A Day at the Expo

October 7th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on September 5, 2013

“Hey, you went to the GameStop Expo? Did you get a copy of Madden 25? Some guy said that VIP badge-holders got Madden 25. He came in today to trade it in.”

“Uh, yes. No. We’re press. Same bag, different stuff inside.” I opened the drawstring bag-cum-backpack thing, revealing its contents. “Our bags were mostly publisher knickknacks and information about– hey, there’s a Skylander in there!”

Gamestop Expo 2013

Last weekend, video game retailer GameStop held its second public convention, a sort of baby Electronic Entertainment Expo bolted onto the company’s conference for store managers. While GameStop’s employee-only conferences are a yearly function (I attended one in 2007 as a developer, demoing Universe at War for Petroglyph/Sega), someone at corporate must’ve realized that, since publishers were already setting up extravagant booths to woo GameStop staff into supporting their titles, costs could be recouped by extending the show by a day and opening it to the public.

After a successful start in San Antonio, Texas (a quick flight from the company’s Dallas/Fort Worth HQ), 2013’s Expo was held here in Las Vegas at the Sands Convention Center. For a city known as a convention destination, we have surprisingly few shows related to the video game industry (and none open to the general public), so I’m hoping this year was successful enough that GameStop decides to stick around.

But whatever, that’s all background. Let’s talk about video game stuff!

While little breaking news was expected to come out of the expo (the press room reflected that, I think the most journalists we ever saw in the room at one time was four), the conference was one of the first opportunities for the public to actually handle the controllers of and play both Microsoft’s Xbox One (November, $499) and Sony’s Playstation 4 (November 15, $399) consoles. If the line extending out of the conference area and well into the hallways was any indication, the chance to touch new hardware is a powerful draw.

Microsoft and Sony, situated on opposite ends of the convention like boys and girls at a grade school dance, each operated expansive booths, beckoning the audience to come and play their games and to nevermind the menace on the other side of the hall. Between the two was a small sea of game publishers and a surprisingly large number of headphone manufacturers, none of which I’ll be covering as I’ve only got so much space to work with this week.

So how do the new consoles feel?

The Xbox One. After an early public relations stumble over how the company would be managing internet connectivity and the use of pre-owned games, Microsoft’s marketing engine appears to be back on track with the Xbox One, and a good number were on display and playable at the company’s booth. The consoles, positioned around a full size statue of the protagonist of the upcoming Ryse: Son of Rome, were hidden behind plexiglass, gamepads resting on stands during brief moments of inactivity. In the hands, the controller feels like a slightly more robust version of the widely-praised Xbox 360 controller, albeit with a much improved directional pad and a lighter overall feel. Full size arcade-style fighting sticks by Mad Catz were demonstrated, set to be released alongside Microsoft’s revival of the fighting game Killer Instinct.

The still capable and newly slimmed-down Xbox 360 was also on display, and may end up a solid alternative for new console buyers not looking to drop five hundred bucks on a gaming machine.

Gamestop Expo 2013

The Playstation 4. Okay, I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of the ubiquitous DualShock series of controllers featured on Sony consoles since the original Playstation. With the PS4, that’s changed. The controller may retain the name, but the new redesign has made it a pleasure to grasp and the controller fits perfectly in the hand. The twin analog sticks, perilously close together in previous iterations, are now spaced further apart (tested particularly well with the upcoming Octodad: Deadliest Catch), and the directional pad is just as well-built as ever. Unfortunately, none of the games I demoed offered an opportunity to use the capacitive touch pad.

Speaking of games, my favorite from the Sony booth was NOT a Playstation 4 launch title. Tearaway, a Playstation Vita game developed by Little Big Planet’s Media Molecule, will be one of the first AAA games to properly make use of the Vita’s touch controls without feeling like the result of a developer checking off boxes on a features bullet point list. Additionally, much like the Little Big Planet series, Tearaway is absolutely full of charm and clever design, and I expect it to be a system seller.

Oh, one little piece of news from the show: in a display of competitive love from both Sony and Microsoft, GameStop store managers (all 6,500 of ‘em) will each be receiving a free Playstation 4 and Xbox One, along with a handful of games for each, just in time for the holidays. I’m still waiting for the tech columnist console giveaway announcement, and I’ll let you all know the moment that comes through.

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