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Exploring the weird, wonderful melodic wizardry of Fantasia: Music Evolved

fantasia music evolved e3 2014 preview dfme theneighborhood 06

“Weird” is a precious commodity in video games. There’s something inherently odd about the medium’s particular take on escapism as a whole, sure, but true weirdness in video games is typically reserved for wacked out J-imports like Katamari Damacy and Gitaroo Man

Fantasia: Music Evolved brings the weird. Disney’s animated musical anthology doesn’t directly translate into an interactive context, so instead Harmonix embraced the flavor of the film and adapted it into something that, against all odds, feels at first blush like an honest representation. The long-in-development Kinect game is finally nearing its release, and we got the chance to see how it’s coming along at a pre-E3 event.

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DFME-Scout-renderYou’re a wizard. Fantasia: Music Evolved latches onto what is perhaps the most recognizable element of the original film — the famed Sorcerer’s Apprentice short — to help shape the heart of its narrative. The game puts players in the role of a musical wizard-in-training, an apprentice of the original film’s Yen Sid. It’s a sweet gig, but you foul it up right away at the start of the game when you unleash a force called “the Noise” into the world.

With the Noise threatening to consume all of Fantasia and Yen Sid sure to be royally pissed at your inadvertent near-destruction of all existence, you take the only appropriate course for a bumbling apprentice who’s fouled things up: try to fix it. Hooking up with Scout, one of your master’s former students, you march through a series of musical worlds as you work to set things right.

The narrative wrapper provides context for Fantasia: Music Evolved‘s play, but it also serves as a friendly way in to learning a number of complex systems. We didn’t get to see the tutorial in action, but Harmonix felt it was important to root the teaching tools side of the game in a story.



Casting a musical spell. Your progress through Fantasia: Music Evolved is marked by your interactions with the game’s library of licensed music. There’s an assortment of other bits and pieces to play with, but the process of opening up new worlds and the music they contain hinges on weaving melodic spells  that rely on body gestures using Kinect. This is where explanation gets tricky; Fantasia is better experienced than described.

Fantasia - PulseJump into a song and you’re treated to a psychedelic light show of swirling colors and patterns, all of which serve of the purpose of directing your hand and arm movements. For example, a shooting star-like flare of colors moving from left to right across toward a glowing point of light means you need to wave one of your hands in a similar left-to-right motion just before the color pattern reaches its destination. That’s just one example, of course; the game’s iconography — which you’re taught gradually, we’re told — tells you when to wave an arm, push toward the screen, hold a position, and more.

The “musical wizardry” is realized in the frequency with which these patterns appear. The game doesn’t differentiate between your left or right hands in terms of what it’s asking you to do, but it does barrage you with multi-layered movements, all set to the beat of the song, which in practice makes using both hands a requirement. The more complex musical numbers can have upwards of 10 different movements queued up on the screen, and the resulting gestures in real life end up resembling the magical hand patterns woven by Yen Sid and Apprentice Mickey in the original Fantasia.

It may be best to just watch a trailer and see how actual humans interact with this unique take on rhythm play:

Deeper into the game, you’ll also unlock different arrangements for each piece of music. There are three in total per song; one original mix and two more unusual takes. So, for example, Drake’s “Take Care,” one of the newly confirmed songs to be featured in the game, also includes a multi-voice a capella version of the song as one of its alternate tracks. There are multiple switch points in each song that allow you to jump over to one of the other unlocked arrangements.



Hello neighbor. Fantasia: Music Evolved breaks out across multiple levels, each with its own distinct audiovisual theme. In “The Neighborhood,” newly revealed for E3 2014, Harmonix aims to give off the vibe of an ’80s-era New York City (with the graffiti but minus the high crime). Every level is presented as a 2.5D landscape that scrolls left and right as you lean in either direction, and the spaces are all littered with bits and pieces you can interact with in one way or another.

DFME-TheNeighborhood-02Some of these interaction points are the songs that serve as the gateway to opening up additional content. Play through one and complete certain scoring goals to see more of the surrounding world come to life, which you can then manipulate using your hands. You might pluck seemingly painted-on elephants off of one billboard by guiding a balloon over to it, and then push the newly animate, balloon-borne elephant off to a nearby billboard, depositing the animal in a savannah-like setting.

