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The Eurogamer Expo Experience

15 May

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By Samuel Peace

For the last two years I’ve gathered around friends houses for an ‘all nighter’ involving typical party antics, gaming and topping it off by watching E3. For many gamers the Electronic Entertainment Expo (more commonly known as E3) is the pinnacle of the industry’s annual calendar. It’s the crème de la crème and it attracts the world’s greatest game developers, publishers and journalists. It’s both a celebration of what makes video game culture so great and a glimpse into the future of how we’ll play next.

Since starting in 1995 it has played centre stage for the industry’s biggest reveals, whether it’s a new games console or the next chapter in a popular franchise. 2005 saw E3 extend its reach by broadcasting all the big conferences online for the whole world to see. No longer were fans restricted to just reading stories about it, they could now watch the reveals for themselves as it was happening. This streaming revolution was what really turned E3 from a general busy news week into the biggest and most exciting gaming extravaganza known to man. In a similar vein to Christmas, there is always a huge build up to it months before it happens and then before you know it, it’s over within a flash. Though brief, it always gives you some of the best memories as a gamer and it becomes an excuse to have a celebration.

The only thing that could be better than streaming it would be attending the event itself and seeing everything with our own eyes (and even playing some of the games that were just revealed). Unfortunately this dream for most people will stay just that – a dream. The event is invite only therefore only the most prestigious and well known media outlets are allowed to see it all first hand. Fortunately however, developers and publishers are eager to get their games noticed by as many people as possible. Therefore some companies have made their own versions of E3, but have made them open to the public. While none of these tend to have any big reveals like E3, they focus a lot more on allowing gamers to go hands on with unreleased titles. Gamescom (GC) in Germany and the Tokyo Games Show (TGS) in Japan are the biggest of these events and manage to entice upwards of 200,000 people a year.

In 2008 the UK finally got its own proper video games convention called the Eurogamer Expo (EGE). It started off as a rather small venture with only 4,000 attendees, however after five years it has now turned into a massive exhibition for the whole of the UK. Last year it attracted 50,000 people which is a massive increase over the year before (34,500). As soon as I found out about the EGE (back in summer 2011) I snapped up a ticket right away. 2012 was my second expo and it certainly did feel bigger and better than 2011’s one. The question was though; could it deliver the same awe inspiring experience as E3 (minus the reveals)? The answer is a resounding yes. There are many factors which help to contribute to making it the best day out any video game fan can have. So below are my EGE experiences:

Unreleased Games – The main reason I went was to get my hands on all of the hottest upcoming games which were still in development and not available to purchase. A majority of the booths allowed attendees to play these latest experiences, most of which are normally up to six months away from being released. The excitement I felt when rushing to a stand was that of opening a present when I was a kid.

Developer Sessions – The second reason I went was to see some of the famous faces who make the titles I know and love. Last year had the likes of Peter Molyneux (Fable series) and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear series) both of whom are celebrities in the eyes of industry fans. Although they rarely make any surprise announcements, it is still interesting to find out more about them and their projects. It is great asking them questions and just like with any celebrity you become pretty star-struck if you manage to shake their hand or get a photo with them.

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Meet Like Minded People – Like with my ‘all nighter’, big gaming events are always enjoyed best with like minded people. Attendees at EGE all share the same passion of gaming so this gives everyone a boost of confidence as you already have something in common. Gaming once used to be a very anti-social activity. I grew up playing in my room away from everyone else and I rarely went out. This affected my overall confidence growing up, but with modern internet capabilities and the rise of social gaming, I can now freely discuss and play with many other people. My confidence has skyrocketed in recent years and to my surprise the EGE is not full of people with under developed social skills.

The Atmosphere and Cosplay – The grand building that is Earls Court, has been home to the EGE since 2010. Seeing it for the first time after stepping out of the tube was a surreal experience. Never had I seen posters and billboards that big advertising games. Usually advertisements of that stature are reserved for films and music, so it was a pleasant change. Things were even better inside as there were towering bits of artwork at each booth as developers/publishers vied for my attention. Seeing a massive hall filled with people enjoying what I enjoy was a heart warming sight. All this was improved by Cosplay. Originating in Japan, cosplay has quickly become a worldwide phenomenon and has since gathered popularity in western countries. The idea is to dress up as your favourite character (from any media), which makes it is a great way to find out people’s favourite franchises. Also competitions for big prizes have made this past time become an obsession for some with people putting in months of work to create something truly mind-blowing.

