We love Germany very much. We'd live in Berlin if we could. Germany's good at loads of things, such as sports, for example, and art and beer and bread. But in the last week, we've come to realise that Germany, as a whole, is incredibly good at three things in particular.
Erstens - Smoking. An odd thing happens to British smokers when they arrive in Germany. "YES," they inwardly shout. "YES. Not only can I smoke virtually anywhere, but there are loads of other people smoking as well! Which means I don't feel like a leper for doing it!" After this they proceed to smoke 200 fags before 10am and turn green, causing German people, enjoying a morning coffee and cigarette, to look at them like they're weirdoes. Germany: doing smoking well.
Zweitens - Meat. [SFX: The opening of a notepad followed by a brief, brisk scribble.] "Have you chosen, sir?" "Yes. I'd like some meat, bitte." "A wise choice, sir. Any particular variety?" "I think I'll start with a bowl of pork soup with an entire, whole sausage in it, please. Followed by pork, deep-fried, on a bed of broiled pork. Dribbled with a pork jus. In a veal cone." "Any meat on the side?" "A small portion of meat, danke. You can never have enough meat." [SFX: Leather-bound menu clapping shut.] "Genau, sir." Seriously, if you're into meat, Germany has all the pork products you could ever need. Germany: meating very well indeed.
Drittens - Putting on a continent-beating video games show that is not only useful to every single person brought into contact with games on any level, but is also absolutely enjoyable and is about as likely to disappear as Germany is to stop liking pork and Marlboro any time soon.
The crux of the matter. Here's why.
Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles
Games Convention, held in Leipzig, Germany, came of age this week. Microsoft saw to that by putting it firmly on the world stage with a global next-gen hardware pricing announcement. It's testament to the importance of the event in the gaming calendar now that Microsoft made the move instead of waiting for the Tokyo Game Show or X05, one of which will almost certainly play fiddle to the last piece of the Xbox 360 launch story, the console's release date.
But while the German announcement from Microsoft was significant, it really is only part of GC's success story. Yesterday, the first consumer day of nearly a week of events, 28,000 consumers marched on the Leipziger Messe to see pretty much every major 2005 Christmas release from every major video games publisher in the market. The show was major news in Germany, making national TV broadcasts and hitting newspapers wholesale. And this is after the Games Convention Developer Conference, which began on Tuesday and ended today, which drew speeches from key developers and industry figures of the likes of Bill Roper and Kamar Shah.
And to top all that, the venue's simply fantastic. But, whatever. Everyone's here for the games, right? Here's what was on offer.
A show like Games Convention can only be successful if all the format holders turn up. Not only did all the console manufacturers attend GC, but they built stands the like of which is only seen elsewhere at E3, and one of them chose the venue to price its next hardware, giving the global media reason to attend on Wednesday: a proper press day for the proper press.
Xbox 360 stopped the show. In a dramatic turnaround from what really can only be described as a weak E3 showing (all the main stuff having been officially unveiled in advance), Microsoft announced global pricing for its soon-to-be-released baby - a key part of its launch strategy in that two packages will be available at retail - and showed enough products on its capacious stand to make even the most hardened cynic believe there's life in the old dog (Xbox) yet.
The company's show-floor amphitheatre was packed to the gunnels with press on Wednesday and consumers yesterday. It was hard to get near it. Xbox 360 was not only viewable in glass cases around the stand, but console cases were strewn all about the place in plant pots. People didn't stop picking them up, pressing the buttons, weighing them in their hands, tapping them, squinting at them. The main package announced for £279.99 was a gift; the cheaper package of the console and a pad for a staggering £209.99 is sure to attract plenty of interest too.
No 360 games were playable, but Gotham 3, DoA4, NBA Live '06, FIFA '06, Gears of War, Ghost Recon 3 and the rest of the usual suspects were being played on videos all over the booth. Kameo's play-test in the press conference looked a world away from the game shown at E3, and the immediacy of hearing prices, seeing the machine and knowing launch is only a few months away, coupled with all very cool iPod and camera connectivity shown on Wednesday, is suddenly making for an exciting prospect.
On the current-gen side, Microsoft's booth was adorned with third-party offerings for Xbox from the likes of SEGA and EA (FIFA, Monkey Ball Deluxe, SSX On Tour, and so forth), and a large section of space was taken up with PC games, as you'd expect at a German show. Fable: The Lost Chapters, Dungeon Siege II, Rise of Legends: Rise of Nations, Age of Empire III and Zoo Tycoon II were all getting a damn good testing yesterday. Microsoft in general was looking far happier than it did at E3. Why do you keep doing that, Microsoft people?
