PAX Prime 2014 has come and gone and now its time for me to reflect on my day at the show. I attended on Saturday only, which turned out to be an insufficient amount of time to see and play everything I wanted to. In years past, I've attended for just one day and found great success with a pre-planned schedule and a little organization. This year though, it was as if the show had grown and changed so much since last year that those tactics would only get me so far. Next year, I'll be going for two days or possibly even three. That said, the following is a recounting of the games I was able to play, with a little bit of the overall PAX experience mixed in for good measure.
Bloodborne was my first stop at PAX. Much to my surprise and disappointment, I arrived at the booth just a couple of minutes after 10:00 when the Expo Hall opened and found that the line to play the game was already full and closed. I couldn't believe it. I had walked straight there without stopping for anything else! Last year I went to the same spot and got in line for Killzone: Shadow Fall without any problems. This year though, the waiting area had been cut in half and the PAX staff was patrolling the area trying their best to keep people from lining up in places they didn't want them to be. It was madness. I basically had to get in line for Until Dawn, which was right next to Bloodborne, and then jump over to the Bloodborne line the second I saw the staff member lower his sign informing people the line was closed. It was a pretty ridiculous situation and once I got in line about 10 minutes after I originally arrived, I witnessed several people arguing with the PAX staff about the waiting space being cut in half compared to last year. I sure don't envy those staff members because I know they don't get paid and its not like they get to just go enjoy the show like everyone else. The issue with the line would be a recurring problem at PAX and one that I really hope the show organizers pay close attention to when planning next year's show.
Anyway, time to cover the game itself, right? In short, this was my favorite game of the ones that I played. Apparently I'm not alone in that line of thinking as the booth had already been decorated with awards from various media outlets indicating it was their choice as well. The most important contributing factor to my decision was that the game seemed to pull me into its world so easily. I put on the Sony headphones, picked up the controller, and was tasked with choosing between two sets of weapons, each including one melee and one firearm. I chose the sawblade and blunderbuss combination, which seems to be the set featured in most of the gameplay footage circling around for this. After about a minute of loading (don't read into that, these show demos commonly have long load periods) the entire PAX floor melted away along with any noise or chatter and I was fully immersed into the game's world. My character stood outside of a large iron gate with a landscape of dead trees and beat up buildings, with a giant moon hanging low in the night sky. The whole place looked like Halloween personified.
Having played through the Souls games, I really felt right at home in Bloodborne. All the controls were pretty much the same, the character seemed to have a familiar weight and speed, and the attacks all felt like they had the right amount of heft to them. I even found familiar items in my inventory, now known by different names. For example, the molotov cocktail in Bloodborne functions exactly like the "bomb" in Dark Souls 2. I was pleased to see I had a few of those loaded and ready to go.
Working through the town felt like a great outdoor haunted house. Enemies were jumping out from places unseen, with weapons swinging. A couple of times I could see them beforehand, but more often than not, I was treading very carefully and still being taken a bit by surprise. I was happy to see what was around the next corner or down the next street, but not so terrified that I found it difficult to keep advancing. This might sound odd to some people, but it actually reminded me a bit of Nightmare Creatures from back in the days of PlayStation One and Nintendo 64. Don't worry though, I only mean that in the best way!
After a few enemy encounters, I was feeling pretty comfortable and started to get a little more fast and loose with my exploration, knowing that I was playing a demo with a 15 minute time limit. I had hoped to see as much as possible, but I had to get comfortable first so I didn't die right away and get kicked off the demo. I didn't know if that would happen, but I wasn't going to risk it. It wasn't long after my new carefree approach that I got in over my head. I saw a patrol of about four enemies working its way down a street below me. I tossed a molotov down there and took out two of them, then proceeded to make my way toward the other two. As I engaged them, a large number of enemies around the corner were alerted and began to run to the aid of their allies. I now had something like seven or eight enemies targeting me, which is a few more than I ever had coming after me in any of the Souls games. A couple of them had long range rifles, a couple had torches, and the rest had pitchforks and other assorted melee weapons. I took out all but one hunter with his rifle and as I approached him, two more enemies closed in from an area behind him. It seemed like they could have easily been alerted earlier had I not chosen to fight the majority of this mob battle on the other end of the street. The sheer number of enemies in close proximity was definitely something I had not experienced in the Souls games. Perhaps with smaller enemies, but this mob was made up entirely of what I'd consider to be enemies you have to take seriously because one wrong move can give just one of them the opportunity to do a lot of damage to you.
