Personal E3 Wrap Up

“Hey, Matt, what did you think of E3 this year?” is a thing that I get asked quite a lot by the voices in my head, so I thought I’d take the time to briefly collect my impressions and figure out what, in fact, I thought of E3 this year.

Sunday and Monday were the big days for people like me who weren’t at the show. EA and Bethesda streamed their events for the public on Sunday, with Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Sony following on Monday. Tuesday was less of a time commitment, with just Nintendo on the schedule, but with a highly anticipated reveal of gameplay footage from the new Zelda title. IF you had asked me on Monday or Tuesday, I would have said I came away most impressed with Microsoft, most disjointedness with Sony, and everyone else falling somewhere in the middle. With some more time to reflect, I think every show actually grades out about the same: each company showed some things I’m super excited to play, some things I”d like to see more of either because I’m intrigued by or unsure of what I saw, and some things that just don’t hold much interest for me personally.

I Want to start with the items that just didn’t do it for me, because I don’t want to dwell on the negative. Many of these things came from Sony’s press conference: The Last Guardian, LEGO Star Wars, a remaster of the Crash Bandicoot series, and Death Stranding - the new game from Hideo Kojima - all just landed very flatly with me. LEGO Star Wars and Death Stranding did so from the opposite end of the spectrum, too: I know what the LEGO games are and don’t enjoy them, while the trailer for Kojima’s new game was simply pre-rendered footage of “weird shit” (apologies for the highly technical term) on a beach. I need to know a lot more about what the new thing from Kojima is before I can muster up an ounce of interest after turning so hard on Metal Gear Solid V after roughly 20 hours. EA showed a willingness to take some risks with their sports franchises by putting a story-driven single=player mode into FIFA 17, but I’ll be far more interested if and when this makes it to the Madden and NHL franchises, as I just don’t enjoy the FIFA games like everyone else on the planet. As for Microsoft, I thought Scalebound looked really unengaging in terms of moment to moment action, and Final Fantasy XV demoed very, very poorly. I still want to play the later given what else I’ve seen, but the former has a lot of work left to sell me before release in 2017. The Dead Rising series has also never been my cup of tea, but I’m glad it’s back for the people who loved it. Ubisoft lagged with For Honor, which seems innovative but just not like something I’d spend a lot of time with; I also didn’t enjoy South Park: The Stick of Truth and am not especially excited for the sequel: South Park: Superhero Game Based on The Joke “Isn’t This Racist Slur Funny When Said by Kids?” That’s not the actual subtitle, but...it should be.

I came away from E3 cautiously optimistic or intrigued about an almost equal number of games. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands looks pretty, but I need to know if it’s just The Division: Central America Skin. I will say that seeing it and Ubisoft’s commitment to The Division got me to play more of the Division for the first time since March, so that’s another win for them. Sony and Microsoft both trotted out franchises abbreviated as GoW; Microsoft’s Gears of War 4 was a known quantity and looked very pretty, but I don’t know how much I want to play another Gears game. The same thing goes for Sony’s God of War, which showed an intriguing willingness to move away from series conventions with a new camera angle and style of third person play, but I’m put off by the apparent similarities to the Dark Souls series, which I truly despise. Sony also debuted a new title named Days Gone, which looks like a zombie game and didn’t look great to me, but I want to see more about what they have to say about the game’s story and actual moment to moment game play before writing it off entirely. EA didn’t show much of Mass Effect or their new Star Wars titles, but what they did show looked very, very nice. Microsoft also showed off a new Witcher 3 tie-in of a stand-alone Gwent game featuring a new single-player campaign and sure, I need another collectible card game to play in addition to my daily Hearthstone addiction, the coming Elder Scrolls Legends game, and the occasional draw back into digital Magic: The Gathering.

There were a handful of games that I walked away from E3 truly and legitimately excited to play. I’ve not mentioned anything from Nintendo yet, and that’s partially because their show was focused mostly on one title - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wind. This game looks phenomenal, and I already know I’ll buy it for the Wii U, which was shown at the show this year, and for the NX when that new console is available. This new title appears to have gear and loot and crafting and cooking, which are all new for a Zelda title, plus the standard dungeon experiences you expect from the series. Close competitors for my personal game for the show would be Titanfall 2 and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Titanfall was fairly criticized for a lack of a single player campaign and a shallow progression system in multiplayer, and Respawn have promised to correct both. What I loved about the original in spite of those shortcomings were the sense of movement and freedom you had in a first person shooter, and they look like they’ve doubled down on that with more options for getting around and putting yourself in a good situation for individual firefights. Horizon: Zero Dawn in a post-post-apocalyptic RPG and the lengthy demo Sony showed of the female player character riding a robotic elk-thing and taking down a rampaging spider-ish robot looked like combat was fluid and dynamic. Further reports from people at the show confirmed there’s a robust quest system which has me thinking this could be my 2017 version of The Witcher 3 - a game I love but get so overwhelmed while playing I don’t know what to do next and simply walk away and feel great shame. A few other sequels seemed very exciting, as Watch_Dogs 2 and Forza Horizon 3 made strong impressions. I believe those are both 2017 titles, which is fine since Bethesda is releasing Dishonored 2 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition in 2016. I will play both of those games, and I will play a LOT of both of those games.

Due in part to pre-show leaks and publishers showing games like Watch_Dogs 2 off on special announcement streams in the week before E3, it didn’t feel like there were any truly shocking or surprising reveals. We got trailers and release dates for some known quantities, some new IP announcements that seem to be two years or more off, and and information about incremental improvements to known franchises and coming games. For what this E3 seemed to lack in surprise and quantity, it made it up for me in quality.

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Extra Life for Slackers - December 12th!

Hey duders - I'm doing an Extra Life stream on Saturday, December 12th. This is chance for anyone who wants to donate to help sick kids but needs to watch someone test the limits of their stamina and sanity at the same time. I've watched and donated to Team Giant Bomb the past few years, and decided this was the year to finally do a stream. Unfortunately, I work in US benefits administration, which means late October to mid-November is super busy and unpredictable, hence my Extra Life for Slackers stream.

My donation page is at http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=195000

I'll be streaming at http://www.twitch.tv/asmo917, which is where you can see a couple tests of my Xbox and PS4 living room set-ups from last night. I, uh, have work to do on audio quality and would appreciate any tips from living room streamers on either platform.

