PAX East 2013 Recap

It's funny, there's really no single adjective or handy phrase out there that encapsulates the sensation left behind in the wake of a convention (in English anyhow). Though, ostensibly, we all experience this differently, most con-goers tend to grapple with a mélange of exhaustion, fond recollection and contented emotional hangover tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that it may be months or even years before such feelings are stirred anew. All in all, PAX East was generally a good time. There were games, demos, and excellent cosplay aplenty (you can check out pictures of all this on either our G+ or Facebook pages).  More interestingly, the convention organizers laid the groundwork for a cavalcade of potential awesomeness in the future. But first, some of the major game-related highlights!
- Some of the biggest buzz leading up to PAX surrounded an announcement that Blizzard had promised would be forthcoming at the convention. So what was it? It is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a digital CCG based on, you guessed it, the classes and characters from World of Warcraft. Response to the announcement, which happened in the first few minutes of the convention, was mixed. The trailer for the game was extremely shiny, but actual gameplay was generally described as a run-of-the-mill CCG with no distinguishing features. Following the announcement, the title was promptly relegated to a corner of Blizzard's booth while their prime feature, the console version of Diablo III, took center stage, leading many to try and puzzle out just why Blizzard thought we needed or wanted the CCG in the first place. Though Blizzard hinted that Diablo may or may not be extended to platforms beyond Playstation, they did not provide information as to whether or not the content of these new incarnations would extend playtime beyond the six hour mark. Meanwhile, PC gamers that braved the lines and got to demo the PS3 version quickly found themselves frothing with rage as they discovered the latter edition of the game contained better loot and features that were deemed "impossible to incorporate" for PC (ahem, always online gameplay).

- One of the other most anticipated items at the con was a real and true highlight: a live, playable demo of Transistor, the follow-up to Supergiant Games' 2011 smash, Bastion. Though the Supergiant booth was downright spartan compared to its peers in the main expo hall, the sheer visual and auditory beauty of the demo succeeded in drawing in hundreds of congoers. The wait times to play the 15-minute demo extended beyond the three hour mark for much of the con. As mentioned, the game provided a stunning sensory experience, flush with rich, crisp animation and a soundtrack that had players actively begging to buy the individual mp3s (which were, unfortunately, not available). Fans of Bastion will immediately recognize the general play style and may appreciate the newest feature: a variant on "bullet time" that allows the protagonist to drastically slow the progress of events in the game in order to lay out a brief sequence of actions. Lamentably, we'll have to wait until 2014 before we can bring Transistor to our own PCs but, given the depth and promise of the demo, it may very well be worth the wait. 

- One of the few booths to boast wait times that rivaled those over at Supergiant was Bethesda and their prolific demo of the Elder Scrolls Online. The guys over at Forbes do an excellent job of summarizing the game after having the opportunity to partake in an extended version of the demo not available to your average attendee. The game itself has decent potential given its commitment to highly immersive gameplay and a large, devout fan base BUT Bethesda offered very little when questioned about that critical facet of a good MMORPG: the endgame. As we saw last year with Star Wars: the Old Republic, a colossal pool of rabid fans and highly engaging gameplay only go so far in terms of player retention and satisfaction. It'll be interesting to see if Bethesda can provide the solid late game experience that has been the bane of so many other MMORPG offerings.

- Gearbox Software made every attempt to cover as much ground as possible during the convention. Between their enormous booth, guerilla marketing tactics (all the SHiFT codes), and active participation in several panels/press conferences, the developer seemed omnipresent. The lion's share of attention was lavished on Borderlands 2, for which a sixth playable character, Krieg the Psycho Bandit, was introduced on the third day of the convention. Players can purchase Krieg as a separate bolt-on to the base game for 800 Microsoft Points ($9.99 USD) beginning in May. Gearbox's partner for Borderlands, 2K Games, announced that a new level cap, 61, and Ultimate Vault Hunter play mode will anchor the release of next month's Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack, which is included in the cost of a Season Pass.
That's Mr. Psycho Bandit to you

The developer also sought to save face following the acrimonious reception of Aliens: Colonial Marines but it's hard to pretend that you're "committed to the game" when you blatantly dump the property onto another developer so more resources could be given to Borderlands 2. We'll see if anything comes from this, but the company's claims to improve the game rang hollow. Honestly, after such a disastrous release, at this point even if Gearbox does step it up it may be too late to save the game anyway.

- Firaxis eschewed a booth in the expo hall this year and instead availed themselves of a semi-interactive panel. During the panel they announced that XCOM: Enemy Unknown will be available for Mac on April 25th and that gameplay would be extended to all iOS devices by the end of the summer. The panelists made cryptic references to possible upcoming DLC in this teaser trailer and insisted that this maybe/sort of potential sequel would be, "faithful to the PC original source material." As someone who attended the XCOM demo at last year's PAX, was explicitly promised that the PC version would adhere to the canon of the franchise, and then got a generic interface that was very clearly intended for a console because the game was rushed to market, I'm extremely skeptical of these claims. Don't get me wrong, I still thoroughly enjoyed XCOM, it just wasn't what the guys at PAX promised and it's something to consider with this year's proclamations.

