EGX 2018: A Few Mangled Thoughts
Storm Ali brought the central belt of Scotland to a grinding halt - with a never seen before completely blank departures board at Glasgow Central Station - and frustratingly for us barely affected anyone south of Lincoln. Had the storm lasted any longer than it did this post would never have been written, but mercifully the day after the storm I was able to catch a train and start my trip slightly late to Birmingham for EGX.
Having been to one day of Rezzed earlier this year, I was thoroughly looking forward to it. Throughout the event I never had a chance to collect my thoughts, so I decided as soon as I got home I'd write them all down and make it my first ever blog post. It has since become a bumper blogpost because I had many more thoughts in my head than I anticipated! But please do read on for some opinions on the many many games I played, and something extra at the end.
The Big Hitters
There was a pretty good showing from the AAA players on the field, but with some frustrating absences. I was very keen to give Forza Horizon 4 a spin, but Microsoft didn't have a presence at the show at all, so it was missing. And surprisingly, despite being advertised on every square inch of the skywalk to the expo, there was no Fallout 76 to be played either. There was a vault boy statue, a van selling food (I think?) and a multitude of free handouts in the form of masks and party hats, but nothing actually related to the game.
But despite the absences, there was plenty on offer. My biggest regret is not getting a chance to try out Metro: Exodus, but the queues were just too long throughout the whole event. I also missed out on The Division 2, but I was less unhappy about that: I expect that I would have let my team down with my inexperience in using a controller for a TPS!
You may at this point be wondering what the hell I did play! I'll start with the big games that aren't big upcoming releases.
First of all, Spider-Man: I decided I'd give this a go because it looked fantastic and might be the tipping point in finally getting myself a PS4 (just in time for the next gen, eh?!) Short answer: it was, on both counts. Ever since I saw the web swinging traversal in the very first demos of the game I thought it looked brilliant; trying it out for myself, I realised it was better than I could have imagined. It was fluid, satisfying and fast, not to mention a really visually appealing way to get around. I spent a lot of my demo "wasting" time just swinging about, trying to build up my speed and master the jumps. Combat was exciting and varied, but also quite unforgiving: my first encounter with guns almost finished me off, which took me by surprise but also made sense. I didn't do loads of combat in the 20 minutes I was allowed, but I did enough to realise that I was only scraping the surface. There were so many ways to deal with enemies, and that was only in out-and-out combat. For the tasks I was given I could have approached them Arkham Predator style, stealthily and one by one, and again the options seem limitless. So while I knew this was already out and plenty of people are gushing about it, I felt I had to see it for myself.
The other game already released that I played was Destiny 2. Being a PC player, I missed out on the initial launch of Destiny and by the time it made its way to PC everyone seemed to have moved on. When Destiny 2 came around, I was keen but never picked it up. But after playing a Forsaken raid, I'm probably going to end up buying it. I don't have a huge amount to say about Destiny, but it feels like a well-built and engaging FPS with an interesting loot system and some good multiplayer potential. It's hitting all the same marks of the first game that really piqued my interest, but just never properly acted on.
Okay, enough of old games! Mario Party was great. It's clearly a game built for the Switch. We didn't get to try any of the really exciting modes, like ones with multiple screens which you can link together, but overall the Joy-Cons felt great to use. Movement and interaction was smooth and intuitive and all the games pretty much just made sense as soon as you got going with them. But the masochists reading this needn't worry: it's still controller-breakingly frustrating!
Next up: Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I… wasn't thrilled by this. I've not finished Rise yet, and even then didn't really see much difference, much new stuff. In fact, and once again this could just be my clumsy hands not feeling at home with a console controller compared with a mouse and keyboard, the movement felt quite clunky and slippery… not great for the platforming! Another disclaimer: since I kept dying in the (honestly quite simple - silly me!) tomb puzzle at the start, I didn't get my hands on much of the combat. I tried out a new takedown, enjoying the disguising in the foliage, but again didn't feel like there was much to it. If you enjoyed the previous instalments, this felt to me like more of the same. Of course, that's hardly a bad thing!