The two new enemies closed in on me, forcing me to back down the street, which allowed the hunter with the rifle to take shots at me and ultimately pick me off as I tried to get to an area where I could maneuver a bit more and avoid attacks. This whole scene was intense and the kind of moment where you forget you are playing a game and the rest of the world doesn't exist. I was totally engrossed until I was taken out by that hunter.
Now that my turn was over, I exited the demo booth and realized I was back at PAX again. I actually hung around for a bit and watched another player who had apparently taken a different path than me, which led them to a boss battle. The boss was a huge creature that looked like some kind of decomposed werewolf. I was pretty blown away by the striking visuals as I noticed the boss had all kinds of long fur blowing in the wind and responding to his movements. Even up close, shorter fur was covering its limbs and driving home that the amount of detail put into this model was extensive. The game already looked great and played very well, but seeing this boss was the one thing that really stood out and solidified the idea that I was indeed looking at a true next gen successor to the Souls games. I can't wait to play more.
The Order: 1886
My next stop was The Order: 1886 which was just a couple of booths down from Bloodborne. Again, this line was capped, with a PAX staff member holding up a sign letting everyone know they needed to congregate somewhere else and check back in later. What actually happened though, was that people would just crowd up the demo station for the other games in the immediate area, not even really playing them, just to be ready for the moment when the line for The Order was accepting people again. I didn't know what else to do, so I basically did the same thing. After about 10 minutes of crowding up the demo for Diablo III, I had my window and got in line. Had I not done this, I don't know when I would have played The Order, if at all. Several other games had this issue with the line being capped and despite checking in fairly often, I never got to play games like Evolve, The Evil Within, or Hyrule Warriors.
After about an hour and a half, I finally got to play The Order in a small room they had constructed the booth around, which hosted about a dozen stations where people could come play the game. Much to my disappointment, it was the same demo we saw months ago at E3. I decided that this wasn't a big deal though, because playing something for yourself is always more telling of a game than simply watching a video.
The first thing I noticed is that I was already in control and didn't immediately realize it. The cutscene that had been playing out had transitioned to gameplay so seamlessly that I didn't realize I was now responsible for my party's success in the firefight that was taking place. That doesn't happen very often these days, so it was a pleasant surprise to have that experience again.
Once I started popping out of cover and peppering an area with fire from my thermite rifle, the game was feeling a lot like Gears of War in all the best ways. I would saturate an area with thermite that would linger in the air until I shot a flare into the midst of it, igniting it and burning up anyone hiding behind immediate cover. Switching sides of my cover, exiting cover, and moving to new cover was all pretty easy and further reminded me of Gears of War. However, the controls and cover movement would be where the similarities ended. For being just a short demo of what felt like about six minutes, it did a great job of communicating to me that this was similar to other games only in the way that the cover and shooting mechanics worked. In every other regard, this felt fresh and new. When you also consider that the graphics were hands down the best I've ever seen, and by a pretty good margin, The Order seems like a "must play" when it launches early next year. I will admit, the short demo was very focused and led me down a narrow path with no branching whatsoever, but I think it bears repeating that this is a demo that was built about six months ago, and we still have six more before the game launches. That's a full year of development time from when the demo was started to when the game is scheduled to launch. Plus, this demo was originally built specifically to demonstrate gunplay. I don't think its entirely fair to make assumptions about the final game's content this far out from release, especially when what you are making those assumptions on is a demo of this nature.
