Thursday, February 14, 2013

X-series Event 2013

The X-series is Xbox Canada's (almost) yearly event showcasing some of the best upcoming games for the Xbox 360, and I was lucky enough to score an invite to the 2013 show.  Held on February 13th at Courthouse in downtown Toronto, the event was headlined by Microsoft Studio's own Gears of War: Judgment, BioShock Infinite, and Tomb Raider.

Now at these kind of events my modus operandi is usually to sample whatever games are on hand for about five minutes or so each, and then to spend the rest of the show talking with developers, product guys, and community members, but this year turned out to be different.  After checking my coat and heading to the venue's main floor, BioShock Infinite was directly to my left and so I sat down on a comfy leather couch, put on some headphones, and began my trial run to Columbia.

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of the franchise as quality, single player rich games are in ever short supply these days, and let me start off by saying that you will not be disappointed with Irrational Games' upcoming offering.  From what I heard, the demo available for us to play would be a total of four hours long, and while I didn't get to play for that length of time, it certainly seemed like the complete deal to me.

For those who've seen the "First Few Minutes" trailer (obvious SPOILER alert), the game starts off exactly like that, and then I got to experience Columbia itself.  Without going into too much detail, there's obvious styles and set pieces meant to resemble BioShock's introduction here, and I certainly see that as a good thing.  The environments are simply gorgeous, with a great amount of detail and personality for this wonderful world.  Whereas Rapture was populated mostly by pseudo-junkies, Columbia, at least in the early parts, is populated with honest to God people, and you're just in time for a celebration.

The early part of the game is very open, allowing players to walk around and experience parts of the city to soak in the environment.  There are old style videos about that you can watch which give you some history on the city and the political and religious situation there, and you can come across Vox Recordings, which are the series' classic audio logs.  While exploring you'll immediately start finding items to collect in searchable barrels and such, mostly money, and there are vending machines littered around the area where you can buy health and dust.  Dust is the game's version of Eve, which fuels your Vigors (the game's version of Plasmids).

The two Plasmids you get early on are Possession and Devil's Kiss.  Possession is more or less Security Bullseye, allowing you to temporarily control Turrets or machines, and Devil's Kiss is Incinerate.  You can toss it like a fire grenade or charge it up to throw it kind of like a fire proximity mine.  Unlike past games, you actually get an interesting form of Armour here, along with your Health and Dust.  I'm not going to go into how you get your Armour, as it's somewhat story related and I'd like to keep those spoilers to a minimum, but suffice it to say that it works like traditional recharging Shields in other games.  There are also different points where you can increase your max Health, Armour, or Dust to better suite your play style.

Now, as for weapons, I got to play with three.  A pistol and machine gun which operate how you'd expect, and my favourite of all:  the Sky-Hook.  Not only is the Sky-Hook a means of transportation at various spots in the game world (you can look up at specific objects and hit "A" and you'll magnetically snap to them, kind of like Batman in the Arkham games.  You can then look down to different surfaces and press "A" to dismount from your perch), it's also your melee weapon.  To melee an enemy, simply press "Y," and if an enemy is weak enough (they'll have a white skull floating above their head), you can execute them.

I had no idea executions were in the game, and while they only seem to be possible with the Sky-Hook, they're amazing!  There are several different execution animations, from ramming the Sky-Hook into someone's chest and activating it, letting it grind their insides, to stabbing it in their neck and letting it rotate them open.  Each execution was insanely satisfying, so much so that I used it as my primary weapon for some time and even unlocked an Achievement for reaching (I think) 50 melee kills!

The only enemies I fought were Columbia's basic law enforcement and a few enemies that were using Devil's Kiss themselves.  I did get to see a Handyman, but that was before all hell broke loose and I was fighting for my life.

Now, the X-series community event lasted two hours, and after I sat down with BioShock Infinite, the next time I looked at my watch I had thirty minutes left in the show!  I was so engrossed in the game, enjoying myself so much exploring, experiencing the story, and executing enemies, that I completely lost track of time!  Considering how absorbed with the game I was, it's with regret that I need to tell you there was a photography restriction on BioShock Infinite only.  We were not permitted to record any footage or take any pictures of the game or the section of the venue it was set up in, but everything else was fair game.

So, with about thirty minutes left I quickly rushed to the Gears of War: Judgment section, which was on an elevated stage.  I didn't actually sit down and play the game, I watched it being played, and spent some time chatting with a rep from Epic Games.  He (understandably) wouldn't talk about the Campaign as he didn't want to give spoilers away, but we discussed further optimizations to Unreal Engine 3.0, confirmed that the game will ship on one disc, and he chatted to me about OverRun and the class-based system there-in.

In OverRun he explained how C.O.G. players who play as Baird, for example, will be the team's mechanic and Baird can repair fortifications around the Map to keep the Locust at bay.  Unlike Horde Mode you can't build fortifications from scratch, they're already existing and must be maintained.  Cole will play the role of the Heavy Weapons guy, so he can use a Boomshot while others can't, as an example.  Sofia is the team's Medic with a healing grenade of sorts, and Garron is the team's sniper, and he also has some kind of beacon that when deployed will briefly allow the team to see through walls and cover.

Basically it sounds like a mix between Horde Mode and Beast Mode from Gears of War 3, which is pretty cool.  Again, while I didn't get the chance to play the game as I was in a rush at this point, I promised the Epic Games rep that I'd be spending a good bit of time with the upcoming demo this March.

And at that point, I had to book to catch my train, an I regret that I was unable to check out Tomb Raider, so my apologies to Crystal Dynamics.

Now, as with most Xbox Canada events there was some loot to be had, and this year guests got a Tomb Raider t-shirt, a "Murder of Crows" (BioShock Infinite Vigor) keychain, and a BioShock Infinite sticker.  Very cool.

So, thank you very much to Xbox Canada for the invite and for putting on this great event.  Thank you to Irrational Games for letting me play BioShock Infinite as much as I did, and thank you to Epic Games for letting me check out Gears of War: Judgment.  I had a great time, and this spring is looking solid for gaming on the Xbox 360.

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