We have to admit, we were not optimistic about PAX Prime this year.
First, tickets went on sale while Seattle was on spring break, and scalpers found a loophole the size of a wide-load truck and took full advantage of it. (Exploiters were eventually caught and the tickets offered up to the quick and attentive.) Not that it mattered much. If you didn't follow @Official_PAX on Twitter, you never knew tickets were ever on sale. The official website continued to say "stay tuned" after the show sold out not once, but twice.
Expanding the show an extra day also promised to do little but turn our already sore feet into complete hamburger.
Fortunately, we were wrong. This year's PAX Prime was by far the best run we've seen in... well, possibly ever. And we've been to every PAX held in or near Seattle.
Yes, there were still hella-long lines to get through so you could see and maybe even try the games that you're probably going to buy anyway. But there were also endless nooks and crannies filled with indie games and hidden gems to play until your thumbs go numb.
Here are the standouts for us from this year's show, with related links and our Busy Gamer Nation podcasts as we get them edited and posted.
The Indie game area was packed with Kickstarter projects this year, and some without a booth sought us out to share news of their endeavors - one of which had just exceeded its goal with a days to spare and another was fully funded and showing off the team's nearly completed game.
Here are the most promising Kickstarter projects we saw at the show:
Sword 'N' Board. This charming adventure is reminiscent of old school Zelda games: gentle combat, colorful backgrounds, and a brave hero taking on the bad guys. An early demo on the Kickstarter page intrigued our 10-year-old, but also sent him overboard with suggestions. (It turns out that fixes for most of his feedback are already in the works!) The project reached its Kickstarter goal on Labor Day - aka the last day of PAX - but still has a day or two left if you want in.
- Fully funded with possible stretch goals! Kickstarter ends at 2:00 a.m. EDT on Friday, September 6, 2013. See the new and improved video plus a mammoth blog detailing the game's progress on its Kickstarter page.
- Busy Gamer Nation podcast interview incoming!
Video Games Live: Level 3! If you love videogame soundtracks, odds are Tommy Tallarico had something to do with many of your faves. His voluminous resume includes soundtracks for Prince of Persia, Tony Hawk, Metroid Prime, Mortal Kombat, and more than we can recount here. Tallarico takes his music - and that of other great videogame composers - on the road each year with symphonic adaptations in his Video Games Live! show. He collaborates with major orchestras in each concert city to develop a unique evening filled with music, synchronized video and lighting, live action, and interactive segments. Tallarico hopes to use the Kickstarter to fund a third album of this music entitled Level 3. To entice pledgers, he has set up a dizzying array of rewards that could only be assembled by someone with 23+ years in the industry.
Chromancer. An online trading card game that is simple to learn, hard to master. The developers initially created the game to entertain just friends... but isn't that how great games are born? The intricate rule design (fully adaptable) may require longtime TCG players to rethink their game. Players must use adaptive strategy to take down their more sophisticated opponents in battle. The free-to-play game will include in-game currency that can be used to "buy" cards. The creators say users will be able to earn enough in-game coinage to buy every available card without pulling out the plastic, unless they're impatient or really want a specific card (each is tracked as a unique item!).
Neverending Nightmares. Matt Gilgenbach, the creator of Retro/Grade, digs deep to create a personal project that is both disturbing and oddly beautiful. You see, Gilgenbach has battled mental illness since childhood. Even "good" days can be filled with terrifying images that he cannot banish away. Neverending Nightmares gives life to those images in a simple black and white style reminiscent of Edward Gorey. The color red is used to augment violent imagery to create a grotesque yet oddly hypnotic effect.
Lifeless Planet. Last but not least, a Kickstarter success story! This game brought in more than 200 percent of its goal, and is now in the final stages of development. You play an astronaut dropped onto a seemingly uninhabited planet who must piece together clues about what the hell happened to make it that way. These include strange Soviet detritus and a mysterious woman who converts dusty land into lush greenery simply by walking on it. Part Myst, part Twilight Zone, all intriguing! Creator David Board estimates the project is approaching 90 percent complete and expects to release it on PC and Mac before the end of the year.
Best of the (non-Kickstarter) Indies and Mobile
Last year's PAX was packed with games releasing later that year - in some cases, within weeks of the show. This year, the answer to everyone's favorite question was almost invariably tied to a console launch or "sometime next year."
