Ah yes Grim Reality, my old friend. For a few days there, I was able to blissfully forget the responsibilities of life, the pressures of work, the constant barrage of bills, housework, and dental appointments that accompany the every-day slog, in favour of sweet, sweet video games. There were some highs and some lows, but generally speaking, the 2012 EB Expo was a grand ol’ time, and one that I won’t soon forget.
Heading out from the hotel on Friday morning was an odd experience. There were a lot of people around, in an area sprinkled with businesses seemingly unaccustomed to more than a few concurrent patrons. A throng of excited people were milling about, restlessly waiting for the show to begin. The queue at the local McDonalds was spotted with people with varying levels of commitment to cosplay, and most notably, a significant number of show-goers wearing lanyards and carrying EB bags eagerly filled to bursting with various games, collectors editions, and tchotchkes. It seemed that despite the fact that the doors had yet to officially open, many Express and Ultimate pass holders had used their early access to stripmine the on-site EB store.
The security gates at the entrance to the show were surprisingly quick to navigate. We were able to walk straight in, with no queues to be seen. Excitable staff in blue EB shirts lined the entryway, handing out maps and asking whether or not we were, in fact, ready to play some GAMES. Upon rounding the corner, any sense of security regarding the lack of gate queues was harshly and quickly dispelled as we encountered the queue for the grand opening, hundreds deep, and almost entirely unprotected from the harsh sun that had already heated this pocket of the Earth to an unwelcome twenty-six degrees Celsius. Happily, our wait was short and we made our way into the blissfully air-conditioned auditorium, ready to absorb our first taste of the Expo through every pore of our now sun-blushed skin.
What followed was a joy to behold. Behind all of the marketing, pyrotechnics, dubstep, emotionally manipulative video reels, and Fully Sick Motorbike Stunts, was a room full of people that just love to love video games. Despite the fact that gaming is becoming generally accepted as a mainstream pastime, it is rare that we have an opportunity to be truly and vocally rhapsodic about it. There is a pressure to rein it in, fuelled by an old stigma that doesn’t seem to want to die, and the unfortunate cynicism that seems to be at its most evident in the Twitter feeds of some of gaming journalism’s oldest and most popular contributors.
As the grand opening proceedings approached their crescendo, my press pass weighed heavy around my neck. I felt a pressure to remain impartial, professional, to do as many of the others in the media section were doing, and show my appreciation by way of a gentle slapping of notebook on thigh. Suddenly something clicked with me. Dammit, I love me some video games, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend otherwise! As motorbikes sailed through the air, as dubstep threatened to wubture my spleen, and as some of my favourite video games from the last fifteen years flashed on the giant screens before me, I hooted and hollered along with the rest of my gaming brethren. Cynicism is crap, and it is rare that I have an opportunity to so enthusiastically repent.
The exhibition hall was impressively adorned with a great many booths of varying sizes, each showing off some small contribution to greater gaming culture. There were booths for everything from triple-A titles like Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, to gaming-related peripherals and artistic fineries. Any concern that I’d held about the commitment of the bigger developers and publishers, to an expo way out here in the colonies was dispersed by my first trip around the floor. Most of the booths that I encountered were well set up, and clearly staffed by people that knew how this sort of event worked. Queues for the more popular booths were cleverly routed, with estimated wait-times signposted. Games that would provide a spectacle, such as Just Dance 4, were positioned in the centre of the hall with enough space to allow for a crowd of onlookers, without hindering foot traffic. The setup was, for the most part, well designed and thoughtfully implemented.
While the high-level view of the show was overwhelmingly positive, unfortunately it is in the detail that cracks began to appear. It happened all too often that I would ask a question about a game of a booth attendant, only to be met with some variant of “I don’t know man, I just work here.” I understand that not every booth could have members of the development team on hand, but employing staff that have absolutely no knowledge of the games that they’re demoing implies a carelessness on the behalf of the offending publishers that was disappointing to encounter.
