Friday, July 2, 2010

Epic Danny: E3 2010 Post-Game Thoughts and Reflections

On the verge of a long, Fourth-of-July weekend, and, while I have a little downtime, thought I'd finally write up some of my thoughts on this year's E3.

For the second year in a row, I got to attend the E3 expo, walk the show floor, and even attend a Big 3 press conference (this year, it was Sony's). Still, one meager day at the show is not even close to enough time to see and experience everything, and, unless you're a member of the press with special access priveleges, there's a lot of good stuff that's either behind ridiculously long lines and/or behind closed doors. So, I'll be honest, I don't think I would have even been able to fully digest all that was E3 2010 without checking blogs like Kotaku, watching G4's coverage, etc. Even after all that, it's still tough to tell which of the much-hyped hardware devices shown at E3 will hit and which will miss. If you listen to the Microsoft gospel, for example, the Kinect is poised to take over the world and revolutionize in-home entertainment (I left my white, glowy poncho at E3, so I'm not quite sure if I'm ready to drink the Kinect kool-aid just yet).

But I will say this: as cool as it was to check out E3, from a macro point of view, I have to say that this year's show was underwhelming. There was A LOT of emphasis on hardware, but where were the truly awesome games? At last year's show, I was salivating over new games like Uncharted 2, God of War III, Shadow Complex, and many more. This year, there just didn't seem to be the kinds of Triple-A games I was looking for, for the most part. Sure, there were some real gems - Nintendo in particular rolled out some long-time-coming core games for the Wii. But the fact is - as awesome as Epic Mickey looked, for example - I'd be much more excited to play it in HD on a PS3. Meanwhile, Microsoft's lineup of inevitable sequels (Gears of War 3, a new Halo) looked pretty (if not overly brown / generic), but didn't seem to bring much new to the table other than minor tweaks designed to excite the hardcore fans. Sony had a couple of exciting titles - Little Big Planet 2, Infamous 2, and - surprise! - Twisted Metal - but nothing that quite had the awesome-factor of an Uncharted or God of War, and not really any brand new IP's that really took my breath away. Those looking for the next, big, 100% original franchise - the next God of War or Uncharted - may have to keep waiting until next year.

If I had to pick a "winner" of E3 though, I'd probably have to agree with the conventional wisdom and go with Nintendo. After a couple of hugely disappointing E3's, The Big N finally brought out some big guns this year: Zelda, Donkey Kong Country, Kirby, and Metroid for the Wii all looked potentially great. Disney's Epic Mickey looked phenomenal - I want to play it now, please. And then, the unveiling of the 3DS was definitely the show's most impressive hardware rollout. The device looked sleek. Aside from the 3D, the addition of analog control is huge. And even though games weren't yet playable, the tech demos impressed, the 3D looked cool, and it seems like a ton of games are on the horizon, from numerous third-parties and including many big-name franchises. Meanwhile, I'm not sure exactly how or why Kid Icarus became the crown jewel of Nintendo's IP library, but for some reason people have been demanding a new Icarus game for the last few years. Showing a great-looking new Kid Icarus title for the 3DS was exactly what Nintendo needed to instantly sell the device to the hardcore fans. I do wish that Nintendo would create some NEW core game IP's that would inject a little juice into their lineup - Donkey Kong and Metroid are great, but how about some new ideas, new franchises? Still, I don't think either Sony or Microsoft showed as many must-have, much-anticipated exclusive games as did Nintendo. And there was no other product unveiling as successful or can't-miss as that of the 3DS. For that reason, props to Nintendo for a very, very solid show.

