Animadversions.

The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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E3 2003

May 18th, 2003 · No Comments · Gaming, Technology

Another year, another expo. I got back in at the crack of dawn on Friday morning, after taking a Red Eye flight and basically spent the last few days recovering. As usual, it was a good time. The kind of good time that results in feeling like you’ve been beaten with a whiffle bat for about 72 straight hours.

Travel

Getting out to LA from the East Coast is always fun. It’s about a 5-6 hour flight, depending on head/tail winds, during which you get to sit still and wonder if you’ll die from thrombosis mid-flight. We flew out using JetBlue, which was pretty nice, compared to the discount airlines I’m used to. You get satellite TV, which would have been a nice distraction if there had been anything other than ESPN Classic and the History Channels ten-hour “The Story of Submarines” marathon available (though a block of Spongebob came through at one point, as we banked into range of the Nick signal for a while). But I’m getting ahead of myself with the submarines and Krusty Krabby Patties, because the simple act of taking off was an adventure.

As we were taking off from Dulles, a woman two rows behind me began to scream things like:

“Somethings horribly wrong! We’re all going to die! What is that?!!! Oh my God!!!”

Followed by:

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Oh my God!!! What was THAT?!!”

After five minutes of this, the stewardess managed to calm her down and we all went back to being uncomfortable and learning about submarines.

While five hour flights are, in and of themselves, always fun, this trip was more fun because we flew into Long Beach instead of LA. If you’re familiar with California, you probably know that Long Beach is nowhere near LA. It’s about an hour south, nestled amidst urban decay and offshore oil rigs.

The Long Beach “airport” is an experience unto itself. First off, the “airport” is only slightly larger than a Taco Bell. I think we saw one cop in the entire place. We deplaned directly onto the tarmac and were shuffled over to the outdoor baggage claim. It was hard not to notice that there were no security checks between the outdoor baggage claim and the aforementioned tarmac, meaning that pretty much anyone could wander in off of the street and get some candy from the “snack bar” in the terminal. And by “snack bar,” I mean “pair of vending machines” next to what appeared to be a poorly-maintained cuspidor. I imagine the Long Beach airport is protected from terrorism by the fact that blowing it up would only improve the area. Lum commented that it was the worst airport he’d ever been to, with a mudhole in Mississippi coming in as a close second. In any event, once we got our luggage and sat through another hour of driving, we arrived at our hotel and checked in.

The Expo

This year was, overall, a dud. It wasn’t boring or anything, it just wasn’t anything particularly mind-blowing. There were a handful of impressive displays, but most of the show was filled with stuff we’d already seen (like DOOM 3 movies) or “announcements” of new titles that were little more than big logos posted on the side of studio booths.

There were notable exceptions (for me). As an initial disclaimer, every demo is largely a lie. They’re hiding known issues, showing off disproportionately glossy areas and using hardware you an I could never afford. That being said, some things still stand our as being less BS-laden than others. Things like:

Half Life 2

Amazing. The reason it took so long for Valve to announce it is that they wanted to get it right. The engine looks fantastic. DOOM 3-rivaling in many ways. It’s hard to tell from screenshots, but the facial-rendering in it is astounding. Each face is unique, so no more “cloned” scientists running around, following Gordon from room to room. The facial expressions are fantastic as well.

The AI is inspired. I’m not sure it will have quite the “creepiness” of DOOM 3, but it’s definitely close. No more hiding behind crates to escape; the AI will destroy the crate and come after you. If you close a door, it will find a way through. It’s a very intelligent AI system that should really add depth to the title.

The outdoor environments are expansive and visually striking. No more cramped areas with highly-limited movement. Seeing a War of the Worlds-style spider robot destroying buildings, bridges, etc to get to you is pretty impressive.

A couple of misc. notes: Valve is going to make sure the mod community has plenty of stuff to work with, so expect very cool HL2 mods in the near future. Questions about TFC2 went pretty much unanswered.

World of Warcraft

Gorgeous. Assuming it has a stable launch, WoW may be the “killer app” the MMORPG world has been waiting for that brings the “average” gamer into the genre. I love the overall design. Shooting for a consistent, stylized look rather than hyper-realistic graphics is a smart move. A number of technical issues that face “realistic” MMOGs can be immediately resolved by simply designing around them. The best example I can think of is plantlife. Rendering realistic trees is really difficult (I usually don’t toot my home team’s horn, but Camelot’s new trees look badass). Using stylized plantlife means you can skip a large quantity of the issues involved in creating consistent, believable flora. Add to the great look of the game the familiarity of the Warcraft brand and I think WoW will be a real crossover success. As a caveat, I didn’t get to fiddle with it much, but from watching other folks play, the interface seems pretty intuitive - always a plus with MMORPGs.

Middle Earth Online

It’s obvious to me now that AC2 was merely a tech demo. You weren’t supposed to play it, you were supposed to look at it, then license it for use in better games. MEO is very, very early in development at the moment, but what they have is jaw-droppingly beautiful. There was no floor demo, but folks that could get into the VU conference rooms were treated to an impressive tour of the Shire and Moria. I’m not 100% sure how much can actually be said without stepping on toes, so I’ll be vague: Big, detailed environments. Stunning character models. A very cool questing model. I can’t wait to play this game.