I'll also be streaming from my PC, alternating between that and consoles to give myself short breaks to get up and move from my office to the living room and back. I haven't decided what I'm playing, but here's a list of what I have available. Suggestions are welcome - suggestions with donations are more heavily considered, of course.

I'm thinking of a few other ideas, like naming Xcom soldiers after donors and the like, but really just hope to come close to my goal of $500. Thanks for your advice and support. For the kids!

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Dear Need for Speed and most driving games: It's not you, it's me. But it's also you, 2015 Need for Speed.

Electronic Arts has a service called EA Access available on the Xbox One. For a monthly or annual fee, you’re granted early access to EA games for ten hours the weekend prior to release, a discount on digital EA purchases from full games to DLC to microtransactions, and “free” access to the EA Vault. This means you can download and play a number of EA games with no restriction as long as you maintain your EA Access subscription. For me, this service makes sense because I play a lot of EA games. I had planned for this piece to be a review or some early impressions of today’s release Need for Speed. Instead, I spent a few hours with the game over the weekend and came to the conclusion that we may have reached a point where modern driving games just aren’t for me.

In my two or so hours with Need For Speed, I came to the conclusion that I was going to invoke Wolpaw’s Law to say definitively that Need for Speed isn’t a very good game. Wolpaw’s Law was coined by former game reviewer and current game writer at Valve and has two main components: an amazing ending to a bad game doesn’t redeem everything that came before it, and if a reviewer played a terrible game to completion instead of stopping after realizing it was terrible, the review wouldn’t be different. In my short time with the game, I was disconnected from the game and dumped to the main menu three times and couldn’t adjust the brightness to account for the fact that the game is almost completely at night. The game never pauses while in menus, which makes navigating a pain in the ass and actively encourages you to teleport to places in an open world driving game instead of driving through the open world. The game has a few things going for it, such as terrible but occasionally terribly entertaining FMV sequences, but those tell a milquetoast story focused on characters who remind me of the people I spent 4 years at a public university trying to avoid standing next to at a party.

Modern games in popular genres have a control language that transcends individual titles and makes most games accessible to people who have a passing familiarity with that genre. Ever since Call of Duty 4, modern shooters can be broken down into their most base mechanics as “left trigger to aim, right trigger to shoot.” Driving games have a similar shorthand; left trigger to break, right trigger to go really fast, probably a button press for an emergency brake and maybe another for a some kind of boost mechanic. Need for Speed is no different, but where I expected it to set itself apart was in some streamlined handling customization options. While games like the Forza series or Gran Turismo cater to car fetishists who want micro-levels of control over a car’s setup, I don’t know what a read differential is nor do I care to know. Need for Speed offers a simple Drift/Grip bar that allows you to tune your ride for more drifting or a tighter grip on the road, and some submenus if you want to want to go into a little more detail. I was pretty sure I favored a grippier set-up and completed four or five of the early races. Then came trouble.

MY next event was a drift competition. I failed miserably, probably because my car was set up with the handling slider set almost all the way to “Grip.” I went back to my garage, changed it to total Drift, and replayed the mission. My goal was to finish in first or second place in this timed competition. I finished 5th out of 6 competitors. I was beaten by one AI racer who I had accidentally forced off the course and who I saw spinning her tires while driving into a wall trying to rejoin the course on two subsequent laps. Two. Subsequent. Laps. I tried four or five more times, and eventually improved to where I was consistently finishing third…and well behind 2nd place by scores like 12,000 points to 2500. I came to the conclusion I hadn’t improved, but the rubberbanding AI had simply backed off all the other competitors and told me to just perform at a basic level of competency for someone who had held a controller and played a racing game in the last twenty years. I failed.

I HAVE played racing games before. I loved Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit and Need for Speed: High Stakes for the original Playstation. The Xbox 360 version of Hot Pursuit was a damn fun cops and robbers racing game with a fun open world set-up that I probably love just as much for introducing me to Lupe Fiasco. And I played a TON of Burnout Paradise for the Playstation 3, bought it super cheap on a Steam sale for PC and plan on it being the test case for my Steam controller and living room PC this week AND bought it for the Xbox 360 this year based on just the rumor that it would be playable on the Xbox One when backwards compatibility is rolled out in November.

If I’m being honest with myself, I have a darker history with racing games than I want to admit. While I’ve gotten into F1 racing in recent years, the games from Codemasters remain inscrutable to me. I’m barely able to pass the tutorial phase where you’re assigned to a real-world F1 racing team for career mode, and usually end up with perennial back markers like Marussia or Force India. I’m almost entirely unable to navigate a turn of any serious degree, and this carries over to the aforementioned Forza series, where I play with most assists turned on. Hell, I even have most assists turned on when playing the more forgiving, less simulation focused Forza Horizon series. And I can feel the car slowing down when I need it to go faster, because if it didn’t try to discourage me from cutting a small corner on a roundabout, it would also let me drive headfirst into a turn at speed with such force that it’s wonder my driver avatar isn’t dead from a heart attack before his head would have gone through the windshield and into a wall.

There’s a thrill to the feeling of going faster than you should. I think that’s why I love Burnout Paradise; it gives me that feeling married with the sense that I’m doing so while staying in control. I will never get the chance to pilot a multi-million dollar F1 car, but I wish I could feel like I knew what I was doing when chasing that feeling with a game controller. Something about the language and execution of racing games has escaped me. Thanks to EA Access, I was able to discover this before spending another $60 to be reminded of it again. At least I got to see some first person FMV fist-bumps.

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Returning to the Wasteland

Last week, I wrote about how games had fit into a 6 month period of my life that saw a lot of change. I don't want to make personal reflections on games and my life a thing...but the announcement of Fallout 4 got me thinking about the fact that I loved Fallout 3 but never completed it. And then I started thinking about why that was.

Fallout 3 was released on October 28th of 2008. In late August of 2008, I broke up with my partner of 6 years. We had lived together for more than 5 of those years, had adopted two cats and a dog together, and bought a condo right before the real estate bubble in the DC suburbs...well, it didn't pop, but selling our condo 5 years later wasn't going to work out for us. It was as bad of a breakup as you can have. I was hurt and confused and devastated, and we kept living together while we sorted out how to physically break apart when the emotional connection had been gone long before that fall. At the same time, there was this weird amiability between us. We had tickets to a baseball game on my birthday a few days later, and we went together and sat down the first base line and I kept score as my team got shut out by a divisional rival and I watched my favorite player get his ankle broken and carted off the field right in front of us. It was an appropriate day.

