In retrospect, E3 was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Whether finishing officework in advance, coordinating schedules, prepping for meetings and blogging, nevermind trying to not be an absentee family man, I was burning the candle at both ends. But I survived considerable sleep deprivation to blog another day, 

Wednesday proved to be my busiest day, with several appointments scheduled. First was Larian Studios, responsible for the Divinity series of fantasy games. I was familiar with them, having played the demo of Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga on Xbox 360. Their two PC titles on display were Divinity: Original Sin and Dragon Commander.

Divinity: Original Sin is a role playing game in which you play as one of two heroes who can use Source Magic to control the elements. Unfortunately, Orcs use it, too. The demo involved the heroes looking for a character named Robert, whose robotics enhanced skeletons could prove helpful against the Orcs.

The game is reminiscent of traditional RPGs, with an isometric camera perspective and hack and slash combat. The world itself is detailed and colorful. In fact, the developers drew inspiration from tabletop RPGs, including a dual dialog feature whereby you and your co-op partner both contribute to the decision making process through a give and take discussion. Context sensitive conversation can also be humorous, as you and your partner might engage in a discussion about an NPC. 

There is also an attitude system that determines the reactions of NPCs. Their attitudes toward you can change based on your actions. Try stealing items from a property owner and they might complain or threaten.

Items can be combined in a feature inspired by the Ultima series.

Another aspect of the game's dialog is that you can sometimes talk yourself out of combat with certain dialog options. It adds another element of strategy to potential combat scenarios.

Among those, you can use Source Magic to help make combat faster. The developers are keenly aware that turn based combat can try some gamers' patience, so this feature should keep it from getting boring. In the above screenshot, a pool of water was electrified to damage a large foe standing in it. You can even use it help your partner by, say, summoning rain to douse their flames. However, caution should be exercised as Orcs can then electrify the water for extra damage. In addition, everyone can summon one elemental party member and control them.

There is also a mission or level editor with scripting language designed to be used by anyone to create their own adventure and share it with others.

Bottom line, the game appears to be a deep fantasy RPG with a solid loot grinding/item combination aspect and plenty of options in the area of dialog and combat. That the developers intend to keep turn based combat from becoming stale suggests this could be a more dynamic and unique approach.

Dragon Commander is a real time strategy game that takes place 1,000 years before Divinity: Original Sin. As in other Divinity games, you play a Dragon Knight that can shapeshift into a dragon. The story follows you as you seek revenge for the death of your father in a tale that spans continents of Dwarves, Elves, Undead, Lizards and the Empire. You can conquer territory in the process, and merit propositions from vanquished foes.

You can earn cards, which represent favors you can call in to gain tactical advantages. It's also important to obtain dragon upgrades, which can help protect your units against enemy dragons. 

Multiplayer, like single player, is a compelling mix of third person shooter and RTS gameplay. When you're not building static defenses and batteries, you're engaged in aerial combat as a jet pack powered dragon. The presentation is stylized and colorful, with quality animation and particle effects. Combat is frenetic and fluid, not to mention taut as it does cost money to have to respawn your dragon.

The variety of combat in Dragon Commander looks to keep the action interesting and the interface does not seem to be overly complicated. If the controls prove as intuitive as Larian made them appear to be, the game will be one to watch for.

Transitioning from fantasy to horror, I had an opportunity to speak with Bohemia Interactive Multiplayer Designer Dean Hall, creator of the recently released DayZ mod for the Arma 2 PC game. Being a fan of all things zombie, I was grateful to discuss DayZ, Dead Island and what motivates gamers.

"What I found with a lot of games I'd worked on," says Dean, "is we always talked about mechanics. For instance, we want the players to be able to build barricades. I never really thought about what do I want to make the player feel?" In exploring that question, Dean was prepared to sacrifice some sacred cows.

"It felt almost anti-game when I was developing it because I was breaking a lot of rules. Previously, people had said to me you have to respect these rules in design: You can't anger a player. You can't leave a player in a situation that's completely hopeless. While it is dangerous to experiment with those strong emotions, we've gotten a little lazy as a game industry."

For Dean, the life or death struggle in DayZ alone can generate emotions that even scripted stories fall short of. "Say you're attacked by a zombie. Even if you survive, suddenly you're still panicking because your character is bleeding and you only have a certain amount of time to get treatment."

