PAX Prime 2011 powered up this morning, as anyone who's navigated the mobs of joyous gamer nerds downtown could tell you. We haven't seen the final numbers yet, but last year saw 67,000 attendees (neck and neck with the population of Auburn), and it feels just as dense this time around. The Exhibition Halls are suitably alarming and hypnotic and the Free Play rooms are packed with blissfully focused players, but the negative space on the map is where the freaks flow freely, like a conveniently located, climate-controlled Burning Man. We saw the happiest dude in the world prancing around in a handmade Pikachu costume (pics if we see him again and our cameras are working). He looked so happy and at home in his Pika-skin that we feel bad that one day he has to go back to live in the world of people who wear clothes. The halls of PAX are filled with his (i.e., our) people. Here's what we learned:

  • Twisted Pixel showed off its upcoming Kinect game The Gunstringer, which makes interesting use of the controller: Players control their cartoony cowboys using virtual marionette strings. It sounds ridiculous, but it works better than many other Kinect games, plus: PUPPETS! They also showcased the nutty-looking Ms. Splosion Man, a sequel to the silly/awesome platformer Splosion Man. It looks 10x prettier than its damn pretty predecessor, but we couldn’t see enough to figure out its gender politics, or if it has any. (It has a "Two Girls, One Controller" mode, so there's that.)
  • Uber Entertainment had a booth babe. This made us sad.
  • Good Old Games featured booth grandmas passing out cookies. This made us happy! They were promoting classic PC games available for free or cheap, and they were delightful.
    This is sweet.
    • This is sweet.

  • The super-awesome local game developers at The Behemoth put on a good show, as usual. The geniuses behind Castle Crashers have been working on Battleblock Theater for a long time (they teased it at last year's PAX), and it's available to play in their lovely arcade-style machines here, if not yet on the Xbox Live Arcade. It should be out soon, letting us frolic in a world of comic misery, but not soon enough. They also have awesome merch for people who like things that are cute.
  • World of Tanks lived up to its name.
  • Borderlands 2 looks a hell of a lot like Borderlands 1—but hey, that's not all bad. Also, the devs have apparently done a good bit of work under the hood ("we didn't want to throw some levels on then slap a '2' on the box"), especially with the enemy AIs and making combat more tactical. We saw wounded enemies retreat and return to "run plays" with healthier enemies, and damaged bots would call in repair-bots for healing—so you have to make more choices beyond "kill dude closest to me."
  • In breaking Mass Effect news: Jennifer Hale, the Meryl Streep of video-game voice actors, is here, woot! Also, we got to play some ME3, which feels way more Gears-y now, with a rolling, leaping, cover-hugging Shepard—but who punches holes in people with an "omni-blade" (for a Soldier) in place of a chainsaw bayonet. The time-honored branching morality system is still around, but ME3 will offer many more game-affecting choices (and game endings), as you decide who you will help and who you will fuck over in the face of the impending Reaper holocaust that ended ME2 (who = entire planets and races, so you know we've got your back, Salarians).
  • Use the bathrooms at the Hyatt. This is how you will pee in heaven.
  • 3D Shadow of the Colossus (out on the PS3 in a "collection" with ICO on Sept. 27) looks lovely. We're sad we only had time to kill one colossus. Lowly (but fun!) Colossus II, fwiw.
  • Turn off 3G on your phone.
  • Facebook game design is still a nascent science (at least in terms of creating Facebook games that satisfy actual gamers), but indies like Dungeon Overlord are definitely a step in the right direction. This "hardcore Facebook game" doesn't require you to spam your friends, doesn't have "friend walls" (points where you can't progress without inviting more friends), and generally makes smart (i.e., not selfish) use of Facebook dynamics to create a cool, browser-based PVP experience.

    The Stranger Testing Department is Rob Lightner and Paul Hughes.