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a game I have decided I'm probably never going to get because I would spend an absolute fortune on all the peripherals before I could stop myself, so I decided that the only chance I'd get to play it would be at EGX or a similar expo. I had a lot of fun with it, particularly the trademark hot swapping of weapons. My brother was lucky enough to sit at a station with the super-fast ninja ship, whereas I had a couple of mid-weight and heavy ones, which I felt were a little too clunky. The maneuverability just wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped, and the high-defense ship I tried was really sluggish, and the extra defense didn't seem to compensate for the wide turning circle and juddery movement. Honestly, I'm a little relieved that this game didn't blow me away, because if it did I might have bought it and all the toys and end up with my legs broken by a loanshark!
AAA Spotlight: Assassin's Creed: Odyssey
I went to play Assassin's Creed twice and I think I'm in love. The demo opened up with a big battle sequence, as seen in the gameplay trailers. This was a great opportunity to get the hang of the combat controls and, best of all, the new powers that the game has introduced. These are tied to adrenaline, but rather than a single bar of adrenaline that you expend, as seen in Origins, you have several points of adrenaline that you can use freely. So if you want to build it up to the max and lash out six Spartan Kicks in quick succession, you can… and of course I did! The powers, particularly the Shield Break and Spartan Kick, were ridiculously satisfying to use. They felt properly weighty and powerful, and adrenaline built up quickly enough that you could use them frequently to keep things interesting.
Outside of the major battle, everything feels very similar to Origins, but somehow with the promise of more. The ship was there, for one thing, and opens up a lot of potential for a different kind of exploration. Powers have been revamped, and it appears that the gear system has been mixed up a bit too. Overall, if you think that Origins was a step in the right direction for the series, I think you will feel right at home with Odyssey.
I do have a gripe, but this was more about the demo than the game itself. The battle was quite tough, which wouldn't have been alright if there were options to avoid or skip it, but there weren't. In order to get into the open world proper - with your ship, NPCs and side missions - you had to win the battle, which wasn't easy. It probably takes just over five minutes to complete, win or lose, and you have to start again if you die or get defeated. And given that victory is basically based on how many people you can kill, anyone who was slightly slow to pick up the controls would not get a chance to see the game properly. Watching people play from the queue, I'd say that less than half got any decent time with the open world, which isn't great. It was just a strange choice from the developers to put this hurdle in front of the meat of the game.
The Small Stuff
Of course, not every game at EGX is a big, hyped up AAA release. The indie stalls were packed full of interesting takes on gaming and games.
Upon the recommendation of a colleague, who knows the developer, the first game I tried was Dead End Job. It's a twin stick shooter where you play as a ghost hunter, saving your work mates from hoards of ghosts and ghouls. It's simple and fun, with really neat interaction, intuitive controls and hints of a fairly detailed character progression system. The game has an underlying theme of a classic cubicle office job, with a bossy manager and promotion system from Unpaid Intern up to more illustrious posts acting as the character levels, and enemies themed around common office tropes. I really wasn't sure what I expected when I went to play Dead End Job, but I am sure that I thoroughly enjoyed it!
By complete chance I happened to run into my old boss from my first internship three years ago, who told me his brother Graham Smith (coincidentally the editor-in-chief of Rock Paper Shotgun) had a game on show called Primetime Detective. Once again, I went in not knowing what to expect. The game opens with a murder and a handful of suspects. As the detective, you interrogate the suspects to determine not only what they say their relationship with the victim was, but also what other people are saying to determine who's really telling the truth. We were told that in the final version of the game there will be a dog to find evidence and characters will face permadeath as a result of your actions, rolling into a procedurally generated game of extended Cluedo. At the end of the demo it was revealed that we are all in fact characters in a TV show, and Graham told me that this would play more of a role in the final game. When solving a murder and removing a character from play (by having them arrested), you've got to consider another factor: ratings. So removing a popular murderer from play may not actually be the best move in the long run. I'm excited by the potential of this, and will be watching the game closely in the future.
