I head in to London for Eurogamer Expo 2009, held this year on the bank of the Thames between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. I am finding less time to play games these days, as a good MMORPG can effectively fill up any spare gaming time by itself, but I am looking forwards to the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised by what the latest and greatest in console and PC gaming has to offer. However, as a Mac owner I am not expecting much beyond the many console titles on show.
In the independent section of the show it is good to see Plain Sight represented again. Plain Sight was my pick of Eurogamer Expo 2008, although I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, when I found out there was not going to be a Mac version released. When Guitar Hero: World Tour somehow convinced me to get an Xbox 360, I was quite excited that I would get to play Plain Sight, so even though the game's release has been heavily delayed it is excellent to see that it is still being developed and prepared for release. The even better news is that the game will now be getting a Mac version!
Plain Sight has had quite a few changes made in the last year, including a complete graphics overhaul. Even though the general style of the graphics remains, with small robots jumping their way around a stylised arena with small cityscape planetoids, similar in gravitational effect to those in Super Mario Galaxy, everything looks shinier and the robots more detailed. The targeting system has been updated to be easier to use, there are power-ups to be gained, and a new control system makes double-jumping around more fun than ever. When I get chatting to the publisher about multi-player options and computer AI, he cranks up the settings to show a tech-demo of fifty computer-controlled robots all flying around an arena at the same time, blue trails highlighting each robot's path. It looks fabulous, and I can't wait to get my hands on the game when it is released.
Another independent game catches my eye because of the amazing burst of colours coming from the screen, reminding me of all the time I spent playing Jeff Minter games. Squid Yes! Not So Octopus: Squid Harder! is a single-screen shooter a bit like Robotron but with amazingly colourful visuals. The idea is simply to survive for a set amount of time as enemies spawn, where you can move around the screen to avoid the enemies and their bullets or destroy them with your own. But when the explosions burst in a bright and blurry rainbow of colours, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where your character is, and that's part of the challenge. The game is simple, it has an auto-fire option so that you don't get cramps holding down a key permanently, and is as much a visual joy as gaming fun. I try to complete the first level quite a few times, with the goal to stay alive for one minute, yet even though the closest I manage is fifty two seconds I still go back for one more go each time. I wish I could play this more, but trying to install SYNSO: Squid Harder! on my Mac, using Crossover Games, locks up my machine, which is a shame.
Also in the independent games section is Darwinia+ from Introversion, whose Mac version from Ambrosia Software I enjoyed playing some time ago. Darwinia+ is simply a collection of Darwinia and Multiwinia, the multi-player variant, in a single package and being released for the Xbox live arcade. There are no changes to the story from Darwinia, although the graphics have been updated a little. Another title shown is Eufloria, a game of flowers and asteroids. I only have a brief session playing the game, which takes me to the end of the third level, which I believe is still part of the tutorial, and it has a pleasing minimalist style and could be fairly relaxing and engaging to play. However, as it is available only on the PC I am unlikely to get a chance to play more of Eufloria, which is a shame.
On the main floor of Eurogamer Expo 2009 there are all the latest console and PC releases, none of which really catch my eye, though the one MMORPG here has caught most people's attentions, which is Star Trek Online. Curiously, there aren't huge crowds around the machines, but that is perhaps not as much to do with a lack of interest in MMORPGs as the way the game is being presented. The demonstration machines are all running the same mission, which involves some simple space combat, followed by ground combat in a space station before beaming down to a planet for more ground combat, after which the Guardian of Time resets everything back to the start. It is a clever mechanism to show different parts of the game whilst controlling what is seen, as well as limiting people's time to discourage anyone hogging a machine. But such a brief demo also works against Star Trek Online, as the entire demonstration is experienced in five minutes
I walk away from Star Trek Online without any sense of depth from the game beyond it being just another MMORPG. The space combat is colourful and could be interesting, with separate shield and weapon quadrants requiring manoeuvres for the ship to remain most effective against the enemy. Ground combat offers ranged and melee combat, and there are tantalising glimpses of items available to heal party members and boost combat options. But the limited options available in the demonstration, with only three attack options for both space and ground combat, results in combat resolving to selecting the next target and mashing the buttons. The best I can comment about Star Trek Online is that it feels like an average MMORPG. But without a sense of story, progression, or the social interaction available, what is presented simply doesn't impress.