Here are our favorite smaller games from the show, all seemingly coming out between now and 2015:
Transistor. From the people who brought you Bastion comes a tale of... well, a hot red head chick in an awesome coat who runs around killing computer enemy things. GrrlGotGame didn't care much for Bastion (though Gamewatcher and ThePikachuFan both loved it), so it took some coaxing to get her to check out Transistor. She was immediately bewitched by the futuristic yet deco art style and Darren Korb's hypnotic music. (He also wrote the Bastion soundtrack, which we all deeply love!) She thoroughly enjoyed the demo, and we're all looking forward to exploring the world when the game releases in early 2014 for PS4 and PC (and possibly more platforms later).
Contrast. We first spotted this gem on a pair of demo stations in a hard-to-find corner of the Sony booth on the main floor. Later, we found the game's own booth in the Indie area surrounded by a well-deserved crowd. Without giving away too much of the story, you play a scantily clad 1920s "acrobat" who lives in a little girl's imagination. Together, you explore the child's world, which is filled with carnival rides and cabarets - much of it in drenched in film noir shadows. Oh, did we mention that you can turn into a shadow yourself and climb walls that are webbed with sometimes static, sometimes moving paths of light and dark? Best of all, it's a PS4 launch title but also coming out on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.
The Wolf Among Us. The studio that brought you The Walking Dead game (the good one!) returns to the ink well again, this time to create a prequel to Bill Willingham's Fables series. Don't let the title fool you - this isn't a book about kids eating candy houses or romping through the woods. Fables is a gritty, very adult book that takes familiar fairy tale characters and drops them in the fictional Fabletown area of New York City. The demo that GrrlGotGame played at PAX focused on the town's sheriff, Bigby Wolf. (Get it?) Expect a lot of adult language (more so than TWD!) and brutal violence when it kicks off with Episode 1 in October. Also, don't trust the Frog in Apartment 23B. Personally, we cannot wait. (Oh, and go buy the comic already.)
World Zombination. Long-time readers know GrrlGotGame is obsessed with zombies - so seeing this on the list is a no brainer. (No pun intended, really, we swear!) World Zombination is a faction-based strategy game that allows you to play as humans or zombies... it shouldn't be hard to guess which side she picked. (Brainnnzzzz....) While you will be able to play on your PC or Mac, we'll go for the finger gaming option (iOS or Android). Pretty to look at, easy to pick up and play, and did we mention zombies?
Dragon Fin Soup. New player Grimm Bros is combining two great tastes that go great together: RPGs and fairy tales. "But I already play (insert fantasy RPG here)," you say. Well, this isn't like (insert fantasy RPG here) - no matter how you fill in the blanks. Because unless you're in the special room at the video store, I'm pretty sure Red Riding Hood didn't look like this. Dragon Fin Soup uses sex, violence, and a sense of humor to create an RPG that even non-questers will enjoy. Expect some terrible puns (the booth sign featured a skeleton saying, "I have a boner"), inappropriate behavior, and the usual assortment of buying/trading/dressing your character. Bonus points for putting together a real-world roguelike game for swag prizes in a tiny area. It seems like people just aren't having fun with their booths anymore, and it was great to see someone get creative. (Kudos to the dude in the skeleton head for keeping it light and goofy when it was like 100 degrees on the show floor!) Join the mailing list to get in on the beta.
Windborne. Created by Hidden Path Entertainment - the company best known for tower defense (including the forthcoming Defense Grid 2) and the FPS Counter Strike: Global Offensive - this game is something of a departure or perhaps a frivolous whim. And it's one that appears poised to cash in on the popularity of Minecraft with something seemingly much deeper and more compelling. Windborne uses the same block metaphor for building but it’s highly polished (eschewing the 8-bit look), includes quests to the drive deeper exploration, and even offers a capture-the-flag mode for the competitive types. It's due on PC and Mac via Steam Early Access by the end of the year, or you can watch for opportunities to nab a beta key sooner. (Hint: We'll have at least one to share!)
Contraption Maker. If you loved solving puzzles while building Rube Goldberg style devices in The Incredible Machine, this spiritual successor built by many of the original team members may be just what you're craving. It's a bit rough and driven primarily by community content at the moment, but you can get it through Steam Early Access and start building solutions or even your own puzzles right now.
Troubadour. More interactive story than game, there's enough humor and bright, stylish art to entertain you in the 5-minute demo shown at PAX. Designer Eric Doty and artist Zak Alexander promise there's another 20-25 minutes of play on the way.