Three letters: PSP. PS2 had practically been relegated on the enormous Sony booth, with literally only a few PS2 games making any kind of major show at all. EyeToy was prominent, with Play 3 and Kinetic fully on show, and SOCOM 3, Buzz and 24, all playable, made up the bulk of the rest of the first-party PS2 line-up on display. That's obviously not to say that there were dozens of third-party PS2 games in the rest of the show, but still.
The rest was PSP. Hundreds of the handhelds were hanging from the ceiling, arranged on stands, linked together and were being beamed onto screens all around the booth. Red and white cushions were full of men, women and children lying around, laughing, playing against each other as the reality of the force of Sony's launch power was shown in full light. What games were they showing? Everything, from the look of it. Sony reiterated that ten first-party games would be available at launch on Wednesday, and they certainly weren't the only titles being played on the booth's PSPs. There were no tags identifying anything, and even if there were, we would have lost count. Not long to go now, Europe.
"Product," as those in the industry are given to saying, and lots of it. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was the obvious star, showing levels seen in the E3 demo, and was proving extremely popular with journos and punters alike. Nintendo chose to use GC as a platform for delaying the GameCube title until next year, again an indicator of the event's growing importance.
There were plenty of GameCube games on display, but the little purple man was looking a little sickly. Mario Smash Football, Mario Baseball and Dancing Stage: Mario Mix were all playable, the latter looking great fun, natch. Geist, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Viewtiful Joe: Red Hot Rumble and The Sims 2 made up any "mainstream" contingent to be found, with Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Yoot Sanitos Odana, Shadow the Hedgehog and Chibi Robo writing the word "niche" on the GC show-floor with a nuclear pen. The DS stuff looked far more exciting, in general.
Nintendogs was proving a huge hit, and Metroid and Advance Wars: Dual Strike made up a pretty much indestructible trio for DS's Christmas '05. Aside, obviously, from Mario Kart DS, which was looking "a bit keen". A separate stand had been given over to the racer to show off the wireless multi-play, pushing the concept of people playing against each other in Berlin and Rekyucik. You couldn't get near it. Have DS, will drop bananas in the path of someone on the other side of the world.
Lastly, Game Boy Micro made a muted appearance at the back of Nintendo's stand, racks of them behind glass showing some extremely desirable faceplates. Want one. See the pictures. Want one.
If the men turn up, the boys always follow, although in this case the third-party publishers were more like pissed teenagers. There weren't many surprises, but some new games did show up in the rest of the show, and the scale of the stands was fantastic. Only at E3 and Tokyo Game Show will you see any equivalent. Get the picture yet?
Standard fare from Japan's finest, sporting Yu-Gi-Oh! on DS and PC, Castlevanias Dawn of Sorrow (DS) and Curse of Darkness (PS2), Metal Gear Ac!d and Coded Arms for PSP and a surprising large amount of back-up for DS with Death, Dragon Booster, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Mutant Nightmare and the brilliantly named Frogger: Helmet Chaos. You couldn't make it up.
And Pro Evolution Soccer 5. On PSP. It was there on PS2 as well, but the PSP version was mobbed. Konami staff were walking around the show flashing off PES5 UMDs, bragging about how they'd been playing wirelessly against the units on the stand. Grown men, boasting about owning videogames. In this context, it is actually amazing.
The game works stupidly well with PSP's screen and floating control method, and as far as we could see there was virtually no difference between it and its PS2 counterpart. Some of the animations were incomplete – the ref appeared on a white background in cut-scenes – but this was looking enticing in every respect. The tag next to it said "75% complete". Come on the extra 25%.
General faff (Tak on GameCube and Bratz: Rock Angelz on PS2 being the main culprits) mixed with a better class of game on the THQ stand, beginning with MotoGP 3, playable on both Xbox and PC. The Xbox version was as hard as it's ever been, showing a mountain stage that had us crashing a lot. It possibly wasn't looking as special as it once did.
A surprising amount of mobile games were on display here, courtesy of THQ Wireless, including Worms Forts, several South Park titles, Juiced, Destroy All Humans, and Ibiza Ministry of Sound game and a Full Spectrum Warrior adaptation.
On the more interesting console and PC front, WWE Day of Reckoning 2 and Dawn of War Winter Assault were hidden away from the children, as were The Outfit (THQ's main announced Xbox 360 title), Company of Heroes and Titan Quest.
