Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the 22nd annual
Hunger Games Electronic Entertainment Expo!
As always, I’ve spent the last few days glued to my PC monitor, watching live-streams of all the conferences and feverishly updating my RSS feeds for the latest news. Here are all of the things that stood out to me, for good and bad reasons.
E3 goes on for four days and presents a firehouse of screenshots, videos and hands-on reports, but for me the show begins and ends with the conferences that major publishers put on before the show proper. This is where games are announced, trailers are screened and memes are born, where developers, publishers and console makers make a concerted effort to put their best foot forward and present their products in the most positive light they can.
So of course every year someone utterly botches it. The annals of E3 are filled with ill-advised jokes, stupid dance numbers, stilted executive banter and that time last year when EA got Pele onstage to talk about football for what seemed like an hour.
This year it was Ubisoft’s turn. Every E3 they flirt with disaster by leaning heavily on humour and stupid ostentatious special effects, and this time they flew too close to the sun. The conference opened with host Aisha Tyler taking a moment to offer condolences for the victims and families of the Orlando shootings, which was nice, but she did it surrounded by men and women in garish clown costumes who had been participating in a ridiculous Dance Central-focused spectacle minutes earlier.
In recent years Ubisoft has started an unfortunate trend of presenting mutiplayer games with hilariously unnatural pre-recorded fake voice chat, and they keep doing it even though the practice has been widely mocked. This year’s presentation of Ghost Recon: Wildlands might be one of the worst examples, as the Gamer Bros supposedly playing the game communicated like embarrassed first-time LARPers with airsoft rifles. I highly recommend checking out this video of the Giantbomb crew gleefully taking the piss out of it.
As the conference went on it became apparent that they didn’t actually have a whole lot to show, so they stretched every segment out with tons of boring developer interviews and a long, rambling sequence where some guy from Star Trek came on stage to gush about a VR game. By far the worst of these was the South Park bit, which went on forever– I think they showed three separate trailers– and featured an awkward, nervous Trey Parker and Matt Stone making increasingly uncomfortable and cringe-inducing gags. The sequence sucked all life out of the conference, and even Aisha Tyler seemed rattled when it was over.
The original Watch Underscore Dogs was ridiculous for many reasons, among them the game’s bizarre depiction of hacking. The brooding Hack Rebels of near-future Chicago didn’t quite don sunglasses and trench-coats before they sat down to hack servers by looking at them, but it was a near thing.
The sequel is moving to San Fransisco, where time apparently moves somewhat slower, as Watch_Dogs 2 seems to be trading the post-Matrix early 2000s for an aesthetic taken from mid-90s MTV commercials.
This is something you need to see for yourself, so I invite you to watch the following videos and rejoin me when you’ve stopped laughing:
Actually you need to see this one as well. It’s longer, but just watch until you get to the ninja-flips. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.
I have no idea what Ubisoft is trying to do here, but whatever it is, they’re trying way too hard. And in among that neon-vomit nightmare they’re apparently attempting to tackle issues like racial profiling and economic inequality.
Oh god, this thing is going to be filled with hi-larious “topical” Donald Trump jokes, isn’t it?
(Update: a new gameplay video was shown at Ubisoft’s conference, and yes, the game seems to prominently feature a Congressman with a name similar to Trump’s whose campaign slogan is “make the Bay Area strong again.” Okay, Watch Dogs. Sure.)
Apart from the style, the game looks worryingly unpolished for something that’s meant to be out in six months. The aformentioned ninja-flips are floaty and imprecise, and when the clothes store screen zooms down to the protagonist’s shoes you can see that he’s hovering about six inches off the ground. That’s the kind of thing I tend to associate with Steam Greenlight trailers, not huge AAA-budget games making their debut at the biggest gaming event in the world.
The graphics also don’t look particularly impressive compared to a lot of current open world games, or even GTA V on the PC. That’s not normally the sort of thing I’d care about, but given that the first game was embroiled in controversy due to dishonest trailers you’d think they’d want the sequel to look as good as it can.
YES GIVE IT TO MEEEEEE
Dishonored is one of my top 10 favourite games of all time. I’ve replayed it over and over and know pretty much every level by heart. The way older gamers feel about System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, I feel about Dishonored. So I’m Rather Excited about the very idea of a sequel, and it seems it’s going to surpass even those inflated expectations.
