Dan and I are back on the ground here in Australia, and once again behind the AusGamers controls. While we were gone we tested out utilising one of our trusty freelancers to cover all the news fit to print we just didn’t have time to, and we think nachosjustice did an amazing job, so kudos Nate!
For us, the event isn’t over though. The past few years have seen Dan and I hone our E3 coverage more into a post-event serving, where we’ve actually had time to digest everything we saw, and can give it to you in a much richer way; full of juicy information, critique and honesty. It’s almost impossible for a site like ours to compete with the likes of IGN or GameSpot on the ground there, when they have 50+ people each writing day and night, so expect an absolute deluge of coverage from us over the next month or so.
In the meantime, however, we’ve decided to give you a post-mortem of E3 from both of our perspectives, covering the Big Three, Games of the Show, Best Surprises, Biggest Let-Downs and more. Read on below for our thoughts on the show that was E3 2011.
On the Big Three
It was presumably going to be an interesting year for all three companies, especially with the impending announcement of Nintendo’s new console. Sony had a lot of making up to do, while Microsoft seemed like they were in a great position to announce a host of new, exclusive games and new IPs, but alas I feel we were let down by all three.
Microsoft’s pre-E3 media briefing was just one big catalogue for a year filled with Kinect, even across core games. Unfortunately the only major advantage to using Kinect with a core title came from Mass Effect 3 and its use of the Voice Recognition technology (which still hasn’t even been rolled out in full here in Australia, by the way). Otherwise, manipulating weapons with your hands in a menu for Ghost Recon just didn’t sell the devices usage in the core sector. Moreover, Notch buying into Kinect with Minecraft was utterly mind-boggling, but not so much as Microsoft only spending a few seconds on the reveal, before moving on to a three or four-minute presentation of Kinect Disneyland Adventures.
Finally, offering us another Fable title, on-rails, using Kinect was the antithesis of what the Fable world is all about, and a convenient metaphor for Micorosft’s “core games focus” on Kinect usability.
This left us with Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and Halo 4 as the only real hardcore titles with any substance. And not a one of them even exists in the realm of originality.
: Microsoft kicked off the week with a very content-heavy pre-show media briefing, showing off a swathe of upcoming Xbox titles. Once again however, the biggest reveals this year were games that aren't actually exclusive to Microsoft's console with an epic screening of Modern Warfare 3's New York scenario and the first look at Crystal Dynamic's brutal new take on Tomb Raider.
There was plenty of Kinect action on show, but disappointingly little that would be of interest to core gamers. Mass Effect 3's voice recognition being the only exception here, finally offering an experience that uses the Kinect sensor to augment a conventional controller-drive experience rather than replace it.
I sadly can't say the same about Ghost Recon: Future Soldier who's demo showed the presenter awkwardly stumbling through combat in a manner far less efficient than a control pad, let alone keyboard and mouse. Why must we keep going backward in the name of accessibility?
If the brand hadn't already been diluted enough with Fable 3, Microsoft introduces the next franchise sabotage, an on-rails Kinect shooter called Fable: The Journey. Halo CE anniversary and Halo 4 were also revealed, but very little actually shown from each.
With those out of the way, Xbox's first party line-up was salvaged with new demos from Forza 4 and Gears of War 3 which both look to be coming along very nicely.
There was some more non-gaming Xbox features on show including more TV and movie features that will only be available to Americans, but most oddly was the absence of any Windows Phone 7 gaming. With the massive inroads iOS and Android have made in recent years, you'd think Redmond would be using every opportunity to pimp their competing platform and it's Xbox integration, but no love.
I will say one other thing for Microsoft, their stage production was the best of all the pre-show events with some serious style and amazingly functional free WiFi.
: Sony’s conference on the other hand was all about the games. However, they focused, in my opinion, on the wrong games. Yes we’re all excited about the next Nate Drake adventure, and Resistance 3 in 3D looked the goods, but glossing over Battlefield 3, BioShock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham City, Prey 2 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the way they did, especially after Microsoft's disappointing media briefing, was a massively missed opportunity in the wake of all their troubles this year.
