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UPDATED: PAX 2009: Activision Preview Event

by  in Video Game Comment
UPDATED: PAX 2009: Activision Preview Event

The sixth annual Penny Arcade Expo came to Seattle last weekend, and gamers of every kind were found wandering the city’s rainy streets. PAX is a three-day game festival for tabletop, videogame, and PC gamers that includes “nerdcore” concerts, panel discussions, and an exhibitor hall full of game publishers and developers. No doubt, Seattle’s energy grid was working overtime last weekend.

As part of the fun, Activision sponsored a hands-on preview event to premiere three of their newest games: “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2,” “Blur,” and “Tony Hawk: Ride.” Considering the excitement surrounding the Marvel game in the comics community, CBR News was in attendance to cover all the web-slinging, shield-throwing mayhem (as well as sample Activision’s other new offerings). We began things by sitting down with Jason Vincent Schroeder, lead associate producer on MUA2, who laid out the basics for us.

“‘Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2’ is a co-op action role-playing game. Up to four players can play local and online, and there are twenty-four playable Marvel heroes right off the disc – before we do any downloadable content or anything like that,” Schroeder told CBR.

Here is a list of the playable characters revealed thus far: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Invisible Woman, Thing, Daredevil, Storm, Iron Fist, Venom, Jean Grey, Penance, Wolverine, Captain America, Human Torch, Mr. Fantastic, Thor, Luke Cage, Songbird, Deadpool, Green Goblin, Gambit, Ms. Marvel, and Iceman. Juggernaut is also available as a Gamestop pre-order exclusive, and Psylocke, Cyclops, and Blade are Wii-exclusive. From what was shown at the event, players travel around in groups of four, either with co-players or with game-controlled characters that users can “hop” to.

The game begins with heroes on a very specific mission. “The game starts with the ‘Secret War’ story (the Brian Bendis version, circa 2004). But rather than just having this game be the experience of observing Nick Fury’s actions, the player takes the heroes and participates in this invasion of Latveria,” Schroeder explained. “And then these choices actually bring about the calamity of ‘Civil War.’ From there, you have to make your choice in ‘Civil War’ (which side you’re on), and then many of the characters will follow your side. So it becomes sort of a ‘What if?’ scenario at that point in that how you choose could ultimately affect the outcome of ‘Civil War.’

“You can choose between pro- and anti-registration. Captain America will go on one side and Iron Man will go on another. You’re not able to influence their choices – nor some of their closest allies – because they’re key to the story. However, while many of the characters might have chosen differently in the comic book, they’re influenced by your choice and you’ll see that choice come to fruition after you’ve picked your side. The fiction justifies all of this too. We know a lot about these characters from their history in Marvel games and comics, so we know how they might respond to being in this ‘Civil War’ and what choice they’d make.”

Those familiar with Marvel’s “Civil War” will remember that its end was a prelude to Marvel’s next storyline, “The Initiative.” In terms of the story found in MUA2, fans will find something different. Schroeder said, “The game goes past the end of ‘Civil War,’ but it doesn’t end the same way the comic book ended. You’ll need to play the game to see the twist, though.”

In addition to a twist in the comic book story, players of the first MUA will find a new twist to this game as well. “The big feature of this game is Fusion, which is a new mechanic,” Schroeder revealed. “It’s the ability to combine heroes’ powers to create a single power that’s just massive. This is a chance to let the players truly experience the destructive power of superheroes and feel why they were considered weapons of mass destruction during the ‘Civil War.’

“One of the first examples of Fusion that you’re introduced to is with Iron Man and Wolverine. Iron Man shoots a repulsor beam into Wolverine’s claws, and Wolverine – with his regenerative ability to withstand pain – absorbs all that energy and pushes it out with his claws and creates sort of a room-clearing series of lasers.

“Another example is Iron Man shooting a beam into Captain America’s shield. The shield takes that beam and sort of holds it and creates a kind of laser clothesline that you can guide around with your friend if you’re both controlling one of the characters.”

