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PLAY Expo 2016

Dan has a look back at this year's PLAY Expo

It’s October again, and that means that a couple of weeks ago was time to go back to Manchester Event City for the annual PLAY Expo. Replay Events seem to have worked out what does and doesn’t work with the shows, and this year had a layout that closely resembled last year.

We arrived surprisingly early this year, so the hall was almost completely empty by the time we got in with only a few other members of the press already there – a lot of exhibitors hadn’t even arrived yet.

We decided to take advantage of how quiet it was by playing some of what we expected to be the most popular games of the weekend played, starting with Tekken 7. While I’d seen Tekken being played at EGX, I didn’t have a chance to play it then. With the exception of an Insomnia a few years ago where we were opposite a Tekken Tag Tournament 2 cabinet that I managed to play on a few times, I’ve not properly played a Tekken since the original Tekken Tag on the PlayStation 2 so it was nice to play through a good chunk of the roster on this one. The demo units hopefully were running pre-release code, as the load times were terrible, but once in-game it was quite fun and of course gorgeous as Namco fighting games tend to be.

By the time we’d finally finished with Tekken it sounded like the doors were opening for general admission, so we headed to the far end of the hall and the arcade section to get our pick of the games there without having to queue. Having now given up on the hopes of ever playing Thunder Cross 2 again we’ve instead decided on picking a random two player arcade game and finishing it. Kicking this trend off, we played through the entirety of the light gun classic Time Crisis 2. The cabinet had seen better days, with one screen distorted and the other having incorrect colour settings, but gameplay wise it’s held up surprisingly well and is still good fun to play.

The next game however, Gauntlet Legends, didn’t fare anywhere near as well. I seem to remember playing the PlayStation 2 port of it with my brother way back somewhere in the mists of time, but it was a clunky, ugly mess from that awkward period in gaming where developers tried to force many classic series into 3D versions with varying degrees of success. It totally lacks the fun and speed of the original games, and is certainly one better off forgotten.

I also had a bit of a blast on After Burner, in the larger cockpit cabinet. I think I’ve only previously played it in the normal stand up and home release versions, so it was quite a fun experience, though I think all the motion makes it even harder than usual.

Deciding that we were going to have a fighting game theme for day, we also gave the original Virtua Fighter a go and it’s sadly another game that’s very much of its time that hasn’t aged at all well. I’m sure, back in the early days of 3D, that it played much better but after two decades of improvements to controls and gameplay it was very slow and quite painful to play.

Across from the arcade games again this year, we found the now customary large selection of pinball machines. I’m always surprised by how busy this section tends to be, as I kind of think of pinball as something that’s more or less been and gone, but at each show it’s packed with people and has machines from new TV shows and movies. I spent a little while playing a few different tables and, while pinball purists likely will think they’re too gimmicky, rather enjoyed ones like the Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings ones I tried that had a lot of things going on in them.

Working our way back down the hall, next was the retro console selection. I didn’t see many of the more uncommon consoles this time around, but did play a few games I’d either not played for years or at all before. A standout here was an original Xbox game that I’d somehow never seen before, Mashed: Fully Loaded. Very similar in spirit and gameplay to the classic Mega Drive Micro Machines games, it was an absolute delight and a game I’m very sad not to have discovered during my university years where it would have been played endlessly. The early virtual reality pods that have been part of the retro section at the last couple of shows weren’t here this time but in their place was one I never saw back in the day, a virtual reality racing game.

Nearby there were also some console specific showcases, with the two most of interest being the Dreamcast and the MSX. The Dreamcast will always be one of my favourite consoles for the sheer quality of some of the titles (Shenmue and Soul Calibur in particular spring to mind) and the day’s fighting tournament continued here with a few rounds of Soul Calibur. Also on display was robot shooter Virtual On with its twin stick controller that I remember being very interested in back when it was released.

The MSX is also a machine I’ve long been interested in but never owned myself. While it was available in Europe I don’t believe it was terribly popular and I certainly never saw one as a kid. It is of course arguably most well known as the birthplace of the Metal Gear series, with the two top down games that preceded Metal Gear Solid being released here, and the system looks to have had a fair life with homebrew titles ever since. A number of boxes for games, both original and homebrew were on display with my eye of course drawn to ‘Sonyc,’ a game that most definitely does not infringe on Sega’s trademarks whatsoever – I doubt they would be too troubled by it though as it was basically unplayable.

Back again, and I believe a little bit expanded this year, was the board game section. I’ve been playing quite a few boardgames myself over the last year and it seems to be an increasingly more popular hobby so it’s nice to see it returning and always being popular.

Further down the hall we found the LAN games section, playing a number of multiplayer classics. I played a couple of rounds of Star Wars Battlefront (the old one, not the new one) and did fairly well for a game I’ve not really played in a decade. There did seem to be a worrying number of systems that weren’t running here, but being in PC repairs myself I do understand how things can break particularly when a number of guests to the show likely weren’t being all that gentle. The Halo multiplayer pod that’s been to the last couple of shows also returned with 16 Xboxes networked together, and there’s always a good crowd of people playing there.

Next to the LAN games were the fighting game tournament areas, with several different games being played. I saw matches in Street Fighter and Tekken, and Mortal Kombat, BazBlue and Guilty Gear were also all being played.

There were quite a few indie games playable as usual – though no sign of Raging Justice at all this year sadly – and I played a handful of them. The one that really caught my eye was a charming cartoony shooter called Dragon Bros that played fantastically. I’d likely have picked it up on Steam already if not for the fact that it currently only has local co-op – online co-op is really a must for me these days as I no longer live all that close to any of my regular co-op partners.

Aside from the PlayStation section with Tekken as the highlight, other new games on display were Rebellion’s fantastic looking BattleZone and 2K’s latest WWE title, which unfortunately is not at all my cup of tea so was avoided completely. BattleZone was drawing huge crowds all day with quite a long queue and it’s been getting great reviews so far and was by far the most popular of the VR games on display, though there were a couple of other smaller releases such as Llamasoft’s new game Polybius.

Towards the entrance of the hall were the media and cosplay sections, as well as the education and careers stands that offered advice on getting into games design as a job. The media part was significantly scaled down from previous years, with no celebrity guests this time around apart from original Lara Croft model Natalie Cook in full costume as part of a celebration of the series’ 20th anniversary. A lot of the space was given over to a focus on cosplay. There was a small group working on building a costume over the weekend, which I don’t think they managed sadly, as well as the cosplay stage that had several events on such as Cosplay Blind Date and of course the cosplay competition. As always, there were some very impressive costumes on display.

Off to the side was the other show stage, where there were talks from a number of game developers (including many of the team from the original Tomb Raider games) and when we went past they were playing Wi-Fi Wars, where anyone playing connects with an app on their phones and the audience are split into two teams playing against each other which looked pretty fun.

Finally, we spent a good chunk of the afternoon doing one of my favourite parts of game shows: browsing the retro game sellers. There seemed to be a few less traders selling just games this time around, with many more focusing on merchandise and t-shirts, but still plenty of games to browse through and even pick a couple up this time around after finding a few games to fill gaps in my collection at decent prices.

I found this year’s expo to be another good show that I enjoyed more than last year, though in fairness I did arrive a lot earlier this time around so managed to play a lot more games. It’s been nice to see the show evolve and expand over the last couple of years, and I look forward to future years continuing this trend.