NEW YORK — Would it be fun to trash the set of BET's "106 and Park"? Is the spiritual successor to one of the most acclaimed games on Xbox 360 coming from L.A.? What will someone who just beat you at "Command & Conquer" do with a live video camera feed straight to your TV? And what is Pogo Island?
Late last week, leading games publisher Electronic Arts commandeered a top-floor loft in midtown Manhattan to offer the press free drinks, serve quarter-size turkey burgers and show off games the company plans to release between now and the end of March. The company holds these events every few months, and the biggest questions often involve what the next features of the year's "Madden" or "NBA Live" will be. But EA has been on a kick lately to convince gamers and game reporters that the company is not just a sequel factory and isn't creatively conservative — hence the unexpected ream of questions.
· So how fun is it to trash that BET set? The game designed to answer that question is "Def Jam: Icon," the sequel to EA's hip-hop fighting series. The game and its enthusiastic lead designer, Kudo Tsunoda, have made the rounds for the past six months. Tsunoda has been promising a fighting game with the aesthetics of a rap video, with fighting environments that pulsate and combust to hip-hop beats. He's repeatedly shown a level set at a gas station where pumps kick flames on beat, a different pace for whatever song was playing at the time.
Tsunoda showed more levels Thursday night. The "106 & Park" level took place in the show's studio. Ghostface could slam Outkast's Big Boi into monitors on the wall. Either guy could grab a TV camera at the end of a crane and swing it into his opponent. A level on a rooftop was buzzed by a helicopter. A penthouse suite walled with gold records had a fireplace at one side. On beat, flames spit out.
The game's "turntable controls" allow a player to trigger these bursts of flame or attacks of helicopter rotor blades at any time with an extra beat. The player makes back and forth half-circles with the Xbox 360's right analog stick — like scratching a record — and a beat kicks forth. The trick is to have the opponent in the line of fire when that happens. Or for an even bigger advantage, the player can do a series of left-stick and then right-stick scratches, switching the song playing over the level. Switching to the player's chosen song powers up their fighter. At the Thursday demo, it became apparent that the double-scratch is a key strategic element of "Def Jam Icon." The opposing player can see it being set up as a character's hands scratch in midair. A well-timed stomp on the ground or simple slap in the face can interrupt that flow. The idea is that whoever scratches fast — or first — will likely have the upper hand.
· Farther away, a debuting EA game called "Boom Boom Rocket" was given a lower-key pitch. The game will be EA's first for the Xbox 360's Live Arcade downloadable-games service. It was designed by EA's Pogo division, a group that specializes in simple, popular mom-friendly PC games. The game is simple enough: Music plays, icons corresponding to one of the four action buttons on a 360 controller stream up from the bottom of the screen, the icons hit a line near the top of the screen, and if a player taps the right button at the moment of intersection — which happens to sync with the rhythm of the music — then fireworks burst and points tally up. It can be played solo or competitively. The game runs like "Dance Dance Revolution," just played with fingers instead of feet. (To spot another similarity, say the acronyms for both games out loud.)
The secret sauce for the game is Bizarre Creations, the British developers of the Xbox racing hit series "Project Gotham Racing" and Xbox Live Arcade's most popular game, "Geometry Wars." That Bizarre game was developed by one person, Bizarre's Stephen Cakebread. "Boom Boom" is under development by a team of 12, according to Pogo producer Spencer Brooks, who also helped explain the game's musical focus.
Rhythm games often use techno or house. The massive hit "Guitar Hero" thrives on rock. "BBR" is going with classical themes given a techno twist — One placeholder tack name is William Tell Overkill. "We wanted something that had broad appeal, but classical can seem so stodgy," Brooks said. "How do we use [musical] phrases people know but give them a modern sensibility?" If the game succeeds, the Pogo people would be open to expanding the title with extra downloadable songs. The game launches in the spring with 10.
· At the opposite end of the loft from "BBR" was "Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars," a follow-up to the popular PC real-time-strategy war series. An Xbox 360 version will ship after March but was still being shown at the event. Producer Raj Joshi was happy to choreograph some carnage, but talk of the game's support for the Xbox 360's Web cam proved an irresistible distraction. Currently, the 360 camera is supported by sedate far like Xbox Live Arcade's "Uno."
EA's "C&C3" will be the first game that lets four players watch when they annihilate their opponent with a barrage of heavy munitions rather than a well-played Reverse card. And Joshi said that, at the end of the match, the winning player's live camera cast will take center screen, the other three players' streams lining up in a row beneath. He said he'd like a winner to go with a "Brady Bunch" effect, pointing at their opponents. But he knows what's more likely to happen. "We're hoping to not turn this into the crotch camera," a laughing Joshi said, without a theory about how to avoid it. The developers are currently establishing how much time the victor will have to gloat. They're considering 15-20 seconds.
· Hiding in the sea of games on Thursday may well have "Pogo Island." It at least showed up in EA's press kit. This title may represent just one more change of direction for the company. Up until now, EA's support for the Nintendo DS consisted of some of the worst-reviewed games on the system's platform — and none of the best. The games were all simplified versions of the "Need for Speed"s and "Tiger Woods"es of the consoles. "Pogo Island," on the other hand, looks to present a compilation of EA's simple, popular Pogo games, laid out naturally across a tropical island.
It's long been easy to expect the expected with EA. If the previewed lineup shown in New York is any indication, the company's rep is about to change.
More from the world of video games:
With E3 pushed back from May to July, gamers might be wondering when they'll get some news on the big titles for the rest of the year. Two weeks to mark on the calendar are the first full ones of February and March. The end of the February week will bring the annual Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain convention for captains of the gaming industry. Games are rarely, if ever, announced at the event, but the high-profile speakers can still make news. Among those giving talks is Phil Harrison, the head of worldwide studios for PlayStation, in his first major address since the launch of the PS3. In March, the annual Game Developers Conference will draw tens of thousands of designers to San Francisco. This is the place where Will Wright announced "Spore" a couple of years back. Last year, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata announced a new DS "Zelda" and Harrison helped unveil some new PS3 titles. The first keynote speaker announced for 2007's GDC is Nintendo's top designer, "Mario" and "Zelda" creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Revelatory talks are scheduled for the full GDC week, including a big reveal of the Xbox 360's "Fable 2" by designer Peter Molyneux and several other talks still shrouded in secrecy. Expect game companies to also schedule announcements around E3 to compensate for the lack of a spring E3 hype week. More info about these conferences can be found at DiceSummit.org and GDConf.com. ...
WiiCade.com — mentioned in this column a few weeks back — has just received an upgrade and is worth a visit for Wii owners looking for new games. WiiCade can be accessed on any Internet browser, but the site is specifically designed to run best through the Wii's Opera Internet browser. Dozens of puzzle and action games on the site can all be controlled with just a mouse and mouse button, meaning they all work with the Wii's remote and A-button. Plus all the games, like the Opera browser, are free. If only the Wii weren't. And if only it could be found in stores.
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