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Activate 2003 Round-up

Kristan's blind drunk haggis adventure in the Burgh.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Now in its sixth year, Activision's annual Activate event has rapidly become a gaming institution and an idea that all of the big players in the industry have rapidly cottoned on to. It used to be all about ECTS and the ornate, but sweaty Victorian greenhouse confines of Olympia and the decibel competition that followed, until some bright spark noted that it was a hopeless environment to actually get anyone's attention for more than 20 seconds at a time.

In these halcyon days, we're treated to the more sane and serene environment of Edinburgh, taxied to the Royal Yacht Britannia for Champagne and canapés, and then spend a couple of nights in the Sheraton to get a presentation of some of the best games we'll see all year, not to mention plied with food and fine wine. Seriously, if I ever complain again about the plight of a games journalist, punch me in the face. Repeatedly. Some might call this kind of lavish event the equivalent of gaming bribery, but they're probably bitter that they don't get invited anymore.

I ate Haggis and lived!

This year's event was arguably the best yet, both in terms of organisation, choice of venue, the grub (mmm, Haggis) and most importantly the quality of the games. Having been to the previous three Activates, it was abundantly clear that the company has grown up, and learned the lessons of the past.

Last year, for example, the company was crowing about almost being a billion dollar company. And so it should; it was gaining on EA, and had experienced some major successes in the shape of Tony Hawk 3, and Spider-Man: The Movie. The next stage, it seemed, was to follow the extreme sports formula to its logical conclusion, and back some major film licenses along the way.

But far from turning up the heat on EA the next few months were to be disappointing to say the least. Tony Hawk 4 sold significantly less than the third incarnation, while nearly every single other O2 title failed dismally to excite punters. If that wasn't bad enough, there were a catalogue of other failures; Wreckless and Rally Fusion spring to mind, having sunk almost without trace in the Christmas quagmire, while the obsession with licensing everything under the sun also backfired spectacularly, especially with the shockingly bad Minority Report, while the mediocre Blade II and X-Men titles also sold disappointingly and prompted an unprecedented level of pre and post Christmas retail discounting rarely seen (most titles were discounted to £9.99 less than a month after launch). Clearly Activision had some lessons to learn and fast.

A slice of humble pie with that sir?

After such an up and down year, the tone this year was much more laid back and humble than previous years, with European boss Scott Dodkins left with relatively few crumbs of comfort to look back on over the past GTA/EA dominated 12 months; a few honourable mentions for Tony Hawk 4, Spider-Man and the splendid Factor 5 success story Rogue Leader, while the No.1 success of Indiana Jones (Xbox) and Tenchu 3 (PS2) papered over the cracks. It was perhaps telling that there was no jubilant talk of being a billion dollar company this time around.

But one thing Activision is good at is weathering a storm, and with a 2003/4 line up as strong as this, there's every reason to believe the company can emerge even stronger than before. There were less products shown off this time around, but it was hard to find a duffer among all 15 of them (including three LucasArts efforts), and for once it was pleasing to see quality over quantity.

The stand out products were clear for all to see, and happily for the readers of Eurogamer most of them are groundbreaking PC products with no ugly license attached to spoil the party.

Guess who skipped their physics lessons?

In no particular order, Doom III still looks more visually impressive than any game we've clapped eyes on, although some noticeable stuttering frame rate issues raised a few questions over what kind of rig will actually be able to run the thing at an optimal level, while the late implementation of physics into the package smacks of catch up on the part of Id. With just two levels in any kind of finished state, it'll be a surprise if we see this before next summer. As for an Xbox version, we'd put our money on late 2004/early 2005 at the current rate of progression. We'll bring you (another) preview of this once Activision gives us the green light.

Meanwhile, the PC only Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, the first Source engine powered title to emerge outside of Half Life 2, was arguably the surprise package of the event, with Troika (the team behind Fallout) blending first person, RPG and adventure elements to stunning effect thanks to the incredible versatility of Valve's engine. More on this later this week, fingers crossed.

