E3 babyYesterday hurt. Couldn’t resist the siren song of the Rock Band party the night before, and that led to a massive plate of corned beef hash at 3am and, well, you know how that turns out. At least I didn’t get drunk and hop on the skateboard I acquired from Sierra. That would have been a disaster.

We’re at the point of the week now where everyone’s polling each other on the best stuff of the show. So far Fallout 3 has been a big favorite, and I enjoyed the Fracture demo (single player looks middling, but multi should be great) and I’m shocked to be looking forward to TimeShift again — the revamped game is a lot more fun. Not that it’s among the best of show, but it’s worth a mention. Sony’s quirky Echochrome and Patapon look like fun, and obviously there’s Rock Band, which I finally got to play.

There’s also a lot of discussion about the press conferences (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, that is — several other companies did conferences as well.) Consensus is that Sony’s was the winner, and that it was the best they’ve done in several years. Introducing a lot of new content will do that, though. It’s fun to see how the tide can turn so quickly; already the anti-Sony feeling is, if not dissipating, then easing up at least…

…or not. Since Sony Europe blew the whistle on themselves with news that the price cut was, in essence, an inventory reduction, Sony is right back where they started. Shit, meet fan. Oops.

UBISOFT

I Started off with Assassin’s Creed, which I’ll admit looks a lot better up close than it did at the Microsoft event on Tuesday. The game still seems to have a few issues, mainly in that the crowd isn’t as sophisticated as it should be, but there’s also a lot to like. The free running across Jerusalem was fun and easy to master. Combat takes more work, but seems like it might have more variety than we’ve gotten used to in Prince of Persia.

But there’s the weird Matrix vibe, which (admittedly without seeing the larger story that it’s part of) doesn’t do much for me. The HUD calls back to the link your character has to the ‘real’ world, and when you bump into people on the street, they often fuzz out in a haze of digital static. Seeing the game in small doses, that seems to break the atmosphere created by the huge classic city. I hope it feels more like a part of the world when we get to see the full context.

I also saw Haze up close, and I’m still mostly uninterested. It’s based on the conflict between two factions: the government mercenary Mantle troops you begin the game with and the rebels you join about a third of the way through. Mantle troops can regenerate health and they have some serious firepower; the rebels are lighter, faster and more tactical.

The key to both is Nectar, the chemical that feeds and powers the Mantle troops, and also obscures their sense of the atrocities they might commit on the battlefield. While you’re playing Mantle, Nectar powers you, and when you join the rebels it becomes a weapon against the Mantle. Shoot the Nectar tank on the back of a trooper and the chemical sprays out in a cloud, driving the guy temporarily insane and making him liable to shoot friends rather than foe. And in a cool touch, there’s a chance the clouded soldier will try to off himself to end the madness. Cool touch, as is the ability to play dead. But there are a few good shooters here, and Haze isn’t in the top tier.

I also got to see some very early stuff from Beowulf, but I’m under NDA on that until Comic Con.

SIERRA

I didn’t see much at Sierra — tomorrow I’ll try to squeeze in the Bourne game. But I did see the renewed Timeshift, which is surprisingly fun. Like the old version of the game you can pause, stop and rewind time, but there’s a massive new push towards realistic physics, top notch graphics and a pretty good AI. Doesn’t hurt that Kyle Peschel, the game’s creator, is one of the more enthusiastic and vulgar guys in the business — it’s like gettinga  demo from Guillermo del Toro in his Blade 2 days. Timeshift isn’t going to make huge waves, I’m afraid — we’ve all seen and heard too much about it over the years — but I actually want to play it again, which is good enough for now.

There were also a couple of fun Xbox Live Arcade games. Battlestar Galactica basically follows the plots of seasons 1-3, and is a sort of 2.5D space shooter. It’s fun in brief, with a fast pace and nice arcade vision of the show’s aesthetic. I don’t know if it’ll hold up over the long run, though.

