E3 2009 Picks and Pans
Another year, another E3, but this one was definitely splashier than last year's snoozer, with Microsoft touting its no-controller 'Natal', Sony countering with an ultra-precision 3D angle, and Nintendo trumpeting new Mario, Metroid, and Zelda games.
Microsoft put on quite the dog and pony show, trotting out no less than Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Cliff Bleszinski, Felicia Day, Hideo Kojima, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Molyneux to celebrate everything from The Beatles: Rock Band and Facebook for Xbox 360 to their stunning Project Natal, a 3D motion-sensing device that lets you interact with games controller-free.
Nintendo's show was less about flash than familiar franchises and friendly faces. We saw two new Mario games, tons of new Nintendo DS games, a new Metroid game co-developed by Team Ninja (Ninja Gaiden), and Shigeru Miyamoto even teased a new Zelda game later in the show. Of course we also got the Wii Vitality Sensor, which no one knows quite what to make of at this point.
Sony countered by focusing less on celebrities than their 2009 lineup, confirming a new, reduced-size PSP, new Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo PSP games, walking us through tons of new PS3 game demos, and playing their own motion-control hand with a pair of 3D "wands" that seemed even more precision-oriented than Microsoft's Natal or Nintendo's Wii Motion Plus.
Winners? Losers? Good luck with that. This year everyone brought at least something fascinating to the table -- exactly how fascinating depended more than ever on what sort of gamer you were. If a single word embodied this year's show, it was simply this one: choice.
Antidote for the Awfulness of Indy 4: Uncharted 2
Uncharted 2 -- Naughty Dog's PS3-exclusive sequel to my pick for game of the year 2007 -- looks better than ever, boasting some of the most impressively detailed exotic environments the system's yet seen. As a helicopter spit gatling fire, the protagonist dangled from the lips of crumbling ledges, hurling himself across gaps between bursts of bullets. He scurried across rooftops, ducking behind boxy protrusions for cover, leaping over debris with ease. The demo ended as the helicopter raked the building, ripping out walls, windows, ceilings, and pretty much trumpeting "Look at all the stuff we can make go boom!" --Matt Peckham
What 'The Godfather' Games Should've Been: Mafia 2
Now this is how you make a game based on the mafia! An incredibly detailed city down to the cannolis on the counter ("leave the gun…") drop you right into the multi-platform (Xbox 360, PS3, Windows) game's fictional post-WWII Empire City. You're a down-on-his-luck wise guy back from the war just trying to get by. Beyond the graphics, the demos I've seen also show an amazing attention to dialogue and pacing. I lost track of how many times I chuckled, or wished that they didn't cut back to the game as quickly so I could hear more. --Darren Gladstone
Most 'Hopefully It's Not Repetitive' Sequel: Assassin's Creed 2
Sony's Assassin's Creed 2 demo of this multi-platform game (Xbox 360, PS3, Windows) revealed a Venice-like city boiling over with gorgeous Italian Renaissance architecture and another assassin capable of bounding across wooden beams and scrambling up walls with aplomb. Demo reveals: You'll befriend historical celebrities like Leonardo da Vinci and even borrow stuff like da Vinci's famous bat-winged ornithopter for aerial sorties. Most intriguing new feature: a new AI role called "the seeker" that can track you right to your hiding spots. Most important question remaining: Will missions be less repetitive than the original? --Matt Peckham
Most Promising Narrative Integration: Splinter Cell--Conviction
I'm lobbying for Ubisoft to rename this Xbox 360, Windows sneaker "The Fisher Identity." While you can still prowl around and pull off all sorts of back-stabbery, the crux of this game is a whole new Sam Fisher. Sam's daughter is killed and he's out for revenge. But it's more than that, the whole mood of the game is darker, broody--and Fisher's fighting style reflects that. Fast, furious and efficient. And that's saying nothing of the masterful cinematic presentation that keeps feeding you information and insights into Sam's psyche (he'd see hallucinations of his daughter's grave on a wall, for example) without ever pulling you out of the game. --Darren Gladstone
The Non-Exclusive Exclusive: Final Fantasy XIV
Sony said it's a PS3 exclusive. Microsoft said "uh-uh" and referred the press to Square Enix. Square Enix said it's "considering all options at this time." My bet? Sony spoke too soon. There's a virtually zero percent chance Square Enix won't bring the fourteenth installment in its venerable, mega-successful fantasy series--this one an online-only massively-multiplayer online role-playing game--to as broad an audience as possible. That means Xbox 360 owners, and you too, Windows gamers. --Matt Peckham
