EGX 2014 – Hands-On Game Impressions

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Two weeks ago, Earls Court was home to EGX, also known as the Eurogamer Expo; a four-day gaming extravaganza of game booths, lights, merch stands and devs strutting their stuff on the show floor in all their glory.

I was there for a single action-packed day, so I tried to cram in as much as humanly possible within the limited time I had. Note to self, must buy a four-day ticket next year…

In between making my way round the huge event, taking pictures, queuing up to play games, and of course, buying plenty of Bowser-related merch, I managed to get decent hands-on impressions with four upcoming games – Halo: the Master Chief Collection, The Evil Within, Dying Light, and Alien: Isolation.

These were four of the key titles that I’ve had my eye on for a good long while, so I thought I’d share my initial impressions with y’all as they’re no doubt going to be popular choices amongst those with a taste for sci-fi and horror, like myself.

Next year, however, I’m making a beeline straight for that Oculus Rift tent! In the meantime, here are my personal thoughts on what I managed to get my greasy mitts on at this year’s event.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

#HaloNation.

Almost as soon as I got my wristband and infiltrated the EGX perimeter so to speak, I found myself in the queue for one of the biggest guns in the Microsoft arsenal; Halo: the Master Chief Collection.

Time for a bit of a background; I’m the only Xbox One/Halo fan I know who isn’t excited for this game, or planning to get it come November…which probably makes me some kind of freak. Nonetheless, I was keen to get my hands-on an Xbone controller and get a firsthand taste of this year’s Halo offering to see whether I’m just being a cynical old fool, or whether I’ve just totally missed the point of this collection.

It’s not that I think the game’s bad or naff – far from it, it looks fantastic. The Master Chief Collection looks like an exceptional package for those new to the Halo series to jump straight into the action with, and a must-buy for those who need that sugary Halo multiplayer fix to keep them going until the release of Halo 5 next year.

Unfortunately, I don’t fall into either of those two groups. I’ve played, dearly loved, and in fact, still own all the Xbox entries in the Halo series to date, along with their respective Xboxes (not to mention a whole pile of the lore-filled books and comics – but hey, that’s for another post). It’s just that, as someone who’s always been more a singleplayer gamer by nature, I’m finding it hard to justify coughing up another £50-£60 in order to play the same campaign missions that I’ve spent a staggering number of hours of the last decade shooting my way through time and time again…when I already have these old games and consoles sitting right there on my shelf. First world problems, I know.

Developer 343’s #HaloNation booths at EGX weren’t there to extoll the virtues of Halo‘s Master Chief campaigns today though; no, today was all about the multiplayer, specifically multiplayer on the fan-favourite Halo 2 map, Lockout.

Upon getting in the queue for The Master Chief Collection however, I almost changed my mind from naysayer to absolute belieber…I mean, believer, instantly; the game looks really good graphically. I’m not much of a polygon-counting aficionado, but I was really impressed by how the game looks in its shiny new 1080p and 60fps presentation. It’s fast, smooth and gorgeous; everything you’d want a seven-foot tall, alien-fighting, bio-mechanically enhanced super soldier to be.

Getting my hands-on with the controller…was another matter though. Things just felt clunky and awkward right from the off. Before you go thinking I’m just sulking because I got destroyed by the other players, I managed to come in a respectable 3rd place in the free-for-all Rumble Pit game I’ll have you know. But never mind scores and jovial teabagging, overall, the gameplay just didn’t really do it for me. That’s not to say it’s bad – it’s Halo, but it’s vintage Halo, warts and all.

Again, that’s not to knock the game itself; what I mean by vintage is that the controls are designed to work exactly how they functioned back when Halo 2 was live back in the good ol’ days of the original Xbox. It’s just that for me, personally, the gameplay felt very old-hat and sluggish.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved playing Halo 2 multiplayer back in the day, but ten years on, I’m eager to get something new. Having sunk an awful lot of time away from precious sunlight playing all the Halo multiplayers over the years, my vitamin D deprived body is looking forwards, not backwards, for my next Halo hit.