The first thing that stands out is the graphics. The original game had a killer art style but in terms of actual technical prowess was noticeably behind by the standards of 2012. That wasn’t actually a problem– it’s a major argument for the idea that art style is more important than gigaflops and volumetric pixel shaders or whatever– but it’s still cool to see the sequel get a major graphical update alongside the stellar art. The gameplay demonstration shows soaring architecture bedecked in atmospheric lighting effects, which makes me happy as a clam.
Long-time readers may know that I have a surprising amount of affection for Wolfenstein sequel/reboot The New Order. A follow-up wasn’t announced at the Bethesda conference, but during a fake DOS sequence at the beginning there seems to have been a sly hint at its existence.
“The New Colossus” as a title (or production code name, anyway) is interesting. You may recognise it as the name of the famous poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty (the slightly condescending one about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free), which BJ recites during the ending of the New Order as the alt-history Nazi regime is dealt a crippling blow that will presumably result in its downfall. The inclusion of the poem in the game always struck me as kind of weird, because even by the standards of the faux-profound nonsense that BJ comes out with it’s random and not terribly relevant to anything that happens in the game, except for a really tenuous visual motif involving a character guiding escaping prisoners with a lantern.
Well, to get on our wild speculation caps for a moment, what if it’s a hint at where the series is going next? What if the “New Colossus” is a reborn United States that ends up becoming the antagonistic force? The entirety of The New Order took place in Europe, so we never actually saw what the post-Nazi USA was like. Maybe they took to the whole white supremacy thing more willingly than BJ assumed.
Plus, if you wanted to make really heavy-handed commentary on the current US political climate– and boy howdy, do videogames like doing that– then a neo-Nazi America taking over the rest of the world would be one way to do it.
Resident Evil VII
A while back I wrote a big series of posts about my beloved Silent Hill and its painful decline into irrelevance. In the course of those posts I briefly touched on the fact that rival series Resident Evil had traveled a similar trajectory, having floundered after failing to capitalize on a successful action-oriented re-imagining.
Well, it seems to be getting a shot at transforming once again, this time into something that re-emphasizes horror. Resident Evil VII (Resident EVII?) appears to be taking its cues from the dearly-departed PT, going full-in on scares and atmosphere rather than chasing Call of Duty style action.
The gameplay video above genuinely got me unsettled, and the tone seemed to have just a hint of that raw, hard-edged, disturbing horror that the older Silent Hill games contained and which hasn’t really been seen in vidoegames since, so I’m excited. A demo is apparently coming to PC after a window of PS4 exclusively, which I’ll definitely check out. And the full game is out in January!
(By the way, “Kitchen” was the name of a previous Capcom VR demo, which is why the beginning of the gameplay demo says “before kitchen”)
Bethesda also showed off a vaguely System Shock-esque version of Prey (the development of which has been a long, tortured, multi-year saga) that’s also obviously going for scares, so maybe developers are jumping back on board the horror train after arbitrarily deciding that people don’t want to play horror games any more.
God of War
This was unexpected.
I’ve never liked the God of War series. I dislike character action games to begin with, Kratos is the utter nadir of the curiously widespread belief that people like playing as horrible assholes, and the game’s adolescent faux-mature so-edgy-I’m-going-to-fucking-cut-myself-on-it tone is hugely off-putting. So I didn’t go into a reveal of the new sequel expecting to do anything except roll my eyes.
It turns out someone at Sony read my mind and listened to my complaints, because the reveal video contained absolutely none of that shit, taking gameplay cues from The Last of Us and Dark Souls and seemingly making Kratos less of a walking avatar of toxic masculinity. And it looks gorgeous! Definitely keeping a cautiously optimistic eye on this one.
Sea of Thieves
In last year’s E3 post I was a bit skeptical about Sea of Thieves, as large-scale multiplayer projects never tend to be as good in the wild as they are in a carefully-controlled stage demo. The gameplay footage we saw this year did nothing to dissuade those fears– it was mostly Youtube Influencers over-reacting to things– but at least the game got hands down the most charming trailer of the show.
Sony devoted a big chunk of their press conference to this, showing a cinematic trailer early on and then closing with a lengthy gameplay demo, which is odd because it’s kind of underwhelming.
