The annual hype-fest that is E3 is now behind us for another year, and the question that many are asking is of course, “who won?” Obviously, the answer to that question will depend on your own preferences and interests, and as we looked forward to the second E3 for Xbox One and PS4, many were excited to see what the next year would bring for these new consoles.
Yet for me, it was without a doubt Nintendo that impressed the most. And I’m honestly a little surprised to be typing that. I had expected them to simply turn up, show off the same games we’ve seen in the Direct recordings over the last year, announce a new Zelda, and then pack up shop. But they ended up doing a lot more than that, and they did it in some style.
Of course, everyone had interesting things to show off, and I watched it all. I can’t help but get drawn into the excitement during E3, so I decided to get some impressions down on virtual paper about this year’s event.
Microsoft went first, getting us started in the early evening of June 9th. True to Phil Spencer’s promises, the Xbox conference was 90 minutes of games, with a good spread of triple-A third-party blockbusters, first-party projects like Fable Legends and Forza Horizon 2, and a good handful of indie titles, like gorgeous-looking platformer Ori and the Blind Forest.
Immediately after Microsoft’s media briefing, I was feeling very positive indeed. I was incredibly pleased to see that Halo: The Master Chief Collection was actually a thing, as I thought remastering four games in two years would be too much work (and I was kind of right, though I’ll touch on that in another post). Fable Legends looks like it’ll scratch my co-operative dungeon crawler itch very nicely, and it was great to see a bit more gameplay footage for the colourful Sunset Overdrive, as well as hear about its eight-player co-operative ‘Chaos Squad’.
What really got me excited on the day, however, was the reveal of three games that had been heavily-rumoured before E3; Scalebound, an Xbox One exclusive from Hideki Kamiya and Platinum Games, and the revival of two of Microsoft’s older properties in Crackdown and Phantom Dust. Along with a brief tease of Halo 5: Guardians in the Master Chief Collection trailer, these were the things that were the highlights of the conference at the time.
Later in the day though, I started to wonder quite why I had gotten so excited; we didn’t actually see anything of any of these titles, after all. Everything we saw was CGI and gave little away about the games in question. Granted, Crackdown and Halo are fairly safe bets (if you’re a fan of the previous games, you’ll probably love the new ones), though that’s probably less true of Phantom Dust, which is seemingly a reboot of a very niche original Xbox game. Scalebound, though? I couldn’t tell you anything about that game. It’s seems safe to assume that, given Platinum’s pedigree, it’ll be an action game, and I guess there are dragons in it. Will we get to play as a dragon? I guess we’ll have to wait to see more of the game.
Still, it was a strong showing from Microsoft in terms of content to look forward to, even if half of it was made up of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it context-free teasers.
Sadly, I had a more negative reaction to Sony’s conference. Perhaps it was having to sit up until 4am to watch it all. Perhaps it was because it felt like they could have cut their show in half without really losing anything. Perhaps it was the 20-or-so minutes that were spent talking about television and film projects, or maybe it was all the talk of timed or exclusive DLC.
Perhaps it was all of those things, combined with the rather self-serving ‘fan letters’ read out through half of the conference, and the fact that the whole thing ran on for almost two hours and sagged horribly in the middle.
Starting out with some footage of Destiny was a nice touch for me, a huge Bungie fan (and I’ll have some Alpha impressions up later this week, complete with plenty of video content), and following that with another short look at The Order: 1886 could have proved a winner had they chosen to show something a bit more involved. I’ve said before that I’m rather unsure of Ready at Dawn’s new IP, as it seems to look like a pretty but incredibly linear Gears of War clone. This demo did nothing to defuse those worries, showcasing a short slice of gameplay featuring one of the Knights tussling with a werewolf.
This clip seemed to have more of a survival horror atmosphere compared to the previous footage we’ve seen which is welcome, but gameplay itself seemed even narrower. It was disappointing for me; I had hoped to see something that dispelled my apprehension at the game’s perceived linearity, but instead I’m now more suspicious. I think we could also have done without The Last of Us Remastered at E3 – we know it’s coming, and I would imagine the vast majority of people watching Sony’s conference will have already played it and loved it on PS3 – it’ll be nice to have a higher fidelity version in the PS4’s library, but I feel like the time could have been used for something else (or just cut entirely along with the media stuff to help bring down that bloated running time).
