Feature: GameXpo 2003, the Netherlands
by fantus

GameXpo 2003, the Netherlands

Holland is supposed to be the leader of information technology. Philips is opening a massive research center, and the students at the University of Twente are proud to be the fastest and number one supplier of warez in the world (why they never get caught is a riddle). But when it comes to games everything stops. There are no more than 5 serious developers and the government doesn't have special funding options. Although the game scene changed a lot last year, it's still nothing compared to surrounding countries, let alone the US and Japan. November was a special month though, as gaming in general suddenly became a hot item. Practically all magazines wrote about Eye-Toy (hence the impressive sales figures here), all commercial blocks on TV had at least one game advertisement. Even the 8 o-clock news had an openings story about games.

People were interested, "but how can we shove our games in their hands" developers must've thought. The answer was to create the biggest computer convention in the Benelux. A short history:

Once upon a time there was a home computer club (HCC). Every week people went to their local gym, which was turned around as computer lobby, to share tricks and software with other users. As time wore on, more and more members joined. It grew out to be the biggest computer club in Holland. Once a year all members came together to exchange software and tricks. Computer shops knew it was a good chance to sell their stock for a low price. This formula became the HCC convention, a three-day event that attracts millions of people.

"That's it!" thought the developers. So they hired one of the twelve areas in the Royal Dutch Jaarbeurs and filled it up with games. The GameXpo was between the areas of the original HCC convention, so all visitors were forced to walk through the games section. Excellent.

Floor impression

Before you consider this the new ECTS, it cannot really be compared to such an event. The 6000 square meters (a better impression: that's 60 meters wide and 100 meters long) had only the basics when it comes to gaming.

   Mario Double Dash and 1080 Snowboarding were the games that got the most attention. A competition was set up. Players could sit in a kart using the original steer and gas/braking pedals to play, watching a big screen about 4 meters away. Left of the carts was a platform with arcade-like cabinets with a cube inside. It almost felt like I was back in the 80's. Hardly space to walk and flickering screens everywhere, just lovely.

   Eye-Toy was the biggest attraction here, and not without reason. The game sold amazingly well and thus was a well-known piece of equipment, even for the unknowing visitor. A lot of other PS2s were filled with Dog's Life. A remarkable choice as the average visitor isn't exactly in this gameís demographic.

   About two years ago I was attending a small convention where the first empty xbox design was shown. A few days before this event Microsoft called in, saying they would retreat their empty green giant from the convention if Sony were planning to show new games. With some force they went through with it, but it's clear enough that Microsoft was scared of Sony's PS2. At the GameXpo it felt like it was the other way around. It looked like xbox had the biggest stand, right next to Sony's. With a shiny Ferrari in the middle (god knows why they put it there) all kind of recent games were shown <editorís note: the Ferrari was probably due to Project Gotham II. Wait a minute Ė does that mean Iím god???>. As this stand was next to the big crossing path of the sales area, all visitors looked surprised. A lot of people tried a game or two, usually with some positive result. I looked at the faces of older men (uhm... pure scientific) and they are clearly the ones showing the most emotion. They enjoy it without a doubt. Dutch people aren't quite outgoing, to have a console in your living room is still considered weird if you don't have kids, or if you aren't young yourself.

   As the world leader of game development and game publishing, I expected the most out of them. They've been traveling for a while now with special EA on tour busses. One of them is filled with TVs, consoles and their latest games. A second one has a quiz stand where you can win 'spectacular prices' (free games are still very attractive for lots of people), and the third bus can transform into a Harry Potter meets bull-riding machine. Sit on a motor-driven spastic broom and throw juggling balls into one of the 3 nets. It's as close as it comes to Quidditch. Perhaps the most famous non-existant sport if you don't consider Cannonball Run as one. Everyday the busses drive to another city.

The Arena
   The most impressive spot was the LAN-tournament. A big arena was build that could only be entered with high (legal?) steps. Inside, clans were fighting other clans in various games. Everything could be watched from the stage on one of the four big screens.

The Games of Playlogic

On to the new games now, that's probably what you wanted to read. As you might conclude this expo wasn't really meant for showing new games. The three console developers only showed games that were recently out, or that they wanted to sell during christmas, or that will be available within the first two months of next year.

