Curse of the Epic Fail: My Story of PAX

[NOTE: I wrote this for a gaming website I frequent about my recent trip to PAX, aka the Penny Arcade Expo, aka that other video game convention like E3 that’s in Seattle. Since I never post anything written I thought I’d share it with you too!]

If there is one thing that I’ve learned from two years of PAX it’s that the next time I see a line for a new Left 4 Dead game, just leave it alone.

Leave it alone!

But more on that later.

My second PAX, while short, was very eventful. Last year I went mainly because my friend Jeremy wanted to go and I didn’t mind having someone to hang out with. The whole thing was a little overwhelming because I had no idea what was going on. But this year I was prepared. PAX was bigger than ever this year and not only was it sold out for all three days, but the exhibitor hall had bled over into what last year was an area for PC gaming. Everything was bigger and better. Well, not always better, but we’ll get to that.

First things first though: What was missing? For some reason Modern Warfare 2 was mysteriously absent from PAX. I was really looking forward to playing it, or at least checking out the demo, but it was nowhere to be seen. My friend Dean and I found that very odd.

After walking the entire floor to get the lay of the land, we made our first stop at the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 station. I’ve still yet to pop in my used copy of the first game, but we got to play the new game with almost no wait so we went for it. Before we could go into the gaming room one of the lead designers of the game let us know what to expect and split us into teams by giving us cool color coded, PAX stamped Bad Company 2 wristbands. While we waited a Wii Dance game’s music was blaring in the background and the lead designer said that he would give out a free copy of Battlefield 1943 to anyone who would get up and out dance the people playing the live demo. Well, one over-eager African American gamer jumped up on stage and strung together one of the most hilarious sets of mismatched moves I’ve ever seen. No one can say that that level of humiliation didn’t deserve a free game.

Once inside we got to play a snow map with I think 15 other people. We were Russians trying to destroy American crates at the base. Not having ever played a Battlefield game before I think I did pretty well, especially when I lucked out and turned a corner to see an entire team in front of me looking the other direction and got of a string of quick kills before my lack of madskillz betrayed me. It played nice, although I’d definitely need some more time with the game to fully get it. The one problem with the demo was that no one’s headsets let them talk to one another so that we couldn’t really coordinate an attack, but that didn’t keep us from winning anyway.

Then we went to the Bioshock 2 booth. There was only a live demo there but nevertheless it really got me pumped for the new game. As most of you know, you get to play as the prototype first Big Daddy. You’re way more badass than your human counterpart in the first game, illustrated very helpfully by the part of the demo where the Big Daddy just had to rev his drill to make a Splicer run away in fear. To balance the gaming, since you are so much more powerful than the Splicers, I guess there are new baddies (like the Big Sister) than can drain your Adam and weaken you that way.

Another cool touch was that when you find a Little Sister you can still Harvest her for Adam like in the first game, but instead of saving her being your other option you can instead join her. Basically what happens here is that she jumps on your shoulder and you take her to a dead body that she can drain of Adam. The benefit is that you get more Adam this way, but the trade off is that she’s a sitting duck for Splicers when she’s doing this and you have to protect her while she finishes. You have a new power to set traps, which what I saw involved creating these whirlpools before the Splicers showed up that he then lit on fire. Pretty cool stuff. On top of that you can now explore outside the buildings, highlighting the game’s ubercool water effects.

Funny side story: Outside of the demo room there was a cryptic mock-up of a 1959 room from Bioshock with all sorts of fun props. One of them was a cupcake left for a lost girl (Little Sister?) that looked just like any of the other props. Dean saw this and poked the top of it with his finger, only to discover it was a real cupcake. It still has his finger dent in it, with frosting wiped on the side of the table, which I thought was pretty funny.

On next to Brutal Legend, which was pretty cool. I definitely think it will be worth at the very least a rental. Any of you put off by its cartoony graphics will be pleased to know that it is very gory and Jack Black curses up a storm in it. He talked almost entirely through the demo, and almost everything he had to say was hilarious. Even the main menu was cool, in that it had a filmed hand opening up a fake LP album cover with scenes from the game. Hack and slash fans will have reasons to rock when this comes out.

After some lunch we got into the Left 4 Dead 2 line, which is when the waiting began. Last year, Jeremy and I waited for over an hour to play an over way too quickly demo. Good news is this year the demo was way longer. Bad news was that this year the demo was way longer. Dean and I waited over 3 hours to play. No shit. At times I questioned the sanity of waiting to play this game when there were so many other games calling our names. But there were some plus sides to this, mainly that it meant we really got to know the game’s new features. And then there was the epic fail, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

First, for those who are wondering why Left 4 Dead 2 is coming out so soon after the first Left 4 Dead and wondering why they didn’t just make this a DLC I will say that if this came out next year instead of this year, none of you would be complaining. The levels looked huge and amazing. The two maps they were demoing started out on the highway with abandoned cars as far as the eye can see, moved to an abandoned motel, into the woods and then into a theme park (filled with clown zombies!). Each part of the level was pretty huge and where to go next wasn’t always entirely clear. The graphics also looked a lot cleaner and more realistic than I remember the first game being.

