the artistry and psychology of gaming


E3 2012: Who Won?

E3 2012: Who Won?

Safe. If there’s any one word I could use to describe this year’s E3, it would be safe. With few exceptions, all of the major players involved in the industry today approached gaming’s biggest annual event with only a modicum of ambition. Microsoft’s biggest announcement was its application of the SmartGlass technology, a way to incorporate pre-existing smart apps (tablets, phones, etc.) into the social and interactive experience of an Xbox. In other words they just used the concept for the Wii U gamepad and adapted it to multiple products. Barring that, Halo 4 seemed to garner the most excitement out of convention-goers. Fans were glad to see Master Chief back in top form, and the game certainly looked spectacular, and a bit Metroid Prime-esque if I must say (which may not be a bad thing). Gears of War: Judgment hid behind pre-recorded footage and didn’t show off any gameplay during the conference, but fans of the series know exactly what to expect out of one of these games (whether this is a good thing or a bad thing at this point is up for debate).

Halo 4's official unveiling looked spectacular.

Between the mediocrities of the rest of the show, there was a single bright spot in Microsoft’s dry presentation, and that was South Park: The Stick of Truth. With the show’s distinct art style and creators’ sharp wit and biting humor, the game displayed the makings of a potential cult classic (though I have reservations about its financial success). As Trey Parker and Matt Stone took the stage, they instantly adhered themselves to the gamers out there by directly lamenting Microsoft’s conference with blunt sarcasm: “How many times have you been watching an episode of South Park and thought, ‘I’d like to be able to watch this on my television, while hooked into my mobile device, which is being controlled by my tablet device, which is hooked into my oven, all while sitting in the refrigerator.”

Splinter Cell: Blacklist made its official debut on stage. Similar in style to Conviction, this new outing for Sam Fisher boasted a new voice actor and motion capture artist, which is sure to upset fan purists. What struck me as the most troublesome, however, is Sam’s ability to call in air strikes on his targets, something that does not sound like a very intuitive tool for a spy who is trying to remain unnoticed. Speaking of spies going unnoticed, Microsoft closed their show with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 gameplay. My vote for the worst secret agents in the world goes to these guys right here. And let’s not even talk about the Usher performance to apparently demonstrate that he contributed to the choreography of Dance Central 3. Because they definitely needed a concert just to show that.

Splinter Cell by way of Call of Duty.

EA kicked it off next, during which they encouraged that people are still playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. No, seriously, apparently some people didn’t get the memo. The bulk of their stage time was consumed by sports games, as expected, but they did find time to show off Dead Space 3, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and Crysis 3. The former feels strangely foreign, no longer a tense survival horror game, but now a cooperative Gears of War in space. The developers encouraged that the trademark isolation of the first two games will return for Dead Space 3, as you can choose to play it solo (without an AI companion), but the addition of the cooperative mode for those who use it will take away from the intensity that the series is known for. EA also announced their version of Call of Duty’s Elite or the Rockstar Pass for Max Payne 3, known as Battlefield Premium. Early access to future downloadable content for a single reduced upfront price of $49.99. It’s a smart and predictable business move, but just another way for EA to dip into consumer pockets.

Ubisoft’s show began with another dance-off to the announcement of Just Dance 4, and offered a bad omen of what was to come. Thankfully, their show only improved from there. Far Cry 3 followed the unnecessary performance and showed off some story and gameplay further into the adventure. Ubisoft then took the opportunity to show off the new Wii U tech by demonstrating Rayman Legends to much delight. The use of the gamepad screen allowed a person to control a companion-like character to the iconic armless man and interact with the environment in a number of ways to help the person controlling Rayman. This is the first time that the Wii U tech has been shown in such a creative and encouraging way.

