E3 2014

E3-2014

E3 is (mostly) over! Let’s talk about it.

VIDEO GAMES.

Microsoft

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On our last E3 post I said that Microsoft really needed to bring the games to win people over. To their credit they opened the conference by saying “we’re just going to talk about games today!”, obviously realizing that the audience was ready to riot if they stated going on about Netflix and Twitter again. They then proceeded to…. not show all that many games.

Well, okay. There were plenty of games showcased and announced at Microsoft’s press conference, but they were overwhelmingly a) multi-platform, b) already announced and/or c) had only CG trailers with no gameplay. The over-reliance on CG trailers was most jarring when it came time to talk about Halo 5, the game that should have been Microsoft’s ace in the hole. Last year they announced it with a brief CG teaser; this year they released…. another CG trailer. Then they talked about the multiplayer with…. yet another CG trailer. For multiplayer. You really have to wonder if the next generation of hardware is presenting developers major headaches or something (we’ll be talking more about this later).

Microsoft needed to fire on all cylinders, but their conference saw them caught in mid-reload. It’s perhaps telling that the only two interesting announcements are both for games that will be released on other platforms. The first was for Rise of The Tomb Raider (yes, that’s actually what they’re calling it), sequel to last year’s fun but also kind of troubling Tomb Raider reboot. I found that game to be hugely enjoyable and I loved the new version of Lara Croft as a character, but I was continually frustrated with the use of the trauma-as-empowerment trope that’s so often applied to heroines. By the end of the game Lara has become a grade-A badass so I was hopeful that the inevitable sequel could dispense with the need to justify the character’s abilities and just have her running around the world badassing it up.

And then we get the above linked trailer, which features Lara seeing a therapist because of all the awesome near-death survival escapades and pitiless arrow-based death she’s handed out. And then we’re more or less told that this character is fuelled by psychological trauma. That’s right, Lara Croft is trapped in a chrysalis of angst and she can only emerge due to the mental scars of being chased off of cliffs by grizzly bears.

(I should also point out that there are many people reacting to this by complaining that being in therapy or suffering from emotional or psychological problems makes Lara “weak”, which I do not agree with at all)

Then a pleasent surpruse- Inside. Back in 2010 Playdead games released Limbo and launched a genre of moody, morose indie platformers. I had completely forgotten they were working on something new, which made its appearance at the Microsoft conference a pleasant surprise.

It’s always nice to see developers taking creative risks. Whereas Limbo was a side-scrolling puzzle platformer about a young boy traversing an eerie supernatural landscape, Inside is a sidescrolling puzzle platformer about a young boy traversing an eerie dystopian environment.

All kidding aside, it looks pretty cool. I have no idea what it’s about (why are all the children trudging around miserably? Are those robots? Why are there bodies falling from the sky? What are those white-uniformed adults looking at?) but I can’t wait to find out.

EA

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EA took a strange approach this year by stating at the beginning of the conference that they were going to be showing off extremely early prototypes of some games, in one case showing something that’s apparently so early in development they couldn’t even say what type of game it is. I suppose it was better than a CG trailer but it feels like a move to pad out a conference that wouldn’t have had enough new announcements otherwise.

Particularly galling was the segment devoted to Mirror’s Edge 2(?), a game announced last year with a gorgeous seemingly in-game trailer that I guess was actually smoke and mirrors. All EA apparently had to show for it this year was early prototype work that looked as if it was mostly based on environments from the first game and concept art, which again makes me wonder if we’re seeing developers scramble to cope with a massive elongation of development time.

Ubisoft

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I generally find the Ubisoft conference fairly entertaining, and this year was no exception, if only because they sure do know how to cut a trailer (and they show off both gameplay and fancy cinematic trailers, Microsoft). We saw more of The Division, which I still have trouble believing is actually going to work like they’re claiming it will.

Back in my Assassins’ Creed 4 review I basically wrote the franchise off, but damn it they’re dragging me back in. Unity looks absolutely gorgeous and they seem to have finally replaced the clunky, awkward climbing controls, if footage of the protagonist leaping around like a weasel on speed is any indication. On the other hand the game gives you four assassins to play as and then makes all of them near-identical grim-faced white dudes.

Ubisoft showed more off Far Cry 4.  I had quite a lot of words to say about the last one, most of them negative in terms of story and character. Can this new game avoid repeating those mistakes? I don’t know, but the gameplay trailer they showed at the Sony conference has the player jumping out of a truck while it’s careening off a cliff and then using a wingsuit to glide to the bottom of a valley. I’m willing to put up with quite a lot of bullshit to try that myself.