The handling is familiar, the weapon I played with was different and satisfying, and the graphics are unrivaled. We're sure to learn more about The Order's content as the release date draws closer, but for now I think its an impressive looking production that any fan of shooters should feel free to be excited about.
Super Smash Bros
Nintendo had loosely organized lines to play Smash, mostly due to the booth layout which had demos spaced in an open area. Surprisingly, this worked really well. I had a very short wait to play the Wii U version and everyone got to play two full rounds. I played as Link for my first battle, and Little Mac for the second battle. I'm not an avid Smash player, so I wasn't playing on a very deep level at all, but I am a bit of a fighting game fan, so I was able to understand my move set fairly quickly and make a competent attempt at winning.
Link was pretty much how I remember him from previous Smash games, and I was happy for that. We fought on a stage that had us on top of an airplane that was flying through what could have passed for the Green Hill Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog. Lush greens made up the ground, while fluffy clouds were hanging in the blue sky. Now and then a new plane would come by and the battle would shift to the top of it, with our old plane either going down or flying off. It reminded me a lot of one of the stages in PowerStone 2, which should be taken as a compliment toward Smash.
My time with Little Mac was a bit more satisfying than my previous round with Link. Despite being more familiar with Link, I actually got a handle on Mac's moves pretty quickly and was able to exploit some of his strengths to catch my opponents off guard. He has an anti-air that's reminiscent of Ken's Dragon Punch in Street Fighter and that sort of put him into a new perspective for me. He's got great lunging attacks and a close quarters combo that will hold an enemy in place for a relatively long amount of time. I really liked playing with him and will surely pick him up first when the full release hits.
Overall, this was a lot of fun. It’s a busy game with tons of things happening on screen. The closest thing I can compare it to visually would be a Marvel vs Capcom entry. Seeing everyone in HD and using the familiar Gamecube controller was a nice treat as well. I think Nintendo fans have every reason to be excited here as this looked to me like it will be unquestionably the best Smash yet.
After departing the Wii U demo, I made my way to one of the 3DS stations to play the exclusive mode that only appears in the 3DS version of Smash. The demo there was different in that it was single-player with the first five minutes being the "Smash Run" mode where you progress through a side-scrolling stage (or sometimes vertically) knocking out enemies with a couple of hits and then collecting the powerups they drop. These powerups stack and the idea is to collect as many in the five minutes as possible, so you can then enter a battle with CPU opponents and use all your stacked powerups to help you dominate the round. Much like the main four-player battles, the Smash Run stages are chaotic with a lot going on. You'll be attacked from all directions by a variety of enemies from the Nintendo universe. It’s a lot of fun, but near the end of the five minutes it felt like the enemy count had multiplied quite a bit and I was getting knocked all over the place while desperately trying to grab more powerups. Once the CPU battle got underway, I found that Little Mac definitely seemed stronger than when I used him in the Wii U version just minutes before. It will be interesting to see how expert players will take advantage of this mode to just annihilate the CPU opponents. I expect we might see some YouTube videos of players mastering these stages and making short work of the CPU opponents that follow.
Compared to the Wii U version, of course the 3DS can't stand toe to toe in terms of graphics, but it still looks pretty good. The models are a bit rougher and less detailed, but it almost feels silly to expect anything else. Whats important is that it looked good, it sounded great, and it played every bit as well as its big brother version. The 3D effect didn't really impress me for this one, in fact I thought it was better with it turned all the way down, but its nice that players who really enjoy the 3D effect will have the option to use it here.
Lords of the Fallen
I was very excited to play this one. Being a fan of the Souls games and having heard this was directly influenced by them, I had Lords of the Fallen on my list of high-priorities at the show. There were only six demo stations, but almost no line. In fact, I would return later in the day to find an open station with no wait whatsoever, allowing me to play through the demo all over again.
What I immediately noticed was that the graphics seemed pretty highly detailed. Just up the stairs in front of me at the start of the demo, there was an enemy that was some kind of humanoid with a gaping mouth and giant bubbling sores all over its upper body. It let out a scream that was so loud and ghastly that I actually stepped back from the screen a bit and let out an audible gasp. It was a pretty good first impression!