Moreover, while we’re excited about PSVita, I hardly feel an Uncharted title and ModNation Racers are system sellers. They definitely went the right way with the system’s pricing though, and hopefully that rings true for Aussie pricing when we get it, but we definitely need more compelling software and features at launch - something Sony could learn from Nintendo’s equally lacking launch of the 3DS.
: Sony's pre-show conference was similar in substance to the Xbox briefing but with more exclusive reveals courtesy of the official unveiling of the PlayStation Vita (formerly NGP).
Most surprising was the amount of 3D enabled games on the way to the PS3 with a particularly impressive demo of Resistance 3, capped off with the announcement of a new gaming-oriented Sony 3D TV bundle -- a tactic that seems odd to have not seen more of from them, with their obvious strengths in the greater world of consumer electronics.
The Vita is looking very nice and with the dual analogues, rear touch-pads and touchscreen presenting enormous versatility for control options. Basically any game that isn't motion controlled will be open for porting to this thing. They also have the price-point right for the US launch at USD$249 (WiFi only model), but we'd be dreaming to expect to see a fair dollar conversion when it launches in Australia -- expecting closer to AUD$400.
I found the device to be very comfortable and light to hold and the games are looking suitably lush, however battery life still remains the big mystery -- especially now that they've confirmed that the battery won't be removable. What's the point in a portable device if you end up spending most of the time playing it on the couch tethered to a power socket? Consider my judgement reserved until further notice. It was also hilarious to hear the boos when AT&T was announced as the exclusive US mobile partner for the 3G Internet functionality of the device -- let's hope they follow the same path as the iPhone here in Aus and offer it across all 3G carriers.
Back on the PS3, Uncharted 3 is looking to provide another solid adventure and the reveal of CCP's Eve Online linked shooter Dust 514 going PS3 exclusive came as a big surprise. I wonder if that was the result of large sums of money changing hands or just Sony being more accommodating than Microsoft with the cross-platform functionality.
Another interesting tease was the mention of the PlayStation Suite, which sounds like some manner of unified development environment that is going to allow any games created for Sony Ericsson's Android phones to also be offered across the PS3 and Vita in much the same way as the PSP-minis range. This kind of platform choice is something that I really hope to see more of from all manufacturers.
And so that leaves us with arguably the biggest disappointment of the show - Nintendo’s Wii U. I won’t deny there’re tantalising applications the new controller can offer lounge-room gaming, and having someone like Ken Levine talking through the developer reel was a good start, but it just felt like it was too early to show anything off. Most of the software just wasn’t compelling, and announcing a Triple A title like Batman: Arkham City is coming when it launches, despite that game being out from this October, didn’t sell me on waiting for Wii U to launch.
Nintendo do have some 80 million plus Wii owners around the world, which could be a Trojan Horse component to the system’s release, but being locked to only a single controller per unit, and no specific system specs yet left too many nagging questions and not enough excitement. I’m interested, but it didn’t rekindle the old Nintendo fanboy in me.
The 3DS definitely had some cool stuff on show though, and while most of everything was typical Nintendo branding, Luigi’s Mansion (which I played, and is awesome) a new Mario and Mario Kart had me excited for the future of the handheld. (As an aside, I StreetPassed the shit out of my 3DS at E3, it was very addictive).
: Last up was Nintendo and sadly, the lowest point of the event for me. In the weeks leading up to E3, the expectation of Nintendo finally coming back with something for actual gamers to complement their recent success in the casual market was hard to not be excited about. So imagine my disappointment when their big announcement is a single hybrid tablet controller for a new console that doesn't appear to be any more powerful than it's current generation competitors.
It's very difficult to understand any of the benefits of this new "innovation" and Nintendo's stock slump following the announcement indicates that I'm not alone in that line of thought. And don't even get me started on the name "Wii U".
None of the tech demos we were able to check out at the Nintendo booth offered anything that made interacting with a game more fun, engaging or comfortable and it certainly isn't as casual-accessible as the Wii Remote, so who is the target market for this thing?
So you can play a game on it (at a lower resolution) when someone else is using the TV... or you know, you could just use another TV, which probably costs less than the Wii U. Admittedly, we don't have any pricing yet, so perhaps it won't be as expensive as it might seem, but when most of us already own a PC, an Xbox 360 or a PS3, they're going to need a better reason than the choice between playing on a HDTV screen or an ugly tablet to get our attention this late in the game.
