The Calm before E³ 2014 – Crazy Prediction Time

April 8, 2014

An unprecedented calm even? This year´s E3 will either be one devoid of many news or one full of surprises, seeing how we hardly hear about any rumors for the upcoming gaming-mega event in Los Angeles. Especially as a big time Nintendo-fan, the wait for news is excruciating. A Smash Bros.-related Nintendo Direct later this day promises to soothe things a bit, but even the inevitable reveal of a playable Ridley, Shulk and Krystal cannot mask the dire situation of the Wii U. What´s going to happen? Let´s try to predict some – and fail badly at it!

Fanboy´s Favorite: Nintendo

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My past predictions of Nintendo´s E3-offerings used to be high in numbers and overly positive. Ever since the company´s treatment of its own new home console, the Wii U, it is clear that such optimism is unfit the situation. I´d love to go into this segment of ths article full-steam and write “Metroid 5 will be shown, as well as a 1080p60fps F-Zero”, but I cannot. This is a year where I have to take into account the circumstances and reflect Nintendo´s best and most realistic chances at delivering a high impact-E3-showing. Thus, I will focus on a few selected titles instead of listing dozens of wish games. Here I go:

The Legend of Zelda U will be revealed as promised by Eiji Aonuma. There will be some major changes to the typical formula, lon-needed changes as Aonuma himself admitted. Firstly, the focus of the game is on exploration to a never before realized degree. Aonuma already hinted at more non-linearity and this entry in the series will finally be the one that takes the original Zelda 1 for NES and makes it into a stunning 3D-game. The player is thrown into the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a beautiful, open, living game-world. You´re free to go anywhere. This where the next major change is revealed: Environmental interactivity is taken to the next level. Link can climb any surface that´s not entirely flat. No “gamey” specially marked surfaces where you can climb, but truly everywhere. Think of Shadow of the Colossus´ climbing mechanic, but with less restrictions. The movement of Link will be central to the experience, with additional items expanding your options of locomotion. Within a world that wants to b explored, climbing, jumping and more are integral to the gameplay. Of course, the jump-button will return to 3D-Zelda for the first time ever. A big change in its visual design is the renunciation of the blocky, almost grid-based layout of the world that existed to allow for an easier implementation of puzzles. Instead, the world will look believable, no more blocky, perfectly flat walls of mud. The environment wants to be experimented with, thanks to the non-scripted movement options. One change might cause a huge uproar to some conservative fans: Link will be able to be customized. At the very least will we be able to buy and change his clothing, and not just limited to 2-3 status-effecting armors, but real custom clothing. Get rid of the ridiculous hat, thank you! As for the visual artstyle, I´m expecting something close to the E3-demo, but not exactly the same. They can´t stray away from that too much, or we´ll have Spaceworld vs. TWW 2.0. Nobody wants that. Whatever it is, this is a Zelda-game that needs to prove that Nintendo is still capable of producing ambitious games, and not just minimum effort-cash ins like Super Mario 3D World or Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Something.

Monolith Soft´s X will be shown. For the first time, we will see a lengthy, story-centric trailer that gives an elaborate glimpse into the world, its characters and its circumstances. Personally, I expect a lot of people to be shocked by the true scale of the game, that might even exceed what we´ve seen so far. Xenoblade was all about exploring a gigantic world – with a flying mecha, you have to up the ante a lot to keep this sort of exploration, so even a huge continent might be too small to keep it up. Think bigger. Think … stars! Anyway, the game will be set for an early 2015 release in the west and a holidy 2014 release in Japan. Worst wait ever. Oh, and a short bonus-teaser will reveal that it is indeed Shulk who we saw at the end of the first teaser in 2012.

Super Smash Bros. 4 will have a big show-casing at this year´s E3. I expect more character reveals and and in-depth presentation of the games modes, especially the online-ones. Even in worst times, Smash Bros. managed to keep Nintendo relevant, as proven by Super Smash Bros. Melee, the only million-seller on GameCube in Japan. The game builds on its great foundations, no big surprises incoming (other than any newcomer being a surprise in itself, or course).

Two major new announcements will be made: One of them is Pokkén, the long rumored Pokémon-fighting game. The fantastic graphics and the exciting choices of playable Pokémon will make this appealing to the entire fanbase. Developed by Bandai Namco and the Tekken-team, it´ll have more than solid gameplay as well as a flawless online-component. The other new title will be from RetroStudios, and it´ll be in the tone that most of us whished for a long time: Some “mature”, non-cartoony looking, open-world 3D-game. Three possibilities: 1.) StarTropics, 2.) A Metroid-game where you play a Federal Space Trooper, not Samus Aran, or 3.) a new franchise. Whatever it is, it´ll look great, moody and be released sometime 2015 or even later.

