Impressions of Sega's Gamer's Day
Strap in and stow away your baggage; Sega takes the press on a trip to Dreamcast land.
As you probably read in our Gamer's Day field report yesterday, Sega brought together members of the gaming press to get a look at the Dreamcast and find out a little more about its US plans.
First off, Sega is still sending out its message loud and clear to retailers, including a recent appearance at both Babbage's and Electronics Boutique's manager conferences. This kind of grassroots effort will continue into 1999, and at E3, all of Sega of America's plans for the Dreamcast launch will be known. Sega's Dan Stevens told the assembled journalists that Sega is a "very different company" from the time of the Saturn, and that it is dedicated to changing its image - including its retail presence and how its titles are displayed.
The system itself will come with a 33.6Kbps modem in Japan, but a determination hasn't been made yet for the US market. We strongly suggested to Sega that it'd be a very smart idea to include it. Its multi-out on the back of the machine will support composite, S-Video, and RGB outs and can be adaptable to work with display formats of the future including HDTV. GD-ROM, as a proprietary format, gives developers a lot more room to produce bigger, better games without having to spend more money on more CDs. One GD-ROM disc holds 1.2GB of data, about double what a normal CD can hold.
Sega was also touting that the Dreamcast has above-Model 3 performance, and that it is encouraging developers to break the mold and do things that haven't been done on other systems before. It's not holding back and is priding itself on helping developers work with the machine on new titles. Like the Saturn and Sega CD before it, when the Dreamcast boots it's still got the "Produced by or under license from Sega Enterprises, Ltd." line.
Online gaming is serious business for Sega - it wants it to be an almost transparent component of the Dreamcast. To that end, it is working with Turbine Entertainment to create an untitled online sci-fi RPG that takes place on an alien world that allows over 1,000 people to play at the same time in the same world. You can explore hundreds of miles of terrain. Paul Stathacopoulos gave us an example of a part of the game. Say you see a mountain off in the distance. Not only can you go up to that mountain and climb it (watching it get closer), but you can go over it and take a look at other areas from the top - each of which you can travel to. It also has a character-creation tool, which lets you come up with different characters, each with its own form, function, and abilities. You can also join up into parties of travelers and go around the world in a group. This title will be available around the time of the US launch.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Gamer's Day was when EA was brought up. Sega admitted that it is in talks with EA, and that it has development kits.
The only game we got to play was Virtua Fighter 3tb, and it really looks and plays great. The control is very easy to pick up if you've played the previous VFs. The graphics are crisp and clear in almost every respect except for some really oddly fuzzed-out stage-select screens. Each stage is a work of art; for example, the subway station's got trains rolling past, and as you move around the stage, your view of the whole background shifts, so it's not like the background is just a bitmap being maneuvered around. Sega commented that it built the game from the ground up, and it's evident from every aspect of the game that it's come up with a superior translation from any previous VF-to-console port.
Sound is of course arcade perfect and boomed out of the stereo speakers Sega had set up. Even through composite video cables, the graphics looked phenomenal, without a hint of any breakup, slowdown, or pop-up. While there isn't an online component in VF3tb, it's not really an issue, since it's more fun to play a fighting game when your opponent's sitting right next to you.
Sega showed us (they played, we watched) Sonic Adventure, Blue Stinger, and Climax Landers, all of which will likely come out in the US, but Sega said that none of the titles shown were official for the US market.
Sonic Adventure is definitely Sega's headline title, and it continues to look fantastic. In the rev we were shown, all the characters were playable in quick demo levels - actually a collected version of all the demo stations at TGS with different characters. When complete, Sonic Adventure will run at a constant 60 frames per second, and Sonic Team is working very hard to polish it up and get it running consistently at this rate. The version we saw was newer than that shown at TGS but was not the full game. We were able to see the entire intro of the game though, and it's seamless. The running demo also had scenes with each of the game's characters - sort of a back-story scene before showing them in action.
Blue Stinger looked promising as well, but Climax has to fix the camera angles before the game ships, otherwise it could get frustrating very quickly. At TGS when I played the game, the camera angles were horrid, not switching to let you see an area of the map, not switching fast enough, etc. The graphics are pretty, but when you're on a desolate island where it doesn't look like anything's happening (and the music wasn't really "there" yet), it's a problem. Resident Evil had quiet portions of the game, but there was a murky, dark atmosphere. Blue Stinger has an unsettling bright and neon atmosphere, but there's no unsettling music or monsters that really fit the right mood.
RPGs are obviously something Sega of America will be supporting when the DC launches in the US (and it's a very, very good thing). To subliminally prove this, we were shown Climax Landers, which looks great, but unfortunately we only saw one battle - and not a long one. One of the odd things I noticed was that the graphics looked great but would be almost too close to the action. You need some perspective when looking at huge magical attacks, etc., but that unfortunately hasn't been done yet. Another complaint is that of the two attacks we saw by the main character, Sword, both looked really unimpressive or looked plain next to the huge summon attacks in FFVII or VIII.
Load time on the Dreamcast is about the same as the PlayStation. There is loading time, but it's fairly transparent and quick. Sega also confirmed and showed us the Dreamcast's main menu in English but wouldn't confirm whether or not the interface would be changed for the US system. Another interesting tidbit of news is that Sega is working on resurrecting one (and only one, at this time) title/character from the Genesis days for the Dreamcast. The company wouldn't say who or what it is, instead saying that it would be interesting to see old characters in new situations/genres.
Afterwards, the press was ushered off in a bus for a night of drunken partying and was given Dreamcast flight jackets.
The one problem with Sega's Gamer's Day is that we didn't play the games. Virtua Fighter 3, yes, but no Sonic, no Blue Stinger, no Rally 2 (d'oh!). It's almost as if Sega was just giving us a tease, but that doesn't entirely work when some of us have played all the games and more at last month's Tokyo Game Show. No appearance from Bernie Stolar, either - not bad, but when you're doing a grassroots effort and seeing the retailers, why not make an effort to meet with the journalists that have the questions?
Seeing the Dreamcast is always a pleasure, and it was better to get a long look at the system over other people's heads at TGS. The fact remains that the Japanese launch is looking worse and worse, and the US launch looks better every day. It's an ambitious task getting all of these components (online, in-house development, third party) together, but SOA's got a year, and by that time, the second generation of Japanese titles will be coming. In that respect, the future is very bright for SOA. The company is planning to reveal more around February, so stay tuned to videogames.com, and we'll let you know all the details as we find out.
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