Ok, so how’s this for topical. A large E3 trip report, while E3 is still going!
Note, these are personal thoughts on what I saw, not those of any company I may work for etc etc. Boring legal over.
This E3 is exciting. There’s a sense of recovery about the games industry this year, with the E3 debacle experience reaching further towards the excesses of years past – large booths, lots of noise, very glitzy trailers and just a larger, more boisterous display than recent years.
So to the actual games – I wandered around for a full 2 days, getting as much hands on as I could (although I did learn I am just too freakin’ old to stand in line for an hour to get into some of the theater experiences, so some games I did pass by), and generally seeing old friends and having a merry old time of it. Be aware that most of this was me standing to stop and look for 5 mins and if I was lucky, getting my hands on the controllers, so most of these judgements are passing conclusions. However at E3, that’s about all you have time for.
Also, I’m not reviewing any Sony 1st party games. That would be incorrect and biased and it wouldn’t be right. So I won’t.
Firstly, there’s a classic console collection that was awesome. I collect old consoles myself and there were a few I really wanted to stroll off with. They even had a couple of Bally Astrocades, which are like rocking-horse-droppings hard to find.
There was a large presence for an online game called World of Tanks – two tanks outside the conference center and one inside. From looking at it, it honestly looks like a graphically beautiful version of Battle Zone (which is no bad thing). They were handing out free discs. It looked great but I do wonder how they balance it, since they offer lots of different real world tank types to choose from.
Nexon was pushing Dragons Nest, which looks like a Wow Killer – very similar views and imagery and I do wonder at the wisdom of going head to head with the juggernaut that is Wow, but hey, good luck to them. I suspect in a WOW-less world, this would own the genre, but now?
Spiderman from Activision looked pretty but the animation was a little bit ropey (see what I did there?). It’s Spiderman, you swing around and beat up stuff and it looks like there’s some time travel elements. But pretty much what you’d expect.
Also there was a Transformers game in evidence, as well as a Green Lantern and Captain America game. What was interesting was that the trailers could effectively be interchangeable. Each of the games is 3rd person, so you are following your hero around, he beats up badguys according to his own powers and honestly you could probably replace the Spiderman character with the Captain America character and be hard pressed to really notice the difference. That’s not to run down the dev teams, it’s just that hero games of this nature tend to gravitate to the same gameplay and as such end up with a very much ‘samey’ feel. Also, note to Activision – if you are going to do trailers for different games, try not to have the exact same scenarios in each. I counted 3 trailers for different games – right after each other – that had the same Take Out The Helicopters In the Sky action sequence in each.
More specifically the animation in the Captain America game did have some really nice meaty feel to it, and the pre-rendered trailer was, frankly, pretty awesome.
The Modern Warfare trailer looked like the same one they’ve already released on the net, but it’s just that much more impressive when shown on a massive screen, as it was at the large Activision Booth.
Prototype 2 : Heller Vs. Mercer is another superhero game and whomever made the trailer needs to go back to film school. Not a good trailer – lots of way to jarring and frequent cutting. The subject matter looks kind of cool but it was hard to tell what was going on, besides the frequent and bloody decapitations.
I’m still not sure what the reasoning is for the resurrection of Spyro – I think it’s to cover the Cutesy Market that Activision isn’t really represented in – but the trailers didn’t make it particularly interesting to me. I guess I’m just not the target market for this, although generally I can respect something even if I don’t personally enjoy it. With Spyro, I just don’t get that feeling – I don’t know why.
Xmen looked like Xmen – I think we know what that game is and this version is basically a better fidelity version of the same. In fact quite a lot of games had that feeling – Ninja Gaiden is also pretty much the same game as the original PS1 version, just updated for the current generation, and it looks phenomenal. It also had one of the coolest booths too – all the walls were flat screen TV’s and the only colors they cycled through were white and red. It just made you feel like there was blood everywhere.