In keeping with the Wii U theme, Ubisoft then unveiled a console exclusive for Nintendo called Zombi U, a zombie apocalypse survival game. While their own conference showed pre-rendered footage and no actual gameplay, footage seen later in the show demonstrated what was possible with the game. If done correctly the use of the controller in a true survival setting could prove exciting. Taking a page from Heavy Rain, characters in this game are finite: if you die, you stay dead. You will then take on the reigns of a new character and try to reclaim the supplies dropped by the previous one, and continue your journey. Ubisoft did briefly mention that there is “no game” over, however, which makes me concerned: are there an infinite number of randomly generated characters that spawn every time you die? I hope not, because that just defeats the purpose of playing a new one and eliminates all of the tension and fear of death.

The Wii U gamepad could prove an invaluable asset in the zombie apocalypse.

A new cinematic trailer for Assassin’s Creed 3 was unveiled next, and like last year’s trailer for Revelations, this one is equally gorgeous. But the most talked about thing of Ubisoft’s conference, and likely the whole show, was the revelation of a brand new IP: Watch Dogs. This modern day cybertech action game has a huge focus on the sharing of information between smart devices, and on surveillance and safety. The gameplay that was shown off eventually escalated into a full-out assault in the middle of an intersection in Chicago, but began more subtler, with the main character walking around a club able to hack into the accounts of various people and look up all the information he desired. There’s even a way to determine if a character is prone to violence, as was shown as he approached a bouncer and the red meter started slowly increasing. Knowing this information, he was able to attack first and disarm the potential enemy before an incident. Outside on the streets again, he was tracking the car of his next target and hacked a street light just as it crossed the intersection, causing a massive car pileup. The potential for this kind of interaction that was shown was only surface-deep, but I can’t wait to see more of this title in the future.

Sony closed out the first day of E3 with their show, starting with a montage of clips for many of their upcoming games. But the theme of Sony’s show was games, and they certainly proved it. An extensive look at David Cage’s new title Beyond: Two Souls showed the potential for Quantic Dreams’ storytelling capabilities, something they exercised first with Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy), and later on the PS3 with Heavy Rain. Featuring the voice and full acting talents of Ellen Page, Beyond looks like it could set the bar for cinematic interactive storytelling. Sony kept it coming, with gameplay footage from their new brand fighter PlayStation All Stars: Battle Royale (an almost shameless copy of Smash Bros. in nearly every sense), God of War: Ascension, and finally The Last of Us.

The aftermath of a viral outbreak in The Last of Us.

Naughty Dog’s latest adventure looks oddly familiar on the surface, but as the gameplay demo went on, the almost superman-like qualities of former hero Nathan Drake were not apparent in Joel or Ellie, two survivors of a viral outbreak. In combat, they struggled. Joel’s health did not regenerate, but rather was represented by a classic health bar and the need for health packs. The backpack he carried served as his inventory, which looked like classic Resident Evil style blocks, using the shape and size of items to force some careful planning. What was also shown was a minor crafting system as Joel quickly concocted a Molotov cocktail out of a bottle and a rag. The Last of Us took the grittiness of the post-apocalypse and the need for survival and adapted it to Naughty Dog’s genius for cinematic flair and pacing. Keep your eyes on this one.

Assassin’s Creed 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, a Vita exclusive, occupied a bit of time during Sony’s show, and what they did show off for 3 was breathtaking. Naval warfare out on the open seas looked spectacular, especially as the ship embarked from the gentle coast of the bay out into the raging swells of the open waters. While watching this, all I could think of was a full game built around this kind of stuff.

Can you say pirate ship battles? I can.

Nintendo opened the show the following day as the last of the five major press conferences, and began with a charming pre-recorded segment with Shigeru Miyamoto and several of the iconic alien Pikmin. As the legend took the stage, Pikmin 3 was officially unveiled and a brief demo was shown. The game looks like classic Pikmin, but uses the Wii U gamepad in a number of interesting ways. Players will have the choice of using it or the standard Wii remote and nunchuk to control the characters, each style offering unique flexibility. The biggest takeaway from Nintendo’s show overall is that the Wii U can support two pads, but as revealed later during their developer roundtable, this can strain the performance of the system in the way of framerate. Nintendo has a lot of optimization to do before this hardware launches. From the show itself, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime assured us that games would be their top priority, and he was right. Only, much of what was shown was not in the interest of the audience that Nintendo has neglected for many years – the hardcore.

