EB Expo is inarguably Australia’s biggest gaming convention and I was privileged to get an inside look at the goings-on this year. With a media pass clutched in my grubby mits, I got to attend a preview event Thursday night before the Expo opened to the general public the following day. I hit the floor the next day to sample more of the goodness on offer, getting a lot of hands-on time with some fantastic games, but there were a few big name AAA titles that I’m sure everyone’s curious to hear about. So without further ado, let’s talk about the titles that are bringing all the milkshakes to the yard…
Star Wars: Battlefront
I’ve been following this one closely over the past month or so, and have been quietly excited for the game. All the gameplay I’d seen had looked like a fairly faithful recreation of how a Star Wars battle might actually play out, but the proof is in the pudding and I was keen to experience it myself on PS4. I played two full matches of Walker Assault on the ice planet Hoth, and to be honest my first match did not exactly endear me to the game. In this mode (which seems to be the touted main mode in the game), you are tasked with bringing down the enemy’s hulking quadrupedal AT-AT, while at the same time defending your own. These iconic mechanical beasts can’t be damaged by conventional fire, and must first be weakened by establishing uplinks to obtain Y-Wing bombing runs that render them vulnerable. While the objective was relatively clear, the way in which it was supposed to be achieved felt relatively scattered. Matches were fairly frantic, and the face of the main battle front shifted constantly. Although teamwork was encouraged, many seemed content to operate as lone wolves. I racked up a considerable amount of kills while hanging back as I tried to figure out exactly what to do and where to go next, and I didn’t really have a sense of how my actions were playing out in the larger battle. Something that will probably prove contentious are the random powerups that appear strewn across the battlefield, that award anything from a slightly underpowered homing rocket, to a golden ticket to ride in the AT-AT aka the Harbinger of Laser Death. Powerups are not rewarded by skill, but rather on whether you are in the right place at the right time to pick them up. I imagine that once people learn the timed spawn locations of the more potent powerups, the meta of the game will involve controlling these points. I had a decent run in both the AT-AT and its much smaller but still deadly bipedal mate the AT-ST, and both are best described as ruthless death merchants. Did I feel like I earned the right to lay waste to countless Rebels at the helm of these machines? Probably not. Was it fun? Most definitely. However, I feel that this randomness will feed into a slight sense of unbalance, as in if one of these guys has you in their sights you are most likely toast (more or less regardless of the skill of the person controlling it). As I played my next match the game certainly grew on me, I understood the objectives more and what weapons gelled with my style, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the battle as a whole lacked cohesion. I must say though that the sound design is excellent. The guns and Wilhelm screams are ripped straight out of the much-loved movies, and any fan will appreciate the attention to authenticity here. Some of the snow effects were eerily real too, but on the whole Hoth was a little on the barren side, with not a great deal of geographical nuances to distinguish one area from the next. While my initial hype for this game is somewhat attenuated after the matches I played, I’m still keeping a hopeful glance on this one.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
One of the criticisms levelled at Crystal Dynamics’ last-gen reboot Tomb Raider was a distinct lack of, well… tombs. In response to this, CD have set out to purposely create a game that is centred around the exploration of creepy ancient resting places of powerful figures from times gone by. From the snippets of story I experienced, it’s clear that the power of the relics contained within these tombs is enough to bless or corrupt the mortals that deem themselves worthy of wielding said power. The demo was a single sequence called “The Prophet’s Tomb,” in which you navigate your way through a series of water-based puzzles in an attempt to reach what’s inside the prophet’s sarcophagus. It seems you’re not the only one on the hunt for what the Prophet’s cooking, and some light combat features were also on show. The puzzles were fairly straight forward, and there were only a handful of puzzle mechanics that were repeated throughout the sequence (shooting counterweights, raising the water level to access different areas etc.). For anyone who has played the original reboot, the game will definitely feel like familiar territory. Many PlayStation fans will probably continue their shrill cries of Tomb Raider being an Uncharted rip-off, however I would ask them to consider what inspired the Uncharted series in the first place. The main thing that sets these two easy comparable games apart in my opinion is most certainly the character development. I feel that in the Tomb Raider reboot, our introduction to Lara felt much more natural than to that of unlikeable happy-go-lucky psychopath Nathan Drake, and as a result I felt more at home playing from her perspective. It seems CD are aware of this and are seeking to emphasise character development in the next instalment. Gratuitous side boob and relatively easy puzzles only get you so far, the Lara this city deserves is much smarter and more multi-dimensional than that, and we need a game that reflects that.
