Last week I travelled to EGX in Birmingham to get hands-on with a bunch of the latest video games. The hall was packed, with so many great displays all around. It was hard to narrow down, but here’s a bunch which stood out to me the most.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment was very kind to let me have a hands-on preview session with Hitman 2. As a direct sequel to the first, the narrative will continue the story of Agent 47’s hunt to find the Shadow Client and tear down his militia. If you’re at all familiar with the formula of a Hitman game, you’ll know what to expect. Each level takes place in an open-ended environment with the objective of killing a set of targets in any way possible. Players can forge their own path to reach their goal, with barriers such as guards, cameras and other obstacles getting in the way. In this regard, it actually feels like a puzzle game, where you must think and plan a route out as you approach each mission.
In the level I played, 47 was sent to a racecourse in Miami to kill Robert Knox – the CEO of a company called Kronstadt – and his daughter Sierra, who is participating in the company’s innovation race. The main thing to appreciate about Hitman 2 is how similar it feels to the first game, and yet also features vast improvements. I was really impressed by the increased number of characters on-screen at once. It felt as busy as one might expect a racing expo centre to be. Not only does this look the part, but the crowds in Hitman 2 also feel busier and more alive. They talk among themselves and walk about from each point of interest, but most importantly, they can be used to blend in and hide from pursuers.
Hitman 2‘s greatest asset is how most of the systems; the knockouts, the disguises, the physics – all behave similarly to the original’s. New entries to established franchises can either change the whole feel of the series or take that familiarity and build upon it. Since this game will also include remastered versions of the maps from the original for those who own it, it is clear IO Interactive want this to be the definitive edition of the rebooted series and not just a straight sequel.
As a huge fan of the Hitman series, I am delighted that this new entry does not detract from the previous ones. I never thought it was possible for each game to be topped, and yet somehow IO Interactive seem to have perfected the art of making a sequel. Considering the future of the franchise was in jeopardy when Square Enix dropped the developer last year, it’s very lucky that Warner Bros. came along when it did and the series could breathe again. It’s probably my most-anticipated game of 2018.
3 Minutes to Midnight
3 Minutes to Midnight is an upcoming adventure game that aims to capture that same experience. Betty, a teenager suddenly stricken with amnesia, finds her fate tied to a mysterious explosion in the New Mexico desert, a town full of strange people, and a doomsday plot counting down to the extinction of the human race. With a premise as promising as that, I felt the urge to sit down and play this while at EGX. During my play session, I was also joined by Jan Serra, the Game Director at Scarecrow Studio.
“3 Minutes to Midnight originally began as a 3D game,” he told me, “but we have a tiny budget and team so that wasn’t possible. But we all love 2D point-and-click adventure games and we agreed the story I wrote would fit perfectly into that genre. So we built everything around that.”
“This demo was also shown at E3 this year, and then later again at GamesCom and some smaller events in Spain. We are showing it now at EGX and the player reception seems to be positive. It really helps that we can see people play it. They seem to love the art and the humour, but we also found out certain design flaws. There are things that are really hard to spot or hear in the demo, that are being changed in the final game. But for those players that can solve the puzzles and have that look of satisfaction on their face, it’s really fun to watch.”
Powerless is billed as “an interactive fiction experience set in present-day London which explores the devastating effect of a global power cut.” It plays similarly to those choose your own adventure books you read as a child, where you’d be placed into the mind of a character and have to make life-or-death decisions to progress.
Before the game began properly, an artificial intelligence began speaking to me. Its name is MAUDE (Mobile Assessment Unit of Doomsday Events) and its goal is to assess how well humanity can survive through catastrophic events. It then told me I had ten minutes before all global power was cut off, and asked me if I would rather use that time to call my loved ones or print off useful survival information. I chose to call loved ones, as I figured survival information could still be obtained from books. I was then asked if I thought the internet was good or bad for humanity’s progress. I said it was good. It only replied with a single word: “interesting.” I was already both scared and intrigued.