Despite The Master Chief Collection shipping with every Halo multiplayer map in existence, I can’t shake the feeling that when fans fire up their copies come November, where they’ll have this vast smorgasbord of maps to choose from, it’ll be nothing but votes for some variation of Blood Gulch/Valhalla over and over again. Even though lots of Titanfall players (probably Halo players come to mention it) bemoaned the lack of map voting systems in that game, I for one really welcomed the lack of user voting. Having the matchmaking system pick the maps and systematically cycle through all the choices felt incredibly refreshing – it meant that you actually got to regularly play on all the game’s maps, including the DLC maps you’d bought. Try firing up Halo 4 today and see how many times you get anything other than Valhalla. It’s a great map, but seriously, way too much of a good thing you know? Variety really is the spice of life, be it real or virtual.

The main thing that stuck with me from my hands-on was not being able to sprint. Since the introduction of the Sprint armour ability in Halo Reach, later becoming a separate universal Spartan function in Halo 4, not having the ability to quickly run across the map made the gameplay feel unnaturally slow. It feels strange, and something I couldn’t get my muscle memory to accept. It felt like the equivalent of having learnt to walk as a toddler, and then being forced to go back to crawling; in other words, questionable…not to mention cruel.

In addition, having sunk a lot of time into games like Titanfall and Destiny between playing Halo 4 and The Master Chief Collection, this made the game’s movement feel even more laboured and pedestrian. Specifically when it comes to Titanfall, an intrinsic part of what makes that game enjoyable is the effortless grace and skill you have as a Pilot to navigate and parkour around your environment to your heart’s content. I know that I’m comparing apples to oranges here with Titanfall and The Master Chief Collection (to see Master Chief parkour would be amazing, but wrong), but my taste of next-gen FPS experiences have all brought some nice movement tweaks to the standard gameplay shenanigans. Having to devolve back to a time ten years ago when we casually walked around our virtual battlefields like true gentlemen and women, (much like the poor soldiers of World War 1, only with plenty more power armour and much less trench foot) doesn’t feel quite so exciting and engaging to this old Halo nut anymore.

But hey, that’s not the point – The Master Chief Collection meant to be the most accurate HD next-gen port of the main Halo multiplayers, and so for the majority of them, sprinting didn’t exist. It’s just not a game for me that’s all, so if old-school Halo multiplayer is your thing, I highly recommend playing it. For me though, I think for the time being I’m going to sit this one out, and finish/resume the fight once we’re in Master Chief/Agent Locke’s bulky MJOLNIR shoes in 2015.

The Evil Within

A very Resident Evil 4-esque piece of booth art for The Evil Within…

If you weren’t aware of The Evil Within before turning up at EGX, you absolutely were by the time you left, due to the abundance of Evil Within cardboard boxes being carted around by the excited attendees; me myself eventually also becoming one of the gleeful cardboard-carrying zombie masses as the day progressed.

By the end of the day, every man woman and child at EGX had one of these Evil Within ‘Boxhead’ boxes to ferry around their loot with – me included.

If you didn’t know, the box is the rather nasty helmet/container/all-round receptacle of whatever makes up one of the game’s antagonists, Boxhead’s…well, head. Luckily for me, the formidable Boxhead didn’t appear in my demo, but nonetheless, there were some intense scary moments to be had in The Evil Within.

After some light playground trash talk directed at the other major survival horror game at the event (clue: it rhymes with Bailen Bisolation) from one of the booth attendants, me and the other queue-ees in my group had a controller and a set of painfully loud headphones thrust upon us.

The demo for Tango Gameworks’ horror game started off with protagonist and Leon Kennedy doppelgänger extraordinaire, Sebastian Castellanos, making his way towards a very familiar looking George Spencer-esque mansion in the middle of a creepy wood. Upon entering the mansion, you see a dubious-looking doctor and a rather frail-looking ‘patient’ heading down a corridor, before a giant safe door slams shut in front of you, blocking you off from them.

You’re totally on your own, which makes a nice change from the co-op trend the more recent entries in the Resident Evil series have gone for. The demo was very hands-off as well; from here, you can explore the mansion as you please. It feels, you guessed it, very Resident Evil-like, which is fantastic. The gameplay definitely feels like it’s positioned at the deep-end of the gaming difficulty pool – in other words, it’s pretty difficult. Enemies can quickly dispatch you with ease if you’re surrounded, and you only need to take a few hits from them to be snuffed out. I couldn’t make much progress with the ten minutes of gameplay I had (I was cocky and went for ‘standard’ difficulty – I can only imagine what ‘hard’ is like), but what I managed to play was great.

