By Alexander Donohue
The Big Boys Toys convention is very appropriately named because, well, it is very big. This yearâ€™s event, held at the ASB Showgrounds, saw exhibition hall after exhibition hall filled with fishing rods, audio equipment, boats, cars, GPS equipment and all manner of appropriately manly/blokey stuff. In the gaming section two next-generation consoles appeared in playable form for the first time in New Zealand and several big game releases were premiered, giving a whole new meaning to the term â€śtoysâ€ťâ€¦
We Play the Wii â€“ before anyone else!
True story â€“ my mother, who was at the event for work purposes, asked one of the convention staff â€śwhere the Wii wasâ€ť. She was cheerfully directed down a corridor, where she found a block of female toiletsâ€¦
Embarrassing naming issues aside, BBT was the place to be for those interested in Nintendoâ€™s latest console. Not only were trailers for titles like the Yakuza actioner Red Steel and Rayman Raving Rabbids shown in full (as opposed to the short snippets displayed at the Armageddon expo) but, for the first time in New Zealand, a playable Wii was available. Thanks to the media-only hour that ran before general admission on Friday, I was able to try out the console before almost anyone except Nintendo staff â€“ so bragging rights are mine!
Unfortunately the only game on display was Wii Sports, the compilation of five games (Tennis, Baseball, Golf, Boxing and Bowling) that will come bundled with every console bought in New Zealand. Even taking into account the limited game selection, however, I would have to say that playing the Wii was one of the most fun gaming experiences I have had in quite some time.
Waving around the Wii Remote
Undeniably the best part of the console is the Wii Remote, a unique motion sensitive controller that allows you to integrate actual physical movements into whatever game you are playing. In the Tennis game in Wii Sports, for instance, the controller acts as a racket, so I was able to swing it overhead to serve and angle it to vary ball direction. It also incorporates an accelerometer, so how hard you wave the controller will determine how fast and far the ball moves.
I was initially sceptical about how well the controller would work, but after trying it I realised what a wonderfully intuitive system it is. The learning curve was so gentle as to be unnoticeable and, in the case of Wii Sports, you didnâ€™t even have to learn any controls. I was also impressed by the Remoteâ€™s built in speaker, which emitted a very satisfying â€śthwockâ€ť as I hit the ball. My non-gamer mother loved the Wii as well (when she actually got accurate directions), so Nintendo seems to have fulfilled their goal of making a system that is accessible to everyone.
The future also looks bright for more complex games, which can utilise an analogue controller known as the Nunchuck in addition to the Wii Remote. Red Steel, for instance, is set to feature motion-controlled katana and gun combat. The big upcoming release for the Wii is, of course, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and from what the staff at the stand told me it sounds perfectly suited to the consoleâ€™s control system. Notably, it will include a fishing mini-game that uses the Remote and Nunchuck as rod and reel â€“ great news for me, given how heartily I enjoyed wasting time with the button-based fishing game in Linkâ€™s Awakening.
The PlayStation 3 â€“ very prettyâ€¦
Sony was out in force at BBT, with eight playable PS3â€™s and a small screening room for trailers and promotional footage. There was also a wide selection of game demos, all of them displaying the wonderful graphics that the PS3â€™s Cell processor is capable of putting out.
The first game I played was Genji: Days of the Blade, the sequel to the 2005 PS2 title Genji: Dawn of the Samurai. There wasnâ€™t much information on storyline (in fact, some of the text was still in Japanese), although it is interesting to note that this instalment adds another two controllable characters, in addition to Yoshitsune and Bensei from the first game.
It looked absolutely stunning, with detailed real-time water effects, lushly rendered foliage and smoothly animated, very realistic characters. I was a little disappointed with the gameplay, however - the combat seemed uninspired and the controls felt like they could use a bit of work. The lack of a moveable camera also really hurt the game.
Three of the games offered were racing games â€“ Ridge Racer 7, Formula One 06 and MotorStorm. Of these, MotorStorm was the most interesting, with spectacular vehicle damage effects well suiting the kind of anarchistic, no-holds-barred racing it sets out to deliver. The other two games seemed to stick fairly closely to racing game conventions, although obviously they did this in a very graphically advanced way, with properly reflective car surfaces, weather effects and the like. No doubt the processing power of the PS3 would be more noticeable in gaming sessions longer than the brief time I had with each game â€“ in particular, footage from F1 I saw in the screening room showed some very impressive car crashes; with a 3.2 GHz CPU, Iâ€™m sure you can very accurately calculate how a car wheel will bounce when it is torn from its axle!
