Xbox 360 and its game publishers showed off its new and upcoming titles at an annual event for gaming journalists. Shoot-em-up fans took in early looks of Gears of War 2, sporty gamers tried out NHL 09 and NBA 2K9, and karaoke stars tried out Rock Band 2.
Digital Journal -- I walk into the Toronto nightclub Circa and am immediately bombarded by intense stimuli: guitar riffs careen from one corner, machine gun rounds blast from another, and hockey slapshots twang from the middle of the room. There are too many Xbox 360 consoles and displays to count, but rest assured an ardent gamer would be in pixellated heaven upon entering the annual Xbox 360 event known as X'08.
For the uninitiated, X'08 gives media sneak peeks into upcoming games bound to make a ripple in the market. Last year, this is where Halo 3 debuted in Canada. And like any festival of all things gaming, this year's X'08 didn't disappoint journalists looking for a hot scoop.
Placed prominently on the ground floor of Circa, Rock Band 2 was a surefire hit. Available on Nov. 14, the sequel to the popular rock karaoke game has a beefed-up drum kit and more than 85 songs. A layer of silicone coats the drum kit's snares and toms, but for the intense gamer a super-sized kit -- complete with cymbals and bass drum -- is available for $299 altogether. Rock Band 2 will cost $189, and will offer songs from artists such as Bob Dylan, Beastie Boys and Pearl Jam. It will also unveil a new Guns 'n' Roses track called "Shackler's Revenge".
A highly anticipated game enjoyed its own floor on the second level of Circa: Gears of War 2 was available to try out on 11 screens, and the gameplay didn't disappoint. I found the graphics and movement to be even more fluid than the original. The shoot-em-up intensity still required smart strafing and duck-and-cover strategies, but I wasn't able to test the CPU intelligence because the game was only available in team mode.
I learned from Xbox design director Greg Murphy how Gears of War 2 improves on the original. There are more team modes to select, such as one where you have to kill the leader of each squad in order to win. New weapons give the user more flexibility, such as the flamethrower and proximity grenades. Another cool addition, Murphy says, is the ability to battle a chainsaw-wielding opponent with your own chainsaw -- "In a chainsaw duel, you have to tap the button more times than your enemy in order to saw him in half," Murphy says.
Gears of War 2 also features new vehicles to control in campaign mode, such as the Reaver (which resembles a flying octopus) and giant tank known as the Centaur. The game will be available for Xbox 360 on Nov. 7.
Too Human is an RPG-style action game allowing you to slash opponents with special swords
I also tested Too Human, a recently released game winning some attention. An RPG-action hybrid, Too Human didn't wow me as I hoped it would: mediocre graphics, confusing gameplay and uninspiring weapons were some of the drawbacks. Sure, it was cool to use swords to slice through enemies, but I was frustrated when I shot bullets at monsters. The aim was off, there was no cross-hairs, and the cut scenes took too long to load.
In order to boost my spirits, I sampled some sports games. I tried out the latest from 2K Sports, even though I've always been ho-hum on the NBA 2K franchise, mainly because the controls didn't resonate with me. And the same problem crops up in NBA 2K9 -- while the graphics were slick and the player movements incredibly lifelike, I was frustrated with the stick button, which shoots the ball instead of allowing deke moves. I did enjoy the game intelligence: players automatically set pick-and-rolls, and it wasn't easy to steal the ball. The updated rosters even included Jermaine O'Neal on the Raptors' front court, a move that took place in late June.
NHL 2K9 was also on display and it was a better game to play. The controls were simple, and the gameplay was realistic; the speed wasn't hyper-fast, and superstar players truly outshone the average players. One of my favourite additions was the between-periods mini-game of driving a Zamboni across the ice and trying to clean more ice than your opponent. It's not a huge feature but it was a nice touch.
2K Sports' rival also had some decent floor space. Electronic Arts displayed NHL 09 to hockey aficionados and admittedly the controls were more difficult than NHL 2K9 but allowed for more flexibility. Deking was easier, and defensive play was smarted by allowing great dump-and-chase counter-attacks. The game lets you to create a player from scratch and watch him progress through the NHL from rookie to veteran. Available Sept. 9, NHL 09 felt faster than 2K9 and its depth of gameplay options puts it above the competition.
Surveying the room one last time before leaving, I marvel at the clogged laneways between consoles, at the dozens of cameras catching the action. This is what Xbox 360 wanted -- a feel-good media event previewing the big and bold games. But I realize not every game will be a winner (ahem, Too Human) and some will impact the market (Gears of War 2) and others will slowly be sleeper hits (NHL 2K9). What X'08 proved is how the video game market is super-charging its publicity machine in order to give fans those choices. And I can't help but smile when I leave Circa -- the gaming gems are truly stunning, and the duds only make rare guest appearances.