Each year it seems like there is a definitive theme at PAX East. Last year, it was the introduction of Virtual Reality (VR), first-person MOBA style shooters, and massive amounts of snow. Oculus had one of the largest booths directly in the center of the Expo Hall. Next to the Oculus booth were games like Gigantic and Overwatch. It seemed as though game studios had caught the bug and were following in the footsteps of games like DOTA and League of Legends; which isn't a bad thing! I waited a few hours in line to play Gigantic last year and was really intrigued with the style of gameplay.
This year, with multiple VR headsets having been announced between last year's con and now, the theme of VR was more distributed. It was more about the emergence of VR, with Oculus and Sony both having booths for the Rift and PlaystationVR, respectively. There were plenty of Indie booths with great game demos utilizing the HTC Vive, as well. Virtual Reality finally feels accessible, and far less gimmicky. It has firmly planted itself into the gaming ecosystem; it's here to stay.
Now, I did not have a media badge, and didn't bring any CLE Tech credentials with me. This trip was more of a personal interest, vacation with old friends sort of getaway. My recap is from the same perspective as all other 70,000+ PAX East attendees. These are my observations, and what I'm excited about for the upcoming year.
Nothing has been more obvious to me over the past couple of years than the fact that arena shooters are quickly becoming a mainstay in the AAA titles list. There are many different flavors of them out there, but they all seem to encompass parts of Team Fortress 2 and MOBA's. Some are hero based, such as Overwatch. Others are driven by class selections. Some reset the playing field at the beginning of each match. Some have deep progression and skill trees. There is more than likely a flavor out there that fits your style.
Easily the most anticipated by the community is Overwatch. Blizzard is reaching outside of their wheelhouse and introducing all new characters, art direction, and gameplay. Launching for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4, Overwatch is likely to set the bar for this genre.
With a presence at PAX East in 2015, and again this year, the hype is building, and it's real. The game is set to release May 24th, yet there were already Overwatch tournaments being held, tons of great Overwatch cosplay, and even really awesome UberWatch vehicles available for that needed a ride.
Watch for Overwatch to dominate the scene in 2016 (see what I did there?).
Battleborn is one of those games that crept up on me. I consider myself as more of a casual gamer. I love games. I just don't play them as often as I used to, or as I would like to, anymore. I'll admit, I haven't been keeping up on the upcoming new releases for 2016 all too closely. The day of my flight to Boston for PAX East, I saw a commercial for Battleborn. I immediately thought it looked really cool, and was even more interested when I saw that it was a Gearbox game.
Friday morning we arrived at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) a little early, as we were pretty hyped for the show. We hopped out of our Uber and walked up to the BCEC doors, only to find a mass of people flooding the gates. There were no queues; just a mob of people, funneling into six security lines. The saving grace here was that I was with good friends, and the convention center had a large video board displaying demos of the games inside. The first trailer I see? Battleborn.
They were all over the show. On video boards throughout the convention center. Banners here. T-shirts there. Oh, and they had one of the largest booths on the floor, with the most epic of displays.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to play the game. I stood and watched some matches and it seems to be along the same lines as other arena shooters coming out early this year.
LawBreakers is a game I've been following since it's inception. Formally known as Project BlueStreak from Boss Key Productions, LawBreakers is the creation of Cliff Bleszinski (Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal Tournament, Gears of War). I am a huge fan of the Gears franchise, and love the way that Cliff has such a passion for the industry and community. When I learned that he was emerging out of his brief hiatus to found a new studio and work on new IP, I immediately jumped onto the bandwagon.
Originally a Free-To-Play, class based model, with weapon and health pick-ups, the game has evolved into one of the most promising new games in recent memory. The amount of detail the team has put into every aspect of gameplay, from the HUD to the environments, is astounding. They have been play testing multiple times a day, experimenting, and tweaking in order to find what works best for their game. Taking a vow to only include elements they believe make the game better shines through in the gameplay. The game is visually stunning and is insanely fun, even just to spectate. Take a look at this reel the Boss Key team posted following day one of demos:
It has been years since I’ve owned a gaming PC or did any extensive gaming outside of my consoles. The little taste of LawBreakers at PAX East 2016 has me researching PC parts and crafting build lists. This is the game I will build a PC for. Watch for that in upcoming posts.
There's no question that e-sports are quickly rising in popularity. There are grand final tournaments held at arenas that have attendance which rivals that of the NBA All-Star game. A new introduction to PAX East this year was the PAX Arena. Throughout the weekend there were multiple tournaments held, ranging from open amateur to pro series. I found it interesting that Geico now has a gaming division and was the primary sponsor of several tournaments including games like Hearthstone. It appears that everyone is now diving into e-sports head first. At one end of the PAX Arena there was a massive stage set up for the ULoL, University League of Legends. I caught Michigan State University against Ohio State University (O-H!) on Saturday. The intensity of these matches is unrivaled. I've attended several gaming tournaments in the past, but this is on a whole new level. Walking through the Expo Hall, no matter where you were, you could hear the eruption of applause as the games were reaching the final point. It was infectious. It made you stop what you were doing, look up, and want to be where the action was.
