My Top 10 E3 2014 Highlights
I have a somewhat uneven interest in E3. I’m not one who really has much time or interest in reading preview coverage of games, and I really loathe the trend of releasing “teaser trailers” that are completely uninformative about the games they pretend to portray. I usually rely on post-release word of mouth and a few podcasts to fill me in on any new games that are worth playing. But despite this inclination, there is definitely something about the sheer spectacle of E3 that usually causes me to tune into the big press conferences and to take time to watch/read some of the preview coverage that trickles out of the event. It’s a bit of a love-hate thing. It’s great that a lot of cool stuff is shown in rapid succession, but there’s also a lot of obnoxious fluff like cheesy celebrity appearances, long speeches about features and services that no real person will ever use, and the worst offender in my eyes, the awkward game presentations that try to emphasize how EMOTIONAL! the player is going to get during what is actually a generic cookie-cutter action game.
This year was actually fairly tame on those offenses. All-in-all the press events seemed to be a little more snappy and straight to the point, with maybe the exception of EA. So much of their presentation was showing off concepts and prototypes, while having their development teams talk about how much they love to make games in an odd documentary style. But the platform holders did manage to show off a lot of cool stuff, so I’ve decided to compile a list of what I thought were the best highlights of this year’s convention. These are in no particular order:
I’m a huge fan of the Demon/Dark Souls series, so naturally I’m excited for Bloodborne. This game is the From Software/Sony Computer Entertainment collaboration that leaked a few weeks ago which went under the codename Project Beast. Unfortunately, only a short teaser trailer (blah) was shown of the game with no actual gameplay on display. However, the leaked gameplay footage makes it clear that this game is essentially a next-gen Dark Souls. One interesting thing to note, they seem to be moving on from the medieval setting to something more Victorian-era in aesthetic (there was a definite Jack the Ripper vibe going on). This setting choice is reinforced by both the attire and the crude guns appearing in the leaked footage. What I find interesting is that this game wasn’t given a “Souls” title. Hopefully, that means that this game will be a significant evolution over the Souls titles in the same way that the Souls games were an evolution of King’s Field. I suspect that they are planning to publicly release gameplay footage later this year at TGS.
Splatoon is Nintendo’s take on the team-based multiplayer shooter, a completely new style of game for them that surprisingly isn’t attached to any existing Nintendo characters. This game is sort of Nintendo’s take on paintball, a territorial control game where two opposing teams try to splash-paint the map with their own color to get ahead, and whichever team’s paint covers the largest percentage of the map is the victor. One interesting twist is that players can switch on the fly between human and “squid” form. Yes, I know that seems completely random, but Nintendo-logic is at work here. In human form they can shoot paint at the environment or opposing players. In squid form, the player will sort of “merge” with a painted surface to “swim” really fast across it for heightened mobility (they can also sort of hide in the paint). The reason I’m most excited about this game is that Nintendo is a company that refuses to “color within the lines.” That is to say that they never really conform to established genre norms (unless they were the ones to establish said genre norms) when they take on this sort of new project. In the same way that Pikmin was a new and refreshing take on RTS or Metroid Prime was a fairly unique take on FPS, I’m hoping that Splatoon can provide just as remarkable of an experience.
I’ve never played much LittleBigPlanet. The only version I’ve tried was the PSP version I got for free after the PSN apocalypse. While playing that version, I really couldn’t shake the feeling that the user-created content focus would be way more attractive for an established platforming series like Mario, and now at long last, Nintendo is jumping on that train with Mario Maker for the WiiU. The game allows you to create and share Mario stages playable in either the NSMB or original 8-bit SMB aesthetic. This was another game that I heard leaked ahead of the show, but now we have actual details. Unfortunately, it is a Wii U only game, which is not really my preferred Nintendo platform. The leaked images showed the WiiU stylus so this was not entirely unexpected, but I thought maybe it might appear on 3DS as well (like Smash Bros.), since it’s concept is so well suited to handheld gaming. Alas, that’s not to be the case. Nintendo had a pretty good “digital event,” showing a lot of cool new stuff, but it was heavily WiiU focused, with only Smash Bros. and the Pokemon remakes being shown for 3DS. I’ve been somewhat worried for a while that their WiiU ails would cause them to shift the bulk of the resources toward developing for the WiiU, and this showing did not allay my fears. I hope they have more to show for the 3DS later this year, because right now 2015 looks barren for the handheld.