This is a common scenario in some similar titles, however, the difference is that your survival is not a foregone conclusion. "The big difference between Dead Island and DayZ is in Dead Island the world is making you out to be the hero, whereas in my experience you're never really the hero, the real world doesn't even really know that you exist. That was something that I really tried to cultivate with DayZ. You fall off a ladder, you can break your leg. There's no balance there. If you don't have the morphine required to get up and carry on then you're going to have to crawl everywhere. In some ways you can end up in these very cruel situations."

But it's in these desperate moments that Dean believes gamers will find inspiration. "What I think that does is that when you get things right, when things work out, there are layers of teaching, things you have to balance yourself as a player. If you actually look at the game the mechanics are pretty simple but the layering of the decisions you have to make are complex, things like, 'Do I take their backpack or will it make me more a target?' or 'Where do I go?' You can't stay still because you'll eventually starve; you need to move. You have to balance all these different things in your head. Ninety-five percent of the game is going on in your head.

"This is what I was looking for when I was developing it. The game sort of switches something over in your head. Your brain knows that your character is going to be there tomorrow so you approach the game differently, and then because there's no real instruction, no real objective, you fall back on your own basic routine. It's more basic instinct stuff. There's no story, no anything else."

Granted, some titles like Left4Dead and Dead Island have been accused of threadbare storylines, but there still is a narrative that runs throughout even if it is the scripted survival scenarios that you find yourself in en route to the endgame. DayZ, however, is a harder sell. "I think it would work on a console," Dean suggests, "but it's very hard to get publishers' buy-in for a console game of that nature because they see it as a risk. Why hasn't a game been made like this? Why wasn't Dead Island like this? It's a big risk to take. Even Dead Island's approach was a big risk. A lot of people raised their eyebrows.

"I understand where those publishers are coming from," he admits. "I guess that's where PC gaming and modding come in. People say it's dying but I think it's going to be a resurgent area because it allows people to take risks and try out things that are new and different." Of course, the game can't be a blank slate. "We have to try to provide a structured experience, a very strong structure around the environment. The idea is we establish the world and the players go in and shape the world.

"DayZ is a very early experiment," Dean suggests, "it's only been around for a little over a month. We need to try to find out what works, and make all the mistakes now before it becomes a standalone game. Figure out what works and what doesn't." As far as being a standalone game, Dean indicates his goal is less for a more structured story than for improved content, emphasizing a game that is easier to install as well as improved in other technical areas. But to judge by its current reception, the experiment so far is a success.

In some respects, DayZ is the antithesis of Activision's Call of Duty franchise. The latter's campaigns are known for their scripted sequences and stunning set pieces and Black Ops 2 is no exception to judge by the demo on display at E3.

Treyarch showcased the Los Angeles level, set in 2025 when the game's villain controls the drone fleet. Your character is tasked with helping protect the President against a drone attack/ambush. The game is made to run at 60 fps and its demo shows off excellent lighting/shadows, fluid motion capture, detailed textures and cinematic scripted sequences.

The gameplay breaks down along the following lines: Use of a stationary gun against the enemy, a sniping sequence where you're tasked with protecting the President (visual cues highlight sniping and repelling opportunities) using rounds that can fire through objects, firefights using an assault rifle with a scope that can detect foes behind cover, a driving sequence, a huge downtown set piece involving a firefight through city streets against human and mech foes, an opportunity to direct the fire of ally drones and mechs, and a stunning aerial sequence where you provide air support for an escort mission.

In the latter, foes include ground and air units, such as planes, helicopter gunships, vehicles and troops. It also shows off an impressive smoke-filled, crumbling skyline, jet thrust for fast travel, enemy aircraft target lock and both small arms and missile armaments. All told it was a breathless level showcasing one intense set piece after another interspersed with thrilling scripted sequences. It was true to form for a CoD game, but still well executed.

The developer also took the opportunity to emphasize Strike Force levels. These nonlinear sandbox levels are designed so gamers can either succeed or fail and still continue with the campaign. On display at E3 was the Strike Force level Singapore. The gamer can set waypoints/objectives in a realtime overview of the theater of war. In a feature that reminded me of the Hot-Swapping gameplay in Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, you can select which character/machine to control from this overview perspective (the character/machine you had been controlling reverts to AI control). You can also call/direct an airstrike.

