A consumer hall was added to the bill for the first time at this year's ECTS, so that the public could get a piece of the action as well as scrounging journalists. Sony's PlayStation Experience filled an entire hall at the front end of Earls Court with hundreds of PlayStation 2 consoles, a handful of PSOnes and a few hundred games to play on them. There was also live music and entertainment, and even a Lara Croft model leaping about enthusiastically, but such frivolities did not concern us - we were there for the games.
There was an almost complete lack of surprises from Sony in the first and second party sections of the show hall. Titles of note included Jak & Daxter's unofficial successor Ratchet & Clank, as well as Kingdom Hearts from Disney/Square and an enormous section set-aside for Namco's Tekken 4. Arcade shooter Ninja Assault drew a surprising amount of attention, with lines of kids queuing way back for a bit of lightgun action. TIF 2003 was another crowd-puller, although it wasn't keeping audiences quite as contented as Pro Evo 2 at the other end of the PSEx.
Far more interesting were the titles due to kick off Sony's online gaming service, SOCOM US Navy Seals, Hardware: Online Arena (formerly titled Hardware Network Technology and derived from Sony's Dropship), and of course the ubiquitous Auto Modellista. Hardware saw players driving a variety of vehicles such as enormous tanks, jeeps and beach buggies, battling it out with each other in the grounds of a ruined castle. The chaotic deathmatch play and immediate accessibility seemed to be a hit with the crowds. SOCOM is looking like a very strong online title as well. We got to play a bit of Counter-Strike style Seals vs Terrorists in a jungle environment, and the blend of stealthy hunting gameplay and sheer all out action was superb. Visually the game is also extremely impressive, with intricately animated characters and fantastic texturing on the ruined jungle buildings. SOCOM should be a massive hit with PS2 online gamers when the service hits our shores, and reviews from the States have been wild.
Another title that caught our eye was Studio Cambridge's Primal. Ostensibly an adventure game with combat elements, as opposed to the other way round, this one sees you as a young lass capable of morphing into progressively more violent beasts and swapping controls with other beasties to try and solve puzzles together. In one area our heroine could slide through a gap in the stonework, but couldn't pull the lever to raise the portcullis. However, by yanking a wooden plank out of the way and opening the door, two beasts working together could make short work of the troublesome lever. As for the graphics - wow! Texturing, draw distance and animation on characters and enemies alike were really impressive, not to mention the out and out geometric detail compared to other PS2 titles on display at show. And all of this still didn't manage to drag the frame rate down one iota.
Rocky And Rolling
Meanwhile in the third party section of the show, Ubi Soft were showing a variety of games including ports of Tom Clancy's PC titles Sum of All Fears and Ghost Recon. The latter in particular is going to be a massive treat for PS2 owners who are tired of the lack of quality tactical action titles on their platform. Ubi were also showing off the utterly brutal looking Ultimate Fighting Championship Throwdown by Crave, the surprisingly gorgeous Rayman 3 and a cel-shaded platform adventure starring Donald Duck called PK. Oh, and Myst III: Exile... Chortle.
Rage's presence in the PSEx area was a bit of a case of déjà vu, as their stand here closely resembled what they had on show in the main ECTS hall next door. The surprisingly entertaining Rocky license received the most attention, alongside Aggressive Inline wannabe Rolling and the ultra-gory on-rails shooter Twin Caliber, which saw journalists weaving through crowds waving their arms in random directions in mimicry of the game's jerky animations.
THQ had an unremarkable showing, with only two titles that really caught our eye - MX Superfly (their upcoming motorbike racer) and Red Faction 2 (the sequel to the Total Recall-ish sci-fi shooter which we so adored last year). On closer inspection MX Superfly appeared to be really rather flimsy in look and feel and not as close to the wonderful Moto Racer as some might have hoped, while Red Faction 2, which we played in both single player and deathmatch modes, revealed that not a lot has changed since the original. Volition are sticking rigidly to the formula they established with the first game, and frankly, that's probably not a bad thing.
