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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Brave New World: My first trip to PAX

For gamers like myself, annual conventions like PAX East are what major events like the Superbowl and World Series are to sports fans: must-see spectacles filled with excitement, energy, and a whole lot of people. Earlier years saw PAX East being held in smaller venues around the greater Boston area, sometimes causing it to be sold out days before it even started. This year however, PAX East managed to relocate to the spacious Boston Conventions and Exhibitions Center (or BCEC) and I managed to snag a pass for the convention’s third and final day.

I doubt anything could have prepared me for what I saw when I first stepped into the spacious exhibitions hall, the main attraction of the entire convention, but I do know that I feel a little silly trying to do it justice through words and a few snapped photos alone. The show’s main floor was crammed with so many booths, demo-areas, and showcases that I actually ended up getting lost several times while wandering around and absorbing all the amazing sights before me. 
 I glimpsed briefly (and sometimes not so briefly) at various new and upcoming titles such as Paradox Interactive’s upcoming medieval melee War of the Roses, a team-based competitive multiplayer game featuring knights, swords, and bows, Hi-Rez Studios’ SMITE, a M.O.B.A.-style game that looked to appeal to the same sort of crowd as League of Legends, and Natural Selection 2, a sequel to the popular Half-Life mod being developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment that mixes RTS and FPS elements while pitting teams of aliens and marines against each other.
Crowds funneled between and around different games being displayed and lines quickly formed for some of the more popular upcoming titles such as Max Payne 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3. The show’s numerous staff helped people get settled in the board games section where tournaments for everything from Magic: The Gathering to Munchkin were being organized and some fans made due just sitting quietly and helping each other assemble puzzles, wandering around in their cos-play outfits, or just talking about their various gaming experiences.
I admit I was at first very hesitant about trying any of the many games on display myself. I felt like a little kid wandering around a museum, afraid to touch anything or wander too close. My first hour or so was spent skulking around, jotting down what I saw over player’s shoulders on a notepad, but never working up the nerve to get my own feet wet. Not that I really minded, just getting to gaze upon so many upcoming and amazing looking titles in action was enough to leave me in awe, but I knew that before the day was over I’d have to suck it up and take the plunge myself.
 Sitting in on some of the various panels and discussions that the convention held helped to ease my trepidation a bit and offered some excellent insight into other aspects of gaming culture. A panel titled: Real RPG’s: Sexuality, Religion, and Race in Design and Play featured five different gamers and game developers, some male, some female, and all of different races and religions, who discussed their own experiences as both tabletop gamers (acting as DM’s and as players in games such as Dungeons & Dragons) and as social video gamers.
They touched on issues such as how best to represent controversial concepts within fantasy campaigns, how to identify with different races and religions (even fantasy ones), and how best to deal with situations of political incorrectness that may arise in a tabletop or online gaming session. I came away from the panel feeling impressed at how well the panelists conveyed their thoughts and enlightened on a subject I admit I knew very little about before.
I also got to sit in on a panel hosted by Ethan Gilsdorf, an upcoming author and self-proclaimed nerd who wrote the popular book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks and who I had first met when he gave a guest lecture at Marlboro College where I had been a student. The name of the panel was simple yet no doubt struck a chord among any gamers who happened to read it: How D&D Saved My Life – and How it Could Save Yours! In it he discussed similar subjects to what he had covered the first time I saw him speak; how he had grown up as a shy awkward kid and how D&D had not only helped him find his own identity as a teenager, but had also helped him work through some of the darker periods in his life not just as a child but even as an adult. Despite my familiarity with his material, I still enjoyed the panel and I was happy to see it had a rather large turnout as well.
 Once I had finished absorbing all this new info and had grabbed a quick lunch, I was ready to brave the exhibition hall once again. I had been eyeing a few games in particular and I was determined to give them a test drive. Fortunately by then the initial surge of people had died down and the crowds had become more manageable so I was able to slip in front of a few vacant stations. The first game I got to try out was Cryptic’s Neverwinter, a F2P MMO aiming to be released near the end of 2012 which is set in the popular Forgotten Realms fantasy setting.