To Sony’s credit, they also had a broad spread of content and managed to pack in a few surprises, such as a live demo of Little Big Planet 3 from Media Molecule (who had previously sworn blind that they wouldn’t be appearing at E3 at all, cheeky scamps), a remake of cult-classic LucasArts adventure Grim Fandango, an exclusive from Suda 51 called Let it Die and a proper trailer for FROM Software’s PS4-exclusive Bloodborne. Again, like Microsoft’s more exciting surprises, we only got CGI trailers that told us very little, but as with those projects, it’s good to know what’s in the pipeline, even if we don’t know exactly what these titles are.
At the very end of Sony’s conference, we got another brief glimpse at Naughty Dog’s latest, Uncharted 4, now subtitled A Thief’s End. It was clearly envisioned to be Sony’s big, crowd-pleasing sign-off, but for me it fell flat. I’ve said before that I was disappointed when Naughty Dog announced another game in the series – not because I dislike Uncharted, but because it worked out so well the last time they did that. No, I like the Uncharted games a lot, but I’ve played four very similar games and didn’t feel that I needed another (incidentally, I’d have said the same about Gears of War had Microsoft decided to show a teaser for that).
With all that said, I was (and still am) really hoping to see The Last of Us leads Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley mix things up a fair bit for the franchise’s debut on PlayStation 4, and I was hoping to see a gameplay teaser to underline this. Instead, what we got was a short teaser that told us nothing except for the game’s subtitle and the fact that Nate has aged a bit. We got the kind of trailer that would have worked well as an announcement trailer, had the game not been announced a year previously.
To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. ‘Disappointed’ would be a better word. Sure, it looked great, but then we always knew it would. I wanted a reason to get excited about another Uncharted game, and that reason needs to be more than just ‘because it looks nicer’. As a final moment of an overlong conference, it simply made me crave my bed as 4am crept up and the sun began to rise.
It ties into my biggest disappointment with E3 2014 – the reliance on CGI trailers, concept footage and prototypes. Both Microsoft and Sony had their fair share of these, but really it was EA’s conference that was the biggest offender. Perhaps that’s because I really want to see what shape their new Star Wars, Mass Effect and Mirror’s Edge titles would take, which meant I was doubly disappointed when all we got was some footage of offices populated by talking heads telling us about what they’d like to maybe possibly do, perhaps. It’s great to know these games are coming, but it’s hard to look forward to something so intangible.
But if there was one attendee at E3 that didn’t rely on such scripted thrills, it was Nintendo. Before the event, the Kyoto company’s decision to abstain from the big press conference dynamic in favour of a pre-recorded streamed ‘digital event’ seemed like a pre-emptive admission of defeat. In retrospect, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Nintendo proved they were out to have fun right from the off, with NoA President Reggie Fils-Aime and Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata squaring off in a Smash Bros.-style brawl that was very very silly, yet managed to be somehow entertaining, setting the tone for the rest of the stream. Their digital event ran for a little under an hour, meaning it didn’t really have a chance to get boring, and while you could argue that the run-time was indicative of Nintendo having less content to offer than their two rivals, the reality is that it was focused almost entirely on first-party games – strip out the third-party offerings from Microsoft and Sony’s conferences and they may well have been about the same length.
So while we got another look at Smash Bros., another glimpse of Hyrule Warriors, another peek at Bayonetta 2, we also got new software announcements like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Yoshi’s Woolly World and an unveiling of Nintendo’s new Amiibo NFC figurine platform. All of which was bookended with gloriously nutty, self-aware Robot Chicken-style vignettes.
Ok, so maybe Mario spin-offs aren’t what you’d call particularly new. What, then, about Splatoon? A new IP announced during E3 that wasn’t leaked or rumoured beforehand? That’s got to be impressive in itself, never mind that the game looks to be an absolute blast. If Splatoon is Nintendo embracing the online shooter, then it’s clearly doing so on its own terms. In Nintendo EAD’s latest game, you don’t shoot bullets, you shoot brightly-coloured ink; you don’t die when you lose to an opponent, you simply get splatted.
