For the uninitiated, E3 Entertainment Expo is the video game industry’s biggest trade show. It’s a weird parallel universe owned and operated by marketing departments where most of the year’s games get announced. It’s also one of those rare venues where nerdy corporate shills get to try their hands at standup comedy before enormous, global audiences. Frankly, it’s embarrassing for everyone involved when speakers combine forced childish glee with corporate buzzwords, but it doesn’t stop pretty much every publisher from doing it.
You half expect a presenter to say "What's the deal with sticky cover toggling in community-driven third person tactical shooters? Am I riiiight?"
As the gaming industry has caught up with cinema in profitability, its risk-aversion has increased to match. It’s tough to muster much enthusiasm for the slew of sequels and reboots announced or demoed at this year's show. One day I may become one of those people who scream “WOOOO!” at a mere mention of God of War, but Gods be praised, today is not that day. I'm not even at E3, but safe and sound in New Zealand, where marketing can't mask the monotony of the majors' slates.
Take a deep breath:
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Battlefield: Hardline, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, Dance Central Spotlight, Mirror’s Edge 2, Crackdown, Fable Legends, Phantom Dust, Mass Effect 4, The Sims 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Halo 5: Guardians, Star Wars: Battlefront, Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Just Dance 2015, Rainbow Six: Siege, Killzone: Shadow Fall Intercept, Infamous: First Light, Little Big Planet 3, Hotline Miami 2, Dead Island 2, Magicka 2, Mortal Kombat X, Batman: Arkham Knight and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. And that doesn’t even include the annualised sports titles.
Okay, I’ll admit to being genuinely excited about a few of these. Mass Effect, for example, is a sci-fi universe I’ve come to love almost as much as Star Trek, so I’m totally on board for a new game set in that universe. Rise of the Tomb Raider, despite bearing a title that more accurately describes last year’s surprisingly excellent Tomb Raider, brings back that game’s writer Rhianna Pratchett, and will hopefully make for a solid followup. And it’s been far too long since the last good Star Wars game.
But many of these series are becoming creaky (some after a single game). The new Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed titles look identical to their predecessors, but with new settings, better graphics and co-op. In Far Cry 4’s case, I’m concerned its gay-coded (if not actually gay) villain will perpetuate “predatory homo” stereotypes, especially following its predecessor’s failure to land its attempted political statements. Battlefield Hardline admittedly claims new territory for EA with its cops-and-robbers multiplayer, but it’s nothing the Payback series hasn’t done already. And Rainbow Six: Siege may well be a great game, but Christ, Ubisoft botched their reveal, presenting its gameplay as Capture The Helpless Woman. When asked by host Aisha Tyler the significance of the helpless woman in question, Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six rep responded: "It's *a* lady - she doesn't really have any persona per se.” Classy, Ubisoft.
But what’s easier than making a sequel to an already-successful game? Just re-releasing that game. Microsoft is assembling the four main Halo games remastered for the Xbox One. Sony is putting out The Last Of Us for the PS4. Rockstar is bringing Grand Theft Auto V to next-gen consoles and (finally) PC. Most tantalisingly, Tim Schafer’s cult classic adventure game Grim Fandango is to be remastered for PS4 and Vita. The last time I saw that game in playable form, it was literally in a museum, so that’s great news.
It wasn’t all sequels and remakes, though. Ubisoft showed a trailer for Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a 2D puzzle-adventure game based on actual letters from the First World War (a war less historically sexy than WWII, but just as harrowing for its soldiers). It was the only interesting thing in their presentation. Microsoft showed an intriguing indie called Cuphead, a run-and-gun game with an emphasis on boss battles and animation that hearkens back to the early days of the form. It cuts a unique figure amongst photorealistic or even CGI-cartoon games, and it’s coming to Xbox One and PC next year. Sony and From Software showed off a cinematic trailer for Bloodborne, their Demon’s Souls spiritual sequel, and though no gameplay accompanied it, its pedigree is enough to get excited about. It also forms part of a weird fad in game design that's seeing the brown modern shooter supplanted in ubiquity by Victorian-tinged action games.
Sony also reiterated their commitment to VR in the form of their Project Morpheus headset, currently being demoed on the E3 show floor, many miles from me, with a dinosaur game. Those bastards at Sony have aroused my envious ire, and may well have sold me a PS4 in the process. Only time and paychecks will tell.
Best in show? Procedurally-generated everything game No Man’s Sky. It’s a galaxy-spanning adventure featuring seamless space, air and ground combat and exploration, with no loading screens in between. The gameplay trailer is breathtaking in its scope and ambition - and gorgeous, too, with a colour palette unlike any other game. It’s the one trailer I will actually embed here. Over the next couple days, more announcements will be made and the show's other curiosities will rise in visibility, but until then, this has my dollar for best demonstration from a major publisher.