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E3 2012 Reactions, Press Conference Grades, and Best/Worst Awards

E3 2012 is upon us and with it comes all the new game footage, surprises (or lack thereof, more on that later) and excitement for the next year in gaming.  Below are my reactions to each major press conference (Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Nintendo), as well as my picks for the best and worst of the show.

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Microsoft

Grade: B-

Microsoft kicked off their press event very strong by showcasing the first gameplay footage for Halo 4.  In short, the game looks epic.  The visuals are phenomenal, the new enemy types are pretty intriguing, and the concept of the UNSC Infinity is something new that I hope will be implemented strongly.  

After the obligatory nods to Kinect with Dance Central, Microsoft provided us with the first (and one of the few) surprises of the day with Splinter Cell: Blacklist.  This footage looked visceral and engaging, giving fans a great look at Sam Fisher's return to the spy game.  Coupled with fun Kinect support (using your own voice to entrap enemies in-game) and the return of Spies vs. Mercs, Blacklist has been one of the show's definite highlights.

One of the best portions of Microsoft's event was the debut of a new trailer for South Park: The Stick of Truth.  Filled with classic South Park banter between Cartman and Kyle, as well as cameos from fan-favorite villains like the Mongolians and Crab People, the game keeps looking better and better.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone managed to take time away from working on the game to visit the show and provided some genuine laughs as well.

Fable: The Journey was given some attention, as was a new entry in the Forza franchise, Forza: Horizon, which takes place in an open-world version of Colorado during a massive music festival.  Microsoft also touted Kinect functionality for Madden 13 which allows for calling plays and snapping the ball with the sound of the player's voice.  

Capcom came on stage to debut some exciting and action-packed gameplay for Resident Evil 6.  It seems as though the survival-horror has permanently been replaced by action-horror in this franchise, with RE5 and now RE6 being much more fast-paced action-oriented than the series' earlier games.  Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on your personal preferences, of course.

Tomb Raider was another franchise shown off during Microsoft's conference that chose to emphasize combat over its traditional puzzle/exploration elements.  There were no puzzles to be found in Tomb Raider's demo, rather Uncharted-style shooting augmented by Lara Croft's new bow weapon.  The game looks fun, to be sure, but whether or not it retains the spirit of classic Tomb Raider remains to be seen.

The biggest feature Microsoft chose to emphasize this year was Smartglass, a new way to connect Xbox to smart phones, tablets, computers, and televisions.  One cool feature was using a tablet to erase a receiver's route in Madden, replace it with one drawn on the tablet's touch screen, snap the ball, and throw a touchdown pass without ever touching a controller.  A host of new applications were emphasized as well, such as a Nike fitness app, and the arrival of Internet Explorer to Xbox.  

The conference closed with, of course, an exclusive look at Call of Duty: Black Ops II single-player footage.  To be honest, despite the over-saturation of CoD titles since CoD 2, the action looked impressive and the setting is a pretty decent change from the Modern Warfare, WWII, and Cold War settings of past games.  

Overall, Microsoft had a pretty strong show.  If the Smartglass functionality can operate as well as Microsoft assures us it will, we could be entering a new age of connectivity amongst our electronic devices.  Pop music performances and Kinect nonsense aside, the show had a lot to like and I think it was one of the highlights of the day.

Electronic Arts

Grade: B

Dubbed "The Download," EA managed to trot out 10 developers with 10 game demos that were mostly strong.  The conference kicked off with Lost Planet 3 Dead Space 3, proving that no modern survival-horror franchise can avoid being turned into a blockbuster action game.  Despite deviating from the series' roots, the game looks fun to play and with the addition of co-op should be a good time.

Criterion got to show off Need For Speed: Most Wanted, which continued to prove that action-racing games have only one undisputed champion developer.  Hopefully EA lets Criterion return to the Burnout franchise after this, because Need For Speed: Most Wanted looks pretty good and I want to see what the developer can bring back to its classic franchise after making this game.

Maxis managed to deliver a social game that actually looks worth playing with SimCity Social, and the new SimCity PC game looked fantastic as well.  I can't wait to defend my city against giant monster attacks and arson epidemics.

