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You can fit the population of a city inside Gamescom, spread across its five days, and multiple halls heaving with screaming HD screens and scale models of Star Wars vehicles. Last year, 335,000 people descended on Cologne's Koelnmesse, players and professionals alike, to gawp at upcoming video games and, just occasionally, actually play them.
The event, the world's largest computer and gaming trade fair and an annual destination for countless kids and adults alike (many dressed up as League of Legends avatars and Pokémon, Lara Crofts, and Final Fantasy favorites), is a place for sharing and caring, wearing passions quite literally on sleeves (not to mention heads, shoulders, knees, and toes) and pressing flesh to seal fresh business deals. It is quite the big deal, and that much is evident from the second you step off the S-Bahn: If you're doing Gamescom, your personal space is going to be invaded several hundred times per hour.
Unless, that is, you're a member of the press. Which I am, which means I could do Gamescom without spending all that much time amid the regular punters, in the booming main halls of the Koelnmesse, housing huge booths for countless big-budget games to come, from Fallout 4 to Star Wars: Battlefront via Mad Max and FIFA 16. When you've a press lanyard around your neck, you can slip inside smaller rooms within the labyrinthine complex—all of which are still huge compared to your average space for such exhibitions—and enjoy pre-booked, hands-on appointments with a wealth of forthcoming wonders. And that's precisely what I do at my first-ever Gamescom.
As massively anticipated as it is, there was nothing to play of Fallout 4 at Gamescom, with members of the press instead shown a gameplay video with an introduction from director Todd Howard. The keyword taken away from the presentation is "color," as many people I spoke to confirmed their pleasant surprise at how bright it all was. Hacking and lock-picking was shown, and is essentially the same as it was in Fallout 3—if it ain't broke, I guess—but the basic gunplay is faster than before, with VATS slowing the action to a lesser degree and members of the Brotherhood of Steel available as support. The game won't feature any kind of level cap, meaning that even after the story's complete, you can roam around the wastes skull-cracking super mutants until you're more powerful than God. At least, that's how I heard it from a whole bunch of other journalists—I wasn't about to book in time with a video that'll probably end up on YouTube soon enough anyway.
Instead, I went to play Dark Souls III, which plonked my naïve little knight onto some battlements and basically proceeded to kill me via a combination of ghoulish warriors wielding sharp and pointy things and a fuck-off enormous dragon firing flaming fur balls in my general direction. Now, as someone who has tried and mostly failed at previous Souls games, it came as no surprise to me to find myself sucking salty ballsacks at this new iteration, and my repeated failures to dodge lances and parry sword slashes were made to look all the more tragic on account of playing the game right next to an expert at such things from Edge magazine.
But during a few of my (plentiful, given the time) respawns, I stole a peek at how he was faring, and it feels to me that DSIII has taken a cue or two from Bloodborne, regarding its speed of combat, brutal counter attacks and how defense isn't always the best direction to take when up against an angry undead thing. Perhaps that's to be expected, given Bloodborne director Hidetaka Miyazaki is in command here. He's known to be less than satisfied with Dark Souls II, and is sure to keep a steady hand on the development of III.
All the same, it's great to see pronounced progress where the hardcore Souls fans might well have expected a straight stylistic return to the methodical attack-and-retreat-and-roll-away battle management of the original Dark Souls. This is a step in the right direction for all things Souls, mixing influences from the past with those of Bloodborne's gothic present. It's prettier than ever, too (about time, really). Thirty minutes is all I got with DSIII, but it was enough to illustrate that the old girl's got some lethal new life in her—assuming you can stay alive long enough to appreciate it. It's out in early 2016.
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I get to play Street Fighter V against VICE Gaming contributor Ian Dransfield, who soundly thrashes me most of the time (we have six or seven bouts, and I win just two—I'm putting it down to the fight stick, as I've not used one of those, hmm, ever*). Capcom's all-new-gen entry in its long-running one-on-one franchise is shaping up well, though anyone coming to it expecting all those special moves and combos that worked so well on IV and its predecessors to do the job here will find that this next iteration takes some getting used to. The redesigned Ken's tatsumaki, or hurricane kick, arcs up and, sometimes, over an opponent, for example.
Classic characters like Ryu and Chun-Li appear aesthetically unchanged from IV, but Ken and Vega have been given more than a once over (I'm not really into the former's new look, yet), and chain-swinging tubby punk Birdie's a new addition from the Alpha series. Cammy is going to catch a yeast infection, so deeply inside her ass crack has her outfit gone. The most noticeable gameplay development is the inclusion of the V-Gauge, which fills as damage is taken (and, possibly, as it's dished out). Its perks are triggered by pressing medium kick and punch simultaneously, leading to improved offensive capabilities like increased speed in Ken's case, extra hits per connected blow with Chun-Li and M Bison's glowing purple "Psycho Reflect," used to absorb opponent's fireballs. Capcom's approach for V is to charge players just the once, for the game at launch, meaning every future update—Super, Ultra, whatever, and everything such tinkering brings—will be made freely available. Which is nice. Like Dark Souls III, Street Fighter V is released early (well, "spring" is what I'm told) next year.
