Xbox Canada's annual preview event was held in a downtown Toronto club this week, where dozens of first- and third-party games slated for release on Microsoft's console were set up for journalists to check out.
My time at the showcase was unfortunately limited, so I skipped many upcoming games I'd reported on previously (including Halo: Reach and Fable III ) in favour of focusing on a quartet of titles I'd been interested in for a while but had yet to experience in person. Read on for my impressions of upcoming Japanese third-person shooter Vanquish, Electronic Arts' sequel to its survival horror hit Dead Space, Ubisoft Montreal's speedily-made Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and Fallout: New Vegas, the follow-up to my favourite game of 2008.
Vanquish (X360, PS3)
Published by Sega and developed by Platinum Games (the studio that brought us the decidedly mature actioners Bayonetta and MadWorld ), Vanquish is perhaps best described as what Gears of War might have been had it been dreamt up by minds schooled in Japanese game design.
It's a third-person sci-fi shooter with a strong focus on cover mechanics. In my brief time with it I moved my burly supersoldier from one barricade to another across a giant landing platform, breaking cover to fire only when solid shots presented themselves before ducking back down to reload.
One of the things that distinguish it from similar western games are its acrobatics. My hero lumbered around like one of Epic Games' famously meaty men most of the time, but he was also capable of performing slides, dashes, and flips that animated so quickly they were hard to follow.
There's also a decidedly eastern flavour to the visuals. The environment I explored was bright and relatively clean, and the mayhem, while spectacular, had a glossy rather than gritty quality; lots of shiny metal and splashy explosions, not a lot of grime or gore.
It's an odd mashup of seemingly conflicting sensibilities that won't appeal to everyone, but I liked what I saw. I'll definitely give it a whirl when it releases in North America a couple of months from now.
Dead Space 2 (X360, Windows, PS3)
I was blown away by the original Dead Space , a compelling and terrifying tale of both visceral and psychological horror set primarily on a derelict spaceship. Dead Space: Extraction , an on-rails shooter released for Wii last year, was a fun stopgap that provided a bit of back story prior to the next numbered entry in the series, but I've been itching to get back into some truly frightening high-def horror.
That itch only grew after spending 20 minutes with Dead Space 2.
I maneuvered returning protagonist Isaac Clarke-who was slightly more nimble than I remembered-through halls of body freezers on a massive space station called the Sprawl that was apparently experiencing the beginning stages of the infection that turned everyone into deadly mutated creatures in the last game.
The action began almost immediately. I had to fight off speedy, spindly necromorphs that fell from the ceiling, leaped out from behind corners, and spewed some sort of acidic vomit capable of causing some serious harm.
Luckily, Isaac still packs a pretty mean arsenal of tools that pull double duty as weapons. I enjoyed dicing enemies with the plasma cutter-remember, you have to strategically eviscerate enemies rather than just, say, shoot them in the head-and using a remote detonation mine to slow down the horde. I was also able to use Isaac's telekinetic abilities to grab and throw dead bodies to knock down attackers and hurl lighter severed body parts, like claws, with lethal results.
I eventually encountered an environmental puzzle that first forced me to stick Isaac's hand into a piece of machinery to tinker with its inner workings (you'll remember he's trained as an engineer; mutant killing is just a part time gig), then use his enhanced telekinesis skills to lower a series of metallic arms so that I could power up the large spinning device seen above.
I didn't have a chance to check out any of the sequel's open space sequences-the deathly silent zero-G scenes in the original were some of the most memorable for sci-fi junkies like me-but I was told that they've been enhanced. Isaac now has free movement in space and can occasionally use the vacuum as a means of dispatching his enemies.
And it looks great. The developers once again eschew a traditional HUD for more organic in-environment and on-suit information displays, and Isaac's ever-evolving suit-itself almost a character in the first game-looks so real and animates so naturally that I found myself wondering when some enterprising geek will get around to crafting a real-world replica.
Simply put, it looks to be a quintessential Dead Space experience. And it's not due until after the holidays, which means there will be no need to speed through the scares to make time for other games. I can't wait.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (X360, Windows, PS3)
Assassin's Creed II will have been on shelves for one year less a day when Brotherhood hits on November 16th this fall.
