Paris Ubisoft Diary
Wednesday, May 28, Day
Yeah, there's the "April in Paris" Paris, the comedic "Sex and the City" Paris and the erotic "Betty Blue" Paris. This ain't that. This is Paris in the humid late spring, Ubisoft style. Forget the aromatic peonies in bloom in the sprawling wonder of the Jardin des Plantes. Paris got game. For in this sprawling city where the Eiffel Tower attacks the eyes at night with 20,000 gauche strobes of light, Ubisoft held one of the more compelling game events ever seen outside the confines of E3.
As the New York Mafia (or so the New York City critics are supposedly called) rolled into town, we saw within 10 minutes on the road four giant Grand Theft Auto IV billboards, including the one with the now-famous six-fingered woman. They were big like giants, and you half expected them to lumber forth like mechs onto the streets of Paris. No such giant Ubi signs were visible to the eye.
Yet last week, Ubisoft didn't need any stinkin' signs to promote their games. The profitable French company with $1.2 billion in extra cash had 1,100 of world's game writers and daily newspaper journalists in to preview its summer and autumn offerings.
Wednesday, May 28, Evening
Ubisoft had the foresight to hold its event in the Louvre, the former fortress of Philip II that now holds 35,000-plus fab historic treasures like the "Mona Lisa" and "Death of the Virgin." Though the analogy was obvious, it was nonetheless brilliant, if overblown. A proud Ubisoft sees its games as art -- no more, no less. It ain't high art, Da Vinci or Caravaggio style, but what was showcased was popular art, whether it was playing Rayman Ravings Rabbids TV Party with the cheeks of your chubby ass on the Wii Balance Board, playing Far Cry 2 in the midst of Africa's glorious savannahs and making your own level, or using your voice to control the various battalions in the technology-advanced EndWar.
Yet because of a cheeky British presenter-cum-UbiDays press conference host, the first thing we got was a weird presentation full of overly enthusiastic nudge, nudge, wink, winks; mild sexism; and corny double entendres. As Scott Jones pointed out in his report, the dude even made a fart joke. While the slick Brit was supposedly better than last year's mistress of ceremonies, the games really didn't need an MC, and they certainly didn't need Colonel John Antal telling the same old stories about a patriotic World War II vet, screaming at us to shout along to a chant, and telling the crowd of Europeans that the United States won the war. I like the Colonel, but he needs some new anecdotes when he talks about Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. Anyway, the best of the games spoke eloquently for themselves. After the talks were over, we all got to roam the Louvre, which was full of cloaked Opus Dei types, I guess to give us a feeling of creepiness and mystery right out of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."
Thursday, May 29, Afternoon
I liked the humor in Rayman Ravings Rabbids TV Party, not just the idea that you control one of the mini-games with your butt. Whoever designed the game obviously knows his history and loves to parody it. There was even a shout-out to older folks: The frantic, mouth-breathing host for the ski-with-your-butt game was Jean-Claude Silly, a riff on French skier Jean-Claude Killy who won three gold medals at the 1967 Olympics in Grenoble. Question, though: Will the game work if you don't have the Wii Balance Board?
Carrot-topped snowboarder's Shaun White's game will work with or without. I checked out Shaun White Snowboarding for the Wii, which you can play using either the balance board or with the Wii remote. To do tricks, you move forward or backward or sideways on the board, which means I'll be falling off a lot, clumsy nerd that I am. The Wii version is more arcade-y than the sim-oriented PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions, which let you head down a mountain online with your pals in what seems to be real time.
The gameplay with the balance board looks like more of a dangerous adventure to me, however, and I'll be testing my Achilles tendon over and over when this thing comes out. The graphics seemed cartoony, as is almost always the case with the Wii, however the story will make you feel like one of the snowboarders. Says Trent Ward, creative director for the Wii version, "You'll get to know what it feels like to take a road trip with these guys." Judging from the messy RV in which the guys were traveling, I just hope that doesn't include Smell-o-Vision.
