E3 2017: Electronic Entertainment Exhaustion
E3 is a real chore to get through if you write about games. A sporadically exciting one, perhaps, but a tiring one, with more games to track than is reasonable, all fuelled by a slavering marketing machine desperate to constantly one-up itself, often overshadowing the actual games in the process. Microsoft tried to make a splash with its overpriced, confusingly-named Xbox One X, attempting to sell 4K to people who don’t need it (i.e. everyone). Every publisher hawked the latest instalments in their high-powered franchises. Franchise titles saw preposterous cinematic demos that mostly bored me (except perhaps Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, which put loveable Aussie-accented orc Bruz the Chopper front and centre in a naked grab for Tumblr love). Many of those games will probably even be good! It's just hard to pick them out amidst the chaos.
It wasn’t all a yawn. I mean, I'm almost always going to be up for more Horizon Zero Dawn, more Dishonored, more Life Is Strange, or more Zelda, and the avalanche of DLC announcements this week has ensured that those titles will continue for some time. Numerous indies reminded us of their existence - indies I'm legitimately excited for, like Tacoma, Hello Neighbour, Ooblets, and Vampyr - without needing to present anything especially new. And of course, Bethesda announced multiple new versions of Skyrim, the Sgt. Pepper’s of video games, one of which (the Switch version) I may actually buy. E3 is nothing if not predictable.
That said: the following ten games genuinely got my blood a-pumpin’. Get your “What about _______?” comments ready:
BioWare has had a rocky start to 2017, with Mass Effect: Andromeda launching to widespread disappointment and stories of production mismanagement. Many suspected that Andromeda's subpar quality stemmed at least in part from the firm migrating staff away from its Montreal studio to Edmonton, where the game now known as Anthem is being developed. Far from the deep single-player-only RPGs the studio’s known for, Anthem seems positioned as EA’s answer to Destiny: a shared-world action game built around fireteams, spontaneous in-world events, and loot drops. There’s even a “safe” social space, full of questgivers, with a wall around it. While its lush Avatar-esque environments and high-speed jetpack manoeuvres can’t distract from the over-familiarity of its gameplay and art direction, I’m interested in the things we haven’t seen yet. Namely: what does BioWare bring to this genre that Activision doesn’t? How will Anthem play for solo players? Will it continue the tradition of (after Andromeda, mostly) strong storytelling BioWare’s known for? EA is clearly throwing mountains of money at this thing - hopefully it won’t be long before we see why.
The Artful Escape and Ashen (okay, I'm cheating)
Annapurna Interactive wowed us earlier this year with What Remains of Edith Finch. When I saw the company’s logo appear - twice - in Microsoft’s press conference, I yelped with excitement. The gaming subsidiary of Megan Ellison’s production company appears to be doing for games precisely what it does for cinema: making smart, original, stylish entertainment for grown-ups. Its two titles on show at E3, The Artful Escape and Ashen, differ wildly from one another - one a colourful, musical 2D adventure; the other a muted, 3D role-playing game - but both look bloody excellent. The Artful Escape’s psychedelic guitar riffs tie in to a glorious art style and a story about “great expectations, famous folk singers, lingering shadows, space Gods, hallucinogens, individuality, reptile shops, and wild imaginations.” Ashen, on the other hand, appears to be a Soulslike with a greater emphasis on inter-character relationships - an intriguing concept, given the Souls series’ reliance on fear and paranoia. Bring ‘em on, Annapurna.
Beyond Good and Evil 2
I never got to play much of Beyond Good and Evil, largely thanks to the game crashing repeatedly to the point that I abandoned it. I understand it boasts quite the cult following, though, and certainly the trailer for its prequel has my interest piqued. Full of energy, religious and technological imagery, and animal-human hybrids, it’s a fun few minutes that looks like it cost a hundred million dollars to make. It doesn’t show any gameplay, naturally - though creator Michel Ancel has stated it contains a number of the title’s actual gameplay concepts - but boy, is it ever a statement of intent. Ancel’s trailer breakdown suggests the game will have online co-op play, open exploration of planets and space, and a host of characters to hire as crew for multiple (!) starships. There’s no release date as of yet, but given they’ve waited 15 years already, fans can surely hold on a little longer.
I loved Until Dawn as a single player game, but it's even better as an ad-hoc local multiplayer title, with friends yelling out instructions to the player or controlling different characters in Supermassive's interactive slasher film. The studio appears to have taken that spontaneous phenomenon to heart, putting it front and centre in serial-killer thriller Hidden Agenda. As its story unfolds, players vote on character decisions using a mobile app; some players are given secret objectives to carry out, while others may just focus on helping the game’s characters survive. It’s a clever way to make the most of Until Dawn’s particular appeal, somewhat surprisingly calling to mind a number of tabletop party games. The big question: will the storytelling do the mechanic justice?