Call Of Duty (PC only) we've covered in depth here, and it should give the million of Allied Assault fans palpitations when it arrives in October, although console fans will have to wait until late next year for their own apparently very different versions if the whispers reaching us are true. Likewise, The Movies (all formats) we’ve raved about long and loud about here, and again was a revelation and a true return to form from Peter Molyneux and his Lionhead crew after the relative disappointment of Black & White.

Sniff my war

Creative Assembly's Rome: Total War was another astonishing piece of coding, showing off an engine that even TV companies have been sniffing around in admiration. Shame we'll have to wait until autumn 2004 before we get our hands on that one, but we'll bring you a full preview as soon as we humanly can.

Not being the world's biggest historical RTS fan, Empires: Dawn Of The Modern World had your correspondent almost bored to tears at the unintentionally hilarious presentation by a clearly passionate duo of spods who probably should get out more. Even though we care not about this Rick Goodman (Age Of Empires) designed RTS, it was very obviously a fine piece of work from the master, and will apparently be the only game of its type to hit the shelves before Christmas, with its mantra of being "familiar, accessible and realistic". If you like the idea of empire building in the era between 950 and 1950 we promise you'll love it.

Onto more mass market pleasures, True Crime: Streets Of LA (PS2, Xbox, Cube) is covered here, and despite our initial (serious) reservations, this could actually turn out to be one of the biggest hits of the year in the absence of a GTA alike this Christmas.

Tony gets the Tube

If you've given up on the Tony Hawk franchise, you might want to give Tony Hawk: Underground (all console formats) a look, given that there's a whole bundle of new ideas thrown in that goes down as a welcome reinvention of the series. And about time too. We'll tell you more very soon - it's looking great.

The LucasArts presentation was short and sweet, cramming in three games into one half hour slot, but we were impressed with what we saw of Rebel Strike (which Tom waxed about at E3 here), while Jedi Academy also looked surprisingly swish and is another game we intend to tell you about at length very soon - especially seeing as it's out in a few weeks. Last but not least was Secret Weapons Over Normandy, or SWON as they insisted on calling it, courtesy of the illustrious talents of Larry Holland of X-Wing fame. To say it looks like Starfighter set in World War II wouldn't be a million miles away, and looks like the first flight related game we might actually enjoy. It's out soon, so expect some enthusiastic coverage in due course.

The rest you probably won't care a huge amount about, but they all looked pretty damn good, believe it or not. Shrek 2 (all formats) won't be out until next summer but is being developed on the DreamWorks site, meaning the coders have possibly the closest gaming/movie collaboration going on ever, with art coming 'down the pipe' literally as soon as it's done. The game itself looks a bit like a 21st Century Gauntlet with some four-player co-op action. Nice, honestly.

Grand Theft Spidey

Spider-Man 2 (all formats) is another sure fire summer success for the Activision and Treyarch crew, but at this early stage all they deigned to show us was a web swinging tech demo that revealed the city to be absolutely gorgeous. The game design sounds GTA inspired, which should lend itself well to the franchise if it comes off.

The final duo for you are Pitfall Harry (all console formats) and Disney's Extreme Skateboarding (all console formats). Sure, they've been unashamedly designed for kids, but for once they don't look like the kind of terrible lowest common denominator sludge that we've been fed in this market for all eternity. In all seriousness, the former looks like a well-crafted, visually excellent platformer, although probably too forgiving for any serious, non-lame gamer. The latter, meanwhile has been built with the Tony Hawk 4 engine, and basically features a stripped down control system so that even Xtreme Retards like me might be able to pull off some tricks. With 12 characters gleaned from The Lion King, Toy Story and Tarzan this one's got 'hit' written all over it [some sort of 'hit' based word anyway -Ed]. Told you you wouldn't care.

That just about wraps it up for our Activate review, and despite nursing our obligatory blind hangover for days afterwards, we came away pleased that such an ambitious company has changed direction so radically for the better. Ok, some games weren't to our taste, but the quality level was excellent. Let's just hope they can get them out the door...

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