Infogrames dedicated their entire presence at the PSEx to Stuntman, Reflections' new stunt driver 'em up. When we managed to get used to the controls, we found the game to be a thoroughly enjoyable and challenging affair, and the crowds around the playable pods seemed to agree wholeheartedly. Sadly though, some people will never take to the one-mistake-and-you're-fired gameplay, especially with the game's questionable load times.
Capcom had a fair collection of tried and tested crowd pleasers, with titles like Marvel vs Capcom 2, Auto Modellista (again), free-flowing lightgun shooter Dino Stalker and hack-and-slasher Onimusha 2 grabbing the attention of fans. Across the way Activision's collection naturally included a multitude of Pro Whatever games - Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2 and Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer both looked like competent titles, but of course Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 was drawing the biggest crowds. To us, the game seemed exactly as we had predicted - more of the same. To some this may be a good thing, but we feel it's high time for either some innovation on Neversoft's part or a claim to Tony's crown from somebody else.
Speaking of which, Eurogamer favourite Aggressive Inline was on show at Acclaim's stand, although the public seemed to be more interested in the fantastic looking Burnout 2. With the level of detail in the graphics bumped up threefold it looks like improving on the excellent original in almost every area. The Turok: Evolution deathmath demonstration seemed to be going down a storm as well, competing for attention with epic adventure platformer Vexx. It was difficult to judge from the relatively short time we had with it (it is, after all, epic), but what we did see looked great - Jak & Daxter fans will probably feel quite at home.
A Lara Lara Games
Codemasters had their driving gloves on for PSEx, as they had TOCA Race Driver out on show alongside Colin McRae 3. TOCA frankly paled in comparison to the amazing level of detail on display in the company's latest rally sim, and we're not sure that the weather effects could get more realistic short of someone pouring a watering can over your head and kicking mud in your face.
Eidos had an impressive little collection of brilliant titles. Hitman 2 seemed to be pulling a lot of new fans over to our bald hero's shady world, and the hilarious TimeSplitters 2 provided some much needed, sheer, unadulterated fun, as we predicted in our hands-on preview earlier this year. The new Tomb Raider title, Angel of Darkness, was looking distinctly rough around the edges in its early state, but despite this, Lara's adventuring through a nicely crafted urban environment looked pretty interesting. We wont dismiss it as "just another Tomb Raider" for now. The crowds certainly liked it, but then, they've gone a bit Lara. [Fired. Fired. FIRED! -Ed]
EA had a couple of really impressive titles on their stand as well. The first of these is the Lord Of The Rings movie adaptation. Now, EA didn't need to put a lot of effort into making this one particularly impressive, as it's obvious that it's going to sell by the bucketload whatever they do, but it actually looks like an amazing take on the melee battles of the classic Gauntlet coupled with some incredible special effects. The other game to catch our attention was the next in the EA Sports BIG series - Shox. Bizarrely, we learnt at the GDCE on Wednesday that it's the product of only eight months' development time, but looking and playing like SSX with rally cars, this arcade racer won our hearts with some brilliant graphics and unfettered racing fun. It was refreshing to play a rally game that doesn't take itself too seriously, and Shox is all the better for it.
Bits And Pieces
We weren't expecting a great deal from the PlayStation One at the PSEx to be quite honest, yet it was heartwarming to see at least some support, no matter how disappointing. Disney's Treasure Planet looked wholly bizarre and absolutely nothing like its PS2 equivalent, while Jinx and Stuart Little 2 carried the torch for .. yawn .. 3D platform adventures. ATD's Firebugs was basically Rollcage, but slower and with different vehicles. However, as the gawping from our Assistant Editor perhaps demonstrates, Klonoa Beach Volleyball is certainly going to find a home.
While there wasn't a wealth of material at the PlayStation Experience that we hadn't seen before, there were some pleasant surprises. Sony's online gaming plan looks set to be a success if it can maintain the quality of titles that we saw here, and it was nice to see Lara again in her first PS2 adventure, despite her tendency to fall through walls and freeze unexpectedly. This is abnormal, by the way, not simply a return to the days of random spike traps and instant death.