Another big surprise was EA's announcement that it has reached a licensing agreement with the UFC.  After turning down a deal years ago, which forced the UFC to sign with THQ, EA released its own watered-down EA Sports MMA after realizing both the sport's true popularity and their own stupidity for passing on the offer.  Capitalizing on THQ's financial troubles, this is a major coup for EA. FIFA 13 was also displayed on the sports front, and looked solid as always, and more Madden 13 features, including a more robust online franchise and superstar mode, were given time in the spotlight.

Dr. Ray Muzyka of Bioware took the stage to talk about The Old Republic, announcing some new content coming to the game, as well as the arrival of Free to Play until level 15 in July.  My first major disappointment of the show came when the good doctor left the stage without discussing anything else Bioware might be working on.  I would have taken anything, be it Dragon Age 3, Mass Effect 3 DLC, hell even something on Command and Conquer: Generals 2.  EA has one of the best developers in the industry in its back pocket and completely neglected to use them.

Battlefield got its own "Premium" subscription service to rival CoD Elite, and the details of tis five forthcoming DLC packs were recounted.  Medal of Honor: Warfighter got its chance to prove to the world that it deserves to exist, and only managed to prove to the world that it is still really trying to compete with CoD.  The only way any of these military shooters are going to succeed is to stop trying to compete with CoD and start trying to differentiate themselves from CoD.  Battlefield managed to do that by providing a scale of battle that CoD can't deliver, as well as compelling vehicular combat and strong map design.  MoH still looks too much like Medal of Duty: Modern Warfighter to me, but maybe the interesting take on multiplayer factions (in which players can select to fight for the various elite military units from countries around the world) can help change my opinion.

Finally, Crysis 3.  Oh, Crysis 3.  The visual are stunning, the gameplay looks dynamic and epic, but more than anything the game just looks FUN.  EA really knocked it out of the park with this one, hopefully the final product can deliver on the promises made by this demo.

Overall, the games on display in EA's conference were largely positive.

Ubisoft

Grade: A-

Let me set one thing straight about this grade: I don't care about who hosts the event and what kind of cringe-inducing banter they engage in.  E3 is about the announcements and the games, and on that front Ubisoft delivered.  The first real gameplay from Assassin's Creed III was every bit as amazing as I hoped it would be, showing protagonist Connor leaping among trees as he hunts deer in the wilds, and infiltrates a British fortress to assassinate a key target.  My jaw dropped as the demo went on and remained on the floor well after it ended.  Truly, this is the next evolution of the strong franchise.

Far Cry 3 also looked strong.  I have never been a fan of the series, simply because I never got around to playing the games, but the demo displayed looked great.  The sandbox gameplay was the focus of the demo, as was the lush tropical environment that the game takes place in.  Overall a good demo.

Ubisoft chose to allocate some time specifically for its WII U launch lineup.  First came a gameplay-bereft teaser for the recently announced Avengers game.  Its still hard to tell what exactly the game will be since the footage had no gameplay, which was disappointing.  Ubisoft also showed off some footage of Rayman Legends for the Wii U, illustrating how the Wii U gamepad and Pro controller can be used in concert during cooperative gameplay.  A teaser for the game Zombi U was also shown during this segment of Wii U-focused content, although no gameplay was exhibited.  The full Ubisoft Wii U launch lineup was announced, and the inclusion of Assassin's Creed III will help to ensure that it is getting stronger.

Ubisoft also displayed its entry into the eSports subgenre, Shootmania, with a live match between some of the worlds best pro-Gamers.  The game looks like it happens incredibly fast, with each round of the match taking about 45 seconds.  The game type on display had a team of three using rocket launchers to attack a lone member of the opposing team who is equipped with a one-hit kill railgun.  One side must kill the other side to win the round; alternately, if time runs out and neither team has won yet, a capture point is activated and the first team to capture it wins the round.  Winning three rounds wins the game.  Many of the pro-gamers playing the demo were Counter-Striker veterans, so fans of that game may do well with this one.  It is free-to-play, as well, so everyone can at least give it a try.

Just Dance 4 was also on display.  Anyone excited about that game, I'm happy for you.  Beyond that, I'm not really into it.

