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The Axeman Cometh – The Walking Dead Ep 2 at E3

The most disturbing thing about seeing Telltale’s next episode of The Walking Dead wasn’t the gore, or the tension or the fact that it took three swings of an axe to handle a particularly grisly deed. The worst part was the meat.

No, not human flesh, but the smell of smoked turkey legs sitting in two giant warmers on the other side of Telltale’s booth. When you’re walking around E3 and all you’ve had to eat was a Fiber One bar and a bottle of water, the smell of smoked meat is enough to get your stomach growling. Having that smell then associated with zombies and the consumption of human flesh is an extremely uncomfortable association, especially when you then attempt to take said turkey leg and eat it while not thinking of it being someone’s arm. Oh well, a man’s gotta eat.

Warning, Episode One spoilers to follow…

Episode Two of The Walking Dead is still set amidst the zombie apocalypse of the comic books and the tv show, but while the first episode was more about surviving zombie attacks, episode two focuses more on managing the ragtag group of survivors surrounding main character Lee Everett. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of walker attacks to fend off, but the decisions you make when you’re not capping walkers are just as important as how well you can swing an axe.

Upon making it back to the settlement after a forest hunting trip goes awry, Lee is faced with the unfortunate task of deciding who should get the last four pieces of food, de-facto leader Lilly having decided that she’s tired of looking like the bad guy for rationing. In this playthrough, Doug was saved in the first episode and while he may not be as good with weapons as Carley was, Doug has put his technical experience to work by rigging up a zombie early warning system.

Unfortunately, Doug can’t use these skills to conjure up enough food for everyone and Lee’s unenviable task of distributing food makes it clear that the developers are forcing the player to make choices that will have ramifications well beyond the immediate future. Choosing to take care of Kenny’s son with a piece of beef jerky makes Kenny open to taking Lee with him to the coast. Similarly, choosing to not provide the other adults with food may make certain people weaker if the zombies do eventually attack, because you know that the zombies will eventually attack. After all, this is the Walking Dead. The zombies aren’t there to make cookies. The developers are currently planning on making Lee’s decisions and the relationships that rise and fall as a result last into the fifth episode but with only one episode in the books, it’s anyone’s guess how well they’ll be able to carry through on the plan.

On my way out of the booth I was able to play the upcoming release of Episode One on the iPad. Like all of the other Telltale properties that have been ported to iOS, this version looked almost identical to the console version and the touchscreen controls worked beautifully. I had originally planned on waiting until every episode was released on the console before playing them all, but if they’re coming to the iPad, I doubt I’ll be able to resist.

Episode Two of The Walking Dead releases this month on PSN and XBLA. The iOS version of Episode One is slated to release this summer.

E3 Summoner Wars Report

I had the pleasure of finally meeting George Rothrock, Playdek Director of Product and Business Development, at E3, and he brought along an iPad running a build of Summoner Wars. Truth be told, the opportunity to meet George face to face would have been enough for me to take time out of my schedule, but an opportunity to see Summoner Wars ahead of its late June release? Come on. I couldn’t pass that up.

Having already conducted a lengthy phone interview with George, I had an idea what to expect and in person George is just as excited about board games and the work that Playdek is doing to help bring this medium to iOS as he was in our previous conversation. When you see someone who is not just proud of their work but genuinely excited, you can’t help but share in that enthusiasm.

From what I could see of Summoner Wars, the game looks to be shaping up quite nicely. Playdek is going with a free to play model with the free version of the game packaged with one playable race. Additional races, including mercenaries and reinforcements, will all be available for purchase from within the game. We didn’t speak pricing, but George was comfortable with their pricing, telling me that there will be bundles available and that the pricing will be low enough to make buying all of the available races and and units a pretty easy decision. The fact that you need to purchase additional races to go online certainly will help speed that along, but at least those that are new to the game and unsure about paying for it outright have the means to try before they buy.

The game comes with pre-created decks for each race as well as the ability to create custom decks and save them for future use. Unfortunately there’s no way to save your decks when playing on someone else’s iPad, save for logging them out of GameCenter and logging yourself in, but the deck creation process is fairly straightforward so if you have a deck you absolutely have to play with while on someone else’s device, it won’t take long before you’re sufficiently decked out. Get it? Decked out? Sorry, a little board game humor there.

The cards are all beautifully rendered with nice animation touches within each one. Important card details are visible when the cards are all laid out on the game board and when viewing the cards close up, the card text has been cleaned up to account for the fact that the game handles a lot of the rules for the player. That task has been undertaken by Colby Dauch, designer of Summoner Wars. In addition to this, Colby is writing the game’s tutorial, which will hopefully address the flaws of Nightfall’s tutorial.

