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Funny thing about travel plans: some days everything goes just the way you want it to go, while other days the travel gods laugh and toss everything from bad weather to wrong directions from Google Maps in your way. Unfortunately for me, the latter was true on the day when I returned to New York City for Ubisoft’s annual holiday release party, but in between the travel disasters I was treated to a close-up look at what the publisher has in store for gamers this fall and beyond.
Easily, the star of this year’s show was Avatar, the companion game to director James Cameron’s upcoming sci-fi epic in which humans travel to a distant planet and explore it by controlling simulacra of themselves in a battle for survival against the world’s strange and dangerous natives. (Unfortunately for Cameron, Bruce Willis is beating him to the market with the man-controlling-avatar gimmick by several months with his film “Surrogates,” due in theatres Sept. 25, 2009). In Avatar the game, you choose either the human or alien campaign in a main story arc enhanced by numerous side quests set in 15 unique environments. Graphics assets from the film are included in the game (some were actually created by the film’s effects house especially for the game), but the story has no tie-ins to the plot of the movie. The biggest news about Avatar is that it will be playable in “stereoscopic” 3D on the PC, Xbox 360 and the PS3 (the Wii, PSP and DS versions will be 2D only, since 1080p screen resolutions and HDMI connections are required to produce the 3D effects). I saw the game demonstrated in 3D on the Xbox 360, and the use of the 3D process is amazing to watch. Although the graphics were not quite as sharp or detailed as some other recent AAA games, the 3D process gives the third-person shooter a visual depth that needs to be seen to be believed. But actually seeing it is going to depend upon whether or not you have the hardware; the game was demoed on a Korean flat-panel TV specially designed for 3D. I was unable to find out whether or not the PC version will also require an HDMI connection or a special monitor (perhaps with a 120-htz refresh rate, which are currently very expensive), but the demo also used Real-D digital theatre 3D glasses, so if you go to a digital 3D showing of “G-Force” or “Up,” keep those polarized glasses instead of throwing them away. Avatar the game is set for a late November/early December 2009 release on all platforms.
The other big-ticket items on display at the event were games that Ubisoft featured at E3 this year, and very little if anything has changed with any of them. Splinter Cell: Conviction takes a more personal look into the life of superspy Sam Fisher as he searches for the villain who ordered the death of Fisher’s daughter. The game is filled with new gameplay ideas, including the Mark and Execute targeting system that allows you to select Fisher’s targets before entering combat; a decoy graphic that displays a ghost form of Fisher in the last position an enemy sees him, giving you a chance to flank the enemy and kill him while he’s focused on the decoy; and an interface enhancement that displays your current objective as text placed on the sides of buildings or on other objects in the scene. Conviction‘s release date was recently pushed back to Q1 2010, and it will be available for the PC and Xbox 360.
Nothing has changed about Assassin’s Creed II since E3; even the demo is the same. You play a wall-crawling killer in Renaissance Venice seeking revenge on the mad public official who wiped out your character’s family. In an interesting wrinkle, you’re assisted in your quest for vengeance by noted artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, who provides you with a number of fancy gadgets to use in your battles. One of these is a flying machine that you guide through the streets of Venice, which have been meticulously modeled and researched by a team of 10 developers who used the pictures they took of the actual Italian locations to build the environments for the game. Release date for Assassin’s Creed II is November 17, 2009, for the Xbox 360 and the PS3, with a PC release on a later, undisclosed date.
Also on the release date-delayed list is Red Steel 2, a cell-shaded mashup of sci-fi, Western and martial-arts styles in which a hooded swordsman, the last of his kind, is being hunted by the villains who wiped out the rest of his race. This Wii-only, first-person fighter uses the Wii Motion Plus peripheral to give you tighter control of your katana as you slice and dice your way through baddies on a planet that bears a close resemblance to the American west of the 19th century. I had some hands-on time with Red Steel 2, and it’s quite a workout. The harder you swing the Wiimote, the more devastating the swordplay (make sure you use the Wiimote strap, lest you launch the remote across the room while carving up your enemies). I don’t play Wii games very often, so it took me a few minutes to get used to using the nunchuk joystick to move my character while shifting the Wiimote to change the direction he faces, but once I got the hang of it, I got a fair amount of exercise in the combat scenes. Tweaks in the final designs of the game have pushed Red Steel 2‘s release date back from this fall to Q1 2010.
The most pleasant surprise of the event was CSI: Deadly Intent, an amazingly deep point-and-click puzzler set in the world of the Las Vegas incarnation of the TV-series franchise. Vegas CSIs lead you through five original scenarios that play out just like episodes of the series. Someone is killed, you examine and photograph the scene, collect evidence, discuss autopsy results with the coroner, interrogate suspects, do lab tests (in a series of minigames), and eventually solve the case. All of the actors in Season 9 of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigations” provide their voices for the game, save for Marg Helgenberger. Notable in his inclusion is new cast member Lawrence Fishburne, in what could be his first appearance in a video game. CSI: Deadly Intent takes the next step in the evolution of the point-and-click adventure game, using characters and situations familiar to almost anyone with a TV in their home. Look for it on the PC, Xbox 360 and the Wii (the Nintendo DS version features a different set of cases and a different gameplay mechanic) in the fall of 2009.
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