I’m spending the week at the video game industry’s yearly confab, E3. My days will be pretty packed with appointments and activities, so if you want live news and quick impressions throughout the show, I recommend you follow me on Twitter. Each night, I’ll try to carve out a little time to recap and react to what I saw that day. More detailed recaps devoted to individual titles will likely follow once I’m back home. If you’d like to engage in a little back-and-forth during the show or afterward, or look at the occasional photo I take on my phone, I’ve recently set up a Facebook group, which you can find by clicking here.
The video game industry’s annual trade show extravaganza in Los Angeles officially gets started today at noon. But don’t tell that to Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Sony, who all held press conferences Monday to trumpet upcoming games and, in Sony’s case, a new handheld device.
It’s getting late, or early, rather, and Nintendo’s press conference starts Tuesday at 9 a.m. sharp. So rather than write a post on each press conference that merely rehashes what bigger gaming outlets with more writers have done, I’ll do my best to offer my own observations on the day’s big news events.
Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts on what I heard and saw. I’ll try to hit most of the day’s major news items, but don’t sue if I forget anything.
Bring your BS detector: When you’re sitting at home watching E3 on TV, it’s easy to feed off the enthusiasm of game industry representatives and crowds filled with shills who cheer every announcement. Remember to keep some perspective. For example, a common story line I saw from Monday revolved around how much better the “Battlefield 3” presentation during EA’s press conference looked than Activision’s “Modern Warfare 3” demo during Microsoft’s conference. But if you looked closely, you would have noticed that “Battlefield 3” was being played on a very high-end PC, while “Modern Warfare 3” was most likely being played on an Xbox 360 development kit. In other words, “Battlefield 3” is only going to look that good if you can afford to build an expensive gaming PC. If you’re playing on consoles, comparing the two games’ graphics and sound at this point is an exercise in fanboy futility.
PlayStation Vita. What’s in a name? Not much.: Sony’s successor to the PlayStation Portable comes packing an incredibly boring, inoffensive name. In the future, it will be impossible to distinguish the names of video game systems from models of cars. Think about it. Wii. Vita. Corolla. Sentra. Heck, we already have seen both a video game console and a car brand named Saturn. Will Nintendo announce its new Civic console on Tuesday?
Then again: When you have a meek-sounding name, it’s easy to outperform people’s expectations. (That’s why my Xbox Live gamertag is Dirk Dorkelson, by the way.) So it appears to go with the PlayStation Vita. The games Sony showed running on its upcoming handheld looked fantastic, particularly “Uncharted: Golden Abyss.” As someone who really only plays handhelds on infrequent road trips, I’m super excited about the feature that will let you play a game on the Vita, then resume playing it on your PlayStation 3 later. Suddenly, I’ll start finishing a lot of those games that I half-complete on my vacations. It’s worth mentioning that Konami is working on a similar feature, which it calls Transfarring, for its PS3, PSP and Vita games.
And the price: The fact that Sony’s high-powered handheld is going to launch at the same price as the 3DS, $250, won a lot of applause. $250 sounds like a lot of money to me, but I suppose the game industry can thank Apple and its spendy gadgets for making it seem like a great deal. If you want to pay $300 instead, you can buy a Vita that’s both WiFi and 3G-enabled. The downside is you have to be willing to put up with AT&T as your 3G provider, an announcement that drew nothing but derision during the press conference.
Doing away with split-screen gameplay: Sony showed a lot of gamers on Monday that stereoscopic televisions and monitors don’t only have to be used to provide 3D visuals. They can, with the use of special glasses, also allow to people to watch TV at the same time and see two totally different pictures. They didn’t explain all this Monday, but here’s how it works: For 3D television, your set alternates between two sets of images to simulate the effect of depth. The 3D glasses you wear combine the alternating sets so that you essentially see two images at the same time, one with each eye. The split-screen thing works on a similar principal, but instead of combining the two different images, the glasses will split them off, so that Gamer A sees one set of images while Gamer B sees another. This makes it possible for two people to see different things from the same TV set. I’d bet Sony could sell a lot of 3D TV sets to married couples who game together if this feature was marketed properly.
