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The Best Games at PAX 2010 (That I Knew Almost Nothing About)

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I had a few goals going into the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) this year, which included playing Dead Space 2 and not getting so sick that I wished for the sweet embrace of death. I succeeded at the first, and the second is going okay so far, so I'm going to put that in the "win" column, too.

But PAX is always full of surprises; you never know when you'll turn a corner and almost run into a guy wearing an authentic-looking Subject Delta suit, then scoot around him only to bump into a table where the entire leading cast of Final Fantasy 7 plays Zombie Dice and eats biscuits.

Although, cosplayers do not provide the only surprises at PAX — a whole expo hall full of games awaits. The big titles are among them, sure, but with the time a person might spend waiting in line to play Portal 2, they could explore the far corners of the hall in which countless promising-but-lesser-known gems wait to be discovered.

These games aren't all obscure by any means, but I didn't know much (if anything) about them going into the show. They are all worth checking out.

 

Swarm

What I knew then:

  • Hothead Games is making it.
  • It stars those charming little guys in the above image.

What I know now:

It seems natural to compare Swarm to Lemmings or Pikmin; these are all games in which you lead a large group of adorable critters through pitfalls and obstacles standing between them and their goals.

Where Swarm differs, though, is that you don't corral the tiny creatures by manipulating the environment around them or sending them orders via a separate character. Instead, you control the Swarmites directly and spread them out to minimize deaths by falling bombs or stack them into "totems" to cross narrow ledges. It's a small and seemingly insignificant difference, but the player's role in the Swarmites lends their perils and successes more weight.

Having said that, Swarm takes Spock's lead, and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In the demo, Swarmites missed jumps, were exploded by bombs, and even sacrificed themselves by clogging a poison-spewing engine to cause an explosion so that the group could keep moving. It was these two conflicting perspectives — the identification with the group at the expense of the individual — that really endeared me to the game.

And let's face it — Swarmites are way cuter than Lemmings.


Lost in Shadow

What I knew then:

What I know now:

Among other things, I've learned that Lost in Shadow is a little difficult to describe. You play as a shadow separated from its body, Peter-Pan style, and your goal is to climb a scary tower to set up a reunion.

It's a Wii exclusive with no waggle to be seen; you'll use the Wii Remote to discover and select movable points in the environment, and that was the only non-button controlling I did during the demo. I especially liked it because it didn't make me feel stupid in front of the guy showing me the game.

Lost in Shadow is a puzzle platformer with some light combat (no pun intended), but that might be oversimplifying. Since the game takes place entirely in the background, you solve puzzles by manipulating foreground objects so that they cast more beneficial shadows. For example, a beam sticking straight out from the platform whose shadow you're standing on doesn't do you much good, but if you move in the right spot and rotate the beam upwards, its shadow lifts you up to reach higher places.

I assure you all of that makes sense while playing — just be glad I'm not trying to describe the sections in which you rotate the entire stage to completely reconfigure the layouts of shadows.

The Hudson Soft rep rattled off a list of games he'd heard people compare Lost in Shadows to that day alone — including Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Echocrome, Limbo, and Braid; as apt as these comparisons might be, Lost in Shadow has one of the most original game concepts I've seen in a while.

I'm with Jasmine — it's almost locked in to be one of those great Wii games that nobody will buy, despite the fact that the Hudson guy assured me that it won't be a full-priced title.


SpyParty

What I knew then:

  • Not a darn thing.

What I know now:

"SpyParty" sounds like something you might put on for an 8-year-old's birthday, but in fact it is the most interesting titleI saw all weekend. It's a two-player game where one person takes the role of a spy at the eponymous party, and the other plays a sniper at a post across the virtual street.

The spy has a number of tasks to perform, which include retrieving documents and planting a bug on an ambassador. The sniper only has one task: Kill the Spy. To do so, though, the sniper must first figure out who of those in his scope is the target. To avoid detection, then, the Spy has to blend in and avoid suspicion while still working to complete his own mission. Basically, this means convincing the player controlling the sniper that he is just another A.I. character — a mechanic hinted at, but not fully realized, in games like Assassin's Creed.

To add to the tension, the laser sight of the sniper's rifle is always visible, letting the Spy know exactly where his opponent's attention is focused — and make him constantly wonder whether the jig is up.

SpyParty is a simple mechanic done well, and it was fun just to watch two people playing. The competition, duplicity, and tension between the two players reminded me more of my favorite board-game experiences than my favorite video-game ones, which I know is a weird thing to say. It is, though, a compliment, and I'll follow this title closely.


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