The rest of the Wii U´s E3 will consist of known titles like Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2 and Yoshi Yarn.

The Nintendo 3DS is hard to predict. Last year has been fantastic, this year is a lot quieter in terms of software. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be shown. Lots of smaller titles. Hopefully, Fire Emblem: Awakening sees a sequel; afterall, the game hints that the story is not over yet AND it´d make sense saleswise, since this turned out to be one of the best-selling games in franchise-history.

The big wild card for Nintendo´s 2014 E3 will definitely be the QoL-device. It´s either going to be the laughing stock of the industry or something truly awesome, a must-have gadget. Not much in-between, really. Since I refuse to believe that Nintendo´s putting so much effort into a generic me too-fitness device, I think that their QoL-device will be something really cool. My personal speculation revolves around improved AR-capabilities and/or some highly evolved, endearing A.I./algorithm-“companion” that manage your daily virtual ventures and becomes more individual the more you keep using the device, thus bein able to automatically set or deactive the alarm, notify you of someone´s birthday or, as that´s part of the concept, tell you about your health. The AR-part could be seen as a reasonable counter to the current VR-hype. VR is all about a solitary experience at home, whereas AR is all about experience virtual content in the real world, so it´s automatically a more social experience, thus befitting Nintendo´s philosophy. We haven´t really seen what´s possible with AR at this point, both the 3DS´ and PSVita´s AR-capabilities are a glitchy, jittery mess. Think along the lines of that supercool Google-April fools-video, where you could see Pokémon interacting with the real world by looking through your smartphone. That sort of AR. As for the virtual companion idea, that´d be super-popular in Japan (think of all the anime that had A.I. partners for the hero) and is already touched upon by both Apple and Microsoft. Apple had Siri, and MS just recently published their Cortana-update for Windows Phones. Both are a nice start, but so much more would be possible, if you made it the focal point of a device. Maybe the QoL?

Microsoft´s effort-machine:

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Sony´s PS4 is currently beating the Xbox One´s ass, so Microsoft needs to show more than all those third-party multiplatform titles. While I have no interest in buying another system next to my Wii U and gaming PC, Microsoft managed to create some truly interesting first-party titles in the past. I´m looking forward to what they have in story.

The Third Place: Sony

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I´m (not) sorry, but i just don´t care.

Conclusion:

Games development gets more and more expensive as the industry turns more and more risk-averse. It is this year´s E3´s challenge to prove that creativity is not dead. All three big publishers and home console-manufacturers have to prove that you do not need a VR-headset for a fresh, fantastic experience. If they fail to do so, Facebook´s Oculus Rift might have them in for a bad awakening. It´s entirely up to each of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony to prevent that from happening, though. An exciting E3, even without a plethora of new announcements.


Strike three, out! – Most certainly not

November 12, 2011

I´m sitting in some comfy chair in front of my PC right now and I can´t stop feeling overwhelmed. Simply overwhelmed by the “game” that was Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii. I´m hesitant to just call it a mere game, because that´d put it into the vast ocean of, well, other video games. Crude joking aside, this right here is what has gone missing since the SNES/PS1-era, maybe including Dreamcast-era: An epic (“epic” used in the actual meaning, not in gaming journalism-lingo) adventure, an expansive, lengthy journey, and a wonderful, charming cast of characters. I´d like to say that the last JRPG that had me feel this emotional, involved and captivated, was Skies of Arcadia Legends, and don´t ask me which one I favor, because I couldn´t answer that question. Not now, anyway.

But while Xenoblade is truly their finest masterpiece, developer MonolithSoft has already delivered two fantastic role playing games before. Both Baten Kaitos and Baten Kaitos: Origins gave a glimpse into the skill set and creativity of the now Nintendo-exclusive development studio. Where Baten Kaitos gave us a first look into an unique fantasy-world and an innovative card battle-system, Origins one-upped that and offered detailed insight into the politics of that same universe, succeeding in telling a story that Square Enix´ Final Fantasy 12 failed at.

