Early September sees the normally fashionable Kensington district of London getting over-run by an army of geeks, gamers and journalists as the Olympia exhibition hall plays host to ECTS - Europe's biggest computer games trade show.
EuroGamer is, of course, here in force to cover the event, and over the next few days we'll be bringing you all the latest news, previews, screenshots and buzz live and direct from the show...
ECTS started a day early this year, as Electronic Arts threw a massive party at their extravagant new headquarters in Chertsey, a small town just a stone's throw from the M25 motorway that circles London.
Looking like a cross between the home of the future and the home of a Bond villain, the building was soon filled with journalists lured by the promise of free beer, free food, and the opportunity to see many of EA's forthcoming games in action.
After a lengthy coach ride out into the country to get to the venue, we piled out into a sun-soaked glass fronted building, surrounded by landscaped gardens, and with a large lake along one side. Formula One cars were parked outside the main entrance and in the lobby, and a small crowd had already gathered inside, huddling around consoles and PCs to sample the latest delights EA had to offer.
Monolith's LithTech powered "Sanity" and "No One Lives Forever" were both available to play, as EA Europe are distributing the games for Fox Interactive here in the UK. Both games were looking quietly impressive, and Sanity especially was great fun to play. Westwood's real-time strategy sequel "Red Alert 2" was also playable, although it looked somewhat less impressive thanks to the rather dated engine - sprites are so 1996.
After a quick burst on the games it was time to sample some of the culinary delights that EA had laid on for us, although I decided to steer clear of the sushi bar. Ample supplies of Mexican, Indian and simply unidentifiable food was on hand as well though, along with salad, sliced hams and a variety of sausages for the even less adventurous. And to wash it all down, a wide range of beers, wines and spirits, as well as some devestatingly powerful fruit punch.
Having suitably abused EA's hospitality, it was back to the games again. One of the titles which I had been looking forward to seeing, the Quake 3 engined third person shooter "American McGee's Alice", was sadly not playable at the show, although there was a stand showing a "making of" video featuring American McGee himself, as well as Barrett Alexander and Jim Molinets of Rogue amongst others. It was certainly very interesting, but a poor substitute for the game itself, especially as the video was promising that Alice would be released in time for Halloween!
Luckily the real star of EA's crown, Lionhead's awe inspiring god game "Black & White", was on show. Peter Molyneux, the warped brains behind this decidely odd game, was demonstrating it every hour to a room packed full of stunned journalists and freeloaders. The game looked simply stunning, and the attention to detail and sheer craziness of the whole thing was incredible.
But with an early start tomorrow morning and a packed schedule, it was time to head back to my hotel. The alcohol had already taken its toll on some though - the staff of one major American website were last seen preparing a review of EA's toilets! And it was only when I got back to my hotel room in the middle of the night that I realised .. I have three more days of this to face, starting at 10am tomorrow morning. Time for bed...
Sunday Morning : Fun, but in two dimensions
Nintendo's enormous show-stopping display pulsated with primary colours and included nearly a hundred playable GameBoy Colors and a similar quantity of Advance units, but still there was no sign of the GameCube, and the staff on hand were surprisingly vague about it. Perhaps the biggest no-show from the console perspective then is the next-generation Nintendo console. In terms of GameBoy Color, Nintendo were pushing the boat out with entire sections dedicated to their new Pokemon titles, Pokemon Gold and Silver and the Pokemon Trading Card Game. The latter was the first in a new line of Pokemon games featuring all of your favourite (debatable insertion of question mark required) characters from the indescribably popular cartoon series. The former duet are of course another couple in the line of original battle games where you choose your Pokemon and venture around the world trying to achieve the status of Master Trainer. As with other releases very little has been added other than new Pokemon to control, but nonetheless this will be a big money spinner at Christmas, no doubt about it. Another GameBoy Color title that's been long-awaited was Donkey Kong Country - the Super Nintendo conversion is feature complete and contains 100% of the original version's levels (heaven only knows how) as well as GameBoy exclusive extras, including additional 2 player modes. Also making its debut was Disney's new Alice in Wonderland title. Although many consider it to be a fairly generic platformer, upon further inspection it proved rather impressive. The initial section was based around a freefall down the rabbit hole, dodging obstacles on the way down. Physics-defying? Certainly. Authentic? Unquestionably. If this level of innovation is retained throughout, the game could prove a surprise success with the media and punters this Christmas.