An impressive display of technology is available in two forms, that of 3D displays. Or, rather, 3D glasses for normal displays. 3D Vision from Nvidia uses a normal 120 Hz display to create two alternating 60 Hz pictures, with custom glasses that synchronise with the computer to blank one LCD lens of the glasses at a time, effectively presenting each eye with a different picture. The brain combines these two views to give a stereoscopic image running at 60 frames per second, resulting in a remarkable 3D view from a 2D display. The game being demonstrated is a racing game, which shows an impressive rendering of the car's cockpit, but the road stretching off in to the distance doesn't seem much different. However, when passing other cars or moving close to the barriers really shows off how effective the impression of 3D is, as instead of the other car merely sliding off the side of the screen, as it normally would look like, it really feels like it passes by your side. The technology apparently doesn't need any specific gaming software, only an Nvidia graphics card and drivers, with many games displaying in 3D from the box, but again it is available only on the PC.
Real 3D is another display of 3D display technology, also requiring special glasses. These glasses are unpowered, and I am unable to find out anything about how they work. The game being displayed is an FPS, which gives a different and better look at what is offered by 3D technology. Everything in the game, from the main character to the foliage, is shown in full 3D, with ammo packs bumping off your character's body, gun flare realistically highlighting the surrounding area, and plants seemingly coming out of the screen as you move through them in a way that makes several people duck. Large boss mobs come much more alive when you get a better impression of how big they are beyond visually taking up half the screen, particularly when they thunder towards you in full 3D. Other games seem boringly flat after seeing the two 3D display technologies available, and I would certainly like to see 3D gaming become more widely available.
Although there are many much-anticipated titles available to play on the main floor, including Dragon Age and Left 4 Dead 2, my pick of the show is New Super Mario Bros. Wii. I am interested to see this title, being a big fan of the Super Mario Bros. series of games, although my expectations are low. Nintendo has generally done a pretty good job of creating a new style of Mario game for each of its systems, adding different features and better graphics and gameplay elements, but every time they have tried to update the old-style games for the new generation they have failed to capture the spirit of the original game. Shiny new graphics help, but not if the added parallax scrolling reveals blocks previously hidden by the background; making Mario more agile updates his moves to be similar to the modern games, but tends to break the feel of the classic style of gameplay, which may need more skill and timing but includes a greater sense of satisfaction. Previous updates have felt like superficial attempts to market nostalgia.
For the latest attempt to revamp the classic Super Mario Bros., Nintendo have wisely kept the feel of the old game whilst adding many elements from newer games as the series has progressed. Mario and chums cannot turn on a sixpence in this game, requiring instead time to slow down and turn, making it more skilful experience much like the original. There is a much greater sense of control, providing that fulfilment when different moves are connected fluidly. Yet the graphics are fully updated, including new landscape elements, there are more power-ups available, and moves that veteran Mario players have learnt are all available to use. If you come to a slope, Mario can slide down it on his bum, knocking enemies out of the way; koopas can be picked up and carried, or simply kicked along to take out the goombas; wall jumps can help to get your character to a higher platform; and bricks beneath Mario can be smashed with a somersault jump. The Wii's controller can also be shaken to affect power-ups or the environment. Nintendo have finally succeeded in creating a classic side-scrolling platform game for a modern console.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii has a fabulous multiplayer mode. Up to four players can join in the game simultaneously, and unlike many other games there is full player collision, which means there is both a co-operative and competitive mode built in to the game at all times. Players can bump in to each other on the ground or in the air, jump on each other's heads, and the game only ends when all players are knocked out at the same time. An effective display of the multi-player mode is how the game is demonstrated, with two-, three- and four-player games all set up on different machines and people invited to play alongside strangers, everyone enjoying a fun, shared experience. I return several times both to watch and to play, each time thrilled at the features and gamplay I see. I come interested in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and leave positively excited by the game. I will be looking out for this, which is due for release in the coming month.