Ah E3, the annual pilgrimage of video game professionals and commentators eagerly poised to either peddle or be enlightened by what the heroes of fast-fingered entertainment have in store for the next 12 months. Those few days where some of the most cynical people on the planet allow themselves to enjoy being part of this dysfunctional but pleasingly inescapable family. At least, that’s how to approach it if you plan on having fun. Any gamer watching the commencements on their phones or laptops would unequivocally sell a kidney to be there, so optimism is always the best policy for us all.
There were some interesting overarching themes this year, but my personal excitement peak came in the form of Microsoft’s Project Scorpio, kicking off the next generation of consoles in late 2017. It seemed strange to announce the next leap forward in the same showcase as the Xbox One S - the slimmed down higher spec younger sibling of the current console - but there’s also sense in having a bridge between now and Scorpio, if only to allow developers to work seriously with the 4K graphics. You can find the full Scorpio spec in the trailer but what’s most exciting, especially for me as an Xbox gamer, is that Microsoft seems steadfast in wanting to lead the way in what gaming can be and not just follow the pack. It means being on the cutting edge of where gaming goes next. It’s a heady cocktail to throw back, especially knowing that everything from Xbox One up to Scorpio will be compatible, including with Windows 10. No more punishment if you’re not ready or can’t afford to be at the front of the queue on launch day.
Thinking about Scorpio and much of the language used in several of the showcases, there appears to be a shift happening regarding giving consumers what they want. Scorpio is in their own words, "The 'we heard you' console." There’s a blurry line between demanding the unreasonable in terms of the technology and having your voice heard, but there now seems to be a general attitude of, “Let’s see if we can make this happen,” from developers, as opposed to nervous and outright refusal. Console games especially are expensive entertainment and while the hours you receive back are mostly great value for money, the competition for our cash has never been more fierce. It’s great to see gaming becoming a buyer’s market instead of ‘you get what you’re given’.
Speaking of competition, that too became a running theme. With Xbox’s more social Clubs and Arena functions coming our way, along with EA ramping up its competitive sports prize money and making it easier to get involved with playing against others, it’s clear that image of the lone gamer isn’t where publishers or developers want to go. We're in an increasingly always-connected social media world. They want us to play with others and then tell everyone about it. The Minecraft Friendly Update, which was delivered in typically adorable fashion during the Microsoft presentation, announced that it would now be possible to access your worlds across any platform and invite friends from different devices to build together. This means you won’t all need to be online at the same time to play. You can, if you choose, work shifts as a team regardless of format. Collaboration was huge at E3 this year.
For me, VR feels a little like 3D - an interesting additional option but not something I’m necessarily crazy about at the moment, though that will likely change. Playstation 4’s VR headset, being made available in the US this year and spreading across a collection of high profile game franchises, may be the tipping point for many. But it remains to be seen how many people can afford the technology in their homes on top of consoles and games. Sony, at least, want it to be their marker of advancement. In one way, shape or form, VR did get a push from several companies this year. Ubisoft went to great lengths in bringing members of the Star Trek cast along to their showcase to prove its capabilities.
Far more thrilling for me is seeing how incredible graphic development has become in standard games. It’s easy to become blasé about the capabilities of designers and the packages they work with these days, but as someone who started out with 8-Bit graphics in the 80s, I prefer to allow myself to forever feel amazed by their talent. While I’m not generally a fan of racing games, largely because I’m a terrible driver, the Australian landscape and wildlife that make up the setting for Forza Horizon 3 is breathtakingly real. The clips we saw of Mass Effect Andromeda looked aesthetically stunning and, though I have mixed emotions about games set in real wars, there’s no denying that Battlefield 1 is beautifully rendered. It makes for the march toward 4K all the more tantalising. We might all need to start thinking about buying 4K TVs as well as setting some cash aside for the Scorpio.
By far one of the most satisfying elements of E3 2016 was the visibility of women - as developers offering their work to the world on stage, as executives, as hosts both during and after the presentations, and of course as characters. It’s hard to know yet whether this is merely the industry releasing a pressure valve after the uncomfortable developments of GamerGate or whether it’s a lasting change, but it’s incredibly welcome all the same. It’s vital that women not only be working in the gaming world, but also that they can be seen to do so. Not just so that women and girls feel represented or have something to aspire to, but because it proves to those who used GamerGate as a cover for their misogyny that women aren’t a novelty or a trend. EA’s announcement that via Play to Give they’re teaming up with organisations like HeForShe is a massive step in the right direction.
Several large market games offered strong and unapologetic female protagonists, too. Dishonored 2 will allow the option to play as Emily Kaldwin, now an empress. Gears of War 4 has Laura Bailey playing Kait, the Mass Effect Andromeda trailer ended with a female lead waking up in the ship, and at the Sony conference they launched Horizon Zero Dawn for Playstation 4 with an entirely female lead character. Not forgetting the return of Clementine to the third instalment of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game. Just generally it’s beginning to feel less as if you have to cross your fingers in the hope of being able to play as a woman. It’s a great feeling, even if there’s still plenty of work to be done in terms of equality.
And the rest of the games? There’s far too much to cover in just one post, but there were some that stood out above the rest. Now that leading developers are in their 30s and 40s, last year seemed to be about revisiting games from our and their youth. This year - with the exception of maybe Crash Bandicoot remastered for Playstation 4 - has been more about sequels and adding to existing franchises. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing new, just that building on what we already know was a big theme.
If I were a Playstation person I’d be getting especially excited about Detroit: Become Human, a decision based game where you have to essentially use your own personality to imprint one on an android protagonist. Spider-Man also looks great. As for games I can actually play, the continuing Fallout 4 DLC is another reminder that it’s almost impossible to be truly finished within the game, while Bethesda’s launch of Dishonored 2 has a lot going for it in terms of story. EA’s pledge to keep expanding their Star Wars games until there’s something for everyone is exciting. Mass Effect Andromeda feels as if it can’t fail to be overwhelmingly impressive at this point. You’ll rarely find me playing FIFA, but the added story mode allowing you to become a character will definitely give new players a more interesting angle on the game. I'm still waiting for the ultimate 'at sea' game that isn't Assassin's Creed: Black Flag and isn't quite this cartoony, but Sea of Thieves looks like a lot of fun.
One of the most intriguing Xbox exclusives was the indie produced We Happy Few, a sinister first person game where residents take medication to keep them happy. You play as the one person who decides to see what happens without the fog of pills. You then have to escape the weird dystopia as a ‘downer’. It looks wonderfully different.
The Ubisoft presentation was far too long, but their launch of Watch Dogs 2, for which the gameplay looks incredibly slick, along with the gorgeous-looking Steep, cornering the market on more extreme action sports and avoiding competing with EA, caused a lot of buzz.
Now we just sit back and wait for Rockstar to announce Red Dead Redemption 2, blowing everything else out of the water as it goes. Any day now. Probably.
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