Remember, not all surprises are good. Here’s a roundup of the top five good, bad and ugly games after some hands-on time at PAX Prime this weekend in Seattle.
1. Most surprising crowd favorite: “League of Legends: Dominion”
Winner, by a long, winding crowd margin, the most popular game at PAX is the expansion to the free-to-play Defense of the Ancients game, “League of Legends.” Developer Riot games only recently unveiled “Dominion,” and the PAX hunger for this game has been legendary in the exhibition hall, with the line to play frequently circling the booth twice over. Obviously, LoL fans are both dedicated and clamoring for this first new game mode, and this should certainly lay to rest any lingering doubts that a free-to-play game can’t rule them all.
“League of Legends: Dominion” changes up the rules quite a bit. Gone is the goal of overwhelming your enemy’s minions, defenses and eventually castle. Replacing it is capture-the-area, with 5 regions of the map up for grabs. As soon as a team seizes the majority of the control points, the other team’s point clock runs down. The greater you can increase that majority, the faster the other team’s clock will run out.
While “Dominion” retains the familiar characters, abilities and spells, minion paths and the routes for support roles are completely uprooted by this new style. If you’re one of the 15 million users this game has signed up since inception, you’ve waited a long time for a little variety. With this simple layout change, Riot games has answered a lot of questions, and delivered on every front.
2. Most surprising dud: “Counterstrike: Global Offensive”
I hate to say it, but as a recovering “Counterstrike” addict, I write from the heart that this is one revamp that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
I was both incredibly excited and wary after the announcement that a new “Counterstrike” was in the works from Valve. In two brief news bursts, the company promised just enough changes – such as matchmaking and a graphical overhaul – to make the game stand up to modern shooters. Valve also revealed that masters from the competitive scene had been hired to help retain what made the game king for so many years.
Unfortunately, it seems like those pro gamers decided that not much of anything needed to change. A few new grenades made the cut, including Molotovs and dummy grenades. Also, a weapon restriction makes it so only the quickest to the draw can buy the almighty M4. But the tactics and game modes remain all too familiar – I dare say stale after more than a dozen years. A large LAN of Xbox360’s at PAX saw terrorists and counterterrorists planting bombs on the old standby, De_Dust, with everyone automatically getting Kevlar armor (if everyone gets it, why not just take it out?) and CT’s starting with defuse kits. If it weren’t for the graphical overhaul and minor layout changes to the map, however, it could have been a match from 1999.
This is an incredibly hard sequel to tackle, so I’ll give Valve the benefit of the doubt from the lackluster creative effort I’ve seen so far. Counterstrike was the original competitive tactical shooter, but if it wants to return to the top, it has to do a lot more than add a few more pieces of pretty debris to De_Dust.
3. Biggest surprise comeback feature: “Mii Plaza”
This easily goes to Nintendo 3DS “Mii Plaza.” As it turns out, the StreetPass features of the Nintendo 3DS is absolutely addictive and perfect for conventions. It seemed like every 3DS owner at the show could be seen leading a small platoon of sword wielding Mii’s in search of portrait pieces and freeing the Mii king. StreetPass was also in full force for users of the 3DS music player, which records user’s most-played songs and tallies the top artists and songs. It’s a neat way to meet and greet your fellow con-goers, and to declare a sort-of unofficial top artist for the convention. (For the curious, chip-tunes masters Anamanaguchi of “Scott Pilgrim” fame was leading the pack as of late Saturday).
The 3DS was recently discounted by Nintendo because of slow sales. But for those that do have the little system that does it all, the StreetPass features really come to life when you’re all in a confined space.
4. Biggest game to live up to the hype: “Elder Scrolls: Skyrim”
There can be no more doubt that the cream of the RPG crop has for some time come from the West. And with Bethesda Softworks “Skyrim,” it now officially doesn’t get any prettier. It’s hard enough to summarize the massive Elder Scrolls games in a full-length review, let alone get a good grasp of all the changes in an hour of allotted play time. Nevertheless, “Skyrim” is more than headed in the right direction.
The presentation is fantasy at its best: arid, snow-covered peaks are just a few minutes’ walk from lush river banks. In my sporadic wondering, a lively wilderness quickly gave way to an immaculately detailed wooden village. The excellently voiced villagers sounding as natural as the forest’s wildlife ran. A dungeon I found at the top of a snowy mountain castle quickly turned into a molten cave, complete with spiders, skeletons and tricky thieves.
Even the perk system builds on the beauty of the game, stretching across the stars to form constellations of upgrades – an inspired display that borrows from Final Fantasy X. I tested out the fire skills and was soon enough setting all nature of baddies ablaze with a dual-casted wave of flame. It’s extremely promising when a game’s menus are can draw out the same awe as its world. From what I can tell, no amount of horse armor will get in the way this game becoming an instant classic.
5. The biggest remaining question mark: “Super Mario 3D Land”
Nintendo’s pitch for this game is just bizarre, and despite two play sessions, I’m still on the fence. “Super Mario 3D Land” relishes in so-called classic Mario style used in games like “New Super Mario Bros.” on DS and “New Super Mario Bros. Wii.” Those games were great for the return to form: platforming, power-ups and a bare-bones visual style. With “Super Mario 3DS,” Nintendo is expanding that formula ever so slightly, allowing Mario to move in three dimensions – similar to “Super Mario Galaxy” or “Mario 64,” but in the much more minimalistic style of the “New Super Mario” games.
The result is a little jarring. This Mario runs, walks and jumps a little slower from what we’re used to. Despite being developed by the “Galaxy” team, the extra shake that allowed players to stay in the air a little longer to correct a jump is gone. Also gone is the ability for Mario to physically punch or spin to best his enemies. Instead, we’re given a new rolling move – done by tapping the shoulder button. But, counter-intuitively, the roll doesn’t work as an attack. Nintendo throws us a bone by bringing back the Tanuki suit – also known as the raccoon tail -- from “Mario 3.” This works well for slapping baddies out of your way, but without the ability to fly, which was one of the biggest draws in “Mario 3,” you might as well just use a fireflower.
Only one of the four levels shown in the PAX demo had me do any platforming that was remotely challenging. By hitting timed green switches, the level would unfold before you – sometimes in separate paths leading to bonus coins and powerups. It was a neat trick, owing a little bit from the harder “Galaxy” puzzles. Here’s hoping Nintendo throws a lot of those our way. Until we get the full version, however, this game is one giant yellow question block