She moved out 3 or 4 weeks later, and I turned to video games. I also turned to drinking alone, sometimes while playing video games and sometimes games kept me from that more self-destructive behavior. I played a lot of Rock Band 2 after it was released, partly because we had played a lot of Rock Band together. When Fable 2 was released, I played a lot of that as well and it became one of the few games I completed in that console generation. The same goes for Mass Effect 2, which had been on my shelf since release but I picked up again and helped fill the void I had in my life at the time. I completed every loyalty mission, proving that I wasn't a bad person, or just bad at being a caring, attentive person who listened to others' needs and desires and tried to help them achieve their goals and find personal fulfillment.

Fallout was something different. While the Fable and Mass Effect sequels were big, fully realized worlds, I felt a pull to see them through to the end. They were stories I had to complete. As a resident of the DC suburbs, Fallout 3 put me in a familiar but foreign world. Landmarks that had stood forever and helped create a sense of place had been destroyed and destroyed in spectacular fashion, with minimal explanation. I was left to exit the vault and make sense of the wasteland in front of me. I felt at home in this world, but felt no pull to see it to its end. I was searching the wasteland for my lost family, completing quests because that's what you do, but not needing or wanting to get to the end. So I wandered.

It's been many years since I played any of Fallout 3. I remember loving the systems and the look. I remember scavenging gear. I remember spending a lot of time in Megaton, building my small bachelor apartment and using it as a repository for all the things I might need later or just wanted to hang on to for a bit longer. I remember completing some wildlife related quests for the sweet, naive vendor in town but never helping her finish her book. I think I helped a town of recluses fend off some bandits, I think I helped save a small boy from some spiders or scorpions, and I think I found a subway full of vampires or child slavers or freaks of some kind. I may have slaughtered them, or tried to use them to help further my own needs. The later seems most likely. I didn't blow up Megaton. How could I destroy the first people I had met after leaving the Vault?

I fired up that same save file on my Xbox 360 about 2 years ago. Despite never acting to finish Fallout 3 - or even really advance the story very far at all - I've always wanted to do so. It's appropriate really; wanting something without being willing to really work at it was how I ended up wandering in the wasteland in the fall of 2008, then playing a ton of Fallout aimlessly.

I'm in a new city now, removed from the real life wasteland of Washington DC and it's suburbs. I'm excited about Fallout 4. And I'm in a spot personally where I want to fire up Fallout 3 and put in the time to see the whole story. My biggest decision now is if I do so on Xbox 360 or PC with mods. I'm leaning towards 360 due to the simplicity and the idea of finishing it how I started it...even if I know I'm going to start fresh with a new save file, completely from scratch. There are too many mistakes and things I don't want to repeat from that first playthrough. I know that's the case, even if I don't remember all the digital details.

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6 Months of Games and a Few Minor Life Changes

On November 1st of 2014, I moved from the Washington, DC suburbs to Seattle, Washington to start a new job in a different part of my company. At some point just prior to or during the move, I became very ill. Over the past month, I very nearly lost my best friend, a 13 year old beagle/corgi mix who's on the mend after emergency surgery and a few setbacks in recovery. That's a LOT of change in a relatively short period of time. While it's all worked out for the best, you know what helped with all the change and stress? Video games!

Obviously, packing for a cross-country move, making that drive, and setting up a new apartment while starting a new job cut into my playing time, but I still managed to try a lot of new games, revisit some old favorites, and dive back into PC gaming. Here's a partially complete look at the games I played and how they helped me adjust to new circumstances.

Playstation 4

Despite being a three-console household last generation, 90% of my games were played on Xbox 360. This has evened out quite a bit this generation, and I can't put my finger on why. I haven't upgraded my PS4 hard drive, and I'm constantly concerned about running out of space for the games I've downloaded and not finished. Shortly after getting to my new home, I picked up Far Cry 4 and GTA V for the PS4. The pull to play GTA V has been minimal since I finished it last gen of the 360, but I have booted it up a few times to see how pretty it looked. I was not disappointed. Far Cry 4 was my big time investment for most of November and December. I found it easy to get lost in the world but also a little frustrating; there were so many side quests and optional activities that I found myself occasionally paralyzed by indecision. I wasn't sure if I was ready or prepared for the next story mission but didn't have a burning desire to take the next outpost,hunt the next rare animal, participate in a race, or do any of the million other things dotting my map. I did eventually finish the game and miss the world of Pagan Min philosophizing over the radio to me about Kanye West.

Most of my other PS4 time until recently was with smaller games: I played a relatively large amount of Loadout for a few weeks before I could feel myself hitting my head on the invisible pay walls of the free-to-play model. That seemed to happen pretty quickly, which I think is mainly an indictment of my shooter skills more than anything else. Besides, it wasn't as fun as the few PC matches I'd played with a friend many months ago, prior to my move. I also jumped into Hand of Fate following the Giant Bomb Quick Look. I was really interested in the premise and was glad to see a QL since the game and studio were kind of an unknown quantity. I've enjoyed it quite a bit, and found it was a good fit for times when I had just an hour or two before bed or when I was too tired to jump into something meatier like Far Cry 4. I haven't finished it, but I can see it continuing to serve as a bit of a "chaser" for after finishing (Or getting burnt out on) larger games.

This spring, my PS4 has largely been a baseball machine, playing MLB The Show 15 or streaming Washington Nationals games over MLB.tv. The Show's Road to the Show mode has also filled the "bite size gaming" spot in my life recently, as I can fit in a game or two as a first baseman in the Rangers' system before I had to go to the DOL, take the dog to his new vet, or try to figure out the best way to get to a new grocery store. With new things to learn and new patterns to establish in a new city, it's nice to be able to feel like I'm making progress in something.

The fact that I'm feeling more settled has freed me up to dive into The Witcher 3, the kind of expansive, sprawling, time suck of a role playing game I've always loved. I'm just at the start of the Bloody Baron quest shown in the Giant Bomb Quick Look (and no, I don't mind spoilers for hour 8 or 9 of a game I'm going to play for dozens of hours) but I can tell this is going to be my go-to weekend entertainment for a while.

