If the annual GDC show is the gaming world’s grand intellectual forum then E3 is the bacchanalia. Sure, there’s some lip service given to "big ideas," but that’s mostly teleprompter boilerplate to help a marketing executive segue between the various high-concept, high-polygon-count first-person shooters he has to plug that day. Excess, not artistry, is the watchword of this annual boondoggle. Whatever E3 is, it’s a lot of it. It’s tons. So much that it refuses to be ignored. Thus here I am, not ignoring it, and filing daily updates to boot.
The show officially opened at the Los Angeles Convention Center today (Tuesday), but the avalanche of press conferences always begins the day before. The keynotes from the big industry players are a chance to take the temperature of each company’s overall approach—at least, that’s how I look at them. There’s a lot of “news” in the way of release dates and new trailers, but I find all that stuff thuddingly boring. I don’t care very much whether Killzone 3 is coming out next February or next Tuesday; I’ll play it when it gets here either way. Mundane specifics aside, though, the overall feel of each company’s event can be telling.
That’s especially true in the case of EA’s presser, which made me momentarily embarrassed to be a critic working in this medium. What a disgusting show this was. CEO John Riccitiello walked on stage at the Orpheum Theater and proclaimed with a straight face that EA’s press conference was “more Sundance than the Academy Awards.” Then he introduced a demo of a game, Dead Space 2, in which a guy does nothing but shoot at outer-space zombies. They had the volume turned up to speaker-distorting, ear-shattering levels for this and all of their demos—I guess to really crank that indie Sundance vibe.
The most disquieting aspect of this event was EA’s apparent desire to fetishize the most traumatic moments of recent American history. An enthusiastic announcement that the upcoming Medal Of Honor game would take place in Afghanistan didn’t seem so bad on its own. But then came the trailer for a Battlefield: Bad Company 2 expansion pack, Vietnam. Hooray for quagmires! And after that was a demo of Crysis 2, which takes place in New York. The sequence showed a series of alien aircraft crashing into the MetLife Building, eventually collapsing the structure as people try to pull their loved ones out of the subway station below. If you couldn’t be there for the fun and excitement of the original September 11th, don’t worry, Crysis 2 has you covered!
There were plenty of other crass moments, too many to list here. (The introduction of the new “EA Gun Club” loyalty program, with “I Like Guns” playing in the background, is one other lowlight worth mentioning.) However, I did enjoyed the appearance by EA Play president Rod Humble, who delivered a wonderfully out-of-place monologue on free will as he explained his take on emergent behavior in The Sims 3. And Bulletstorm, the upcoming third-person shooter from Cliff Bleszinski et al., had a good sense of humor about itself in the snippet that we saw.
Oh, and Joe Montana was on hand to introduce a new Madden. Yup, they’re making another one this year—this is confirmed news!
I skipped the Ubisoft press conference because it came immediately after EA, and at that point I just wanted to go sit in a quiet room for a while. Joel McHale emceed the Ubi event, though, so I’m a little sorry that I missed it.
I also missed the Microsoft presser—I wasn't there in person, at least—mostly because Microsoft declined to invite me. At least I wasn’t alone. A great many writers were shut out because Microsoft chose a smaller-than-usual venue. I heard a rumor that the editor of the UK’s Official Xbox Magazine wasn’t even allowed in. If this is true, holy crap. Your entire job is to write about the Xbox 360, and Microsoft bars you from the event where they announce a new Xbox 360. That’s got to prompt some soul-searching.
Anyway, yes, Microsoft announced a new 360. I’m split. First, I hate the way it looks. The original 360 was such a beautiful design—I have a real affection for its understated curves (but I generally like the Xbox 360 best of the current generation anyway, so maybe it's just a positive association). This new monstrosity, conversely, looks like a chintzy gaming PC in miniature. That said, it is very quiet, which is a welcome upgrade. And I have to assume that it’s more reliable than the original design—Microsoft reps carefully intimated as much—so perhaps the Red Ring Of Death days are finally behind us. Let’s wait and see on that last bit, though.
The other big Microsoft announcements, as you likely have heard, centered around the motion-sensing camera system Kinect (née Project Natal). Judging by the conversations I’ve had with other members of the media, the conventional wisdom on Kinect is starting to go sour. Many writers, including myself, are dubious that it will work as seamlessly as Microsoft claims, and while the user-interface bits (e.g., navigating the console’s menus without buttons) look nifty, the games that Microsoft chose to plug were not so impressive. Last year, Project Natal was sold as a revolutionary breakthrough. So why, this year, did Microsoft unveil a lineup of Wii copycats? One great line I heard on the show floor—I wish I could take credit for it—summed up the Microsoft event this way: “Do you like things that you already like?” It was that much of a rehash.
Today’s schedule started off with Nintendo. Of the three console makers’ events, this was easily the best E3 press conference. Still, the trouble with Nintendo is that they always teeter on the line between admirable self-confidence and irritating self-worship. I was sensing more of the latter as the Nintendo show began with a demo of a new Legend Of Zelda game, Skyward Sword. There was a long, boring, stagey bit that ended with Shigeru Miyamoto making a “surprise” appearance, to the obliging howls of the Nintendo fans in the crowd.
It was revealed that the new Zelda uses WiiMotion Plus controls, which was treated as God’s (i.e., Miyamoto’s) gift to gamers. That is, until Miyamoto tried to played the damn thing and repeatedly struggled to get the Wii controls working. In other words, he had the experience that everybody has when they play a new Wii game. He claimed interference: “Are people using wireless devices? Turn off your wireless devices!” Miyamoto pleaded (through a translator) to an audience filled with people posting to liveblogs. When Skyward Sword hits shelves, I picture a nation of frustrated gamers screaming at their families, “TURN OFF YOUR WIRELESS DEVICES!”