The other major news from Firaxis stemmed from the upcoming expansion pack to Civilization V, Brave New World. Due out on July 9 (July 12 for everywhere outside the US), Brave New World will have nine new playable civilizations, two new scenarios, and cadres of new units including, get this, XCOM squads delivered by skyranger. As a fan of both franchises, I'm not quite sure what to make of the crossover. Firaxis did not, however, confirm whether or not Brave New World would provide anything other than stock additions like, say, a stable fix for the multiplayer portion of the base game, something which has been a source of frustration for many players since the release of Gods and Kings.

- Fans of Ubisoft's blockbuster series, Assassin's Creed, waited in line for upwards of four hours at a time to bear witness to a trailer and some pre-alpha footage of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (slated for release on October 29). Assassins and pirates! Whale hunting! There was no opportunity to actually try out any portion of the game itself and Ubisoft ruffled more than a few feathers by releasing the same video footage online mere moments after the convention drew to a close, but even some of those gamers who didn't care for the other three games in the series conceded that Black Flag had the potential to win them over. Despite all the press and floor space dedicated to Black Flag, Ubisoft managed to stir up quite a bit of excitement for their other upcoming release, Splinter Cell: Blacklist which, by all accounts, was the "surprise" AAA hit of the convention.
All this game needs is ninjas

- Bioware made noises that, somewhere, something would be done at some point in the future. Seriously, that was about it.

- Indie and semi-indie developers, Supergiant Games included, formed a considerable ring around the major publishers on the expo hall floor. Dennaton Games, the makers of the breakout hit Hotline Miami, followed up their recent port of said title for Macs with the announcement that the game would be making its way to consoles as well by late spring. The ports would come about with the help of fellow developer Abstraction Games. Unfortunately, the other offerings that Abstraction had available at the con were less than thrilling.

- Klei Entertainment, makers of Mark of the Ninja and Shank, leveraged a prime spot on the expo hall floor to promote their long-tinkered-over foray into self-publishing, Don't Starve. This psuedo-Victorian/dark humor survival game has come a long way since the beta and will be available for full release later this spring (though you can "pre-order" on Steam and start playing right now, which I highly recommend).

- Speaking of projects that were long in the making, the Behemoth had a strong showing at the con with the polished, nigh-unrecognizable Battleblock Theater, the follow-up to their original hit, Castle Crashers. Designed to be a cooperative game, though a solo option is also available, Battleblock pits players against a series of puzzles in the twisted, sadistic humor that made Castle Crashers so popular. The game will initially be available only on Xbox live starting on April 3.

In addition to the multitudes of games and general nerdy revelry, PAX East succeeded in several critical but not necessarily obvious ways:

Overall layout of the Convention: The physical layout and usage of the floor space was the most logical and user-friendly that we've seen yet. Despite the fact that attendance this year almost certainly smashed last year's records, the oppressive crush that used to be ubiquitous in the expo hall was markedly lightened. No more spending 20 minutes trying to squeeze yourself through the crowds to meet up with your friends on the other side of the BCEC. Were there still insanely long lines? Yes. If you pack 80,000-100,000 people into a space there are probably going to be lines. However, this year you got to wait in line without feeling as though you were going to be trampled to death at any given minute. Aside from a better overall configuration, those clever convention-planning minions did away with a mass outpouring of swag bags during the massive Friday morning queue to get into the halls and instead distributed bags from a central location every day. I have a feeling this prompted some congoers to take more than a few bags per person (particularly after it was discovered that each bag contained one of three different limited edition Cards Against Humanity packs), but perhaps cutting back on such excesses will be the focus for future cons.

Exposure for Indie developers: As mentioned above, independent game developers were situated around the bigger name studios like a giant ring. You had to pass through them in order to get to the gooey, chewy center of the expo hall. This, in conjunction with strategic placement of game makers like Supergiant that were coming into the con with their own following, encouraged attendees to sample from unfamiliar studios and otherwise go outside their gaming comfort zone. Given all we've seen from major studios in this year alone, throwing some attention at indie game developers can hardly be a bad thing.

Prevalence of Tabletop games: It was profoundly clear at this year's PAX that the convention is actively acknowledging the role that non-video games play in greater Geekdom. Not only was more floor space dedicated to the playing of board and tabletop games, but that space was situated in such a way as to give players the best possible conditions for their games (i.e. far away from the din in the expo hall). PAX played host to several large scale tournaments in everything from Magic: the Gathering to Dominion to Warhammer 40K. For large portions of the con, space in the dedicated tabletop section was an extremely scarce commodity. It was an excellent sign and hopefully an indicator of more comprehensive conventions in the future.

New Types of Panel Subjects: In addition to the extended tabletop gaming space, PAX slyly introduced its support for a couple other nerdy arenas that have previously gone unrecognized at the con. Foremost amongst these was crafting. Not only were there crafting panels, but a few "workstations" in which congoers could do things like paint minis. It's a far cry from the full-on crafting classes offered at other conventions, like Gen Con, but it's definitely a step in the right direction if PAX wants to move away from being an all-video-games-all-the-time show.

Until next year PAX!

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