The GameBoy wasn't the only system on show from Nintendo - the GameBoy Advance also put in an appearance, at the top of a winding yellow staircase, in true Marioland fashion. Recently announced at Space World in Japan, the system features the graphical capabilities of the 16-bit Super Nintendo and many of its early titles will be direct ports from the likes of Mario Kart, Super Metroid and other classics, and we were able to try out a number of these titles on the new system. The first thing that strikes you about the Advance is its size - it's tiny! A far cry from the bulky brick-like GameBoy monochrome, the system will require a couple of AA batteries to operate and is horizontally based rather than vertical. The reason for this according to Nintendo is that with the decreasing size of the unit it became uncomfortable to use vertically and required restructuring. The screen is a healthy 2.9" LCD panel, similar to the late Neo Geo Pocket Color, and although not back-lit, the colour was rich and under the appropriate lighting the primary coloured titles looked superb. Titles on show this year at ECTS include the aforementioned Mario Kart Advance, Konami All-Star Racing and a number of others. Both racing titles looked surprisingly alike, although the public preference was for Nintendo's offering. Graphical it was Mario Kart all over again with authentic tracks, characters and power ups. The pace was spot on and it moved swiftly enough.
Strong showing: N64
Far from being superseded at ECTS this year as had been suspected, the N64 was putting on a sterling show. The aggressive swansong line up includes titles such as Mario Tennis, which looks as though it could beat Sega's Virtua Tennis in straight sets, Zelda: Majora's Mask with its realistic in-game cutscenes and character transformations, and two more games for the youngsters, Kirby 64 and Mario Party 2. The former looks like a viable successor to the Kirby 16-bit console titles and will be instantly accessable to first-time users. Younger N64 gamers will be pleased to hear about Pokemon Snap, which was being demoed on a bunch of machines are the front of Nintendo's stand. It moved quickly and looked the part, with all of your favourite Pokemon stars appearing. There's a lot more to be seen here at Olympia, but Nintendo's display was definitely left a lasting impression, even if the GameCube was nowhere to be seen.
If Nintendo were going for the loud, garish angle, then they managed it. Similarly, Sony's attempt to woo spectators within the relative confines of their "tunnel of love", they did likewise. There was an abundance of PS One and PlayStation 2 units on display for the first time at a public / press event in the United Kingdom. The PS One immediately struck journalists as being smaller than expected. The unit looked tiny as it sat beneath each show cabinet, pumping away at the likes of Driver 2, and it caught the eyes and thumbs of visiting gamers with its boyish charm if nothing else. It was hardly the exotic festival of primary colours Nintendo were managing in the main hall, but it didn't need to be. The PlayStation 2 was definitely where the core of the visiting crowd were heading, and included displays of Tekken TAG Tournament, Metal Gear Solid 2 (of which more later) and some new titles from EA Sports, namely FIFA 2001 and Madden NFL 2001. The former looks to be coming along nicely, and the PlayStation 2 seems to be able to keep up admirably with the 3D-enhanced version of the software. The most eye-catching element was ironically the least important - the texture of the grass on the pitch was in round concentric circles, rather akin to Wembley Stadium in its later years.
Silent, violent, Solid Snake
Metal Gear Solid 2 was the eye-opening title, although depressingly it was a rolling demo only, no playable code was available, despite our bugging of the Konami helpdesk. It was on show in the PS2 area, but also on a huge wall screen at the Konami stand. Graphically it was stunning. The level of detail on your character's body and clothing was truly breath-taking, and similarly so on your enemies as they faced up and caught bullets in the chest, legs and head. The fully 3D environment is wonderful and totally interactive. The video was full of set pieces, and we were encouraged by Konami's claims that most of the game is made up of impressive scripted sequences, while still retaining its classic MGS edge. In one of the sections we saw, the enemies were armed with bullet-proof riot shields, and Solid Snake emptied several rounds into them to no effect, before deciding to aim his bullets at their unprotected legs, which did the trick. In another area he was equipped with nightvision goggles, and lay in the shadows taking out oncoming badguys. Other areas included the removal of dead soldiers by hiding them in storage lockers and the like. The animation of the characters was very effective, particularly the motion of dragging the enemies' limp corpse, bodily across a hall and depositing it in the shadows. Ready 2 Rumble Boxing 2 was also on display. EuroGamer Staff Writer Martin Taylor saw the game in action, commenting that it appeared "very much like the original". He was also perversely satisfied about the way the characters hurled obscenities at one another across the ring. The booth was probably more impressive than the product overall, with a bunch of actors (including I'm told some fairly attractive young ladies) dressed up as their on-screen personas, and playing the game.