Competitions – A video game is not complete without some form of competitive aspect, so the same can be said for a games show not having competitions. While in the past we’ve had board games, high score tables and pong, the invention of online gaming has taken multiplayer to the next level. It is now possible to face anyone in the world, so naturally competitions have become bigger and more exciting. Games which can support many competing players or have huge followings such as Call of Duty have now become esports (electronic sports) and have transformed into cultures themselves. Big trades shows such as EGE thrive on these massive esport areas and it was excellent being a spectator.

Careers – While trade shows are used by developers/publishers to primarily showcase their projects and products, sometimes they use it to advertise vacancies at their companies. It makes sense for a games company to promote a gaming job in an area full of gamers. I also saw education establishments trying to persuade attendees to take their game related course along with career advice experts telling people the best ways to get into the industry.

Merchandise – No day out would be complete without a novelty item of some sort. At places like EGE there is usually a cluster of shops all selling exclusive stuff which is hard to find elsewhere. As you would expect it’s not always cheap, but for hardcore game fans it can be difficult to resist. I try not to splash out too much when I’m there, but it is certainly impressive what you can buy.

These were just the main highlights for me, but there were other smaller areas which were no less impressive. While I was there I met up with Chris Ledger – a friend who is also the owner and lead developer of indie game company Derp Studios. I asked him what he liked about EGE and game exhibitions in general, and also how EGE has benefited Derp Studios. He said: “It’s a great day out, especially for someone like me who is both a fan and a developer. The developer conferences were my favourite parts as they were real eye openers. I thoroughly enjoyed Hideo Kojima’s session as I’ve always been a massive fan of the Metal Gear franchise. From a developer perspective, it’s always great to check out what other companies are doing. As we are currently in the mobile market, I found it very useful checking out all of the latest portable games. My ultimate goal is to eventually bring my own game to an event like this, and to see a giant frog banner saying ‘Derp Studios’.

The Eurogamer Expo continues to expand and 2013 seems like it will be its biggest year yet, as the industry witnesses the transition into a new console generation this fall. Hopefully one day EGE can become the new E3.

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PlayStation Vita Product Review

14 May

PSVita PVPR

By Samuel Peace

The seven year long wait is over as the next evolution in handheld gaming has arrived. The successor to Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) has finally been released overseas following a Christmas release in its native country Japan. Dubbed the PlayStation Vita (Latin & Italian for ‘life’) it provides gamers with everything they love about a home console, but combines it with the benefits of a handheld device. Fans and industry professionals alike have been longing for a new power house which can replicate experiences which were only possible on a TV. While Nintendo dominate this market, they have failed to capitalize on it by focusing all their efforts on innovative gimmicks rather than technical progression. The Vita has seized this opportunity to give people an alternative, which for all the tech geeks out there is a joy to behold.

Boasting a 5-inch multi-touch OLED screen capable of showing 16 million colours, a 2GHz Quad Core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU, 512 MB RAM, 128 MB VRAM, and a Quad-Core SGX543MP4+ for graphics, it is a beast of a machine. For those of you unacquainted with technical specs it just means you pretty much have the power of the PlayStation 3 but in your pocket. Following on from the impressive insides we also have a great range of external components. These include dual analogue sticks (a first for any handheld device), a unique rear multi-touch pad, a front and rear camera, six-axis motion sensing (three-axis gyroscope and three-axis accelerometer), three-axis electronic compass, and the usual array of buttons. This provides consumers with not only a home console quality experience, but also new and exciting ways to play. Developers will also enjoy coming up with ideas using all of the unique features.

Considering the punch this device is packing, you would expect it to be the size of a brick or an Xbox 360’s power box. To my surprise however, it is a sleek and stylish gadget which wouldn’t look out of place in James Bond’s arsenal. The shape is similar to that of its predecessor the PSP (not the flop that was the PSP GO). Its dimensions are also quite similar as the Vita has a width of 182mm (170mm on the original PSP 1000 model), a height of 83.5mm (previously 74mm) and a depth of 18.6mm (from 23mm). The increase in the width and height helps to offer a better cinematic experience similar to that of consoles; this will ensure that your 16:9 widescreen display needs are catered for. Despite the slight expansion, the Vita weighs pretty much the same as the original PSP 1000 model; in fact it’s slightly lighter. While the PSP weighed 280grams, the Wi-Fi only Vita comes in at 260grams, but the 3G/WI-FI model is 279grams.

