This fall is looking like it's going to be one of the best seasons for gaming since.... well, since ever. There are a lot of big sequels on their way as well as some hotly anticipated new IPs that have everyone talking. The demos for these games have begun trickling out, and I've gotten my hands on a number of them to get an idea of where my money is going to be spent this fall.
Unreal Tournament III (PC, XBox 360, PS3) – This game is a complete blast, with the caveat that you are already an Unreal fan. The demo features two deathmatch matches and a monstrous capture the flag map that's loaded with vehicles. I'm a little disappointed at the lack of "newness". Essentially the weapons are the same as UT2K4, with a little bit of balancing and tweaking to improve gameplay a bit. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because in a game like this, balance is what it's all about. Still, for such a big release that isn't merely an update, some new weapons would have been nice.
The environments are downright gorgeous and the levels in the demo are as well designed as any. The only real disappointment is that they are still "static" environments – no real integration of physics or other environmental interaction factors into the gameplay, which would have been a great improvement for the series since the technology is out there. Despite feeling like it's mostly more of the same, I have found myself playing this one for hours on end. It's more of the same, but it's freakin' Unreal Tournament, so that can't be all bad.
Call of Duty 4 (PC, XBox 360) – This game's been mega-hyped, taking home a lot of accolades at this year's E3 and being the subject of a massive pre-launch event and the talk of both press and gamers alike. So after the playing the demo, I was a little bewildered at what exactly all the fuss is about. It was moderately fun, but it essentially felt like Call of Duty 2 with a different coat of paint. As tired as the WWII setting is, I actually find the grassy battlefields and small towns of the European Theater to be a more compelling setting than the urban setting we're seeing in Call of Duty 4. I mean, this may be a new setting for the series, but it's hardly new. Tom Clancy's been hanging out here for years.
The game is pretty much identical to previous Call of Duty games, and there aren't really any noticeable improvements in interactivity or artificial intelligence. My greatest dislike of the series is the Halo-style health system, which I don't feel works with the setting. Why not have medics in the squad, and/or medics camped at stations on the battlefield where the player could find cover and get bandaged up? It'd still be fake, but at least you wouldn't feel like Master Chief. I'm still looking forward to the game on account of a stealth level shown off in videos a few months back, but this demo left me underwhelmed.
Timeshift (PC, XBox 360, PS3)– I've had this game on my radar, but I had figured that it would be one that I could wait on and pick up after I spent my holiday season cash on the bigger, more hyped games. After playing the demo, I might have to reconsider and move this one up the list. This one really took me by surprise, and looks like it could end up being a heck of a game.
The gameplay is kind of a combination of F.E.A.R. and Half-Life 2. There's some kind of civil insurrection going on against a Dr. Breen type character and his evil empire , and there's a fair bit of scripted stuff happening. It's all very linear. Our hero – a physicist, incidentally – is equipped with a high-tech suit that allows him to slow, stop or reverse time. So for example you can freeze time, pop a room full of baddies in the head, then watch them all drop at once, or use the same moment of opportunity to steal their weapons from them, then take them out while they panic. Or, use reverse to send a grenade right back to its owner or send a baddie right back into the open after he dove for cover. The suit takes a minute to recharge so you have to use it strategically. Health is typical Halo-style, which unlike in Call of Duty actually works since you're in an uber-suit.
I was impressed by how the use of the time alteration was balanced. Playing on the medium difficulty, I got taken out pretty fast without using the time powers. Enemies can take a few hits and you're as vulnerable as they are. The suit also takes just enough time to recharge that it doesn't feel too cheap to be using time alteration constantly, and even the powers are well-balanced – stopping time takes a lot more energy than slowing it. The environments are pretty destructible too, so that concrete wall or stack of bricks you're hiding behind might get worn down or blown up and leave you exposed. Things actually blow up in a satisfying way – at one point I tossed a grenade at a sniper tower, and the explosion caused the whole tower to crumble. The time powers are also integrated into some puzzles in some cool ways. In the demo there's an instance where you jump inside a pipe, then use "stop" to keep the pipe from see-sawing so you can get to a higher ledge.