Such levels look to broaden the variety of experiences on hand during the campaign, which is shaping up to provide kinetic action on an altogether higher level. Here's hoping the story can measure up to such epic proportions.

Trion Worlds is one of the exhibitors who pulled out all the stops in creating their exhibits.

Opting for a much smaller sense of scale is Team 17's Worms Revolution. The digital title that should be available the end of September on XBL, PSN and Steam is a turn based combat game in a series dating back to 1995. The successful formula was on display once again at E3.

The new title has been designed from the ground up as a 2D game of worm combat against a backdrop of human items. Four environments represent farmland, a sewer, a beach and Spooky, a mad scientist's garden. The single player campaign features 32 levels and puzzles. The multiplayer mode allows up to four players in co-op or deathmatch scenarios, including last worm standing, fort (castle defense) and classic (hardcore). There are more weapons in this version, 47 in all, including faves like Holy Hand Grenade and Old Lady. And, yes, in case you were wondering, the game is built on humor, with a definite Monty Pythonesque influence.

The game also features classes such as Soldier (traditional), Scout (small but faster and jumps higher), Heavy (slow but powerful) and Scientist (health boost plus builds weapons like a sentry gun). Dynamic water means that water flow can be manipulated to flush or drown enemies. There are also water weapons among the myriad choices. Objects likewise can be manipulated, and all can be destroyed. Telekinesis also factors in to the action, as does a random map generator.

Based on what I've seen and played, the title should offer a fun -- and funny -- exercise in worm eradication, with a pleasant variety of often ridiculous weapons and other creative means of offing your fellow pests.

Pests come in all shapes and sizes and pirates certainly have a reputation for being as nasty as they come, though not necessarily to judge by the caricature of Jack Sparrow in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. TopWare Interactive hopes to put that image to rest when it publishes the new Raven's Cry multiplatform video game.

For me, the most telling information imparted by TopWare is that your character will never be a hero. Your only choices are to be a bad guy or a really bad guy. Sure video games have their share of amoral or even immoral characters to play as but to commit to depicting such a dark figure seemingly devoid of redemption is impressive in my book.

Granted, your character follows a somewhat cliche path of revenge. Christopher Raven watched his parents murdered as a 6-year-old and since then has been on a course for vengeance. He is a dark pirate with no moral boundaries, purposely so given the developers' intent to recreate the image of pirates that otherwise has been lost to the more sanitized version in pop culture. Likewise, TopWare seeks to recreate the Caribbean of that time.

To that end, the city of Port Royal is totally explorable, but it is not an open world. The campaign is level based, and inside each level you are free to move. In an otherwise open world, it would be difficult to tell the story. That said, there are myriad areas to explore. Besides Port Royal, other cities include Havana and a lost Aztec city. The latter is in the jungle, where a lot of action takes place. Other areas include a leper colony and a monastery. While exploring, scripted elements will help draw the gamers' attention to certain areas of note.

As you progress through each level, dialog choices help determine how the story develops. Indicative of the dark tone of this pirate adventure, the above exchange with an ornery NPC at one point presents you with one of two options: Pistol or knife. When such choices emerge among your dialog options, you know you're in for something special. Indeed, as with many RPGs, your choices help determine your reputation. The worse your reputation, the more potential foes you might create, though the more wary they might be of an engagement.

Should your encounters come to blows, the fighting style mirrors your character, so expect to go in straight and experience free flow combat that is similar to Assassin's Creed. But what helps set this title's fighting mechanic apart are elements unique to Christopher Raven.

The hook that replaces the hand he lost when his parents were butchered becomes a factor in how you approach each scenario. Each pistol can only be used once before being discarded due to their being one shot weapons that your one-handed character can't reload. However, your multipurpose hook allows you to hook characters, use them as shields and disarm foes, if I recall.

You'll also use stealth and swordplay to take down foes ranging from Spanish and English soldiers to drunks and hunters. Naval battles are also part of the combat in Raven's Cry. To judge by the demo, this pirate adventure should appeal to anyone more interested in Blackbeard than Jack Sparrow.