Xbox One

I am really surprised at how little activity my Xbox One has seen since the move. It's still my machine of choice for Netflix, HBO GO, and most video streaming services due to the voice commands. The 5 or so months I spent feeling pretty ill meant I frequently had to leave the room very quickly; the ability to blurt out "Xbox, pause!" on my way away from the TV and not needing to keep a controller turned on was a really nice feature.

The lack of activity really comes down to some poor game choices. Battlefield Hardline failed to grab me with it's (unsuprisingly) ridiculous story and mechanics that got real old, real fast. Assassin's Creed: Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection suffered from poor launches that put me off; even though I was a day one purchaser of both the continued problems made me simply unenthused to pick up either very much. I really, really tried with Unity but found myself in the same frustration loop as I was occasionally in with Far Cry 4...minus the interesting characters of intriguing story to pull me forward from those moments of paralysis.

Despite those minor busts, I've been very pleased with The Handsome Collection, specifically Borderlands 2. I loved Borderlands and its sequel, and The Handsome Collection came out at a time when I had been sick for a while, was still getting my footing in a new job and new city, and provided a familiar, comfortable thing to get lost in on the evenings and weekends. That kind of comfort was really, really appreciated. I haven't played it much recently, but knowing it's there on new consoles when I need it is calming.

Also reassuring was the release of Mortal Kombat X and the semi-regular reminder that I SUCK at fighting games. That said, I'm still glad I have the story of MK X (played on easy mode) for rainy evenings and when I need something different.

PC

I have a really nice desktop PC in my home office. This spring has been a good time to return to it for a few reasons. In addition to the new and old games I've been playing, I have a nice space for my recovering pup in this office, with his favorite mat to sleep on, or sometimes half-on, or sometimes just near. He's a weird dog.

Pillars of Eternity was my impetus to return to the PC. After backing it at a stupidly high level amid the Kickstarter craze, I was eager to see how it turned out. I've been pleased with it, despite only playing a few hours. For someone with no real history with Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, it's probably been the best possible exposure to a style of game I always thought I"d love, but never had the means to play until I got serious about PC games and built my own machine. The drawback is that as I've gotten more comfortable in my new city, I've wanted to spend less time at home and more time walking and exploring, so that's meant less time with this and other PC games.

I also jumped back into a few older titles: The Old Republic and Marvel Heroes 2015. My interest in TOR was rekindled by the good news and good will coming out of the Star Wars celebration last month and the game's May 4th promotions. It is, to borrow a phrase, an MMO-assed MMO, but I found something kind of serene and relaxing about hopping in, progressing a quest line or two, and calling it a night. IT also helped me justify the subscription fee I've paid since launch and continue to pay. I really wish I could have signed up for a lifetime subscription, a la Jeff and Star Trek: Online.

Speaking of Jeff, his recent forays into Marvel Heroes convinced me to try the game. It's fun. The number of currencies and crafting components will probably keep me from getting in too deep, but I hop in every day or so, get my daily reward of unintelligible currency, play part of a quest with either Hawkeye or Daredevil, and go back to doing something else. The daily reward thing has made me really think about the concept of "dailies" in games. I play at least 3 titles with some kind of daily reward or event: Marvel Heroes, MLB The Show 15, and Hearthstone. I find myself playing each of these a bit shallower than I might otherwise because I know I'll be back tomorrow, and sometimes because I see them as just a chore to complete: log in, click a button or two, and log out. Rinse and repeat tomorrow.

The pre-release hype for The Witcher 3 also convinced me to go back and try to play through The Witcher and its sequel. I was devastated to find out the original didn't use cloud saves and I had lost my progress from a few months ago in the prologue and chapter 1 following an upgrade from Windows 7 to 8. I eventually got over it and have played about a dozen hours of the original...although the true breakdown is more like, since purchasing this years ago, having played the opening hour 4 times, the second hour three times, the third hour 4 times, and the fourth hour once. I now find myself torn between wanting to play more of the original and being completely sucked into The Witcher 3. This isn't a bad problem to have.

The last PC game I've been spending time with is Invisible, Inc. I bought an Early Access code for this when it was still known as "Incognita" at PAX East 2012 or PAX Prime 2013. I played very little of it pre-release in part because I found it simply frustrating. I didn't understand systems and basic mechanics seemed to be missing. I couldn't figure out how to move the camera, which is a problem in a game like Invisible, Inc. I was still really excited when the game officially launched, and the positive word of mouth convinced me to give it another try. I'm still terrible at it, but I feel like it's now 80% my fault, 20% bad luck in procedural generation, and 0% the result of playing an unfinished game.

That's most of my past 6 months in gaming, minus my crippling iPhone Marvel Puzzle Quest addiction that I blame on Garry Whitta or the semi-regular Hearthstone well I fall into for hours at a time. It's been an exciting, challenging, scary, frustrating, and fulfilling 6 months. As things with my home, job, health, and pooch stabilize, I'm looking forward to how games will fit into my life as new titles are released, old games find new life, and I settle in even more to the rhythms of Seattle after 10 years on the East coast.

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PAX Prime Day 4 and a Day 3 Epilogue

Day 4 of PAX was incredibly low key for me, as I headed up to the show floor around lunch time just to take a lap around the expo floors and see the Gearbox panel. The only thing that really grabbed my attention was Escape Goat 2, a title I'd heard about before but knew almost nothing about. I finally got close enough to the Klei merchandise booth to see that they were selling Alpha access to Incognita, and I couldn't give them $17 fast enough. I also got some hands on time with an MSI G-series laptop, which was useful as I consider getting that or a Razr Blade as I've missed having a laptop for gaming on the go. My takeaway after using both: I'd be okay with either. I'm not sold on the Blade touch interface thing, and the MSI is significantly cheaper. More research is needed, but I'm leaning MSI if the performance is comparable.

