Gaming Overload; or, E32014 round-up shows it’s all about the games

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No scandalous PR fiascos, exciting announcements, great demos — some have said that this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was a bit subdued, but having walked the floor I can tell you that wasn’t the case.

Traipsing around for two consecutive days, I tried just about everything I could get my hands on — even if it meant waiting in a line with a wait time that rivals any Disney theme park line.

I’m just going to say I might be a little biased because it was my first E3 (a trip made possible by wonderful friend in the gaming industry) so some dazzle and flare might have been in my eyes, but overall titles that were shown were solid, and since there were no pending console releases it was all about the games.

So speaking of the console wars, let’s get this out of the way so we can focus on the awesome games.

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Microsoft has stepped up its game with Xbox One in Indie support and has started LISTENING to its customers

Microsoft kicked off the entire week with its press conference, which set an amazing tone. At least amazing considering the bomb it dropped at least year’s E3 from which the company is STILL recovering.

  • Kinect? Gone.
  • Xbox Gold tax for media streaming services? Gone.
  • Extra $100 over PS4’s price tag? Gone.
  • Lack of indie developer support? Amended with a beefed up ID@Xbox program.

Also included in their press conference was the announcement of some awesomely tempting console exclusives:

  • Halo 5: Guardians (which coincides with an AMAZING box set, Halo: The Master Chief Collection)
  • Sunset Overdrive (which demo’d well on the floor)
  • Forza Horizon 2 (which ups the ante on stellar racing car game graphics and is simply stunning)
  • First access to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare DLCs

Overall it was a humble showing, which is the step Microsoft needed to take in the wake of Don Mattrick’s mishandling last year’s E3:

Was it enough to get more people interested in the console? Time will tell, but one can clearly see Microsoft is finally listening to its customers by exercising some of the more controversial features and supporting indie developers in way it should have been from the start. When console lifetimes span several years, and seeing as how we aren’t at a full year since release, Xbox certainly is in a place where it can catch up to Sony to remain the strong competitor it should have been from the start. Heck, even I sat up straighter during the Xbox conference:

 Sony solidified its reign with a bucket list of exclusives and remote play features

Not to be outshown by Microsoft, Sony pulled out all the stops during its opening conference.

The exclusives:

  • Destiny (not a console exclusive, but the beta is and early access — hopefully you PS4 owners signed up, as the website SHUT. DOWN. during the conference from people jumping on that offer so fast)
  • Little Big Planet 3 (seriously a WICKED FUN franchise and graphics are even more beautiful)
  • Battlefield: Hardline (again, not a console exclusive but the Beta and early access are)
  • Early Access to Far Cry 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, and even Mortal Kombat X
  • Hell even Blizzard got in on the action: An exclusive The Last of Us-themed nephalem rift in the forthcoming Diablo: Reaper of Souls Ultimate Evil Edition.
  • And of course, the exclusives that were announced or previewed: Bloodborne, The Order, Uncharted 4, Grim Fandango reboot, and the visually stunning No Man’s Sky.

Also upping the ante is variety of remote play features that make most gamers drool at the possibilities of playing older titles:

  • Vita’s remote play that current owners enjoy will be more desirable when the libraries open up for PlayStation Now and is coupled with the remote play for PlayStation TV which enables the console to be played from any TV on an owner’s home network.
  • PlayStation Now will launch with more than 100 titles (beta access starts late July) and will open up older ones progressively.

Sony is showing they will fight hard to stay on top and really, who’s losing here? If this forces steeper competition between the console giants so be it — we get to reap the benefits as customers with better titles, stronger features, and somewhat lower costs.

Nintendo closed the conferences and kicked off E3 with the same humility of Xbox and blew people minds

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Day one of E3 opened with a conference from the last of the major console developers, which for Nintendo was smart move. It wasn’t as flashy as last year’s showing which attempted to sway people by shooting glitter in their eyes with what was then a $299 dust collector.

Over the last year, Nintendo has progressively started releasing smash title after smash title and from the announcements during their conference, the developer is showing no signs of slowing down:

  • Super Smash Bros. Brawl revealed new fighters and was the most prominent of its convention floor demo stations. Nintendo even had an amazing tournament with the winner busting out an 11th-hour win in sudden death with Zero Suit Samus that got the crowd seriously pumped for its forthcoming cross-platform title (WiiU & 3DS).
  • The announcement and previewing of a forthcoming Starfox title that opened people’s mouths in awe.
  • And of course other amazing titles that were available on the floor: Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, Splatoon, Yoshi’s Wooly World, and a preview (not playable on the floor) of the figurine system Amiibo, which will compete with the likes of Skylanders and Disney Infinity.

But the biggest most crowd-roaring announcement that had people talking the rest of the day on the convention floor was glimpse at a new open-world Zelda.

