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Top Five Disappointments

On the other hand, sometimes you go in expecting a bit more than the game delivers. That doesn’t mean that the game in question is necessarily bad, per se … but that it just doesn’t live up to what you hoped it would. These five games didn’t live up to the expectations I’d gone onto the PAX show floor with.

5.) Fable 2 (Lionhead, 360)

It’s not that I disliked the demo they had on the show floor (though it had its issues), but my disappointment in Fable 2 stems entirely from what Lionhead chose to show us. It was the same build from this year’s E3, featuring a short combat segment with the player character and their (player-controlled) henchman. The combat in Fable was okay, but not a selling point; the character customization was what sold the game for many. I understand that it was a demo with a limited amount of time, but I still can’t help but be bummed that I didn’t get a chance to play around with different hairstyles, tattoos, etc (or even sneak a peek at the advancement system and available upgrades). What we saw was a glorified hack-and-slash that didn’t have any of what I loved about the original Fable. That’s not to say it won’t be there in the final game, but it wasn’t there at PAX.

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4.) Champions Online (Cryptic, PC/360)

On the one hand, I can’t help but feel like I’m criticizing the game unfairly because the kiosk I was playing it on was bugged, and abilities weren’t being properly mapped to the 360 controller. I’m sure that if I got a chance to try it out again with a full repertoire of superhero-y moves at my disposal, it’d feel a lot more solid. That said, the game itself wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting. I appreciate the comic-book feel that Cryptic is trying to emulate with the cel-shading, but the graphics do need a lot of polish. This is a game that I was hoping would be a clear cut above 2004’s City of Heroes when it comes to visuals, and that simply wasn’t the case.

The combat was repetitive (though again, having a limited number of moves at my fingertips certainly didn’t help), and even some of the cooler ideas felt clunky in the way they were implemented. I liked the idea of being able to pick up an object (say, a barrel) and hurl it at an enemy for an almost-instant KO, for instance, but there was an uncomfortable delay between when I pressed the button to pick it up and when my character actually hefted the barrel onto his shoulders.

The game isn’t set to release for a while, though, and many of these issues are ones that are certainly fixable before launch. Champions has some solid ideas (and I’m still loving the whole “create your own super-villain nemesis” aspect, to be sure), though it needs polish and fine-tuning – I’m not about to write this one off just yet.

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3.) Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (Mythic, PC)

Cryptic might have months to tighten up Champions, but Mythic is rapidly running out of time before servers go live on September 18th. For many MMOGamers, Warhammer is a special case: for all the games that have been hyped as would-be successors to the World of Warcraft throne, WAR has stood out beyond the rest. From Guild Wars to Age of Conan, games have come and gone, eventually settling down with their own playerbases as Blizzard’s behemoth grew and grew … but with all of them, there seemed to be a sentiment of “Oh, but just wait until Warhammer…!” Further fueling the fire was the subtle if constant undercurrent of rivalry that seems to run between diehard fans of the respective Blizzard and Games Workshop franchises.

I’m a WoW fan, but I was looking forward to WAR as much as anyone … which is why I can’t help but feel let down by what I saw on the PAX show floor. The amount of time I was actually able to spend with the game wasn’t much, and judging any game on the first three levels of play would be hasty, let alone an MMORPG. Even with that in mind, though, WAR was underwhelming. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad game by any stretch of the imagination; I was simply hoping for the title to wow me in a way that it didn’t.

Rather, the game “WoW”ed me. It’s a comparison I really hate to draw, but one that’s unfortunately accurate: of the three levels I spent with my Witch Elf, the game felt like a slow, clunky, and unpolished World of Warcraft clone. The UI was similar (down to the quest tracking on the right side of the screen), and the gameplay followed suit. It didn’t help that the career mechanic specific to the Witch Elf class was practically identical to the Combo Point system Rogues use in Warcraft. All in all, combat in WAR feels like combat in WoW, only slower and less slick.

I was further underwhelmed visually, and the comparison keeps coming: WoW might not be the best-looking game around, but the cartoonish graphics have a sort of innate charm to them. It might look dated, but in combination with superb art direction it doesn’t look ugly. WAR goes for a more “realistic” look (though it’s all relative, of course), and falls flat. The landscapes are dreary and the colors washed-out, and even on maximum settings the draw distance is limited and the character models bland.

I do get that WAR is trying to portray a world ravaged by conflict and as such bright flowery fields with happy bunny companions wouldn’t make much sense … but it was already getting old by the time I logged off, and that doesn’t bode well for a game I’d been hoping to spend months playing. WAR is falling into the same “brown and gray = mature!” pitfall so many other games have succumbed to these days, and it’s unfortunate that everybody has suddenly become so deathly afraid of color. Heck, in some ways having some bright, colorful areas would make the transition to the battle-scarred wastelands that much more jarring and impactful.

