E3 2011 – Four Franchises That Could Be Redeemed by Sequels
Sequels adorned this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo — nothing new in this industry, where long-running franchises are king and many publishers and developers love to milk an IP for all it’s worth. But amid all those 2′s and 3′s on the show floor, there were a few interesting standouts. Why interesting? Because the games that spawned those sequels weren’t particularly great to begin with.
But even though there were a few properties at E3 that had us scratching our heads thinking, “Really?”, we were intrigued by what we saw. In fact, there were a few games that seemed a little odd but interesting — games that seem to have acquired a familiar title while being wholly different from their predecessors, or games that are trying to reinvigorate a good idea that might not have been well-executed on the first go.
We’ve compiled a short list of E3 games that we didn’t expect to excite us, but that have piqued our interest. These are four games that might just save their respective franchises.
Phil Hornshaw’s Picks
The original Prey, released in 2006 by Human Head Studios and 3D Realms, took some interesting approaches to the first-person shooter. The game toyed around with things like gravity, size, portals — all nice changes in what was quickly becoming a boring world of running and gunning. Unfortunately, Prey suffered from quite a bit of standard running and gunning itself, even if the things you were shooting at happened to be upside down or standing on a wall.
It’ll be almost six years on when Prey 2 is released, this time under the watchful eyes of Bethesda in place of 3D Realms but with Human Head still at the helm. And while the title carries the “Prey” moniker, it seems to be a wholly different experience. Prey 2 has a noir feel, it’s about hunting enemies rather than being hunted by them, it abandons all that physics manipulation and it includes free-running, climbing and bounty hunting. These games couldn’t be much more different.
But Prey 2 is promising because it also seems to have moved in a more open direction and taken fewer cues from Half-Life and Doom than its predecessor did. It also doesn’t contain any walls or objects that resemble human female anatomy — see below.
That alone is a step in the right direction.
Add in fast-paced action and a vibrant alien world that seems a lot like hanging out in Mass Effect 2′s Omega, and we could be looking at a Prey game that sets up a new, exciting direction for the IP. We’re hoping the noir/western feel of this trailer actually pans out.
The Darkness II
From a narrative standpoint, the first iteration of The Darkness was a solid game. Based on a series of comics of the same name, it had some interesting ideas and gave the first-person shooter a shot in the arm by mixing in demonic powers granted by a monster called The Darkness. It also had some strong voice acting, a mob-heavy story line, and lots of gore.
It also was an incredibly annoying game to play, allowing players to wander around sections of New York by subway and to spend a whole lot of time lost. The shooting aspects — the game’s backbone — were weak to the point of being irritating, with aiming at and actually hitting enemies an extremely uneven experience. And while there was all that Darkness power at one’s fingertips, actually using it for much of the game was difficult because the powers were largely limited until they were unlocked, so it wasn’t like you could take enemies apart with the two snake-like heads growing out of your shoulders. There was no speed to the combat in much of the game. Plus, main character Jackie moved like someone had just shot him with a tranquilizer dart.
Digital Extremes, the studio behind Homefront and BioShock 2, has taken the reins from Starbreeze Studios for The Darkness II, and already it seems as though the new developer has addressed a lot of the game’s old weaknesses. Level design is tighter — perhaps more corridor-like — but also better-designed to accommodate Jackie’s revamped Darkness powers as well as the game’s emphasis on shooting. Enemies no longer seem too far away to engage, which is a major plus.
More emphasis has been put on the comics, according to Lead Designer Tom Galt, and it shows in the art style as well as the story. The sequel is more about Jackie’s relationship with the darkness, and the game includes more enemies than just simple mobsters who don’t know anything about The Darkness — these are actually cult members trying to steal the demon from Jackie for their own ends, and they know that to fight it, they need to employ light.
Meanwhile, the entire game handles better, from what we’ve seen so far. Jackie can carry up to two guns at a time, and use both with the trigger buttons (ironsights aiming goes on the left one when he has only one weapon), and he can employ The Darkness at any time. One side grabs enemies and can execute them, which is controlled by either a bumper or a shoulder button on the left, and the other can swipe and stab at enemies, controlled by the shoulder button on the right. In this way, Jackie has four options for any given situation, and it makes The Darkness a fluid part of every combat situation. It makes the game a ton more fun to actually play, and makes Jackie feel much more powerful.