Unfortunately, Bill wasn’t able to attend the meeting in depth, so I can’t speak to how well the UI handles the card interactions, but it was pretty easy to tell what moves were available at any given time. Obviously, things will make a lot more sense when paired with a greater explanation of the game’s mechanics, but George’s explanation of the rules lined up with what the UI was showing at any given time.

George didn’t have a lot of time to spend with me, but from what I saw, Summoner Wars is shaping up quite nicely. I can understand if people are somewhat hesitant at the free to play pricing model, but as long as the pricing isn’t prohibitive, I always come down on the side of allowing players to try games out before buying them. I know that there are plenty of board games I’ve seen for the iPad that looked a bit too complicated to buy without a chance to try them ahead of time. Also, Summoner Wars is a much different type of game than Playdek’s other releases, so new players who are interested because they played Ascension, Nightfall or Food Fight may balk at paying full price for a game that plays differently than what they’re used to. Obviously, this is all predicated on reasonable pricing of the other races and units, but given Playdek’s current pricing on expansions for their other games, rampant Summoner Wars price gouging would surprise me.

George wasn’t able to give me an exact release date, but you can look forward to Bill’s write up about destroying me in Summoner Wars in late June.

A Whole Mess of a Eador: Masters of the Broken World Screenshots

I’ll have a preview for this incredibly intriguing turn-based strategy game from Russian developer Snowbird Games as soon as possible. In the meantime, here’s a slew of screens from E3 courtesy of Snowbird.

For those playing at home:

Yes, those look sort of like HoMM. No, I don’t think it plays exactly like HoMM although the combat is clearly inspired by it.

Full gallery after the break…

The 40 Year Old E3 Journalist

E3 2012 confirmed something I have been rolling around in my head the past few shows but was afraid to confront.

I am a relic. A relic of E3’s long past. This show has simply passed me by. This struck me at an odd time; I was walking from one end of the Convention Center to the other with Todd, my intrepid colleague and friend, hobbling from one appointment to next on Thursday afternoon as neck pain shot down my arm with every step. In truth I was in no condition to tackle E3. I have an MRI scheduled for Monday and four days of walking was not ideal therapy.

I confided to Todd that there was a good chance that this would be my last E3. Was it the pain meds talking? Was it the incessant sound of Ray Lewis yelling at me from the EA booth or the marketing tool banging on his placard in the food court about how the end was near as he promoted Resident Evil 6? I do not know. But I know this.

This was a rough E3 for me.

This isn’t disillusionment. Hell I have been disillusioned with the direction of E3 since…well since there has been an E3. This was show #12 for me. I started going to E3 when it was held in Atlanta, and it has always been a dog and pony show of controlled messaging, glitzy hype, the tease of juvenile soft core porn, and the battle of who could have the loudest booth. None of that has changed, and some people love that about E3. My first show was like being let loose in an amusement park for gamers. I get it.

But there was a time when I could summarily ignore the Nintendo booth and the Sony booth and every other console driven publisher because I was at E3 to cover PC games. That was my beat from 1996 through 2005. There was an entire sub-section of E3 that allowed me to stay clear of the battle of the annoying E3 booths and focus on what I was there to cover. It was awesome. Today, as a gamer that primarily plays role-playing, strategy and sports games with a sprinkling of a specific style of shooter thrown in for good measure, (Metro, Bioshock, Borderlands, etc.) E3 is one tough gig. I care as much about the E3 press conferences, the Wii U, the Vita, and Lollipop Chainsaw as I do the upcoming season of Hillbilly Handfishin’. This isn’t “PC snobbery”, this is simply a fact. It’s just not my scene, and hell I use my 360 as much as I do the PC these days.

My pain and disdain aside, there were certainly high points: Chatting with Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester at a hotel bar about all manner of things from Crusader Kings II to how much he loves baseball. Wester is a fascinating guy: Personable, funny, and a walking quote machine. I promised I wouldn’t quote anything he said during this informal gathering that consisted of roughly six people. This was just a few people having a drink and talking games. It was a smart move on his part. Oh, the stories.

The entire THQ lineup of Metro Last Light, Company of Heroes 2, and Darksiders 2 was a throwback to the E3 I once loved. An upstairs appointment away from the noise, a team or PR people who seemed genuinely glad you stopped by, and developers who didn’t have to scream at you to demo their game. The THQ rep who I have known for years said they were unsure how the press would react to such an appointment and it is my sincere hope that every press member who had a THQ meeting showed their gratitude for being able to do their job in relative peace.