TopWare also unveiled a new title from Reality Pump, creators of the fantasy RPG Two Worlds II. Moving beyond the fantasy genre, the developers are designing a survival horror game. Sacrilegium utilizes the Grace 2 engine to mix light and dark, reality and fiction in its interactive tale.

Among the more unusual titles were two free-to-play MMOs at gamigo's E3 booth. Otherlands is an action MMORPG based on the series of novels by best-selling author Tad Williams. Williams worked closely with the developer, and the story picks up where the series leaves off.

The virtual reality, sci-fi/fantasy setting includes the cyberpunk Lambda Mall, the main social hub and early quest area. The Metamorph shop in Lambda allows simuloids (the race you play as) to change gender, height, weight, etc., anytime during gameplay for a small fee (whether in-game cash or a microtransaction, that detail is TBA). There are also different classes to adopt: Assassin (ninja-like), Energizer (who can sap energy to distribute to others), Gunner and Rage (melee combat). A second store is Uspace, where microtransactions will buy different spaces. Gameplay includes (besides quests) PvP battles, component crafting and minigames (such as dogfights, and including leaderboards).

The medieval EightSquared share elements of a virtual world with its wire frames in the sky and lines of code floating along streams, but it takes place on rolling hills underneath floating red and white chess pieces (each of which can be entered as an individual dungeon). The absence of king pieces has resulted in a struggle between red and white armies. The combat system employs a hit detection mechanism that injures everyone around your target. In the words of gamigo, it is very action oriented. In the meantime, NPCs live lives of their own and do a variety of things.

The game's Five Isle world is based on mythological Chinese elements (wind, fire, wood, etc.) and has a decidedly Asian motif despite the persistent virtual reality aspects such as NPCs who beam down. In fact, spheres in the sky are clans who can attack yours. By killing enemies you can collect eDNA, which can be used to clone monsters/beasts for your defenses. In the meantime, you can move up in your clan/guild.

Otherlands is a detailed, seemingly disparate world where continuity with the source material would seem paramount. However, gamigo suggests this game is an extremely social one that is more about the experience than the story (though its tutorial, which is voiced by the author, might provide some context for the bizarre goings-on). It's early in the production process to comment much on the presentation, though the art design so far is inspired and original while demonstrating some consistent themes to help tie areas together. And if the experience to date is any indication, the adventure should be a memorable one.

Alternately, gamigo's Grimlands is a fairly straightforward MMO shooter. The sandbox-style, post-apocalyptic action game takes place on Earth in the distant future where a catastrophic quake results in a battle for power, resources and survival. The game engine was built from scratch and uses NVIDIA's PhysX technology.

This title focuses on player choice and freedom. There are no classes, so character development is entirely skill based. The more you use certain skills, the more adept you'll become at using them. (And, conversely, skills decay the less they're utilized.) This applies to weapons as well as health and scavenging. Points are gained from using things. There is also crafting and a modification system that applies to ammo, guns, etc. Boosters are available, and a slider system helps customize items. An in-game marketplace enables gamers to sell created weapons, for instance. You can also create objectives, towns, etc.

Combat includes a targeting system with hit points. There are also context sensitive effects. Sound and stealth bars help you access your situation and add an element of strategy to how your approach different scenarios. You can switch between first and third person perspectives as each have their benefits: first is more accurate, but third is more powerful. A closed beta is planned for mid-June, with a possible fall release.

Free-to-play games are indeed a burgeoning market to judge by E3. Innogames, known for its free browser titles like Forge of Empires, Lagoonia and Grepolis, introduced a new action MMORPG called Kartuga. Developed by Ticking Bomb Games, the new pirate adventure uses Unity 3D and features PvP gameplay and role-playing elements. According to Innogames, there are multiple PvP modes, three customizable classes of ships and a series of quests and missions.

I had an opportunity to demo the game and, while I'm not a PC gamer, I found its ship to ship combat fun and addictive. The accessible, intuitive controls even allowed a noob like me to sink Innogames' ship (though more than likely they let me). The mode we were playing involved control points spread across a map that three of us were vying for. Each ship can fire cannons from the starboard or port side. The point system enables upgrades that can prove the difference in combat. Capturing control points was no small feat given the maneuverability and power of each vessel.