Items and resources were in very short supply, even in this demo, so I’m presuming this will be the case in the main game as well. Bodies of enemies need to be burnt with your ever-dwindling pack of matches to prevent them from getting back up – again, another great Resident Evil throwback, which will make for some stressful resource management tactics. I unfortunately couldn’t get my inner pyromaniac on in the demo because I was absolutely destroyed by the zombies I came across, rather than the other way around.

I struggled a bit with the 3rd person camera during my hands-on. Sometimes I couldn’t get it to swing around my environment fast enough during general combat (probably just a sensitivity issue) and at others I couldn’t get it in close enough when needing to aim in extremely close-combat, as in when things are biting great big chunks out of your neck (probably not just a sensitivity issue). Overall though, with the exception of Sebastian having a really visually annoying ‘running’ animation, things felt good, controller and gameplay wise.

The sound design, as you might imagine, is spot on – headshots make that perfect Resident Evil popping noise, things are thudding and creaking all around you, and when the music kicks in, it really ratchets up the tension.

As well as whatever foul horrors are lurking around in The Evil Within‘s dark nooks and crannies, you’ll also have to keep your eyes peeled (hopefully not literally) for environmental and rigged-up traps. These bring a tense SAW-like vibe to the proceedings, emphasising a very present and uncomfortable ‘body horror’ motif. Disarming them is nerve-wracking, and if unsuccessful, very costly. Expect to get caught out by plenty of these fiendish traps along the way…I know I did.

One of the best things about the game was that the enemies will appear in different places each time you die. I encountered two shuffling zombie-like creatures that were ever so keen to make my acquaintance; the first time they were skulking around in the dark recesses of a dank bedroom, and then after being promptly killed by the two mouldy miscreants, I found them nonchalantly eating a corpse lying around in a hallway. Whether the enemies had been randomly reset in a different location upon my death, or whether this was intended to be part of some psychological Eternal Darkness style mind-games (the munched-on corpse was already there on my first playthrough, although funnily enough, I did die pretty close to it), I couldn’t quite tell. Either way, it really sent a shiver up my hunched up spine, which is great. Definitely worth keeping a dismembered finger on the pulse of this game I reckon.

Dying Light

Dying Light.

Speaking of dismembered fingers, that brings us gruesomely to the next game I got to try – Dying Light; one of the big upcoming games to come from developer Techland (alongside its other major zombie game counterpart, Dead Island 2, of course).

Unfortunately, after my time in the demo, I left feeling rather disappointed by Dying Light. I’d been keeping my eye on it for quite some time as a big zombie fan as a potential buy for next year, but I’m a little worried about it from the stuff I got to play. The game just felt too much like Dead Island to me, with not enough meaningful differentiating features to distinguish it from its predecessor.

The first niggle I had was that the jump button is mapped to the right bumper on the Xbox One/DualShock 4. It just feels unnatural, although I can see exactly why it has been positioned there. Parkour is the key feature of the game of course; the whole game is designed to be like Mirror’s Edge with zombies, so as the jump/parkour button is going to be used a hell of a lot, it’s moved up to your other highly frequently pressed button, the right trigger of course. In practice though, it felt ungainly and uncomfortable, although there will most likely be a way of configuring your controls in the final game.

The parkour elements are cool, but perhaps due to my brief time in the demo and my lack of skill, I struggled to pull off anything significantly cool or athletically impressive; the best thing I managed to pull off was to hoist myself over a waist high wall…something that, with months and months of physical training and cardio, I could probably do myself in real life…maybe.

Graphically, the game really didn’t do much for me either. There seemed to be a really grainy filter to everything; I wasn’t sure if that was just due to the demo screen I was playing on or whether that was part of the engine. Either way, it didn’t exactly look great, nor did it look particularly next-gen – again, I’m not a tech person, but I could imagine with a bit of luck and gentle encouragement that my 360 could probably push out those graphics. Combine those grainy graphics with 30fps framerate, and it really doesn’t look too good in the visuals department.