The consoleâ€™s abilities were perhaps best shown off by Lair, a fantasy aerial combat title from Rogue Squadron II developers Factor 5. The game, which involves piloting a dragon to combat enemies on both the air and ground, demonstrates how well the PS3 can handle graphical multitasking. For instance, it can render a large column of enemies at a distance (complete with scaling as you fly closer), reflective water textures on the sea below you, several enormous medieval buildings and a nearby enemy dragon at the same time without any noticeable slowdown. I was also impressed by Lairâ€™s concept, if only because there is a definite coolness factor in being able to smite your enemies with the aid of a giant fire-breathing lizard.
My favourite PS3 game on display, though, was definitely Resistance: Fall of Man, a sci-fi first person shooter from Insomniac Games. The segments I played and watched were not particularly innovative in terms of FPS gameplay, but I really admired how it used next-generation graphics and sound to create a gritty, visceral atmosphere. Weapons look, sound and behave like powerful pieces of military hardware, and enemies remain extremely detailed when approached near to, ensuring gripping close-range firefights. The outstanding graphics design turns what could have been a fairly tacky science fiction concept â€“ the storyline revolves around a mysterious alien race known as the Chimera invading an alternate 1950â€™s England â€“ into a bracingly real game with the look and feel of a World War Two shooter.
The SIXAXIS â€“ look, no wires!
BBT was also a chance to try out the PS3â€™s new controller. Dubbed the SIXAXIS, it looks pretty much identical to the older Dualshock and Dualshock 2 controllers on the outside, although it does have a new button, slightly enlarged L2 and R2 triggers and a USB port. The controllers are now wireless enabled by default, a change that I found made them quite a bit more comfortable to use without affecting game response time â€“ and tripping over cords (or having them eaten by your cat) will be a thing of the past.
While the PS3â€™s controller has changed little externally, it has changed quite a bit on the inside. As the name implies, the SIXAXIS is motion sensitive in a similar way to the Wiiâ€™s Remote. To be honest, though, Iâ€™m not sure how successful this feature will be. The controller shape is not naturally suited to motion-sensitive control and most of the games I played did not seem to fully support the feature yet. In order to fit in motion sensing Sonyâ€™s technicians have also had to remove the controllerâ€™s vibration function. This is a shame, considering that it was the Dualshock that popularised vibrating controllers in the first place. I also felt that several games â€“ Resistance, especially - would have benefited from a bit of controller rumble.
Still, the PS3 is not due out until March 2007, so thereâ€™s plenty of time for Sony to work out any kinks with their system and launch games. If they can capitulate on the systemâ€™s obvious strengths there is a good chance that, come next year, the PS3 will be the big, shiny centre of many peoplesâ€™ lounges.
Gears of War blows me away â€“ with extreme prejudice
Whereas the Wii and PS3 stands were clumped together in a clash of gaming opposites, the Xbox 360 stand was located some distance away, sitting by itself. It was almost like Microsoft was hiding somethingâ€¦
As a matter of fact, it was doing exactly the opposite. Epic Gamesâ€™ Gears of War, billed by many as the biggest Xbox 360 release of the year, was premiered at BBT and Microsoft was making sure that everybody knew it. Not content with dedicating four demonstration consoles to running the third-person shooter, they had actually set up a small theatre solely devoted to showing footage from the game.
If there was ever a game that deserved this kind of treatment, though, than Gears of War is surely it. Chronicling the efforts of Marcus Fenix, a hard-bitten soldier, to combat an alien race known as the Locust Horde on the war-ravaged planet of Sera, it was easily the most impressive full version game displayed at BBT.
Cliff Bleszinski, the gameâ€™s designer, has stated that Capcomâ€™s Resident Evil 4 was a big influence on Gears of War. It was easy to see this in the control system. It uses the same system of pressing a trigger button to aim, but also utilises the rest of the 360 controllerâ€™s buttons, allowing you to shoot while moving, roll, look at important objects, sprint and crouch behind cover. The last manoeuvre is especially important, as enemy fire is particularly lethal in Gears of War. Marcus can only take a small amount of damage at a time, so cover allows you to sling bullets at the alien nasties without being taken out yourself.
Where RE4â€™s influence seems to have been particularly felt, however, is in the gameâ€™s cinematic presentation. There are some brilliant touches that really drive home Gears of Warâ€™s war-soaked atmosphere â€“ when you sprint, for instance, the camera pulls back to mimic the look of handheld documentary footage. Footage screened in the mini-theatre also showed how the game uses the Xbox 360â€™s processing power to render vast urban environments, creating the feeling of being lost in an endless war zone.
From what I saw at BBT, Gears of War seems to be truly deserving of the term â€śawesomeâ€ť. If you have an Xbox 360 I would strongly recommend that you think about getting a copy when it releases on November 23rd.
$1199 is actually pretty cheap
A happy side effect of going to BBT was that it made me feel somewhat more positive about the prices of next generation consoles. When you see people looking at a $60,000 boat or a $140,000 motor home the thought of dropping $1300 to buy a PS3 suddenly doesnâ€™t seem so bad. Gaming is actually a surprisingly economical hobby, you know!