Meanwhile, Switchball is a sort of Marble Madness with Myst‘s visual sense. Like Mercury and other similar games there are switches to roll through that will change your ball’s properties, which helps in navigating the twisting ramps and platforms. Nothing groundbreaking, but it’s the sort of thing I’d be very likely to download and play now and again.

SEGA

The big thing for me at Sega was Condemned 2. I loved the original to death and this one looks far better. There are more combat options — you can throw and catch weapons, and use your fists. (Finally.) They’ve also integrated weird little ‘emotional moments’ where there might be an interaction with an NPC that you have the option to push further. Might give you some ancillary story, or might just generate a fight. Kinda neat.

Far more impressive, though, was the new forensics system. Instead of prodding you directly to use one tool and then the next, you go through a sort of multi-step procedural in which, as we’re told, you’ll definitely have the potential to make a wrong guess or ID and therefore miss some info. The old forensics tools are on hand, but you use them at will instead of being forced.

(More detail: so we saw an investigation of a dead cop. We first had to ID the guy, by choosing from a list of possibilities like white male, white female, etc. Easy. But later we had to say whether the wound on his back was an entry or exit wound, and whether he’d been killed where he lay, or moved. Using the UV light we could see a blood trail that had been cleaned, which we would have missed otherwise. Looking closer at it, we could see that he hadn’t been dragged to the point where he lay; he’d crawled. Seeing those details put the story together, and as that’s a very early forensics sequence it’s easy to see how later ones might be much harder.)

I checked out a very early build of Iron Man, too. Currently, it looks more or less as you’d expect a game with ties to the movie to look. Lot of military targets, and a few cool movies like grabbing a missile in mid-air, then turning it back on the emplacement that fired it. But the suit looks great. Just wickedly cool. I’m told that Favreau had real input into the movement of the suit — it should be less cartoonish and move more like a thousand pounds of military hardware is supposedly what he said. And it does. That game right now is (a) very very early and (b) still nothing I think I’d be wild to buy, but just seeing this version of the suit in motion has me so much more juiced for the movie. By the time Iron Man hits, it’ll be the first big studio film I’ve been genuinely excited about in a very long time.

SONY

Most of Sony’s lineup, inasmuch as we’re talking about playable stuff, I covered a while back when the company hosted an editor’s day. But there are a couple things that are worth further attention.

First is Uncharted, which left me fairly cold when I played it months ago. I spent more time with it than planned yesterday, and while I’m still not wild about the game, I like it more after getting used to a few quirks. Essentially, I was trying to get to a couple points of the demo where you can do a lot of climbing, rope swinging and other Prince of Persia moves. When I did, I found that the controls work beautifully. Which makes it such a shame that they feel so clunky and unnatural when I’m trying to use guns, which is a BIG part of the game. There are more firefights than cool climbing segments, and the gunplay just isn’t good enough to carry the game. There’s a little time to do more work, and I know Naughty Dog is still refining many aspects, so I’m still hopeful.

Everyday Shooter, meanwhile, is one of those games that comes out of nowhere. It’s Geometry Wars plus Luminous, essentially, or what Every Extend Extra should have been. You’ve got a little ship, you move with the left stick and shoot with the right, picking up the small cubes left behind by enemies. But it’s all about the combos, which explode out in concentric circles that you can sustain by shooting the circle…which means you can’t be shooting enemies. The game’s levels are laid out like an album, each with a different background song and colorful visual sense. Killing enemies and creating combos also generates music, and the effect is captivating. With a bunch of unlockable remix tools included, this is a great version of the classic space shooter.

LUCASARTS

Not much playable here, but like Sony, there were a couple things worth mentioning.