Microsoft lulls the gaming press to sleep: Microsoft started its Monday morning press conference with shooters, including “Gears of War 3” and a remake of the original “Halo: Combat Evolved” that will feature online multiplayer and high-definition visuals. They also showed other hardcore gamer titles like “Mass Effect 3” and “Ghost Recon: Future Soldier,” but confused the heck out of people when they started talking about how those games would support Kinect. (For what it’s worth, I’m all for optional Kinect support in games where you don’t expect it.) Then, the press conference veered off into Kinectland for what seemed like an eternity. While Double Fine Productions’ “Sesame Street” title looks like a great kids’ game, and a Disneyland game for Kinect could offer a rare opportunity to tour classic versions of the theme park, a bunch of titles aimed at kids stacked end-to-end tends to make those of us without kids tune out after a while. When the big announcement of “Halo 4” came at the end of the press conference, it was jarring and lacked oomph.
And the best Kinect game wasn’t in the keynote: At a Microsoft event late Monday night, I got a peek at “Rise of Nightmares,” an upcoming Kinect horror game that’s clearly aimed at adults. It blended the creepy mystery of “Silent Hill” with the visceral combat of “Condemned: Criminal Origins.” I didn’t get to play it, but I watched a couple of other people using grim-looking weaponry like lead pipes and saws to fend off crazed, zombie-looking monsters in frenetic action with the pacing of a “Resident Evil” game. And did I mention the whole thing was being played in the dark? “Rise of Nightmares” leaped up to No. 2 on my list of most anticipated Kinect games, just below Ubisoft’s “Child of Eden.” Also intriguing? A Kinect-supported version of PC indie hit “Minecraft.”
Ubisoft: Masters of flow: Unlike Microsoft, Ubisoft did a great job alternating its more traditional hardcore gamer titles with its family and casual stuff. The kid-friendly “Rayman Origins” looks like it’ll be a hit with the “Mario” crowd, but Ubisoft felt comfortable following its presentation with “Driver: San Francisco” and the violent, crazy-looking “Far Cry 3.” They comfortably mixed in a new World War II title from Gearbox. Called “Brothers in Arms: Furious Four,” it looks a lot like “Inglorious Basterds: The Game.” And then they followed it with the “Tintin” movie tie-in game. It never felt stilted and weird, and the varied pacing meant Ubisoft had the most watchable press conference at the show, even if hype man Aaron Priceman was painfully unfunny.
EA stands for Ear Assault: Just like last year, Electronic Arts’ press conference was ridiculously loud. I shouldn’t come out of a gaming industry press conference wishing I’d brought ear plugs. Maybe I’ll remember next year. What EA showed of “Mass Effect 3” made me worry a bit that BioWare is taking one of my favorite role-playing games and turning it into a Big Dumb Action Game, but then I remembered the noncombat stuff shown during Microsoft’s press conference and decided to withhold my fanboy scorn. Perhaps the zaniest statement of EA’s conference came right at the beginning, when CEO John Riccitiello made a slight jab its rivals, saying EA wouldn’t be bringing a bunch of celebrities on stage to hype its games. But then, later in the press conference, there they were. We saw Lil Wayne and Drake both talk about their love for EA’s “FIFA” games in a video, and NFL players Ray Lewis, Peyton Hillis and Clay Matthews Jr. all came out to shill for the new “Madden” game.
The games that grabbed me: I felt like I was bombarded with about a bajillion trailers on Monday, and I tend to wait to get excited about games until I’ve actually gotten my hands on them or seen them outside of a carefully controlled, canned environment. That said, I’ve got my eyes on Ubisoft’s “Far Cry 3,” “Rayman Origins” and “Assassin’s Creed Revelations”; EA’s “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning,” “Overstrike” and “Mass Effect 3”; and Sony’s high-definition remakes of “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus,” plus “StarHawk” and “Resistance 3.” “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” looks good, but I really think that series has gone too far down the shooter road. I’d like to see some more challenging puzzles and platforming, as well as some ambitious, nonlinear level design. On the Microsoft front, I’ll always play “Halo” games, and the “Tomb Raider” prequel shown during the press conference looks engaging and smart, but none of the Kinect stuff impressed me as much as “Rise of Nightmares.”
And don’t forget the big battle: Much will be made of the ongoing competition between EA and Activision over who can create the best shooter. “Modern Warfare 3” and “Battlefield 3” will go head-to-head at the end of October and early November. Though I’ll do my best to play both, neither of these games are really my thing. But I will say that they’re big enough titles that shooter fans shouldn’t feel like they have to buy one or the other. If money is an issue, wait a little, and pick up both when they go on sale. Don’t turn this into Sonic vs. Mario all over again.