DFME-TheNeighborhood-03Or maybe you’ll head down into the subway system and, using gestures, craft a completely original piece of music by using your hand to move a cursor over different sound-producing pads while a meter at the top of the screen counts out the time. In the case of The Neighborhood’s subway, you’re creating music for a band of beatboxing vegetables (there’s also a meat option), with four different sound pads for each member of the veggie virtuosos.

There’s Fantasia: Music Evolved is structured like a video game in terms of its progression, and there is a process of “beating” it, but the feeling from our demo is that you’re missing the point if you’re simply playing to “win” at something. Progression is merely a necessary obstacle to unlocking more creative tools for you to play with. This is a game that is meant to appeal to creative types, with sharing tools that allow you to broadcast your creations out into the world.


Fantasia Music Evolved - Yen Sid

Fantasia: Music Evolved has come a long way since we first saw it. The heart and soul of the game remains what it was originally billed as, but the technical execution has been tightened up considerably. Mass appeal is still likely to elude the game because of how fundamentally bizarre a prospect it is as a video game, but the flexibility of the creative tools and apparent depth of content carry lots of promise if you’re a music-loving, creative-minded player.

It won’t be much longer before Harmonix casts its spell. Fantasia: Music Evolved comes to Xbox One and Xbox 360 (with Kinect) on October 21.

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Dead Island 2 goes bigger: More co-op, more weapons, more open world, and a mo-cap cat

It's early days for Dead Island 2, which popped up at E3 2014 as a pre-alpha tech demo. The same demo, in fact, that developer Yager used to land itself the sequel gig, following Techland's successful efforts on Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide. One look at it and you can see that it's clearly an incomplete vision of the game, but it also demonstrates that the Spec Ops: The Line dev intends to build on Techland's foundation.
How? A motion-captured cat, for one. Maybe not a marquee gameplay feature, sure, but Dead Island 2's mo-capped cat is the first of its kind in video games. Three cheers for blazing trails!
The game's story picks up a handful of years after the events of Dead Island: Riptide. Zombies aren't just trapped in a tropical paradise anymore; they're everywhere. California -- Dead Island 2's setting -- is completely overrun. It's not clear how Yager intends to realize that in the game as an open world, but Los Angeles and San Francisco are both places you can visit.
As with the previous two games, all of Dead Island 2's playable characters -- Berserker, Bishop, Hunter, and Speeder -- are immune to the epidemic. They get around with the help of Max, who doesn't share their immunity but stays safe inside his armed and armored mobile home. Max is a cowardly thrillseeker who chooses to live vicariously through his zombie-slaying friends during the post-apocalypse. He's also the caretaker of Rick Furry, the aforementioned mo-cap cat.
No, we don't know how Rick Furry's presence impacts the game. But did we mention that he's a mo-capped cat?
Yager's E3 demo focused entirely on showing off Dead Island 2's combat system, which looks like more of a revision of the previous games than a wholesale makeover. The focus is still on dishing out melee beatdowns on the walking dead, though a stronger emphasis in the game on human factions ought to create more opportunities for gunplay. At one point during the presentation, a gang of raiders assaults a mansion that the demo's driver is holed up in and a shootout ensues.
Dead Island 2 does introduce some fresh ideas into the series' arsenal. Dual-wielding is now an option, with players able to mix and match one-handed melee and ranged weapons however they'd like. Some combo weapons are also motorized now, though the added power these provide is balanced by their need for fuel and the amount of zombie-attracting noise they make. The combo system as a whole has been reworked as well, with players now able to cobble items together without having to find a workbench.
While we got an early taste in the demo of how Yager handles combat in Dead Island 2, everything else we know about the game at this point is based on promises and stated plans. The intent is to realize an Unreal 4-powered virtual world in which no two zombies look alike, even the "super" zombies. The story, which Yager's hired an "Emmy-winning writer" to work on, depends on players juggling the sometimes at-odds needs of different factions. 
The proof-of-concept demo makes it clear that Yager's got a handle on what people like about the Dead Island series' flavor of RPG action. The in-your-face brutality of demolishing an undead creepster with any old item that's handy -- a knife, a sledgehammer, a scoped crossbow armed with electrified bolts (true story) -- looks just as satisfying as it's always been. And having the ability to enjoy online co-op that supports up to eight players is a welcome improvement from the previous two games' 4-player cap. But it's all just promises at this point.
We look forward to seeing more. There are lots of questions still to be answered with a new developer stepping in, but it looks like Yager gets it. The team has plenty more opportunities to show the actual game off too, as Dead Island 2 isn't expected to arrive -- for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One -- until spring 2015.