The rest of Nintendo's offerings were equally disappointing for this core gamer. Yet more colourful family-friendly stuff for the Wii and 3DS. Mario, Luigi and Pokemons, oh my. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a fan of the odd Mario game, but their first-party focus just seems so narrow at present and outside of my demographic. I was banking on the new console to alleviate some of that alienation but all it did was leave me feeling sorry for them.
I'll no doubt play some of the future's biggest new multi-platform games on Wii U, but unless the hardware is sub $100 or something crazy, I can't see myself recommending anyone buy one over an Xbox or PlayStation. Add a couple more years to the scenario with PCs continuing to evolve and a new hardware cycle from Sony and Microsoft and it's hard to see Wii U's doing anything but collecting dust.
On the Games
Top Five Games of the Show
This was a really hard one for me, because I felt this year there were less games than previous years, but bigger, more compelling Triple A titles. And my Top 3 is especially hard to list in order of what I’m most excited about, but here they are:
1. BioShock: Infinite
: Every single step in BioShock: Infinite from the game’s fully voiced and dramatised protagonist, Booker DeWitt, had me gasping for air.
There is not a single element of this game that doesn’t have me excited, and it’s such a seamlessly delivered world, with each corner you turn revealing something equally as scary, engaging and tantalising as the last thing you saw. It’s creativity personified, yet is also nicely wrapped up in a shooter, which it is at its core, and so familiar despite its daunting setting and peripheral gameplay mechanics (Sky Rail, I’m looking at you).
Characterisation and emotion are also paramount here, and after just a few minutes with Elizabeth, the game’s female character you’re there to rescue, I didn’t want to see any harm come to her and wanted to protect her at any cost. This is brilliant game-design and will set the bar for all of the above for a while to come methinks.
2. Batman: Arkham City
: The demo we saw for this bad boy was incredible, especially in scope. Where Arkham Asylum gave us a well-designed island to play within that was, in and of itself, rather big, Arkham City is gargantuan in comparison. But of this sheer size, the most impressive thing is how you traverse it.
Thanks to a custom-built physics system, Batman can simply grapple, glide and dive throughout the cityscape, never once touching the ground, if he so chooses. It’s beautifully seamless, and so satisfying when you master it. Combat is also expanded upon with newer enemy-types, new moves and gadgets, along with greater mob numbers. And if none of that is enough to get you excited, the addition of Catwoman as a fully playable character whose story dovetails with Batman’s should.
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
: It was tough putting this one under Batman, but there’s something about the Caped Crusader I love. Still, that’s no sneeze on Bethesda Game Studios’ newest fantasy opus. Again, the scale and depth here is just too much to ignore, along with a revamped engine that totally puts you in the game.
Running on Xbox 360, Skyrim looks amazing, so it’s clearly going to be a piece of art on a decent PC gaming rig, but platform of choice aside, Skyrim’s obvious enhancements over both Fallout 3 and Oblivion, make it the most comprehensive and exciting Bethesda game since Morrowind, and after seeing our demo end with a fight against two dragons in the same province, it’s going to be a challenging adventure at that.
4. Mass Effect 3
: The Earth level we were demoed at E3 behind closed doors was the clincher for me here. Mass Effect 3 was always going to be one of my most anticipated, but seeing the Reapers invading Earth, and decimating it, just made me realise how much I love this epic space drama; the emotional impact of the scene they delivered even managed to choke up our local EA PR rep (it was sweet Snez ;)).
Add to typical top-notch story-telling a renewed focus on adding a deeper RPG element to weapons and weapon customisation to take advantage of a revamped combat approach, replete with more personal melee finishers and silent take-downs, and Mass Effect 3 proves to be the perfect culmination of everything the team have learnt since the first game.
It looks better, has an even bigger scope in terms of scale and epicness
(yep, I just made that word up for this), and will hopefully tie up the main story arc that has been building the last two games. This will be one of the 2012’s best releases, without a doubt.