Finally, and this is the thing that really drives my score up for Ubisoft, was Watch Dogs.  The concept of Watch Dogs is so unique I wish I had thought of it myself.  The demo saw control over Aiden Pearce, a man who has managed to gain access to CTOS (Convergent Technologies Operating System), the computer operating system that controls the power grid, surveillance, and technology of New York City.  Pearce uses this advantage, in the demo, to gain access to an art exhibit being put on by a man named Joseph DeMarco, who Pearce is trying to kill for being wrongly acquitted of soliciting murder.  Pearce hacks into cell phones to eavesdrop on conversations, gains complete data readouts on the personal lives of anyone he chooses to scan, stealthily weaves his way through the crowd, and manages to control an intersection's traffic light in order to cause a Burnout-worthy crash.  After a standard gunfight, Pearce executes his target, whose car was involved in the crash, and focus of the demo shifted away from Pearce to an anonymous agent of some kind who is ordered to track him from a nearby rooftop.  The demo seemed to hint that this agent has something to do with a multiplayer aspect, because he was controlled by a second player and that player must try to aid the first player.

Watch Dogs looks like an amazing new IP for Ubisoft and has me incredibly excited.  It was a strong conference for Ubisoft without a doubt.

Sony

Grade: C-

I was expecting so much from Sony.  They absolutely OWNED E3 last year, clearly winning the week with their strong conference.  This year, I was hoping to see some surprises, maybe even from Square Enix with Final Fantasy Versus XIII, an update on FFXHD, or even something Kingdom Hearts-related.  I was hoping for some cool new announcement for the Vita in terms of compelling new game experiences.  Instead, gamers got footage of games we already knew about, the new Quantic Dream-Ellen Page collaboration, two new Vita announcements, and without a doubt what will be the biggest flop of the week by far.

Sony came out swinging with the new title from Quantic Dream, called Beyond: Two Souls.  The game tells the 15-year story of a girl who has a strange connection to the afterlife, a connection which gives her supernatural powers (and a target on her back).  The biggest feature of the game announced, though, was the likeness and voice of Ellen Page as the game's protagonist.  Personally, I'm not the biggest Ellen Page fan.  She was a decent audience surrogate in Inception, but I absolutely could not bear her in Juno, a film whose praise I still can't understand to this day.  Hopefully she can act as an instrument by which Quantic Dream can tell this story in an emotionally compelling way.  With the writing talent they have at that studio, I am confident that it can succeed.

Next came footage of Playstation All Stars Battle Royale.  The game looks fun, and the announcement of Nathan Drake in the game was the least-surpising portion of the presentation.  What was more surprising was the Big Daddy's inclusion, which opens the door for any and all 3rd-Party characters to be in the game.  I'm still not a huge fan of cross-contaminating the stages with elements of other games as a regular feature (which is different from how Nintendo used Assist trophies in Brawl), but other than that the game looks just as fun as it did when they announced it.  Nothing new here, basically.

The middle portion of the presentation was a disappointing mixture of games previously displayed at Ubisoft's conference, punctuated by the announcement of two new Vita titles including Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, a full entry in the series that will have its own online multiplayer.  Aside from that, gamers were treated to more Assassin's Creed 3 and Far Cry 3 footage from Ubisoft.  I'm not trying to say that the footage was poorly-executed or unwanted, but I was hoping to see something new that wasn't already showcased at another press event barely two hours earlier.  In addition, how the hell is Connor the captain of a ship in the Caribbean?  Usually when a clip is going to show something new from a game, the developer provides some sort of context.  Without that context, the naval footage (while pretty cool-looking) makes absolutely no sense.  I'm pretty sure the year at the bottom of the screen said 1780-something, which would mean that the scene takes place toward the end of the game (which could suggest that as a reward for helping to win the war, perhaps Connor was awarded the position by George Washington?  I'm just grasping at straws here).  4-player co-op for Far Cry 3 in a dedicated game mode sounds cool too, but again I would have rather this time been devoted to something new or something we hadn't already seen earlier in the day.  Just personal preference.

The announcement of a brand new Assassin's Creed title for the Vita was probably the most exciting part of the presentation.  Assassin's Creed III: Liberation takes place in New Orleans and features the franchise's first ever female protagonist.  I was waiting for a reason to purchase a Vita, and the ACIII: Liberation bundle that they announced to go along with the game is just the reason I was looking for.