It seems to be going for third-person zombie action with a grounded, realistic tone and mature writing… which The Last of Us, another Sony-backed Playstation exclusive, already did, except with more interesting zombies and a more creative take on the post-apocalypse. This game’s big draw seems to be huge hordes of enemies flowing through environments, but is that actually enough to make it stand out in an already crowded genre? There were two other big open world zombie games announced at this show alone, and we’ve had plenty in the last five years.
Also, watching the trailer for this one, I realized I’m now over post-apocalyptic stories the same way most people have been over zombies for a long time. As soon as you start showing mournful panning shots of rusted cars and hastily-abandoned military field hospitals my eyes glaze over, and wistful monologues about all that’s been lost no longer elicit even an iota of emotion. If you’re going to use a post-apocalyptic setting I want something more creative and interesting, like this:
Horizon: Zero Dawn
This was my game of the show last year, and I still think it looks amazing. Not much more to say about it other than that.
Hideo Kojima’s Post-Apocalyptic Norman Reedus Baby Thing (AKA Death Stranding)
I realize when I write these videogame oriented posts that a lot of my readers don’t play games and might not have any context for what I’m discussing, which is why I tend to over-explain a little bit. This one is going to need a lot of explanation.
There’s a legendary series of stealth games called Metal Gear Solid, which is famous for its cinematic storytelling and also for being completely fucking bonkers to a degree that no other big-budget franchise comes close to matching (I started doing a Talking Forever About post on it a while back, and might finish it some day). Unusually for a game series, all of the core MGS games have been directed and spear-headed by a single person: Hideo Kojima, who you may recall was going to be making a Silent Hill game. That came to an abrupt halt when he was fire/left Konami (all that’s known for sure is that the split was not amicable) and founded a new studio.
The video you see above is for the confusingly-titled Death Stranding, which is apparently what that studio is working on in collaboration with Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, who was going to be the star of the Kojima Silent Hill game. It… sure is something, all right.
Rather than speculate on why Reedus is naked on a beach with a C-section scar and a necklace of USB sticks, I’ll point out that Kojima has a noted track record of announcing games with videos full of weird nonsense that may or may not actually resemble the project he’s currently working on, and that he likes to fuck with people and has played massive, expensive pranks at gaming shows before. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get another look at this in a year and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything in this video.
Detroit: Become Human
Look everyone, it’s the next cinematic narrative game from David Cage! This one is about android racism or something. How many shower scenes will there be?
I have very mixed feelings about Cage, in that I think he has interesting ideas and a good sense of how to make a game look visually interesting but is also a terrible writer who badly needs an editor. He’s been crowned an auteur despite doing absolutely nothing to earn it. But apparently he’s not the sole writer on this one, so who knows.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild
I’m a lapsed Zelda fan. I think the series absolutely dese the acclaim and high regard its accumulated, but over the years it’s fallen into the Nintendo trap of becoming far too formulaic, each entry putting various levels of spin on the exact same concepts and gameplay beats. Wind Waker seemed like an excellent chance for a new beginning, both in gameplay and narrative, but it was followed up by Ocarina of Time-wannabe Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, which took half-steps toward innovation that were just progressive enough to let you glimpse the potential of a truly new Zelda game without actually realizing that potential. In addition, the games have been plagued with glacial pacing and an abundance of intrusive hand-holding.
After Skyward Sword I was basically done with the franchise, deciding that I wouldn’t check out whatever came next unless it was both radically different from anything that came before, and extremely impressive in its own right. The bar was set very high on this one.
And god damn, they cleared it with enough space left to fit a skyscraper. Breath of the Wild looks incredible, from the gorgeous visuals to the playful, highly interactive open world to the obvious and heavy Studio Ghibli inspirations. Gameplay demos showed Link being ushered out into the adventure with less than five minutes of build-up (compared to Skyward Sword, which took nearly an hour of tutorializing to get going) and a light dusting of survival elements should spice up the proceedings. This doesn’t just look like a new dawn for Zelda, it looks like one of the smartest, most innovative open world games I’ve ever seen.
Nintendo is a frustrating developer, capable of making industry-shaping leaps in innovation and pushing the entire medium forward but also frequently risk-averse and prone to playing it safe and coasting by on old formulas. It’s very heartening to see them allowing one of their flagship titles to get this wild and out there, and I really hope they apply that to their other properties going forward. They’re in a dicey position with an uncertain future ahead of them; making really fucking cool games is one possible way forward.