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Evolve leads E3 2014’s award nominations, Destiny and Rainbow Six trail close behind
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Turtle Rock Studios brought a standout offering to E3 2014 with its asymmetrical multiplayer game, Evolve, and it was an impressive enough showing to land the studio a total of six nominations in the annual Game Critics Awards, the most of any contender. The GCA is the "official" awards mouthpiece of E3, with just over two dozen media outlets -- including Digital Trends, as of this year -- voting on the best games in a range of categories. Evolve is up for the top Best of Show award, along with Best Original Game, Best Console Game, Best PC Game, Best Action Game, and Best Online Multiplayer.
Trailing behind Evolve are Destiny and Rainbow Six: Siege, each of which nabbed four nominations apiece. Oddly, Destiny didn't make the cut in the Best of Show category; it was bested by Alien: Isolation, Batman: Arkham Knight, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, and No Man's Sky (along with Rainbow Six and Evolve). 2K Games, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and Ubisoft are the most celebrated publishers, with eight nominations apiece for their assorted games. 
This year's nominee lineup features a couple of quirks. The Best Sports Game category, for example, may as well be the Best EA Sports category, as the mega-publisher continues to dominate in the realm of gaming's sports sims (exclusive licensing deals may play a role in that as well). And the poor, forgotten strategy genre makes a light showing this year, with just two games nominated in the category: Petroglyph's Grey Goo and Firaxis' Civilization: Beyond Earth. 
Now all that remains is for the judges to cast their votes, and for those votes to be counted. Here's a full down of all of this year's nominees, by category.
Best of Show

Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly/Sega)
Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady/WBIE)
Evolve (Turtle Rock/2K Games)
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Monolith/WBIE)
No Man's Sky (Hello Games)
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Siege (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft)

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The airlifted goats and Snake-in-the-box sneak attacks of Metal Gear Solid V

It's a new era for Metal Gear. This is a series that began as a top-down stealth/puzzle game during the NES era. It evolved to embrace more of a cinematic 3D flavor roughly a decade later in the Metal Gear Solid series, and it even flirted briefly with collectible card game-style hooks in the MGS Acid titles. There've been surprise protagonists, ponderously long cutscenes, and investment-driven metagames, all executed on with varying degrees of success.
It wasn't until Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes arrived earlier this year that we got a real sense of where Kojima Productions plans to take the series next. We've moved into a realm now of sandbox stealth, with wide-open spaces empowering more of a player-authored route through the game. Ground Zeroes was just a prologue, though; Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain represents a more thorough realization of its predecessor's ideas, and as we learned at E3 2014, the prologue only scratches the surface.
Building bad. The Phantom Pain picks up nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes. The prologue left protagonist and future Metal Gear villain Big Boss in a coma; he awakens at the start of The Phantom Pain and immediately sets out to rebuild his private military force so he can exact vengeance on those who wronged him. Over the course of the game, players -- as "Venom Snake" -- establish an ever-growing army of mercenaries, as well as the Mother Base command center that houses them.

The E3 demo (which you can watch right here), picks up at an early point in the game. Snake is on a mission in Afghanistan to locate and extract a VIP, but the wide open space that it unfolds in allows for an assortment of different approaches that contain plenty of opportunities to diverge from the primary objective. Our demo driver uses the in-game iDroid to map out a rough approach using multiple waypoints, starting with a high-elevation vantage point from which patrolling enemies can be marked. It's a handcrafted route to the objective; Snake could just as easily have circled around to recon and enter the enemy camp from a different location, or simply stormed it blind.
There's still an underlying plot that The Phantom Pain follows, but unlike most of the previous Metal Gear Solid games, the path you carve to each new story point is meant to change from player to player.
Grounded in Zeroes. The overall flow of The Phantom Pain is similar to what was established in Ground Zeroes. You explore a map in search of your objective(s), but in that space there are also other opportunities to strengthen Snake's growing army. Interrogate an opponent before you take him down, and you might be clued into the location of helpful supplies. Whenever you come across something that might aid Snake's growing paramilitary force -- anything from knocked out troops and goats (YUP) to vehicles and even entire shipping containers -- you simply tag it with the Fulton Recovery System and wait a few moments for an air pick-up to carry the item away.

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