There are four new specialty zombie types ON TOP OF the old four, meaning a lot of zombie variety. One zombie is an old yellowed hag who spits up acid that is toxic to walk over as long as it’s on the ground. Another jumps on your back and controls your movements before taking you down. Yet another is like a weaker Tank, easier to kill but faster, and if he catches you watch out, because he’s going to pick you up and pulverize you into the ground over and over. The melee weapons were also a cool touch. You can get an axe, a guitar, crowbar or samurai sword, the later pleasurably slicing zombie skulls in half.

The game is also a lot harder than the first one, meaning staying with your squad is doubly important. Regular zombies are a lot more aggressive and can keep moving after having an arm, or even leg blown off. All and all it looks like a really fun game and I want to dust off my old copy of Left 4 Dead in anticipation of the new one coming out.

The wait for this game was so long that I jumped out of line to go play the Mass Effect 2 demo because I loved the first game and wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t check out the new one. The demo was actually pretty quick and simple. There was a cut scene where you fly through a city, very Blade Runner-esq and there is some dialogue about how you can’t just fly directly to your location because they’ll shoot you down, so you have to take an elevator to the top floor and fight your way to your destination, which is where the playable part starts. The combat is a little easier this time around a flows better, kind of, but not exactly like Gears. Some cool looking Elite soldiers were there for you to blow away. After the combat you go upstairs where another cut scene takes place and you have some different dialogue options…but unfortunately it was so loud I couldn’t really make out what they were. Some new alien kills a bunch of familiar aliens and then…something. End of demo.

But what about the epic fail I keep mentioning, you ask?

So while you are waiting in line to play Left 4 Dead there is a big screen TV on the end that shows what one of the people playing is seeing, which is where I learned pretty much everything about the new game. It was cool to watch people play, but after two+ hours of waiting the sanity of waiting this long to play a single game was becoming more and more in question. Then Mr. Epic Fail started playing.

I have no idea who it was, but Mr. Epic Fail, while familiar with first person shooters, had obviously never played the first Left 4 Dead, nor apparently been paying attention to others play while waiting in line. Mr. Epic Fail was a lone wolf in the worst way, frequently drifting far away from the team, who God bless them, kept coming back to save his dumb ass when they should have just left him to die. At one point Mr. Epic Fail found a hunting rifle on top of a building and instead of just grabbing it and catching up with the team, decided to set up camp and snipe zombies while the rest of the team got pummeled. At one point when faced with the choice of saving a trapped teammate or grabbing a new melee weapon, well, guess what Mr. Epic Fail chose. When the on screen prompter told him to heal another heavily injured player he ran across the map with the medkit in his hands only to heal his only partially hurt self instead of the person he was standing right next to. It was a riot and I really have no idea if Mr. Epic Fail had any idea all of the hooting and hollering was directed at him or not.

Finally as it was getting late we took another run around the floor and looked at some other games. One I’d like to mention to you was called Split/Second, which is a racing game a lot like Burnout with one really cool new feature. As you race without crashing a power meter grows beneath your car, which when it becomes full you can activate to basically blow things up and dramatically alter the map. The demo stage was a track around an airport and a few of the things you could do were collapse an air traffic control tower, demolish a terminal and blow up some buses, all of which changed the course of the map and would damage any enemy cars unlucky enough to be near them when they went off. It was really fun and if the game turns out to be anywhere near as fun as the demo it will totally be worth picking up.

Finally, after leaving the main exhibition hall I went to the main theater to see the live demos of Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed II. Despite the fact that the French-Canadian Head Designer of Splinter Cell was a blast to listen to, the demo was a major disappointment, since it really showed next to nothing you haven’t already seen from the E3 footage. Plus, it was the same map they were live demoing on the Exhibition Room floor, so it really was underwhelming.

Fortunately, Assassin’s Creed II was a lot more entertaining. While I liked the first game, its repetitive nature made it a snooze towards the end of the game and it looks like, at least from the demo, that they’ve gotten rid of that problem. They’ve changed up the gameplay so that there a lot more ways to do similar tasks and some tasks can be done only one way.

For example: One side quest involved assassinating a nobleman, except you can’t have any witnesses and he has a bodyguard following him at all times. What he did was sneak up behind the bodyguard and poison him with something that made him go crazy, swinging his spear all around ultimately hitting the confused nobleman.

Also, if you see a room guarded by four thugs you no longer have to take them all on by yourself if you don’t want to. You can pay your own thugs to go beat them up, and while the chaos ensues you can just walk by the carnage to your destination. Where do you get the money? Well now when you brush up against people you can pickpocket money.

Funniest part of the demo: The Lead Designer was playing an unfinished complete version of the game, and when someone asked the inevitable question about whether or not you could finally swim he jumped into the water…only to have the game glitch out. There were weird clipping issues and when he tried to jump out of the water he momentarily flew straight up, swinging his arms as if he was still trying to swim. Except he was ten feet up in the air, flailing about as if the mothership was trying to pull him away. Hilarious.

All and all it was a great PAX. I got a hella lot of swag and had a fun time. I only wish I could have stayed longer. Stupid Left 4 Dead.

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