For the next three days we'll be examining this fall's biggest games. Today we begin with the games that have us worried as the release season officially gets underway.
World of WarCraft: Warlords of Draenor
Jaz: As a hardcore World of WarCraft fan who's played it pretty much every day since the servers were switched on in 2004 (apart from a few months off during Cataclysm when the game was unplayable for healers), I'm concerned about how Warlords of Draenor is going to change the game I love so dear.
One of the goals the developers have set for themselves this expansion is to "de-clutter" and streamline each character's spells. A second is to try to deliver something that's been promised for a long time, but never fully realized, and that's for players to have "meaningful choices" when it comes to choosing specs, spells and glyphs for their character.
However, so far, spell removal has been a little overzealous, resulting in a game that feels a little too simplified and homogenized. Also, the "meaningful choices" for some characters have been created by taking two spells that they had before, and now allowing them to choose just one. Sure, the choice might be meaningful, but either way I feel cheated because I have one less spell than I did before.
The big banner feature of this expansion is a garrison. In Mists of Pandaria, players had a farm and small house in a great location - which I loved. This time the developers are going bigger and better, giving players a small village to play with. My problem is that it doesn't have much character or feel particularly personal. It just feels like a rote quest hub, rather than your own personal place. Still, I think a lot of people will love it - and I'm glad they will - but so far it's not been particularly compelling.
The rest of the expansion is business as usual. Questing is the same as it ever was: the road to end-game content, which is also business as usual. Basically, WoD is a no-frills expansion where the biggest changes are being made under the hood. In some sense, I think the developers are taking a risk. After 10 years, WoW should feel refined and buttoned-down. Instead, quite drastic changes are being made to the fundamental gameplay, and so far it's not quite right. Fortunately the developers still have time, but it's running out fast. I'm hoping they get things right. I'd hate this to be another Cataclysm.
Jeremy: Um, wow. After Jaz's novella, I feel underarmed to express dismay about Sonic. I mean… it's a new Sonic game? That's always cause for concern.
The Sonic series really needs a good, solid kick in the pants. The games only really seem to work when they're gazing backward, iterating on the 16-bit classics. Anything that tries to compete in the contemporary 3D action space tends to go horribly wrong.
At first glance, Sonic Boom actually seemed to have a fighting chance. People made fun of the new character designs (so much athletic tape!) but at least they suggested a desire to keep the cast feeling contemporary rather than just retreading the same 1999-vintage Sonic Adventure designs. And the action — well, the emphasis on an energy lasso to interact with the environments is a little weird, but whatever. At least it's not just more of the same.
In practice, though, Sonic Boom doesn't walk the line between new and old with anything resembling grace. The 3D adventure bits feel clumsy, and they've been totally segregated from the classic high-speed action platforming parts. The camera and controls don't work particularly well in either case; the version I played at E3 reminded me of the bad ol' days of the late '90s, with all those games that wanted to be Super Mario 64 and made a hash of it. It's been nearly 20 years! Surely we can do better?
It would be nice to think that Sonic Boom can revitalize the franchise, but I have a feeling the next Sonic game is going to pretend like this one never existed.
Jaz: Maybe this'll be good. I certainly hope so, because I bear no malice towards it. But when I look at Sonic Boom, something just doesn't quite sit right for me. Perhaps it's because I've played one too many poor-quality Sonic games during the 00's, and this looks like an amalgamation of several of them. Perhaps it's because the cut scenes make me cringe. Perhaps it's because its graphics feel a little rough around the edges.
Whatever it is, I look at it, and I worry. It just doesn't feel like a solid game. Perhaps it'll surprise us all, and my fears will be allayed. I hope so, because Sonic really doesn't need another janky game.
Super Smash Bros. 3DS
Bob: I like Smash Bros., and I love the 3DS, but I have my doubts about the newest, portable installment of Nintendo's mascot mashup. And I don't think we'd be seeing it on this platform if the Wii U hadn't belly flopped into the world of retail nearly two years ago. Smash Bros. 3DS feels like a stopgap measure Nintendo's trying to make the best of, and while I'm sure it'll sell millions, based on what I played, the series' trademark freneticism doesn't translate well to the small screen. Characters now have thick, black lines surrounding them for the sake of visual clarity, but the camera tends to pull too far back from the action, turning Mario and friends into fuzzy, indistinct blobs of color.
The 3DS' flat shape doesn't do Smash Bros. any favors, either. A few matches in, and I had hand cramps that reminded me of the brief time I spent with Kid Icarus Uprising, a game I really wanted to love, even if it hurt me. But hey, who knows? If Nintendo is bending over backwards so players can use their GameCube controllers for the Wii U version of Smash Bros., maybe they'll create an accessory with just as limited of a use for the 3DS one? I could honestly see Nintendo going that far just to appease Smash Bros. fans.
Kat: I'm a Super Smash Bros. fan going back to the days of the Nintendo 64, and I'm definitely looking forward to playing it on the Wii U. The Nintendo 3DS... not as much.
