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E3 2006: Activision

Tony Hawk, Quake Wars, Marvel and more...

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Held at the entirely unremarkable Marriott hotel in downtown LA, after being bribed with slightly stale pastries and fancy imported teas, we, the assembled throngs of the press were ushered into a surprisingly intimate meeting space for Activision's pre-E3 press conference. Opening with traditional bluster, Activision revelled in not only holding the status of No. 2 publisher in the US overall, but also scoring the No. 1 Xbox 360 title with Call of Duty 2, allowing it to segue nicely into announcing its next-generation line-up - the pride of place going to Call of Duty 3, in development for all three next generation systems. No further details were revealed about the title, though we know Treyarch, not Infinity Ward, is developing it, and neither does it appear that they feature at the show in playable form. Thankfully, Activision proved to be a lot less tight-lipped on the other major franchises that are a major part of their upcoming line-up - not least new Tony Hawk's titles Tony Hawk's Project 8 for PS3 and Xbox 360, and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam on Nintendo Wii (and DS and GBA).

Tony Hawk's Project 8

Tony Hawk's Project 8 is the Tony Hawk's series completely rebuilt, featuring entirely new graphics, physics and animation engines. Introduced to us with a skilfully edited movie of (what appeared to be) in-game footage, Tony Hawk's Project 8 looks absurdly stunning. Abusing slow motion to hold long, lingering close-ups of the footwork of the pro-skaters revealed just how different the new engines are. Certainly when it came to physics, only at one point, where an unnamed skater launched from a very slow grind on the side of his board into a triple side flip (or something), did anything appear even slightly off.

To ensure realism in the animation, all of the pro skaters featured were motion-captured extensively to form the basis of the new animation blending system. Up to 20 animations can be blended to allow the skater model to dynamically react to the world and the player's input, and in the case of grinding, as seen in the previously leaked animation test footage, the animation seems to be a better visual cue of the skater's balance than even the balance bar.

The surprising thing is that despite this complete rebuild, actual gameplay footage ("I want you to understand that because of all the rebuilding this is an extremely early look at the game," the Activision rep reminded us) was incredibly reminiscent of the Tony Hawk's franchise we have known and loved. In fact, it's almost indistinguishable; if you forget the mysterious appearances of stylish slow motion each time the skater performed a particularly impressive trick, anyway. It wasn't established if slow motion will really play a part in gameplay or not, though. More than that Tony Hawk's Project 8 is going down a very traditional route for the story mode. Tony Hawk's titular Project 8 is the man himself's attempt to find the best eight amateur skateboarders in the country, and you, the player, naturally want to be one of those skaters, so you have to skate about in a purportedly entirely seamless streaming world, impressing skaters and the like.

It's hard to tell after seeing the astounding graphics and physics of this new Tony Hawk's title if this is a disappointment or not. Despite all the talk of a complete rebuild and so on, if the final game really does retain all of the trappings of the series we've come to know and love, where is the real innovation? Fans of the series, however, will be pleased to know that this is the best possible helping of 'more of the same' they could ever hope for.

Tony Hawk's Project 8 is due on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Xbox and PSP in autumn.

Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam

Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is an even more interesting proposition for readers already struggling with their feelings on Tony Hawk's Project 8. Introduced before Tony Hawk's Project 8, I imagine so as the GameCube-era graphics didn't show it in a particularly bad light, but I'm not going to give it that courtesy, as discussion of the title works better in the context of Tony Hawk's Project 8. And anyway, it's possible that Wii dev kits are still GameCubes at this point, so we can't really consider any third-party Wii graphics as final yet.

Unlike Tony Hawk's Project 8, in which the name of the game is 'more of everything, prettier' Downhill Jam represents a wild change of tact is taken with the title a downhill skateboard racing sim with all of the trappings you'd normally expect in a Tony Hawk's game (a heavy tricking aspect, rock soundtrack, etc) plus the exploitation of the Wii's input method. While this is the first attempt the series has taken at being a pure race sim it would be incorrect to say it's the first foray into downhill skating, with more than one track in previous Hawk's titles being downhill. The original's downhill jam, Phoenix, comes to mind, so this isn't really that remarkable if you think about it. What is a fairly big step is the usage of the Wii controller. Rather than use the d-pad to turn left and right the controller is rotated, speed boosts - which I suspect are gained through successful tricking though it wasn't elaborated on - are engaged by thrusting the pad forward, and balancing in air or in a grind is taken care of by tilting the controller.

