From Friday 4th to Sunday 6th October Australian gamers descended on Sydney’s Olympic park for their annual video gaming extravaganza, the EB Expo 2013. The show ran for three-days giving fans ample opportunity to get their hands on upcoming games from the likes of EA, Ubisoft and Activision, as well as the opportunity to try out the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hardware ahead of their launches next month.
I spent two days at the show, the Friday and Saturday sessions. It was pretty full-on.
As a video games journalist attendance at such events is invaluable, even if I am getting a little long in the tooth to enjoy them the same way I would have twenty years ago. Instead of bouncing around like a wide-eyed fanboy, nowadays I spend my time seeking out PR reps and interviewing gaming luminaries.
Whilst it was be a bit manic, for the most part my media pass did get me to the front of some of those extraordinarily long queues; and thank fuck for that as there’s no way that I’d line up for an hour or so for fifteen minutes with a game that I’ll be playing all night in a months time.
It was also a great opportunity to catch up with folks that I email almost every week, but only meet a few times a year. I even met some people that I’ve “known” via email for ages but never met in person. It was a great networking opportunity in what must be one of the friendliest industries that there is.
Originally I was only intending to go to the show on the Friday, so I packed in four interviews for the day; two with EA and two with Ubisoft.
This was the third year for the EB Expo, the first being held on the Gold Coast and last year’s event held at the Sydney Showground the same as this year. Born from EB Games’ annual staff conference, the expo is now the biggest gaming show in Australasia and thus attendance for any discerning gamer is a must.
Rather than a three-day shit-fight like some of the other conventions that I’ve attended in the past, EB divides each day into a daytime and a twilight session. The result not only means twice the gate receipts for EB Games, but also a more controlled expo environment. At the end of each session everyone, even multiple pass holders, have to leave the show floor so the exhibitors get a change for a quick chill out and to “reset” their stands. Cool idea, I think.
There was a nasty pinch-point by the Assassin’s Creed 4 stand, but other than that, most of the time, there was plenty of space to get to where you wanted to be. With the Sunday aimed at families, it meant even little kids could visit the show without parents worrying about them getting trampled underfoot.
My first stop was the Microsoft stand for a go on EA’s Xbox One/Windows PC exclusive, Titanfall, and an interview with Abbie Heppe, developer Respawn’s community manager. As much as I’ve tried to like mech games, I’ve always felt like I was a man in suit walking around a miniature city shooting tiny people.
Titanfall gets over this by having players get into and out of the Titan mechs; the transition providing a sense of scale. In case you find the idea of running around a city getting trampled by dirty-great mechs a bit shit, don’t worry. As awesome as blowing folks away in an armored Titan is, out of the mechs the pilots are extremely agile.
In a stark contrast to the relatively slow Titans, free of their machines, pilots can jump and use their jetpacks to climb up buildings. They can also wall-run. It is, I’m told, possible to cross the entire map without touching the ground. By far the most interesting thing about Titanfall is that it is multiplayer only. There is, however, a narrative structure to the matches/missions. A brave decision, but I think we are going to see more of this. Watch out for my Titanfall interview soon.
Next, I was over at EA’s stand for chat with Lars Gustavsson, the creative director of Battlefield 4. Lars is a legendary game developer who has been shepherding the series since Battlefield 1942. I’m a huge Battlefield fan, so it was great to get to talk to Lars about Battlefiled 4 and have a go on the Paracel Island map with the new Obliteration game mode.
Paracel Island is a large map with a few land masses separated by some pretty large bodies of water. In Obliteration one team must plant bombs to destroy a series of targets whilst the other defends. One bomb is spawned at time with the bomb carrier becoming a luckless target for the opposing team.
If you’ve not checked out the BF4 beta yet, get onto it now. Watch out for that skyscraper falling down! I’ll be writing up my interview with Lars in the next few days.
The afternoon had me interviewing Ashraf Ismail and Micheal Hampden, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag‘s director and designer. This was followed by my first go on a PlayStation 4, playing one of Assassin’s Creed 4‘s naval missions. I didn’t really play enough to get a good feel for the game. It was interesting, though, to seamlessly park my ship at the dock, get out and continue fighting. The visuals, whilst nice, were not as good as I was expecting from the PS4; something I would notice with another triple-A next-gen title later on.
My final interview for the day was with Kevin Shortt, the writer on Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs. He’s was very interesting and very passionate about the story that he wanted players to experience in the game. Watch Dogs is one of the two games that I’m really looking forward to playing on the Xbox One. Until very recently it wasn’t a title that I was following; not because I didn’t want to, it’s just I didn’t have time. In checking out the videos on the internet prior to the interview, the crazy mixture of Assassin’s Creed‘s free running, Splinter Cell‘s stealth and Far Cry‘s action appeals to me no end. Along with the hacking and a huge open-world city to explore, Watch Dogs looks like being great fun.
