This is the final entry in a set of four daily reports which have covered the games I played last weekend at the Eurogamer Expo 2010 in London. I'm a little late tonight due to problems with my internet connection, but will be going out with a bang: Gears of War 3's Beast Mode, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Eurocom's revision of GoldenEye 007 are the final three games to be put under the microscope. To read my impressions of the nine other games I played, click here for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Microsoft's Kinect, here for Kirby's Epic Yarn, Vanquish and Enslaved, or here for Killzone 3, SOCOM 4 and Crysis 2. Enjoy!
Gears of War 3
I should say from the beginning that I'm not particularly well acquainted with Gears of War. I played the original a couple of times with friends, but have probably not put any more than two hours' playtime into the series. There are two reasons for that: the first is that I don't own a 360, which is pretty important, and my computer wasn't powerful enough to run the original back in t'day. The second is that everything I have seen and played of the series has taken place almost entirely in brown-and-grey apocalyptic environments, populated with implausibly biceped space marines and alien monstrosities. That's not an aesthetic that personally holds much appeal. The Gears of War 3 stand was showing off Beast Mode, a multiplayer match where the player is given control of a selected Locust and sets out to slaughter itself some nice, juicy humans. The best news from my point of view was that the map my group was assigned to play on was completely the opposite of what my expectations of the game's art style was going to be: it took place in and around an ancient church, resplendent with green grass, blue skies and yellow stone ruins. It looked gorgeous, packed with detail but not too visually busy, more similar to an environment that would appear in a Nathan Drake adventure than one of Marcus Fenix's usual stomping grounds. For a game that has just been delayed by five months, the level of polish all round was remarkable to the point of suspicion: might Microsoft be holding the game back for marketing purposes rather than improvements? Perhaps Epic have devised another game mode to throw in, in the same way that the N64's Perfect Dark was held back an especially agonising six months to implement Counter-Op mode (not entirely dissimilar to what I was playing on Gears 3, in fact). Apart from the player characters seeming a touch disassociated from their environments – playing as one of the larger creatures didn't give off much sense of its weight, and there was a floatiness to the movement over flat ground – there were no noticeable bugs, the AI on the human bots did not make any strange decisions, and each of the playable Locust had a distinct style of play (including one charming little kamikaze fellow, capable of detonating itself and wiping out everything in its surroundings) that seemed efficiently balanced and controlled easily. Having a number of playable creatures at your disposal – with more unlocking as you collect 'tags' for each kill - kept the game fresh and rife with tactical possibilities, as well as opening up avenues for all sorts of delightfully gruesome deaths, including pounding one poor marine's corpse literally until it disappeared into a visceral morass. The match seemed to finish almost immediately after it had started, a testament to how well-developed, original and enthralling the new mode proved to be. I still can't say it installed much of a desire to try out the single-player, but fans of the series can rest assured that while the wait will be long, the rewards will be worthwhile.
Donkey Kong Country Returns
In all honesty, Nintendo didn't have the best showing at Eurogamer 2010. Zelda was fun, but offered little other than minor interface tweaks that the series hadn't covered before. Kirby's Epic Yarn looked gorgeous and played with a welcome focus on fun rather than challenge, but had some serious flaws in its level design which forced a reset after my friend and I got irretrievably stuck. Donkey Kong Country Returns was the strongest of the games at their stand (the slightly unsettlingly named 'Wii Unleashed') by merit of doing little more than exactly what it said on the tin. Right down to starting the first level outside your treehouse, the game is every bit the SNES Donkey Kong Country games, erm, returning. Given a modern make-over, the gameplay moves faster and with greater variety in obstacles and enemy types. On that last note, it was a shame that the Kremlings have been dismissed from duty. The new enemies are a rather uninspiring bunch hobbled together from the usual set of animals – birds, frogs, sharks, crabs – with a sprinkling of equally uninspired tribal types, walking warrior masks, totems and bouncing Djembe drums. There's no particular cohesion to them, which is hardly a big deal but feels like a loss when the original Kremlings made such memorable opponents. In fact, the only creatures which seemed to be missing were crocodiles. Regardless, the game is deceptively difficult and throws a huge number of different challenges and secrets at you during the space of a single level. The first, given the traditional title of Jungle Hijinx, included falling columns, trampoline flowers, treetop platforming (another holdover from the SNES days) and using barrels to swap between foreground and background areas, which rise up from the trees behind the Kongs as they pound on a huge wooden target. The second level, Poppin' Planks (and yes, they've all got names like that) was set across a beach and ocean, bringing in sunken ships, moving platforms, gangplank spikes that could be flipped over either by pounding the ground or provoking a blue whale in the background. I played the game in co-op mode, which encourages teamwork far more than New Super Mario Bros Wii's subtle rewarding of more devious play. The Kongs can play out the level as individuals, but gain the biggest advantages by teaming up – Diddy is once again the more useful of the two, coming armed with a jet-pack and Peanut Popguns from DK64, but put him on his uncle's back and both players can benefit. If during this time Donkey goes into a roll, Diddy goes into an hilarious animation running on top of him like a barrel, holding down his cap. The motion-controlled ground-pound felt like a superfluous inclusion for the sake of using the Wii remote's accelerometer, but was responsive enough and put to greater use than Mario's spin-jump. Apart from a rather boring boss battle lifted from Jungle Beat ('Mugly's Mound' – what happened to Gnawty?) and a lack of memorable new music, Retro look to have achieved precisely what fans of the series will have been hoping for, an immensely entertaining platform romp that brings back all the right memories. It'll be remembered as a Donkey Kong encore (Kong-core?) rather than a brand new gig, but will do that nostalgia proud.
