Partying at PAX Prime 2015

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Standing in the crowd before the expo halls open, you can feel the anticipation.  It’s contagious, and its hard not to get as equally stoked when waiting to enter PAX.  The wait is certainly worth it.  With so many games to play, it’s hard to be disappointed in PAX Prime 2015.  And yet, as soon as one has toured the entirety of all three expo halls, visited some of the game rooms and poked a head in to every single building, it’s apparent that something is lacking at PAX this year.  Overall a brilliant display of games to come, in the way of indies, board games, and AAA titles, my impression of PAX was a positive one that satiated my gaming convention thirst, but, like a good beer or glass of wine, left me a little parched and in need of something else or something more.  Here are my overall impressions of PAX 2015.

The best plan when doing PAX is to gun straight for a popular attraction and get in line immediately to minimize the wait in what is sure to be a crowd magnet.  This is always a tricky business when you want to get a good feel for what the offerings are, so I began my visit with a tour of the main expo halls and some of the features lining the hallways leading to the main floor.  Through one doorway I was greeted by Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate on the left and a giant statue featuring the cast of 2K’s Battleborn on the right. Behind ACS were Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege and The Division. Beyond Ubisoft to the left were the familiar sights of Microsoft and Sony.  Microsoft brought the big guns to PAX and had twenty or so monitors featuring 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians running the new Warzone game type.  Beside it were demos of Forza 6 and Rise of the Tomb Raider.  Sony led with Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and a handful of indies.  Sony certainly had more than that, but at first glance, that was all Sony seemed to be totting. This, however, was not where I started to truly partake in PAX.

Beyond each of these, a giant Super Mario Maker banner announced the presence of Nintendo.  As is their habit, Nintendo split its exhibition up.  In the main hall they had Mario Maker, Splatoon, and a long trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles X.  In a neighboring hotel they had an excellent collection of indies (or Nindies as we call Nintendo indies).  Near the escalators to the side of the main showrooms, however, awaited Star Fox Zero and The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, and this is where I played first.  The wait for Star Fox was long, largely because their were eight monitors, but primarily because the demo was significant, lasting fifteen minutes.  At the end of the line was an employee who had attendees draw for a monitor position.  I drew a token sporting a 1 on it, informing me that I got to demo the game in one of the two mock cockpit demo stations.  I had just started PAX and I was already winning.  The game was fun; the two screen mechanics were intriguing and tricky simultaneously, and my impression of the graphics was that they seemed improved since E3.  I walked away from the demo generally pleased, but still unsure if Star Fox Zero was a must have or was significantly differentiated from its N64 era counterpart.

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Super Mario Maker 
is a different story.  If you haven’t heard by now, Super Mario Maker is a brilliant game and one of the most unique games of the decade.  I got to play a challenging, chaotic level where I had no idea what to expect as the screen scrolled and each time I hit a block.  Following this I watched someone’s imagination run rampant as they stopped their course midway to redesign the level.  The resulting game, allowing players to design levels and take on others’ courses is a brilliantly diverse, challenging, and welcome experience that may change 2D Mario games forever.  I was equally pleased with Tri Force Heroes.  Watching those ahead of me in line attempt the game made it look simple, sparse, and overly easy.  When my friend, a stranger and I all grouped around a roughly triangular table with three 3DS’s attached, however, we were delighted to see that we could select from four different stages stacked by difficulty.  Since this was our first attempt, we avoided the hardest level, decided the first level looked too easy, and went for the second most difficult.  After selecting from six costumes (I wore the Zelda dress because I am progressive in my thinking), we embarked on our three-man mission.  What ensued was an incredible collection of team puzzles that forced experimentation and cooperation culminating in a truly unique boss encounter.  If there were any doubts before, The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is bound to be a 3DS sensation.

Outside of these and Nindies, Nintendo’s only other game up for play was Splatoon, which seemed like a quizzical and perhaps poor choice until Saturday.  To align with the Splatfest event happening simultaneously, players who waited in line and played Splatoon received a Transformers t-shirt with either an Autobot or Decepticon logo on the front and a Splatoon squid on the back.  That has to be one of the raddest free giveaways I have ever seen at a convention.

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Overall, Nintendo had a great showing this year, as did Xbox.  Forza seemed to be quite the crowd pleaser, and Rise of the Tomb Raider drew in equally as many in what was a great demonstration of what the new Tomb Raider is all about.  With sharp graphics, a promising story, and solid control and gameplay to round it out, this was a well done demo that showed off a little bit of everything and hopefully convinced some that Tomb Raider would be a worthy purchase in a year of truly grueling competition.  Speaking of which, the chief star of Microsoft’s PAX presence was undoubtedly Halo 5: Guardians.  In the Warzone game mode, two teams are pitted against one another while simultaneously being attacked and assisted by AI.  Killing the Covenant and Prometheans of Halo lore is always a thrill, but doing so while also fighting enemy marines and other players is a blast.  Rather than equipping players with different loadouts, monitors throughout the map provide players with different weapons.  Perform well and more weapons and even vehicles will be unlocked to the player.  By capturing and holding bases, players have more monitors closer to the action.  In my game I immediately went for a carbine, ideal for longer ranges.  I eventually went back to the monitor for a SAW machine gun so I could defend the base I was in at closer range.  Near the end of the game I ordered a Mantis, the new mech vehicle introduced in Halo 4 and drove the final nails into the coffin of the enemy team.  In the end, Halo 5 felt like a brilliant blend of some incredible ingredients that looked and felt a whole lot like Halo with a little Titanfall and whole slew of fun new twists to keep the series fresh.  Based upon my experience at PAX, Halo 5 threatens to be the most fun game of the year and was my favorite from the whole show.