I haven’t invested in either of the new consoles yet, but I’ve mostly written off Microsoft, mainly because they’re exclusive offerings with the 360 eventually whittled down to an endless repetitive cycle of Gears/Halo/Forza. Their conferences also tend to be littered with ancillary content that they try to make a big deal of, but no one ever really uses and is not as impressive as they think it is (see Smart Glass, Xbox Music, Twitter/Facebook apps, Bing on the dashboard, etc. etc. etc.). Purely out of cynicism, I almost skipped this conference, but I managed to catch like maybe the last half of it and was actually quite surprised. They defied my expectation of Gears/Halo/Forza by showing off some new exclusive games like Crackdown 3 (did not expect this series to come back), Fable Legends, and Scalebound. The rest of the conferences was actually surprisingly snappy, with little of the aforementioned fluff content. After launching a $500 console that was meant to compete with the $400 PS4 and steal customers from vastly cheaper boxes like Roku and Apple TV (that don’t hide content behind a $60/year subscription), Microsoft seems like they might be starting to pull through this mess that was their own making.
The big draw of their conference for me was Sunset Overdrive. Although this game has been shown off before, I’ve never seen it until now. A third-person shooter from the prolific Insomniac, it actually looks like a lot of fun. It seems to be sort of an evolution of their previous action-platformer series, Ratchet and Clank, with lots of acrobatics thrown into their quirky shooter design. The only thing I didn’t like about the trailer was that the mutant enemies seemed to be sort of boring, beige with glowy bits monsters. Hopeful the finished game adds a little more diversity on that front. Another reservation I have is about Insomniac’s capabilities. They were really not at their best last-gen. A few of their R&C games stood out (namely A Crack in Time), but their Resistance series always felt like a mediocre, “me-too” entrance in that genre. Their first multiplatform game, Fuse, was by most accounts garbage. They do give an impression that Sunset Overdrive is a game that they really want to make, so hopefully they’re all hands on deck for this new release and can achieve the relative quality of their PSX and PS2 output.
No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky has been capturing a lot of imaginations since its reveal last year. A sort of communal multiplayer exploration experience, in which players travel through space to explore planets in a vast procedurally-generated shared universe, the footage really speaks for itself. It kind of feels like what a lot of people dreamed Mass Effect of being before its release. Hello Games’ Sean Murray describes the game as born out of his childhood fascination with Heinlein-style space operas and, in particular, their illustrations. I was a huge scifi reader as a kid, and that really resonates with me. My only fear is that this game seems really ambitious for a small studio whose only other releases have been the Joe Danger games. I’m sure it will be a good game, but I think it’s best to keep expectations in check.
Catching two birds with one stone here, two new Lara Croft games were shown off, Rise of the Tomb Raider, a sequel to last year’s reboot, and Lara Croft: Temple of Osiris, a sequel to the top-down Guardian of Light game. Very little was shown of either game, but I was definitely surprised that they decided to continue with the Guardian of Light skein of this series. That game was one of those excellent XBLA-style spinoffs that often tend to fall through the cracks when it comes to considerations for a sequel.
The era of the LucasArts adventure game occurred just a little bit before I really started to get into PC gaming in the late ‘90s, and I’ve always been a little remised that I let myself miss out on those titles. The tremendous acclaim for these games has always a piqued my interest, but aside from Monkey Island 1 and 2, they’ve never been rereleased and the old versions of those games aren’t available for sale on any digital storefront (they are a gaping hole in GOG’s catalog). Sony’s announcement of a Grim Fandango HD-remake for PS4 and Vita definitely got my attention. The remake is being done by Double Fine, which is fitting as Tim Schafer has always been given principal creative credit for the original. I am left perplexed, though, by Double Fine’s huge stack of projects right now. Across Kickstarter and Steam early-access, they have like 4 unfinished games, and I wonder if they’re getting spread a little too thin, which might have an adverse effect on the quality of all these projects. Otherwise, I’m hoping that this is actually a sign that Disney may be beginning to open the LucasArts vault a little and allow for some of these old classics to find their way to modern releases.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dragon Age: Origins was a pretty cool RPG when it came out. Long in development, it was BioWare’s fairly successful attempt to return to Baldur’s Gate-style fantasy after their excursions into scifi with KOTOR and Mass Effect and the more eastern fantasy-styled Jade Empire. Unfortunately, what felt like the promising start of a new top-tier RPG series was quickly dashed the following year with the lackluster-at-best release of Dragon Age 2. Why BioWare/EA thought it was a good idea to rush out a sequel after less than one year of development, I’ll never understand. Fortunately, they seem to be giving a proper go at Dragon Age: Inquisition, due out later this year. The game at least looks good (something that couldn’t be said about its predecessor), although who knows how the story will turn out. Also, they seem to be going back to the more tactical combat of Origins, as the top-down battlefield view mode has returned. Personally, I feel that this is make or break time for Bioware. Both Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 left a bit of sour taste in fans mouths, and they really need to make a good impression with this game to reestablish themselves as one of the premier RPG studios.