After that, I was presented with a character selection screen. Each one of these people have their own survival stories to be told and interacted with. In the demo, I could only choose two. I went with a man named Abdul, who works in a tall building in London. One day he checks his phone to see that his signal has no bars, and that the lights in the building don’t seem to be working. Over time, he learns that no electronics seem to be working as he witnesses several other catastrophic events occur as a result of the power loss. The idea for Powerless is to work on it over a longer period of time and eventually branch out from the power loss scenario to write about other catastrophic situations. With MAUDE working as a framing device in this game, it seems like an easy way of integrating different situations into the world she has built.
Kid Tripp/Miles & Kilo
If old-school fast-paced 2D platformers are your thing, I had the pleasure of trying out two games from Four Horses at EGX. Kid Tripp and Miles & Kilo are very much two of a kind, taking inspiration from series like Sonic the Hedgehog and Donkey Kong Country. Kid Tripp puts you into the shoes of the eponymous character as he becomes stranded on an island filled with all sorts of mischievous wildlife that are out to get him. Miles & Kilo acts as a spiritual sequel, taking the familiar jungle island setting and improving the graphics as well as adding in new features that didn’t make the cut in the original.
These two games have a very simple mechanic that entirely changes how you approach each level: the autorun. In Kid Tripp, you can’t stop running unless you hit a wall. It means you’ve got to think on your feet and choose last-minute decisions that could be crucial in making or breaking a run. Miles & Kilo actually has two playable characters. Miles is a more typical 2D platformer character. He can run back and forth, jump and throw fruit. His loyal canine companion, Kilo, is more of a wildcard. He runs without being able to stop, rolls through danger and is even capable of performing aerial attacks.
Having played and completed both games, I can thoroughly recommend either to anyone after a new fast-paced action platformer. They’re easy to learn but difficult to master, and part of the fun is trying to beat your previous run by getting ever-so-slightly closer to the finish line. As I kept walking past the booth, I noticed the game was especially popular with children and the seats were never empty.
Murder Mystery Machine
When it comes to storytelling in procedurally generated games, many people will form their own tales using the system presented to them. Think of the countless role-playing servers in Rust or the players who create custom adventure maps in Minecraft. Procedural generation is when data is created according to an algorithm rather than manually by a developer. It can be engaging for players as the randomness of the system can create uniquely unpredictable experiences. For example, many roguelikes feature randomised level layouts and also use these variables for item and enemy spawns. If we take that type of system and put into the context of a homicide scene, we’re left with Murder Mystery Machine.
In Murder Mystery Machine (title subject to change), players must think like a homicide detective as they are presented with a murder to solve. Players begin each playthrough at the start of an investigation, where they must explore the crime scene, collect evidence and interview person-of-interests. Connections are made via flowcharts in which you’ll pair suspects, motives and murder weapons together. The who, the what and the why is randomised each time you play; I played the demo twice and the results wildly varied. The first one ended in what I believed to be a mob killing, whereas the second ended up as a suicide.
Although still an early work-in-progress, the game showed massive potential. People are either going to love procedural generation or hate it. I think leaving a short but complex narrative down to an algorithm can put off those who prefer hand-crafted experiences on the level of Agatha Christie or Stieg Larsson. But for me, I was really intrigued by the formula Blazing Griffin presented and I was keen to know more. It turns out the Scotland-based studio has prior experience in creating murder-related games, having been responsible for The Ship: Remasted and the recently released Murderous Pursuits.
While Murder Mystery Machine may be an enjoyable detective game for those who like short, unpredictable experiences, there’s no lack of demand for a more structured approach to crime noir stories. There were several types of these games on show at EGX this year, but the one that I think grabbed most people’s attention was ZA/UM Studio’s hardboiled cop RPG Disco Elysium.
Set in a unique urban fantasy world, the game follows an open-ended homicide case in the corrupt shore town of Revachol West. The protagonist is a washed-up detective that is thrown into this case, and can approach it in many different ways. There are skill sets, a social clothing system and a heavy emphasis on dialogue that will all affect how the player progresses through Disco Elysium.