With this in mind, a big surprise was the first beta of Unreal Tournament 2004. We all knew this might be a nice game, but we didn't expect it to be this good. Sadly enough we didn't get a chance to play it, but the vehicles and gameplay looked really solid and impressive (if you already saw the movie, and are wondering where UT2004 is, I found the camera later on at the xbox stand and asked if I could use it for 15 minutes).

Developers in Holland are growing, slow but steady. More than half of the employees of Guerrilla, developer of the PlayStation2 title Killzone, are from another country. Still it's a nice thing to see when Amsterdam is mentioned in a Killzone news item. It's not clear why Guerrilla wasn't at this convention; they probably didn't want to show anything new until the time was right. Playlogic saw it differently and showed everything they've got. Almost all advertising options outside the building were used by Playlogic, and every half hour t-shirts were thrown into the public by MC-scream-a-lot. Was it all worth it? Here are my impressions:

Airborne Troops:
   Compare it to Medal of Honor, but in third person. This probably is the best title of Playlogic. It looks and feels the way you'd expect. Whether or not this game will beat the competitors is the question, but it sure is a good first step. A few irritating problems can pull everything down though. The game has invisible walls, and it's not possible to jump over barbed wire. Small things like the arbitrary constriction of environment might give the similar titles a lead. The PS2 version was lacking custom controller settings, and mirroring the Y aim movement isn't possible. Let's hope that's because of the beta version. Nonetheless it's fun to play, and quite popular on the GameXpo.

Alpha Black Zero:
   This futuristic third person shooter was already shown at E3. Nothing much has changed in the past months. It still looks and plays like a good game. The wide areas are impressive. I imagine that it must be a thrill to play this game with a team while carefully walking towards the mountaintop on sundown, looking for enemy movement. The gameplay feels a bit rough, and unfortunately I don't think this will become better. Just like Airborne Troops it's a great first step. I'm already looking forward to the sequel, with hopes it will be a good alternative for other shooters.

Cyclone Circus:
   Ever seen that Discovery footage of land sailing? Cyclone Circus is something like that. Futuristic cars are racing on wind. With one of the analogue sticks you can adjust the sail in order to get more speed. It's actually quite fun to do this, as you are always looking for a way to go a bit faster. It's even more fun to pass another player because you sail better. Once you get the hang of it, corners can be a real thrill. If you steer and move the sail correctly, it works fantastically. To make the game even more interesting Playlogic added some deep pits. Press a button and your sail turns into a wing, making you glide softly to your destination. Now lest you think Iím speaking too positively about this title, let me say this: the idea is nice but that's about it. Nothing cutting edge, the graphics are okay (Look at the screens. They are a bit artsy, and even though I like it I can understand that some people won't), and so are the options. But to pay full price for this? I'll leave that decision to you.

   As arcade fan I couldn't wait to play this game. This title uses the right analogue stick to shoot around your ship. A concept frequently done in amateur games, but rarely in a commercial one (Midwayís Arcade Classics aside). Even after some practice, with a heavy heart, I had to conclude the following; It doesn't work. In traditional shooters you know where the enemy is. You follow them with the corner of your eye. You focus on your own ship trying to dodge bullets, preferably dodging to the side of the screen where you can hit your target. In Xyanide you'll have to do more. Steer your ship through the bullets while aiming at your enemies. The enemies move (of course) so you'll have to dodge, aim and move your aiming point alongside the accelerating enemy. You can guess that this is too much.

Looking at the Ikaruga Appreciate DVD, I know that some people use magic powers to play these games. So I might give it another try, Iím hoping that I played really badly, as weird as that may sound. The graphics are decent, even so. You are moving through various 3D worlds, which is nothing more than eye-candy. Your ship doesn't interact with the background though, which makes it look a bit cheap. The music was turned of so I can't really tell about that.

The GameBoy version is actually something to look forward to. It's a basic side scrolling shooter with bright colors and cartoonish objects. Nothing too fancy, but great for shooter-fanatics.

Final Word

So this ends my journey through the amazing world of Dutch gaming. If you are in the neighbourhood next year you might give this convention a try. But don't come traveling from another country, as you will likely be disappointed. Nevertheless I'm happy with the sudden growth Next stop: E3!

Fantus is off to Nether Netherland

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GameXpo Extravaganza