There were two stations available, each offering a short demo of one of the game’s quests in which I got to brave a crypt full of skeletons, zombies, and other undead before having a showdown with the crypt’s undead lord at the end. One station had a ranged-focused mage character to try out while the other sported a more melee-centric rogue and I actually enjoyed playing both despite my usual preference for non-casters.
The controls felt tight with key abilities already pre-mapped to the mouse buttons as well as Q, E, R, and X keys (W, A, S, and D were used for movement) as well as an “ultimate” ability set to the 1 key. Combat would mostly boil down to franticly clicking my mouse buttons while strafing around (or behind with the rogue) my enemies but the various abilities available to both characters actually offered a surprising number of options such as the mage’s ice ray that could root enemies or his fire-spout that could launch them into the air.
The rogue could teleport behind her foes and unleash devastating dagger strikes, meld into the shadows and sneak up for powerful backstabs, and even summon a “shadow copy” of herself that could distract enemies while she moved in for the kill. The layout of the dungeon was dynamic yet easy to navigate and cool little set-pieces such as a bridge made out of mist and enemies bursting from nearby walls made the experience feel like more than just “go from point A to point B and kill anything in your path.”
 The other game I got to spend some hands-on time with was Funcom’s upcoming “dark fantasy” modern MMO The Secret World. I admit I’ve been intrigued about the game ever since I first learned of it a few months back and getting to play it for myself only fueled the fires of interest. Fans of other “dark modern setting” games such as Vampire: The Masquerade or even pen & paper games such as Call of Cthulu or Unknown Armies will definitely want to check this one out when it’s released later this year.
Unlike Neverwinter, the stations for The Secret World were all hooked up to the same server so players could actually see and help each other with quests and fighting off zombies. Moving around, finding and completing quests, and even combat will no doubt feel familiar to anyone who’s played other AAA MMO’s such as World of Warcraft or Rift but it’s in The Secret World’s skill allocation and character advancement that the game really manages to separate itself from the pack.
Players can find and equip various passive bonuses called “Chakras” that can grant anything from minor enhancements like increased health or magic to major effects like being able to deal fire damage or poison their foes. Players were also encouraged to equip and try out new weapon types and to experiment with their skills and strategies since two different weapons (a melee and ranged) could be equipped at once. My character used her fists as a close-quarters option and a powerful assault rifle for taking down distant foes.
I liked how certain skills could be spammed while others had to be charge up or could only be used after I took a few hits. The names of my skills were actually pretty neat too; instead of simple names like “strike” or “punch” or “shoot”, the chaos magic infused into my attacks allowed me to use devastating special moves such as “Red Mist” and “Four Horsemen” and even my basic flurry of punches was triggered by pressing a button labeled “Run Amok.” Glancing over at other stations, I saw characters wielding sledgehammers, pistols, and even katanas and I can only imagine the sorts of skills and magical attacks they could perform.
 My amazing day at PAX ended on a high note as well as I got to sit in on a developer Q & A with some of the core team members behind Star Wars: The Old Republic. During the forty five minute discussion, the team took questions from fans and players and dealt with a staggering amount of topics and issues, ranging from bug fixes, raid mechanics, itemization, and class balance to more exciting queries like the possibility of new playable races (sorry, no Jawas or Ewoks any time soon), ship combat, and the exact release date of the upcoming 1.2 update (“soon”). The team ended the Q & A with a cryptic message for everyone in attendance: “we have big plans….”
Overall my experience at PAX East was one I hope to relive for many years to come, which shouldn’t be a problem since the fine folks over at Penny Arcade have secured a deal to host the convention at the BCEC well into the foreseeable future. Between the humongous exhibition hall, large multitude of tournaments and contests, interesting and engaging panels, and the hands on time with some of the coolest new and yet-to-be-released games out there, my only complaint is that I have to wait a whole year to do it all over again.  

Follow me on Twitter at @NateHohl and check out my other work at vgutopia.com, hookedgamers.com, and explosion.com

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