One of the harder-to-find titles on display was Havas and Gearbox Software's Half-Life on the Dreamcast. We'll be writing up a full hands-on preview of the game later this week, but in the mean time, we can report that it looked very impressive, moved swiftly with an intuitive PC-style control system, and that the new episode was shaping up nicely. Just above Havas on the balcony was the cosy, luscious air-conditioned SCi area, where we saw demonstrations of Titanium Angels, Wetrix 2 and Thunderbirds (PlayStation 2), as well as The Italian Job on PlayStation. The latter looks delightful, with lots of driving-minis-through-Italian-streets action, akin to the exploits of Michael Caine and his crew in the motion picture. Expect a review of that within a week or two. The PlayStation 2 stuff was visually stunning, with Thunderbirds in particular getting "oo"s and "aarrr"s from the onlooking press. Another title that caught my eye was Stupid Invaders. We'd seen this yesterday but I thought I'd head back for another look. The game is due out soon on PC and Dreamcast from UbiSoft and harks gamers back to the days of Day of the Tentacle and other Lucasarts adventure titles. With voice direction from the same man who did Ren & Stimpy, it should help rejuvinate the adventure games genre once more. An interesting fact is that the game won the "Best of Show" award in the Adventure category at E3, stealing the title away from the likes of Monkey Island 4 amongst others. More shots of Half-Life in action at ECTS..
The night is young, and so are the booth babes accompanying us around the arena, so we're not complaining! With lots of press parties and similar taking place tonight it's going to be a painful tomorrow, but it's been a satisfying couple of days so far at ECTS, with more still to come tomorrow.
Meanwhile, back at the PC end of things... Monday was another busy day for me as I tried to cram as many publishers, developers and manufacturers as possible into the eight hours that the show was open for. It wasn't quite as hectic as the Sunday, but still enough to leave me foot-sore and weary at the end. The day kicked off with a 10am meeting with NVIDIA, including an interview with European marketing director Alan Tiquet, who explained the company's plans for the GeForce 2 Ultra and GeForce 2 MX, as well as discussing memory bandwidth issues and the recently released Detonator 3 drivers amongst other subjects. The good news is that the first cards based on the GeForce 2 Ultra should be available around the end of this month with a wide range of manufacturers already lining up to use the chip, despite the estimated $500 street price of graphics cards based on it. Look for a full write up of the interview towards the end of this week! At the other end of the day and the other end of the exhibition hall was 3dfx, who gave us a back-room demonstration of their Voodoo 5 6000, an even more expensive and even more powerful graphics card which is also due for release some time this autumn. For our full impressions on that (and photographs of the card itself), read our preview! 3dfx were also demonstrating an entirely different product, but we had to sign an NDA to see it and so we can't tell you anything about it until next month, so be sure to come back then to find out more!