I spent a considerable amount of time in the PAX Arena this year. It was very well configured and the competition was exciting. It was a great break from all the walking, and wildly entertaining. I could stand in one area and watch the best players in the world compete in Hearthstone, Rainbow Six: Siege, Street Fighter, and Halo 5.
To reinforce the popularity and contagiousness of e-sports, I sat in a panel with the heads of Boss Key Productions on Saturday. They spent an hour talking about the progression of their new game LawBreakers since they debuted it at PAX East 2015. At the end of the panel, they graciously accepted questions from the audience regarding the game and their plans moving forward. Multiple questions centered around how they were planning on accommodating e-sports, whether it be adding a spectator mode, developing leaderboards, or working with partners to create tournaments and leagues. It's a testament to both the rise of e-sports and the level of competition Boss Key has already crafted in LawBreakers that, even before the game has a release date, players are looking for ways to compete.
Virtual Reality (VR)
As I mentioned earlier, there was plenty of VR to go around at PAX East this year. The big guys booths were significantly smaller this year. A lot of the studio booths were where the best VR demos were. We've graduated from tech demos to having real, and pretty great, software selling the hardware.
One of my favorite experiences this year was trying out the bike accessory from VirZoom. This accessory is a legitimate exercise bike with game controls, that connects to your headset of choice (supports the Rift, Vive, and PlaystationVR). The idea behind this is utilizing more of your body to create a more immersive experience, while also getting a solid workout in. The workout is real. Somehow when I sat down for my demo, the bike was set to the highest resistance. When I hopped off the bike, not only was I a little taken aback by the experience, but my legs were jello.
The highlight of the VirZoom demo for me was the Stampede mini game. In this mini game, you are horseback in a western, attempting to lasso your enemies off the backs of their horses in front of you. You pedal to make the horse go, and it goes faster the harder you pedal. You lean to move, and use the trigger controls on the bike handle to control your lasso. This demo was the most 1:1 experience of any of the demos, in my opinion. The controls felt very natural. I can only imagine how much more natural it would be to control the lasso with something like the Oculus Touch controller, actually waving it above your head as opposed to pushing a button on the bike handle. Though this brings me to my next point. This experience felt so real at times that I thought I might fall off the bike, or in the case of the Pegasus demo where you're flying, I might free fall if I didn't pedal fast enough. I'm sure if I were to take my hand off the bike handle to holster the Oculus Touch controller, I would most certainly fall off the bike and physically injure myself. Other mini games that were included in the 15 minute demonstration at the booth included a tank shooter, an air gunner dogfight, and an auto race. All of them were phenomenal, and brought out levels of emotion I hadn't ever experience in game before. This is a demo you really have to try to understand.
The community aspect of PAX East is the best part of the convention. The commonality of games really does bring everyone together, and allows for some real awesome conversation. The price of admission is completely worth it for just the hallway/line conversations. When the lines for game demos and merch are anywhere from 30 min to 3+ hours long, you will make new friends. Exchange gamertags and create some new friendships. It's one of the original goals, and best aspects, of PAX. Oh, and as terrible as the lines can be, they're also a great place to participate in Pinny Arcade.
But What About The Indie Games?
As always, PAX East has a HUGE focus on the Indie games. The Indie MegaBooth this year was the largest I've ever seen. If my feet didn't feel like I was walking on molten hot coals, I could have spent a whole day exploring the Indie-cade and taking to the developers who are so passionate about their creations. Every booth I stopped at, walked past, or peered into from afar, you could see the attention to detail and the excitement of everyone involved (devs and players, both).
Top Pick of PAX East 2016
BetaDwarf is an indie game studio out of Denmark. We spent a significant amount of time at their booth, watching others play their new game, and talking to the devs. These guys ooze passion and are an absolute joy to talk with.
Showdown is their newest game, which they described as "Binding of Isaac meets Hearthstone," and that is when all of our eyes lit up. Built in Unity, and currently in alpha for PC, Showdown is my top pick for PAX East 2016.
You play as a hero, competing in a game show, which is arena style survival of the fittest. It felt a lot like Gladiator, and played a bit like Diablo. In between rounds, you would randomly draw several cards into your hand. These cards are abilities and modifiers you can use to enhance your hero. Each card has a mana cost associated with it, and you accrue more as you proceed through the arenas, which are basically dungeons. This game has the perfect mix of strategy and action. It's just downright fun. I found myself wanting to immediately get back into line after my demo was complete to continue playing.
The guys at BetaDwarf were selling Steam keys for a percentage off, and I immediately went to an ATM to get them cash. Definitely expect a full review of Showdown in the near future.
PAX, thank you for a great convention. See you next year!