Obviously, The Force Unleashed is the big news. I was gobsmacked by the tech demo last year (like everyone else) and while there was only a trailer to see this year, it still looks fantastic. The scale of force usage is so much larger than anything we’ve seen before in a game — the trailer opens with a guy using the force to bring down a Star Destroyer. I’m sick to death of Star Wars and I’m on board. This will be getting a huge push, too, since Lucas evidently plans to treat it like a proper chapter in the series. And since the story exists between Episodes 3 and 4, with Darth Vader training a secret apprentice, I’m willing to treat it as such.

There was also a Fracture demo. Bascially, the game lays out a United States that’s been divided not only by civil war, but by tech that can deform geology. And the game is all about using weapons to deform the environment — create pits to suck down enemies or tunnel into a bunker, or raise a platform to give you instant high ground or cover. I’m not convinced by the solo game, but if it keeps up at this pace the multiplayer should be fantastic.

MASS EFFECT

Take how much I want to play Fallout 3 and multiply it by five. That’s Mass Effect. For months the approach to this game has been: if BioWare actually makes it work, the result will be incomparable. More and more, it looks like they’ve made it work.

What I saw today wasn’t a deep look at the game’s very cool combat system. It was a focus on the dialogue interaction and the ways in which you can make choices that actually resonate. Greg from BioWare went through a sequence where a character was allowed to join Commander Shepard’s squad, but who eventually posed a problem that players will be able to resolve in a variety of ways, from diplomatic and peaceful to brutally violent.

The dialogue and acting are top notch, and they flow beautifully. In a nutshell, as someone is speaking you’ll queue up your response, which unlike previous BioWare games won’t be your next line of dialogue, but the general tone you want to take. You can take as long as needed to choose a response, but in short order I found myself choosing quickly and intuitively, which kept scenes flowing cinematically. It doesn’t sound thrilling on paper, but in practice it truly is. I’ve never seen a game like Mass Effect.

ROCK BAND

Yeah, this is the big one. If Mass Effect wasn’t so fucking great it might be game of show. And since I stood in a hot, crowed hotel suite with a bunch of socially reserved game journalists all singing along at the top of their lungs to Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive (Yes, YouTube has the video – click here), I might have to give Rock Band the top award anyway. To have that effect takes serious power.

So: you want to know if it works as advertised, and the answer is yes. The guitar feels more real, for what that’s worth, than the old Guitar Hero controller. The neck is slimmer, and the buttons set down right into it, which makes fast passages MUCH more playable. I didn’t use the small set of upper buttons much, but I was playing mostly on Hard, and since the songs in the E3 demo are chosen to be approachable, there wasn’t much in the way of wicked solos to deal with.

The most fickle aspect, to no one’s shock, are the drums. They have to be calibrated, and if the calibration is off, you’ll fail miserably like I did playing Rockaway Beach on Hard. But in a smaller, quieter room I was able to pound out a few songs, on difficulty from Medium to Expert. (Expert turns were limited to Weezer’s bloody easy track and four on the floor stuff by The Ramones and The Strokes.) I might be worried about the longevity of the drums. My friends and I are going to beat the shit out of them, and the sets I’ve seen so far I’d be vaguely worried about in the long term.

I sang only a couple songs, and I haven’t experienced yet how the game changes for the singer on different difficulties. But the basic response works great, and even a terrible throat like mine didn’t sound too bad. The original vocal track was always in the background during the demos, which probably helped out, too.

One lesson learned with Rock Band: get four people playing and the experience might vary widely based on the skill of the players. If one person fails out they can be brought back quickly, but lose two and the song really falters. And with four unskilled people it can sound pretty ugly — unlike in Guitar Hero, where the song carries on in the background, there’s nothing good to listen to with an untalented bunch of players here.

The trade-off, though, is a game that captures the thrill of a musical performance that actually gels. That feeling (playing, you know, actual music with real instruments) is one of the best things in the world, and Rock Band captures it with more fidelity than anything else I’ve come across. Playing drums on Don’t Fear The Reaper, when our combo clicked I could feel the whole room of people getting into it and rocking, and that’s the best possible review I could give.