After attending my first PlayStation Experience event in San Francisco, I liked how the whole experience was focused on the joy of gaming. From the very start, Sony made it clear that the event was a combination of talking about new games and appreciation event for the fans who have purchased 30 million PlayStation 4 video game consoles since 2013.
Our GamesBeat team attended the two-hour keynote talk on Saturday, and we also spent both days checking out the games in the exhibit halls and interviewing developers on site. The live Sony event where Sony showed off the newest games for the PS4, PlayStation VR, and PlayStation Vita systems in San Francisco could put some pressure on Microsoft and Nintendo to respond with their own live events. Of course, Microsoft had a big presence at the Gamescom fan event in Europe, and Nintendo often updates its fans through one-way online video presentations. Business people call Sony’s tactics “experiential marketing.” I think it just plain smart and an improvement on other trade shows, where a lot of stuff just isn’t playable.
There was a special carnival atmosphere as the fans lined up to play upcoming games. It felt like a mini-E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) show, like some day in the distant future where Sony is the one and only platform company. And at the rate the console wars are proceeding, that’s not a crazy possibility. There were long lines, huge booths, cosplayers, loud noises and announcers, and cavernous exhibit spaces at the Moscone West Center in San Francisco. Andrew House, head of the PlayStation business worldwide, was backstage. Shawn Leydon, head of the PlayStation business in the U.S., went out on stage to personally thank fans. That’s about as high-touch as you can get with gamers.
What I enjoyed was getting my hands on some games that I hadn’t seen for months or was altogether surprised to see on the floor. I expected to see the big crowd around the booth for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. That line was constant, even though the multiplayer is available as a beta test for people to try out at home. But I was surprised to see a line for the indie game Distance, a Tron-like “survival racing game for the PlayStation VR from Refract.
Here are my impressions of the games that I checked out and the interesting moments at the show. It’s a commentary on the breadth of gaming that the show swung so far from the silly to the sublime. Yoshinori Ono, executive producer of Street Fighter V, was hilarious in his enthusiasm for the fans of his upcoming fighting game. He came out on stage with giant boxing gloves, and he had to be politely escorted off the stage when his time ran out. It was cute, and the fans were cracking up at the antics. Meanwhile, I felt the sublime during the demo of Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight, a VR game where you could soar as an eagle over the city of Paris in the distant future.
I lined up to get a look at For Honor, the sword-combat game coming from Ubisoft. The game looks beautiful, with medieval knights charging at each other in giant melee battles akin to Braveheart movie. But you can’t get a full impression without going hands-on with it, since the game uses a clever control scheme. It takes a little two-minute training session to get used to it. You can use the left analog stick on a Dual Shock controller to move your character. And you use the right stick to determine which of three postures you will use to guard yourself. You can guard with your sword to defend against an attack from the right, left, or center.
It’s a five-on-five combat game, with a lot of other artificial intelligence soldiers in the melee. When you charge into battle with four other knights on your side, you can easily take out the soldiers with a single stroke. But the rival human-controlled knights on the other side are tougher. You have to hit the square button to loosen someone’s guard stance and then follow up quickly with either a light attack or a heavy attack. You can dodge, send an emote, or actively defend yourself. The guard direction was important, and it worked well. In the match I fought, my team dominated the three flags and we denied the enemy the ability to respawn. At that point, our five knights hunted down the remaining two enemy knights and ended the fight. I thought it was quite fun, and he combat was smoother than the sword fighting in Ryse: Son of Rome launch title for the Xbox One from 2013. This title is coming next year.
Far Cry Primal
Ubisoft also showed off a working demo of Far Cry Primal, a gorgeous title set in the Stone Age, where you play a warrior in a tribe that competes with other tribes for survival and dominance of nature. I thought it was fun shifting from the warrior to the playable owl, who can hunt or serve as an aerial scout for the warrior. I was soaring overhead and feeling the freedom of flight. That made me interested in seeing more of Ubisoft’s upcoming VR title, Eagle Flight, where you can fly over an animated version of Paris in virtual reality.
Far Cry Primal had some very cool moments. I watched one player sneak behind a wooly mammoth, as if he was going to launch a spear at its butt. Instead, he got closer and then mounted on top of it. Then, he was able to launch spears and arrows at enemies below as the mammoth stomped around. I also watched another player’s jaw drop wide open as he was pursuing a bear into a river. He was ready to attack it, when he became the prey. A crocodile emerged and tried to eat him alive. He managed to fight it off and send it to the bottom of the river. But it was a pretty shocking surprise. The game arrives Feb. 23 on the PS4, Xbox One, and Windows.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
I was also enjoyed some games that were off the show floor, in a media lounge. I was a big fan of Until Dawn, which Supermassive Games launched on the PS4 earlier this summer. So it was interesting to find Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, running on the PlayStation VR. It was an arcade shooter title, where you can ride on a mine cart on rails into a crazed hotel. It was straight out of the mind of the killer in Until Dawn. It was a completely different kind of game from the cinematic experience of Until Dawn, but Rush of Blood was also loaded with visual references to Until Dawn. The ghost from Until Dawn is your primary adversary, and there’s a familiar gory beating heart. There were “crash dummy” characters who marched at me like zombies.