The Gearbox panel was disappointing, but not for reasons of content. The main theater for PAX East is Seatle's Paramount Theater, an actual, honest to god theater, not a gussied up hotel or convention center meeting room like most of the other "theaters." I had a very difficult time hearing a lot of the panel from my position in the back of the theater and under the balcony overhang. the panelists were mic'ed, but Randy Pitchford was the only person I could hear semi-reliably. They announced some more Borderlands 2 content, including skins and heads and more packs like the forthcoming TK Baha's Headhunter pack. Borderlands 2 cosplayers were given their own diamond loot chest that had previsouly sold out on ThinkGeek, and they announced that those chests would e coming back to ThinkGeek later this month. They're also making figures based on the Borderlands 2 hero characters, and the Zer0 prototype they had on hand looked impressive. They also talked about Gearbox Community Day, which will be streamed on Twitch, complete with a special purchasable stream upgrade that includes an HD stream, exclusive Borderlands 2 skins and heads, and access to a closed beta for an unannounced project. I don't remember if the words 'New IP" were attached to that or not. Finally, they talked a little about the Homeworld franchise and the recently announced partnership with Blackbird to make Hardware: Shipbreakers - or Homeworld: Shipbreakers as it's now know. Both original and HD versions of Homeworld 1 and 2 will be coming in early 2014, and those who purchase the community day HD stream will get a free copy of Homeworld 1 Classic and HD. Those purchasers, however, won't include the panel attendees, as everyone in the theater was given a code for that package with the stream, Borderlands 2 customization items, closed beta access, and HOmeworld copies plus a code for the new Borderlands 2 content releasing tomorrow. The panel, in my expert opinion based on attending one before while in the throws of a seriously mind-altering fever, was exactly what I expected. Gearbox gives stuff away with decent value and seems to value the appreciation they receive from their fans. I know a lot of people were rightly burned by Aliens: Colonial Marines, but I don't think any studio sets out to make a bad game, and I have gotten far more enjoyment out of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 than almost any other franchise. At the very least, they appear to be being very careful with their new, beloved space-based IP.

Day Three of PAX Prime actually ended for me with the livestream of the Cards Against Humanity panel after I published my last blog. I got some rest and went to see Cards Against Humanity Live at the Triple Door Theater, which meant I wouldn't be able to see their panel in a 500 person theater. Normally, the CAH PAX panel is a chance for the crowd to pitch card ideas to the CAH team, but past panels were always moderated by Ryan Davis. This year's panel was a parade of Ryan's friends, sharing memories and clips of their time together; it was a beautiful, cathartic, hilarious, disgusting, tearful goodbye. I was able to keep my emotions in check watching at home until John Vignocchi tired to speak and got choked up. Dan Teasdale may have stolen the show with the full testimonial video Ryan and Jeff shot for the Drake Tracker app. I was fortunate enough to run into Stephen Toulouse, who was part of the panel, this afternoon, and I told him how much I enjoyed hearing him on the E3 Bombcasts. His immediate reaction was a simple "I miss my friend Ryan." He said a little later that he wasn't a spiritual person at all, but it felt like Ryan was present and, in his words, "Ryan would have loved that panel." I am, like Stepto, not spiritual and I can't speak to what it felt like in the room, but seeing a dais of Max Temkin, Jeff, Johnny V, Dan Teasdale, John Drake, Eric Pope, Brad Muir, Mikey Neumann, Stepto, e, Dave Lang, and on and on...I couldn't help but think of the impressive legacy Ryan left behind of funny, creative, interesting people being connected in their love of fun. That's a damn fine legacy in my mind.

With that, I have to pack for a 6:00 am flight to SFO, then a 9:30 back to DC. Fortunately, the only new stuff I have taking up space in my suitcase are the Cards Against Humanity Bigger, Blacker Box and a poster they signed for me after the Triple Door show. And a shitload of flyers, which I'll weed out crap from usefull stuff with codes on Wednesday, my last day of vacation.

PAX is an amazing experience. This afternoon, leaving the convention center, I felt fulfilled, excited for games that are coming, and kind of pissed I hadn't been able to take advantage of my vacation to play more games in my backlog. That last thing may not seem like much, but there have been evenings or weekends when my "What should I play now? inner monologue turned into "Whatever is in the PS3 or Xbox...eh, I'm not feeling those, maybe something downloaded...nothing grabs me - ooh, Law and Order reruns are on!" PAX is a chance to see the best of the gaming industry and community and really recharge. I also fell in love with the city, and have three things to keep in mind for next year:

1. Stay at the Sheraton or Grand Hyatt, which are closer to the Convention Center and actually host panels

OR:

2. Be in better shape so the easy walk from the Westin doesn't result in me pouring sweat out of every pore - clearly the better option.

OR

3. Find a job in Seattle. Move here. Clearly the best option.

So long, PAX. Thanks for a great, refreshing vacation.

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PAX Prime Day 4 and a Day 3 Epilogue

Day 4 of PAX was incredibly low key for me, as I headed up to the show floor around lunch time just to take a lap around the expo floors and see the Gearbox panel. The only thing that really grabbed my attention was Escape Goat 2, a title I'd heard about before but knew almost nothing about. I finally got close enough to the Klei merchandise booth to see that they were selling Alpha access to Incognita, and I couldn't give them $17 fast enough. I also got some hands on time with an MSI G-series laptop, which was useful as I consider getting that or a Razr Blade as I've missed having a laptop for gaming on the go. My takeaway after using both: I'd be okay with either. I'm not sold on the Blade touch interface thing, and the MSI is significantly cheaper. More research is needed, but I'm leaning MSI if the performance is comparable.

The Gearbox panel was disappointing, but not for reasons of content. The main theater for PAX East is Seatle's Paramount Theater, an actual, honest to god theater, not a gussied up hotel or convention center meeting room like most of the other "theaters." I had a very difficult time hearing a lot of the panel from my position in the back of the theater and under the balcony overhang. the panelists were mic'ed, but Randy Pitchford was the only person I could hear semi-reliably. They announced some more Borderlands 2 content, including skins and heads and more packs like the forthcoming TK Baha's Headhunter pack. Borderlands 2 cosplayers were given their own diamond loot chest that had previsouly sold out on ThinkGeek, and they announced that those chests would e coming back to ThinkGeek later this month. They're also making figures based on the Borderlands 2 hero characters, and the Zer0 prototype they had on hand looked impressive. They also talked about Gearbox Community Day, which will be streamed on Twitch, complete with a special purchasable stream upgrade that includes an HD stream, exclusive Borderlands 2 skins and heads, and access to a closed beta for an unannounced project. I don't remember if the words 'New IP" were attached to that or not. Finally, they talked a little about the Homeworld franchise and the recently announced partnership with Blackbird to make Hardware: Shipbreakers - or Homeworld: Shipbreakers as it's now know. Both original and HD versions of Homeworld 1 and 2 will be coming in early 2014, and those who purchase the community day HD stream will get a free copy of Homeworld 1 Classic and HD. Those purchasers, however, won't include the panel attendees, as everyone in the theater was given a code for that package with the stream, Borderlands 2 customization items, closed beta access, and HOmeworld copies plus a code for the new Borderlands 2 content releasing tomorrow. The panel, in my expert opinion based on attending one before while in the throws of a seriously mind-altering fever, was exactly what I expected. Gearbox gives stuff away with decent value and seems to value the appreciation they receive from their fans. I know a lot of people were rightly burned by Aliens: Colonial Marines, but I don't think any studio sets out to make a bad game, and I have gotten far more enjoyment out of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 than almost any other franchise. At the very least, they appear to be being very careful with their new, beloved space-based IP.