Because of the similarities in shape, size and weight, this handheld marvel feels reminiscent of its fore-bearer. It also shares the same shiny black finish which gives amateur detectives the chance to play ‘who violated my Vita?’ The analogue sticks are a nice change as they resemble the PS3’s but on a smaller scale. These improve over the single flat circular nub/pad that the PSP and 3DS have as they feel more precise and easier to manoeuvre. My only worry is that because the Vita doesn’t have handle grips (like a PS3 controller) and because the analogue sticks are smaller and have a slippery convex design, it could be quite difficult/uncomfortable keeping grip of it (or keeping your thumbs on the sticks) during long periods of play (or when you have a sweaty hands). This might not be an issue for everyone however, and handhelds are designed more for on-the-go play than marathon sessions.

For many people one of the main attractions of the Vita was the enhanced graphics, so I am pleased to say that the OLED screen is beautifully vibrant and particularly dazzles when you play games as stunning as the Uncharted series. The stereo speakers and headphone support complements the visuals while other standard gizmos such as the touch screen, cameras, buttons and sensors all perform as well as they should. The rear touch pad on the other hand is a much more prominent and unusual feature. It is still too early to tell how useful it will be in enhancing the numerous Vita experiences, but already we are seeing it used in different ways. Most are gimmicky or are just used in mini games while the odd one or two work quite well at offering a new way to play (such as touch shooting in Fifa).

As the main multi-touch screen on the Vita offers such precision, Sony has decided to do away with the XMB which is present on the PSP and PS3. It now offers a sleek and innovative user interface reminiscent of the iOS on the iPhone. Now the screen is filled with bubbles which all represent different apps for services and games. Many of these apps consist of your standard PS3/PSP services such as friends, messages, trophies and store etc, but there is a big push for online and social connectivity this time round. Some of the services on offer include Facebook, Twitter and Skype all of which help to keep you in touch with other people (though they have to be downloaded through the store). Sony has also incorporated its own social app called ‘Near’ which utilises its built in GPS. This is very similar to the 3DS’s StreetPass app which allows the system to connect to others who are nearby. I found it a bit confusing, but it’s nice to see how many people near me own Vitas. It also allows you to send and receive gifts from certain games and compares games/scores, which I guess is nice if not a little bit pointless.

PS3 PVPR

For physical games Sony have decided to ditch the PSP’s cute UMDs and have changed to small SD type cards akin to Nintendo’s DS and 3DS. One of the main things which irk me about the Vita is that the memory cards are so restrictive. The system no longer supports the PSP’s memory stick and memory stick duo. Instead it favours its own PS Vita Memory Card. The main problem is that it doesn’t allow for any other third party memory card or SD card. This means Sony can get away with charging outrageous prices for memory as players have no choice but to buy their cards. One example is the 32GB Vita card which costs £60 on Amazon. £60!? I could buy a couple of newly released games for that price. On the same site, there are third party 32GB cards for as little as £15. To make matters worse, only one account can be linked per memory card. While this made sense on the PSP at the time, technology has progressed far enough today to allow for multiple accounts on a multitude of gadgets.

There is no doubt plenty more to discover about the Vita as it begins to evolve and create an identity for itself. It has a plethora of great features most of which are making mostly the right noises. Competition is even tougher now as the rise of smart phones, which can host a variety of games for a small cost, calls into question the viability of a dedicated gaming handheld. However Sony has created a machine which can produce quality content not possible on any other handheld device – something which true gamers will want. There is still plenty of potential to unlock and with the PS4 on the horizon it will no doubt play a vital role in connecting with it. The Vita is exactly what the industry needs, but with any console success is only as good as its library of games, so we will have to wait and see if the Vita can deliver on that front.

Wreck-It Ralph Film Review

14 May

WIR Poster

By Samuel Peace

It’s a rare occurrence when the film and game industry cross paths, one which usually doesn’t bode well for either side. Surely it would be easy to turn a game into a film? Just take the script, hire some good actors/actresses to play the characters, and use CGI for the environments and any other unrealistic feature. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that because games focus on what makes their entertainment so popular – the gameplay – thus leaving the story to play second fiddle (or sometimes no fiddle at all). While some games might make for good films (BioShock, Uncharted, Call of Duty: Modern Warfareetc), these have never come to pass. Instead producers chose more recognisable franchises some of which have little to no story at all (for example the recent Battleship movie based on the board game, or the infamous Super Mario Bros film in 1993 which was nothing like the games). Disaster after disaster has led to very few game to film adaptations as movie makers become less willing to put their reputation on the line. However, this has not deterred Walt Disney, which is famed around the world for its animated classics. They wanted to build bridges with the games industry, write them a love letter so to speak. So the concept of Wreck-It Ralph was born.