Massively Multi-Layered: Brink
Take a masterful multiplayer shooting game for Xbox 360, PS3, and Windows, then add in an impressive graphics engine that can draw out a couple crowded city blocks without hiccuping. Throw in a story and the ability to play with computer-controlled bots in a single player story if you like. That, in a rather large nutshell, is Brink. Coming from the guys that built Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (a game used in our PC WorldBench testing suite), these people mastered the art of large-scale balanced combat. --Darren Gladstone
Best Special Effects: God of War III
In the final chapter of this PlayStation-exclusive fantasy trilogy, said Sony, we'll finally get to see how the story of gods versus titans plays out, as Kratos rushes headlong toward a confrontation with Zeus himself. The demo was pretty much "been there, done that" until a Godzilla-sized lava-scorched monstrosity climbed out of the background, eliciting a collective "whoa!" from the audience. I've never been much impressed by this series' emphasis on sound and fury, but the PS3 version's expansive tactical options certainly have my attention. --Matt Peckham
Here Come the Commies: Home Front
Easiest sales pitch for a game: It's Red Dawn with North Korea invading the United States. The script is penned by John Milius (the writer of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn)? Sold. This tells the story of the American resistance two years after North Korea invaded the U.S. in an escalating war for resources. So, you've got a fascinating near-future scenario, good scripting from what I've seen and -- oh, yeah -- it's a beautiful-looking first person shooter, to boot. This game may still be a little ways off, but it's definitely worth spreading the word about. --Darren Gladstone
Two Steps Forward, One Step Retro: Metroid--The Other M
Remember when the Metroid games were about working your way right to left, left to right, up and down? Imagine that with 3D graphics and a third-person angle, co-designed by Team Ninja of Ninja Gaiden fame. Metroid Gaiden? Maybe, and wouldn't it be cool if they pulled it off? --Matt Peckham
Most Movie-Influenced: Modern Warfare 2
It used to be that the original Call of Duty games were about realism and subtlety -- following the nameless faceless heroes in the trenches, not Johnny Heroman. But with Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, Windows) it's all about explosions, constantly crazy action -- heck the demo feels more like a Die Hard movie. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it's so expertly assembled, MW2 might as well be a movie. --Darren Gladstone
Least Assuming, Highly Promising: New Super Mario Bros Wii
It's . . . wait for it . . . another Super Mario Bros game. But if you think New Super Mario Bros for Nintendo's Wii looks like another rehash of the storied side-scroller, look again. While you can play the whole thing solo, it's actually designed for up to four players to interact cooperatively. Grab and carry other players or throw them at enemies (or, if you're feeling naughty, into pits). When people lose a life, they come back inside a bubble: If you're nice, you can let them out. If not, you can leave 'em trapped. Gameplay first, in other words. --Matt Peckham
The One We Can't Wait to Hear: DJ Hero
Maybe it's because I'm a fan of the music, but I am really looking forward to this. The only downside: I wish that there was a way to preserve my mashup -- maybe upload it to a DJ Hero (Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii) online page or something. Other than that, the huge musical selection seems expertly compiled (at least from my small taste). That said, this is the only music game I walked out of the demo room and thought to myself, "Man, I want to hear the music that was just playing!" Guess I'll have to wait until October. --Darren Gladstone
Most Delayed but Desirable: Heavy Rain
Heavy Rain (PS3) and Alan Wake (Xbox 360) are each highly anticipated action/adventure games. One (Heavy Rain) tells the story of several characters tracking down a serial killer...
Most Delayed but Desirable: Alan Wake
. . . while the other (Alan Wake) is about an odd mystical town where shadowy things come out at night. Both push the boundaries in cinematic story telling. And both take a long time to make, apparently. These games made cameos in alpha state during this year's E3 so there's proof that the games are coming along. But don't hold your breath about seeing either game before mid-2010. Sometimes hype can backfire if you announce a game too soon. Doesn't mean we aren't psyched for both, though. --Darren Gladstone
Most Improved Since Last E3: Borderlands
Two games stand out as major improvements in design over what we saw just one year ago. Borderlands (Xbox 360, PS3, Windows) completely switched up its art style and now resembles something out of Heavy Metal. And the material really fits (the game takes place in the "wild west" of space) . . .
