E3 2016 is all said and done, but as promised, I’ve still got a few exciting games to tell you about. You can find part one of my cream-of-the-crop roundup—which includes my impressions of God Of War, Titanfall 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and more—right here. And to get a taste of the E3 games that had the Gameological community buzzing, take a look at last week’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? comment thread.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild
Platforms: Wii U, whatever the NX ends up being called
Release date: 2017
Between God Of War, the shrinking show floor, and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, it’s safe to proclaim “change” as one of the biggest themes of E3 2016. Breath Of The Wild is a shockingly different Zelda game. It takes just as many cues from Far Cry 3 and Skyrim as Ocarina Of Time. I didn’t get to spend much time in the small slice of the game’s humongous open world that Nintendo was showing off, but my half-hour demo revealed a game that was both dizzyingly complex and effortlessly approachable in that distinct Nintendo way.
The game’s controls are the most intimidating thing about it. They’ve been completely reconceived to fit with this new style of game, and the odd layout and endless combinations take a lot of getting used to. For example, you can surf down the side of a hill on your shield, but pulling that off requires getting into position, holding the shield button, jumping, and then immediately pressing another button in midair to stick the board under your feet. In battle and with his shield readied, Link can still jump away from opponents to dodge their strikes, but now that ability is mapped to a dedicated jump button. If you’d rather tempt fate, you can press another button to swing Link’s shield and parry the enemy attack, Dark Souls style. With the way you play Zelda not having changed in nearly 20 years, all these tweaks and complications require some serious readjustment that I wasn’t quite able to accomplish in my time with the game.
I might have been stumbling around this world, but it was a dazzling experience nonetheless. Much like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Breath Of The Wild’s Hyrule is a land reclaimed by nature. What’s left of the past society, one that seems far more technologically advanced than what we’ve seen in past Zeldas, lies in ruins or peeks out from under the earth. These tantalizing man-made details pepper the barren landscape, calling out to Link as natural points of interest. While Breath Of The Wild provides story-based objectives—little markers on the map that you have to follow if you want to dig deeper into the story of this ruined world and a Link who’s been reawakened after 100 years of slumber—the game feels like it’s built around this rhythm of climbing something tall, seeing something interesting in the distance, and pushing yourself to make it there.
While the pockets of enemies featured in the demo were small and weak (except for the giant robotic guardians I accidentally awakened and had to run away from before they melted me with their lasers), Breath Of The Wild’s world makes those journeys feel dangerous. Survival is no longer a matter of backing off and cutting some grass to refill your heart gauge. The only way to restore health is by eating. Food is common, and you can cook anything on a campfire to increase its healing properties. If you have a cooking station, you can combine ingredients to make complex dishes that also bestow additional benefits, like temporary hearts or a boost to the amount of time Link can spend climbing before he loses his grip.
Making matters worse, Link no longer has a permanent arsenal. Your weapons break quickly, so you’ll have to steal them from your foes if you’re going to scrape by. It’s not as much of a nuisance as it sounds, since you can get all manner of clubs or spears from fallen monsters or even sneak into their camps and grab all the supplies they’ve left sitting around. Better gear is hidden around the world and in “shrines,” man-made structures that house new abilities, like stopping time for a single object or manipulating metal, and traditional Zelda-style puzzles that teach you to use them. According to the Nintendo rep who was showing me the game, there are more than 100 of these shrines across the world (though I doubt more than a handful will house the kinds of special abilities they bestowed in the demo) in addition to the more complex, traditional dungeons you’ll find.
My time with Breath Of The Wild was limited to two 15-minute demos. That wasn’t nearly enough time to get a feel for everything that’s going on in this game. While I’m unsure how the final release will shape up, as so much of the game was left out of this demo and there was no indication of what the basic structure or goals will be beyond working your way toward Hyrule Castle and defeating the giant purple monster known as Calamity Ganon, that small taste and the knowledge that no one who played it at the show experienced nearly the same things have thoroughly piqued my interest.
Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release date: October 7, 2016
Let’s cut to the chase: Mafia III was the most interesting game I saw at E3. Set in a facsimile of New Orleans in 1968 and starring a mixed-race Vietnam vet who sets out to get revenge on the Italian mob after it slaughtered his black gang brethren, the developers at Hangar 13 have boldly built their Grand Theft Auto-style crime game around a meaningful setting and appear to have embraced all the significance that comes with it. The American South’s violent racial turmoil is front and center, along with echoes of a war that has profoundly shaped your character.
New Bordeaux, as this stand-in is called, is divided into 10 districts, each defined by the rackets they harbor and their socioeconomic makeup. Our star, Lincoln Clay, hails from Delray Hollow, home of the city’s black mob before it’s betrayed by the Italians and turned into their haven for heroin and sex dens. To the north lies Frisco Fields, full of mansions, PCP, and the game’s version of the Ku Klux Klan—which has joined forces with the Italian mob, naturally. Lincoln and his associates look to systematically tear down their enemies, breaking up or taking over their rackets and driving the Italians from the city one district at a time.
From the looks of things, Hangar 13 is using every tool available to evoke a specific time, place, and social climate, but that verisimilitude is host to over-the-top violence. The effect is reminiscent of the cultural revenge fantasies in Quentin Tarantino’s recent films—Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, to be specific—with Lincoln acting as a vengeful gun of black America that’s out to obliterate symbols of a decades-old evil. From what I saw, the game doesn’t shy away from the many forms racism takes. From the campaign posters of a white politician representing “a voice of traditional values” to toughs insultingly appending “black” to their sentences when addressing you, these details reinforce that this world is hostile to Lincoln in more ways than one. Is a brutally violent revenge tale the most nuanced vehicle for addressing America’s greatest injustice? Of course not. But as a way to bring meaning to gratuitous video game violence it’s at least an intriguing approach, and one I can’t wait to see in full come October.
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, Xbox One
Release date: Spring 2017
Tacoma, the second game from the studio behind Gone Home, makes Fulbright’s debut look like a proof of concept. Once again the player is stumbling into the private lives of several people and trying to piece together both their collective and individual stories. This time you control Amy Ferrier, who’s been sent to the space station Tacoma to recover the facility’s malfunctioning AI overseer. In true Fullbright fashion, the place is abandoned by the time you arrive, with the six-person crew, a diverse cast of people who never met before being shoved into this space station together, having evacuated in the wake of some mysterious event. But thanks to an augmented-reality system that recorded their lives, you’re left with plenty of conversational detritus to sift through.
It’s not just the sound of their voices that remains intact. The station also recorded the crew’s bodies as they talked, which means you’ll be seeing nondescript holographic figures recreate these dialogues in real time. You can even approach them and take a peek at the documents or emails they were looking at in their augmented-reality vision, gaining more insight into motivations, context, and whatever they may have been holding back from their crewmates. Some scenes will only involve two people talking, perhaps as they float around a small room in zero gravity. Others will give you access to all six crew members at once, each of them broken into big group discussions, unrelated one-on-one conversations, or private monologues in different rooms of a huge living quarters. If you want to hear what everyone was saying at any given time, you’ll have to move around the scene, rewinding, pausing, and checking on their private AR displays to get every bit of information.
The result is an intricate web of storytelling, with all these scenes-within-scenes pushing different stories and details forward or revealing new perspectives on what you already heard. It’s the same concept as Gone Home, but blown up to a massive, ambitious scale, these strangers’ public and private selves all layered on top of one another to create a dense story and vision of their daily lives. Through it all, there’s this lingering knowledge that something went very wrong here, and once that event is revealed, Tacoma becomes less about slices of space life than navigating a story of survival and observing how crisis both brings people together and pushes them apart.