5. Prey 2
: I was lucky enough to see Prey 2 in Utah at Bethesda’s BFG event earlier in the year, and the demo the guys at Human Head showed us at E3 was essentially the same, but it’s still amazing. What was great was hearing all of the peripheral praise on the show floor from those seeing the game for the first time, and given how many people were sceptical Prey 2 could live up to the impact the first game offered, hearing all of this must have been validating for the team behind it.
Prey 2 offers up a wonderful mix of gameplay styles, from seamless first-person parkour to stealth and run and gun play. And as an open-world sci-fi “alien noire” extravaganza, it’s a breath of fresh air for the genre and for gamers looking to move beyond the crowded modern conflict shooter experience; typically linear by design.
It might not have the creepy components of the first game with portals and mind-grazing gravity, but it more than makes up for it in an expanded setting and a switch on the hunter/prey relationship we experienced in the first title. Look out for this one in 2012.
There was no shortage of hot looking titles that grabbed my attention this year and all major publishers had at least one game to include in my “I have to play that” list so narrowing it down to my top five was particularly difficult. Rest assured that from my point of view, this is the cream of the crop.
1. Mass Effect 3
: (Disclaimer: I'm an unashamed Mass Effect fan boy, so provided they didn't go Wii-exclusive or similar, this was always going to be my game of the show). We saw a lot of awesome games this year, but nothing gobsmacked me as hard as Mass Effect 3. There's already such a rock-solid foundation for this game that seeing everything that they're amping up for the third adventure left a mess in my pants.
The sense of scale is breathtaking, with the giant reapers towering over the cities of earth and tearing them to shreds. The characters and dialogue exchanges are looking as solid as ever and the stakes are higher than ever before.
Moreover, they're also continuing to tweak combat and weapon customisation with cover and movement both looking more fluid and functional. It's hard to imagine how this new game could be anything but a step up from it's prequels -- both of which have been my GOTYs for their respective years.
2. Battlefield 3
: As someone that's always had trouble coming to terms with the continually rising popularity of first person shooters on the consoles, it was so incredibly refreshing to sit down and demo multiplayer Battlefield 3 on a gaming PC.
Simply put, this game looks better than anything else out there and it plays like the BF2 we all know and love. There's a lot of uncertainty about the game's single-player campaign and we think they're unlikely to match the competition in that fight, but in multiplayer, the mode that keeps us playing weeks, months and years after release what we've seen here is going to be very hard to beat.
The scale and the vehicles help set it apart, but it's the versatility that pushes it above and beyond -- you can configure and contain a game to a small Call of Duty style deathmatch area if you wish, or you can play the full campaign with a map five times the size and progressing battlefronts, jeeps, tanks and frikken jet fighters. Oh, and dedicated servers were never even a question -- bring on October!
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
: "But... there is one they fear. In their tongue... he is 'Dovahkiin' - Dragonborn!" [Elder Scrolls theme starts playing while Bethesda take all of my money]. Okay so Skyrim was never not going to be on this list, but what we saw at E3 firmly cemented it. Skyrim is looking absolutely amazing and assuming it continues the evolution of the franchise, there is little doubt that it will steal many hours of my life.
Bethesda continue to improve the combat, character interactions and graphics tech, all while retaining everything else that was already so great about their games. Nobody does solo fantasy role-playing as good as these guys and Skyrim continues to evolve the series.
4. Torchlight 2
: Maybe it's my soft spot for little indie-teams that could, or maybe it's Diablo nostalgia, but Torchlight 2 is now confirmed as a game that I have to play as soon as possible. Tucked away in a small meeting room off the show floor and by appointment only, the Runic Games team were showing off their new action RPG, showcasing the all-important new feature of cooperative multiplayer.
Everything they had to say was music to this PC veteran's ears. Mod support, LAN multiplayer, phat loot. All signs point to a game that has the potential to serve up that Diablo 2 feel and fill the void while we wait for Diablo 3 (or even make us forget about it entirely).
5. Gears of War 3
: Much like Mass Effect 3, everything I was privy to for Gears 3 indicated nothing but another increment on an already rock-solid franchise. Gears was always about that balls-out Hollywood blockbuster style action and the E3 demo for number three showed epic cranking everything up yet another notch. It also didn't hurt that it's one of the best looking games I've seen running on an Xbox 360 to date.