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It’s not entirely clear at this point what character players will control because people still aren’t even sure if that is Link in the photo. But the images shown during the conference and replayed on the floor showed a beautifully rendered Hyrule. Suffice to say, the mood on the floor was that “Nintendo is back.”

Again, time will tell. As I’ve written before about Nintendo, it seems to be resting on laurels, some of which are as old as the company itself. Granted it’s those laurels that saw the most success in the last year as Super Mario 3D World and the recently released Mario Kart 8 have sold in the millions. But hell, even I widen my eyes at the future which promises an open-world Zelda game.

So it’s really hard to answer “Who came out on top?” because I think each platform shined with its offerings. What made this year different was simply that E3’s focus was solely on gaming line-ups. Sony did well with justifying why I bought a PS4 in the first place. Microsoft did well with showing me it is willing to learn from its mistakes and is even offering things that would TEMPT me to buy a system, and Nintendo is finally making good on my WiiU purchase, which admittedly was a purchase more for the nostalgia of the developer than for the system’s offerings (at the time).

Now to a few of the games that had great presence or awesome previews.

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My first stop was at the WB Games booth where a dear friend of mine works. Of course that meant front of the line privilege for the theater room seating for the pre-release demos of both Mortal Kombat X and Batman: Arkham Knight.

1. If you are a fan of the Arkham Series for Batman, just you wait. Seriously. You’ve never seen a more visually jaw-dropping Batman game.

Batman: Arkham Knight has a few combat additions that made this offering unique such as the ability to actually drive AND USE the Batmobile in combat as players will take on a new enemy in the series, Scarecrow. Sadly though, release dates for this (and a majority of the more popular E3 titles) aren’t until well into 2015.

2. Mortal Kombat X will feature new fighters and a new story

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Having watched the announcement trailer several hundred times in the 24 hours it was shown online to the time I sat in the pre-release demo theater, I was already prepared for the gruesome showing. But that trailer pales in comparison to what we were shown and it shows Mortal Kombat doing what Mortal Kombat does best, great graphics, awesomely-bloody fatalities and fun environmental fighting quirks. It’s a return to form for Ed Boon and the gang at Netherrealm. And if the gameplay wasn’t enough the story had me intrigued even more as one of the new fighters shown was Cassie Cage, the daughter of MK vets Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade (apparently the game’s story is 25 years after MK9) — the entire theater reacted to that news and even friends I’ve told since have had similar “LOLWUT!?” reactions. Guess we’ll have to wait and find out about that story.

So moving around the different halls here are a few of my observations:

3. Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls Ultimate Evil Edition‘s UI Updates Make the game even more fun

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I have loved the synergy the development team at Blizzard has had for bringing a PC gem to the console. The best of both the PC and console versions seems to go back and forth and it has made for a great gaming experience on both ends. While people detested the initial launch of D3, the subsequent console release proved that certain features didn’t need to exist (i.e. the Auction Houses) and as such the PC version’s Reaper of Souls update saw a lot of emulation from console to much success. The UI changes make the game easier to navigate, especially with regards to loot scrolling and managing abilities.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the new The Last of Us-themed nephalem rift, but alas, it was not shown on the demo floor. Still though, Blizzard teaming with Naughty Dog to make beautiful zombie loot-piñatas  has me excited.

4. Onigiri makes a beautiful leap from PC to PS4

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Fans of Aisan-grinder MMOs (no judgement, not my flavor) will see last year’s Free-to-Play  CyberStep, Inc. release make a jump to the PS4 with the same offerings. I happen to be walking by the demo station and the gameplay caught my eye. I normally hate grind-heavy MMOs because, well…they’re grindy. So much time killing random things for a level increase to be strong enough to take on the next level of content. It’s honestly why I gave up on the beautiful and hair-pullingly frustrating Aion. But if Onigiri is considered a grinder, I couldn’t tell from the demo. The boss encounters were well designed and scale nicely depending on if one is fighting solo, or with a few people. It’s as beautiful as one would expect an anime-style MMO to be, and it comes with the same price-tag as the PC version: free. For gamers on a budget, you can’t really complain with free.

5. Kingdom Heart s 2.5 HD finds me wanting the LONG OVERDUE Kingdom Hearts 3.

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The only thing I find annoying about the release of games like this (which are amazing and visually top notch) is that they keep me from fully committing to my PS4 because of its release on PS3. But just as one would expect, the gameplay is much smoother and visually appealing on the HD release. The main screen in the Square Enix demo area played KH3 teasers and all it did was make me sad. Why they don’t release these HD versions on PS4 is beyond me. KH is a franchise that is being kept alive by the constant nipping at SE’s heels by rabid fans like myself because otherwise I get the feeling SE would rather focus more on its Final Fantasy franchise (which considering FF15 was announced last E3, one would not have guessed because there was NO presence  on the floor).