There’s going to be a new GoldenEye 007 for the Wii, and I am completely suckered by this despite the fact that it will probably be a let down. I want it to be good—I even expect it to be good. Which is insane, I know. But the snippets we saw looked just like the original, and that's good. Ditto the Donkey Kong Country refresh.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn also got me excited, but because it looks new-ish, with a crafty sewing/knitting look. (OK, a touch of LittleBigPlanet is at work here, but I still think this is relatively original.) The game looks decent in screenshots and gorgeous in motion.
Speaking of epic, Epic Mickey looks pretty bad. (Now might be a good time to mention this disclaimer: I keep an open mind, of course, about all games before I get to play the final product. I’m perfectly happy to have my pre-release impressions proven wrong, as they often are.) Did any of you see Warren Spector demo this game on the web broadcast? This is childish, but the globs of paint streaming out of Mickey’s paintbrush reminded me of the South Park episode in which Mickey has the Jonas Brothers spray foam on their prepubescent audience. Epic Mickey apparently features Disney characters that have been “forgotten and abandoned.” Smee from Peter Pan was one featured example. Can’t wait for the Uncle Remus quest.
I buried the lead here, of course, which was the Nintendo 3DS. I don’t know how you can find fault with the 3DS at this point, which is why, on the whole, the Nintendo event felt like a success. Even without the 3D, it’s a dramatically improved DS, with a nice, wide screen at the top. Add in the no-glasses 3D, and the device seems kind of magical. Fellow AV Clubber David Wolinsky said that the 3D effect “looked pretty good—I thought it was cool.” (Feel free to put that on the box cover, Nintendo.) And if you don’t like it, there’s a slider on the side of the unit to reduce the depth effect or turn it off altogether. Seems like Nintendo covered all their bases on this one. There’s even a new Kid Icarus game coming for the 3DS, albeit one that bears little resemblance to the original aside from the characters.
Sony capped off the press-conference madness. Here is how a Sony press conference always goes: First, they reveal some cool new games. Then they show off some future technology. Then there is a surprise guest, and everyone gets excited. At this point, the buzz in the room is at its peak. That’s when the Sony presenters get to work killing every last vestige of the audience’s enthusiasm by subjecting us to an endless sequence of boring commercials interspersed with PR pablum.
This year, the special guest was Kevin Butler—the guy from the “It Only Does Everything” PS3 commercials—who did a funny bit paying tribute to “hardcore” gamers. The crowd was revved up, more so than I’ve ever seen at a dour Sony event. But then, inevitably, came the March Of A Thousand Trailers. Worse yet, each trailer was preceded by a droning monologue from an executive about how the PS3 version of [upcoming game] will come with EXCLUSIVE downloadable content that you can ONLY get on PS3. Yes, this is their proposition to you, the gamer. Buy a game on PS3 and you will also get the opportunity to buy a special virtual hat or something. A special hat that the Xbox people don’t get. If you are buying games on this basis, you are doing it wrong.
3D was a big topic today for Sony. I still haven’t seen a 3D film in the theaters. Maybe the movies look better than games; I can’t compare. All I can say is that every Sony demo I’ve seen of 3D gaming looks like garbage. Are my eyes wrong? Or is this an emperor-has-no-clothes situation where nobody wants to speak up and say that this stuff is awful? We sat through an extended Killzone 3 demo that was just torture. The picture was dim, the figures on-screen were blurry and shimmery, and the artificial depth looked hokey. I would like to play 3D games someday; I never want to play Sony’s current headache-inducing, dorky-glasses-requiring incarnation of 3D.
On the other hand, I like the Move, Sony’s motion-control system. I can’t wait to play Move games. My brief time trying out the tech has convinced me that it strikes the right balance between the Wiimote and the cutting-edge Kinect. It uses a camera without abandoning buttons altogether like Kinect does, and this seems to make Move more flexible. Maybe there’s a ton of potential with Kinect, too, but I’m not seeing it yet.
Anyway, with the pressers over, it’s time to get down to specifics and talk about actual games—of which I have seen very little so far aside from onstage demos and trailers. Tell me in the comments which games you would like me to check out on the show floor, and I will do my level best to cover as many requests as I can. (Wednesday is a pretty busy day for me, but on Thursday I promise to prioritize A.V. Club readers’ whims above all else.) If you have specific questions for developers, even better, pass them along.
- I typed up this dispatch after watching my beloved Celtics suffer a humiliating Game 6 loss to the hated Lakers. (I get tickets an NBA Finals game for the first time in my life, and THIS is the one I choose? Cripes.) So if things are a little more stream-of-consciousness than usual, I apologize. I’m still in a bit of a daze.
- One complaint with all of these motion-control deals: The promo videos always show families playing in spacious, practically furniture-free living rooms. Yet they claim that the motion control is “for everyone.” Is this just code for “people with huge houses”? Apartment-dwellers are really getting the short end of the stick here.
- Reggie Fils-Aime utters a lot of sentences that simply do not make sense. My favorite from today’s press conference, in reference to the 3DS: “Something you thought you knew perfectly well has been perfectly transformed.” What?
- Sony and Square-Enix need to stop pretending that Final Fantasy XIV counts as a “real” Final Fantasy.