I was also pretty impressed with the artificial intelligence. At one point I froze time and stole an enemy soldier's weapon. He stood there for a minute barking "What the hell? Where's my gun?!" before he scrambled to grab a gun from one of his fallen comrades (if there are no weapons in sight, they'll plead for their lives). At another point, I used the same tactic to get behind a soldier, and he looked around and was saying "Where'd he go? I lost him!" Once he spotted me he panicked and ran straight for cover.
There are so many big titles coming out that I think this one might be overlooked a bit, but I think it might be a sleeper hit. If you can ignore all the elements liberally borrowed from Half-Life, there are some good physics, interactive environments, good AI, good graphics, and a unique gameplay hook. Definitely worth checking out.
Medal of Honor: Airborne (PC, XBox 360, PS3) – While Call of Duty 4 might be moving beyond its WWII roots, Medal of Honor is still. I was mildly interested in this game because of the open-ended level design in which you parachute into any section of a large level, and then complete various objective in whatever order you want. It's not a bad idea, but nonlinearity like that doesn't really work unless the actual gameplay is worth a lick, which in this case it is not. To say I was a bit underwhelmed would be like saying there's a bit of an age difference between Hugh Hefner and his girlfriends. The action is comic-book to the point of absurdity; health packs are littered in completely random spots, and you can take out rooms full of Nazis single-handedly without much effort. The mechanics are regressively simple; there's no lean or duck mechanic, merely a clumsy-feeling crounch (maybe they were going for a more "realistic" crouch, in which case it feels completely out of sync with the rest of the game). The single level included in the demo was definitely meatier in the content department, but it never captured the intensity of the battles the way Call of Duty and Brothers In Arms have. Big thumbs down for this one.
F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate (PC) – The second expansion for the F.E.A.R. games, Perseus Mandate looks like a game that aims mostly just to milk the formula a little more. I was a bit underwhelmed by this demo. There are some new enemies that are pretty well done, and the demo has some real moments of horror and tension. But when the combat hit, it felt a little out of place – the transitions from the horror elements to the action seemed somewhat disjointed, probably because there were some genuinely creepy moments using horror concepts not previously seen in the series, but the combat felt largely the same. But with Monolith hard at work developing the true sequel to F.E.A.R., called Project Origin, this just feels like an appetizer that's strictly for the fans.
Clive Barker's Jericho (PC, XBox 360, PS3) – Ah, we come to my pick of the lot. Perusing some previews around the web, it seems that press members who have had a chance to play this game have been unanimously impressed. Not only that, but Clive Barker's name was also attached to Undying, which was well-received by gamers and critics alike. Nonetheless, this game seems to be slipping under a lot of people's radars, lacking the kind of buzz we're seeing over games like UT3 and Crysis, despite the game being multiplatform. (I posted a thread about the game in the forums, and not a soul replied.)
The game centers on the "Jericho Squad", a team of ghoul-blasting soldiers who are investigating the emergence of a mysterious ancient city in Africa. Each of the squad members has two weapons, two magic powers, and a melee strike. The full game will contain a whopping seven-member squad, but the demo includes only three of them.
It's immediately apparent that the game is very visceral, fast-paced, and violent. Playing on a PC at maximum settings, the game was a true visual treat, with some very creepy environments, amazing character detail and some dramatic motion blur and depth-of-field effects. But while the game was visually striking, the gameplay is what really impressed me. Each of the three characters (a sniper, a ninja, and a heavy gunner) is very unique and the gameplay is very balanced. You can change between characters on the fly depending on the situation, and the remaining squad members follow you adeptly. If a squad member falls, they can be resurrected – so the game only ends when the entire squad is wiped out. The action is extremely fast and close-up; enemies charge and dart about with impressive believability, moving out of your field of vision and often giving you some gruesome close-ups before you blow them to smithereens.
The game also has some quick-time events, similar to Shenmue, in which tapping a certain direction cues a scripted sequence. There's an extended QTE sequence in the demo that, while a bit on the trial-and-error side, was still pretty fun just for the accompanying cinematics. Additionally, enemies that get close enough will sometimes grab you, and a short QTE will be required to break free.
Everything flows together exceptionally well, and the demo is very atmospheric and intense. This short demo moved Jericho from a tentative "maybe" to an absolute must-have for yours truly.