6. Evolve finally gives us a glimpse on the FPS gamer nerd version of “You’re It”

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Four players with guns. One player gets to be the monster (one that gets to, you know, evolve with every kill). I keep stating I’m not an FPS kind of guy, but more and more games keep being shown to me that make me want to rethink that (last year it started with the subtle FPS aspects of The Last of Us). This year it looks like Turtle Beach/2K’s Evolve will do that, and continue on to next year(ish) when The Division (announced and previewed with no demo on the floor) is released. The shooter aspects of Evolve are pretty standard, get gun, run around, shoot said gun, get upgrades, so on. But again, it’s the small twists that make this such an intriguing game, running around and getting to play the monster and watch it grow into a Kraken, for example. That is what will set this apart from the seemingly unending pool of titles in the FPS realm. This was quite easily the best title and demo station on the convention floor.

7. Super Smash Bros. Brawl was everything I wanted and more from the next offering in this franchise

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So much so, that it sucked up more than 60 percent of Nintendo’s real estate on the show floor. The character selection is actually what makes this offering more than just an updated SSBB for WiiU/3DS. I mean, Pacman, the Wii Fit instructor…it really shows Nintendo’s sense of meta-humor which is awesome. What’s more, it is an amazingly social game. Like, I’m looking at my GamePad and my two regular controllers and I’m thinking, “If I want more people to come and play this, I need more controllers.” Plus the interaction between GamePad and the game is exactly what it should be as it offers off-screen glimpses into the match at hand with scores and such. Though it IS SSBB, so you know not to take your eye off the match for too long before you’re booted off screen.

8. Little Big Planet 3 adds new characters and increases the fun on this puzzler franchise

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Both the single player and co-op modes are incredibly wicked fun. The visual aesthetic of the game remains unchanged, but what has improved is the finite detail in the emotes of the characters, the rich depth of the scenery, the realistic look and feel of the objects,  and the overall balance of the scene. If there were a “Mario” type of game for the PlayStation console, this would be it and Sackboy would (and should) be the mascot of PlayStation (even if it wasn’t developed by Sony per se, but rather Media Molecule). I mean really, the game has reached a third release (LBP3 being the first on PS4). Unlike most of the game shown or previewed, LBP3 comes out THIS YEAR (in November) and it will support the levels seen in the previous two titles that were released on PS3.

9. Project Morpheus is *pinches* THIS CLOSE for mainstream release

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I’m still trying to wrap my mind around full immersion games. Don’t get me wrong, PM and Oculus Rift offer great possibilities, but perhaps I’m just not ready to see myself getting stabbed in the chest by an alien in the VR-ready Alien:Isolation, the first of OR’s offerings. But seeing as how OR was only available for previewing to credentialed press and not regular attendees, I only got to try PM. And I can say, PM was pretty tight. It was still in demo-mode so I didn’t get stabbed by an alien, but it’s comfortable, the controls are intuitive and with Sony as its backer, you KNOW when this puppy is ready, it’s going to have some serious clout and the games to go with it. OR might have the jump on availability, but as we saw with last year’s E3, going second can have some SERIOUS advantages for Sony.

10. Valiant Hearts: The Great War kept my heart as I left this year’s E3

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I watched the gameplay demo, this after nearly balling my eyes out during Ubisoft’s conference where the trailer premiered. This game completely blind-sided me with its amazing story, yes, told through the eyes of the dog who had befriended each person featured in the game as you learn their story.  The art direction is nothing short of amazing, as is the music. Luckily PC gamers won’t have to wait long as its June 25 release date is fast approaching. It’s not an action game, or an FPS, but rather a story puzzler, much like last year’s phenomenal jazz-noir Contrast. Of all the amazing games previewed or demoed, this UbiArt offering had my vote for fan favorite.

Sadly, I left before the closing of E3 and I had but one title on my bucket list I didn’t get to demo, Destiny. Evolve and Destiny had the longest wait times in the demo lines and I opted for Evolve knowing that I’d get to jump in the PS4 Alpha-test for Destiny, well, today. 😀 Also not making the list were the vast number of indie games, particularly from Indiecade which had a huge corner of the publisher’s floor. This is actually a knock on me, because I tend to champion more indie fare than AAAs, save for my love of anything Blizzard, Naughty Dog, Ubisoft, and EA to name a few. Indie games tend to be more fun because they have a lot more to prove than AAAs, and as such have a lot of heart, sweat, blood and tears behind their production.

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As far as E3 outtings go, this being my first I have nothing to compare it to except for BlizzCon and San Diego ComicCon, but those are different venues so, yeah, no comparison there. It was a nice glimpse into the very industry I’m working hard to break into. A part of me did leave a little sad knowing full well my struggle to break in has so far yielded no results. But you know, that’s part of the challenge. So, dear friends…

…challenge is nothing without the struggle.

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