The presentation helped cement the experience as ships moved believably in ocean waters, waves rolled convincingly to shore, particle effects enhanced combat and landmarks were all impressively detailed not to mention showcased some impressive art design. Whether the kind of coastal settlements or cities you might expect given the timeframe and genre, or elaborate fantasy realms build on the edge of the world, for example, the attention paid to the setting seemed a fitting compliment to the effort apparently bestowed upon the gameplay.

This is one of those games that I have fun tinkering with and am tempted to try installing on my decidedly non-gaming rig despite the inevitable decline in quality that would come from running it.

Like PC titles, I've sampled a few fighting games (Soul Calibur, Mortal Kombat, etc.) but never played them at length. Majesco Entertainment's Double Dragon: Neon seems to offer the kind of action I could get used to. Rather than being a punishing, hardcore fighter, this is described as a silly, nostalgic, over-the-top, righteously fun good time. A love letter to the franchise, it pays homage to the series and the decade (the '80s) that inspired it.

The opening is the same as the original game and some levels are reminiscent of those in that game and others. The soundtrack likewise includes vintage style music, including one I heard that definitely had that '80s head banging feel. That said, Majesco has added things to the gameplay. It plays smoother, there are lots of new characters and levels (including the space one shown here), and a new bad guy, Skullmaggedon.

Combat is of the two-player co-op, local and online, drop in and drop out variety. Controls are pretty accessible, though it can be deep for more experienced fans. Two core attack buttons are supplemented by extra attacks such as a slide kick. There are high fives, buffs and power ups that all add to the gameplay. You can also collect tapes to upgrade abilities (i.e. strength, speed, etc.) at shops.

Having played the demo for a short while, I can attest to the intuitive controls. Admittedly, I used button mashing to get a certain distance though did mix up some aerial and slide kicks. But once I met a fan-wielding geisha type foe I was pwnd in short order. The Majesco rep explained she was one of the tougher enemies and how she could be defeated though it took him some effort too. Bottom line, I enjoyed the combat and especially the vintage '80s feel that the game mined. It will be available on PSN and XBL, at a price point TBD.

I wrapped up my Wednesday at E3 with a demo of Far Cry 3. Ubisoft Montreal's latest entry in the series takes place in a tropical setting and features a separate co-op campaign playable by up to four gamers. A co-op mission was showcased and involved sabotaging a train.

For some reason the African setting of Far Cry 2 did little to motivate me to play that game, but the jungle setting of its successor -- a return to the first game's environs -- inspired me with its lush vistas and mountainous terrain. The level itself offered varied topography and multiple paths, making for combat that was dynamic and intense.

There was ample cover, ubiquitous explosive containers and enemies that varied their approach. Targeting and firing felt intuitive, as was maneuvering one's character, and hit detection seemed spot-on. AI in general was mixed though provided stiff resistance. Gratefully, a revive option helped restore downed teammates (i.e. me!) to full health.

After first sniping foes from on high, we launched an assault on remaining enemies, then had to stand our ground while enemy reinforcements tried to prevent a comrade from placing explosives on a bridge. Once successful, we were able to destroy the bridge. The demo didn't do much that was new or unusual but did showcase tight controls, a nice presentation and intense action, as well as whet my appetite for this installment.

Last but not least, I had a backstage pass to that evening's Video Games Live performance at the Nokia Theater across the street, which in practice at least was just a pass. The heavy police presence for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Staples Center kept us from entering the theater and attending the backstage function.

The concert itself was a mixed bag as it turns out, as stage lights were too often shining on the audience and blinding us to the performances. Nevermind that there was copious smoke from offstage that had no place in the festivities; after all, this was not a rock concert, with the possible exception of Viking Jesus's number. Still, technical issues aside, the music was enjoyable.

Standout performances included violinist Lindsey Sterling, the Journey piece (see above; even if Austin Wintory fought with his scarf) and the Skyrim composition (see immediately above). Truth be told, all musicians deserve credit for their performances. In particular, Tommy Tallarico deserves credit for the continuing success of this worthwhile production. Such an endeavor does the industry a great service.

And for the people who are still alive (after reading this long blog), the Portal theme song was a definite high note.

Finally, for those inquiring minds (you know who you are!) here is Wednesday's freebies. Thanks to all those who provided such takeaways.