Sea of Thieves
Of the two big pirate-themed games on show at E3, Rare’s cartoony offering far outshines Ubisoft’s Skull and Bones (unrelated to the Yale secret society). The latter is a clear spinoff from the well-received naval combat portions of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, designed purely as a ship-based multiplayer title (does everyone have a ship? How many ships are out there?!), but Sea of Thieves is a little more intimate and fun. Players control individual pirates in sailing ships, conducting naval combat, raiding wrecks, following treasure maps, fighting undead, and more. It’s online-only, sure, but in the right ways, seemingly geared entirely towards generating exciting and/or humourous piratical situations. That it’s exclusive to Xbox and Windows is a bummer, but hot dang, it could be a load of fun. I can hear my friends doing pirate voices on chat already.
Super Mario Odyssey
Of course Nintendo was going to bring its new Switch-exclusive Mario game to E3. We just had no idea how fucking weird it was going to be. A return to the sandboxy 3D design of Super Mario 64 or Sunshine, after several 2.5D installments (while Kirby and Yoshi will receive that treatment next year), Odyssey takes Mario to a new set of worlds - including, notably, the realistically-proportioned streets of New Donk City (the city in which the original Donkey Kong is set, apparently). Gameplay in this one centres on Mario’s cap, which can be thrown, jumped on, and...used to possess objects and other beings. That mechanic promises to raise a lot of gameplay potential, not to mention a host of philosophical quandaries, as Mario becomes a kind of friendly Italian Pazuzu, possessing everything from Goombas to a T-Rex to an actual, non-cartoony human being. It all looks super strange, and hopefully it’ll also be super fun.
At Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival last year, I attended a panel discussion held by staff from Ubisoft and SpectreVision, the production company fronted by Elijah Wood that’s given us innovative low-budget genre fare like The Greasy Strangler, LFO, Open Windows, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. The participants, in development on a then top-secret virtual reality project, delved into the difficulties of telling stories in VR - directing audience attention, the role of the player in storytelling, even the placement of the VR camera. The discussion was eloquent, fascinating, and demonstrative of in-depth exploration of this new medium. Now we know the project in question is the psychological thriller Transference, taking place in “a digital recreation of the mind” - a memory palace of sorts in which players solve mysteries and puzzles as a narrative unfolds. There’s very little information available as to the actual content or story, but the talent involved suggests the end product will be intense and uncompromising. It also brought Macon Blair to E3, so that’s something.
Tunic won the top prize at Fantastic Arcade way back in 2015 - when it was known as Secret Legend, and also when I was on the festival's judging panel voting for it. At the time, it was a remarkable achievement for a solo developer: an adorable yet deceptively difficult isometric-ish ARPG starring one of the cuter foxes in the gaming world. Two years later, it looks even better, with a new title, what appears to be a deeper combat system, and some seriously handsome lighting effects. I loved what I saw at Fantastic Arcade, and I can’t wait to see a fuller version when it releases in 2018.
A Way Out
I loved Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons a lot. So do most people who played it. So did EA, apparently, as the firm will be publishing Hazelight’s new co-op prison escape adventure A Way Out. Though Brothers was a single player game, it was built around simulated co-op gameplay, its ingenious design suggesting a rich understanding of cooperation. Looking like the co-op I so desperately wanted from Uncharted 4's opening levels, A Way Out appears to combine single-screen and split-screen multiplayer in clever, unpredictable ways. Players control a pair of brothers (again!) as they escape from prison and go on the lam, working together - sometimes in concert, but often asymmetrically - to survive. Co-op games are my jam, and this one - which plays in split-screen, locally or online - is being developed exclusively with co-op in mind. If it’s got half the co-op-derived storytelling power of Brothers, it’ll be a massive winner.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
I never really understand why crowds go so ballistically wild at E3 shows. Yes, the demos are impressive, but I'd never chant publishers' names or do the “I'm not worthy” bow as the children present at Sony's show did. That said, Bethesda's reveal of MachineGames’ follow-up to Wolfenstein: The New Order (one of the best action games I’ve reviewed here at BMD) had me gasping with elation, even watching from home. Placing the action in alternate-history, Nazi-occupied America, with Klansmen walking around in the open alongside Nazi commandants, the sequel appears to retain its predecessor’s fondness for its bizarre characters, its pulpy setting, and and its brutal Nazi-slaying. It looks fucking insane in the best possible way. And I mean, look - it's 2017. I’m just keen to shoot a bunch of Nazis.
What did you like from E3 this year? What did I forget when compiling a mere ten out of the thousand games on show? How am I deficient as a human being as a result? That’s what comments sections were built for.