Ross Lincoln’s Picks
Risen 2: Dark Waters
2009′s Risen was a fairly interesting action RPG, notable for its unique setting (a mediterranean island with varying climates and environments). It didn’t suck but it was a fairly unremarkable, by the numbers fantasy plot, and the game also came with some pretty big flaws, including 1) a very gigantic discrepancy between PC and console graphics due in part to the console version having been outsourced, and 2) a hell of a lot of level recycling.
At E3, I spent half an hour with reps from Deep Silver for a look at Risen 2: Dark Water, and while I wasn’t able to actually play the game – it is still very early in development, so the presentation consisted of screen shots and a brief demo played by one of the attending reps – what I saw has a lot of promise. After acknowledging the significant differences between Risen’s PC and Xbox graphics, they showed off the vast improvements for Risen 2. Improvements made possible in part because they’re developing both versions simultaneously, rather than outsourcing the console version long after the PC version is done. While Risen 2 still won’t look as good on Xbox as it will on PC, it looks leaps and bounds better than Risen did.
Better still, when I asked point blank about the problem of level recycling, I was treated to a claim that, if true, is stunning: To avoid recycling, every single element in the game, from boxes to stones to walls to leaves of grass, will have been placed, by hand, by one of the developers. Naturally they’ll still be using modules, so big rocks will look like other big rocks and boxes will look like other boxes, but when complete every village, forest, dungeon or beach will be entirely unique.
The most promising part? As you’ll notice from the photo, while the game is still a magical/fantasy RPG, the setting has changed and it now involves ocean Pirates of the 17th century variety.
As I said, I only got to see a tiny fraction of the game, but if the promises made during the demo are kept, Risen 2 has the potential to significantly differentiate the Risen series from other RPG titles.
Saints Row: The Third
Yes, technically this is the second sequel to a fairly popular series, but considering the decidedly mediocre first title and the somewhat ignored sequel, it fits. A little background wank: The Saints Row series began inauspiciously as a middling, so-so GTA clone. About the only thing it had going for it was the rather extreme side missions, like insurance fraud or drug dealing missions that far exceeded anything ever seen in Grand Theft Auto.or the detailed character customization and ability to get drunk or stoned. Otherwise, they largely matched the tone of GTA note for note, and the result was a largely forgettable, if not terrible, game that I didn’t touch again once I beat it.
In Saints Row 2, THQ realized they were never going to be able to reinvent the GTA wheel, so instead of trying they simply took everything that worked in Saints Row and added a hefty dose of bleak humor that did an excellent job of completely differentiating it from the GTA series. Unfortunately, they released the game less than 4 months after 2008′s GTA IV. While Saints Row 2 eventually sold nearly 2 million copies, it was mostly forgotten due everyone temporarily agreeing that GTA IV was the Greatest Game Ever Made Period.
Saints Row: The Third might finally be the chance for the series to step out from out of GTA’s shadow. Not only is it not being released in direct competition with a new GTA game, it’s closely following the template laid down in Saints Row 2: take everything that worked and make it even better. The hilarious side missions are returning but even more sociopathic than ever. The rampage missions now give you the option of destroying everything with a tank. Cartoony melee weapons have been added, like a pair of Hulk-Fist style gloves that literally turn whomever you punch into a bloody cloud of people-goo. The plot, picking up from where the previous game left off, now sees the main characters as something of anti-celebrities, and that aspect is played up for hilarious results. During the E3 demo, in the middle of a bank robbery mission, one of the hostages interrupted the main character to ask for an autograph. In short, it seems designed to be just really fun and really extreme, non stop, with some light, if dumb dumb satire that, if it works as well as it did in Saints Row 2, will accidentally be great.
What we saw at E3 was limited to a 10 minute demo, but it looks, frankly, pretty f*cking awesome. Certainly, it’s not going to be hailed as a game changer, but it looks like it might be the chance for the series to finally get a little respect.