ABZU is the creation of Giant Squid, a new studio featuring talent that formerly worked on Journey. It’s difficult to get a grasp of what exactly this game is right now, but, at the Sony conference, a very vivid trailer showed off the game’s breathtaking deep sea settings. I can only speculate how the game will play (perhaps some sort of exploration puzzle game like Journey?), but the developer’s credentials definitely makes me feel that they can ace atmosphere and evocative environments. Definitely looking forward to more details on this one.
Alien: Isolation (note the singular)
Alien(s) is a franchise that on the surface appears ripe for translation to the video game medium, but capturing the actual soul of that series is something that no game has ever been especially successful with. There have been some good games born from this series, such as Alien Trilogy for the PSX, but they’ve only been superficially similar to the movies. Video games tend to be heavily built around the “one man army” structure where a lone hero fights his/her way through a massive onslaught of opponents (e.g., Mario vs. the Koopa tribe, Gordan Freeman vs. the Xen invaders, Max Payne vs. every able-bodied man on Earth, etc.). Xenomorphs are not very conducive to this structure. The menace of the xenomorphs in the film franchise is that they are portrayed as being literally the perfect predators. They are superhumanly strong and fast, stealthy, highly intelligent, and their wounds are potentially lethal to the one inflicting the damage. To have a lone space marine advance against hundreds of these creatures completely robs them of the quality that makes them such an immense terror in the movies.
After striking out with the atrocious Aliens: Colonial Marines, which does employ the one man army trope, Sega looks to do the spirit of the series right this time with Alien: Isolation. From what I gather from previews, this game stars Ripley’s adult daughter during the era of Ripley’s long cryosleep after escaping the Nostromo. The setup is that Ripley Jr. appears to be trapped on an abandoned space station which also happens to be occupied by a lone xenomorph. The game is a part of the new-wave of evasion-focused horror games, like Amnesia, and Ripley Jr. is given little means to directly combat the alien aggressor. A major aspect of the game being touted by the developer is the sophisticated AI of the xenomorph which is capable of pursuing a highly complex cat-and-mouse game with the player. In addition, there appears to be a large crew of hostile human scavengers aboard the station, which the player must either sneak their way past or outwit into getting trapped in a confrontation with the prowling xenomorph. That last part is interesting. Since the xenomorph is attracted to noise, there are a number of ways the player can attract the xenomorph to the human hostiles, such as placing a noise emitting gadget or provoking the hostiles to fire at Ripley Jr. Assuming the player can get out of the xenomorphs path fast enough, this can be an effective way to deal with human hostiles if there’s no way to sneak past them.
All-in-all, this is might be the game I’m most excited for this year (being a year so scant on releases doesn’t hurt it). I’m also glad that a big publisher like Sega is investing in such a unique title.
While this was an exciting show, I would be a bit remised if I didn’t express my disappointment for how little of it was slated for this year. If anything, I feel justified in holding off buying a next-gen console for a while. The only console I’ve bought at launch was the PS2, and despite how huge a spectacle that launch was, there really was not much to play for it at the time. At launch, I can only remember SSX and Timesplitters as being worthwhile, and neither really justified the console. A few months later, Onimusha came out, which was the first big game for the PS2, and the only one for a long while. Twisted Metal Black came out ~5 months after that, in June, and then there was next to nothing until the release of Metal Gear Solid 2 that holiday, after which the PS2 library finally picked up steam. Consoles always seem to have these dead times post-launch, and the PS4 and Xbox One don’t seem much different. But at least, 2015 is shaping up to be a banging year.