Deus Ex 2

We actually broke Deus Ex 2. When our associate producer and I were talking with one of their designers, we got a chance to try it out and promptly crashed their demo machine. It was most likely due to some annoying flaws in the drivers nVidia provided for the FX boards we were all using, as we had similar problems at our booth early in the day, but it was an awkward moment as we all stood there trying to get the machine to reboot as more people queued up behind us to stare at the dead screen.

Tech issues aside, Deus Ex 2 looks great. Obviously, the thumping techno and flashing strobes of the show floor didn’t really do much to show off the “stealth” enhancements in the new game, but it was apparent that most of what made the original a classic either remained intact or was greatly improved. Evidently, the “skill” system will be changed from the pseudo-RPG point format into a system that uses bio-mods exclusively to tweak your abilities. You can interact with just about everything in the environment now, which will make for some interesting stealth tactics. Remeber the big, creepy robots from the original? If you spec in hax0ring, you’ll be able to take control of them in the sequel. My only complaint (aside from the fact that no amount of coaxing would get them to divulge which ending from the original Deus Ex was being followed) was the awkward HUD that has replaced the item toolbar at the bottom of the screen. The new version is a fairly intrusive ring of icons that circles your field of vision. The good news is that it will apparently be something you can turn off in the final release. They were showing off the XBox version next to the PC version and it looked to me like the console port has a less robust lighting model, but it may just have been due to the resolution and difference in screens.

America’s Army

I don’t really care for their game, but the Army did a great job with their booth this year. It was definitely the coolest spot on the floor with a collapsed desert fortress and a full-sized helicoptor wrecked on the ground. And lots of real soldiers. Amusing moment:

A dude dressed as a Nazi was roaming about, yelling at random people and generally acting Nazi-ish. After he startled a pair of young ladies in front of me, he turned around to yell at someone else and came face to face with a small group of actual soldiers. He quickly broke character and wandered off.

City of Heroes

Disclaimer: I’m a comic book fiend, so I am probably predisposed to liking this title, even if it has flaws I would criticize elsewhere.

CoH looks nifty. The character creation system is highly detailed but also intuitive. The models available are varied and very customizable. The environments look great, the “power” effects are cool and diverse. Again, I didn’t get to play it, but it seemed to be coming together nicely. Another title I’m looking forward to playing.

Now, to answer questions about some obvious titles:

DOOM 3

I’d say this was the biggest disappointment for me. Nothing new was shown. More videos looping all day long, showing off stuff that looked like a mix of cinematics and occassional gameplay. I think pretty much everyone was hoping for an playable demo, but no dice. Evidently, there will be no multiplayer element to the game either, which leads me to believe that the single-player version will be very, very linear.

Star Wars Galaxies

For a game that’s “launching” shortly, there was not a peep about it at the show, aside form two or three seconds of stuff on a LucasArts ad reel in the entrance to the main hall. This is either the ballsiest ad campaign imaginable, relying exclusively on hype and rumors, or something is not quite right with SW:G. I suppose time will tell.

Halo 2

I’ve heard good things about it, but I didn’t feel like waiting in line for hours and hours to see the demo. As such, I don’t have an opinion about it.

Celebrities

LA is always full of A and B-grade celebrities and E3 is usually a good place to run into a fair number of them. Last year, I met Kevin Eastman, Mister T, Robin Williams and Tony Hawk. This year, I go yelled at by Gary Coleman.

In many ways, that’s a nice metaphor for the show as a whole. Some of the flash and luster was missing. You didn’t feel as much like a kid in a candy store. You could definitely see it all in less than one day. Anywho, here’s the story of my (literal) run-in with Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes:

While I was walking around on wednesday, I stopped to toss a few magazines into my bag and promptly heard someone shout “get out of my way” from behind me. I turned around and was face to face (well, belly to face) with the aforementioned Mr. Coleman. He was decked out in a white suit and was being escorted by a couple of scantly-clad ladies, one of whom gave me a quick shove and then shuffled Gary away. I assume he was heading over to show off Postal 2. Hopefully, someone cut the head off of the virtual Gary Coleman while he was signing itty bitty autographs and being generally rude.

A couple of other folks I saw:

Todd McFarlane - He was signing stuff on Wednesday and Thursday. If this was 1992 and I was still under the impression that he has an ounce of artistic ability, I probably would have waited in line to get an autograph. Still, he seemed personable enough and folks who did wait in line seemed happy.

Dave Navarro - While I was trying to run the gauntlet of stinky fat guys and G4 parasites in the XBox area, I nearly knocked Dave over while he was putting on some pancake makeup in a corner. I assume he was going to be on TV, but who knows.

Anna Nicole Smith - Evidently, she was at the show. I didn’t see her there, though. I did see her in our hotel and my suitemate actually got stuck in an elevator with her as they both headed for the buffet at Griff’s in the basement of the hotel. Yes, she really is as annoying as she seems on TV. Even when cameras aren’t around, you just want to run away.

Swag

There was a real swag-drought this year. Generally, you had to wait in lines or jump through hoops to get stuff - two things I am not willing to do for cheap tshirts and demo discs. I got some cool MEO stuff, including last-year’s much-sought-after “One Ring Bookmark” and a swanky (but too-small) shirt. The coolest swag, by far, was the following item handed out by the hilarious folks at Gamespy:

Aside from all of that, there was a ton of drinking and expensive dinners, but nothing really worth discussing publically, since I like having a job.

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