All the controls were straight out of Souls. Same buttons for attacks, same buttons for using items, etc. I was right at home. I didn't have any choice over my weapons though, and I'm not sure if that's something that will be available in the full version or not. There wasn't really anyone to talk to about the game, other than a very pretty lady who was nice and helped set up the demo for people, but otherwise didn't seem like the best source for information regarding the full release.
As I engaged that first enemy, I found all my attacks had a longer windup than I prefer to have in the Souls games. I usually go with shorter weapons that have fast strikes, so having my character equipped with a long staff that he would twirl around for every attack was something I needed to adjust to. Much to my dismay, the enemy didn't always react to my strikes either. I could land a clean hit and the enemy was able to start its own attack, rather than be stunned momentarily. Perhaps this is a design choice for this particular enemy type though, so I can't say that this will be the case with all enemies. I only encountered two other kinds of enemies in the dungeon for this demo, one of which was heavily armored and the kind of enemy that it would make sense to have shrug off your blows. The other was a big spider which I only attacked while it was locked into an animation for laying its eggs. I'm interested in knowing if the enemy not reacting to strikes is either intentional or common or both.
Aside from that, the rest of the demo left a great impression. I was able to lure an enemy to a weak spot on the floor at one point, causing them to plummet into a pit of spikes ala Mortal Kombat. That was pretty satisfying! Also, the boss was big and imposing. He looked like a roman gladiator from hell. His swipes could knock my character on his back and his charges would outright flatten me, taking most of my life. Luckily his attacks weren't super hard to avoid, so the fight lasted for a good while before I eventually lost. I enjoyed the fight quite a bit, but was puzzled on how to defeat it. Melee strikes did not do enough damage and the window for them was so brief it almost didn't exist. This forced me to rely on casting fireballs from a distance repeatedly, exhausting my mana potions and then stalling for time while waiting for my mana to refill on its own. I got the impression there was a trick I just didn't figure out that would have dealt more damage, but I only got to fight him twice and the rush of the moment got the better of me, leaving me to make rash decisions out of momentary desperation.
I'm very excited to play this after trying the demo. I thought it seemed like more than just a budget version of another successful series. The customization options and hit-stuns are something I definitely want more information on, but I think anyone who enjoys the Souls games should put this on their radar because it could be a nice treat while we wait for Bloodborne and the inevitable Dark Souls 3.
After a brief recharge period, I made my way up to the floor where Nintendo had both Hyrule Warriors and Bayonetta 2 set up. Hyrule Warriors was pretty high on my list, but of course the line was capped. Bayonetta 2 on the other hand had spots available, so I got in that line and waited about 40 minutes to play it.
I was really pleased to see that this was everything I remembered about Bayonetta. It was flashy, heavy on combos, very colorful, a little sexy, and exploding off the screen with action. The young woman working the booth was enthusiastic about the demo as well, eager to show me the new Umbra mode which is basically a reward system for your combos that grants Bayonetta extra powerful moves on a more regular basis. Summons and spells involving her hair become more frequent than before, which had me feeling like Bayonetta was more devastating to her enemies than in the first game. It was empowering and pretty awesome!
The Nintendo staff member also showed me a few of the new moves, taking over half of the gamepad for me when I didn't understand what she was telling me to do. It was really cool to have somebody there who was going out of their way to talk to me about the game in a way that seemed very genuine and from a place of appreciation, rather than being driven to make some sort of sale. Not that anyone had tried to "sell" me on a game at any of the other demos, but this person in particular was really into the game in a way that felt different.