Halo 5
Not that Sony didn’t have any games.  As mentioned, they placed Uncharted right up in front.  While the first three Uncharted games were brilliant, I felt no need to spend any significant time replaying games at PAX when there were so many other new games to play. Sony also provided some indie titles to enjoy, like Tearaway Unfolded, a reworking of Media Molecules’ Vita game, now on PS4.  The Barlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency’s Drawn to Death, a third person, free to play, multiplayer online shooter featuring a paper and hand drawn, heavy metal aesthetic was also playable.  While I enjoyed my time with the game, my friend realistically stated that of all the shooters coming out in the near future, this wasn’t the one he would be giving his time to.  I had to second his opinion. Speaking of which, DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront was also playable.  Idiotically, however, it was hidden deep within the confines of Sony’s demo area, only had two demoing monitors (which were being played split screen…I don’t know if this is a pro or con), and had a two hour wait to play the game.  Had I noticed the demo before my last day at PAX, I might have tried to get in line early enough to eliminate some of the wait.  Alas, I didn’t notice the game was even there until my last day when the line was already capped for the remainder of the day.  I don’t know who is to blame for this moronic placement on the show floor, DICE or Sony, but I would think both Sony and DICE could have benefited from a bigger presence at the show and worked out a lucrative agreement allowing Sony to push the game.  Instead we were left with some okay indies and a re-release of a trilogy of games that everyone who owns a PS3 should have already played.  Neat.

Several other bigwigs had a presence at the show. Square Enix had Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae for play (probably because that’s as far as game development has actually gotten), two mini demos of Just Cause 3, the really fun PS4 exclusive Dragon Quest Heroes, Final Fantasy Explorers for 3DS, which was too short a demo for me to make any true assessment of, and Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward.  Telltale Games brought Minecraft: Story Mode, which had an incredible, blocky house booth and an equally unreal wait time to play that kept me away.  Nearby, Oculus was giving players a VR tour.  Not far from there was Dreadnought by Grey Box, an armada, tactics game coming to PC with a sci-fi, future vibe and a multitude of different ships and ways to play whose solid gameplay kept people coming back for more.  This was a huge hit at the show, and if it sounds like your cup of tea, it is something to keep an eye on.

One of the true highlights of the show, however, which is often the case, was the mega sized indie both and the Nindie room at the hotel next door.  One More Line was a fun game, currently available for mobile devices, is a fun Tron reminiscent title by SMG Studio where the sole purpose to create the longest line possible while looping around obstacles.  This particular demo featured multiplayer, a PAX exclusive experience, but with more support, one that might make its way to the actual game.  Runbow (a clever combination of the words run and rainbow) was an equally colorful racing sort of game, only this Wii U title by 13AM Games has the multiplayer you’ve been looking for.  Supporting up to eight players, this racing platformer is pure fun and chaos and was one of the best indies on display.  On the opposite end of the color spectrum, but equally as interesting, was Typoman, a platforming puzzle game by Brainseed Factory featuring a bleak, lonely atmosphere and mood not far from Limbo.  Typoman is a game where the characters and puzzles are composed of and brought to life by words.  A snapping machine, labeled “TRAP,” can be shut down if the player pushes an “S” in front of it, creating a “STRAP” for the machine.  With its shadowy world and fun word puzzles, Brainseed has truly planted something in my mind, a growing desire to play more.  Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows was also featured in the Nindie room, the dlc continuation of Yacht Club Games’ indie hit Shovel Knight.  I am happy to say that Yacht Club seems to have another champion title.  Plague Knight plays completely differently than the base game’s namesake, complete with his own attack style and functions, resulting in completely new puzzles even while revisiting existing levels.  If you don’t have Shovel Knight, it is a must play, and its dlc is certain to be as enjoyable.

Plague Knight
Of all indies, however, perhaps the most fun, and certainly the one that drew the most attention was Double Fine Productions’ Gang Beasts.  Already available on Steam and coming to PS4, this wacky brawler was fun to both play and watch and had a mob of people surrounding it, cheering, laughing, and loving everything about this game.  The title features up to eight colorful, cutesy characters dressed up like animals and fighting to be the last player standing on the stage.  Tapping the right bumper causes the character’s right hand to punch out, the left bumper does the same for the left hand.  Holding down either or both results in the character grabbing on to the environment and opponents.  Pressing “Y” or Triangle will lift the character’s hands above its head along with anyone its holding, ideal for throwing others off the map.  The fun levels combined with the hilarious, drunken swagger of the characters (imagine floppy stuffed animals trying to kill one another), made Gang Beasts one of the best showings at this years PAX.

Gang Beasts
There was an incredible amount to play and experience at this year’s PAX Prime.  A solid lineup of games for consoles and PCs alike from AAA studios to unheard of up and comers kept things engaging.  Board games and card games filled in the gaps, I even enjoyed a popsicle with Cards Against Humanity cards in it (true story)!  Despite all of this, something seemed to be missing at PAX this year. Perhaps it was that only a couple of the upcoming AAA titles truly gripped me, or that not enough big AAA titles showed up, or that the industry seems so set in specific genres and sequels (shooters, cinematic third person adventure games, and ANOTHER Assassin’s Creed game!).  Or maybe it was because some of the demos I enjoyed will be so much more fun to explore in the comforts of my own home.  Or perhaps I am worried about the future.  I have hope for the coming season.  2015 is certain to be, and in many regards already is an incredible year for gamingdom.  With Metal Gear V, Fallout 4, Halo 5, Super Mario Maker, Battlefront and so many other games already out and to come, 2015 is one to remember.  Let’s just hope that the future is as bright, and 2016 won’t fall short.

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