Levels on show included San Francisco, Machu Picchu and Hong Kong, all being played by an amiable looking chap with a Mohawk who was a bit less good at the game, crashing repeatedly into walls in Machu Picchu, than his extreme haircut would have you believe.

While it does look remarkably good fun, prospective Wii owners are probably already going to fall into one of two camps - those who are happy that the controller has given Neversoft the opportunity to take a different angle with Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, and those who wish they were getting the same title as the PS3 and Xbox360 owners but with the usage of the Wii's unique controller.

Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is due on Wii, Nintendo DS and Nintendo Game Boy Advance in autumn.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance

Introduced after a teaser trailer for Spiderman 3 that was never elaborated on, other than being told 'this is not a pre rendered model' (which, I supposed, was only a likely candidate for confusion if we were all blinded by how shiny he was), Marvel Ultimate Alliance was presented running live on PS3 hardware. With some very slight framerate issues to show for it, the game ultimately looked like a very nice high-end PC title. But there are far more important things about Marvel Ultimate Alliance than merely how it looks.

For instance, how do you fancy having your own super team of Marvel Super Heroes. Just think about the possibilities! Combine the powerful team of Spiderman, Dr. Strange, Thor and the Silver Surfer to go and get some milk down the shops. Or get Wolverine, Electra, Ghost Rider and the Thing to build the bookcase you bought at Ikea and have never bothered to put up!

Well, it's not quite that good. You really only get to go through the missions in the game with them (well, obviously), but you do get to name them and give them a logo. A further possible joy stifler is that despite the crowing about there being 140 super heroes and super villains in the title, there are actually only 20 characters available to form your team of four with. So players looking to field a super team made up of the most obscure characters of the marvel universe that they can think of (I don't know, the members of Alpha Flight, or something) are out of luck. That's not to say that the other characters might not make an appearance in game - the team seems intent to cram the game with all aspects of the Marvel universe. For example, at one point during the demo the Scorpion, one of Spiderman's early, and critical, foes appears and is quickly, perhaps too quickly, dispatched by the might of four mighty superheroes bearing down on him.

Gameplay is very much like the recent Gauntlet titles, being a fairly straightforward team beat-em-up with RPG aspects. Most exciting is the promise that you'll be able to chose your hero's costume from any that they've worn across their history. So, for example, if you prefer Captain America's World War II phase you can use that. Each costume is said to include special era-specific abilities for the characters, and that's actually one of the most pleasing aspects of the game as we saw it; that despite the button-mashing fighting mechanics, the characters all fight in character. So the Thing will spend most of his time grumpily pounding enemies into the floor while Spiderman will web his opponents to the ceiling with a trademark nonchalance.

We were shown four levels, Dr Doom's flying fortress, a wonderfully watery Atlantis, and a couple of levels of Skrullos (while Galactus eats it.) Players will take part in adventures in the Marvel universe that use the 'epilogue system' which promises to have a lasting effect, such as averting (or not) the destruction of Atlantis, or, I expect, successfully interrupting Galactus' dinner. You are also able to take part in character-specific adventures from famous story arcs from the comics, so players new to the Marvel Universe are given valuable background, while hardcore Marvel buffs are given the chance to relive them. The game is also quite geared to co-operative (though competitive) multiplayer, with players co-operating to complete the levels and competing for experience. Meanwhile, during the character-specific adventures, the players who is playing the 'hero' can take the parts of the villains. Ulp.

The whole presentation of Marvel Ultimate Alliance was rounded off with the game's opening CGI (made by the academy award winning Bur studios, which, frankly, reminded that us despite being told not to confuse in game footage for CG, there is still a gigantic gap between the forms). The intro movie shows a raging Nick Fury (please let him be a playable character) standing on the bridge of a Shield air ship before Spiderman, Thor, Wolverine and Captain America clean up the bad guys effortlessly in their individual styles. Intriguingly, the game appears to offer you the opportunity to do exactly that yourself - and we look forward to finding that out for ourselves.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PSP, Game Boy Advance and Windows PC in autumn.