Sunday, September 04, 2011

Mr Ryan Goes To PAX 2011

Last weekend my wonderful wife and I took a bus south across the border to the city of Seattle for the best gaming convention in he world, Penny Arcade eXpo, or PAX. We headed down on Thursday and met up with some friends, one of whom lives in Seattle now and the other two traveled up from New Mexico for the convention as well! Our charming company was a welcome bonus!

This was our second time at PAX, the first being in 2008 at the end of our Epic Holiday[TM]. I never did get around to a write-up of that stop, but you can safely assume that it was incredible, and we couldn't wait to get back. This year I decided to step things up a bit by going in costume. Thanks to my amazing mum, I was able to get my Rocketeer helmet brought over from Ireland, and I already had the jacket with me. And so, for most of Friday and Saturday at PAX 2011, I could be seen wandering the many areas, slowly sweating to death in a heavy leather jacket, carrying a heavy, metal helmet[1].

A lot of the guests and exhibitors fist bump rather than shaking hands in order to avoid picking up nasty infections. This year I even saw the more extreme version, elbow bump, used by many. It certainly worked for me. I have not come down with any PAX crud as of yet, apart from being utterly exhausted for a few days after!

The whole event was awesome. We met so many incredibly nice people, and I got to talk to people I never expected, about interests I never expected to share with them. I got to meet AJ LoCascio, the voice of Marty McFly in the TellTale Games episodic Back to the Future video game! Not only was he probably the most down-to-earth, nice, honest-to-goodness coolest guy I met at PAX, but he's also a huge Rocketeer fan[2]! He was able to recognize that I was holding a Disney Master Replicas version of the helmet from across the booth, and he recognized the Wested jacket as well! If you can imagine how blown away I was by that much, I almost collapsed when he told me that he made his own Rocketeer helmet from fiberglass. We spent about ten minutes geeking out about the movie, the props and the awesomeness of the Replica Prop Forum.

The weekend was just chock full of amazing stories, though rather like Empire Strikes Back, I feel I opened on the best of them. My costume was a huge success, and I got stopped everywhere I went by other attendees, exhibitors and even a VIP or two as they gushed over the character and took photos. It was heart warming to see so many fans of Dave Stevens creation in attendance. For me, one of the things I enjoyed most was watching peoples eyes widen as I let them hold the helmet and even try it on. Unlike the more accurate fiberglass versions available, the metal Master Replica I have is far from fragile. It was nice to be a part of fullfilling a small number of peoples dreams to hold or wear such an iconic piece from a much loved classic.

Even queuing was a fun experience. Apart from playing games on iPads, Enforcers (the PAX volunteer force that help make everything run smoothly) were handing out bits and pieces to help us pass the time. While queuing for the Saturday night concert, we all got given brightly coloured pipe cleaners and instructions to "Be creative". This resulted in hats, flowers, Portal-themed wrist bracelets, stick figures fighting, a sniper with gun, and even a helicopter with rotating blades! From pipe cleaners, people!

But of course, PAX is ultimately all about the games. And we got to try loads of them!

Welcome to Serra.
Gears of War 3 is due for release on September 20th, and it had a large presence in the Xbox area. I expected longer lines, but compared to others games on display, the Gears line was tiny. I got to try out the updated Horde 2.0 on Friday and the brand new to the franchise Beast Mode on Saturday.

Horde: My biggest worry about Horde 2.0 was that they had gone and messed with a good thing. Horde is still the best of the endless-wave styles of game modes because it is so clean and simple. It threw out customization in favour of accessibility. Horde 2.0 adds to the basics by bringing in a cash-for-kills system for that can be used to buy stuff during a small window between waves, from ammo to laser defenses and beyond. And it works fantastically! It's fast, fun and doesn't stop the games flow. We got to play waves 8 to 10 allowing us a peek at what surprises the tenth waves hold. I'm not going to spoil it, but after the terrifying horror of seeing your first bloodmount in Gears 2, they've really outdone themselves for Gears 3. It's awesome!