Day Three of PAX Prime actually ended for me with the livestream of the Cards Against Humanity panel after I published my last blog. I got some rest and went to see Cards Against Humanity Live at the Triple Door Theater, which meant I wouldn't be able to see their panel in a 500 person theater. Normally, the CAH PAX panel is a chance for the crowd to pitch card ideas to the CAH team, but past panels were always moderated by Ryan Davis. This year's panel was a parade of Ryan's friends, sharing memories and clips of their time together; it was a beautiful, cathartic, hilarious, disgusting, tearful goodbye. I was able to keep my emotions in check watching at home until John Vignocchi tired to speak and got choked up. Dan Teasdale may have stolen the show with the full testimonial video Ryan and Jeff shot for the Drake Tracker app. I was fortunate enough to run into Stephen Toulouse, who was part of the panel, this afternoon, and I told him how much I enjoyed hearing him on the E3 Bombcasts. His immediate reaction was a simple "I miss my friend Ryan." He said a little later that he wasn't a spiritual person at all, but it felt like Ryan was present and, in his words, "Ryan would have loved that panel." I am, like Stepto, not spiritual and I can't speak to what it felt like in the room, but seeing a dais of Max Temkin, Jeff, Johnny V, Dan Teasdale, John Drake, Eric Pope, Brad Muir, Mikey Neumann, Stepto, e, Dave Lang, and on and on...I couldn't help but think of the impressive legacy Ryan left behind of funny, creative, interesting people being connected in their love of fun. That's a damn fine legacy in my mind.

With that, I have to pack for a 6:00 am flight to SFO, then a 9:30 back to DC. Fortunately, the only new stuff I have taking up space in my suitcase are the Cards Against Humanity Bigger, Blacker Box and a poster they signed for me after the Triple Door show. And a shitload of flyers, which I'll weed out crap from usefull stuff with codes on Wednesday, my last day of vacation.

PAX is an amazing experience. This afternoon, leaving the convention center, I felt fulfilled, excited for games that are coming, and kind of pissed I hadn't been able to take advantage of my vacation to play more games in my backlog. That last thing may not seem like much, but there have been evenings or weekends when my "What should I play now? inner monologue turned into "Whatever is in the PS3 or Xbox...eh, I'm not feeling those, maybe something downloaded...nothing grabs me - ooh, Law and Order reruns are on!" PAX is a chance to see the best of the gaming industry and community and really recharge. I also fell in love with the city, and have three things to keep in mind for next year:

1. Stay at the Sheraton or Grand Hyatt, which are closer to the Convention Center and actually host panels

OR:

2. Be in better shape so the easy walk from the Westin doesn't result in me pouring sweat out of every pore - clearly the better option.

OR

3. Find a job in Seattle. Move here. Clearly the best option.

So long, PAX. Thanks for a great, refreshing vacation.

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PAX Prime Day 3 - An Early but Powerful Day

On Day 3 of PAX East 2011, I woke up feeling feverish, congested, and with a sore throat that made breathing, much less swallowing, difficult to impossible. I still (stupidly and very selfishly) toughed it out and went to the show and ended up having a great conversation with a small developer from Australia and saw the Gearbox panel, one of my reasons for going to the show. I wasn't in as bad of shape this morning, but I could feel the telltale fatigue and slight tickle in my throat that was telling me "Dude, get some rest NOW or you'll regret it." Day 3 of PAX Prime 2012 will probably go down as my shortest day at the show, but it contained the most powerful and interesting experiences.

I decided that I would head up to the Pegasus Theater for two back-to-back panels: Harmonix's presentation on the development history of Fantasia and the Take This panel on depression and anxiety in the gaming universe. The draw of the Harmonix panel was the chance to see some early demos and designs from the forthcoming Fantasia: Music Evolved since a lot of this material never makes the light of day. The panelists from Harmonix and Disney were surprisingly open about how trying and rewarding the process of turning Fantasia into a game has been. The two early demos shown illustrated different approaches to the game: storytelling via music inspired by Peter and the Wolf and forging an emotional connection with the player through the music. It's not hard to see how both concepts were lacking, but were important steps on the journey to the game as it is now. Afterwards, I hung around and got a chance to ask Matt Boch, the game's Creative Director, how he makes the decision or knows when to cut something for good vs. when to keep trying or iterating on a theme. It was great hearing him talk about his process and underlying approach to design as problem solving vs expression and reaffirming for someone who does a more boring form of corporate system design. I just wish I hadn't been so entranced by his custom Sorcerer's Apprentice hat - I'd probably have retained 20% more of what he said but I'm grateful for the time he took and the opportunity to ask the question.

My second panel of the day was "It's Dangerous to Go Alone: The Take This Panel." The Take This Project was started by Russ Pitts and Susan Arendt, veteran gaming editors, in response to the suicide last year of freelance games journalist Matt Hughes. The panel featured Pitts, Arendt, Jeff Green, Janelle Bonanno, Ashly Burch, and Mikey Neumann sharing their stories of dealing with depression and anxiety and how to get help and relate to those around you. One of the amazing and fascinating things about depression is how it can be completely and totally isolating to those experiencing it...until you hear someone else talk about it. While no two experiences with depression or anxiety (or any illness, really) are the same, I could hear bits of my own feelings in each person who spoke and their experiences. Mikey Neumann was the last panelist to speak. He makes his living as a writer, manipulating words and has a kind of confident if not brash public persona...and he broke down completely talking about how he felt dealing with symptom fatigue after a diagnosis of a stroke and MS and the aftermath that has brought into his life. It was simultaneously heartbreaking to see someone who's work I've enjoyed so much struggle with his emotions and uplifting to hear the calls of support and and applause breaks when he had to stop to compose himself. This panel, combined with last night's ovation for Giant Bomb's Ryan Davis, was a great reminder of how supportive and amazing the community can be. Afterwards, I had a chance to briefly thank Mikey, Jeff, and Russ for the panel, and also ran into Artur Gies of Polygon and told him I enjoyed the reviews section at Polygon. He either really appreciated it, or is a master at faking sincerity. Either way, I was glad for the chance to say thanks.

