I just can't seem to avoid the sports booths at E3. I was walking past the EA booth on the way to an appointment with Square Enix, and I couldn't resist stopping in to say hi to the Madden NFL team.
"Have you played the new build yet? It's much more polished before," I was asked. "Drop on by when you get an opportunity. We'll show you the new Vikings stadium."
Well, that was that. I wasn't going to get a chance to check out the newly-minted U.S. Bank Stadium. The new Vikings stadium, dubbed "The Sandcrawler" by some for its distinct shape, is a gem. And though it won't be opening its doors until the 2016 season, it will be in this year's release of Madden NFL.
Suffice it to say, it looks every bit as good as I was hoping. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any video, but I did manage to snap a few pictures.
Not surprisingly, the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, set to open in 2017, will be sitting this version out. But Tiburon has a good track record for implementing new stadiums going going back to the early the Levi's Stadium reveal in Madden 25, and it's good to see that track record continue.
As for the game itself, they weren't lying when they told me that the new build was much nicer than before. The version I played back in late May, where I got to sample the Draft Champions mode and try out the new catching mechanics, was quite early, with only the 49ers and Seahawks available as selectable teams. This version had all of the teams, and it was easily the most polished I've seen the series at E3 going back to at least Madden 12. The receiver/cornerback interaction in particular is miles better than what it was, my favorite moment being a jump ball in which Calvin Pryor was able to beat Mike Wallace and bat the ball to where Darrelle Revis could grab it for the pick.
There are a lot of little touches in this year's version, from the appearance of notable stats over players when they are playing well, to the way that quarterbacks will roll much more smoothly and naturally out of the pocket. It takes the good progress made in Madden NFL 15 and makes it into something that is really a blast to play. My 28-14 victory over designer Clint Oldenburg's Jets was the most enjoyable game of Madden that I've played in quite a while, marred only by an under-tuned pass rush and running game. I'm always hesitant to go over-the-top in praising a sports game early, especially after what happened last year, but this year's Madden is looking exceptionally promising.
But mostly, I'm just glad to see the Vikings in their future stadium. The Gophers stadium is nice, but it's good to be home.
When I wasn't playing sports games (rarely for me), I was at the Nintendo booth today trying out the games I've missed. My first destination was Star Fox Zero, a game that I've been waiting to play for about a decade now, ever since Star Fox Command ostensibly wrapped up the main timeline with some... interesting... sendoffs for its cast.
It pains me to say it, but I didn't like it.
Please understand that I come from a place of deep affection for Star Fox. Star Fox 64 is one of my favorite games ever, and I've finished it countless times. But the series has consistently failed to launch since then, lurching from an ill-advised adventure game to a lesser sequel for the GameCube, and then on to the rather weird Star Fox Command. It seems as if no one knows what to do with this series, that they have to bolt on some dumb gimmick to make it work, even though all anyone wants is a really good 3D shoot 'em up.
In any case, I was thrilled when it came out last year that Nintendo was working on a new Star Fox for the Wii U, assuming that it would capture some of the old-school charm of the N64 version. What I didn't expect was just how much it would end up borrowing from Star Fox 64, down to the pseudo-3D enemy portraits and the chunky polygonal enemies. It looked rough, to say the least, the conflicting styles making it feel like one giant anachronism.
I ended up talking about it with Christian Nutt after the show was finished for the day, and he suggested that they were doing it on purpose to tap into our love of the N64 game, which is fine to an extent. But when I think back to the original Star Fox 64, I remember that it was one of the best-looking games on any console when it launched in July 1997. Graphics were a Star Fox hallmark going back to the first SNES game, which is why its strange to see it in such rough shape.
I haven't even gotten to the lock-on mechanic, which feels like the latest in a long series of gimmicks designed to account for the fact that Star Fox can't just rely on novel 3D graphics for its appeal anymore. It's a system that requires you to hold the lock-on trigger to fix the camera on any enemy, then look away from the television screen to the Wii U Gamepad, where you use the gyroscope to aim and shoot. I eventually got the hang of it, but it was awkward and not particularly enjoyable.
I really want to like this game, but after all these years, it seems like not even Nintendo knows what to do with Star Fox anymore. It's pretty disheartening. The final version may ultimately be much more polished than what I saw today, but it's not off to a good start. Unfortuate given that the Wii U's holiday lineup could really use a boost outside of Super Mario Maker and possibly Yoshi's Woolly World. I hope the final release impresses me more than what I saw at E3.
I suppose as long as I'm talking about Madden NFL and Star Fox, two games that I seem to have a complicated relationship with, I should probably mention my time with Star Wars: Battlefront, which I finally had an opportunity to play earlier today.
It's been interesting to observe the ups and downs of the public sentiment around the project. First there was the elation of the announcement, then disappointment and even anger over missing features like space combat, then more elation again as everyone got to see the E3 trailer. As a fan of Battlefront 2 back in the day, I've resolved to try and avoid getting too caught up in the hype one way or another, but I'll admit that the game wasn't everything I had hoped for.
Having now played it, I will say that I had a good time. It doesn't feel as much like a reskinned Battlefield game as I had first feared, even though the first thing I did was summon a TIE Fighter and crash it into a Hoth snowbank, that most Battlefield of activities. DICE might be on to something with their emphasis on their journey into the LucasFilm archive, because the sound effects and the detailed models really do make a difference. Sound editing has always been a particularly strong suit of the series, and I would have been disappointed if Battlefront was weak in that regard.
More important is the fact that the blasters feel as I imagine they would if I were in the movies. Being the energy weapons that they are, it's much easier to see the actual shots as they connect with an enemy, which brings with it a very different feeling from a typical military shooter. That they feel like weapons I would find in Star Wars is the most important thing, whether I'm wielding a Stormtrooper rifle or Han's blaster pistol. The blasters are the crucial difference, even moreso than the starfighters, which handle much like the jets in Battlefield 3 and 4.
Having said that, the actual battles are messy and more than a little confusing. In the Hoth map, for instance, I was playing as the Empire, and my goal was ostensibly to destroy the Rebel Alliance's shield generator. What the game did a poor job of explaining was that I had to actually escort an AT-AT to the target while the Rebels tried to call in Y-wing strikes via satelite uplink and use Snowspeeders to bring it down. I got it eventually, but for the first several minutes, I was running around killing Rebels and wondering what the heck it was that I was supposed to be doing aside from keeping them from calling in Y-wings.
If I sound ambivalent, it's because I kind of am. It's a very different game from the original Battlefront, leaning much more toward pure shooter conventions, and it lacks a lot of the wildness that comes with, say, crashing a fighter into a ship, fighting to its core, then battling back to the hangar and escaping. I want to give DICE the benefit of the doubt, though, and I want to enjoy Star Wars: Battlefront on its own terms. With that, I will probably get it, even knowing that the messy but exhilirating scope of the LucasArts games are mostly long gone, and that the series is a little less interesting for it.
And so I near the end of E3, with only one more day of appointments before the end. It will be one of the busiest days of the show for me, though, so I'm sure I'll have plenty to say when I wrap everything up.
It's been a really interesting show so far, with much of the promise of 2014 indeed coming to fruition. I feel more positive about this year's crop of games than I have in ages, with even the disappointments being much more interesting than the rather staid selection of year's past. There's so much I want to see and experience this year.
I'll have more thoughts when I finish everything up on Monday, but this is the happiest I've been in ages with gaming, even if I come off as ambivalent about Nintendo's lineup in particular. I'll be back tomorrow to close off this little series of adventures from the show floor with some final thoughts. Until then, stay tuned.