On the flight home from E3 this year I couldn't help but notice one of the flight attendants walking down the aisle: she had streaks of grey in her hair, but was otherwise a youthful looking woman; only the grey betrayed her age. The same could be said of the PC games industry which is starting to show grey, but is still vibrant to behold.
Anyone at E3 couldn't miss the fact that PC games are now second class citizens in the industry. While Microsoft obviously spent millions on its E3 space to promote the Xbox and Xbox 360, the company provided little for its Games for Windows area. Microsoft packed several PC games into a small two-floor rectangle of a booth, where people had to literally pack themselves into the tight space to catch a glimpse of what was being offered, including Dungeon Siege II, Rise of Legends and Age of Empires III.
Other publishers also focused primarily on their console offerings, with few PC games evident to the casual observer. Most of those I saw at the show were on display at the various booths of hardware companies like ATI, NVIDIA and Alienware, not at their publisher's locations.
While the above doesn't present a pretty picture for PC gaming, it's merely the grey in the platform's aging hair. The face of the PC as a gaming platform is still quite vibrant. After seeing the various titles being shown for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, something pretty obvious stuck out: you can play games of the same visual quality right now on a PC with a modern video card (i.e., Radeon 9800 / GeForce 6800). So what was on display for the PC?
Since I wasn't there for the media, most of my time was spent helping to show off Stardock's Galactic Civilizations II, Society and TotalGaming.net service. Luckly, my comrades and I did have time to check out the show floor...
One of the first titles we saw was Rise of Legends, being developed by Big Huge Games. A successor to the hit RTS Rise of Nations, Legends features an enhanced 3D engine which really brings the action to life. We saw a huge mechanical city with interlocked working gears, rotating cannon turrets and more. This wasn't just a storyline construct, it's something that players will be able to build themselves. As we watched RoL being demoed, explosions rocked the city and the entire mechanized contruct began to fall apart with eruptions of fire. While Legends falls under the Rise of Nations banner, it's definitely not a history game.
The next title we got to look at in some depth was Age of Empires III. The screenshots we'd seen online before the show were really impressive, and seeing Empires III live didn't disappoint either. While the graphics themselves are very nice, what stood out most was the physics system. For example, if you fire a cannon at a building, the building will realistically break apart, and if there is enough oomph behind the shot, the ball may blow right through the building into another. Also, if you fire a cannon at a group of soldiers, they'll be blown backward and fly in the directions you'd expect. We saw some get tossed into the water over a cliff where they landed with a splash as ripples spread over the pond. Very impressive stuff. Troop formations were also on display for us at the Empires III area and will definitely impact gameplay. Players will be able to setup their musketmen into line formation where the front will fire, then kneel down to reload while the back line fires, only to repeat until the enemy is destroyed.
The last PC game I want to touch on was Heroes of Might & Magic V, being developed by Nival Interactive for Ubisoft. I was concerned about how Heroes V might turn out given the recent history of the franchise, but after seeing its progress, my fears were unfounded. Heroes V uses a 3D engine which keeps the look and feel of the series' roots, but provides greater depth then ever before. Players will be able to explore the rich 3D world with ease thanks to the rotatable camera, and won't have to worry about trees or other objects obstructing the view. Combat maintains the classic Heroes system, but now features an instantanous blur effect like you'd see in a Final Fantasy game that takes you to the battle screen. Each army is still represented by one model (with the number of units displayed nearby), but now battles are brillantly animated with incredible detail. For example, we saw an Angel raise its sword (close-up), enshrouded in white flame and covered with runes, cast a devastating attack upon the enemy by calling down bolts of lightning. Each creature is just packed with detail. Heroes V should be one of the best in the series once it's released.
So those are my PC gaming highlights for E3 2005. While the PC may not be as highly thought of right now as a gaming platform, it still has many high-quality titles to offer, and the versatility to match. The next year is looking pretty good.