It’s a horror shooter game where you have to use PlayStation Move controllers as guns. You fire at everything that comes at you until you run out of ammo. There was nothing particularly special about that experience, as we’ve all seen shooting gallery games before. But the jump scares and the peripheral vision of VR added to the whole horror effect. But it was a lot of fun, and it left me sweaty afterward. You may not like the game itself. But if you are an Until Dawn fan, then the extension of the narrative, in even the smallest way, will be interesting to you. It’s a descent into madness. The game will come out next year.
Drive Club VR
That was a good VR experience. But I also saw the bad. I strapped into a PlayStation VR unit and a full motion-simulating racing station, complete with gas pedal, brakes, and a steering wheel. Then I started in a demo of Sony’s Drive Club racing game. It was cool to look over my shoulder or look ahead with a wider field of view. But I crashed into a wall after a sharp turn. Then I tried to back up. I stepped on the gas to go forward and I spun out. That’s when I started feeling nauseous. That familiar feeling came back as I was spinning in circles. Clearly, you can’t just bolt VR onto a racing game like Drive Club. They should have at least cut the crash scene and just put the car back on the straightaway after the wreck. Sigh.
Then there was the regular PS4 game, Manifold Garden, that maybe should have been a VR game. This title was inspired by M.C. Escher’s Relativity painting, and it was, incredibly, created for the most part by a single developer, William Chyr, as a labor of love. It’s a physics title, much like Portal, where you place boxes on spots on the ground. You can walk to the edge of the wall and then pull the trigger on a controller. The wall in front of you shifts so that it becomes the floor. Then you can literally walk on the wall. Chyr told me he was also inspired by the movie Inception, in a scene where the city of Paris is “folded” in half and then they start walking on the walls.
“I always wanted to stop and stay in that dream world of Paris,” Chyr said.
If you drop something in such a game world, which direction would it fall? Chyr seeks to answer that in his game. It is a mind-bending exercise to play Manifold Garden. Chyr has been working on the title alone for 2.5 years, and he has funding from the Indie Fund, and that has helped him hire a part-time programmer. It’s a bit of a solitary world, but Chyr has been polishing the environment of the game like an artisan. Chyr hopes to get the game out next year.
After some serious physics puzzles, I was ready for something simpler. So I played Guns Up! (which is now available for free on the PlayStation Store). It’s a 2D side-scrolling strategy game where you have to equip your army and send it off at the enemy on the right side of the screen. You can make choices about how to support your infantry, as your troops move in real-time against the enemy’s machine gun emplacements, snipers, rifle squads, and other defenses. The graphics are pretty, particularly the smoke trails and the explosions. But it’s rendered in a cartoon-like art style. That’s different from a lot of real-time strategy games, and it’s a welcome and original change of pace.
I also played the goofy Headlander game that Double Fine Productions is making for Turner’s Adult Swim brand. In Headlander (which I suspect is making fun of either Zoolander or Skylanders), your head can become detached from your body. Your head is in a space helmet that has its own thrusters, so you can fly around. You can attach your head to another headless body. Or you can simply knock somebody else’s head off and then attach your head to the body. This allows you to solve some interesting puzzles. For instance, if you need to gain entry to a security door, you can hijack an enemy’s body and use that uniform to gain entrance past the security door. It’s hilarious, but the gameplay is challenging. The title comes out next year.
Lastly, one of the coolest new games that I saw was Media Molecule’s Dreams. This game was truly stunning. You can use the tools that Media Molecule’s team has created to make it easy for anyone to become a video game artist. You can tour the mini dream worlds and admire the characters that Media Molecule’s own artists have created. But after the game launches, you’ll be able to view the worlds created by all of the game’s players. You can enter those worlds and play the games that have been embedded in the worlds.
Or you can create your own dreams. You started by customizing your “imp,” which you use as a kind of paintbrush or sculpting tool for the world. You grab things with the imp’s pointy side. You can grab objects that others have created and put them into your own world. You can search for a particular word like “trees” and find all of the creations that match it. Then you can place them like objects into your own world. You can resize them, change their exterior texture, or modify the colors. The game keeps track of objects that people have created and the modifications that others have made. Some of the worlds are already amazing. The game will hit its beta test next year.