I was glad to see Ubisoft giving some time to one of their more easily overlooked games, the 2D Valiant Hearts. The trailer is narrated by a dog and it is saddest thing ever you guys. World War I doesn’t have the same “humanity’s darkest hour” cultural cache that its grittier sequel gets, even though in some respects it might deserve it more due to how monumentally pointless the whole thing was. I therefore approve of this game on principal.

(Side-note: whoever is cutting Ubisoft’s trailers really deserves a raise, they always have by far the most interesting and exciting ones. Check out this one for Car: The Video Game or whatever)

At the end of the conference a Ubisoft head honcho came out, made some grand remarks of thanks to the player and then theatrically said “and now for one more game”. The conference room immediately erupted into wild cheers because clearly there was only one thing this could be: the long-MIA Beyond Good and Evil 2, sequel to the beloved original.

Right?

Nope! It’s Rainbow Six: Siege. Which does look pretty cool, as I’ve been jonesing for a slower, more methodical multiplayer shooter that relies on strategy instead of fast-based twitch aiming. According to this Polygon article the game is a super-hardcore one-shot-one-kill, no respawning affair inspired by the success of similarly brutal multiplayer games like DayZ and Rust, so I guess we’re looking at a rare case of big developers actually acknowledging trends revealed by indie games (now start making more horror games, seriously you’re leaving money on the table).

Sony

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Once again, The Last Guardian is a no-show. The fact that Sony confirmed it was still in development less than 48 hours before their press conference made a lot of people (myself included) hope that today might finally be the day it re-emerges, but no luck. Maybe at Tokyo Game Show in September?

What I will say for Sony is that they’ve more or less pushed me over the edge into deciding to make the PS4 my first current-gen console (actually no, see the Nintendo segment), so in that sense their conference was a pretty big success (and never mind that they spent way too long on minor hardware announcements and a digital TV series). Like Microsoft, Sony doesn’t have a huge stable of killer exclusives but Sony’s massive support for indie games and the few jewels in their crown (like Blood Born, the possibly-exclusive new game from the creator of Dark Souls that was revealed with another fucking CG trailer) makes the PS4 an attractive purchase. Now someone give me 300 euro and I’ll get right on that.

At last year’s VGX small indie devs Hello Games got on stage and instantly rocketed to the top of the gaming world’s watch-list with No Man’s Sky. “Here,” they said. “Our space exploration sandbox game has everything. You can do all of the things. Everyone else can stop now, this is going to be the last videogame.”

This year they showed another trailer and it still looks too good to be true, but I want it to be. I want it to be so bad you guys.

Also I have no idea what this is but is sure is beautiful.

Nintendo

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After last year’s E3 conference I was about ready to sadly write Nintendo off, so imagine my surprise when they hit it out of the park this year with a flurry of cool exclusives.

The big one was Zelda. I have a lot of fondness for the franchise but I’ve become increasingly bored by how those games just regurgitate the same formula over and over again. This new (untitled) game looks set to change all that, showing a Skyrim-style open world that is impossibly gorgeous given that it’s running on last-gen hardware. This game is probably going to move consoles for Nintendo.

(Interesting postcript: when Link pulls back his hood in that video to reveal a short ponytail I very briefly got all excited thinking we were going to play as Zelda or Link was going to be a woman this time around or something (I am apparently not the only person). That probably won’t happen, but according to this article the character in the trailer may in fact not be Link. This represents an obvious opportunity. Come on Nintendo, you need the PR boost after that Tomodachi Life thing)

Given how much of E3 has been dominated by either self-important grim gritty gritty grimdark or embarrassing, juvenile humor (watch this if you can handle it) it was refreshing to see Nintendo unload a small pile of their colourful, quirky games, like Yoshi (made out of wool!) and Kirby (made out of clay!) and a multiplayer shooter where transforming human-squid hybrids fire paint at each other (no really, that is actually what it’s about. Watch the trailer).

Unfortunately, most of these games are coming out in 2015, which means Nintendo are looking at another half a year of the Wii U being a game wasteland. I guess they’re lucky that so many games on other platforms have been pushed back recently.

While I loved what they showed this year, I find Nintendo’s E3 outings frustrating because they’re massively incompetent at hyping their own games (until quite recently their screenshots tended to inexplicably look worse than the actual game, the polar opposite of how the industry usually works). Whereas other publishers release cinematic, adrenaline-pumping trailers that could make chess seem more exciting than a high speed car chase and work as hard as they can to psychologically manipulate people into giving a shit about their games, Nintendo’s strategy is for their executives and developers to talk about their new titles with a low-key, pleasant sort of enthusiasm, like a casual acquaintance inviting you into their house to see their new wallpaper.