Speaking of nostalgia, Activision's rewrite of the N64 classic GoldenEye felt both trapped and inspired by it. The four-player splitscreen mode was available to play on a single television hidden away behind Nintendo's flagship titles, but even then wasn't attracting a huge amount of attention. The use of the title is understandable from a business perspective: for multiplatform games, the Wii version rarely sells even half the numbers of its HD brothers, with the console's graphical weaknesses and reputation among devoted gamers putting it at a severe disadvantage. To that end, being both an exclusive and bearing a name that instantly recalls some of the Nintendo fanbase's happiest memories in the FPS genre would in theory clear those problems from the board. Except that when it comes to actually making the game, there's a whole host of expectations and obligations to which the developers will inevitably be expected to defer. On the face of it, developers Eurocom have maintained their balance respectably. In a time when splitscreen multiplayer has been largely left behind in favour of online, there has been a strong marketing focus on this, like its inspiration, being the game to get friends back together on the sofa ('GoldenEye is back. Get your friends.' states the trailer tagline). Yet once you start playing the thing, a split-personality emerges that can't quite bring together its desire to appeal to modern shooter fans with its responsibilities to maintain a certain degree of faithfulness to the GoldenEye name. That's not to say it's bad: if anything, just lacking confidence. The basic gameplay style is draws heavily on Call of Duty, with iron-sights aiming, weapon load-outs (the invented gun names, unlike the original bearing no similarity to their real-world equivalents, are confusing here) and limited health. Yet in visual design, its chunky character models, cubic buildings and limited texturing seem deliberately chosen to evoke the spirit of the N64 game – and yes, to you snarky naysayers, even when undermined by a particularly terrible television that made everything too dark and lightly pixellated, the game does look respectable on a technical level. The two maps I played, Outpost (based on the Surface/Siberia mission) and Docks (all new and self-explanatory, although strangely lacking any sign of water), both featured big buildings and open spaces, allowing for a mix of sniping or close-range play styles without demanding a speciality in either. Somehow, that need to compromise felt appropriate. Being unoriginal isn't such a crutch for an FPS on the Wii as it would be for other consoles, where entries in the genre are more populous, but given how inventive the N64 game was, it's a shame that Eurocom haven't been more proactive in taking advantage of the opportunities to really make their game stand out. Why does only Oddjob have a signature move, for example? Couldn't Scaramanga start with the Golden Gun (a single-hit kill, but hampered by needing to reload after every shot), Baron Samedi have double health or Rosa Klebb a fatal shoe-dagger melée kill? The game delivers a perfectly solid multiplayer experience – although it was as if I had entered bizarro world, controlling a PlayStation shooter (SOCOM 4) with a motion controller while having to endure twin analogues on the Wii – but still feels slightly like an assembly of slightly ill-fitting parts. I'm still looking forward to playing the full game and intend to buy it on release, yet for my enjoyable experience with Eurocom's GoldenEye, my pervading impression was that somebody had already done it better.
That concludes my coverage of the 2010 Eurogamer Expo. Many thanks to everyone who read and commented over these past four days, I hope you found something useful on the games you were interested in. My personal Expo favourites were Vanquish, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Donkey Kong Country Returns (with Gears of War 3 and the Move compatible SOCOM 4 also leaving very positive impressions), in no particular order. On Sunday I'll be returning to the weekly blogging format with an in-depth analysis of the themes and story in Metroid: Other M.