The idea for the motion picture actually goes all the way back to the late 1980s when arcade gaming was in its prime. However many redesigns saw it pushed further and further away from release until plans were finalised in the mid-2000s. During the production stages, director Rich Moore (best known for his directing roles in a number ofThe Simpsons and Futurama episodes), said in an interview with MCV that he didn’t want to base the movie around an existing character. He said: “There’s so much mythology and baggage attached to pre-existing titles that I feel someone would be disappointed.” He believed this was a reason why so many movies based on video game franchises typically failed. Instead his vision was to create a fake gaming icon so that he could have the ultimate freedom without the worry of tainting another gaming property.

The plot revolves around the main character Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly). But instead of being a generic game plot (where the main character is a hero and has to save the world from the bad guy), Ralph is actually the bad guy from the start! He plays the main villain in a fictional arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. which as you might have guessed has a hero called Fix-It Felix (voiced by Jack McBrayer). The game pays homage to the original Donkey Kong, an arcade classic which saw Mario (known then as Jumpman) try to ascend a series of platforms in order to rescue a woman named Pauline from the grasps of the giant gorilla. Donkey Kong’s role was to stop Mario by rolling barrels down to try and knock him off. In Fix-It Felix Jr. Ralph stands atop a skyscraper and chucks debris down to try and knock off Felix whose aim is to fix all the broken windows while ascending the building.

Arcade WIR

The problem is Ralph is fed up of being the bad guy and not getting any recognition. He is finally pushed over the edge when Felix is given all the credit for the game’s success and has a party thrown for him (Ralph not invited) to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary. When he crashes it, he is quite simply told that bad guys do not deserve recognition and he would need a medal to be a good guy and a winner. Determined to get a medal and prove his worth, Ralph decides to ‘game jump’ – which is to enter another arcade game via the hub where all the games connect (the power supply). His quest to find a medal is, as you would expect, not straight forward and there is plenty of entertainment right until the end.

The first half of Wreck-it Ralph is by far the best. With real life game cameos galore and an interesting plot, there really is something for everyone. One of the more memorable scenes (which was in the trailer) saw Ralph in a ‘bad guy’ support group which was attended by some of gaming’s most iconic villains such as Bowser (Super Mario games), Eggman (Sonic the Hedgehog games) and Clyde (Pac-Man games). There are so many other subtler references too which help bring the world to life. With all these famous faces it was important that the main fictional characters were made to feel authentic too so they wouldn’t be outshone. Both Ralph and Felix deliver on this part with mannerisms and abilities akin to the classic characters we all know and love. They are later joined by other fictional cast members including the fantastic Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman).

Unfortunately the second half of the film falls into the stereotypical Disney ‘be yourself’ trap with predictable results. There are not many game cameos or references that have not already been seen either, as the story focuses more on the development of our main fictional heroes and villains. However, it’s the chemistry between them, which manages to save the film from drowning in mediocrity. Each persona is vastly different from one another and makes for some interesting combinations. While the plot contains some foreseeable twists and turns it still manages to round off nicely with a Mario Kart like race mixed with an alien invasion.

Despite some shortcomings, Wreck-It Ralph manages to capture the real essence of the classic arcade era. It has some truly wonderful references which will appeal to both young and old audiences. The main cast of fictional characters are the stars of the show however, and would not be out of place in the real world of gaming. Moore’s experience with The Simpsons is exhibited with a great range of humorous gags and along with the art style makes the film feel more like a Pixar production than a Disney studios film, which is for the best. While not perfect it is definitely the best film/game crossover ever made, and that alone is worth seeing.

