I'm back from my Busman's Holiday to Germany. It's a rare holiday for me when I'm actually going abroad to play videogames. I had a fantastic couple of days at the Games Convention in Leipzig, and on the press day I was accompanied around the exhibition halls on the press day by my cameraman, translator, personal assistant and friend, Sascha.
Though our tastes in videogames don't precisely tally, we do have one favourite game in common - World of Warcraft. Though Sascha's a rather more advanced player than I am - given that he has no less than four Level 60 characters, whilst I haven't even breached the Level 50 barrier yet with my most advanced character. Regardless, rather high up our priorities to play was WoW: The Burning Crusade, which reawakened pangs of longing for Azeroth in me. There's not really too much new in the expansion - two new races, Blood Elves for the Horde and the Draenei for the Alliance, plus one new profession (Jewelcrafting), but for me, it's a certain purchase. The game's as enchanting as always, and Blizzard have improved their already sterling attention to detail. The level of animation on the emotes is delightful: for example, the /train emote for the Draenei is hilarious. I'm about a fifth of the way through downloading a monstrous patch (over 450MB), since I haven't WoW'ed since May. The chances of me getting reacquainted with my characters tonight is somewhat slim...
We also had a quick blast on Neverwinter Nights 2 (the sequel to another common favourite) and it's nice to see the introduction of quite a few new features. The skills and feats follow traditional AD&D skills far more precisely this time (Diplomacy instead of Persuade, for example) and this time your mini-map has a lot more detail and marks the main points of interest of the zone you're in. It's possible to lead a much larger party now - more akin to Baldur's Gate than the original NWN, plus there's a new class of new playable races: Planetouched. I can see the Tieflings and Aasimars being rather popular, myself. The build I played was still rather raw and needed a bit of optimisation, but at least the start isn't painfully dull and leaps straight into the action.
An unexpected bonus was getting to play with the creature creator from Spore. I have no doubts that this game is going to be huge. People will spend hours just in the creature creator alone. You can really make some demented-looking beasts. I could play around with it for days. When Sascha sends over a picture of my creation, I'll be sure to upload it. He was so cute...
Other impressive games that caught my eye were Unreal Tournament 2007 (sadly not playable), UFO: Afterlight (which looks like improving upon the two previous UFO games), Armed Assault (the spiritual sequel to Operation Flashpoint, by Bohemia Interactive - it's Flashpoint with proper graphics, and will be ace, if they can sort out the optimisation and difficulty level - the build I played is a huge resource hog, not to mention even more unforgiving than the original) and Timeshift. Tom previewed this about a month back, and if anything, the build I played at Leipzig was even more impressive. The time manipulation mechanic is streets ahead of anything that's used bullet time. Here you can stop time, run up to enemies and steal their weapons, or simply run behind them and shoot them in the back of the head. Then you can reverse time, bring them back to life and do it all over again, except even more cruelly. This game will be a sadist's wet dream. Not just that, you can use the time shifting abilities of your Quantum Suit to help you solve environmental puzzles - it's going to be a real thinking man's FPS. I can't wait for review code - assuming we can persuade Vivendi to send us the PC version as well as the 360 version... otherwise I might actually have to go out and buy it.
The star of the show, however, was the Nintendo Wii. Unfortunately for the proles, it wasn't playable on the show floor (but then, Sony completely no-showed with the PS3 as well), but for those of us lucky enough to have access to the Business Centre, we could get a hands-on. I was pretty much sold the concept of the Wii months ago, but now I've actually played with one, if this doesn't outsell the PS3, then it's time for me to give up playing videogames, because there's clearly no hope for the industry at all. I'm pretty much convinced now that Nintendo are content to let Microsoft and Sony fight for the hardcore market, because the Wii is the perfect party game machine. It will still have the odd fantastic game tailored for the hardcore (the Red Steel's and Metroid Prime's of this world), but its in the casual market that the Wii is really going to score its points. I played Baseball and Tennis in Wii Sports, and it's just so different to how you've played anything before.
The remote controller is a work of genius - truly. Not only is it much less intimidating for a console newcomer to get to grips with, the motion sensing works incredibly well - I didn't notice any lag at all when I was playing Baseball. You're going to want to play most of the games standing up, because the dynamic method of control really makes you feel like you want to get your whole body involved. When I was hitting pitches, I was holding the remote behind my head with both hands, swinging and following through with my entire body, stepping forward into the simulated throw, hitting the majority of balls into the stands. By contrast, another journalist was playing rooted to the spot, wafting the remote around weakly and didn't hit a single pitch. You've really got to be able to make that mental leap from translating what you do with your body in real-life to what's happening on the screen. I imagine that it's going to pose more of a problem for the keyboard-and-mouse brigade and the hardcore console gamers who are set in their ways to more casual players. I thought that the controller was very intuitive and felt natural to use - far more so than I'd imagined. Moving the controller vertically to pitch the toss of a tennis serve, and then swinging the controller to simulate the racket felt so damned good and easy - Ninty are really trying to make gaming much less intimidating to people who would baulk at being given a dual-shock pad. The potential of that controller (even without force feedback - though I bet Ninty are working on a rumble force plug-in) really scares me. If LucasArts don't make a lightsaber duelling game for that controller, I will goddamn design and fund one *myself*...
I also got to take a good look at Rayman Raving Rabbids, which has got to be the best party game I've ever seen. Relentlessly cute, yet still a little bit sinister, and taking elements of rhythm-action games, shooters and just about everything else under the sun... It's going to be huge. Michel Ancel is a marvel. Completely batshit insane, if RRR is anything to go by, but a marvel, nonetheless.
Finally, I got to play Red Steel - the game I essentially went to the convention to see. Graphically, it's not up to much, but that's more because the E3 demo I played was developed on a Gamecube dev kit, rather than the Wii itself. The final version will look much better. The game itself is really impressive. Using the remote and the nunchuk controller is (again) very intuitive, though will take some getting used to for some people, I imagine. Red Steel's got some very cool ideas - like being able to take a look inside a room, scope out all the enemies and use your pistol to disarm them all in a single volley of lead. Then you have the option of letting them live, or killing them where they kneel in surrender. The sword fighting isn't quite as good as I imagined, though apparently they're revamping it after the feedback they had from E3, to move away from the mouse-gesture style sword control to something a little more dynamic - which if they can make it more akin to the baseball bat control in Wii Sports, will be all kinds of awesome.
In short, I'm pre-ordering a Wii as soon as I can (Play.com won't let me at the moment), because I'm totally convinced that it's *the* console of the Next-Gen consoles to have. It might not have the technical puissance of the PS3 or the 360, but I'm more and more inclined to think that the Wii will have the kind of games I will want to play. Not to mention the fact it should be a darned sight cheaper than its competitors, too.
Everyone now... Wii will, Wii will ROCK YOU!