Across the street from Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth, the GameStop Expo was held at the Anaheim Convention Center on September 14.
Held in a venue that also hosts Wonder Con, one of the bigger Comic conventions in the Southern California region, the GameStop Expo did not pack the show floor nearly as much as Wonder Con. And not all of the space was devoted to new or unreleased games. There were a lot of peripheral manufacturers, clothes and toy vendors, but as far as games available to play, there wasn’t much that hasn’t already been seen at a bigger show. Some companies even chose to showcase already released games like Rainbow Six: Siege or Madden 2016. The case of ReCore was a strange one, having been released a single day before the show while also being playable at the show.
The overall tone of the show was quite unique. The games at GameStop Expo lacked the novelty of those at E3 by virtue of the show being held later in the year. The event also lacked the “by fans, for fans” excitement of a PAX event and lacked the heart of an IndieCade event. There was not much unofficial cosplay. There were no panels to speak of. Wait times for games were not outrageous, however. In several booths, there were game stations available to simply walk up and play without waiting throughout the day. The show was a real meat and potatoes affair. If someone just wanted to play some games that weren’t out yet and nothing else, the GameSpot Expo was the show for them.
The show was not necessarily the best place to check out VR. Sony had a decent amount of Playstation VR headsets to play using their appointment smartphone app, but games were available on a first-come, first-served basis. So people could guarantee getting a demo but not choose what game they played. As for PC-based headsets, there was a tiny HTC Vive booth and a few game demos at the publisher or developer booths but mostly with long wait times due to long demos.
The GameStop Expo was also not the best place for learning about indie or retro gaming. There was a small arcade area near the back of the show with a handful of cabinets but no real retro console or PC space. There were virtually no indie devs at the show at all.
Essentially, GameStop Expo 2016 was an event set up by a retailer to reward their most loyal customers and little more than that. What GameStop does as a retailer is sell mainstream games, consoles, peripherals, and gaming-related toys and clothes, so they built a show around those things for their existing customers. What GameStop did not do at the expo is provide anything that might attract a new customer to their stores. If in the future these Expos reach out to other segments of the gaming community, they may have a shot at competing with bigger, more exciting shows. For now, it remains a nice time- not a great time.
Here are some looks at a few of the games I was able to preview.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn is one of a handful of upcoming AAA exclusive games set to come out next year. The game is currently scheduled for a February 2017 release and was playable at the recent GameStop Expo.
As a console exclusive title, Horizon Zero Dawn has an additional task to accomplish above and beyond entertaining players, and that is to help sell consoles. Exclusive games usually do this through graphical fidelity. Horizon Zero Dawn does not disappoint in this regard. It is by far one of the best-looking games on PS4, even rivaling Uncharted 4 in the looks department. The game also runs very smoothly with fluid and detailed character animation. Overall, Horizon Zero Dawn does a good job of showcasing the capabilities of the PS4.
The demo version of Horizon Zero Dawn available at the expo was a very small chunk of the game’s open world. This made it difficult to nail down the gameplay of the title in general. What can be said is that the gameplay is fairly fluid and feels vaguely Far Cry-esque. Horizon Zero Dawn feels like a fleshed out version of the hunting challenges in Far Cry games with a slightly different tool set.
The demo was prefaced by a version of the game’s E3 trailer with a tutorial voiceover, which also set up the basic premise of the game’s story. Horizon Zero Dawn is set in a post apocalyptic world in which what we would recognize as human society has been destroyed by some distant past event and reformed as a tribal society in the shadow of robotic dinosaur creatures. Players take the role of Aloy, a young hunter whose village is attacked, Princess Mononoke-style, by a previously unknown robot creature. The encounter with this creature makes up the boss fight showcased at the end of the trailer.
Based on this demo, the make-or-break aspect of Horizon Zero Dawn will be the size of the game. If the game world is too big and empty like No Man’s Sky or too limited like Destiny at its initial release, it won’t matter how good the game looks or how fluidly it plays. Hopefully, Guerrilla Games can deliver on the potential on display in this demo.