Rating: 8/10

MCV Interview: http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/interview-wreck-it-ralph-director-talks-bringing-games-to-film/0110639

Disney’s Dream Destination

14 May

Tower DLP

By Samuel Peace

Of all the many wonders in the world today the only place children want to go to is Disneyland. I often dreamt of going when I was younger but my parents couldn’t afford such a luxury. I would boil with envy when my friends told me of their magnificent adventures with Buzz Lightyear, Indiana Jones, Mickey Mouse and more. “I’m going for the third time this summer holidays” one would say, “Oh really?” I’d reply with gritted teeth. As I grew up the child’s fantasy land became less appealing, and the thought of going to a foreign country never crossed my mind. I had many great holidays around England and was quite content with staying on home soil. However, soon after turning 18 I was on a plane heading towards Disneyland Paris.

My grandparents decided to treat me and my family to a holiday in the summer of 2009. Originally we had planned to stay at a deluxe villa in the south of Spain. The very thought of a hot tropical scene with beautiful, naturally tanned Spanish girls got my heart pounding with excitement. Seeing the pictures of the proposed villa just made it even more enticing. Therefore a sudden change of plan in order to limit travel time and to please my younger siblings left a bitter taste in my mouth. For me the Disney plane had flown into the sunset and left me behind many years ago. There was little excitement to be had except for the prospect of visiting Paris. Everything soon changed though as walking through the entrance of the park woke my inner child.

The gloriously decorated buildings, giant floats and mascots made it feel as if you were actually in a Disney cartoon. There was so much going on that I didn’t know where to start. While most theme parks are just giant fun fairs with lots of rides, this place seemed different. The magical aura of the classic childhood fairy tales was present. The park was separated into zones with each one focusing on different notable franchises. It was great to see the attention to detail with each area being designed in certain ways to make it feel like you’re in the world of that film. But while I was impressed by the aesthetics, I was still yet to be convinced by its attractions and other offerings. That was until I went on an adrenaline train they called a rollercoaster for the first time and nearly shat myself with how thrilling it was.

Ride DLP

The first one I tried was based on Indiana Jones and saw us sitting in a mine cart whizzing in and out of caves with plenty of drops and sharp turns to keep you on your toes, so to speak. The rush I got from the ride was fantastic, I had felt as if I had been on a wild adventure. The one down side was the loop the loop part which made me feel disorientated and a bit queasy, but other than that it was great. With my excitement boiling over and my passion revitalised, I couldn’t wait to go on some more rides. Most of my family were not keen on these heart exercises, but my little sister was accustomed to them despite being 6 years younger. Another one we went on was some indoor space shuttle rollercoaster (probably Buzz Lightyear). This was even better than the Indi one as it launched nearly vertically at a phenomenal speed. It felt like someone had stuck a rocket onto it. It then began rushing through a tunnel of darkness with neon lights circling as if you were going through a time warp on Doctor Who. Although these rides lasted all of but a few minutes, the experiences live on forever in my mind.

On our travels through the fantasy worlds we encountered a variety of wonderful things, some of which weren’t even Disney. There was a set of Hollywood, a set of London, an American trailer cafe, shops with all sorts of goodies (although they didn’t allow non Disney brands so most shops were the same), the Statue of Liberty and much, much more. There were a few shows on too including a live stunt/action performance and a wild west arena spectacular. Although I’d been to stunt shows before, this one stood out because it was like watching a movie being filmed on a Hollywood set. There were crashes, fighting, shootouts and explosions galore, it was utterly exhilarating. The western show was more of a story and revolved around a person called Buffalo Bill. It had some good live animal acts, but I didn’t find it as engrossing as I’d hoped it would be.

During our visit we stayed at an offsite hotel which had a direct bus link to the park. The staff there were nice (one of the French waiters actually wanted England to beat the Netherlands in a football friendly which was on!). The rooms were basic and did the job, but the food service was excellent. Of course being in France meant I had to have Croissants and Pain Au Chocolates for breakfast, as you’d imagine such delectable food was difficult to endure. The best part was the daily hot chocolate which was divine, needless to say I have not tried one as nice since. We ate out at many places, but the most memorable was a place named Pizza Planet. This restaurant is a replica of the one found in the Toy Story films. It has the same giant logo, the same robot guarding the door, the same three-eyed aliens in space rocket grabbing machines etc. It was an awesome and surreal experience.

We stayed for a week in total, but only went to Paris once. Although it was marvellous and the Eiffel Tower was remarkable, I did not feel the same sense of joy or excitement as I did at Disneyland. Looking back now, it was not only my best holiday by far, but it was also the most fun I had in years, and to my surprise my heart was pounding again, much like with those Spanish girls who are still waiting for me.

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