Meanwhile, Microsoft was ALL about the Kinect. This is one of those things that I could really see going either way. I mean, there's an undeniable "wow-factor" in seeing some of the Kinect games - like Dance Central or Adventure - in action. The technology is definitely cool and definitely impressive. But it also left me with a lot of questions. How well does it really work? How easy is it to set up in the average cramped living room or apartment? Are the games fun for more than 5 minutes at a time? And - who exactly is this marketed towards? Clearly, XBOX was going for a younger, more family-friendly audience with the Kinect. And yet, it was definitely jarring to see the juxtaposition of ultra-bloody shooters like Gears of War with uber-cutesy virtual toys like Kinectimals. Are enough families going to trade in their Wii's for the Kinect - which could prove pricey when you factor in the cost of a Kinect + XBOX console? It's hard to say - there's a lot of hype, but also a lot of uncertainty. And there wasn't really a game on display that was a true must-own for more traditional gamers. Even the still-early Star Wars game lost a lot of luster when you realize you'd just be swinging your hands around making lightsaber motions. Wouldn't you rather be, like, holding a lightsaber or some sort of stand-in? Sony kind of took jabs at this at their presser, touting how their Move had buttons and such for deeper gameplay possibilities. And it was a pretty valid point. Anyways, it's going to be really interesting to watch the reception that the Kinect gets in the marketplace. Do I want one? Yes. Would I shell out the money for one at this point? Doubtful. The real downside of the Kinect though, was that it seemed to eat up all of Microsoft's development energies. I mean, other than Halo and Gears and Fable - all series getting pretty long-in-the-tooth, where were the blockbuster, exclusive games? MS got a nice pop at their press conference by showing off the awesome-looking Metal Gear: Rising, but that one is multiplatform (as are 99% of the third-party games these days). But, there was nothing really outside-the-box or original, like an Alan Wake or Shadow Complex. When you saw just how much Kinect stuff was on display, being hyped to high heaven, and how little there was in the way of new, original, non-Kinect stuff. You couldn't help but wonder if that tenuous balance could come back to bite Microsoft. And hey, that ill-conceived Cirque du Soleil event, in which the Kinect was practically treated as a divinely-conceived gift to gamers, brought down from on high, worthy of cult-like worship ... well, that may not have done much to generate good PR either.

Now, Sony had a pretty solid showing at E3. I think in the short-term, the Playstation Move is getting short-shrifted in terms of hype, but in the long term, it might be a real winner. Simply because ... it isn't really revolutionary, just a really, really refined version of the Wiimote, which at this point is a pretty proven peripheral. Sony had games like Sorcery that looked damn cool, that looked like a "real" game, and that used the Move in an innovative way. The Move isn't the flashiest of the new devices (despite it's sort-of-cool, sort-of-dorky light sphere thing), but it might just be the most practical for using in actual, you know, games. But, I liked the fact that the Move was marketed as a cool peripheral, and not as the end-all, be-all of Playstation gaming (as the Kinect was with MS). Sony seemed committed to regular-old-games, and that is good. Because, look, as Sony's hilarious spokesman Kevin Butler implied, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH REGULAR GAMES! Imagine going to Sundance and instead of seeing hundreds of new movies, you only got a couple of movies and a bunch of new movie-watching-technologies, like 3D or VR or whatever. You'd be like no, F this, I love movies. Well, same with games. Controllers work awesomely. I love hitting a button and seeing an instant cause-effect on my TV screen. There aren't nearly enough games that simply kick ass via innovative takes on genre, or through innovative play mechanics, or through a unique art style, or through new ways of creating audio-visual immersion. If this generation had only been about 3D and motion-control, there'd be no Grand Theft Auto IV, no Bioshock, no Uncharted. Those games all raised the bar, and they did it not via new technology, but by being awesome and innovative. It's the same principle by which The Hurt Locker was the better movie than Avatar when all was said and done. But, back to SONY ... Sony did spend a lot of time on the Move and also on only semi-cool glasses-driven 3D tech. But, to their credit, they had Little Big Planet 2, Infamous 2, Twisted Metal, Sorcery, etc. Plus, the reveal that Valve's Portal 2 would be coming to the PS3, and was no longer an XBOX exclusive, was huge for Sony as they try to catch-up to Microsoft's sales figures. Again, nothing that was an absolute killer-app, but still some pretty intriguing titles. However, Sony had perhaps the show's best single moment when the aformentioned Kevin Butler came out at their presser and delivered a rousing yet hilarious speech on the state of gaming. YouTube it now if you haven't seen it.