The presentation ended with what everyone was expecting, footage of God of War: Ascension and The Last of Us.  We finally got to see some of GoW's single-player campaign, which curiously hasn't even been discussed before now in favor of emphasizing the new (and, in my opinion, unnecessary) multiplayer mode in the game.  The gameplay looks like classic God of War, but the thing that really irks me about this game is still the fact that this is not really a story that needs to be told.  I'm going to use this example again because it is so apt here: in the Star Wars prequels the audience is shown the origins of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, but is that a story that anyone wanted or needed to be told?  This is the same situation; we do not need to know how Kratos became the Ghost of Sparta because we already have enough of the backstory from the previous games.  The only thing this game can do is break the story's continuity, which it actually did during the demo when it showed Kratos using what looked like the Amulet of the Fates to reconstruct a path through the demo's level.  This raises a couple of questions in my mind:

1. Why didn't Kratos make any mention of having used the Amulet before during God of War 2?

2.  How did the Amulet wind up in the temple in God of War 2 when Kratos had it here before even what happened in Chains of Olympus?

I could be wrong here, but this is just what I took from the demo.  The combat still looks solid and the graphics look great but the concept is still lacking in my mind.

The Last of Us, on the other hand, looked absolutely incredible.  This demo alone managed to save the conference and give it a passing grade for me.  The dynamic action, assistance from female companion Ellie, and protagonist Joel's ability to combine items to craft makeshift weapons and dispatch enemies with lethal efficiency made the game stand out.  The awesome graphics didn't hurt either.  Naughty Dog once again proved that it is a top-tier developer with this demo, and I have total faith that the final product will be just as great.

Unfortunately, I saved the worst for last.  The absolutely awful, unresponsive, totally uninspired augmented reality Wonderbook technology was without a doubt the worst announcement of the day.  The idea itself is novel (excuse the pun): provide parents with a tool by which they can encourage their children to read with the assistance of Move and the Eye camera.  The Augmented Reality brings the storybooks to life on television screens, and the first major announcement for the new platform was Miranda Goshawk's Book of Spells, written by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.  The demo itself went horribly.  The announcer sounded boring and uninterested, the game did not respond well to the control inputs, and the audience was totally silent the entire time.  While I really have to praise Sony for trying something new and different, the execution of this demo definitely left a sour taste in people's mouths.  Hopefully Sony can figure out a way to rectify this mistake, but until then the demo was simply poor and disappointing.

Nintendo

Grade: B-

Nintendo opened with the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto and his announcement of Pikmin 3 for the Wii U.  The game looks great graphically and seems to expand on the classic Pikmin gameplay by allowing players to utilize four leaders rather than just one, a new rock-type pikmin, and new tactical options using the gamepad.  While I personally have never been a giant fan of Pikmin, the game looks like it will please fans of the series and its nice to see Nintendo not giving up on one of its more oddball franchises.

Fan-favorite executive Reggie Fils-Aime took the stage next to reiterate and expand on some of the Wii U news Satoru Iwata released in Nintendo's pre-E3 video from Sunday afternoon.  Following the tech talk, New Super Mario Bros. U was officially unveiled, showing a new flying squirrel suit and the inclusion of baby Yoshis that have unique abilities of their own.  The game looks like more of the same New Super Mario Bros. action from the WIi and DS titles, which is by no means a bad thing but is also not as groundbreaking as a brand new 3D title like Super Mario Galaxy was.

Representatives from Warner Bros. Interactive were introduced after to talk about Batman: Arkham City - Armored Edition, which adds an Armored Suit for both Batman and Catwoman that builds up power and allows players to enter "B.A.T mode," which provides damage bonuses, and new play control for remote batarangs via the gamepad was announced.

Scribblenauts Unlimited for Wii U and 3DS was next up for the spotlight, as the cult-favorite franchise sees its next evolution, allowing players to piece together brand new animals, machines, items, or hybrids of all three using detailed creation tools.

Nintendo is clearly taking the hint from gamers and trying to make 3rd-Party developers a big part of the Wii U experience, using a montage showing games such as Darksiders 2, Mass Effect 3, Tank! Tank! Tank!, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Trine 2: Director's Cut, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, Aliens: Colonial Marines to illustrate that point.

Reggie spent some time on the casual game fans with the new Wii Fit U, which utilizes the gamepad camera in new events and a Fit Meter peripheral.  SiNG, a new karaoke game, was announced which uses the gamepad to show lyrics, prompt sing-a-longs, and dancemoves as well.

Some brief but tantalizing 3DS news was offered in advance of an announced second conference tomorrow that will be all about 3DS.  New Super Mario Bros. 2 (August 19th), Paper Mario: Sticker Star (Holiday), Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon (Holiday), were all shown with gameplay footage and release windows.  Another montage video also debuted with footage for Castlevania, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, Scribblenauts Unlimited, Kingdom Hearts 3D for the handheld.