Ubisoft had some pretty cool stuff – what really caught my eye was a couple of their Kinect offerings – Motion Sports : Adrenaline looked really fun, simulating Sky Diving. Your Shape is a Wii-fit style offering that looks pretty good too.
RockSmith, which looks like the successor-in-waiting to RockBand / Guitar Hero, was being pushed heavily. It looked pretty similar to it’s predecessors, but if the marketing hype is to be believed, it actually gives you real world instrument playing skills, unlike Guitar Hero which basically teaches you to press one of 4 buttons in time with music. It’s hard to know if this is the last gasp of the Plastic Instrument genre, or a fresh new direction for the discipline.
Assassins Creed had a very kick ass trailer, but in terms of gameplay and visuals, I’m not sure what I’m seeing that is a significant increase over Assassins Creed 2. I’m sure there is when you get into the game itself, but on just casual viewing, it looks like More of the Same (and that’s not a bad thing bearing in mind the success of Assassins Creed 1 & 2 – there’s obviously a market for this).
Speaking of trailers, some of the Square Enix stuff was inspired. The trailer for the new Tomb Raider was absolutely awesome, as was the one for the new Hitman game. Both were well made, exciting and made me want to know more, so job done there. The Dead Island trailer – not sure what to think about that. Lots of NSFW verbage and it’s extremely gratuitous in terms of gore. It kinda feels like a “How far can we go with this and shock people?” kind of thing, rather than a contextually correct requirement for the story.
The trailers at the E3 booth were equally well put together – the Sims is the Sims, still a juggernaut and still making money for EA (why hasn’t there been a Sims competitor??). The Battlefield 3 stuff looked amazing (nice to see such a worthy competitor to the CoD franchise). Fifa 12 was interesting and plays well but there’s still something not quite right about the rendering – I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I think it’s the lack of anti-aliasing.
And then we should talk about the Bioware Star Wars trailers. My god, why is Blur not making movies for Lucas? This stuff is just so exciting and well made.
Still, having said that, I’m a little disturbed by the prevalence of pre-rendered trailers these days. I mean, I LOVE the Bioware stuff, but we’ve had 3 of them over 3 years and we’ve still not seen one frame of the actual game. Bearing in mind it’s due out soon, I would have expected some actual game play in the trailers? Tomb Raider, Hitman, Assassins Creed, etc etc – all terrific trailers and all with no game play demonstrated at all. This can’t be a good trend. It does effectively mean that most people can get everything E3 has to offer out of just sitting in front of YouTube at home.
Atari had an isometric rotation view game remake of Centipede, which honestly did not excite me at all. No idea why – it just looked and felt like a poor mans Smash TV.
Deus Ex was a major disappointment for me. The quality of the visuals just wasn’t up to snuff – I’ve no idea what went wrong – an early build or some such? – but it’s just not comparable to what other studios are putting out there.
Ace Combat is a dog fighting game (one of the only ones I could find) and it did look spectacular. I wanted to play but the lines were too long, which bodes well.
Inversion is one I’d not heard about before. It looks very much like an updated Psi-Ops, from Midway. Looks great but I didn’t see much about the gameplay that looked new or original. High production values though.
Lego Harry potter was awesome, but then it always is. And Batman Arkham. What to say about that? More of the same but prettier, faster, better and all round. Just lovely stuff.
Funny story – I’m standing at the back of the Batman display, trying desperately to see what the game play is like (there was an hour wait to get in there, and they only had 4 stations running) and I fall into conversation with the guy standing next to me, talking about the game. After about 5 mins of casual chit chat I glance at his badge, and find it’s Matt Groenig, who created The Simpsons! You run into all sorts at E3.
There was another game I’ve never heard of called El Shaddai from Ignition. It’s a 3D fighter but it has a unique toon shader style that makes everything look a little over-exposed. It was quite impressive and made me stop to watch for at least 10 mins, just watching it. As a game it didn’t seem to be offering anything that Ninja Gaiden wasn’t, but as a visual experience it was quite arresting.