Perhaps even more disappointing was the inclusion of some rather lacklustre hands-on demos. The most obvious example of this was Tomb Raider. The stage demonstration was similar to what we had seen at E3, an exciting mix of narrative and action that evoked the Tomb Raider of old, while simultaneously stamping their mark on the obvious change in direction for the series. The hands-on demo however was a trivial traversal puzzle, and some buggy deer hunting. Plastering “PRE-ALPHA CODE” all over the title screen is fine, but at some point you have to ask yourself whether it is even worth running with a boring demo that may actively turn previously enthusiastic people away from your game.
Being at an event with cosplayers was an interesting experience. Previously, my only exposure to the subculture was via the larger gaming blogs that seem to only bother showcasing the skimpier costumes. I’ve never really known what to think about the whole thing, but I have to admit; when you’re standing in an interminable queue, cosplayers become a genuinely interesting accoutrement to the experience. These people that had put in such time and effort, who were not being paid to be at the show, and had freely given up their place in the queue in order to keep detainees entertained, were a welcome distraction. Some of the artistry on display was truly impressive, as was the level of respect that they clearly held for one another.
When posing for photos with scantily-clad peers the hover-hand seemed to always be employed, if an attendee didn’t wish to be involved in the tomfoolery they were left to their peace, compliments were being shared, as were hints and tips regarding the intricacies of certain design and production methods. The passionate cosplayers were quite distinct from those that were clearly being paid to be there. The actors/models were nowhere near as engaged with the audience, almost to the point of seeming inconvenienced by the whole experience. I don’t know that I would ever take part in cosplay myself, but I happily admit that I’ve gained a lot of respect for these talented jesters.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: My pick for Game of Show. It can be difficult to gain an accurate impression of a game from a mere seven minutes with it. One of the titles that really suffered from this at EB Expo was Far Cry 3. The demo itself was an open-ended romp around a section of the island, with no clear direction or obvious intent. Rather than taking the player through a narrow slice of what the game has to offer, Far Cry 3 just let us have at it. With more time, this is exactly the kind of pre-release demo that I would want, but in such a restricted viewing it only served to make the game feel directionless and punishing. That said, I was lucky enough to get a second, much longer demo with Level Designer Vincent Oilette guiding me through. In the hour(!) that I spent with Vincent and the game, my impression was completely turned around.
The Far Cry series has always taken pride in its ability to produce a vast array of interlocking systems that work together within a sandbox for the player to manipulate as they see fit, and Far Cry 3 is an impressive example. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the number of inexplicable icons on my minimap, Vincent was able to guide me though the new activity discovery mechanic, the clearing of a checkpoint, an assassination mission, a hunting mission, and detailed some of the intricacies of the vastly improved combat system. The big take-home points that came from the demo were that stealth is a legitimate and effective option this time around, checkpoints will not repopulate once they have been cleared, the combat is far stronger and deeper compared to previous titles, and the map is immense. Far Cry 3 appears to continue in the tradition of its predecessors, while taking the series in some new and thoroughly intriguing directions.
The close runners-up were Assassin’s Creed III and Hitman: Absolution. Assassin’s Creed III looks to be the Assassin’s Creed game that I’ve been waiting for during Ezio’s overlong tenure, while Absolution relieved me of my fear that it wasn’t going to stay true to the calculating and subtle nature of the Hitman series. Aliens: Colonial Marines was also a surprise entrant in the race, though the fact that I’m mostly only excited about its multiplayer modes precluded it from the running.
EB Expo 2012 was proof, despite the constant closure of game development studios across the country, that Australia is home to a large contingent of passionate gamers. EB Australia is to be commended for providing a consumer-focused event that is able to draw some big name presenters from all over the globe. I eagerly await next year’s show — though whether it will stand in PAX AU’s shadow or continue to cast a light all its own remains to be seen.
Cosplay photo courtesy Where I Live.