(*Just kidding, I'm simply shit at it.)
Less nice is Homefront: The Revolution, which I won't dwell upon for too long because it's not looking great. The premise is still cool: North Korea has invaded the USA and you're part of a guerrilla force fighting to take the country back, however you can. But it plays like a poor man's Far Cry 4 set in a dull, grey city, with predictable AI, played-it-all-before objectives and a remarkably swift to arrive feeling of give-not-one-fuck tedium. That's based on a preview build, anyway. There's a long way for the game to go before it's released, and with greater environmental variety, smarter enemies, and a clearer picture of your character's personality, maybe it'll be worth digging deeper into when it comes out sometime in 2016. Or, perhaps it'll be Just Another Shooter, a six-out-of-ten in an era where only the best of this breed need bother going gold. I'm told that other people liked it, and there was always a decent queue for the game at its public hands-on, so maybe it's just me. But I'm not holding my breath for it to prove me wrong.
I'm counting the days until the new Pro Evolution Soccer, though, which comes out in about a month, in the middle of September. I get to play a couple of matches and I've got to say that I'm really impressed with what Konami's achieved here. The game plays with an increased physical clout that past versions lacked, fluid animations running more quickly, and player responsiveness turned right up to perfect, all of those little stats exerting their influence on individuals and squads alike. It's a thrill to pass your way out of defense before powering down the wing and pinging over a cross to… Well, in my case usually nobody, but with a little practice this is going to be an endorphins-rushing essential. The lack of the FIFA series' ample licenses continues to hurt PES's commercial chances, in the UK at least, but there's the suggestion here of it being the better game of the two. He says, without yet playing FIFA 16, but EA's titan will really have to impress to better this effort, and not simply rest on its established laurels. Time will tell, then, but I'm tempted right now to spend this season in charge of Hampshire Red over the real-deal Southampton FC.
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Also out this September, albeit very late in the month, is Lego Dimensions, the plastic brick company's version of the successful Skylanders formula, where physical toys meet interactive entertainment. The game plays much like previous Lego titles—you smash stuff up, rebuild the pieces into something useful, collect a bunch of studs and enjoy the occasional joke that's likely to fly over the heads of really young players. These games have long been parent-and-child affairs, brilliant for cross-generational co-op, and Dimensions is no different in that respect.
The addition of the "Gateway," which beams Lego mini figures and vehicles into the game, is much more than just a gimmicky way of extracting additional cash out of moms and dads—you need to use it to solve puzzles, such as "hot-and-cold" searching for useful objects (the unit glows green when you're going the right way, red when you're not), and to get past color-coded, almost Simon Says-like conundrums. I play as Batman, Gandalf, Doctor Who, Chell from Portal 2, Scooby Doo, and more, encounter Homer Simpson spread across a wrecking ball, and fight the Wicked Witch of the West and her winged monkeys, and every character has their own unique skills necessary to unlock new areas or complete special tasks. It's not a cheap acquisition—the game's starter pack will retail for about £100 [$155]—but having played Dimensions now, I'm definitely considering making it a joint present for son number one and me. Don't tell him (or the wife, for that matter).
I'm only in Cologne, usefully, for a day and a half, so I don't get to see several serious-budget games that I'm eager to check out in the near future—count amongst them Mirror's Edge Catalyst, Crackdown 3, Mafia 3, and Star Wars: Battlefront. Their time will come. But I do just about find space in the schedule for a breathless run around some pretty damn decent DLC for a certain released-earlier-this-year zombie holocaust affair which might have been made by Techland, which I can't say anything more about Because Embargo, and for Gearbox's new first-person-shooter-meets-MOBA title, Battleborn. And despite going into my 30 minutes with the latter expecting very little, I came out enthused to check out more.
Battleborn is what it is, a colorful multiplayer shooter with a shitload of loot to collect and a multitude of skills to dick about with per session (perks can be selected on the fly, unlocked as you shoot up more bad things), but it's got a lot of character to it (25 playable ones, actually), and is evidently being put together with plenty of love. I play as a rapier-throwing lady with a billowing skirt and teleportation powers, whose plummy voice does start to grate after so many kills but I expect that can be muted. You can also choose to play—solo, co-operatively, or competitively—as a hawk dude with a rocket launcher, a mushroom-headed cyclops thing, a space marine the size of a bungalow, a strutting sun goddess, or a gentleman robot, to name but a few members of the game's oddball controllable cast. Battleborn might be the shot in the arm Gearbox needs after Aliens: Colonial Marines shipped as it did, as a dud, and assuming it sells enough copies to avoid doing an Evolve, could spawn a new franchise for its makers, following the wildly successful Borderlands games. Look out for it in February 2016.
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