I was in a weird head space at this point, and decided I should take one more lap around the fringes of the Expo hall floor, mainly to see if there was anything I missed or wanted to make point of seeing tomorrow. I found myself drawn to the Indie Megabooth, and made a startling realization as I passed Vlambeer's area. I didn't want to stop and play Luftrausers - I know I want to play it when it's out, and I feel this way about just as many indie games like The Moonlighters, Incongnito, and Hotline Miami 2 as I do about big budget AAA titles like Titanfall, Battlefield 4, and Batman: Arkham Origins to name just a few each from the show floor. It made me appreciate what a cool time we're in for this industry and hobby, and made me eager to search out some new hidden experience tomorrow on Day 4.

In order to make sure I make it to Day 4, I'm taking a pass on the Cards Against Humanity panel, which is supposed to feature some Giant Bomb news per Jeff Gerstmann at last night's panel. Fortunately, it will be streamed and my hotel internet has been surprisingly good. I was disppointed to get back to my hotel and see a tweet from Matt Rorie inviting people out to Gameworks for a beer right after I had walked by...but my immune system is probably grateful for the missed connection. Next year, I'm making "Buy Matt Rorie a beer" my top PAX goal.

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PAX Prime - Day Two (including a panel from some guys on the internet)

Please note, as with yesterday's blog, I'm sharing this with non-GB friends and family, so some things that are probably familiar to this community are explained in a bit more detail.

Day 2 of PAX PRime was the Giant Bomb-iest day of the show. Between the Harmonix podcast to start the day and an amazing Giant Bomb panel to end the night, I Saw fewer games in person but felt like the day was well spent. Quality over quantity is my watchword for the remainder of the show - especially as I feel a slight tickle in the back of my throat.

My day actually started with Ohio State football's season opener at 9:00 am Seattle time. For someone considering a move to the area, getting to watch half my Buckeyes before really starting my day was pretty awesome. Fortunately, I saw some tweets reminding me of the Harmonix podcast time, because I had noted it down as starting at noon, not 11.

(That's a tip from yesterday I forgot to pass on: record your schedule somewhere besides the official app. The app went belly up for me after an update and had to be reinstalled - sans my saved personal schedule).

Harmonix talked a little bit about Fantasia: Music Evolved, but spent most of the panel highlighting indie developers. Phil Tibz of Young Horses sohwed off Octodad: Dadliest Catch; Nathan of Cappy Games had trailers from Super Time Force and Below, Darren Korb showed off a trailer and piece of music from Supergiant's Transistor, and the indefatigably positive Brad Muir took an endless line of shit from Harmonix's John drake while showing off Massive Chalice. Harmonix's stated goal was to show off the cool stuff their friends were doing, and there wasn't a game on the slate that I wasn't interested in. The highlights, for me, were two separate interruptions.

First, former Harmonix-er and current CEO and Creative Director of No Goblin, Dan Teasdale, barged in and presented Drake with a case of Diet Coke. This was a small fraction of the Diet Coke purchased for Drake via the Super Drake Tracker EX app that made its joking debut at PAX East 2011. The realty is that over 240 cans of Diet Coke have been purchased via the app, so Drake's office was inundated with cans and cases. The second interruption was Max Temkin and Jeff Gerstman delivering another round of Diet Cokes, this time in a large black tub of ice. Drake leaned into the joke and actually sat in the tub for a few minutes, drinking one of the cokes.

From here, I went to listen to 10 Questions with Supergiant Games, where Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin took ten pre-screened questions and then audience questions. Topics ranged from the importance of narrative, the role of sound and music in design, camera angles, approaches to games criticism, and avoiding a sophomore slump with Transistor. If you want to hear smart, considered answers to questions about game design, you could do a lot worse than Rao and Kasavin.

I headed over to the Washington Convention Center for the first time all day, and passed most of the Giant Bomb crew heading the other way. I didn't want to interrupt as they seemed to be heading somewhere specific, so I gave Drew Scanlon, Vinny Caravella, Alex Navarro, and Brad Shoemaker a "Hey guys!" as they passed. Drew gave a rather startled "Hey" back and we went on our separate ways.

I didn't have anything specific in mind to see except a trip past the Rome Total War II booth for a friend, so I jumped in a short line for an XCom: Enemy Within theater demo. It was a short line and a short demo showing off a new environment, two genetic modifications for your soldiers, and mech suits. For both sides. The presenter reminded us that the XCom Enemy Within panel was taking place in about 30 minutes with Adam Sessler of Rev3 games hosting, so I headed back over to the Sheraton satellite theaters since I'm a fan of both Sessler and XCom.

The panel went into a little more detail about the art design, the process for designing Enemy Within as a whole, and what we can expect when the expansion is released. The lead designer, who is not Jake Solomon, was interesting, and my hope is that Solomon's influence on the revival is so deep that this introduces new mechanics, soldiers, and enemies while keeping the balance and intangible "feel" that made Enemy Unknonwn so well received by fans of the old series. Oh, and one of the enemy types is a flying spider shark that can cloak and likes to target and strangle isolated soldiers. Good luck with that, Commander.

My last stop on the show floor for the day was the Indie Mega Booth. I wanted to tell Phil Tibz how much I enjoyed hearing him that morning and that I was looking forward to Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Right next to his area, Max Temkin as demoing Samurai Gunn. Jeff Gerstmann of Gian Bomb was there watching, and I saw them play a match before jumping into one on my own. Samurai Gunn is a four-player couch co-op game with frenetic action. I will like it more when I have more time to play and don't suck on the floor of a huge show.