Backyard Battles. This turn-based game for iPad, Android, and the Web had our 10-year-old's attention. He was ready to play more when the short demo was over! Developed over just a few months, the game from Naked Sky Entertainment (makers of RoboBlitz) has crazy deep mechanics and polish for a game so early in development. Described as a "collectible card game without the cards," it lets you assemble a squad of costumed kids, each with their own powers, and puts them into, well, backyard battles (whatdja expect?!) with inspiration drawn from the world of videogames.
Romans From Mars. This forthcoming free-to-play game for iOS and Android tablets is a fresh twist on tower defense. You're in the tower, and you tap to shoot arrows or summon powers to devastate hoards of alien enemies as they approach. There are all sorts of power ups and upgrades, but you don't have to pay for any of them if you don't want to. The game seems fun, fresh, and already deeply polished as developer Majesco's mobile team prepares for an October release.
Zombie! Zombie! Zombie! Also free-to-play, this iPad game from Big Fish Games takes a shot at PopCap by proclaiming "Less plants, more zombies." Now we both worked at Big Fish Games, and our exits weren't entirely amicable. But at least Gamewatcher is willing to forgive and forget somewhat after playing this surprisingly engaging title for several minutes. It's a twist on a Match-3 puzzle game that looks nothing like a Match-3 puzzle game. You trace to match triangles of matching zombie types (destroying them and any others inside), and toss grenades, overheat grills, activate knifey ninjas, and even call in air support to clear waves of zombies or stragglers you can't match. It's good fun, and you'll be able to play for no pay if you choose when it comes out soonish.
The Big Guns
The Triple-A circus continued to draw the crowds, with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One taking center stage near the front of the main expo hall:
Titanfall. Let's say this up front: Gamewatcher does not like very many multiplayer games, and in particular avoids team multiplayer games where he feels sure he'll let down his squad. On impulse, he tried Titanfall and was amazed at the damage he did and, even better, how much fun he had. You're basically this futuristic cyberwarrior somewhere between Master Chief and the highly agile Crackdown cops but then you get to spawn giant mechs from time to time. It's hard to decide which is cooler: piloting a mech, or taking down an enemy's giant piloted robot with a highly armed but relatively puny super soldier. One of the greatest moments in the match was ejecting from a dying titan, landing on an enemy mech's head, smashing in a panel, and then shooting the machinery until it exploded. We may have to pick this up for our launch Xbox One.
Dying Light. Speaking of zombies (and aren't we always?), Dying Light is first-person, action survival horror game from the people who brought you Dead Island. (Wait! Don't leave!) We know you don't all share GrrlGotGame's love of DI - but trust me when we say that the creators have learned from their mistakes in that series. GrrlGotGame had a good 15 minutes of hands-on time with the game, and every second was absolutely terrifying. The zombies range from traditional slackers who basically wait for you to whack them to the crap-your-pants 28 Days Later style zombies... who know how to climb ladders. This is NOT - repeat, NOT - your standard zombie horror game. The game takes full advantage of next gen graphics and engines to flesh out the post-apocalyptic world in gritty, realistic detail. And that's just during the day - at night, the zombie behavior shifts, and new, nighttime-only zombies are unleashed. For once, mastering the sprint button is just as important as learning how to swing a wrench. Still skeptical? Watch 12 minutes of gameplay footage on the official site, and just try to sleep before it ships next year on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Fantasia: Music Evolved. Harmonix rises from the Rock Band ashes with a sweet, sweet Disney license for the name Fantasia and some of the related assets. Don't go looking for dancing hippos just yet, however. This is a reimagining of Walt's original vision - now with more Bruno Mars. They didn't have much to show at PAX, but what we did see was spectacular. Expect a mix of old and new music spanning different genres, and the ability to tweak them. (Locked Out of Heaven as a heavy metal tune? Yes please!) The game will require a Kinect, making it an Xbox exclusive by default. Look for it on both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One sometime next year.
Infamous: Second Son. The first, and until recently, only title that GrrlGotGame played for more than five minutes on the PlayStation returns with a new character, storyline, and console (PS4). We watched a dev gleefully destroy one of son's favorite Seattle stomping grounds, the Pacific Science Center - and loved every second of it. The level of detail and destruction made possible by the PS4 is astounding. We both cannot wait to play this game.