Anyway, the level I played lasted about 15 minutes and felt a lot like the first Bayonetta, but with some new tricks and prettier graphics. Bayonetta herself was as stylish and sexy as ever, and anyone who was worried this might be censored because it is on a Nintendo system can put those fears to rest knowing that she's as provocative as ever in this game, full of sass and sexiness. There isn't much more to say than that, but I'll wrap this one up by saying that if Bayonetta was one of your favorite games on 360/PS3 then you should absolutely consider buying a Wii U if you don't have one already. This played very well for me. The controls were tight and responsive, the graphics were popping on both screens (I played on the Gamepad for a while and it looked fantastic!) and the style and flare that you love Bayonetta for is bigger than ever. I'm very pleased that this will be available in late October because I can't think of a better time to enjoy Bayonetta 2.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Set in the Xbox booth, the four-player co-op demo of Dragon Age was a hot ticket all day. The line was regularly capped and it was only sheer luck that I got into the line on my first try. I waited an hour and a half to play this, but it was completely worth the wait and I would do it all over again had I been at PAX for multiple days.
A staff member working the booth let those of us next in line know that we would be working together and that he would be coaching us through the demo over a headset. Grouped with the people around me, we had four classes available to us out of a total of twelve that will be available in the final game. The demo host handed us each a cardboard tablet with a rundown of the classes and allowed us to decide amongst ourselves who would be responsible for each role. The first class was a tank class. Sorry, but I can't remember the name. Everyone looked at me for some reason (because I was the tallest maybe?) and I immediately said that was too much pressure for me. One of the other guys stepped up and took that tablet, agreeing to hold the enemy's attention for the rest of us. Bullet dodged.
The next class was the "Keeper", which was a healer class. A few buffs and healing spells at the ready, in addition to a basic attack. Again, everyone seemed to look at me, resulting in me taking a step backward with my hands up and saying "Oh God no. Way too much pressure." Luckily, our lone female player stepped up and gladly accepted that role. Another bullet dodged.
Finally we got to my class. There was one more, but it didn't matter because as soon as the host told us the Assassin class could turn invisible and land backstabs, I knew that was my calling. I took this role which left our last player with another DPS role that I can't remember the name of. Basically they had a longsword and appeared to be kind of a "jack of all trades" but I can't be certain as I was sort of engrossed in learning about my character for the short window of time we had left before we would play the game.
Once we got started, it was explained to us that the scenario we would play was a dungeon with five levels and that teamwork was paramount for our success. We could use our headsets to talk, or we could use commands on the D-pad to communicate important things like "I need help" or "let's fall back". Once we died, we would need to relinquish our places to the next group in line, so it was important that we try our best to work together to ensure we last long enough to enjoy ourselves. It had been an hour and a half wait, afterall. We needed to make this count!
We began in an empty courtyard where we got the feel for our moves and controls. Shortly after, we were on our way into ruins of some sort that consisted of broken pillars on top of ivory staircases, burning cauldrons to light the dark spaces, and a lot of thriving green vegetation that had begun to reclaim everything. Enemies ranged from heavily armored knights to robed spellcasting types, basically of the typical dark fantasy variety. A few familiar monsters from the Dragon Age games would appear from time to time, rounding out the enemy roster.
My job as the Assassin was simple: use my stealth ability to infiltrate the enemy position, pick out the strongest enemy, and then dive into their backside with both of my blades. If I was successful, I would easily remove about half of their health, if not more. I got pretty good at this and found that I could get a couple more hits in after my sneak attack before diving out of the battle and retreating to a safe place, only to pick out a nearby caster or archer and do it all over again. Those enemies often didn't know I was there, in which case I didn't have to rely solely on my stealth ability, allowing me to run up uncloaked but still get the drop on them and perform more successful critical attacks. Often times I could take lesser enemies out in a single attack as long as it was from behind or from the side.
My teammates had also seemed to get the hang of their roles. Our Keeper did an especially fantastic job of keeping us alive, while also dealing some damage of her own. A couple of times we had one or two of us in rough shape, but luckily there were a couple of healing fountains that we encountered, which healed the entire party and kept us going. We were making great progress through this dungeon and once we reached the fourth floor, the host informed us that we were treading on ground that only a few other groups had survived to see. Unfortunately, this would be our last floor as we were overwhelmed a few minutes later. I'm not sure what went wrong exactly, but I knew we were up against a larger number of powerful monsters and I probably started the whole thing by being the first one to go down. I had done my rather enjoyable practice of using stealth to sneak behind their lines and pick out the strongest enemy, but I think I failed to consider that maybe there were just too many enemies between me and my teammates for me to safely get out of there once my position was known.
