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PAX ’08: Assorted Hands-On

Even with a shiny Media badge, not every chance we get to play a game on the PAX show floor is a 30-minute walkthrough by the developers – a lot of the time, it’s simply a quick few moments to pick up the controller as you browse the show floor with everybody else.

So, here are some of the titles I got to spend some hands-on time with, and some brief thoughts to go with them!

Battleforge (EA Phenomic, PC)

Battleforge is a cross between a streamlined, less-complex RTS title and a collectible card game a la Magic. There’s no base-building or resource-harvesting; instead you capture monuments and dedicate them to one of four colors (red, blue, purple and green). You can then instantly “play” cards that you’ve chosen before the game starts – for instance, a stronger squad of Red monsters will require you to control one Red monument and one monument of any other color. While many of the cards are controllable units, some are also structures (like towers) or actual spells that can be instantly played in real time.

It’s an interesting concept, even if the actual RTS gameplay isn’t anything groundbreaking. While PvP will certainly be part of the game, I was told that there will also be an emphasis on group cooperative play with up to 12 players (with a comparison drawn to WoW raiding). That part wasn’t playable at PAX, but it’s certainly a … unique idea as far as a RTS is concerned.

Fable 2 (Lionhead, 360)

The build of Fable 2 on the floor was identical to the one from E3, so I won’t tread ground Susan Arendt already covered, with a 10-minute combat demo completely lacking any of the things (like the customization or the character building) that makes Fable, Fable. The main draw of Fable was never the combat, but that was all they had on display.

As far as the combat is concerned, I’m not really fond of the choice to have each of the three main buttons permanently dedicated to melee/ranged/spellcasting, which feels like a step back from the first game. As someone who prefers the “spellcaster” route, I dearly missed being able to map spells and abilities to the controller as I saw fit. If I wanted three different spells, I could do that; if I wanted a sword strike ability, I could do that too.

While I think the current spell system – you can set spells in a tier that charges up the longer you hold the button, so you can either spam weak spells or wait longer for more devastating ones – is actually really cool, as is the manual aiming … I can’t help but feel like it’d be an even stronger system if combined with the flexibility of the first game’s control.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels (Lucasarts, Wii)

A good fighting game set in the Star Wars universe would have the potential to be amazing. Combining the Star Wars universe with the Wii’s motion sensor controls also has the potential to be amazing, letting gamers act out childhood dreams of swinging their very own lightsaber. Unfortunately, whatever potential is there simply fails to be realized. Lightsaber Duels attempts to mimic the stylized art of the (admittedly excellent) Clone Wars animated shorts, but really just comes off as ugly.

I’m a fan of fighting games and generally try to move beyond just mashing buttons, but I just couldn’t get the hang of how the game controlled, resulting in haphazard and random Wiimote waggling in an effort to do something. While I feel that it was certainly far from a complete build, the entire thing just felt confusing, unpolished, and unintuitive to control. When two players attack at the same time (assumedly – I wasn’t able to figure out what in particular triggered these bits), there’s a short sequence as the characters lock sabers and try to overpower each other, ending in a test rewarding the player with the fastest reflexes. It was kind of cool the first time around, but seeing the same animations every time after that became tedious very, very quickly.

Simply put, the game just felt lazy and sloppy. Given that it was a preview build, there’s a chance that this could change before release, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it being worth any more than just a rental.

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (Bandai Namco, PS3)

All told, I’ve seen maybe two episodes of the uber-popular (so I hear) ninja-themed anime Naruto, and I couldn’t possibly care less about the franchise either way. I gave Ultimate Ninja Storm a go simply for the hell of it – and was blown away by how much of a breath of fresh air it was after my fiasco with Lightsaber Duels. Despite my lack of interest in the show itself, I found Ultimate Ninja Storm to be a genuinely good game that controlled well even on the PS3 controller (that I happen to be less than familiar with).

The controls are tight and intuitive. Three of the four face buttons correspond to different basic moves – X jumps, O is the basic melee attack, and Square is a fast ranged strike, throwing various ninja implements depending on the character. Triangle temporarily boosts your “Chakra” for a short period of time, and can be used in combination with any of the other three for a more powerful ability. For example, pressing Triangle and X will execute a quick dash instead of a normal jump. The shoulder buttons call your teammates to jump in for an assist or two, potentially prolonging combos.

The game itself is certainly easy on the eyes, and the cel-shading looks absolutely fantastic. The characters move and attack fluidly, and while there was quite a bit happening on the screen at once I never felt too overwhelmed or like I wasn’t in control: Ultimate Ninja Storm felt very easy to just pick up and play. While fans of the series are almost certainly going to pick it up, it might be worth a rental even if you’ve never seen an episode of Naruto in your life, because I had an unexpected blast.

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