Schroeder proceeded to show us both of these Fusions, and they did have the effects described, with all the heroes’ opponents laid out on the floor. However, the Captain America/Iron Man Fusion took out enemies a few at a time instead.

Schroeder explained that there are many kinds of Fusions for different situations heroes encounter in the game. “We have guided Fusions, targeted Fusions, we have Fusions that are like setting off a bomb in the middle of a room, and we have particular Fusions for dealing with small groups. If you’re able to master the Fusions, that’s really what’s going to help you get through our Legendary Difficulty Mode, which is our hardest difficulty mode.”

At this point, Schroeder showed us one more Fusion that’s bound to be popular with comics readers: the Fastball Special Fusion. In this case, Spider-Man grabbed Wolverine with his webs, whipped him around, and tossed him at a helicopter. This action destroyed the copter handily. It was uncanny!

To ensure the heroes in MUA2 were true to the characters in the Marvel comic books, Schroeder said Activision went straight to the source. “Mostly we worked with Marvel’s interactive group on this, which is Todd Jefferson and Chris Baker. They’ve been kind of our main consultants. They’ll tell us what ideas they have, and we’ll share our ideas, and then it kind of comes down to what’s best for the game. They’ll review our character concepts and give us guidance as to which artist we should base our concepts on. Basically, everything we do goes through Marvel for approval, and we have a good working relationship with them.”

Many other images could be seen as gameplay continued, including a battle against Electro, directives from SHIELD, and a giant statue of Dr. Doom. Marvel fans will have their chance to see for themselves when “Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2” is released September 15.

While at the Penny Arcade Expo, CBR News also stepped behind the wheel of Activision’s newest racing game, “Blur.” In online interviews, Activision Blizzard’s CEO Michael Griffith has stated that the company is “targeting ‘Blur’ to do for racing what ‘Call of Duty’ did for shooters.”

“Blur’s” graphics were top-notch, with cars that look and react like something out of the “Fast and Furious” movies. But on top of merely looking cool and going fast, drivers can collect power-ups throughout each course, including the ability to blast other cars out of the way with huge bursts of energy, boost speed with Nitros, drop Mines and even generate defensive shields to fend off other racers.

Bizarre Creations’ Studio Communications Manager Ben Ward explained the company’s philosophy during “Blur’s” development. “There were two different approaches we took due to the two different audiences of the game: the hardcore people and the people who haven’t raced before. Now, we’ve got loads of stuff in there for people who haven’t played before to bring them into it, but our expertise in the studio is in hardcore races and simulations. We know what those guys like – the hardcore handling, the type of tracks, the cars. So hopefully by rounding off some of the edges of these things, we can make both parties happy.”

Bizarre knows how to make gamers happy, as evidenced by their four releases of “Project Gotham Racing.” Of course, having created one popular racing game only put more pressure on the makers of “Blur.” “We worked on ‘Project Gotham Racing’ for a long time, and that went to four games. That’s upwards of ten years of work, so when we started developing it was tricky because it was like, ‘What are we going to do now? The world’s been our oyster,'” Ward said. “But then we started looking at what people liked and didn’t like in racing games. We kept the best bits and then looked at how to improve the other bits. And that’s really where Blur came from – an attempt to push the genre forward.”

Another of these pushes includes a new way for racers to communicate and enjoy the storyline of the race. “Blur’s” narrative is presented through a new community-based interface, reaching far beyond the game itself. “We’ll be introducing players to a social network like Facebook where you’ll get messages sent to you and you can arrange races,” Ward explained. “This way, you have a reason to race and it will help bring people into the racing game.”

Finally, we tried out “Tony Hawk: Ride,” which is a chance for players to ride a skateboard without helmets or pads…or a trip to the emergency room. “Ride” interacts with a skateboard control that players, well, “ride.” It still requires a good deal of balance and coordination, but it’s a lot of fun for people who are interested in skating without the embarrassment of falling in public (or the injuries). Players can ride with their feet or even do handstands on the board, if they feel daring. Time will tell if this game does for skateboarding what “Guitar Hero” has done for music.

Screenshots from “Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2”

Screenshots from “Blur”

Screenshots from “Tony Hawk: Ride”

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