There is the excuse floating around the Internet that graphics in the Beta stage are hard-capped on the lowest settings despite what the in-game sliders say – and if that’s the case, Mythic is running out of time to show gamers and the media what WAR is really capable of looking like. Time is the crucial commodity here, and I’m left wondering if Mythic feels their game is really ready to launch, or they’re just shoving out the door as quickly as they can. I have no doubt that once players are max-level and can engage in the PvP that makes up the core of the game it’ll likely be a blast; if getting there feels like a chore then the game will be in trouble.

I feel slightly more let-down by my short experience with WAR because there are genuinely great and solid ideas beneath the surface. Showing quest areas on the map is awesome and makes for a more intuitive experience, proper collision detection between players means that tank classes can actually act as tanks in PvP, and the RvR concept that is the core of the game should appeal to disenfranchised WoW PvPers who want a reason to smash in enemy skulls other than the pursuit of phat lewts.

WAR has potential to be phenomenal, though it desperately needs more polish and tightening before it can even think about realizing it. As it stands, while its core PvP base will likely still play and love the game, more casual gamers drawn to the MMO genre by WoW will almost undoubtedly draw the same comparisons between this and Blizzard’s 600-pound gorilla – and not in a favorable way, either.

If Mythic can get the game up and running in the few months immediately after its launch, it stands a shot at success, and hopefully a solid second-place ranking in the market. But polish takes time, and time is one thing that the developers do not have a lot of.

That said, there is still time to maybe get a few last-minute changes out the door, and I’ll see how the game plays with more time spent with it during the game’s Open Beta Test. (If you’re looking to try it out for yourself, our sister site WarCry has a few thousand keys to give away!)

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2.) The Wii (Nintendo)

When the Wii launched, I was as ready as anybody to support Nintendo’s plucky Little Console That Could against detractors. It represented innovation in a stagnating industry, an evolution of gaming that wasn’t just prettier graphics and hi-def resolution. I played Wii Sports with my friends into the wee hours of the morning, I loved Twilight Princess … but then that was it. Yes, the console has seen absolute gems – Mario Galaxy is unquestionably one of the best games this generation on any platform – but other than the handful of hits based on the same old Nintendo franchises … what else is there? Rather than fostering innovation, the Wii has led to a bevy of low-budget minigame titles based around random remote-waving instead of random button-mashing (to paraphrase a certain rant-happy Brit).

There was only one Wii game I was looking forward to at PAX – Wario: Shake It! – and I never actually had time to get my hands on it. Everything else was thoroughly unimpressive: the graphics were ugly (come on guys, we’ve seen Metroid Prime and Mario Galaxy, we know you can do better than that!) and the gameplay gimmicky. I wanted to love the Wii, but it seems that few developers outside of Nintendo themselves are willing to put the time and effort into making a good game that uses the Wiimote as a tool to enhance an already-solid core into a unique and entertaining experience.

The potential that was there when the Wii launched is being squandered, and other than the glimpse I caught of Shake It! , there was absolutely nothing at PAX that made me want to take a closer look.

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1.) Guitar Hero: World Tour (Activision, 360/PS3/PS2/Wii)

I loved Guitar Hero. When Rock Band came out, adding two new instruments for a complete multiplayer package, I ecstatically belted my lungs out and slammed the virtual skins with the rest of them. Not to be outdone, though, Activision has countered with Guitar Hero: Rock Band … er, I’m sorry, Guitar Hero: World Tour. Sure, Rock Band might have added two new instruments and a robust career mode, but Guitar Hero offers one additional pad on the drum kit (for a total of five plus the pedal – that’s one more than Rock Band‘s four! Wowzers!) and a clunkier, less intuitive interface.

At this point, the two battling franchises are so close to being identical that it’s almost silly. Even the songs one could play on the PAX show floor were similar: attendees could be heard rockin’ out to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” or “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters on both games, and those two are by no means the only overlapping tracks. Guitar Hero‘s return shot feels almost like an embarrassing acknowledgement of defeat, and one mere additional drum pad is hardly the leg up on the competition that it would have really needed to save face.

The interface is less intuitive than Rock Band‘s, with no immediately evident way to see how well (or poorly) individual instruments are performing. Other than that, they might as well be the same damn game. At this point, I wonder how much longer the industry can support two competing and otherwise identical franchises. In the end, it’ll likely just come down to a battle of deeper pockets when one simply can’t keep up.

I suppose the game isn’t really bad, but being this much of a shameless imitator makes it hard to take the game – and consequently the franchise – seriously.

PAX 2008: Top Five Disappointments

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