XCOM: Enemy Within (PC expansion pack or console Commander Edition): Last year's winner for best - and weirdest - booth kept it simple this year, herding groups in to watch a bored dev play the game. This year, the developer featured an PC expansion pack that's also coming to consoles as the XCOM: Commander Edition bundle, both packed with new weapons, aliens, soldier classes (including a mecha), and maps.
Borderlands 2 Headhunter Pack - T.K. Baha's Bloody Harvest (DLC): Vault Hunters rejoice! 2K Games will be releasing a series of "Headhunter Packs" (DLC) for Borderlands 2 beginning with T.K. Baha's Bloody Harvest in October. Each pack will include a short mission leading up to a massive boss battle to the death - probably yours. Defeat the boss and win his head as a prize, which you can then wear as a mask in the game. Look for it on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC in October.
Also announced: Borderlands 2 Game of the Year Edition, which will include Season 1 Pass DLC, a level up pack, all of the pre-order content (from when the game was originally released), and every playable character available at the time of the pack's release. Just not the new Headhunter Packs.
2K Drive. This iPad racing game from the makers of Blur came with no instructions and was hard to control using swipes and taps on the screen. Maybe if there were a compatible controller? (Hey, 2K, check out the Drone Bluetooth controller reviewed below!) Afterwards, we were told that you could choose one of four control schemes, including moving the iPad around and steering with its gyroscope. Still seems wonky, but the racing looked potentially great and you can unlock some cool-sounding minigames if you're patient or pay a bit extra over the price of this not-free-to-play game for unlocks.
The Elder Scrolls Online. You may know that Gamewatcher is a big Elder Scrolls fan, but also NOT a fan of mouse and keyboard PC gaming. He took a shot at it, but didn't want to waste a station that could go to a PC gaming fan - so he moved on quick. At $15/month, you might want to as well. Then again, we'll take a look when there's a console version available to play.
Forza Motorsport 5. Gamewatcher also loves a good racing game, and the Forza series has been his favorite series in recent years (along with Test Drive Unlimited). This looks to be more of the same, and an Xbox One launch title. A no-brainer to pick up if you enjoy racing and you're getting an Xbox One.
Peggle 2. The original Peggle is one of our all-time favorite gaming experiences. The sequel appears to be more of the same with some new twists like multiple challenge conditions and new characters, such as Luna whose power is to make the blue bricks translucent so that your ball passes right through on the way to your orange targets. Due for Xbox One first, and then presumably everywhere possible, we're in!
Ratchet and Clank: Into the Nexus. Gamewatcher used to love the Ratchet and Clank series, and recently rediscovered them in the HD reissue for PS3. He's been checked out on the past few, and will probably pass on this one. One of the new twists is the ability to create Portal-style conveyances that transport you through a tunnel of pink light. After the time travel hijinks of the previous installment, this is probably just what the doctor ordered - but we really just want to run, gun, and collect bolts. If it gets good reviews, this might be something we pick up when it inevitably drops in price and joins the Greatest Hits program.
One More Thing...
We typically shy away from hardware at PAX, but...
Drone. This Bluetooth console-style controller for mobile and tablet devices grabbed our attention. It looks like a mini console controller, and it's surprisingly comfortable despite the diminutive size. Best of all, you can save 10% - or about $8 off the $80 controller - for a limited time with the coupon code DRONE.
Oculus Rift. Gamewatcher managed to grab a spot in a capped line and waited 30 minutes for the opportunity to strap into a set of VR goggles and... watch someone else's prerecorded racing lap. (Really?!) Turning his head to look around was kind of cool, until it made him dizzy and nearly sick. Maybe it's because he was watching and not playing, but the visuals looked grainy and not particularly captivating. It's also pricey, with a dev kit plus SDK running $300 (no consumer version yet). For now, we'd rate this a pass.
Nintendo 2DS. We didn't get a demo of the 2DS in action, but we managed to snap a couple shots of it in a display case. It's too bad, since our 10-year-old might be in the market for one of these and he's crazy good at saving up his allowance when he's motivated! We did hear the shoulder buttons are a bit dodgy from those who did play with it, but we can't confirm this firsthand. We do like the lack of a hinge, which makes it more tablet-like and less likely to break at the seam like our son's first DS did. The 2DS launches in your choice of red or blue Oct. 12 for $130.