HAWX is a futuristic new Tom Clancy real-time strategy offering that you control with your grizzled voice. You don't need to train the thing to work with your yap; you're the fast-talking general moving your troops and your voice works right out of the box. You get an in-game camera to observe each arena of operations, and the way the camera moves feels like you're being whisked along on the rails of a helicopter. It's like Vittorio Storaro's cinematography in "Apocalypse Now" all sped up.
Everyone I saw play HAWX lost the campaign in Paris against the artificial intelligence. There was a map that gives you an idea of where you are in Paris as potential destruction awaits, but it really could have used some reality, like labeled streets or landmarks. HAWX will appeal to hardcore strategy folks, who'll drool over the tech, but it needs more to bring other hardcore gamers into the fray.
Far Cry 2 seemed so real, it made me feel as though I was back writing a travel story in the dusty savannah of South Africa. Here's a game where you can go anywhere and do anything that has to do with shooting or exploring this 50-square-kilometer sandbox. In the game, you play as a mercenary out to whack an evil guy called The Jackal, but when asked about the game's story, one of the demo experts said, "The drama isn't something we write. The story will assemble itself based on player action." Oooh, like magic.
Far Cry 2 has switched developers, and fans of the original game have been disappointed with recent iterations like Far Cry Instincts. This one looks like it could indeed be as compelling as the original, without the pull-your-hair-out difficulty.
Friday and Saturday, May 30 and 31
Beyond Ubisoft, I also wanted to know how Paris played games. So I walked around the various arrondissements until my knees became jelly. Near the protective gargoyles perched atop the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the local Game chain promoted Wii Fit and Grid in the window. It also sold the camera attachment for the PSP for about $100, which seems too pricy to me, but everything's pricier in Europe. I'd guess the camera will be around $60 or less if it ever gets to these shores.
Near the Paris Catacombs (which you've been though virtually in everything from Deus Ex to Tomb Raider III) skulls and femurs lay stacked in the moldy depths beneath the streets. Nearby in the Game store, 20 customers stood in line, including a seven-year-old child trying to trade in some DS games and PlayStation 2 games for Euro 59.99 (about $95) to buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV. He clutched that copy of the game like it was his mother's teat. When he was rebuffed at the cash register for being too young, his father picked up the tab for the disk. The question is, Will the underage kid have access to the rude and crude artistic achievement while Dad is playing?
There were surprising game experiences all over Paris. For instance, at the Picasso museum, there was a young woman in an old-school Space Invaders t-shirt, which made for an interesting contrast as she passed under the artist's sculpture of a goat. When Ubisoft took us to the Moulin Rouge cabaret to see the topless dancers, I thought, what an utterly cool WiiWare game this would make: As a woman swam in a tank full of boa constrictors, you'd have to save her. You could dance in rhythm with the small-breasted girls as they sang campy numbers. You could lift the acrobatic woman in all sorts of backbreaking ways like the strongman did. With 60 girls, 100 artists, 1,000 costumes and the thought of sex everywhere, this could even be a console game.
Sunday, June 1
On Sunday, sitting by the Seine under a shadowy overpass like a troll, a scurrilous-looking guy played his Nintendo DS with intensity, oblivious to the long, thin tourist boats waiting at the dock and the schools of fish scurrying by in the muddy waters. On that day, all the stores were closed, gaming and otherwise, but as I walked the wide plazas full of steps and stairwells and railings, I couldn't help thinking that Paris looked like one of those skateboard games, full of things to trick off and full of nooks and crannies to explore.
But the New York Mafia had to get to the airport. Once there, we were to be delayed for hours and hours by a laggard American Airlines plane. While we were stuck in an airport hotel, which looked like something out of the Soviet Bloc, someone played Secret Agent Clank and someone played the Flash version of Portal. I sat writing this particular spew, when Le Petite Miss France de Gasse crawled over and started wiggling a Barbie doll near my bald pate. Suddenly, she stopped for a minute and then let out a fart that was far too big for her three-year-old size. I thought, "If you think that's a power-up, Le Petite Miss France de Gasse, I've got one grande bombe du Mario for you."
Instead, I got up and walked to the bar, thinking all of Paris is a game. And I kept on thinking that when I returned home. To rephrase Hemingway, Paris is a movable videogame feast. It stays with you wherever you go.