I walked into the small Darksiders 2 room, was given a gamepad and was told, “Have fun and let us know if you have questions.” If not for the certain uncomfortable outcome I would have hugged the man. So I played Darksiders 2 for about 30 uninterrupted minutes. We then sat in a small room and watched wonderful demos for Company of Heroes 2 and Metro Last Light and asked questions and at no time felt like cattle being herded out the door. These two games looked great, and Metro made Brandon jump more than once. It was being demoed on an Alienware beast PC and it looked crazy good.

This is how E3 used to be for me.

This is E3 today:

Todd and I walked to the Ubisoft appointment in South hall mid-day on Wednesday. It was loud. An Otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and yes I had to look that up) would tell you dangerously loud. I forgot my ear plugs—a silly mistake. I have no idea if Ubisoft was showing stuff upstairs to “more important” press or not but we were down in the South hall pit with a sea of bodies bumping into one another trying to get in line to play a game or get to an appointment or if you are someone from Best Buy…just to get in the damn way. I’m sure from above it looked very much like the New York Stock Exchange in those movies when someone yells, “Sell!” and everyone wants to buy.

First it was Far Cry 3. We receive no presentation, just a pair of headphones and are told we are going to play some multiplayer. Fair enough. I love hands-on time. We spend 15 to 20 minutes shooting the enemy AI on a co-op map without much context to fill in the what’s and the why’s. I wanted to talk about the single player but it was too loud and the next group was clamoring to play. Some fellow in giant Oswald ears, obtained at the Disney booth, took the controller from my hand after I was done. Clearly it was time to move on.

Assassin’s Creed 3 was next. I love this series even though I couldn’t get into the last one. This was a hands-off demo that was driven by a developer, which is fine. I was seeing new stuff at least. We all had on headphones but this time they were networked so that when the dev spoke we heard it through the speakers. Again no problem. But it was so loud that when the Just Dance 4 booth kicked into gear all we heard was “Never Gonna Give You Up”. The developer even shook his head and said, “I never imagined I’d demo Assassin’s Creed while being Rick Rolled.”

You and me both brother.

This is not to say that the people giving the demos at the Ubi booth and Eddie our very patient and overworked PR rep didn’t do a great job—they did. Given the circumstances it was as good as could be expected but it’s simply not an ideal place for discussion. It’s like a Friday night meat market dance hall and I didn’t like that scene when I was 20…let alone 40. By the time the tour was over I just wanted some Advil. Then I watched Sam Fisher torture people for 20 minutes in the Splinter Cell: Blacklist demo.

I do have more good memories from this E3 though such as playing Borderlands 2 with Brandon for nearly 40 minutes, even though it’s hard to play a game like that under a time limit. I play Borderlands at a snail’s pace, examining every item I pick up and talking to my teammates. Here we just blasted shit for 40 minutes and tested out some powers and guns. Still, I left happy. I’m not going to complain about 40 minutes of Borderlands 2 hands-on time.

The XCOM demo was reassuring. Still, I wish I had some hands on time with it. In all, the game looks like what you’d expect from a modern take on XCOM. It’s highly cinematic, but I still see XCOM at its root. I could have done without the Sid Meier cameo.

Playing Dishonored for a half hour was also a joy—checking out the powers and taking in the wonderful art direction. I had a nasty neck pain flare up during my playtime which cut everything short. I didn’t finish the demo, but Brandon did.

Talking to Josh Looman at the EA booth about the INSANE new Madden franchise mode changes. We were in a quiet room in South hall so the noise was under control and we just talked football for a 30 minutes. I really like Josh and the radical shift in how Madden treats franchise play is his baby and I hope it works out. We always want EA to take risks and this is a big one. I love this mad scientist stuff though so I’m on board. If only NCAA 13 were doing the same.

Beating Todd 1-0 in both NHL and FIFA 13. All is right with the world.

Seeing Dark Souls on the PC and seeing firsthand how it looks better than the console version. I don’t care what anyone says about it being a port. I looked fantastic. I’ve seen the forest near Darkroot Garden enough to know that this was not the 360 edition. Unless other people saw a different area than I did I have no idea what there was to bitch about aside from the choice to use GFWL and the fact that the developer said porting to the PC wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. SO what? It LOOKED wonderful. I saw zero framerate issues in the E3 demo. In fact I wanted to stay and watch more of it.