In the downtime between the daylight and twilight expo sessions I got a few goes on Forza 5 and FIFA 14 running on the Xbox 360. Whilst FIFA 14 looked amazing, even better than the great job that EA have done with the Xbox 360 version, I wasn’t so impressed with Forza 5. Don’t get me wrong, it is still great-looking game, but still it lacked the level of anti-aliasing that I get on my PC and is still has that over-saturated game-like look- a far cry from the more muted colour palette of reality. Saying that, it’s not finished yet so we’ll have to wait and see.
Day two was a bit less hectic, although there were quite a few more people at the event. It still managed to cut my way through the crowds and dodge the paper-machete props of the fucking cosplayers* in attendance to get a few more goes on some upcoming games.
The Xbox One’s Ryse: Son of Rome takes game of the show for me. Not because it was the best game there, but because it was so much better than I though it was going to be. The E3 presentation and a few of the other vids I’ve watch suggested that the game had shit written all over it. But that is not the case at all.
At Microsoft’s Xbox booth Ryse was the likes of Titanfall’s awkwardly poor relation. Whilst fans were happy to queue for days (OK, an exaggeration) to play Respawn’s multiplayer mech game, there were just four games journos waiting in line for Ryse when I turned up.
I was partnered with a stranger for a taste of the game’s co-op in a gladiator-style arena. For the next ten minutes I marveled over visuals that actually were next-gen, whilst mashing hapless arena gladiators with my shield and finishing them with my shield. It was frantic and I didn’t really know what I was doing; but I liked it and wanted to do some more. Ryse is the Xbox One title that I’m most looking forward to right now.
Late Friday I’d been talking to my friends at Warner Entertainment and the guys from Techland about an interview for their free-running zombie game, Dying Light. At the time I was hardly able to string a sentence together, let alone do an on-spec interview. “I’ll come see you tomorrow”, I said. Well tomorrow came and I sat down with Techland’s Przemyslaw Mroz for a go on Dying Light’s night-time demo.
I love Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide. Sure they both have there technical issues but they provide for some superb zombie-bashing action. Whilst the Dead Island games promote confrontations with the living dead, Dying Light is the polar opposite.
Dying Light is all about getting through, around and over hordes of zombies. The less you have to do with them the more likely you are to survive. Yes, you can still melee them, and even high kick them; but this is really to get them out of of your way as you run the gauntlet to safety. Being careful is what it’s all about, especially at night; as I found out.
It’s an interesting concept that takes a bit of getting used to. The desire to stop and hack up some zombies is a strong one, and one that kept on getting me into trouble.
After the demo I sat down with Dying Light’s Producer, Tymon Smekala, to discuss Techland’s past successes, their stumbles, and the new game. As Dying light isn’t out until next year, I’ll be holding on to that interview for a few weeks, so keep sn eye out.
In the afternoon the expo played host to the Australian final of Wargaming.net’s World of Tanks tournament. I’ve never experienced competitive gaming live; it was amazing to watch the action on the big screen as it was frantically commentated in the same way you’d expect a big game on TV! The winners, SEA Cucumbers, will go on to represent Australasia at the World Cyber Games 2013, being held in China later this year.
On Saturday I also got a chance to take a look at a couple of the presentations in the EB Arena. The huge EB Arena, decked out with some more-sensible staggered seating this year, played host to a number of presentations and live gameplay demonstration on the huge screens. I checked out the Xbox presentation, whereby Microsoft Australia showed off Forza 5 and talked about the inclusion of the Bathurst track in the game. Nothing that I’ve not seen before, but it did look cool on the big screen.
The newly-minted Bethesda Australia also showed of their upcoming wares in the arena with a video Elder Scrolls Online, touting the game’s beta, and a live demo of the new Wolfenstein game. Wolfenstein: The New Order is set in a parallel version of the 1960s, whereby the Nazis won the war. It is a bit of a departure from the usual WW2 setting of the series, and may be enough to remove the bad taste that was the 2009 Wolfenstein reboot from my mouth.
There really was something for everyone. I could have spent the whole time just walking around watching an amazing collection of gaming and pop culture fans in their element, absorbing a fantastic event. Whilst last years show was great, this year they seem to pulled out all the stops.
The only criticism I had was that some of the queues were still a bit long; but hey, if fans want to queue up for an hour to play their favorite game a few weeks early, I suppose they will. There were also a few too many games hidden way, exclusively for the eyes of those wishing to queue up. I know that there are marketing reasons why publishers don’t want grainy photos leaked online, but still it would be once if the casual attendee could have got a peek at the likes of Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Australian gamers are now being treated to the sort of show that once upon a time we’d never have seen outside of the US or Japan. The exhibitors, from the big name publishers and hardware manufacturers to the the smaller outfits in the Community Hub area, have gone all out to make this the best EB Expo yet. I salute each and every one of them.
*Not a fan of cosplayers, something I must discuss in the future.