Now, a lot of stuff was missing from E3. Lucasarts had no booth, so a potential blockbuster like Force Unleashed 2 was behind-closed-doors only. Activision had no booth, so ergo, no Batman: Arkham Asylum 2. Rockstar had no booth, so the ultra-promising LA Noir was absent from the show. Metal Gear Solid Rising and Infamous 2 were in video form only. All of Nintendo's 3DS stuff was confined to tech demo's - no playable Kid Icarus just yet.

It was definitely an interesting E3, and it feels like the games industry is at a crossroads of sorts. More and more, there's a desire to hook in the "casual" fans, and yet, there's now a whole generation of people, like me, who grew up with games and don't want to see their natural evolution halted so that grandma can play with her Kinectimal. Nintendo's strong showing was a reminder that, back in the day, the Mario's and Zelda's of the world were neither hardcore nor casual. They were challenging, artful games that anyone who wanted to could play and become immersed in. And maybe games like Gears of War and Call of Duty ARE too complex to be appreciated by the average gamer or would-be gamer. I've been playing games since I was 4 and those games intimidate me. But is then going to the opposite extreme really the answer? Is the antidote to too many violent and complex shooters really braindead games that are based on gimmicks? Nintendo seemed to finally hit that happy medium this year.

It was also just a weird year in that a ton of big titles had only recently come out in the winter and spring. Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, Final Fantasy XIII -- all first-half-of-2010 titles that people are still buzzing about. It was going to be hard for games at E3 to match up to AAA games like those that the average fan is still very much immersed in.

The good news is that there were also a ton of cool-looking third party games that are going to be vying for your dollars this year and next. There were kickass console games, portable games, and downloadable games. There were innovative games and retro games. Much-hyped blockbusters and under-the-radar gems. Some games aren't my cup of tea, but impressed nonetheless - like ID's new game, RAGE. Others are exactly my cup of tea, so I'm really hoping they live up to their potential - like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. E3 was still supercharged with action and excitement, and walking on the show floor, you did indeed feel like you were in the center of the universe, the place where the future of entertainment was happening. So, that's my wrap-up, but, before I go ... here are my overall games-of-show of E3 2010:

1.) Epic Mickey - Wii

- This game just looks like a potential instant classic - I love the art style, the homages to Disney history, and the darker themes. I only wish it was on the PS3 in HD ...

2.) Metal Gear: Rising (video only) - XBOX 360 and PS3

- The sword mechanic in this one looked off-the-chain. It's Metal Gear, it's going to rock.

3.) Twisted Metal - PS3

- This game looked fun as hell, and it was great seeing the classic franchise resurface after a lengthy absence. If it can recapture the glory days of TM2, this will be amazing.

4.) Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - XBOX 360 and PS3

- A Street Fighter 4-style revamp of the arcade classic? Sold.

5.) Little Big Planet 2 - PS3

- The first game was a classic, and part 2 looks to take the adventure and creativity to new heights.

6.) Infamous 2 (video only) - PS3

- This one really looked to take the Infamous franchise to a new level. A better story, a bigger world, hugely-improved graphics. Could be epic.

7.) The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Wii

- It's more Zelda, but with refined motion controls and the first Wii-only adventure, is there any doubt that this will be great?

8.) Vanquish - XBOX 360 and PS3

- An insane-looking action title from the developers of Bayonetta, this one looks uber-fun.

9.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - downloadable on XBOX 360 and PS3

- Here's my underdog pick - an old-school beat-em-up with awesome 2D, sprite-based graphics. This is basically the game I dreamed of as an arcade-going kid.

10.) Enslaved - XBOX 360 and PS3

- From the makers of Heavenly Sword, a cool third-person action game in which you have to protect a companion while fighting off post-apocalyptic badguys. Looks really good.

Other Honorable Mentions: Scribblenauts 2, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Kid Icarus (video only), Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (not on the show floor), Rage, Gears of War III, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Sorcery, Dance Central, Children of Eden, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat (video only).

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