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We Review: rAge 2011

Your favourite gaming reviewer (that’s me, by the by) went to the 2011 rAge expo at the Coca Cola Dome in Johannesburg this weekend.

I got a good look at some of the most exciting up and coming games for the next few months, and even got hands on with a few of them, where I was able to kick, punch, hit, and beg my way to the front. Hit the jump to find out what went down at the event.

The rAge event, organized by NAG magazine, took place, as usual, at the Coca Cola dome in Johannesburg.By all accounts, the event was well attended, with over 25,000 visitors across the two days. According to the event organizers, that’s a 29% increase in traffic over last year. I think it’s highly indicative of the growth of the South African gamer market. One of the first impressions I got of the event was that entire expo has quite possibly outgrown the location. I must have heard the phrase “it wasn’t this busy last year” well over 50 or 60 times in one day. And that was just from people I spoke directly to. More than anything, however, it attests to the sheer size of the gaming audience in South Africa, if one takes into account the numbers of people from elsewhere in the country who were otherwise unable to attend.

On a personal level, rAge was an awesome opportunity to meet with whole swathes of people that I’d only previously corresponded with, including the wonderful crew from El33tonline, Megarom, Nu-Metro, EA, Ster-Kinekor, Microsoft, and Core.

If you follow El33tonline, you’ll know that they put up the gamertags of South African gamers on their stand wall. Here’s the gamertag of our esteemed leader (you might need to click through to see it properly…the compression algorithm buggers around with red).

But this sort of bumf isn’t what you’ve come to read about. You want to know about the games!

I’m an evil sort, so I’m going to talk a little bit first about what was noticeably and conspicuously missing, namely the Playstation Vita and the Wii U. I suspect that this is probably because the people showing off the games were the Southern African distributors, and not the actual video game houses. I was a little disappointed, because I’m really looking forward to the little device. I guess I’ll have to wait, like everyone else, until early next year. [Ed: <sarcasm>You poor dear.</sarcasm>]¬†Also conspicuous by their absence were several games, including the sequel to Oblivion, Skyrim, and next year’s relaunch of SSX.

So, the games. In no particular order of personal favourites to orders of… far less personal favourites, here is what you should be looking forward to over the next few months. I fear that you’re going to be a little pressed for cash and time if you intend on getting and playing all these games!

Tomb Raider:

Ever since Square Enix announced the reboot of this game (along with the now-iconic image of Lara with a bow on her back, winding a bandage around her arm), there has been some excitement about the upcoming game. I had a chat with one of the crew from Square Enix Europe about what to look forward to about the game.¬† The demo I saw showed a younger, grittier, less…endowed Lara, and the changes are pleasant. The game seems to do an excellent job of making you identify with the character and feeling a level of empathy for her. The nature of the puzzles have also changed slightly, and the game has a more Uncharted-y feel to it than the prior games. From the demo, this looks like one game to be keeping an eye out for.

Batman Arkham City:

This game is due out soon, and there has been an incredible amount of hype for it. From the quick playthrough of the demo, the hype seems to be for good reason. It seems that WB Games kept what made the original Arkham Asylum so wonderful, and augmented and expanded the game to include the entirety of Gotham City. What’s cool is that you seem to have everything that you unlocked in the first game already, so it’s all new gadgets and tools to unlock in the new game. The freeflow combat system also returns, along with new moves and counters to keep things fresh. Sadly, the demo at rAge didn’t seem to have any of the Catwoman sequences in it, so that bit will have to wait for review time.

Rhythm Heaven Wii:

I know you all think the Wii is a dying console, especially given the imminent launch of the Wii U next year, but this is one of two games for the little console that I’m seriously and genuinely looking forward to. I never did play the original GBA Rhythm Tengoku, but I obtained and thoroughly enjoyed the Nintendo DS version of the game, Rhythm Heaven. In fact, it’s one of the very few DS games that I still play. In short, it’s a series of rhythm-based minigames with some of the most insanely addictive music and gameplay. And now the game is headed for the Wii. The concept is still the same, but the gameplay now includes the motion controls and all new minigames. I’d keep a strong eye out for this one when it hits some time next year; it’s definitely going to be as much fun as the DS version!

Mass Effect 3:

There wasn’t much to see and play of the new Mass Effect 3 (due early next year), but it seems that the combat system from Mass Effect 2 is back, albeit slightly modified. The graphics engine doesn’t seem to have changed much, either, but then again the key part of the Mass Effect series is the story. Shepherd makes a return to Mass Effect, as do many of the characters from both Mass Effect 1 and 2. Also, the Mass Effect 2 DLC is taken as canon, so if you’ve not played, for example, Lair of the Shadow Broker, you might have some difficulty figuring out why Liara is back in the team.

Assassin’s Creed Revelations: aka Assassin’s Creed 2 part 3, the game features a noticeably older Ezio running around and doing his thing. The short segment of game we saw was an old build from E3 and still a bit buggy, but it shows the environments retaining their stunning historical beauty. Ezio also now has access to customizable bombs. The chests now contain bomb ingredients as well as money, and you can combine the bomb ingredients in various ways to create a spectacular number of effects. The gameplay demo I saw also showed a segment of gameplay from Altair’s timeline (showing how Altair became a master assassin), and allegedly the game will be closing off both the Ezio and Altair stories before we get to Assassin’s Creed 3. Once again, combat and gameplay elements from both AC2 and AC:Brotherhood return, meaning that if you’ve played the previous games, you should feel right at home playing AC:Revelations.

