By Joe Donato

In this issue’s Red Ring Circus, I’ll be covering my time at Comic Con. Videogames are becoming more and more prevalent at this convention, so I decided to get over there and try out some of what was on display. There were certainly some surprises to be found, and I have high hopes for a lot of what I saw.  Keep in mind that these are previews, and I’m just talking about demo versions of games I played, not finals.

Hellboy: Science of Making a Good Game

Hellboy fans are not a demanding group. All they ask for is a chance to see the big red guy pummel his way through a Lovecraftian rouges gallery and spew the occasional one-liner. So when the Hellboy game came out for the original Playstation back in the day, it seemed like it resulted from gathering the world’s greatest underachieving game developers. Thankfully, Krome Studios and Konami seem to be bringing out something much more worthwhile with Hellboy: Science of Evil for the Xbox 360.

I had about half an hour with the game, which gave me enough time to play through the first level and part of the second. It opens up with a stylish intro of Hellboy running through the woods, intercut with typical white-on-black opening credits that showed the game’s cinematic influences. While the Comic Con convention center was too loud to hear most of the dialogue, it was obvious the cutscenes were shot with care. I was assured by the Konami rep at the show that Ron Perlman and Selma Blair handled voice acting duties for their characters and Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro oversaw the whole project. Ron Perlman? Voice acting in a videogame!? Who knew? Though I have to say he’s much better looking as Hellboy than the face-melt monstrosity Lord Hood from the Halo series.

From the initial cutscene I was thrown into a brief combat tutorial in the game’s opening graveyard level. Your combat repertoire consists of light and hard punches, grabs, and a gun.  It’s typical fare for a game clearly influenced by God of War and Ninja Gaiden, however the pace is completely different.  Unlike the lightning speed of Ryu Hayabusa, or the flashy combo-extravaganzas of Kratos, Hellboy is more of a lumbering powerhouse. The pace and destructable environments actually reminded me of Otogi, which is a wonderful thing. 

Hellboy can take quite a beating.  I never came close to dying in combat, which is kind of accurate considering the pummelings he takes in the comics, as well as a little worrisome. I’m assuming that wasbecause it was the first level, but it was easy enough to border on repetitive. At the same time, I’m not entirely sure how well the combat will hold up if the difficulty ramps up. As far as I could tell from my demo time, which was with a 95% complete version of the game, there is little in the way of defensive options. It’s entirely possible that I’m an idiot and missed them, but any evasive maneuvers aside from running away were absent. I can understand the motivation here; making Hellboy blindly aggressive is certainly not out of character. However, when I was surrounded and really had to avoid attacks, I ended up running away with my tail between my legs to recover.

In most cases, though, defense wasn’t necessary, and I had a lot of fun tossing all the different enemies around. The grab attack was a key aspect of the gameplay, allowing you to pick up random items as weapons, toss small or stunned enemies around and smash open doorways.  Some of the best moments from the demo included beating down a werewolf with a cross and tossing all the little Gollum-esque goblins around. At the same time, some of these actions, like opening doors by smashing them open, became horribly repetitive within the span of the demo. It makes me think there’s some kind of conspiracy to include mundane recurring actions in licensed games. Breaking doors is to Hellboy what casting “Reparo” is to Harry Potter and saving that same guy who keeps falling off of buildings is to Spider-man 2.

I don’t want to dwell too much on problems in an unreleased title, but I do have a few concerns that I hope get cleaned up in the final product. For one, the aiming controls were incredibly clunky. Aiming is generally auto-targetted, and it worked for the most part, but as soon as I had a specific target in mind it became a wrestling match with the right thumbstick. I nearly lost control and suplexed the girl playing next to me because of it. My other issue is related to the graphics, which, for the most part, are quite beautiful, but reminded me of 1996 during a few moments. Throughout the first level, you are pursuing a witch who can transform into a billowing flock of crows, or bats, or something;  I wasn’t quite sure because they were sprites who when they got close enough to see looked more like creatures Space Invaders

Issues like the ones I mentioned are potentially enough to drag this game down, but keep in mind that I’m just speculating. Once the final game is released, I hope to check out its most compelling feature: co-op.  According to the Konami representative at the show the game allows two-player campaign co-op with the second player controlling Abe or Liz. It’ll be interesting to see how differently the two of them play. Any game that carries the old school torch of sitting on the couch with a buddy and playing on a single screen is probably at least worth a rental. If what I played is any indication, Hellboy may just stand out from the rest of the summer-game-movie pack.

Ironman: The Game About the Movie About the Comic

The Ironman demo at Comic Con was the same demo available on Xbox Live, so rather than read this, you can spend about the same length of time playing it yourself.  The demo offers up a short mission from the Middle East areas of the movie. There are two relatively simple objectives, and whether you complete them or the time runs out, the demo ends. Unlike the timed demos for games like Crackdown, which almost gave you too much of the game, Ironman offers so little that I really have to question the time limit.

I can only assume the demo was intended for Comic Con and was timed so others could play, but the limit exists on the Xbox Live demo as well.  Either way, there isn’t much content to find here, but it does give you a taste of the game’s mechanics.

First of all, Ironman is fast, almost too fast. At any moment you can switch between moving on foot, hovering, or jetting around at blinding speeds. However as mobile as you are, it’s hindered by the vomit-inducing camera.  It not only has a hard time keeping up with everything, but any time you try to handle it yourself, the game essentially tells you to fuck off. Why give the option to aim manually and then constantly wrestle it away?