For me, Splatoon was the most pleasant surprise of E3. It gave me serious Dreamcast vibes, reminding me quite strongly of Fur Fighters, but shot through with an AM2, ‘blue skies forever’ aesthetic. It’s essentially a third-person team-based shooter, but rather than focusing on kill counts, it’s all about map control; each team has their own colour ink that they need to splatter all over the floors, the winning team being the one that covers the most ground in their colour. The ink also has other properties, allowing players to turn into a cartoon squid and swim through their own ink at speed, while enemy ink will slow you to a crawl. Splattering walls can also allow access to higher vantage points, giving you a better perspective on the colourful chaos unfolding below.
A decent chunk of the stream was given over to showing off Splatoon, with the three development leads also appearing to talk us through the main concepts and strategies of their game. There has been a growing suspicion in recent years that the company’s reliance on development legend Shigeru Miyamoto may be stifling the creativity of young, up-and-coming developers, and this segment seemed tailor-made to dispel such thinking. That’s not to say that the old guard was forgotten however, as Miyamoto himself showed up at the end of the conference to let us know that he was working on a few new things (one of which is a new Star Fox game that we will hopefully see something of soon), but not before Eiji Aonuma, caretaker of the Legend of Zelda series, made his long-rumoured appearance to show us just what he’d been working on.
Aonuma’s segment was my favourite moment of E3. As he began to talk about his desire to shake up the veteran fantasy series, we saw moments of older games in the series. This was intended to draw a parallel between the freeform exploration seen in the original 1986 The Legend of Zelda and what he hoped to inject into the newest title in the franchise. Then, he snapped his fingers.
Behind him materialised an expansive view of a lush, beautiful Hyrule Field, grass dancing in the wind as Link sat atop Epona watching shepherds tend their goats. It was glorious, and I was immediately reminded of the rapturous reception afforded to the unveiling of Twilight Princess back in 2004, wondering briefly what kind of reaction this new title would have received, had it been unveiled before a live audience.
There was no time to think too deeply on it however, as Aonuma began to talk of a series convention he wanted to keep – that of a seemingly peaceful world that could be turned upside down in an instant thanks to the appearance of a powerful threat. A large enemy, looking like a mix between a peahat and an octorok – only armed with exploding lasers – entered the scene, scattering the farmers and livestock to the winds as it barrelled down on our hero. The scene cut to a narrow forest path hemmed in by ancient ruins as Epona galloped toward a bridge. The monster flew ahead, smashing the bridge and trapping Link. As he reached back to remove his cape, he took the opportunity to draw and fire two bomb arrows, stunning the monster.
Standing on his steed, Link launched himself from Epona’s back, drawing a strange, futuristic-looking arrow which lit up like the enemy’s lasers, and the trailer faded to white. “2015” was all that remained on the screen. If Sony’s Uncharted 4 mic-drop left me cold, this brief glimpse at a new Zelda definitely had the desired effect. It was glorious.
The fun didn’t end with Nintendo’s digital conference however, as they started up their live-streaming service, ‘Nintendo Treehouse Live’. This was an absolute masterstroke, and probably the best thing about E3. Treehouse ran for three days on both Youtube and Twitch, showing hours of live content presided over by a handful of young Nintendo developers and staffers. We got plenty of interesting interviews with developers as they came on-stage to both discuss and play their latest projects, and thanks to this simple, effective format we got to see far more of those games than we’d ever usually be treated to. All of this without any media personalities or corporate suits – just developers talking to other developers about the games they had made, all for the benefit of the gamers watching live.
That the most forward-thinking, fan-friendly take on E3 came from typically the most conservative of the big three – and, let’s not forget, the one that not so long ago took action against let’s players – is a bewildering thought. Yet, without even showing up to the main stage, Nintendo deftly made both Sony and Microsoft’s approaches look a bit old-hat. The good news is that Treehouse is something that they could replicate fairly easily, so hopefully E3 will become more fan-centric going forward. Even if we only have Nintendo doing something like this again, it’s still something to be championed.
While Nintendo personally impressed me more than any other attendee at E3, perhaps the right answer is to say that gamers won. A little bit of a lame response for those seeking drama, perhaps, but there’s tons of great games on the horizon no matter what your tastes. Granted, that horizon seems to be sitting deep in 2015 at the moment, with only a handful of things coming for the end of this year (though Destiny, the Halo collection, Bayonetta 2 and Hyrule Warriors sit high on my to-buy list), but 2015 may just be a marquee year for this hobby of ours.