I don't know about you, but I've always dreamt of fighting a whale with an army of pikmin.

They showed off gameplay for the Wii U versions of Batman: Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed 3, Ninja Gaiden, Aliens: Colonial Marines, and to everyone’s surprise, Mass Effect 3. But what Nintendo truly lacked was their strong first-part support, or the allure of exclusives. A few were discussed: the previously mentioned Zombi U, Scribblenauts Unlimited, and New Super Mario Bros. U. However, of the exclusives, the one that caught my eye the most was LEGO City Undercover, an open-world style Lego game from Traveler’s Tales that evoked all the charm and humor of Lego games passed, but with the freedom and accessibility of Grand Theft Auto. The hybrid was a pleasant surprise and one I’ll certainly keep close watch on.

An open world Lego game could prove one of the most exciting things to come in the near future.

Following this, they announced some support for the 3DS, including Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (previously Luigi’s Mansion 2), a version of Scribblenauts Unlimited, New Super Mario Bros. 2, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Much of it was rather bland, and not up to the standards that Nintendo has set in the past. The games look interesting, for sure, but in the short time they had allotted, they spent way too much of it focused on some of the more inane things (like Just Dance 4 and Zombi U, which had both previously taken up time on Ubisoft’s show). And as if icing on the cake, Nintendo closed out their conference with a tepid showing of NintendoLand, a theme park adventure with several attractions based on classic Nintendo IPs such as Zelda or Donkey Kong. Reggie alluded this package to something like Wii Sports, which as he described it, allowed people to understand the concept of the Wii when it launched 6 years ago. He says that once people play NintendoLand, they will “get it.” My only concern is whether this game will be packaged with the console, because if not, then very few people will actually “get it.”

In a year that was filled with mostly sequels or prequels, or some kind of continuation of a series, only a few games stuck out. Where was Anarchy Reigns? Overstrike? Fortnite? Where was Retro Studios to show off their new game for Nintendo? For some, their absence can be explained – or at least expected. The Last Guardian once again performed its famous disappearing trick, but Sony decreed that the game will ship when “absolutely ready.” Rockstar or Valve were known to not make appearances at the show, so hopefuls who were anticipating Grand Theft Auto V or the much-desired Half-Life 3 will have to wait a little longer. So, in the end, it’s no surprise that my most anticipated games in the months to come are the ones I knew little or nothing about, games like Watch Dogs, The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, Zombi U, LEGO City Undercover, and Project P-100, a Platinum Games developed Wii U exclusive that was strangely ignored during the stage show but revealed later during the hands-on portions for many gaming outlets.

So the question remains: who won E3? The political thing in a time like this would be to say we as fans won, but I can’t even do that this year. With so few surprises, so many underwhelming shows, and little in the way of true risk taking, no one won E3 this year. Sony and Ubisoft, between the two of them, showed the most amount of collective progression. With new IPs like Watch Dogs, Beyond, and The Last of Us, they at least partially understood the importance of keeping things fresh in an industry that often gets blinded by repetition. Microsoft’s push toward the Xbox becoming a more socially interactive hardware was evident, as their conference focused less on the games, and more on the technology: Smart Glass and the implementation of it in features like HBO Go or ESPN. Nintendo had much to discuss this year. What should have been a revolutionary moment in the industry turned out rather flaccid. The Wii U still proves underwhelming for many, and without even a mention of a release date or even a price point, many third party publishers have yet to react positively toward it. Nintendo needs to capitalize quickly, or face another drought of games in the years to come.

One of the most talked about announcements at E3, and my most anticipated game of the show.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for doing this Mike, it looks like you got all the high points for each of the conferences! I’m also really excited for Watch Dogs, and besides Pikmin, was surprised to see LEGO City become the most interesting Nintendo exclusive (Until I saw Project P-100 that is – really why didn’t they show that?!?!).

    If I’d have to pick, I’d say Ubisoft came out the winner with Watch Dogs, as well as finagling a spotlight in presentations for both Nintendo and Sony (although I’d still say announcing exclusive DLC this far out from launch is a bit ridiculous).

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