I began the session in the protagonist’s dismantled motel room. After putting on my clothes, I went outside and starting chatting to a strange woman hanging out in the foyer. Apparently I have amnesia, according to the conversation I had with this woman. Either that or I was still drunk. I even tried hitting on her – as the dialogue tree had hinted for me to do – but I failed a speech check and my words came out awkward and jumbled.
After going downstairs into the bar area, I met with a man named Kitsuragi who informed me of a nearby crime scene I had to attend. After stepping outside, I soon ignored my main quest marker as I wanted to explore Revachol. The setting feels somewhat similar to the Dickensian, monolithic shores of Dunwall from Dishonored, with the tone and character art also matching that series. From my 45 minute session, I noticed there was a lot to divulge from this world. There were noticeable tensions between local labourers and the law enforcement, a hint at the game’s theme of police corruption. The hidden secrets the city had to offer was plentiful, and I totally forgot about my main objective for the better part of fifteen minutes.
I wish I could have played more of the game but after 45 minutes had passed, I was told I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was being shown at EGX. One person had even stayed on the machine for several hours. It felt like there was a huge chunk of stuff to do in such a short amount of time, and with up to forty hours of gameplay on a single playthrough, it feels like this could be a game that many will play for hundreds.
In 2018, a time where police corruption and brutality is a frightening reality for many, it will be interesting to see how Disco Elysium takes both a political and apolitical approach to this topic. Personally, I don’t think it will be able to remain apolitical on this subject, as the entire game seems built around letting the player decide if they want to be a good cop or a corrupt one. I can’t see there being any way around that.
As far as indie games go, Disco Elysium was probably the main one a lot of people were raving about at EGX. It is being published by Humble Bundle, a site known mainly for its charity bundles and indie-focused storefront. It has since also moved into publishing and found its feet by releasing hit games such as Staxel and Cultist Simulator. For fans of old-school isometric RPGs, make sure you add Disco Elysium to your watchlists. The release date is still unannounced, but the game is looking very polished and it may not be far off.
Tick Tock: A Tale for Two
I love a good co-operative experience. Whether it’s shooting zombies online with your friends in Killing Floor 2, or sitting on the couch with three of your pals running a busy kitchen in Overcooked. Suffice to say, co-op games have bred some of my most unique and distinct video game memories, and this is largely down to how well or poorly we communicated as a team. Tick Tock: A Tale for Two is a two-player puzzle game all about communication. Inspired by escape rooms, the game is played on two separate screens where players must read out aloud to each other in order to solve the puzzles set before them.
The game was born out of a thesis project by Tanja Tankred and Mira Dorthé at the IT University of Copenhagen. The two designers wanted to create an experience described as a “narrative for two”. Once development was underway, it began showing appearances at Stugan, and then later at A MAZE., IndieCade Europe and Play17. It then made its way to EGX in Birmingham where I got a chance to play through a small portion.
I played through a snippet of the game with Simon, the marketing manager at KA Games (the agency representing Tick Tock), as my co-pilot. In the beginning, we were tasked with synchronising a watch on both ends to run at the same time. Afterwards, we were transported to a lonely rural train station with the goal of signalling the locomotive’s arrival. This involved us travelling into different buildings and solving a few puzzles, all the while informing each other of our whereabouts and what actions we were taking. Part of the emphasis on communication came in the form of torn newspaper clippings, where one screen would have half of a headline and article, and the other would have the remaining information. Both pieces of information are required, and so it meant having to relay what I saw on screen to Simon several times. “It’s weird but it’s really fascinating,” he told me after our playthrough had ended.
With Other Tales Interactive being located in Denmark, the game takes on a zen-like art style reminiscent of Nordic fairy tales with broody, dark images. Despite the imagery feeling like something out of a Scandinavian horror story, the game was never scary. It instead felt warm and bold, like a children’s bedtime story. I really appreciated some of the detail that went into the aesthetic, with each frame looking like a classic Danish painting. Overall, Tick Tock is coming along really well and I’m really looking forward to the full release. It isn’t quite the stressful co-op experience like you would find in Overcooked or Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, but it instead feels a lot more meditative. I think this is going to be especially fun to play with people who aren’t traditionally gamers.