On Wednesday I was lucky enough to attend X15, a media showcase hosted by Microsoft in downtown Toronto at Sound Academy. Xbox Canada brought 100 Xbox One consoles, a handful of developers, a couple dozen games and a small army of dudes in Halo t-shirts to show off the upcoming Xbox slate.
After a 45 minute wait introduced me to X15, the first game I got my hands on was Tom Clancy's The Division, the oft-hyped, perpetually delayed title from Ubisoft. The Division is set in a post-pandemic New York where independent agents of "The Division" (clever name!) try to restore order in the apocalyptic setting. The demo had me playing in a squad of 3 with two guys I made friends with while waiting in line. Each of us had a different avatar for the session, who we named according to the most obvious cliches. The Protagonist, a scruffy white guy with a Nathan Drake/Joel from The Last of Us vibe; The Best Friend, a bald black dude (think Tyrese in Transformers); and The Love Interest, a racially ambiguous woman in a badass leather jacket.
I was unable to get a straight answer regarding customization of player appearance, though the PR reps talked at length about how customizable the loadouts are. Each player in the demo had a different arsenal, I (The Love Interest, obviously) had a seeker mine and a remote detonator bomb, while my squadmates had other implements like deployable auto-turrets.
The demo began with my squad and I moving through the city to engage a group of scavengers/looters/generally bad guys. The first thing I noticed playing The Division was how unforgiving it can be; cover is very sticky, forcing you to be careful moving in a firefight lest you get stuck in an awkward position. The aim system also punishes movement more than any other game I've ever played, weapons sway drastically and the reticle grows significantly if you're moving at all. If you attempt to run and gun you'll likely just make a fool of yourself and die.
My squad engaged a group of enemy NPCs in a short firefight. Flanking and effective use of cover was what got us through in one piece. I found myself thinking "thank god I can talk to my squadmates (Trevor and Mike) or this would be a mess." Once the baddies were down we were able to collect the loot they had been scavenging. In The Division, there are loot drops like you would expect in an MMORPG, but in this case the loot has been contaminated and cannot be safely used until you are extracted—this leads into the PvP portion of the demo.
When your squad enters a "Dark Zone" you are in danger of being attacked by other players. If you attack another player you "go rogue" and become a target for other players in the world, and as this was a demo played with strangers, my squad went rogue almost immediately.
Our objective was to secure an evac point and wait to be extracted with our loot, but with two other squads gunning for us, this proved a daunting task. The next 10-minutes devolved into a frantic king-of-the-hill firefight with objectives mostly forgotten by players still getting accustomed to the game's punishing controls. When you die (and you will) the respawn timer is excruciatingly long, around 30 seconds, severely hindering a squad when an agent goes down.
My squad held the extraction point as the clock wound down, but it takes a full minute for your chopper to get there, and unfortunately the time ran out and the demo ended.
From the ~20 minutes I played it, I'm cautiously optimistic about The Division. As an open world shooter with MMO and RPG elements, it could have easily fallen into the trap of being "3rd person, gritty Destiny," but the Ubisoft title does enough to distinguish itself. There will definitely be growing pains if you're coming from a run and gun FPS like Call of Duty, but the methodical approach to gameplay and focus on squad tactics are a blast when you pull it off effectively.
Let's just hope The Division actually makes its 3rd release date: March 8th 2016.
The next game at X15 I got my hands on was Studio MDHR's retro run and gun action game: Cuphead.
If you've been following the development of this game, you'll be happy to know it delivers on all its promises thus far. The 30's Disney animation style is captivating to watch, truly like nothing you've ever seen in a video game; its sometimes hard to believe you're controlling this cartoon. Little touches in the animation of the game are what make it so charming, Cuphead shoots projectiles out of a finger gun, and every character is constantly bouncing around like they're in Steamboat Willie.
The soundtrack is equally impressive with instrument heavy swing music pumping throughout gameplay. I could see the music getting repetitive, even grating if played for long stretches, but in my time playing it never lost its appeal.[caption id="attachment_53186" align="aligncenter" width="587"] There's evil flowers! Because of course there are![/caption]
Described by Studio MDHR Art Lead Chad Moldenhauer as run and gun, my experience with Cuphead felt more like a bullet-hell shooter. The demo focused only on the game's boss encounters, where you're never more than a few hits from going down and starting the whole thing over again. The game lives up to its billing as insanely difficult—I may have snapped a controller had an Xbox employee not been looming over me. Chad commented that while you'll get new weapons throughout the game, health will never increase so as to keep the game consistently challenging.
I got the chance to speak with Chad a little more about how the game came to be; when I asked how the idea for the game came about he said, "My brother and I always loved that 1930s Disney animation style, and frankly I can't believe no one's tried this."
"I can't believe no one's tried this."
Cuphead will be available on Xbox One and Steam. When I tried to nail down an exact date, Chad answered (infuriatingly), "When it's ready" but promised that it would be in 2016.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
As X15 wound down and the Sound Academy crowd was thinning, I got to sit in on a developer-run demo of Rise of the Tomb Raider.
The demo starts in Syria after the events of the Tomb Raider reboot. Lara is searching for something using her father's notes as a guide. Things go horribly wrong quickly when Lara and her guide are attacked by a very perturbed helicopter. The Jeep crashes and in typical Tomb Raider fashion Lara falls off a cliff and gets hurt badly, and the (on-rails) demo begins in earnest.
The first thing I noticed was the hair effects. The Tomb Raider reboot hyped up how realistically Lara's hair behaved; in this demo it seems to move too much, almost like the developers are super excited about their hair tools and want to show them off. There are other graphical issues that gave me pause as well; Lara looks like she has doll's eyes; in the demo they are too dark and non-reactive—it gives cinematics an Uncanny Valley feel. As the demo went on I noticed when Lara isn't injured or dirty, she looks plastic and shiny, adding to that unreal feeling. When the demo pulls the camera back, the visuals are gorgeous, breathtaking even, but when we get back down to Lara's level I found myself consistently underwhelmed. The game doesn't look bad, just like it is short some polish.
I wouldn't normally be so harsh on a game still in-development but with Rise of the Tomb Raider due to be released in a little over 10 weeks I found myself concerned.
Later in the demo, the developers showed us one of the tombs and demonstrated a new feature in the game: languages. Lara can learn languages and use them for puzzle solving. How exactly this worked was left unexplained; the developers did not show any puzzles in-depth in order to give players a surprise. The demo then skips ahead to another brief snatch of puzzle where Lara's new ability to swim is shown, and then we cut to a sizzle reel showing some exciting moments in this mission and quick flashes of the games antagonists.[caption id="attachment_53187" align="aligncenter" width="586"] Something tells me that helicopter is going to come back.[/caption]
I loved Tomb Raider and this Rise of the Tomb Raider demo looks like exactly what you'd expect from a sequel. It's bigger, there are more locations, and new features—were it not for the graphical issues I saw, I'd likely be using a lot more exclamation marks and hyping up the November 10th, 2015 release date. Let's just hope the issues I saw are sorted by November, especially considering the importance of Rise of the Tomb Raider's Xbox One timed exclusivity.
I want to thank Xbox Canada for inviting me to X15 and the devs I spoke to for talking with me. I had a blast playing all the games there—I wish I had been able to get some time with Halo 5: Guardians, but the line to the main stage was daunting enough without Master Chief and Locke working security.