The MS offerings were mostly Kinect games – the clear winners being the Star Wars Jedi game which was awesome. Gears of War was on display – again – but from what I understood there wasn’t much new on display since they are due to go gold very shortly. Epic spent it’s time finishing the game rather than worrying about E3 shows, and rightly so.
In terms of what Nintendo were showing, it was clearly focused on the 3DS and the new Wii-U announcement. I got some hands on time and while it’s a very cool toy, it feels just like that – a toy. Talking to other developers we were struggling to work out what we’d use the screen for exactly. It had that feeling that Nintendo knows what they want to use it for but it’s very specific and that in the hands of everyone else, it’s a solution looking for a problem. Given the fact that the main hardware has to render and transmit the images on the hand held controller, in effect it’s an extra burden on the main CPU who should be spending all it’s time playing the game. The fact that the Wii-U can only handle one external screen quite limits it’s potential.
What was on display was nice, but nice in so far are Nintendo can finally rendering imagery that the PS3 and XBox 360 has been able to do since Day 1, and it has this weird extra screen you have to handle and work out what to do with as well. I think the jury is still out on how cool this is really going to be.
In a more general sense, one of the things that did strike me is how much the larger publishers are simply covering each others offerings. We’ve now reached a plateau of graphical fidelity where lots of the games that are ‘real world’ offerings, IE emulating real world events (driving, FPS army games etc) are now converging on the same kinds of visuals. This is very apparent when you look at games like Tom Clancys Ghost Recon, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3 etc. I know I’m going to upset lots of purists and developers here but just from a purely graphical point of view, if you put all three on monitors in front of me, all next to each other, I couldn’t tell you which one was which – they look the same to that degree. It’s kinda the same with driving games – Driver, Forza, Need for Speed – again, put them in front of me and I couldn’t tell them apart. Even Gears of War and Space Marine – there’s lots of cross over there too.
I’m sure that once you play the games the differences become apparent but from a graphical point of view, not so much.
But then I got to thinking about this and realised that while this was initially disappointing to me, it was both inevitable – they are all attempting to visualize the same thing and the closer they get to it then inevitably they will start looking the same – and also a good thing. What this means is that we are reaching a level of quality unprecedented in our industry. Visual loveliness is no longer just the purview of the Id’s or Epics, but of other teams too. The hardware cycle is now long enough (and powerful enough) that developers can really start to get the best out of it, and this is showing. We really are starting to be hampered by the ability to tell a story rather than the ways we have to tell that story.
In fact, I didn’t see ANYTHING at E3 that disappointed me graphically, with the exception of perhaps Deus Ex 3. Even the Indiecade games were high production values (and incidentally, look out for a game named Q.U.B.E. This is a nice fresh view on FPS games. It’s very cool). I find this to be a terribly exciting time for game development and a lot of my personal recent ennui with the industry was washed away by this E3.
One of the developers from Roxio mentioned that they’d hit 200m downloads with Angry Birds. That’s just a staggering number, but we now work in an industry where this kind of penetration is possible. What’s more the increase in downloads is happening in shorter and shorter amounts of time – it took them 13 months to hit the initial 100m downloads, and then 3 months to hit 200m. Now they’ve done it and blazed the way, other people will too. How cool is that?
So game of show – hard to pin down because there is SO MUCH of quality on display this year. But for my money, I would have to pick Prey 2. It was on display behind closed doors so there’s a limit to what I can talk about it, but suffice to say the developers – Human Head of Madison Wisc – have taken it in a direction that is surprising and very effective. It looks great and promises large amounts of exciting game play. Now full disclosure, I do consider myself a friend of several of the owners of Human Head so I may be having some personal bias here, but still, with most games I was content to watch others play but with this, *I* wanted the controller to play.
A couple of other worthy mentions – PixelJunk Side Scroller. More Q awesome. Cars 2 – I have no idea why I found this as fun as I did, but I did. Burger Time. Again. Silly XBLA game but just damn fun – from Frozen Codebase (another Wisc developer, up in GreenBay).
So there you go. First impressions E3 round up. Make of it what you will.