SXSWi report

I started my afternoon by shuffling to the bus stop at the end of our street, to get the bus downtown. It wasn’t long before a SXSW attendee turned up, badge in hand. The bus was on time, and quickly filled up with mothers and children who were traveling to the capitol building to protest the planned cuts in education. I chatted and expressed my support, but it wasn’t my destination.

I got off the bus on South Congress, and wandered about taking some video shots of downtown before heading for the convention center, and South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi). Each year they have a free exhibit area called Screenburn, where video game companies show their stuff.

Last year it was almost dead, so I nearly didn’t bother going–but then I read on Facebook that Insomniac Games were going to be there. They make the Ratchet & Clank games, probably my all-time favorite 3D platform game franchise.

The R&C games are based around free-roaming exploration, puzzle solving, and lots of stuff exploding in cool ways as you get increasingly ridiculous weapons upgrades. The genius of the game design is that it effectively auto-adjusts to your skill level. Initially you just have a wrench, and maybe a blaster pistol, with which to defend yourself. But, as you smash scenery and enemies apart, you collect metal bolts, which are the currency in the game; and once you get enough bolts, you can buy a weapon upgrade. So if you fail to get past a tough part of the game, you can keep trying, and if you fail enough times eventually you’ll have enough scrap metal salvaged to swap for a weapon that’s just enough of an improvement to get you further into the game.

Anyway, Insomniac were demoing Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, the first PS3 R&C game to have multiplayer online play. Up to four people can join in, and you get to play Ratchet, Clank, Captain Qwark, or Dr Nefarious. The levels are designed so that you have to cooperate with the other players in order to advance. Like LittleBigPlanet, all of the players are kept on the screen at all times, with the camera zooming out (within limits) when necessary. The developers also talked about the influence of Goldeneye 64.

(Oh, yeah, they also had Resistance 3 on demo, but I don’t really play first person shooters, and it looked like a pretty typical one.)

Capcom were at SWSWi Screenburn too. They had half a dozen Nintendo 3DS units, and I had a chance to play Resident Evil: The Mercenaries. The level I played was like the village in Resident Evil 4, and I got to run around and shoot cultists and zombies in the face. The usual annoying Resident Evil “no strafing, limited angle of view” game mechanics were there.

The 3DS itself is recognizably familiar, though the home screen interface is confusingly different from the DSi, and the new placement of the home, start and select buttons takes some getting used to. The touch screen also feels cramped, now that I’m used to my DSi XL.

On the plus side, the analog controller is great. The upper screen image is high enough resolution that I didn’t notice pixels until I paused to think about the screen quality.

I’m not completely sold on the 3D, though. Yeah, it works, but you really do need to be absolutely head-on to the screen. You also need the screen to be about half a meter from your face or less, which is probably going to help create a new generation of shortsighted geeks. Playing Resident Evil, several times I had reorientate the device to my face precisely, because I had gotten a bit carried away with my trigger finger. So I can see the 3D working for casual games and adventures, but it seems problematic for anything involving a lot of fast-paced action. You can turn the 3D off, at which point the graphics become a little crisper, like the antialiasing has been turned down and a little unsharp mask applied in Photoshop.

The budgerigar from the DSi has had a promotion in the 3DS, and now provides help for the camera app as well. Unfortunately, the 3DS has the worst digital cameras I’ve encountered since the Apple QuickTake 100. The images may be 3D, but they look worse than the ones from your cell phone, even if you’re still using an old Nokia from five years ago. Forget about taking pictures indoors, unless you carry studio lights around with you.

Battery life is also a concern. So, yeah, I’m not dashing out and buying one on launch day.

Capcom also had some 2D DSs running Okamiden. The game Okami“>Okami was one of the most artistic released for the PS2, and later found its way to the Wii; I highly recommend it. <a href="Okamiden looks like it could be one of the DS’s best this year.

I took a break from looking at video games to check out Mayfair Games‘ booth. They’re the US distributors of The Settlers of Catan, a world-famous German board game that’s widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever. I’ve never played it. As I confessed to the man who turned out to be the CEO of the company, I’ve always been much more interested in present-day and futuristic games. We got talking, and it turned out that he was the creator of RoleMaster, a game I played a lot of; and also helped create SpaceMaster and CyberSpace, two SF RPGs I bought and admired greatly, as well as MERP. We talked about the unfortunate 90s implosion of the RPG industry, and the lawyers taking over management of the T*lk**n estate.

(Meanwhile, some deletionist on Wikipedia is trying to get him excised.)

Overall, SXSWi Screenburn was a hundred times better than last year; it looks as if at least part of the economy is genuinely recovering.

Then I walked home, via the Congress Avenue Bridge and the tangy scent of bat guano. Got some cheesecake flavored gummy candy and a pineapple soda on South Congress. The house is perilously short of coffee. I have some drilling to do, but that’s another story, and one I think will have to wait until tomorrow.