neat mechanics to build into puzzles. The section I played was really well balanced and had a nice sense of progressing difficulty: I never felt like it was too easy but I wasn't baffled by anything either.
Each playable section is framed by an endearingly naively narrated story about life and learning from Horace, who is trying to find his way in the world. The naivety masks much deeper, more serious plot points which sit beneath the surface of the narrative beyond Horace's understanding, but are very much present. It's an excellent delivery mechanism. It kept me interested in not only the adventure that this little robot is going on, but the strange, not-altogether-nice world that he has found himself in.
I had no idea we were expecting a new Darksiders game, so was quite surprised to see the unmistakable logo at one of the stands in a far corner of the show floor. Unlike other Darksiders games, Genesis is a top down Diablo-esque dungeon crawler, which actually suited the setting and atmosphere exceptionally well. Joe Madureira's classic compositions, which have shaped the look and feel of the Darksiders world since its inception, shine through very strongly. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the new perspective of the world shows off the gorgeous assets in a light we've never seen before, which is almost a reason to keep an eye on the game in itself!
Darksiders Genesis has optional couch co-op, allowing two players to play as two of the horsemen throughout the game. Personally I played on my own, puts one of two horsemen selected for that level on the screen and allows the player to swap them. In the demo dungeon, I had access to War and the never-before-playable Strife, who's abilities offset each other nicely. War was a chunky brawler with a big sword and Strife was a quick gunslinger who excelled at range; each had the upper hand in different parts of the dungeon but I could quite easily see either one tackling the whole thing without too much difficulty. That said, it did feel like co-op is very much the way it's meant to be played, with some of the tougher enemies hitting hard enough to warrant an extra target in play.
It didn't feel like Genesis did anything particularly ambitious or unique. It felt solidly built with typical dungeon crawler fayre: loot, currency, special attacks, hack-and-slash combos, overpower meters and so on. The biggest wow factor is probably the Darksiders branding, which does work really well, but might not be enough to win over anyone not already a fan of the franchise. Personally I couldn't really ask for more: I love the aesthetic and haven't played a dungeon crawler in a while, so I can't wait to sink my teeth into it. That said, though, I'll probably have to try and convince someone to join me!
Chris Bratt mentioned Flotsam to me in passing in the pub, so I thought I'd have to check it out. His description of the game was that it was a strong idea which needed polish, which rang true when I played it. Flotsam is a town-building resource management game centred around a floating settlement: you must send out settlers to gather flotsam (see what they did there!) and scavenge resources to upgrade your town, eventually being able to expand enough to send out boats, craft advanced resources and research new technologies.
The setting gives the gameplay a neat twist: once you have exhausted an area of resources, you can simply drop sails and move onto the next area. The movement isn't free form: you are presented with an FTL style branching node graph as a map representing the possible locations you can move on to. In fact, once you've moved to an area your settlement is entirely stationary, with sails only playing a part in the wider game mechanics. This was quite disappointing: I would have loved to have some control over that myself, moving the settlement from island to island in a large open world. Of course, the game is bound by the limitations of the development, which I respect - I will be keeping an eye on Flotsam and hopefully will be picking it up at launch.
Originally I wasn't planning on going in to see Avengers. I was left underwhelmed by the buzz around E3 and just generally wasn't that interested, but no less than three people throughout EGX told me that it was great, which warranted my attention.
I was pleasantly surprised. The demo was not at all dissimilar to the summary of events we have already seen, taking place during the cataclysmic encounter in San Francisco that sets off the plot. Control switches between the five Avengers we've seen to date: Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Black Widow.
The gameplay was fairly solid, with each character having their own style and abilities, sometimes wildly different. For example, Iron Man has the ability to fly at will; Hulk doesn't, but can chain together wall grabs to keep moving across gaps; Captain America was the toughest brawler; but Black Widow was the quickest, and so on. Each character was distinct, but, more importantly, they felt like themselves. It looks like the developers have put an awful lot of thought into what makes each character them, not just a reskin with some slightly different variables. I applaud that in particular.
Gameplay is diverse depending on the character, but the game is primarily a brawler in the style of the Arkham games. Thor swings his hammer about, Hulk swings people about, Cap swings his shield about and Black Widow swings herself about. I don't want to appear flippant though: each new character felt substantially different and gave the fundamentally similar scenarios a unique sheen. Gameplay was largely satisfying and crunchy, with neat set-piece attacks and some very cool overpower abilities.
One observation with potential spoilers: although we didn't get hands on, there was a brief teaser of some of the rest of the game. One feature shown off was an expansive gear and character customisation screen, which included some content for Captain America. Despite the game's kick off being that he is killed, it looks like he's still going to be a part of the game!
Finally, the setup provided at EGX was very peculiar. We were offered a choice of PC or PS4, which got me excited because far too often at events like this I am left floundering with a controller. Alas, the PC I was led to, and indeed all of them, had nary a mouse not keyboard in sight, with all of them serving only PS4 controllers. The only difference in the setup appeared to be that the PC units were set up with smaller screens, as well as a card on the table with the "PC Controls" printed on it. The card displayed a labelled diagram of an Xbox One controller. It was all very strange and a bit disappointing.