What is most astounding is the consequent improvement in MonolithSoft´s game design philosophy. To make this not an overly long and in-depth article, let´s just look at the evolution of surficial changes between their three games. Baten Kaitos offered a creative, original combat system that relied on cards, but also used these cards outside of battle to transport any kind of item. Each character in your active party had his own card deck. Health could only be regenerated during combat, by rare, expensive healing items or at save points. Said save points weren´t always put fairly and defeat meant re-starting from the last save point. This brings us to Baten Kaitos: Origins, where not only save points were always within close reach, but the player was freed from having to pay attention for healing, too. Health was automatically filled to max when not fighting some monsters. The addictive card battle system got an overhaul as well, removing character-exclusive card decks and having the whole party share a single one, which really helped the micromanagement process. However, just like its predecessor, traveling the world was still rather slow. And thus we arrive at Xenoblade, where fast travel means lighting fast travel. Once reached a new check point on the ginormous world map, players need to simply click the minus-button, choose their destination, confirm with the a-button and … are wherever they intended to be. It is only between completely different areas when load times take a several seconds wait, but looking at how big just one single area is, that is still an unfathomable achievement in game design. As for the masterpiece´s combat system … it could be said that it is some kind of evolution of the previous games´ card battle, but I guess that would be a little too far-fetched without proper evidence. However, disregarding the cards-or-not topic, Xenoblade made sure to proceed the mission of BKO, creating a most comfortable, user-friendly environment. Health regenerating outside of battle was a given, but not only has you Xenoblade forget all your worries about unnecessary item management (while still offering plenty of customization), it also features stuff like granting experience points for individually beaten enemies. So even if you fail to beat a group of enemies, you get the points for the ones you actually did. And what happens should you fail? Restart from last save point? Watch a lengthy cutscene over and over again? Of course, not! Being wiped out means that you´ll restart at the last map check point. No loss of experience, no loss of anything. And cutscenes cannot only be skipped, they won´t even start a second time when re-approaching the “bitch that kicked your ass“.

MonolithSoft seems to have researched each and every complaint JRPG-fans had with various games in the past and put all of that to heart, resulting in the most user-friendly, frustration-free experience ever. With the exception of a little quick grinding here and there, should you grow tired of doing the endless amount of sidequests, Xenoblade is as smooth of a progression as is possible in terms of game design. Which leads me to the most exciting part of it all and the reason why I wanted to share these thoughts with you: The next game.

With the Wii U entering the HD-era and MonolithSoft being one of Nintendo´s technically most capable teams (as was found out, they even helped with Zelda: Skyward Sword), whatever their next project is gonna be, it´s an instant Most Wanted-title for anyone that enjoys great video games. The big question remains: Is it is even possible to surpass the magnificence of Xenoblade? Well, yes it is (sorry). While many of those that played Xenoblade agree that it is one of the best JRPGs ever and THE best JRPG of the current generation, it´s easy to find room for improvement. Not the kind of improvements that were missing due to incompetence, but because at some point, something just cannot be implemented anymore due to the sheer vastness of content. Having finished Xenoblade in 91 hours only means that I´ve beaten its main story. I could probably put in another 90 hours to do and see everything – it´s that much content. Now, if I had to pick just one aspect of the game that I would love to improve on, it´s character dynamics and detail surrounding them. Xenoblade puts our heroes in this grand adventure and we grow to love them, but maybe with the exception of hero Shulk, none of them is ever fleshed-out particularly well. Which, again, isn´t a huge fault here, since we´d be looking at a 150 hour-campaign otherwise. But the point stands and is reason why I´d like for MonolithSoft to take the opposite approach for the next project: An adventure and story small in scale, but featuring an enormous, fearsome amount of care for detail. A story that is character-driven, rather than following the limits of some almighty villain. A combat-system that completely makes away with grinding and introduces an intelligent mix of strategy, puzzle and attentiveness. Maybe to the point where losing a fight not only doesn´t just put you right in front of it for another try, but actually incorporates the loss into the further progression of the game, thus never leading the flow to a halt. MonolithSoft has shown how they love to put some real-world tangents into their fantasy worlds – maybe they should turn around that approach and make a JRPG that is set in our current, modern world and whatever fantasy is only creeping in an ominous, far away background, slowly coming closer as the plot unfolds. I´m having Death Note or Durararara on my mind right now, if you happen to know these anime shows. But anyway, I have no doubt that the game after Xenoblade will be devoid of frustration, feature an even more motivating combat system and present another rich, creative universe. If it´s me, I´d like to see MonolithSoft´s fine skills used in a small scale-character driven title, but I´d lie if I claimed that I wouldn´t also love another big, epic journey.