My next event was the Giant Bomb panel. There's not a lot to say about this, especially since the video will be up soon. As expected, the line for the 8:30 event opened at 6:30 and was packed in literally one minute. There were loud cheers for the Giant Bomb staff as they appeared and entered the theater to set up, and almost equal cheers for a list of friends of the site who have become well known to the community: Adam Boyes, john Viggnocchi, John Drake, Dave Lang, and Brad Muir were just a few. The panel didn't fill up until right before the start, but the theater was filled with members of this fanatically devoted community. Two of the more bizarre moments came near the end of the show, when Adam Boyes, a Sony VP, gave the Giant Bomb staff copies of The Last of Us to toss into the crowd and, I think, Brad Shoemaker decapitated someone with a low, hard-flung game. Things somehow got weirder as Disney Interactive's John Vignocchi gave out Disney Infinity figures as prizes for the best display of twerking with Brad Shoemaker, while the aforementioned Boyes beatboxed. Yeah, it WAS that kind of party.

Those were the weird and wacky highlights of a panel that has specialized in weird and wacky in past years, but this year was unlike previous years in a very noticeable way. After introducing the staff panelists (Alex Navarro, Brad Shoemaker, Patrick Scoops Klepeck, Vinny Caravella) plus the night's videographer Drew Scanlon and the site's Product Manager Matthew Rorie, the site's co-founder Jeff Gerstmann asked for a round of applause for the deceased Davis. The standing ovation and thunderous applause was simply amazing. I didn't think to time it while it was happening, and I'm not sure I could have read the numbers on my phone's stopwatch anyway. That amazing outpouring of love and Gerstmann's fitting remarks immediately afterwards were a perfect public tribute to Davis.

Tomorrow: I attempt to avoid getting sick and maybe don't go to PAX but there's a Cards Against Humanity panel at 9 pm...

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PAX Prime - Day One

Note: I'm sharing this with some friends and family who aren't down with Giant Bomb, so please forgive the explanation of some familiar faces to this community.

The first day of PAX Prime is essentially over, and it was awesome. From a practical standpoint, the best part of the day was getting to hold both the Xbox One and Playstation 4 controllers and being able to verify that they both feel great. From a show perspective, I was able to see almost everything I really wanted to see in one day.

This was the one day I got there before the show started; you can queue up to enter the exhibit hall as early as 8 am while the floor doesn't open until 10. You spend a lot of time very close to other nerds, making small talk, Streetpassing with your 3DS, and alternating between sitting, crouching, and standing.

Once the doors opened, I made a beeline for the Cards Against Humanity booth. They were passing out Misfortune Cookies. While the cookie tasted great, it informed me that I am pregnant. This is unfortunate, as I'm having a hard time tracking down a no-questions-asked male abortion provider in Seattle. I also purchased The Bigger, Blacker Box for the paltry sum of $15. This is a nice card holder box with dividers for all the terrible CAH sets and those to be released. I got the box signed by some of the creative team behind the game - no Max Temkin though as he wasn't at the booth yet.

From here, I went to check out Lococycle, an Xbox One launch game from Twisted Pixel. This is a motorcycle combat game, but not like Road Rash was a motorcycle combat game. You're controlling a sentient motorcycle, who's dragging a rider along behind him. It's hard to explain it without showing it, but it's accessible enough that I did okay during the playable demo. This was my chance to hold an Xbox One controller, and it felt great. It was surprisingly light, but not cheap.

I wandered around the floor a little and found a booth run by the people who make Solforge, a digital Collectible Card Game I've been playing a little since a Giant Bomb quicklook, and Ascension, a physical CCG. I had never played Ascension, so I sat down and played a game with a company rep and another player. There are some interesting systems at play in a new expansion and, despite not having a foundation with the game, I managed to win 45-29-29. I don't think I'll pick up a copy of the game while I'm here, but I'm downloading a digital version for my iPad as I type this up.

I got my chance to use a PS4 controller at the Supergiant Games booth, during a demo of Transistor. The line was long, thanks to the buzz the game has generated and the fact that the demo was pretty lengthy for a floor demo. While waiting, there were half a dozen or more people gathered around the booth who were cosplaying as characters from Transistor or Supergiant's last game, Bastion. Greg Kasavin, the studio's creative director, had huge smile on his face and took a photos while standing next to me. I asked him how surreal that experience was and he said, "All the way surreal. 8/10 on the surreal meter." The actual demo lived up to my sky high expectations, and I'll be throwing money at this and whatever Supergiant does after this.

After wandering the floor a little more, I sought out the Iron Galaxy booth. They had three stations set up for Divekick, their two button parody fighting game. The CEO of Iron Galaxy, Dave Lang, was manning one station, so I stepped up and challenged him to a match. I selected S-Kill as my character, one of the most complicated characters to play in the game. Lang looked at me and asked if I had played S-Kill before, and I said, "A little." I got an early advantage, and he remarked/complimented me on playing an aggressive style of S-Kill, which isn't common. After I went up 4 rounds to 3 (you play to 5), he made a self-disparaging comment and I got cocky. "Have you ever played this?" I asked. I then lost two rounds and walked away humiliated, but with a hearty handshake as my consolation for leaving the Lang Zone a loser.

My last visit for the day was to see Telltale Games' The Wolf Among Us. Telltale made last year's The Walking Dead game which won a ton of awards and proved that story-driven adventure games have a place in the modern gaming landscape. While I'm not as familiar with the Fables series that this series is based on, they set up the story quickly and get you into a confrontation between your character, Bigby Wolf (Big. By. Wolf. Big. Bad. Wolf), the sheriff of Fabletown, and The Woodsman. The demo got me excited to play this when it comes out and to explore the world of Fables via the existing comic series.

Now, I'm resting my feet and preparing my schedule for tomorrow, which will probably start with the live Harmonix podcast. Between that, the Giant Bomb panel tomorrow, and Sunday's Cards Against Humanity live show and later panel, there's going to be some amazing laughs and probably poignant and touching tributes to Ryan Davis. I hope to spend some more time in the Indie Megabooth checking out smaller games, may try my hand at a Magic tournament for the first time in 15+ years, and will continue to Streetpass like a MUTHA. So far, so good PAX. So far, so good. I also think I'll head over to the Triple Door for Chainsaw Suit live. I apparently missed John Drake twerking like a pro last night.

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