The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword:

The new Legend of Zelda game that hits next month is the prequel to Ocarina of Time, a remake of which recently appeared on the 3DS. The gameplay of Skyward Sword felt pretty good, with the swordplay segments feeling pretty natural. Not surprising, since it requires the Wii Motion Plus. It feels like a lot of fun, however, and Zelda games are seldom terrible. If you have a Wii, you might want to watch for this one, too, even if you haven’t played Ocarina (I haven’t.)

Just Dance 3 and Dance Central 2:

I love rhythm games, so I was quite happy to see these two games being demoed for Xbox360 with Kinect. Just Dance, for those who don’t know, is a bestseller game that has previously appeared only on Wii. Just Dance 3 makes the transition to Playstation 3 with Move and Xbox360 with Kinect. The Kinect version seems to work very much in the way that Dance Central works, picking up your moves and scoring them as appropriate. Dance Central 2, on the other hand, is more of what made the game so much fun, with new songs and new dance moves. Seriously, pick both of these up if you had a good time with Dance Central.

Final Fantasy XIII-2: A playable demo of the sequel to last year’s Final Fantasy XIII was available, and the demo showed off how you could use in-game monsters as companions. Since the demo wasn’t very long, not much could be discerned beyond what we already know of the story, but the battle system hasn’t changed much from the first game [Ed: I love how the 13th game in the main series can be called the “first game”!]. The action is just as frenetic, and predictably, this one is strictly for the fans of Final Fantasy.

Rayman Origins:

This gem of a game follows the early adventures of the titular character. If you’ve seen the preview videos, you’ll know that this game is incredibly pretty, with the graphics having a “Saturday morning cartoons” feel to it. Gameplay-wise, it’s eerily similar to New Super Mario Bros Wii, with 4-player drop-in drop-out co-op, and the ability to seriously screw over other players (for who knows what reason. Evidently the two young sods I was playing with didn’t understand the spirit of “co-op”). Either way, it looks like a lot of fun, and something to look forward to next month.

Grand Slam Tennis 2: It’s a tennis game, releasing next year. Sorry, sports games aren’t really my thing. I took a brief look at it (as in, I paused for all of 45 seconds before wandering over to other, more exciting things). I’m not sure who still plays tennis games, but evidently there MUST be a market for it, seeing as it’s a sequel. Can’t say much more than this.

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure:

I was a little sceptical about this game, but the concept certainly is interesting. In Skylanders, you get a “portal” peripheral that connects to your console of choice. To bring a character into play, you place a plastic toy rendition of one of Skylander‘s 32 characters on the portal. The toy itself stores the unlocked powerups, amassed scores, etc that you achieve in the game, so even if you take your little Skylander toy to a friend’s house, the game will import your stats as needed. You can also place multiple Skylanders on the portal for co-op or versus play. The game’s audience appears to be those who are young gamers who like collecting toys as well. The base game comes with three Skylanders, but the remaining 29 will be available to purchase separately.

Disney Universe:

Think of this game as “Little Big Planet aimed at kids”, and you’ll get a good idea what Disney Universe is about. Disappointingly, you don’t even play as the Disney characters themselves, but simply dress up as them. This might be a good game for parents wanting to introduce their children to gaming, but I don’t see this being aimed at older players.

Battlefield 3: There was a LOT of this being played at rAge, so I didn’t get a chance to grab the controller, but it seems like more of the same. Once again, war simulation games aren’t quite my thing (as popular as they are), so I didn’t pay too much attention. However, the display had four consoles linked together for gameplay, and the one thing I DID notice about the game was the insane loading time. Hopefully, this is something they optimize before release later this month.

Hitman Absolution: I’m sad to say that I didn’t get a chance to see what the game will be about, so I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on information from the web as normal.

The Darkness II:

I must admit being quite underwhelmed by the first game in this series, so I haven’t been paying too much attention to the sequel. However, the brief bits of gameplay I saw looked spectacular. I’m not too familiar with the story, but the demo I saw had the main protagonist, Eric, injured and moving backward through a restaurant that had just exploded. One thing I DID notice is that for once, you can actually see your character’s feet. Somewhat unusual in FPS games, I admit, but then again I don’t go out of my way to play FPS games. The game looks good enough, if about as samey as other FPS games. The feel of the game was a bit more cartoony than other FPS games, but it’s not something that will immediately set it apart. I imagine that one of the other prawnlings will be reviewing this game, so it might be worth your while to wait and see.

Ghost Recon Future Soldier: The Kinect version of this game was on display, but not for general play. The chap demonstrating gameplay was showing how, in a very Minority-Report-like fashion, he was customizing a gun by taking it apart, selecting and fiddling the different bits, and recombining the weapon. I really would have taken a video clip of the tai-chi hand movements the chap was making. I didn’t get to see much gameplay beyond this, because the guy REALLY had a lot of fun customizing the gun. All. Damn. Day.

Star Wars Kinect:

The game uses the Clone Wars-style graphics, so it has a very cartoony feel to it. The movements needed to guide your chosen character around felt clunky and awkward, and I have such serious doubts about the workability of this game. It MAY be fun when the final version is released, so I’ll withhold verdict until I manage to play this game for review. From my brief encounter with it at rAge, however, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed.

So that’s it for the games. The event itself, by all accounts, was incredibly successful. The LAN, which sold out within 4 hours of the tickets going on sale, was reportedly a little dodgy on the first day, but they managed to sort the network issues out. If you were there at rAge last weekend, let us know your thoughts about it, and about the games you got to grips with.