veryone's written about the "new E3" and how there won't be loud music, booth babes and screaming over noisy crowds. Apparently no one told Electronic Arts. They turned their small hotel meeting room into a music filled arcade with dozens of games crammed into a tiny space. We elbowed our way through the throngs to check out three highlights of their booth: Rock Band, The Simpsons and FamilyPlay for the Nintendo Wii.
Simply, this is everything everyone has hoped and dreamed. Recently, when renting a new apartment, I actually considered whether I could fit rock band in the living room. I don't regret it. While our demo had some minor issues with lag on the HD monitors, an easily correctable problem, they showed that they're about to release the ultimate party game.
The guitar is larger, more substantial and easy to play. Coming from Guitar Hero II, it takes a second to get used to, especially the fact that the buttons on the neck are flat, but the changes were positive. The flat neck actually allowed me to slide my fingers rather than lift and move me hand as is necessary on the old guitar.
The refined visual look, with rectangles that fly across the screen instead of circles is at first odd, but actually a great move. The visual difference between a note that can be "hammered on" or "pulled off" is blatant and leaves no room for confusion. It helps the less talented among us do that on instinct rather than consciously, which is a big deal.
The drum set is actually rather big and substantial. It is basically a practice kit. As someone without rhythm I may never master it, but I have no doubt I'll put in a good effort.
And while I didn't dare go near them in a crowded room, vocals also look well done. Of those I heard, clearly you needn't be a good singer to get some OK scores. Invariably, the singer always had the highest percentages in every band I saw and let's just say none of them will be on MTV any time soon. The vocals should add comedy to parties, even if I won't go near them.
An EA rep also told us some welcome news that while nothing has been done or decided, Harmonix hopes to find a way to make the game compatible with the Guitar Hero II guitars. He made clear that there were no promises, but sounded hopeful that something could be worked out. I'll likely grab the new ones for the new toys, but at a certain point, my living room cannot be transformed into a video game recording studio and with Guitar Hero II, Guitar Hero III and Rock Band, that's real possibility.
The only concern I have is price. They have no idea how they're going to package the product in stores yet, but if Guitar Hero II with two guitars ran me over $100, I could see this pushing up over $200. I love this kind of game, but how do you sell consumers on a game that costs as much as the entire Nintendo Wii console?
EA also showed off an alarmingly cool adaptation of The Simpsons TV series as a game. This is not a movie game. Artistically, they nailed the look and feel of the show, both with show-like visuals and great voice work from the real actors. Most important though is that the game was funny. It sounds obvious, but too often when studios adapt comedy IPs, they forget why people like that IP.
The humor in the game involves a lot of gaming jokes. In one situation, Marge must rally people against a violent Itchy & Scratchy game, clearly a play off Grand Theft Auto. Given a mega phone, Marge runs around Springfield and nags people to rally a mob. Characters like Moe and Ned follow her around with boards and sticks as they attack advertisements and beat the heck out of billboards.
In this mission, even Maggie got involved. They found one electric billboard that hurt the mob as they tried to break it down. Marge took Maggie, who rides on her back, and put her into a vent. The game snapped into first person (complete with soother bobbing at the bottom of the screen) as she crawled through the vent and used her soother to turn off the power on the sign.
Each member of the family plays a role. Lisa can mesmerize enemies with her sax or go into a hand-of-god mode at various Buddah statues placed all over the map, where the game snaps up to a Sims level camera and a giant Lisa hand can grab things like boxes and dumpsters and create chaos in the level, or in another example, break down billboards and use them to build a bridge across the pier for the party. Bart can turn into Bartman and use his slingshot. Even better, he can fire a grappling hook and pull himself straight up to wherever it goes. Marge, as mentioned, nags people and Maggie kicks in with cameo contributions. Unfortunately, Homer didn't make an appearance in the demonstration we saw.
The team put a great amount of effort into a simplistic, 2D look in a 3D game. The character meshes actually deform in real time as players can swing the camera around overhead. The effect ensures that, among other things, Lisa's spikes always face the camera like they do in the show. The effect could use some polish, as sometimes at the level it was zoomed out things looked a touch messy, but overall, it was impressive. It's amazing that they made a 3D game look so.... 2D.
The gameplay itself is action packed. There is constantly something gone on. In one area, they fought evil land-dolphins and it was chaos. They did a good job of mixing fast, comic fights with some minor puzzle solving. It's also full of comedy and game references. They emphasized the point with fake a advertisements on the walls of the booth, such as Apu starring in "Sitar Hero".
FamilyPlay - EA Sports on the Nintendo Wii
One disappointment of E3 is the limited way developers have taken advantage of the Nintendo Wiimote. EA Sports did something spectacular with Madden, NBA and Fifa 08. They've managed to fuse a high-end sports game people are used to with the magic of Wiisports. Essentially, it's two games in one. Of course, Madden can be played much like a traditional sports game, but as a secondary option, it becomes an accessible game for kids or non-gamers.
In Madden 08, using FamilyPlay, the AI takes care of all the player movement and the play selections are grouped into simple categories like "run" or "pass". It doesn't even require a Nunchuck to play in that mode. On offense, all the player must do is grab a play, swing their arm up over their shoulder to snap, then hold down one of the four directions on the D-pad and then throw forward to deliver the pass. On higher arced throws, punch up and the receiver jumps to catch it. When running, the Wiimote is used to control stiff arms or whether or not the runner sprints.
On defense, again the AI controls all movement. The "A" button changes players, a punch motion does a super tackle and a swat motion attempts to bat down passes. Simple as that.
For fans of Madden, this mode likely sounds dreadful, but the effect made Madden into a simplistic WiiSports-esque game, except everyone has arms and legs. Personally, I'd much rather play the traditional game or even mesh face buttons on the more visually intense Xbox 360, but for Wii owners, it is basically a two for the price of one game. Dad gets his classic Madden experience, while the kids can use the same $50 disc in a whole other way. People can even play against each other in their own way. It means that a seven year old may have a hope of giving the seasoned pro a run for their money.
The terrible "meeting room" design made EA's booth seem like a portal back in time to E3 of Christmas past - note to EA, stuffing dozens of people in front of Wii consoles and making traffic flow between them and their game makes for a rough demo - but presentation is secondary to content and those three games looked like fun. EA's CEO recently said they need to be more innovative and while the best three things in their booth are a sports franchise, a TV IP game and a spiritual successor to a hit game, each of the three introduced fresh ideas to games that they could have shoved out the door in practically any half functional state and sold a few million units. To their credit, they put some thought into each one and it shows.