I walked into this demo as a very curious fan of the previous Dragon Age games, not knowing what to expect from a multiplayer addition. I left knowing that what I played was enough to make me want to buy this game the day it launches so I don't miss any of the excitement and exploration found in those early days. I can see this being the biggest game of the year for people who enjoy co-op games, even moreso if you really enjoy western RPGs. I really hope BioWare can make some kind of co-op demo available before release because I am very confident it would be received warmly. For me, this is one I can't miss.
Gauntlet was the last game I would play before the show closed the doors to the Expo Hall for the day. I had been looking for this and wanted to play it earlier, but was unable to find it as it didn't have much of a presence at the show. In fact, it was only found in a booth for something called "The Next Level" that also had demos for Warframe, something on the Wii U, and a couple of other games. I'm not sure what the deal was here, but it didn't matter. I had finally found Gauntlet and I was going to play it!
I was able to join a game in progress with three other people, who were progressing through a desert themed dungeon. I chose the archer character, though I didn't take the time to think about it because joining the game meant I had paused it for the other three players. So, I took the archer and figured it probably wouldn't matter anyway if it was like previous Gauntlet games where everybody had long-range attacks anyway. As it turns out, it isn't like those old games. My archer had limited range where my arrows would drop and stick in the ground if they didn't find their target in so many meters of travel. I noticed our wizard was able to shoot an energy beam across the room though, so apparently not everyone had limited range. The other two players were right up there in the thick of it, attacking at close range and getting swarmed by enemies.
This felt familiar in good ways, but honestly I have to wonder how this would be able to compete with something like Diablo 3. It didn't appear to have the depth or customizable options that Diablo has, although I understand you could argue that Gauntlet is taking more of an "pick up and play" approach reminiscent of the old arcade games. That said, the game left me with a sort of lukewarm feeling. I guess the fact that it is free-to-play may be a draw for some, but how that effects any kind of progression remains to be seen. I certainly couldn't gather all that from ten minutes of play. What I was left with was the impression that I liked the approach Gauntlet Dark Legacy took more than I liked this, but that doesn't mean I should dismiss this outright. It was still fun afterall, but I'm not sure how long that fun will last for people. With more time and information, this could end up having more to offer than I realize.
If you haven't gone to PAX before, I highly recommend it. Just go knowing that lines will be long and often capped, which can be frustrating. Ultimately if you go in knowing what to expect, that won't be such a problem. If you're playing a new game every hour, you're making pretty good time in the Expo Hall.
In regards to the "culture" present at PAX, I will say that it is very hit and miss. I encountered some nice people there who were talkative and outgoing, but for every one of those people I also encountered the ones that didn't respond to me (I pointed out the amazing boss creature in Bloodborne and people looked at me like I was nuts) or didn't want to acknowledge me because I wasn't part of their clique. But hey, that's the world in general. I wouldn't try to put that on gaming culture alone. So if you go and the first person you try talking to isn't that receptive, don't let it deter you from making other attempts later.
There is much more to the show than the Expo Hall, but that is what I chose to spend my time with this year and I thought my impressions might be of interest to some of you. My time at PAX was a lot of fun and while I didn't get to play everything I wanted, I enjoyed everything I played and it feels pretty good to be able to say that. I missed out on several games though, which I would have been able to try with another day or two of attendance. The Evil Within, Evolve, Assassins Creed Unity, Hyrule Warriors, Far Cry 4, Until Dawn, and countless indie games all escaped me this year. Luckily, the wait to play most of those won't be much longer!
Andrew Broas (aka Moofers on VGEvo) is the founder and host of The Moofcast podcast.