Now that the new and diminished E3 falls in July instead of May, the San Diego Comic Con comes right on the heels of the video game industry's annual trade convention. As a result, there were more games than ever at the mecca of comics, movies, and all things nerdish. One game company conspicuously absent was Nintendo, apparently having such a good year that they didn't feel a need to mount a booth as they did in 2006. Sony's year has been a bit different and they must've felt otherwise. My tour of the games of Comic Con began there, where the E3 demo leftovers on display were drawing lines of attendees.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Naughty Dog's debut title for PS3 was represented in three demo levels, each one starting off in varying locations of a tropical island. One level opened with our hero Drake swinging on vines and climbing rock walls over perilous cliffs to reach a ruined fortress, Prince of Persia style. The wall climbing got tedious rather fast, but at least it was over quick before it became annoying. Once Drake reaches the fort, it becomes a "stop 'n pop" affair, Drake constantly taking cover from the enemies' suppressing fire and darting out to get his licks in. Going out in the open Rambo-style is a death wish unless there are only a couple baddies in the vicinity.
The graphics are strong in Uncharted, sporting some very lush, detailed jungle environments and sharp texture work. However, the demo kiosk was right next to Heavenly Sword, and compared to that high bar era of graphical fidelity, I found myself focusing on Uncharted's flaws as much as its charms.
First, the things you often see in games at the demo stage of development: screen tearing, framerate drops during intense action, clipping through walls and boxes. The animation is a bit stiff, especially for the enemy characters. A soft blur is applied to the backgrounds when you get up close and personal for melee attacks, leaving you and your enemy in sharp focus. That was a nice touch. I cared less for the red haze "getting shot now" indicator that appeared at the top of the screen. It looked like it could use some polish. The screen also goes gray when you are nearing death, but I found myself wishing the game would abandon this misguided attempt at realism so that I could just make out the faraway sniper who was pasting me from the trees. The lighting in the game is one of its strengths, and the tropical setting is well realized through the art style.
In fact, the scenery looks great, nicely modeled and varied flora and fauna everywhere. It's almost too good, because sometimes it's hard to tell where you need to go next through all the thick jungle growth. The controls are tight enough, though the one instance where the SixAxis tilt function was used to balance Drake across a log bridge felt very tacked on and unintuitive. But I loved the way you could grapple objects as you took cover. The most fun I had was jumping onto a rock, perching on one side, popping out to drop a couple snipers, and then letting go to bash the skulls of two guys running up on me. Overall, Uncharted is a solid action game, but didn't strike me as an A+ killer app. It feels more like a skillful blend of Prince of Persia and Gears of War in a tropical locale than an original gameplay experience.
Nariko's hair has some serious body. Everything about this game's look is impressive, from her 'do blowing in gravity-defying wind, to the glowing sunset-bloom lighting, to the fluid, detailed animation, even the textures and effects work. In Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory has succeeded in creating the most visually impressive third-person game so far this generation. It's a complete package as a technical marvel of hardware power as well as the brilliant art direction. The Comic Con attendees huddled around the lone demo station seemed to agree, with the most-overheard line being something to the effect that "this is what separates the PS3 from the 360."
The demo begins as you guide the heroine hurtling down from a high mountain top, running Sonic-style across a series of huge ropes towards a platform of enemies far below. In quick-time events (QTE) fashion, hammering on the X button to run faster or pushing a certain direction on the thumbstick to leap to another rope becomes a split-second priority. Off in the distance (and what a distance), there's a magnificent vista of flying birds, waterfalls, clouds, forests, and faraway mountains. This couldn't be more of a wide-open contrast in setting from the 2006 E3 demo that took place in a cramped, enclosed battle arena.
Or could it? For once Nariko landed amidst her foes and began kicking ass, I realized that very little of the beautiful environment was interactive. The playable area is relatively small, not much bigger than a couple screen lengths. Perhaps Ninja Theory is able to throw more cell-power into the look of the scenery, animations, and effects by keeping the action confined to a manageable space. But within that space the action moves very well, there's a variety of pleasing ways to dispatch enemies, the splendid animation gives each blow a feeling of power. You can pick up weapons with the X button, and that even goes for dead bodies. The impressive draw distance is at least somewhat interactive, as you can throw a downed enemy off a cliff and enjoy watching him fall down. Way down.
So what's not to like? Well, the second most often overheard line was something like, "This is just like God of War." "Hey, Kratos got a sex change!" "Check out Girl of War!" That's a good and a bad thing. Good because God of War is a great game, and the combat is on par with that masterpiece. Bad because it toes that fine line between taking inspiration and ripping off. The QTEs, the flailing attack animations, the brutal finisher moves, they're all here. And though Heavenly Sword looks prettier, I would still give a slight gameplay edge to its PS2 forerunner. By the end of the demo, I'd felled dozens of enemies, and it started to feel a bit of a chore. But I'd imagine that once you learn the combos, this game will feel more heavenly and less like a button masher. No matter what, it'll make for a graphical WOW when you have friends or family gather 'round the PS3.