On the software side of things, "Anarchy Online" was one of the highlights of the day. Developed and published by FunCom, the brains that brought us the incredible adventure game "The Longest Journey", Anarchy Online is a state of the art massively multiplayer role-playing game, featuring a great 3D engine and some interesting gameplay ideas. The game also stood out in the crowd thanks to a poor man who has spent the last two days walking around the show wearing an eight foot tall rubber suit! As you can see from the photograph, he doesn't look too happy... Another multiplayer role-playing game well worth a look is "Neverwinter Nights", from "Baldur's Gate" developers Bioware. The Canadian company has brought table-top role-playing to the PC by allowing users not only to adventure together online, but also to recreate the traditional role of the "Dungeon Master", guiding NPCs and monsters and leading the players through the adventure. Add to that the ability to create your own worlds using a simple tile-based editor, and to link different servers with portals which adventurers can pass through seamlessly, and you have a very exciting game. For those of you yearning for more action and less beard scratching, we also got to see "Mafia" behind closed doors at the Take 2 stand. A third person game in which you play a mobster in 1930s America, Mafia is certainly looking the business, and could crack some knee caps when it is released next year. "Hidden & Dangerous 2" was also on show at Take 2's stand, and although there was very little gameplay on offer at this early stage, it certainly has promise. Noon brought a working lunch with Vitomir Jevremovic, a Yugoslavian developer currently working on the ambitious massively multiplayer space sim "3rd World". I was already interested in the game after reading about it last week, but having seen more information about the game today and talked with its designer I'm twice as excited. With the ability for players to trade between different planets, hire other players, and buy or even design their own space stations, the game certainly has an impressive scope. And with a noticeable lack of Elite-style online games due out in the near future, this could be a pleasant change from the now traditional massively multiplayer fantasy RPG. During a lull in the proceedings I also managed to get a peek at some of Rage's line-up of PC games. The imaginatively titled offroad racing game "Offroad" was looking incredible, with some convoluted dirt tracks to race around and a range of four wheel drive buggies to drive. Great fun, if a little straightforward. "Incoming Forces" was also on show, but the real gem was undoubtedly Rage's other action-strategy game, "Hostile Waters". Commanding the last remaining battle cruiser, raised from the bottom of the Pacific for one final battle between good and evil, you build troops and set orders for them from a simple flat-shaded operations map before diving into the battle to whup some ass up close and personal. With an interesting storyline and a wide range of vehicles to construct, command and control, Hostile Waters is shaping up to be a winner.
One of the strengths of the PC is the diversity of games available for it, and that was reinforced today at ECTS. In the space of just eight hours I saw everything from third person shooters and role-playing games to space sims and strategy games, both online focused and single player. With a veritable horde of innovative titles in development at the moment, the future of the PC is far from bleak.
Day Three : Winding down
Day three was typically very low key by comparison to Sunday and Monday as most of the presentations wound down. The people handling the demonstrations had our sympathy as they tried to find fresh enthusiasm at the bottom of their hearts while yearning to go back into the open and be free.. ahem. Anyway, it might have been a day with less exertion involved than others, but we still ran around like headless chickens checking out more and more stuff. For example, we were privy to the Lego-based games from Koch. These were dreadful. I was sitting there chatting with a chap from Koch about them and playing the GameBoy version of Stunt Racers. It took about three seconds for me to realise that I wasn't actually controlling the steering. The PC version was the same, you have incredibly limited control over the steering. It just does it for you. "Where's the challenge in that?" I found myself saying. "It's aimed at kids." To be honest as a 6 year old gamer I'd be rather insulted by it.. Gem were out demoing some Sega Dreamcast titles (namely Virtua Tennis, Metropolis Street Racer and Sega GT), and also shouting about the new PS2-beating sales package due out for the end of November. For £299 (coincidentally the same price as a PlayStation2) you get yourself a Dreamcast and an Encore DVD set-top player (not to be confused with Creative's range of internal IDE DVD-Rom drives). A fairly decent package and it will no doubt give Sony limited trouble in the run up to Christmas.
Take2 steals our hearts for EONs
Things got better though as we checked out Take2's wares, which were strictly being shown to press-only and behind closed doors. Midnight Club and Smuggler's Run were available for us to play on, and were instantly enjoyable. We've seen these before of course, but it was nice to see them in their semi-finished glory, although there were still bits and pieces to be tidied up in both. Angel Studios have developed both; the company of course that did Midtown Madness for Microsoft if you haven't already guessed. As such we're going to see some very, very impressive stuff come Christmas when these two hit the shops. The biggest disappointment of the demonstration was Oni, due out on PC, Mac and PS2 in about March of next year. We'll have a full preview up soon, but in short it looked rather bland, seemed repetitive and the gameplay looked very limited. After Take2 we took a look at EON Digital, who were showing off Chaos Break and K-1 Grand Prix on PlayStation. The former is a third person shooter / fighter where you control either a male or female armed response police agent sent in to investigate a chemical accident which has resulted in the spawning of some nasty genetically absurd enemies. We commented that it was very much like Half-Life from the third person, and our host agreed. It looked pretty impressive, due out for the end of October / early November. K-1 Grand Prix isn't actually a racing game, but a fighting title. The rules state that you may enter if your fighting discipline begins with a "K" or has "K" anywhere in its name. Absurd, but amusing. Kick-boxing is in, then, as is Karate, Tai-Kwando and a few others. The fighting takes place in a ring with 100% authentic K-1 characters. Movement is slow, but when you get the hang of the ducking and dodging buttons it becomes very intuitive. This also looks set for a pre-Christmas release, and should do well.