Beast: This is a whole other kettle of fish. Trying Horde, I knew the basics. Waves of alien monsters that I need to kill before they kill me. Beast is a set number of COGs per level and you have a very tight time limit. You start with one minute on the clock and get more for every kill. You can play as a variety of Locust, starting as low as tickers or wretches, and going up from there. I'm not going to tell you what I saw or played as, but you can assume it was fun! The gameplay is very different, and I sucked during my quick trial. This is not Reverse Horde, it requires a totally new set of skills.

The Boardgame: Not on display at the Xbox booth, this was instead being demoed on a different floor, but I've included it here for completions sake. This looked very nice. Fantasy Flight Games were running demos all weekend long and the whole thing looked impressive. I didn't play myself, but I heard lots of good things from people that were trying it out. As expected from an FFG game, the production quality was through the roof. Cards, tokens and figure pieces were beautiful. The figure pieces were especially impressive, and looked like they should be a lot of fun to paint up.

But Gears was only a tiny area in a huge, multilevel convention. I got to see and play games that are coming out as soon as this month and as late as next year.

The Gunstringer is the first retail game from Twisted Pixel, the company behind Comic Jumper and 'Splosion Man. It's a Kinect game that makes clevel use of the technology and, more importantly, it's a load of fun to play. I don't own a Kinect. Yet. There was no reason to before I went to PAX. Now I'm tempted. I might even get one for this alone.

I got up on stage with three others and had a four-player dance-off in front of a large crowd playing Dance Central 2, also for Kinect. I found that it had very good motion tracking, more impressive for being able to track four uncoordinated male players gyrating wildly. I came first, despite never playing any of the dance games before, though that probably says more about how bad the others were than how good I was.

From the ridiculous length of the line all weekend long, it was clear that there was a lot of interest in the latest game in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, but I could not have cared less. Not that I have anything against it, I'm just not interested in fantasy games. One of our friends stood in line for 3.5 hours to play the 15 minute demo and got a fuzzy hat for her troubles[3]. At one point while I was talking to her in the line, I looked up at a clip of a dragon in the trailer and jokingly said "Oh. Nice graphics. What's this game?" and 40 angry nerd heads swiveled in my direction.

Last, but by no means least, one of the booths that immediately caught my attention was the TellTale Games Jurassic Park area. Not only did they have a nice small-scale replica of the entrance gates into the park, and fencing with little flashing lights on top, but they had a fan-made reproduction of one of the park jeeps! I was a child all over again standing beside it. Instead of just reading my thoughts on this however, take a break from the text and look at a video blog TellTale Games staff did during the convention. Check out the eejit at the 1:25 mark, and again at the 2:30 mark. Yeesh. Fanboys. They were everywhere at PAX.

PAX wouldn't be PAX without free stuff. We came home with tonnes and tonnes of swag. I think I got 8 t-shirts, of which I only paid for one. Baseball hats, avatar items, lanyards, pins, even a very high quality hoodie! The whole weekend paid for itself in free stuff. Claire and our friends even got themselves free OnLive consoles! FREE. CONSOLES!!![4] Insane.

If we're still here next year we'll be going again, so I'll let people know in case anyone is interested in joining us for a crazy weekend of video games, boardgames, demos, t-shirts, freebies, music, costumes, celebrities and more in 2012! I honestly cannot recommend it enough. It's the best, friendliest, most community orientated convention I've ever been to.

Hopefully you can join us and share in the love that is PAX 2012.

[1]- On Saturday morning I woke up complains of an unusual pain in my right arm. I put it down to sleeping badly in the hotel bed, as I had no recollection of having injured it the day before. It wasn't until later that same day that I realised that the weight of the helmet was causing strain on my arm muscles! I didn't feel it while I was enjoying the convention. It was only once I relaxed that it all hit me!
[2]- The earlier part of this sentence should probably be noted as biased based on the latter part. But even then, AJ was very, very cool.
[3]- She did also get to meet and have her photo taken with Todd Howard while in the queue, which she excitedly told me later in the day. She was much distraught when I shrugged and told her I had no idea who that was. Still, that first 3.5 hours at PAX in a queue was pretty much the high point of her convention, I'm led to believe. 
[4]- The catch of course is that OnLive is a subscription based service, so they're happy to give you the console for free to let you try out the service and hopefully sign up.