Friday, August 14, 2009

FEATURE - The BEST demos.

Yes, fine, I'm doing a top-5 list. But I am breaking the mold by listing them in no particular order and attributing no number value to them. It's also a little different because with most of these lists, you get to read a little bit about items or games that must be purchased to confirm the writer's claims - which means the writer's claims will never be confirmed, or even put to the test. Not so, here.

You can try all of these, simply by hopping over to the PSN store - lovely, convenient, free. Listed here are demos that were hotly anticipated, demos that turned skeptics into believers, and in one particular case a demo that turned my take on a title from "pretty looking" to "I'll get my most-anticipated game of the year next year - 'cause this needs to be purchased now."

First up, Dice's experimental platformer.

Mirror's Edge
Mirror's Edge is one of those rare titles that got everyone in its corner from the first screenshot, the first gameplay video. Not only does it eschew the current generation's standard grey + brown = realism equation, it attempted to make an entire game out of the worst part of nearly every first-person experience: jumping puzzles.

With all this originality, all this potential, gamers (and critics) were chomping at the bit to get their hands on the product and discover if it played as well as the idealized game they invariably imagined it could be - and when the demo dropped, the truth was revealed:

Yes - aside from some combat quibbles, it's everything one hoped it would be. Not perfect, but certainly a landmark game, and the birth of a new genre. Personally I think Mirror's Edge is the closest the current get has to a true, classic, "hardcore" game, thanks to the remarkable challenge of its time trials and speed runs. If you have a platinum trophy for ME, you are truly a master.

Of course, Mirror's Edge's originality ensured that it went on to sell significantly less than another freshman EA property that stuck very closed to established standards: Dead Space. But the demo was still enough to convince gamers that Mirror's Edge kept its promise - an immersive, beautiful game that successfully delivered what no other title would attempt.

BioShock
BioShock, on the other hand, wasn't as easy to like from the get-go. Oh sure, fans of System Shock 2 were no doubt drooling over a current-gen spiritual sequel to their beloved FPS RPG (for a comparison of just how similar they are, dig on Yahtzee's review), but for most of us BioShock was just another game where you travel through a series of hallways and rooms, shooting things. Been there, done that.

Until, of course, the demo. Beautiful, creative, eerie, mysterious, charming - and that's just the environment. Even with one of the more remarkable trailers out there, what really turned BioShock from just another interesting game to the must-experience experience of 2007 was its demo, which demands multiple playthroughs and held the promise of the most engaging title of the year. Every nook must be investigated, every cranny explored, and it leaves little doubt that you have discovered something absolutely remarkable.

There's not much more one can say about BioShock or its demo - everyone knows it's a modern classic, so let's move on.

inFamous
The inFamous demo is a pretty unique example of offering just as much quantity as quality. The game world is split into three islands, and giving players free run of the first island is a very gutsy move on Sucker Punch's part. "Spend time in our game," it suggests. "Run around, explore - there's a lot to see - put our mechanics and our world to the test and see if it passes muster."

And like BioShock, like Mirror's Edge (and the rest of this list), I spent an improbably large amount of time with the inFamous demo. And, like the rest of this list, I had no idea I would fall so deeply in love with the game.

"Do I want to spend more time in Resident Evil 5 or Fallout 3, or do I want to play that inFamous demo for the hundredth time?"

The demo would claim victory, again and again. And it's a testament to how successfully Sucker Punch merged the open-world conceit with classic, comfortable platforming gameplay. Very few demos simply sell the game as well as inFamous's.

Valkyria Chronicles
If a demo's worth is judged by its ability to inspire a purchase, however, Valkyria Chronicles is my personal winner, hands down. In 2008, my most anticipated game of the year was BioShock's PS3 port. I was so dedicated to it, so enamoured with the game, I went out and bought myself a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlus Shrugged over the summer, and read it cover-to-cover (making my way through the obscenely dense "I am Gohn Galt" speech took nearly two weeks, but I prevailed), just because I'd heard that familiarity with the book gave one a deeper understanding of BioShock's themes and story.

So imagine my surprise when, upon checking out the demo for Valkyria Chronicles, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. For the most part, I dislike RPGs - particularly JRPGs - but this? This was something new. Something very special. (Please don't correct me that it's a strategy RPG - I know it's a strategy RPG, but it's also from Japan which makes it an RPG with a J, no matter how you slice it.)

It's beautiful, to be sure, and expertly localized, but it was the gameplay itself that stirred me. An RPG that's fun to play? Something must be wrong. But, over and over and over, the demo called to me, demanding to be played, demanding to be mastered, until I could A-rank its single skirmish with two Command Points.

In the end, Valkyria Chronicles' demo was impressive enough to boot BioShock from last fall's must-buy list - a decision I've never regretted.

Batman: Arkham Asylum
This is the New Kid On The Block - a demo to a game we still haven't played yet - but like all those listed above, Batman: Arkham Asylum's demo delivers on the unspoken promises of all the screenshots and trailers we've been inundated with. First off, there's the big one:

It's a good Batman game. Which, until the demo, was a bit like saying "a fighting game with an engaging storyline" or "an incredibly good movie tie-in game" - these things just don't happen, so the demo is remarkable for that alone.

Unlike the rest of this list, it hasn't inspired a purchase out of me - the dense, protective barrier of my gamer's cynicism seems too difficult for even such a confident experience to break down, and I refuse to have the faith that a preorder would require - but I've already dogeared the funds required for a rental, which is a remarkable accomplishment for any video game with a licensed property.

And, like every other demo listed, it has demanded perhaps too many playthroughs (my best score turns out to be 1880 - beat that!). Like all great demos, it delivers on its promise, and moves us to re-evaluate the game's value. It is, simply put, one of the best demos I've played on the PS3.

*

While we're on the subject, what's your favorite demo of all time? Mine's easy.

I played through Doom: Knee Deep In The Dead so many times in eighth grade it became a sort of zen meditation to me. If I was thoughtful on a subject, or upset, I could slip into Doom, 100% every level without consciously thinking about what I was doing, and by the time I had played through the campaign I would discover I had found a solution to what was troubling me.

Knee Deep In The Dead (the first of Doom's 3 campaigns) was so good, it had the opposite of the intended effect on me - I didn't need to purchase the rest of the game, because KDITD was a wholly satisfying experience for me.

To this day, if I ever go back and replay Doom, I just ignore that the last two episodes are there. Knee Deep In The Dead is all I need.

Easily my favorite demo. What's yours?

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