So, we come to the end. It's been a great show for console fans, with lots of encouraging new equipment and games due out in the near future. The PlayStation 2 put in a very strong performance, as did the GameBoy Advance. This Christmas and the coming year should be a very exciting time. Roll on ECTS 2001 at ExCel in Docklands, when we'll be back out in force. Thanks for reading.
Although ECTS is ostensibly an European trade show, developers and publishers had come from far and wide. Amongst the usual gaggle of Americans companies and Japanese console houses, there were also Canadians, Russians and Koreans on hand. Matching the international flavour of the show, I started Tuesday morning by meeting Argentine developers Tecnia Soft, who came to our base station in the AMD Developer Lounge to tell me about their range of online games. First up will be Futbol Online, an arcade style five-a-side soccer game which will allow up to eight players to play together over the internet, and tennis and motor racing games are already lined up to follow. We're hoping to be able to play Futbol for ourselves later this month when the beta test kicks off, so look for more information then. Next on my hit list was French publisher Microids, who were showing a whole range of titles from Fort Boyard (a puzzle game based on the TV series of the same name) to FarGate - a space-bound strategy game which looked a lot like Homeworld on first sight, but soon turned out to be very interesting in its own right. Another highlight of Microids' line-up was Master Rallye, a motor racing game which looked great and played well. Expect full previews of both games soon! The morning ended in fine style with Virgin Interactive, who were showing some of their own titles such as 4x4 Trophy and Gunlok, as well as several Interplay games which they will be distributing in the UK. Sacrifice and Giants were both stunning, and even the long overdue Star Trek : New Worlds was still looking good, even though this is now the third year in a row I have seen it at ECTS, and its graphics haven't changed much since this time last year...
Finally dragging myself away from Gunlok, I made my way over to the Sierra stand to see their PC line-up. The newly announced medieval strategy game Warrior Kings was only present in the form of a publisher demo version, but it sounds promising and what little was on show at this early stage was already looking good.
One game which has been under development for rather longer is Gunman Chronicles, which started out life as a Quake add-on back in the days when Daikatana was still able to raise excitement. Since then it has moved over to the Half-Life engine, and now Sierra have signed on to publish it as a full stand-alone game. It's looking better than ever, and although it's a little rough round the edges in places it looks like it could be a winner. Tribes 2 was the other first person shooter on show, and although at first glance it looked like more of the same, by the time the demonstration finished I was suitably impressed.
Next port of call was a return visit to Take 2. When I visited their stand on the Sunday, the computer which they were supposed to be using to demonstrate Oni and Tropico was broken. This time I had more luck, and got a second look at the amusing Caribbean dictator sim Tropico, which has come a long way since we last saw it during GOD's recent press tour of Europe.
Oni, on the other hand, was rather disappointing. The game is apparently only half-finished after all this time, even though it is due for release in just six months. Developers Bungie are now owned by Microsoft, and are presumably not too bothered about completing games for other publishers, and that showed in the lack of effort which had obviously gone into preparing the game for ECTS. Even the demonstrator looked rather fed up of the whole thing after three days, and the level which we saw the most of was still filled with place-holder textures. Which at this late stage was a little worrying...
Final stop of the day was a new publisher, EON Digital, who had an impressive range of console and PC games on offer. Crime Cities looks to be a kind of 3D Grand Theft Auto set in a prison city which is a mixture of Fifth Element and Bladerunner, complete with flying cars. The other PC title we saw was Airfix Dogfighter, a surprisingly fun little game which puts you in control of model planes making war inside a house - Toy Story meets Their Finest Hour?
And .. that was it! After 22 hours in the mad-house that is ECTS, plus the Electronic Arts party on the Saturday night and an Anarchy Online event on Sunday evening, it was time to pack up and go home. And sleep. Mmm...