Of course that's hardly a criticism of the game, which I am actually looking forward to quite keenly now. I'm glad I gave it a chance.
Like Horace, I found Röki to be incredibly charming. It's akin to a point-and-click puzzle game, where items found around the world can be combined to interact with other items to unlock paths to yet more items to use to solve more problems and so on. What I played wasn't devilishly difficult in the traditional point-and-click sense (read: ridiculously unintuitive) and was actually quite relaxing.
Röki is themed around Nordic mythology and folklore, which didn't so much permeate what I played of the game but rather felt like it just leant aesthetic. I liked that; it gave the impression that this isn't what the game is about, just its inspiration. What the game is about appears to be family: something bad has happened to the family of the protagonist, Tove, and she is working to get them back. I didn't play enough to see the story surrounding that fall into place, but I applaud Polygon Treehouse on tantalising me just enough to get me interested!
The game is truly gorgeous with a stunningly pretty artstyle and really nice character and location design. The sound design was particularly effective too, with the crunching footsteps in the snow puncturing a soft, mournful soundtrack akin to wind in the trees and creaking wooden buildings. Everything about the game also hints at a darker side, something sinister hiding behind the bright snow and the grand buildings. I can't wait to find out what it could be!
Welcome to Elk
Two people recommended Welcome to Elk to me on the show floor, and I'm glad I took the time to keep going back: every time I wandered past there was always a gaggle of people around and I would skip past it, until the very last day as the crowds were thinning.
Welcome to Elk is a game about death. It looks like it is going to deal with some strong themes, like acceptance and saying goodbye in particular. It hits hard with incredible style, for a cutesy, jankily animated (by design), sparsely felt-tip coloured world. Gameplay is essentially a sequence of mini-games which allow the player to interact with and have some impact on the world, which were all quite fun and made sense when they appeared. Examples include pouring beer just right, or constructing a face from magazine cutouts.
A particularly intriguing gameplay element was singing. The game plays a backing track which fits the mood and gives you four notes for you to choose from for your character to sing at given intervals. Other characters respond with the same notes, creating a potentially beautiful exchange. It may sound too simple, but it really depends on the player to want to engage, to create music which works - and I absolutely did. I have no experience with playing musical instruments, but the simple controls and the need to create something meaningful in the moment was enough to get me stringing out some really lovely tunes. Thematically, the songs work perfectly and are used to cripplingly strong effect. I won't go into too much detail about why but oh gosh darn do they hit hard.
Welcome to Elk appears to also be intercut with true stories about the characters recorded by people who knew their real life counterparts. Parts of the game represent real life events, which we can find out all about from an in-game interview with a real person who was familiar with the events. In the showcase at EGX, the live action recording was once again used shockingly effectively.
It's uncommon for me to pick up something quite so heavy, no pun intended. To the Moon did a number on me which I have yet to recover from, and while I hugely value that experience, I am wary of exposing myself like that too regularly. But maybe Welcome to Elk is the next experience I need to tackle. Either way, I hope the game is a success, since it's clear that a lot of thought, care and compassion are going into its development.
And all the rest
EGX is always a thrilling experience. It's amazing to be part of the electric atmosphere: everyone attending, in some shape or form, is passionate about games. Striking up a conversation in a queue or chatting with someone on the train always guarantees some common ground, which is quite fascinating given the enormous demographic range of attendees. I always see it as a chance to unwind and let myself go a bit, knowing that I'll be in good company.
I played more games than I can keep track of at EGX, all of which genuinely were special in their own way. I wish I could speak about them all, but if I were to take the time to write out everything I thought I would definitely have to drop my PhD! Without the incredibly talented and creative people who put themselves out there by showing their work to the public, there would be no show. I salute their dedication and commitment to the entirety of the event and making the show worth it.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the events happening at EGX too: live D&D from the Oxventure crew had my sides hurting from laughing too much both nights, and if ever I needed to rest my feet there were always livestreams being put on by Eurogamer, RPS and Dicebreaker. Usually I am all over the meet and greet sessions, though this time I gave chance to others and only went to one (Johnny, Alex and Wheels were absolutely lovely - I wonder if they will ever play Dutch Blitz!?) but made up for it by making the live stage my homebase, so that I could keep interacting with the people I follow on YouTube and beyond.
And as always, EGX wouldn't be the same without the amazing communities that have grown up around the headliners. I had an excellent night chatting with the P32 people (though should have gone easier on my already-queasy 10hr coach tummy!), a lovely chat with the fans of People Make Games and a joyous sing-along in the Oxventure queue with some OX fans. Such wide-reaching communities make me very comfy at EGX because I can usually spot a familiar face across the crowd, which is a calming influence in the chaotic sea of activity. More than anything though, a very special thanks to the handful of people who I end up clinging onto throughout the event; you know yourselves, and the event would not be the same without you. Thank you.
That just about wraps up what I wanted to share! I'm really looking forward to Rezzed and seeing some more excellent games, shows and people in the new year. Hope to see you there!