Company of Heroes, developed by Relic, was a highlight. The PC-only next-gen RTS showed a group of WWII American soldiers walking through a village in Normandy, getting ambushed by Germans and suddenly finding themselves in an insane firefight. The scenes were wholly reminiscent of the Dawn of War battles Relic perfected last year. Bodies flew around the screen, buildings fully destructed, Panzers and Shermans joined in with cannons and various cut-scenes chopped in depending on the outcome of smaller battles within the main event. It was awesome stuff. Incendiary, even. Only a rolling demo was shown, and no control method was seen on-screen, but we can trust Relic enough to wait for Company of Heroes' 2006 release.
The likes Dragonball Z Tenkaicha and the latest, greatest Asterix & Obelix game were the first to greet visitors to the Atari stand, but there were definitely a few notables on display. An eyebrow-raiser in the making could well be Crash Day, a PC outing at present but, the developer told us, should be making its way to PS2 and Xbox before too long.
Two different demos of the crash-and-track game were on show, a Stunt Mode and a Wrecking Mode. Mr Developer described it as the unofficial sequel to Stunts, and it comes with what looks to be an exhaustive track editors, a la Trackmania Sunrise, which is capable of creating tracks 10km long with over 100m in height difference along the way. We only got to play the Stunt Mode, which involved driving a Lamborghini as quickly as possible over ramps with the aid of nitrous oxide. Combos, such as "Reach for the Sky", and so forth, flashed up on the screen along with multipliers, glass shattering on impact and the car crumpling. Could be interesting.
Away at the back of the stand was Mark Eco's Getting Up and The Matrix: The Path of Neo. The Getting Up section we played involved running over a motorway, following your "homie". We kept getting dead. The Path of Neo demo was the lobby scene from The Matrix, your mission being to rescue Morpheus by blowing the hell out of everything in sight. Good for a laugh. Next.
Of all the publishers showing off at Games Conversion, Midway looks to be on the steepest curve up. The company's stand was dripping with money, models draped over cars and very tasteful models of the Sphinx, and the games on offer really do look like a collective class act.
Rise and Fall on PC – developed by Stainless Steel Studios, them what did Empire Earth – was a stand-out game. The title is a genre cross between roaming combat and RTS, the demo on show detailing a Roman warrior in close-up pegging it around what looked to be an Egyptian city hacking opponents to death with a sword. At the side of the screen, his mission was to, "Clear a path through the city for the Fireraiser," which turned out to be a huge, flaming battering ram. Our hero was carrying a bow in addition to the blade, which came complete with three different types of arrows. Midway staffers have recently promised great things from Rise and Fall in private, and it looks to be one of the company's major releases before Christmas.
Unreal Tournament 2007 wasn't looking too shabby, either. We saw a new, as-yet unnamed mode which, according to Jim Brown of Epic, was a combination of Onslaught and Assault. The demo we were shown focused on differences in character models from previous versions, new vehicles and the new rocket launcher, which is now... red. Brown played with bots, storming an enemy base, planting explosives in what looked to be a city red light district and making the crazy boom. As you'd expect, it was high quality.
Even Midway's lower tier line-up looks genuinely good. LA Rush is surprisingly well done, and The Suffering: Ties That Bind holds your attention as you walk past, which, given the environment, is a compliment. Definitely encouraging.
Spartan: Total Warrior was on full show on all formats – PS2, Xbox and GameCube – and while we didn't get a chance to play it, every indication says it's going to be a biggie. Sega's looking good this year, and the publisher's GC line-up was no slouch, with Total Warrior and the stupidly addictive Virtua Tennis on PSP undoubted stars of the show.
Sonic Rush on DS and Shadow the Hedgehog across all console formats kept things spiky, if a little unremarkable, but Monkey Ball Deluxe raised a smile in the way no other monkey game can. It's all about the monkeys.
Barbarian Invasion, the Rome: Total War add-on, was also in attendance. War's going to be big for SEGA this year.
But Virtua Tennis. Good gravy. We stood and watched a 30-something man in a suit play against a boy of no more than 13 for at least 20 minutes. The only time either of them looked up was between games. We could open the thesaurus, but suffice it to say it's "really good". Like, really.
In case we missed something, we'll pull short of saying there were hardly any Vivendi games on display, despite an enormous stand, but there really weren't. We think.
F.E.A.R was playable on an entire tier of PCs around a central area, but, aside from one booth with Spyro: Shadow Legacy on it, that really was it. Well, apart from the towering poster for 50 Cent: Bulletproof and an enormous bed on a stage. A chap with a microphone was shouting about "Fiddy", the kids were going mental and screaming for t-shirts and everyone was generally very excited, but there was no game to be seen.