To top it off, the combat gameplay feels exactly like Dead Island. It’s not bad, but just more of the same from that game. The melee weapons felt really clunky and underwhelming, making it easier to just dodge past the most withered and weak looking of zombies, rather than bothering to fight them. The bigger special zombies just take forever to wear down and kill. They don’t feel particularly scary, just frustrating bullet/knife sponges that need to be tediously picked away at to clear out an area or complete an objective.

I didn’t get hold of a gun in my own playthrough, but from looking at other players using them, they seemed really solid, and a massive step up from how the firearms handled in Dead Island. Perhaps sharp shooting is the way to go if you too find that the melee weapons and bladed weapons aren’t really cutting it.

I’m keen to see how the night time PVP scavengers vs. über zombie gameplay works (sadly this wasn’t playable at the event), as that genuinely does look unique and different compared to other zombie games of its ilk. I’m still very interested in Dying Light, but I’ll be looking at it with eyes of cautious optimism rather than unbridled excitement from now on.

Alien: Isolation

Alien Isolation – very scary!

Okay, so I’ve got a bit of a confession to make with this one. By the time I managed to get into the Alien: Isolation booth, a funny…competitive streak in me took hold. Perhaps it was because it was getting towards the end of the day, or perhaps there were some sinister mood-altering pheromones being pumped into the Isolation booth via the fancy smoke machines; whatever the reason, I wasn’t quite myself when I got to the front of the queue.

During an excitedly moody (is that even possible?) pre-game pep-talk from the Isolation team, in which they told the gathered crowd eager scare-junkies about how to best survive our brief tenure on the Sevastopol station, my ears pricked up at the words ‘leaderboard’, ‘competition’, and most importantly, ‘prize’.

It turns out that a competition had been running all day at the booth, to see who could survive longest in the brief demo. Whoever could survive longest would receive goodies…precious, ambiguous goodies. That was all I needed to hear. Suddenly that stimulus triggered off in the dark recesses of my brain a fierce and highly unusual desire to win.

I may be pretty average when it comes to shooters, hopeless at fighting games and shockingly bad at stealth games (sorry Kojima), but when it comes to survival horror games, I think I’m pretty good at screaming and panicking. They’re my virtual bread and butter so to speak.

The gauntlet had been thrown down by the booth team, and I was fool enough to stoop down and retrieve it. I was going to throw away my hands-on at the chance of winning…well, let’s face it, probably not much.

I’m pleased to say that I lasted about eight and a half minutes, which was above the current leaderboard score. However, I spent a great deal of my time just hiding in the lockers, scarpering about in the opening area, trying to set a high score time, and not really playing the game. I’ve been intending to buy Isolation from almost the minute it was announced, and it was the one game that I knew I just had to try above all else that day, but despite that excitement, I somehow let myself wastefully play extremely over-cautiously to get a stupid number on a whiteboard. Rather than actually just, you know, enjoy and experience the demo I’d just spent the best part of half an hour queuing up for. Like any normal person would.

Perhaps due to my cowardliness (read: almost certainly due to my cowardliness), my score wasn’t even remarked upon. Dejectedly, me and the rest of the gaming herd were ushered out of the dark booth and back out into the crowded EGX halls with nary a glance at our times. No prize for my excellent internal locker observations for me then.

From what I did get to play however, I can say that the game is incredibly tense and scary. The atmosphere is both deathly quiet and electrifying; every overhead clunk, metallic rattle or hissing vent opening sets you on edge. You’re never quite sure if what you’re hearing is indeed the Alien creeping up on you, or just some dying mechanical detritus rasping its last breath. The Alien is incredibly smart and sensitive too; although I didn’t get to say hello to it face to perpetually grinning double jaws so to speak, every slight movement I made would cue the Alien in to my position, and the motion tracker would ping like crazy as I swapped from locker to locker.

Oh well, even though my out of character competitiveness cost me the chance to write a decent hands-on piece for Isolation, I’ve actually got the final game in my hands (literally) as I tap this out (yes, really) with one hand. In other words expect plenty more from me on Isolation in the near future; only with more exploration and less – no, actually there probably will still be plenty of hiding and whimpering to come as well.

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