I hadn’t previously bought into the hype surrounding The Division, but had nonetheless waited patiently for solid details on this entry into the Tom Clancy series. After going hands-on with the game in a multi team versus team atmosphere on Xbox One, I must say this game is now firmly planted on my radar. I am excitedfor the game’s potential and am glad that Ubisoft are attempting something quite novel compared to their usual fare. Our playthrough in “The Dark Zone” involved a small team of three trying to wrest control of loot and then extract it via helicopter in the middle of very hostile territory. It played like a hybrid of Gears of Wars and Mass Effect in all the right ways. A third-person cover-based shooter at heart, The Division could really turn into something special if pushed in the right direction. I loved the feeling of weight behind your operative as they clamber from cover to cover, hiding from both AI and player-controlled factions. The guns have a great feel to them as well, and moderate recoil and bullet spread encouraged burst firing and well-placed shots. There are definitely RPG-inspired elements here as well, with numbers indicating the amount of damage you had delivered to an enemy floating above their heads a la Borderlands/Destiny.The presenters also promised customisable and upgradeable loadouts and abilities that will give you the edge in combat. It was one of the few demos at this year’s EB Expo that had proper mic communication, and I felt a real sense of camaraderie with my teammates as we tried desperately to extract out loot while fending off enemy troops.Taking and switching cover and vaulting over obstacles to establish a decent vantage for your assault all felt really good, although the multi-layered objectives felt a little convoluted. We were told that the Dark Zone would be a place to gain high-level loot (most likely in the form of more powerful weaponry and technology) but comes at the risk of losing it all to other factions, be they AI or player-controlled. While the demo is still pre-Alpha, with a few glitches that prevented one of my teammates from respawning for a considerable length of time, a closed Beta is taking place later this year that will likely iron out these issues ahead of launch. I think The Division is uniquely placed to fill a gap in the online gaming landscape at the moment, combining solid third-person cover-based shooting with some lite-MMORPG aspects that might make it truly shine.
The Halo 5 Xbox booth was packed all day long, with scores of gamers scrambling to get a taste of what the latest entry in Xbox’s flagship franchise had to offer. Luckily I got a chance to go hands-on with the new 12 v 12 Warzone mode ahead of the teeming masses at the preview event, and I walked away with a grin from ear to ear. As an Australian, I must admit that after playing the Halo 5 Beta in December last year, a single manly tear of disappointment slid down my cheek as I was forced to play on American servers with pings higher than Snoop Dogg. However, I spoke to a 343i representative and he assured me that there would be not one but two data centres in Australia with dedicated servers, and this is nothing but good news for my Strayan brethren. Warzone plays a lot like what Titanfall’s Attrition mode aspired to be, with various actions contributing to an overall score for your team. It’s classic Red vs Blue, but there are also scores of AI Covenant enemies thrown into the mix. The front of the main battle shifts from player vs player to player vs Covenant in the blink of an eye. All kills gain you points, but Spartan kills and taking down the more powerful AI bosses will give you the greatest boosts to your score. Warzone is a game mode where I think gamers of all walks of life can find a groove. If you like the idea of taking down Covenant bosses while your teammates take over key strategic points, both you and your team will be rewarded in terms of score. Ifyou thirst for battles that test your mettle against other player-controlled players, you’ll be similarly rewarded. As you rack up more kills you’ll be able to spend points at weapon dispensaries in order to obtain power weapons like the Rocket Launchers or Sniper Rifles to slip into your loadout.Of course, if you’re a cheap skate you can just pilfer them from the corpses you leave in your wake and I found this to be quite a legitimate tactic. I’ve been playing Halo for years (since the first), but I can honestly say this was the most fun I’ve ever had with a Halo game. Frantic, skilful and strategic gameplay mixed with a cohesive sense of purpose meant I always knew what my goal was and how I wanted to go about it.The movement and controls play like a natural evolution of the Halo games gone before, with an ultra-slick 60 fps fluidity and intuitive sprint, dash and ADS (Aim Down Sights) functions that make you truly feel like a death-dealing Spartan badass. We obviously had the advantage of playing via LAN, so hit detection was ludicrously clean and crisp, but with the promise of dedicated Aussie servers I think there’s truly something to look forward to for Xbox owners. Halo 5 definitely grabs my Best Game of Show Award. I think 343i are sitting on something great and that they fully grasp and embrace the holy Halo trinity of Guns, Grenades and Melee pioneered by Bungie. Xbox One users, strap yourselves in, I believe this is the game you’ve been waiting for.