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hello, my name is Mr. Nintendo. would you like to see the games I made earlier? let me get you some iced tea

Take that Zelda game, for example. It’s undeniably the crown jewel of Nintendo’s conference, their one chance to plausibly go toe to toe with the big huge fuck-off open world AAA games that dominate the show. They should have rode that shit on-stage on the back of a jewel-encrusted unicorn shooting fireworks.  Instead we got a tiny, brief glimpse of gameplay with no story context. If Nintendo’s usual behavior holds true we won’t see anything else for another year.

Also present this year was Nintendo’s charming habit of catching up to standard industry trends at least two generations late, then carefully explaining their bold new direction as if they were the first ones to ever think of it- see for example the head director of the new Zelda unpacking the concept of an “open world” game. Yes, dude, we know. You can run around without load times. People have been doing that since GTA III. You literally just had to say “open world Zelda” and every single person watching would immediately want to buy that.

Still, I came out of the press conference deciding I need to get a Wii U as soon as possible and can hold off on the other consoles. Mission accomplished, guys.

Trends

So what can we take away from this E3?

As I said earlier, it was striking how many games revealed at the show seemed to be in very early development. This combined with the small avalanche of titles being pushed back to 2015 in the last few months makes me worry that the currently unfolding generation is going to see a dramatic increase in development time (which frankly isn’t surprising given how ambitious and visually gorgeous a lot of these games are).

Maybe that explains the continuing prominence of indie games at E3. Sony once again plastered their conference screens with indie title logos (the vast majority of which are not PS4 or Vita exclusives) and Ubisoft has been getting in on the “indie” (in terms of style rather than a strict definition of that word) space with smaller digital releases like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light. Microsoft tried to showcase their stable of pet indie developers, although I can’t remember who those are, possibly because I was too bored to pay attention by that point.

One thing I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with each E3 is how much much violence is on display. The expo provides a sort of vertical slice of where the industry is at, and year after year that slice is composed mostly of stabbing, neck snapping and headshots. It really is kind of shocking how high the bar for violence has become. It’s not just that most games involve the player murdering hundreds upon hundreds of people, it’s that the method of murder has become so gruesome.

Seriously, imagine a film festival where movie after movie was filled to the brim with people getting their throats cut or their brains blown out. Imagine if there was a greater than 50% chance that any given movie would feature a torture scene. Imagine if the non-violent films were niche indie productions largely ignored by the bulk of the audience. Wouldn’t that be a bit…. weird?

It’s not that I think this violence is morally repugnant (although I do find it distasteful), it’s more that I’m somewhat dismayed by how few developers seem to be able to make entertaining games that don’t involve killing. I will say I liked this ludicrously grimdark and self-important trailer for The Division focused on protecting people instead of SICK HEADSHOTS but I seriously doubt that carries over into the actual game.

Meanwhile Ubisoft, who has sort of pinballed between controversies over the last few years, is in hot water again over the all-male Assassin’s Creed lineup I mentioned earlier. It’s quite a saga.

Conclusion

It’s always a bit hard to assess any given E3. I find the entire idea of declaring a “winner” completely pointless and even giving my person take on it is difficult because what I want to see is entirely subjective. For example, I was hoping to hear something about a new Silent Hill game, but no one had given any indication that that might happen. I can hardly say the show was a disappointment for failing to cater to my specific wishes.

This year’s show cemented a lot of the trends we’ve been seeing recently- the dominance of long-running franchises, big AAA publishers becoming more and more risk-averse and less willing to launch new IPs (check out this statement from Ubisoft basically confirming that we’re going to see Assassin’s Creed 16 and Watch Dogs 7 until the sun dies) while an entire shadow ecosystem of indie developers solidify their position as real creatives in the industry.

And you know what? It’s not such a bad scenario. If you want interesting, entertaining big-budget games there are plenty of options, and the smaller developers are providing more creativity and interesting storytelling than we’ve ever had. I know people like to talk doom and gloom about where the industry is going, and there will probably be some kind of major implosion in the upper echelons before too long, but I don’t think anyone making worthwhile games is going to be in trouble.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “E3 2014

  1. Signatus

    I was actually hoping Bethesda might announce something interesting concerning TES saga or Fallout. It was a big letdown when they didn’t.
    AC Unity seems interesting enough, and DA; Inquisition has made me get excited about the saga again. Let’s see if both live up to the hype, specially DA, after that enormous fiasco with DA2.

    Reply
    1. Reveen

      They aren’t even developing ES Online themselves so who knows what the hell Bethesda is doing. Could be anything from a new Elder Scrolls game to an armed takeover of Maryland.

      Reply
  2. Tim

    Dragon Age Inquisition still makes me think of a version of Papers Please set outside a medieval dragon-tavern.

    “Thy portraite be inaccurate.”
    “Verily t’were painted many a moon ago.”

    Reply

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