As one of the biggest and most popular gaming conventions in the country, PAX East is naturally the place any east-coast gaming enthusiast who’s serious about their passion wants to be. This year, I was lucky enough to snag a Sunday pass for the event and in this feature I’ll share with you what I saw, what I played, and what you can look forward to during the year of 2013.

The Heavy-Hitters

Despite its early 10AM opening time, it wasn’t long before some of PAX East’s bigger attractions were jam-packed with scores of people waiting in line. These attractions consisted mainly of exclusive debut videos for recently announced triple-A titles. I got to sit in on two such videos; the first was for Ubisoft’s latest entry in the Assassin’s Creed series Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and the second was for the fourth game in Volition’s over-the-top Saints Row saga Saints Row IV.

PAX East Assassins Creed

The video for Black Flag didn’t really reveal anything we don’t already know but it did extrapolate on some of the many activities players will get to participate in during their booty-plundering, rum-guzzling, swashbuckling time with the game, complete with in-game footage. The video also included narration from some of Black Flag’s development staff who talked about what they learned from Assassin’s Creed III’s reception and how they’re aiming to make Black Flag better in every way possible (a bold claim, but judging from how smooth Black Flag looked even in its alpha build, I’d say they’re on the right track).

The Saints Row IV presentation meanwhile opened up in typical Saints Row fashion: the main character, having been dubbed the new President of the United States after the former President is abducted by an evil alien race called the Xin, starts the demo running around Steelport decked out in an Uncle Sam costume and it doesn’t take long before he’s punching random pedestrians in the groin and piledriving them with various wrestling moves.

The team at Volition was eager to show off other crazy new elements such as some of the new weapons like the inflate-o-ray which, as the name suggests, causes targets to swell up with air, their heads, limbs, and eyeballs expanding in comedic fashion before blowing up. The other new weapon, simply titled the dubstep gun, is also pretty self-explanatory with targets busting out into dance as dubstep music wub-wub’s in the background.

Volition also showed off how certain weapons can have their appearance customized, for instance, making the rocket launcher look like a guitar case ala Desperado or a giant SNES Super Scope Light Gun (which Volition cleverly dubbed the “Soopa Six”). New activities such as “Mech Mayhem” (again sporting a title that’s not too strenuous on the imagination) now feature a tiered scoring system (bronze, silver, gold) and, much like past Saints Row games, can unlock new toys (such as the aforementioned mech suit) for use during free-roam play.

PAX East Saints Row

Lastly, the team showed off one of the craziest new additions: superpowers. In Saints Row IV, players will be able to run at ridiculous speeds, leap tall buildings in a single jump, glide for limited distances, create shockwaves by slamming into the ground with super strength, and utilize other powers such as freeze blasts and telekinesis. Volition was also careful to clarify that the powers shown off in the demo were just a small portion of the overall pool of powers players can acquire. To help make sure the game is still challenging despite these powerful advantages, Volition promised there will be some equally powerful adversaries and they closed the demo presentation by teasing one such potential battle with an intimidating-looking foe called the “Xin Warden.”

Other preview presentations for games such as Watch Dogs and Splinter Cell: Blacklist were also on display but unfortunately, due to long lines and time constraints, I wasn’t able to see them for myself. However, what I *did* see left me feeling very excited for the coming months in 2013. Despite not being playable, these and other major upcoming titles are already showing a lot of promise and I imagine the hype is only going to continue to build as we move into the later parts of the year.

Hands-On Time

As exciting as it was getting to witness brief glimpses of major upcoming games, I didn’t come to PAX just to watch from afar. Many playable game stations crowded the convention’s floor and I was eager to try them out for myself. Some notable highlights included the upcoming Spartacus Legends based off the hit Spartacus television series. Developed by Kung Fu Factory and published by Ubisoft, Legends puts players in the role of a Dominus (master) of their very own Ludas (school) of gladiators. Players can purchase new gladiators, train them in a variety of different weapon-styles, outfit them with various pieces of armor, and then send them into the arena to fight.

PAX East Spartacus

Players control their gladiators in a real-time fighting game-esque scenario complete with combos, special attacks, and “execution” finishing moves. As individual gladiators win fights, they earn experience and money which can be used to purchase better armor and weapons as well as new skills, attacks, and passive traits. Best of all, the base game will be free-to-play with optional real-cash purchases and it will even feature the likenesses and voices of several characters from the show including Liam McIntyre as the show’s titular hero Spartacus.

If you’re thinking Legends will just be another quick cash-grab off a popular license, you can put your doubts to rest because judging from what I saw and played at PAX, it’s anything but. Legends shows a lot of promise not only as a gladiatorial fighting game but also as a major console-bound F2P title.

Over in the Massively Multiplayer department, I got to try out NCsoft’s and Carbine Studios’ upcoming sci-fi/fantasy MMO WildStar. The brief demo didn’t really offer any groundbreaking new innovations into the MMO formula, but its easy-to-learn interface and whimsical World of Warcraft-esque graphics style made the experience a pleasant one. WildStar may not stay on the radar of long-time World of Warcraft players like myself, but I’m sure it will manage to carve out its own niche in the MMO playerbase, especially considering what the developers have in store for otherwise second-fiddle features such as player housing and factional PvP.

My most memorable hands-on experience at PAX however certainly goes to Zombie Studios (of Blacklight: Retribution fame) and their upcoming psychological horror game Daylight. The premise behind Daylight seems simple at first; the player steps into the role of a young woman who wakes up in the middle of a dark, abandoned hospital with nothing but her cell phone which serves as a light source. The twist lies in the game’s “procedurally generated world” that creates an entirely new layout to the environment each time you play.

PAX East Daylight

As I and many other PAX attendees each stepped up to delve into the frightening environments of Daylight, getting lost in an eerie experience of creepy sound effects, pitch-black darkness, and nothing but the scared protagonist’s hushed mumblings to give us comfort, we were amazed to see that no two of us ever ventured through the same map layout. While the standard “abandoned hospital” overtone remained the same, the exact progression of what we experienced constantly shifted with each new player.

Zombie Studios also mentioned that, in the game’s full release, this dynamic shifting would affect far more than just the environment. Other elements such as the placement of various environmental items and even the sorts of encounters and events a player experiences would never be the same in each subsequent playthrough, promising many, many hours spent wandering Daylight’s decrepit halls, a fresh new horror experience awaiting the player each time.

Honorable Mentions

As the day went on, I got to sample other games such as Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (probably my most anticipated survival-horror game of 2013), NetherRealm’s Injustice: Gods Among Us (definitely has a very “Mortal Kombat” feel about it but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to play), the newest open beta update for Digital Extremes’ F2P co-op sci-fi space ninja saga Warframe (even got to meet the voice actress who supplied the voice for Lotus), Capcom’s and Dontnod’s memory-stealing adventure Remember Me (look for my review of the full game when it’s released in June), and another F2P game on the horizon; Signal Studios Ascend: New Gods which offers an odd sort of single player/MMO mashup within a violent fantasy world (sadly the PAX demo only featured a single player portion).

A Day Well Spent….

This year marked my second annual trip to the PAX East convention and, much like last year, it didn’t disappoint. This mecca of the gaming world which featured tons of playable games of the video, board, and card variety is so much more than a place for developers to show off their new games. It’s a thriving haven for game-lovers of all kinds be it kids, adults, cosplayers, hardcore fans or just casual observers (like yours truly). As fun as PAX was this year, I’m already looking forward to PAX East 2014 where I’m sure the convention will manage to top itself once again.