I did eventually adjust to the camera, though it was never truly competent.  Ironman’s omnipotence over all the enemies in the demo is impressive.  You can zip over to any objective and hover overhead raining death on scores of defenseless tanks, foot soldiers, and artillery. While it’s pretty cool, I found it ironic that Ironman’s weapon of choice was essentially a pea shooter. He shoots this dinky laser beam out of the palm of his hand, and while it tears everything up well enough, it feels about as badass as shooting rocks out of a slingshot. 

Throughout the demo we have Robert Downey Jr. giving plenty of cheesy one-liners that were clearly phoned in.  I can only hope this isn’t indicative of the quality of the movie, otherwise we’re in for a trainwreck of Spider-man proportions. (Yep, I went there.) 

While the demo was short, it begs the question, “Why does this exist other than to cash in on the success of the movie?” The momentum is cool, but the world feels so empty and bland, the action lacks kinetics, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy.  Of all the comic-to-movie-to-game adaptations on display at Comic Con, Ironman was the only one to offer that soul sucking cash-in feeling I’ve come to expect from licensed products.

The Incredible Hulk Ultimately Destroys Everything
While the developers of Crackdown ditched the series to work on APB, Edge of Reality is hard at work on Crackdown 2, a.k.a. The Incredible Hulk. While it really has no relation to Realtime World’s early ’07 stunner, Sega showed a demo at Comic Con that conjured up fond memories of tracking down agility orbs.  Of all the games at Comic Con, it looked the most exciting.  Unfortunately, it was still early, and the people running the demo the game at the show were unwilling to hand us the controller.

What was shown was an open-world romp through Liberty…I mean, New York City.  The Hulk can smash just about anything, climb any building, and jump really damn high.  He can even smash buildings and throw pedestrians, features that I’m not entirely confident will make it into the final game. Cloverfield got away with knocking down buildings in NYC and conjuring up images of 9/11, but will a teen-rated videogame get the same treatment?

The demo I saw was brief, and while the freedom the game offered was stunning, there wasn’t much in the way of goals. Time will tell if The Hulk is simply a playground or something a little more substantial.  Regardless, you can rip a car in half and use it as boxing gloves, so I’m excited. 

Metal Gear Online Sucks Because I’m a Halo-Playing Philistine

Metal Gear Online is going to be a tough sell for the typical online shooter crowd.  From my brief time with the game, it was clear that it was from a Japanese developer emulating Western shooters without straying too far from Japanese sensibilities. It may have been the demo environment, which consisted of two team deathmatch rounds.  There are a ton of ways to play MGO, including a “Solid Snake vs. Everyone Else” mode that honestly sounds really fun.  However, if what was on display at Comic Con is an indication of the core gameplay, I’m not sure how much MGO will offer for those weaned on Team Fortress 2 and Halo.

While games like Halo slowed down the pace for console players, Metal Gear brings it to a grinding halt.  It’s telling that the game has an autoaim option, yet I was continually caught with my pants down.  Switching equipment requires you to bring up the standard Metal Gear wheel menus, which in the single player games paused the action, but here just leaves you completely vulnerable. Throwing grenades, hopping in your cardboard box, or using the stun knife all require you to stand still and flip through a menu.  While it’s true that everyone in the matches are limited by these constraints, fairness does not always equal fun.

For a few rounds I tried my hand at free aiming, and found the movement of the analog stick to be far too sensitive and drifty, while still limited to the turning ability of a tank. Auto-aim worked a little better, but the best players will probably want to avoid it so they can get those quick headshots.

For Metal Gear fans and Japanese gamers, MGO may be the perfect complement to MGS4.  It’s certainly faithful to the series, and the controls hold true to many of the Japanese conventions that many of us over here just don’t understand.  While the shooter market on 360 is oversaturated, the PS3 market is somewhat lacking. MGO may have an audience on the PS3, even over here, but PC or Xbox 360 owners aren’t going to find much here for them.

Gears of War 2 to be Bigger, Better, More Badass
When president of Epic Games, Michael Capps says that Gears of War 2 will be “bigger, better, more badass,” you have to believe him.  Epic has a track record of games which can only be described as awesome and rad, so it will be no surprise if Gears 2 follows suit. At Comic Con, Epic ran a panel to discuss Gears 2.  While the trailer shown at the beginning of the panel was the same as the one shown at GDC, it was a good reminder that Gears of War 2 is going to be extremely badass.  Everyone was surprised, even skeptical, that Epic was planning for a sequel that would be bigger and better than its predecessor.  However, watching Marcus chainsaw a Locust soldier surely made most of us believers.

After the badass teaser, the developers jumped right into Q&A. The Comic Con attendees stepped up to the plate with hard hitting questions. Capps let the audience in on several secrets about the game, including some of the game’s badass, cool, and great mechanics and storyline.  The sequel to the 2006 game of the year will have awesome shooting, badass chainsaw fights, and sweet online play.  The story will be epic, badass, and bigger than the original.

A lot of people had questions about the gripping story from the original game and wanted to know how they’d expand on it for the sequel. Josh Ortega, the writer for the new game, assured us it was going to be amazing and better.

Lastly, when asked whether Gears of War 2 would be awesome, Michael Capps responded, “Absolutely.”