Similarly, there were StarCraft Ghost banners all over the stand. It may have been behind closed doors – it probably was, to be honest, along with Bulletproof – but we couldn't find it. See the pictures. Confusing stuff.
If there was one stand that said everything there needed to say about "doing" a consumer game show to absolute perfection, it was Activision's. It was packed, and for good reason. Hawk and Star Wars together is a mighty brand force, and Activision exploits it like an organ grinder with a skateboard-shaped organ and a monkey wearing a storm trooper helmet.
In front of the stand was a full-sized half-pipe, with regular displays of skating, roller-blading and BMX, including double displays, loads of grinding, a bucketload of air and a guaranteed eye-catcher for anyone within half a mile. When the extreme sports people weren't doing their stuff. Darth Vader and a troop of, um, storm troopers waltzed around the bottom of the ramp posing for photos. It went of for hours. Thousands of people crammed round the ramp. It was, in a word, awesome.
The games backed up the glitz. Call of Duty II was shown on PC. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, GUN, Star Wars Battlefront II, Star Wars: Empire at War and Ultimate Spider-Man completed a string of sure-fire hits for Activision's Christmas.
True Crime: New York City was shown off, but remained unplayable. We were shown a mob restaurant mission, which started off with the hero, a New York cop, smashing up the eatery with bodies, table legs and fists before moving outside and shooting up alleys with machineguns. We saw him strafe, duck and crawl, all while shooting, before seeing that bullet-time feature again, this time with grenades and a rocket launched.
Outside, the environments are instantly impressive, a distinct improvement over Luxoflux's realisation of LA. The demonstrator whipped a camera around 7th Street, and showed off the fully working metro system. Manhattan's been mapped in its entirety, and cut up into five "Crime Zones". The driving looked very similar to the first game, but the overall feel was far more acceptable. Fingers crossed.
By the time we got over to Ubisoft's stand, the show was flying. Not literally, but you know what we mean. It was difficult to even walk around the stand at this point, but we got a glimpse of Dark Watch, King Kong, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, Rainbow Six: Lockdown: Prince of Persia 3 and Far Cry Instincts, all of which were playable. In anyone's eyes, that's a serious list.
King Kong was proving a massive draw, and the queue to see the demo was monstrous. The Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter trailer from E3 was rolling on a big screen. All looked well in the land of shooting people in the head and fighting massive gorillas. So well, in fact, we were forced to leave.
Tomb Raider, as reported earlier this week, looks absolutely brilliant, a true hark back to the game that changed the industry forever. As you'll know if you read our preview earlier this week. The fusing of Eidos's line-up with that of SCi is no bad thing from a business perspective: Eidos now has a very serious offering indeed.
Tomb Raider was joined by Conflict Global Storm, Hitman: Blood Money, Commandos Strike Force and Total Overdose, all of which looked suitably polished from an extremely cursory inspection. One to watch could be Battlestations Midway as well. Eidos PR is going nuts for it, but we just didn't have the time. Planes, flying, shooting, bombs… We'll bring you something meaningful soon.
EA attended Games Convention with a show of force. The huge, circular screen from E3 - presumably it's the same one - surrounded a huge staged area used for making presentations, of which one was Peter Molyneux. Molyneux himself was surrounded and hammered for autographs after his piece: just goes to show that he really is famous.
We missed his speech, but The Movies had been on show at GCDC earlier that week, as had Black & White 2, so we're guessing that's what he was about. Playable on the stand was The Sims 2, The Sims: Nightlife, Burnout on PSP, the new Potter on DS, the new Need for Speed, FIFA '06, SSX On Tour, and so on. The screen itself was showing rolling footage of next-gen titles. Again, EA's stand was completely packed from the moment the show opened to the moment it finished. We're not even lying.
The end of the beginning
And there we have it. Leipzig has arrived. Any show that is implicitly useful to a five-year-old child playing Yu-Gi-Oh! and the president of a major entertainment company alike, not only to the makers of gamers, but to the people who make sound cards for PCs and staff who sell advertising to magazines, will not only survive but will thrive. Microsoft's announcement of Xbox 360's pricing proved beyond all doubt that next year, the year Sony brings PS3 to market, Leipzig will not only live up to its moniker of the "European E3", but that it has the potential to become so much more. All those gamers, their parents and the entire industry descending on this small German city with its gigantic convention centre will see to that.
Right, we're off to eat some meat. Danke sehr.