Following the single-player demo, I also had a chance to spend some quality time with the revamped horde cooperative mode, which now with the inclusion of some tower-defence elements offers even more post-campaign good times.
Given that it's almost the exact definition of a simple action game for jocks, Gears of War 3 might seem like a strange addition to this top 5 list, but the experience presented to me at this year's E3 was just so polished that it left a strong lasting impression; one deserving of some recognition. Whether the blockbuster pace seen in the demo can be maintained for another entire game remains to be seen, but at this point I think Epic have earned the benefit of the doubt.
Biggest Surprise of the Show
There weren’t a lot of huge surprises at this year’s show, but if I had to choose one of only a handful, it would be Supergiant Games’ Bastion
, a traditional isometric action RPG hybrid in obvious homage to the JRPG SNES titles of yesteryear. Not for its nostalgia, tight and addictive gameplay or presentation, all of which are rock-solid components to the game, but rather its contextually dynamic narration, which is delivered to you in direct feedback to how you’re playing the game.
It’s tough to explain, but based on what action you’re performing, or how you’re interacting with the game-world - be it being smashed by the enemy, spamming evade to move through the level faster or simply dawdling, the game’s on-the-fly narrative is reflective of what you’re doing 1:1, but it doesn’t get old. It’s highly stylised and utterly unique. We’ll have more on this game in the coming weeks, but trust me when I say you want to keep your eye out for this rare gem.
: The biggest surprise of the show for me was actually the new Tomb Raider
. Since we'd heard so little up until this point, the new dark and visceral direction that Crystal Dynamics are taking the series in really caught me off guard. I really like that they're trying something different and not just trying to emulate the formula of Naughty Dog’s successful Uncharted series.
The two Tomb Raider demos we were privy to (the first of which you can see here
) really nailed that wilderness survival feeling and show Lara Croft as an incredibly potent character as opposed to the top-heavy caricature she degenerated into for a while there. Can’t wait to see more.
Biggest Let-Down of the Show
To be brutally honest, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines just left a sour taste in my mouth. Sure it has pulse rifles, aliens and marines, and sure it’s a pseudo sequel to James Cameron’s masterpiece set on LV-426, but it just seems like a limited expansion to the action sequences Cameron himself gave us in the film.
It also just didn’t look
that great. In fact, I think Rebellion’s AvP had more going for it visually than this; and the team banter and scenarios we saw in-game at E3 just wasn’t anything new. Moreover, the introduction of new xenomorph types make sense from a varying gameplay perspective, sort of, but you’re playing with a troubled license in our medium, that is also much loved by fans, you need a lot more than to just take a leaf out of the film’s err script
. Obviously it’s never over until the pregnant Alien Queen sings, but so far, Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t blowing my skirt up.
: See my thoughts above on Nintendo’s press conference and the Wii U.
On E3 Itself
This year felt a little less crazy than previous years, and also a little more evolutionary. Not because of the new hardware or expanded motion-control focus - that stuff will pass like so many peripheral-based music games, but because the industry has finally reached a plateau where character, drama and story-telling are paramount. There were less games this year, but arguably more Triple A titles, and of these, I was impacted by narrative and emotion more than anything else.
Relationships and moral ramifications - both good and bad - are at the fore in game-design now, exampled by the likes of BioShock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham Asylum, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and more. This is accentuated in the evolution of the open-world game also, no longer are we left to our own devices in a world of toys to play with, but with uber-realsitic characters and dynamically reshaped worlds based on our own actions and decisions from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.
The flipside to this is that the smaller guys are also being given a much grander chance at fame and glory. The likes of Bastion being picked up by Warner Bros. Interactive is perhaps the best example here, but ultimately indie development is really coming into its own, which is something the industry has needed to happen for a long time. Big ideas from small companies can now be heard, and we’re better off for it.
As usual though, there were ups and downs; surprises and disappointments, but overall I feel the industry as we know it has come into its own and is maturing at the right pace. The next five years are going to be very interesting as the desire for big companies to follow Nintendo’s mainstream bridge will likely leave them lagging some, but the end of the five-year long console cycle is well and truly over as a result, which means more quality games in the long-run as developers are able to get the most out each respective system, and consumers aren’t forced to upgrade as often, leaving hard-earned cash available for the most important aspect of our business - games.