Leaving my Dark Souls time, I wandered over to Namco’s other game on display, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the RPG from Level 5. I was amazed at how lovely and charming this game looked. It certainly has a kid-like JRPG tone to it, which I usually dislike, but it looks like the cutscenes from Professor Layton. It’s like playing inside a cartoon. I absolutely want to see more of this. While it was great to look at I never could find someone to talk to about the game. It was on an 8-minute timed demo in South hall with anxious people waiting in line to play it.

Finally, my final E3 appointment, at 4:00 on Thursday was with Vladimir Tortsov of Snowbird Games. I was in terrible pain at this point, I was tired, and really just wanted to leave and go eat dinner with the gang. But I promised Vladimir I’d see his game. The meeting took place in a hallway outside of the media room. Todd and I huddled around Vladimir’s laptop. People were leaving the show; young, still energetic show goers bounced down the hallway wearing Borderlands 2 t-shirts and wearing the Oswald ears, carrying tote bags filled with all manner of crazy swag. (Full disclosure: the Metro guys gave us a functioning gas mask. Seriously. It’s kind of awesome.) It was clearly closing time for E3.

Vladimir fired up the demo for Eador: Masters of the Broken World. As he spoke about the game, dropping names like Civ, Master of Magic, Europa Universalis, tabletop miniature gaming, and Heroes of Might and Magic, I sat there in an uncomfortable seat, laser beam pain shooting down my arm, hunched over a laptop in the bowels of the Convention Center with a goofy grin on my face.

If not for the certain uncomfortable outcome I would have hugged the man.

E3: Borderlands 2 and Dishonored Quick Hits

It’s late and I’m exhausted, but I wanted to throw up some quick points about Borderlands 2 and Dishonored, two of the best games I saw today, and two games that will probably end up being some of my favorites of the show.

Bill and I played both games, cooperatively in the case of Borderlands 2 and separately in the case of Dishonored. In fact, they had to usher us out of the room when we were playing Borderlands 2, so enamored were we.

Don’t worry, this won’t be my last word on either of these games. I just wanted to throw up some quick impressions.

Borderlands 2

All four playable classes were available but I stuck with my Siren to see the differences. We were given 20 skill points to allocate but without a lot of time to see what you could play with, they were somewhat wasted. Ditto for the combat load-outs. I like to be able to compare my gun stats and pick the best tool for the job but we were on the clock so Bill’s gunzerker and I went to town.

The new phaselock power is cool, essentially trapping an enemy in a ball of energy and holding him/her aloft like a giant pinata. I picked a power that released health orbs when a phaselocked enemy was killed. It worked wonders. Unfortunately phaselock does not work against robots and we fought a huge number of robots. Like, lots and lots of robots.

The color palette was very bright andeverything was extremely detailed. The same Borderlands sense of humor was present and as an added bonus, I got to chat a little with Gearbox writer Anthony Birch. Nice guy, that one. The gunplay was still very fast and chaotic, teamwork was still very important and respawning still sucks when that aforementioned teamwork didn’t work out.

In other words, it’s Bordelands, just more of it and by God, I couldn’t be happier.

Dishonored

This was a game that I really didn’t take notice of until the last two trailers. The hands off demo we saw showed two different ways to complete an assassination mission, one where only the targets were killed and one where everyone was killed.

The game uses a central power wheel, accessible via the left bumper, to choose either powers or a weapon (crossbow, pistol, grenades) for use in the left hand. Your blade is always in your right with how you hold the blade changing depending on whether your skulking or not.

In the stealth run the devs were using short range teleports to move to higher ground as well as hide choked out guards in hard to see places and then merging (think possessing but full body, not just mind) with a fish to swim through a sewage outlet in to the building. Dark-o-vision helped with the sneaking allowing the devs to see through walls as they slipped through the shadows and killed their targets.

When it was time to kill, they went balls-out, using grenades, their sidearms and their blade to kill everything that moved. The game is a little too dismemberment crazy, but I guess that’s what happens when a supernatural assassin kills people. Bodies were flung with wind blasts, rats were called to devour people and lots of blood was spilled.

The game controls very well, picking and using powers is intuitive and the game has a really neat art style, not photo-realistic but not cartoony either. As I tooled around the level, I found multiple ways to get to my objective, even though I never completed it, having to leave to go to another meeting.

I spent a fair amount of time playing the game, don’t get me wrong, but with so many cool powers unlocked and so many paths to explore, it’s easy to get sidetracked. The game comes out on 10/9 and I know I’ll be marking that date with a big red circle.

I also saw Summoner Wars on the iPad and it looked awesome, but more on that later. Today it’s Darksiders 2, Star Trek and Of Orcs and Men. Just another day in paradise.