Bob has done a pretty good job of laying out my general concerns for this version. I've played it twice now, and each time I've left with cramped hands and a serious case of eye strain. It may that I just need more time to get used to the button layout and such; but for now, it feels like a less than optimal way to enjoy the series. Pity that the new Nintendo 3DS won't be out here until next year, because I bet it will do wonders for this game with its sharper screen and additional thumbstick.
I will continue to give Super Smash Bros. the benefit of the doubt, if only because more of my friends own a Nintendo 3DS than they do a Wii U. But yeah, I'm not sure it's going to work out as well as Nintendo and Bandai Namco are hoping.
The Evil Within
Jeremy: I admit, I'm not a big fan of survival horror. No, not even Resident Evil 4, really. I get that those games have their fans, who are drawn to their good qualities — they're just not my cup of tea. I like my tea without groteseque dismembered body parts floating in it, you see.
The problem I find with The Evil Within is that it feels like Shinji Mikami trying a little too hard to cater to people who played Resident Evil 5 and 6 and said, "No, we want more like RE4." The Evil Within is hardcore RE4, with many of the same set pieces and mechanics. But what amounted to a world-class adventure in 2004 doesn't feel quite so fresh in 2014. The Evil Within feels hoary and tired.
Everything that bothers me about this game can be summed in a sequence midway through the adventure in which the hero walks down an innocuous hallway only to be snagged by a rope and pulled into a set of grinders. Your first instinct might be to shoot through the rope, because why wouldn't you!? But no, there's actually a small flashing light above the grinders that you have to shoot out. But the camera doesn't really make the light evident until after you die horribly the first time (potentially losing 15-20 minutes of progress). That sort of cheap gimmick feels archaic — I'm all for games that pose a challenge, but not games that kill you in the blink of an eye and make you feel it's not your fault.
Bob: Resident Evil 4 is, without a doubt, one of my "perfect" games. Even ten years later, it remains an extremely playable experience brimming over with almost too many ideas. Since then, Mikami has yet to top himself, and the two Resident Evils following his last (made without him) only served to adulterate the ideas that made part 4 such a successful reboot. So I don't think I'm alone in being nervous about what Mikami will do next—I think we've all been waiting to see if RE4 is truly his magnum opus.
That said, I think Jeremy has a point about The Evil Within trying just a bit too hard to be shocking. While RE4 mixed the horror sensibilities of John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, and Sam Raimi, Mikami's new game comes from the Eli Roth school of gore, which isn't exactly my thing. I could be jumping the gun, though: While the gameplay looks a lot like RE4's, maybe Evil contains all the ideas Mikami wanted to throw into the next sequel of his popular franchise before leaving Capcom altogether? He's definitely one of the most talented Japanese developers of all time, and it'd be a shame if The Evil Within stood as Mikami's first real dud (let's just pretend P.N.03 didn't happen).
Mike: Like the others, Resident Evil 4 remains my high point for the series. I struggled my way through Resident Evil 5 and my friends cautioned me on picking up Resident Evil 6. "More Resident Evil 4" is an easy sell. I'm fine with spiritual successors with the serial numbers filed off, so the announcement that Mikami was working on survival horror was enticing.
Unfortunately, what I've played and seen of the series has left me a bit more apprehensive about the whole thing. My PAX East demo was completely hands-off, but it did nothing to show me where The Evil Within will improve upon what Resident Evil 4 did nearly a decade ago. The story was disjointed, there was no sense of place, and the horror was comprised of nothing but gore and jump scares. That's fine, because as I said at the time, some games don't show well at events.
What I played at E3 was mechanically solid, enough that RE4 muscle memory carried me through the demo, but there's wasn't much to truly excite me. I'm worried because I want Mikami and the rest of Tango Gameworks to reach down and slap the survival horror genre with greatness, but I felt more fear and excitement in Konami's P.T., which is merely a herald for Silent Hills. I'd like to be wrong, but right now, I'm just crossing my fingers when it comes to The Evil Within.
Mike: This is another case where I'm excited for the pitch, but the reality is falling short. A racing game from the folks that brought you Driver: San Francisco and Test Drive Unlimited? A racing game with real cars and a shrunk version of the United States to race across? An MMO-style racer without a subscription fee? That all sounds amazing.
But from what I've played of The Crew beta, the whole is not the sum of its parts. I enjoyed the beta. There's a ton to do: other players to race against, a bunch of cars to unlock, cities to visit, auto parts to earn, and a story campaign. But my interest in The Crew ultimately took a dive off a cliff after a week of the beta. It's good, but it didn't stick with me for any length of time. And the thought of going back to it fills me with a sense of ennui. That's probably not good.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Kat: My concerns are less for Advanced Warfare and more for the series as a whole. We're not even a year into the new generation, and Call of Duty already feels long in the tooth compared to the likes of Titanfall and Destiny. It's taken seven years, but the series that dominated the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 may be about tapped out. Can you even remember the last time Call of Duty really got anyone talking? It feels like an eternity since "No Russian." I'm sure that it'll play fine, but barring a massive shakeup, I just don't see it making many waves this fall. Look for a reception closer to that of Ghosts than to Modern Warfare or Black Ops.