A game that I played and enjoyed enough that I actually bought it on the day was Medieval Steve. A puzzle platformer about a possessed suit of armour, as far as I can tell, with loads of worlds to explore to the tones of a snarky narrator. As I played it, I was wondering to myself why I never play this kind of thing anymore. Most of my time is spent on big, open world epics with high stakes and deep stories. It's been a long time since I sat down with something more relaxing and quiet, something genuinely enjoyable to look at. So I bought it, promising myself that I'd get into this kind of thing more in the future.
In Astrologaster you play the role of a Shakespearean "doctor" who reads the stars. Clients come with a story and a problem, and the Astrologaster can read the stars to divine an answer to their questions. The "answer" comes in the form of a selection of choices which are very vague and subjective, but can be bent to form a solution. It's best explained with an example: a man came to me saying that he fancied a religious girl and didn't know how to get her attention. One reading of the stars revealed stars of violence and false piety, suggesting that actually she was a kind of bad girl at heart and doing something ruthless would make her love him. Another revealed patience and grace, indicating that if he turned to God and waited, she would come to him in time. Each choice influences future events, and as gross as either of those choices sound, the whole thing is spun in an over-the-top Tutor narrative that makes it feel right at home.
I'm not sure if it fully counts as an indie game in the same right as the rest, but my brother and I had a very good time playing Oil, found at the stall for Abertay University in Dundee and presumably made by students. It was a versus puzzle game involving taking turns to pick tiles on which to place oil wells whilst being aware that some tiles will have no oil and some are rigged to explode, and some tiles have adjacent bonuses and so on. The mechanics were simple but interesting, and I could see it being a fun game to play on the bus or in a coffee break, which would be completely doable given it was being displayed on an iPad.
Indie Spotlight: Honey, I Joined a Cult
Of all the indie games I played, this one stands out as the one I most want to sink time into. The premise is quite simple: you build a cult! It's chock-full of tongue-in-cheek references to various cult tropes, a contentious topic for some but not above the wit of Sole Survivor Games, the developer behind this gem. You get to design a highly customisable religion with a distinct style and focus, and then build your members a home. It requires all the typical amenities - bedrooms, recreation rooms, a canteen - but also lots of evangelical necessity rooms, like a kind of chapel and a lobby, and then the really special ones, like the hypnosis room, or the Pool of Reflection.
Your cultists mill around living their lives, trying to convert people into followers and then eventually cult members, whilst engaging in missions to defame other cults and institutions. The demo was heavily tutorialized, which was necessary to get an understanding of the breadth of stuff to do, but also just hinted really nicely at how deep the final game will be. I'm looking forward to the eventual release of this game a lot, and will be snapping it up as soon as I can!
The non-gaming highlights
The main thing which got me to EGX this year wasn't actually the games: it was OutsideXbox and OutsideXtra's liveshows. Both were absolutely fantastic, and my only regret is that I didn't heckle them more! They are wonderful entertainers and wonderful people. One of by best personal moments was bumping into Mike Channell after day one and chatting about gin, the North Coast 500 and Zimbabwe. Not only are the video teams just lovely, wholesome people, but so are their fans, and meeting a few more members of the community was an absolute joy.
Eurogamer were also doing liveshows all the way through the event, and my favourite had to be the very last one of the show, with audience participation and giveaways which I was lucky enough to benefit from. I told a friend completely honestly, "Johnny Chiodini gave me a mouse because at one point I shouted, 'YOU'RE A LEVEL 2 HELMET!' faster and louder than anyone else in the room," which is a string of words I never thought I'd say, but accurately captured the mad joyfulness of the event. After meeting the team and seeing their energy, I'm determined to watch more Eurogamer content. I have seen a fair bit, but seeing the audience of their liveshow shouting their in-jokes and phrases along with them with beaming smiles on their faces was really heart warming, and I'd really like to be a part of that.
EGX was an exhausting but hugely rewarding experience and I loved the entire trip. I played loads of great games and met loads of great people, and given the chance would do it all over again. Games have been slipping out of my periphery recently, but this trip has made me realise again just how much I love them - they make me happy, and have shaped me into who I am today. I don't want to forget that, and am going to take more opportunities to play games and be interested in them in the future.