You might wonder about the quality of a game slated for release less than a year after its most recent predecessor, but the compressed development cycle didn't show as I watched an Ubisoft Montreal rep play through several parts of this gorgeous-looking, Rennaisance-era third-person actioner.
The majority of it is set in just a single city, Rome, but I was told that it is four times the size of cities that have appeared in earlier entries in the series. However, I didn't get to see much of the Italian capital. Instead, I saw our returning hero, Ezio, attempting to defend the villa that players spent hours building up in the previous game from a swarming army of Templars. He ran from one cannon to another atop the town's catwalks trying to take down the enemy's siege towers as they slowly rolled toward the city. It was an epic, spectacular battle unlike anything I'd seen in previous Assassin's Creed games.
Eventually the religious military order managed to storm the walls, forcing Ezio to engage in hand-to-hand combat. This is where things got really interesting. Ezio can fight more proactively than before. He can take the initiative rather than maintaining a perpetual defensive stance. He also has a small gun attached to his wrist, which he shoves up under enemies' chins prior to pulling the trigger, and in one scene he stole an axe from one foe before hurling it at another. It looked to be a grandly satisfying move.
Sadly, I wasn't shown the game's ballyhooed multiplayer mode, but I did get to see the titular Brotherhood clan in action. Ezio can now train assassin helpers and use hand movements to make them carry out tasks for him. I watched a lone assassin skitter across a rooftop to stab a guard standing watch on the street below, a quartet of hooded killers leap from the rafters of a cathedral onto unsuspecting victims, and a group of archers shoot down a squad of soldiers. My guide made it look easy, but I was assured that it takes plenty of time to train your followers to this level of skill. It looks like it will be worth the effort.
Some stuff I didn't learn: How Ezio copes with the bombshell revelation at the end of the second game, and the status of protagonist Desmond Miles in the present. But that suits me fine. Some things are best experienced as developers mean them to be; over the course of a two-dozen hour game rather than during a 20-minute tour at a crowded preview event.
Fallout: New Vegas (X360, Windows, PS3)
There were too many people jostling to try the next chapter in Bethesda Softworks' post-apocalypse franchise for me to manage any hands-on time with it, but I did get to chat with a developer from Obsidian Entertainment who gave me the lowdown while I stole glances over the shoulders of those who were engaged in some fine looking mutant mutilation.
Set a few years after Fallout 3 , players take on the role of a new character. Not a vault-dweller but a courier who has been robbed, shot, and left for dead on the road. That's all the reason we need to begin exploring what remains of Las Vegas 100 years after the nuclear holocaust.
The landscape of New Vegas appears to look much like the world of Fallout 3's Washington, D.C., but that's more to do with the fact that it's a desert than anything else. Turns out Sin City and surrounding area were spared a direct nuclear hit. There's still a colourful and populated strip where you can step into a casino and gamble. Outside the city you'll find wastelands, but also splashes of green in the form of desert plants and a surprisingly crisp blue sky. But, obviously, construction is at a standstill. Expect plenty of grey, dilapidated, century-old structures.
Many of the mutant humans and creatures I saw were familiar, but there are several new factions that players will encounter, including the colonizing armies of The New California Republic, Caesar's Legion (which gives me hope we might be able to explore the remains of the famous hotel and casino), and a group led by a mysterious man named Mr. House who controls the strip.
But new setting and personalities aside, returning players will recognize much of what they see. The HUD, the menus, the ability to slow down time and select specific body parts to attack; it all recalls New Vegas' immediate predecessor. However, I was told that there are some subtle changes. A new "companion wheel," for example, will allow players to interact with their followers more efficiently, directing them to use stimpaks and specific weapons with ease. Plus, Obsidian has added iron sites to weapons, which ought to make free targeting a bit more effective-though behind-the-scenes rolls of the dice will still dictate damage (this is, after all, a role-playing game).
So it's Fallout 3 with refinements. Given that the original is one of my favourite games of this generation, that's more than enough to sell me. Guess I know how I'll be spending around 100 hours of my time this October.
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