Gran Turismo Sport
Earlier this month, Sony announced that the next installment in their flagship racing series, Gran Turismo Sport, will be delayed until 2017. Nonetheless, a demo of the game was available at the GameStop Expo. When the game was announced, the “Sport” subtitle seemed to point to a less sim-like style of racing in the same vein as the Forza: Horizon series of games on the Xbox. That is not the case. Judging by this demo, Gran Turismo Sport is almost as hardcore a racing sim as any other Gran Turismo title.
The game looks really good, though it is hard to say how it will look in homes, given the high end Sony TV that the demo was running on. It must be said though that the game looks incredibly sharp on said high end TV, this is the type of game that Best Buys will leave running on display to sell consoles and 4K TVs next year. Gran Turismo Sport also seems to have the same level of car nerd depth as previous games in the series, though little of it was accessible in the demo.
Gran Turismo Sport holds its own in the controls department, though the Dual Shock 4 controller’s lack of analog trigger buttons lets the game down. Controlling a car’s gas and brakes via an analog stick in Gran Turismo Sport’s default control scheme just doesn’t feel as good as using shoulder trigger buttons. Outside of the drawbacks of the controller, the game’s controls are tight and responsive, which is vital for a racing game of any kind.
Gran Turismo Sport is a super sim like a Gran Turismo game should be. This is a game where cars race within a class of other similar cars and never outside of that class. There is no helicopter based whimsy on display here as in the Forza Horizon 3 demo. Gran Turismo Sport is a serious car game for serious car people. Unfortunately, all those serious car people on PS4 will have to wait until next year.
Forza Horizon 3
Forza Horizon 3 is the type of racing game that tries to split the difference between a goofy arcade-style racing game and a serious racing simulator. It’s a game for people who want to go fast in a car they could never afford to buy but don’t care what brand of supercharger is under the hood.
Games like Forza Horizon 3 live and die based on three things: graphical fidelity, sound design, and controls. The fact that the game is an Xbox exclusive gives it a bit of an edge in the controls department due in large part to the analog triggers on the Xbox One controller. The game looks as good as any current gen console game and has some excellent sound design. Engines noises are satisfactorily replicated as are tire squeals. The game’s cockpit view also functions as expected.
Another crucial aspect of less sim-like racing games is the level of car-based silliness included in race modes. Flagship racing titles need to be serious to impress hardcore car nerds, but the Forza Horizon 3s of the world get to goof around like classic British Top Gear. So there can be an off-road race against a jeep hanging from a helicopter, for example, as well as other acts of hooliganism.
If you’re just sort of into cars and have an Xbox One or gaming PC, you should keep an eye on Forza Horizon 3, which will be available later this month on September 27.
As I mentioned earlier, Sony didn’t let people pick what game they played for their VR demo, and I lucked out and drew Rez. VR is a really great way to play Rez. For those unfamiliar, Rez is an on-rails shooter with a wire-frame, polygonal visual style and an amazing techno soundtrack released back on the Dreamcast and PS2. When it was released in 2001, it looked like what people thought VR would look like, so it is fitting that it is going to be released on the Playstation VR.
The addition of VR to Rez essentially makes the game what people always wanted it to be. Blocking out all other visual stimuli forces the player to focus completely on the fantastic visual design and color of the Rez game world. VR also places the control of the game’s aiming reticule on the player’s head movements, making the gameplay even more fluid than the original. This change does reduce the difficulty of Rez which seems to have been adjusted by making the enemies fire back at the player more often. Adding VR to Rez does what VR games should do; take an existing game concept and figure out what VR adds to that concept, and fix anything that VR breaks.
VR is also a really, really fun way to play Rez. The power of VR is in what it removes from the experience, which is basically anything that isn’t the game being played. In the case of Rez, this changes the experience from a mostly passive experience to something more involved and intense. In other cases, though, it may have the effect of magnifying a game’s flaws instead of elevating its strengths.