LEGO City was also given some screen time.  The gamepad can do things like scan for enemies, players will engage in costume-based puzzles and exploration, and classic LEGO gameplay and humor.  A 3DS exclusive, different version was also announced.

Ubisoft segment with Yves Guillemot and Xavier Poix discussing the already-announced titles from yesterday.  Just Dance 4 with the option to change the choreography using the gamepad.  Actual gameplay for Zombi U using the gamepad in interesting ways such as scanning the environment, combining items in the inventory, punching in keypad numbers, and the ability to use the camera to zombify people's faces.  Finally a quick montage was shown with other Ubisoft Wii U launch titles Assassin's Creed III, Rayman Legends, Your Shape Fitness Evolved, and Avengers: Battle For Earth (still with no gameplay).

NintendoLand was the next game to be unveiled.  The concept of the game is interesting: take classic Nintendo franchises and reimagine them as multiplayer or singleplayer attractions at a virutal theme park for Miis to visit and play at.  Five of the attractions were announced, based on Zelda, Animal Crossing, Luigi's Mansion, Donkey Kong, and Takamaru's Ninja Castle.  An example of Luigi's Ghost Mansion was given, in which a player using the gamepad plays as a ghost and chases down the rest of the players, who can only sense the ghost player's presence via the rumbling of their controllers.  The human players must shine the ghost with their flashlights.  NintendoLand was confirmed as a launch title, and I wouldn't be surprised to see if it was even announced as a pack-in with the system somewhere down the line because it is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of Wii U much like Wii Sports did for the Wii.

In all, there were a number of interesting things on display at Nintendo's conference.  I thought NintendoLand was a much better method of providing a minigame-type family experience than Wii Sports, mainly because it incorporates Nintendo's greatest asset, its first-party titles.  While not a huge fan of Pikmin, a new game in the series from Miyamoto is still big news, as was the plethora of Mario announcements.  The Wii U launch lineup seems to be quite strong as well, with a number of solid-looking 3rd-Party titles and, of course, Nintendo's own offerings.  The lack of real surprises, especially the noticeable absence of Zelda and Retro Studios, was a major letdown, but the conference left little to truly complain about.  The lack of a ton of 3DS news was also disappointing as I'm a huge fan of my 3DS, but the promise of a second conference focusing solely on the portable helped a bit.  

Overall Impressions

Grade: B-

This year's E3 had surprisingly few actual surprises.  A good number of excellent titles were shown off, including Assassin's Creed III, Halo 4, Watch Dogs, The Last of Us, and Crysis 3.  Most of the show's biggest titles, however, were already-announced sequels (with the exception of The last of Us, an already-announced new IP, Watch Dogs, a totally new IP, and the surprise new Splinter Cell title).  This late in the life cycle of the current-gen consoles, such examples of publishers playing it safe is probably to be expected, but it is no less disheartening because of that fact.  While I was definitely not expecting there to be any news of next-gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft, all this means is that the pressure will really be on them for next year's show, as a lack of hardware announcements next year would certainly have gamers out for blood.  Xbox's new Smartglass functionality and the cool uses of the Wii U gamepad have me excited for the future of video game integration with the rest of our electronic devices, so that was something I found myself enjoying hearing about.

 

My Awards for E3 2012

(Note: these awards include games that were and were not shown at press conferences)

Game of the Show:

Watch Dogs

Most Anticipated Game:

Dishonored

Worst Game of the Show:

Wonderbook (PS3)

Best Press Conference:

Ubisoft

Best Concept:

Watch Dogs

Best Shooter:

Borderlands 2

Best Action/Adventure:

The Last of Us

Best Sports:

FIFA 13

Best RPG:

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Best DLC:

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dawnguard

Best DLG:

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Best Handheld:

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation and Paper Mario: Sticker Star (tie)

Best of Microsoft's Conference: 

Halo 4 and South Park: The Stick of Truth (tie)

Best of EA's Conference:

Crysis 3

Best of Ubisoft's Conference: 

Watch Dogs

Best of Sony's Conference: 

The Last of Us

Best of Nintendo's Conference: 

Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U (tie)

I'd love to hear everyone else's opinions on E3 this year, so leave a comment if you've got something to say.

 

 

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