Most Improved Since Last Seen: Alpha Protocol
. . . while Alpha Protocol (Xbox 360, PS3, Windows) totally nailed the action-RPG angle with a deep story and great dialogue system surrounded by a whole lot of gunfire. In fact, this one seamlessly melds so many things together you might not even realize it's a role-playing game. And that's the point. --Darren Gladstone
Biggest Tease: The Last Guardian
Remember Ico? Shadow of the Colossus? The Last Guardian (PS3) is Fumita Uedo and Team Ico's third title in this action-game-meets-major-zen-moments. Sony basically showed the same trailer we'd seen already seen (leaked) with a few extra bits tagged on the end and a possible uptick in the overall detail level. Can't wait to lay hands on it, and since that's the extent of what we know, can't say much more about it. --Matt Peckham
Social Networking Coup: Facebook for Xbox 360, Nintendo DSi
Was it inevitable? Probably. Facebook comes to Xbox 360 and Nintendo's DSi and enables you to do pretty much everything in either you can in a regular browser. Love it or hate it, you're looking at two major social networking coups here. --Matt Peckham
Social Broadcasting Coup: Twitter for Xbox 360
No longer categorized as a "social networking," tool, it's also annoying as all get-out when it's employed as a glorified mood-meter by millions of bad writers. Still, it's Twitter, and you know you wanna. On your marks, get set, annoy! --Matt Peckham
Seller's Remorse: Brutal Legend
DoubleFine Studios just can't catch a break. First, their game, Brutal Legend, gets left in limbo with the Activision / Blizzard merger. EA picks up the baton and just as people are starting to salivate about the Jack Black-fueled rock rampage coming this fall, Activision sues. Here's an idea: Maybe you should've kept them in the first place. Double Fine honcho Tim Schafer responded: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it. Oh great, now Beyoncé is going to sue me too." --Darren Gladstone
The Unnecessary Diet Peripheral: PSP Go
Ta-da, "the worst kept secret of E3" finally de-cloaked, and sure enough, the PSP Go turned out to be a smaller, lighter, Mylo-inspired PSP without the disc-based UMD drive and everything running off internal storage or supplementary memory cards. Necessary? I'm thinking "Not really." It's just a slightly smaller PSP, after all. And where's the second analogue joystick? At $250--$70 more than the PSP-3000 -- it's way too much, for far too little. --Matt Peckham
Weirdest Nintendo Product Since the Virtual Boy: Wii Vitality Sensor
"No, just no . . ." or "Yes, hmm, maybe . . ."? We only got a glimpse, but the Wii Vitality Sensor sounds kinda-sorta intriguing. Insert your finger and it recognizes your pulse, which might facilitate other less obvious metrics. According to Nintendo, it's more than a heartbeat gauge, it's a multiphysiological feedback tool. How nervous are you? How focused on the task at hand? And so on. Still, we're talking high concept here, nothing actually demonstrated, which makes me wonder why we saw it at all. --Matt Peckham
Throw Out Your Gamepad: Project Natal
Microsoft's Project Natal -- that's really THE hardware news of this year's E3. In fact, several developers I talked to on the show floor echoed the same sentiment: They had the same kind of "A-ha!" moment as when they saw the Wii for the first time. The way it looks right now, MS has the big nod for innovation this year while Sony's wands seem interesting and Nintendo's Wii MotionPlus looks like a solid, but long-overdue refinement of the Wiimote. --Darren Gladstone
Hardest to Judge: PlayStation Motion Control
I'm back and forth on Sony's 3D motion sensor. Imagine a microphone with a translucent bulb in lieu of the mic's metal mesh, capable of lighting up and changing color, almost a wand of sorts. Now imagine that device (or devices -- Sony eventually rolled out two) working in tandem with the PlayStation Eye to offer ultra-precise motion tracking. Can it compete with Project Natal and the Wii Motion Plus? It looked promising, but will its debut this time next year be soon enough? --Matt Peckham