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.
With all the press conferences having taken place on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday was exclusively dedicated to zipping around the show floor to see a bunch of games by appointment. (Lines at E3 can be quite long, so the most effective way for journalists to see as many games as possible is to book appointments ahead of time with publishers. Otherwise, we’d spend all day waiting in lines so we could write three previews.) Here’s a run down of all the stuff I saw on Wednesday. I’ll be doing separate, dedicated previews for a lot of this stuff, starting late this week or early next week.
Did you ever think “The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim” would be bad?: My first appointment of the day was to see a hands-off demonstration of Bethesda’s new swords-and-sorcery role-playing game. It was great to see what a difference five years of familiarity with gaming hardware can make. Whereas 2006’s “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” had a lot of design and graphical compromises because it came out so close to the Xbox 360’s launch, “Skyrim” looks great for an open-world game. Because of its sheer size, it’s not the prettiest game you’ll see running this generation, but everything looks extremely detailed and polished. After playing through the recycled dungeons in BioWare’s “Dragon Age II,” I was almost giddy when I heard about “Skyrim’s” 150 or so handcrafted dungeons. Non-player characters no longer stand facing the camera with their arms at their side like high school drama students reciting their lines, and inventory and skill management look to be greatly improved.
There was rage, but no “Rage”: For the second year in a row, I was stymied in my attempt to get hands-on with one of Bethesda Softworks’ games after coming out of their big presentation. Last year, I got stuck behind a 12-year-old kid who was playing “Fallout: New Vegas” like it was “Grand Theft Auto,” carefully selecting items from his inventory and then beating townspeople to deal with them. This year, I headed for an open station, only to be told it was reserved for someone. (As it turned out, that person never showed, but I couldn’t snag the newly open station in time.) I then got in line behind a guy who didn’t budge for a full 20 minutes. Anyway, I’ve decided I’ll give myself an automatic extra half-hour at Bethesda’s booth next year, as my one-hour slot doesn’t appear to have been enough time. In any case, “Rage” looked just as cool as it did in a hands-off presentation last year.
“BioShock Infinite’s” infinite army of bad guys: Other than announcements of previously secret games, my half-hour look at “BioShock Infinite” was probably the most anticipated event of the show for me. After seeing the next game from original “BioShock” creator Ken Levine in action, I’m still stoked but am curious as to how the game’s combat is going to play out. Before showing the demo, Irrational Games’ Timothy Gerritsen gave us a lot of backstory into how we’d gotten to this point in the game. It turned out to be important, as the demo primarily showed the growing bond between the player-controlled character, Booker DeWitt, and Elizabeth, a woman Booker has rescued in the hopes of earning some money. The demo ended in an intense firefight, with Booker using a hook to zip around above Columbia, the game’s floating city, on monorail tracks while shooting what seemed like three dozen bad guys. The combat had an incredibly frenetic roller-coaster feel to it, but it was also ridiculously chaotic. I’ll be curious to see how it plays when it’s not being controlled by a demo player who’s done it dozens of times.
“Modern Warfare 3” has that blockbuster feeling: The “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” demo that I saw reinforced my thoughts on the single-player campaign of “Black Ops.” The “Call of Duty” games are the industry’s equivalent of summer popcorn movies. The underwater level I saw, which also opened Microsoft’s press conference on Monday, looked ridiculously fun, as did an infiltration mission at London’s Canary Wharf that turns into a full-blown chase scene in the London Underground, with cars chasing after trains. One thing I did notice in the campaign: It seemed like the computer-controlled allies of the main character were pretty darn helpful. Until I actually play it, I won’t know whether their kills were all scripted or if the combat was unfolding organically, but it’s nice to get some help from your squadmates.
Speaking of blockbusters: “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” looks like another popcorn game. A lot of people declared “Uncharted 2” the game of the year in 2009, but what I saw of “Uncharted 3” were a few set pieces that reminded me of moments from the previous game. At one point Nathan Drake himself even makes a mention of feeling deja vu. It’s all very pretty and well voice-acted, so it’s bound to be fun, but I hope the whole game isn’t just variations on the parts people loved from the last game.
Revisiting “El Shaddai”: I was set up to demo “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron,” and I gave it a go. Then I realized, I’m pretty sure I was playing a part of the game I saw during the Game Developers Conference in March. I’m still digging the art style cooked up by Sawaki Takeyasu, who previously worked on “Okami” and “Devil May Cry” games, but I’m not sure “El Shaddai” is the kind of game most gamers will shell out $60 for. The game world and art style look fantastic, but the character models themselves don’t feel like they totally mesh with the game design. The action is smooth, but sometimes the crazy visuals can get in the way in the game’s platform-jumping sections. At times, I wasn’t sure if a particular area was supposed to be jumped over, or if it was safe. Maybe this all becomes apparent the more time you spend with the game, but I’ll have to wait and see when I play the game. In any case, the demo of “El Shaddai” is now available for download on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, so you should try it out. Even if you’re not a fan of the game, everyone should see how pretty it looks.
“The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings”: Another game I came into the show pretty stoked about, “The Witcher 2” released on the PC a few weeks ago, but it’s getting reworked for an Xbox 360 release later this year. This is an incredibly deep role-playing game with a mature storyline that allows for a number of different playstyles. Polish developer CD Projekt Red did something cool with the demo, showing how one part of the game played differently depending on the approach the player took through the level. With 16 different endings, and promises of free downloadable content and a bunch of bonus content, this is one to keep an eye on if you’re a role-playing game fan.
“Star Wars: Kinect”: Critics everywhere are lining up to pile on this game because it’s not the game they were looking for. Specifically, “a good Kinect lightsaber game” has been on the lips of everyone since one failed to materialize on the Wii. While it’s true “Star Wars: Kinect” isn’t that game, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a hit. It’s a game aimed squarely at little kids who love the new movies and “The Clone Wars” series, and those kids will eat it up. Here’s a tip: If you’re 30 or older and are still hopeful LucasArts is going to put out “Star Wars” content as good as those first three movies that captivated you 30 years ago, stop hoping. I came to that realization about halfway through the pod-racing scene in “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and have lived a richer life because of it. “Star Wars: Kinect” is a game you’ll end up buying for a young child, then secretly enjoying as you bond through co-op.
“End of Nations” a massively multiplayer real-time strategy game: I stopped in briefly to visit Trion Worlds and get a look at “End of Nations,” one of three PC franchises they’re working on now that their MMORPG “Rift” has gone live. I liked a lot of what I saw of “End of Nations,” which supports co-op and player vs. player for as many as 50 players and aims to include less-skilled RTS players weary of getting their butt kicked by South Korean child prodigies.
“League of Legends” adding spectator mode: My appointment with Riot Games was supposed to last a half-hour, but they started it a little late, so I didn’t get to see much from them beyond some new champions they’ll be introducing, as well as a very polished spectator mode. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know I’m a total ignoramus when it comes to multiplayer online battle arena games, but when I talk to the Riot folks, I’m always impressed by how great they are at listening to fans, rolling out new features and making adjustments based on observations and requests. I have little understanding of how much cash their business model generates, but they’re good people.
“F1 2011” and “Bodycount”: I stopped by the Codemasters booth on two different occasions and checked out the next installment of their well-regarded Formula One racing series, as well as an upcoming first-person shooter. Based on my normal playing preferences, I came in more excited for “Bodycount,” but I left more impressed with “F1.” I’ll get into specifics in the coming weeks.