This was a great year for E3. Not just because some long-awaited Holy Grail videogames finally arrived. Not just because some long-in-the-tooth franchise looked resurrected with the new possibilities of a new console generation. Not just because the Virtual Reality technology on display started to feel less like nifty beta-test experiments and more like actual brand-new experiences. Not just because both Microsoft and Sony continued their commitment to smaller indie-level games.
For all those reasons, and more, the cumulative experience of walking around the show floor of this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo was unmistakable: This is what excitement feels like. But even in the worst year, E3 is always exciting: This is an event that requires a journalist to spend a few days sitting in very comfortable seats while they play the market-tested Most Exciting Part of a still-unfinished videogame. It’s a context built to make even the worst game look revolutionary. So once again, EW’s round-up of the 15 best games on display at E3 will attempt to explain everything that looked pretty cool in our (very short, very controlled) time with the game—while also providing a skeptical counterargument, in an effort to moderate the hype of one of pop culture’s most hype-ful weeks.
(NOTE: I did not have time to play Batman: Arkham City, which comes out next week. I played about half an hour of the game last year. Best-case scenario: It looks great. Worst-case scenario: It’s Arkham City with a Batmobile. That is not the worst worst-case scenario.)
15. Star Fox Zero (December, Wii U)
Star Fox 64 is one of the greatest games ever made. Star Fox Zero looks like the sequel that you have been waiting almost twenty years for. Nintendo is hoping that Star Fox to fully demonstrate the possibilities of the WIi U’s GamePad, with a two-screen control system. If you are a die-hard Nintendo fan, this is the Big Franchise Game you have been waiting for on the Wii U.
What could go wrong: This could just be Star Fox 64 with a much clunkier control set-up. If Star Fox Zero doesn’t convince people to love the GamePad, maybe nothing will. Perception is building that the Wii U is an also-ran console, which makes Star Fox look like an also-ran franchise. Truth talk: Star Fox ain’t Mario, it ain’t Zelda, it ain’t Metroid, and it’s arguably not even Donkey Kong.
14. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (March 2016, PS4)
Nathan Drake is back, in another gorgeously animated cinematic adventure with fun dialogue, far-flung locations, an endless array of bad guys to kill—and his long-lost brother! Naughty Dog was showing off an exciting pre-credits car chase—a positively Spielbergian circus of car-jumping, city-destroying, generally-exploding madness.
What could go wrong: In the four years since Uncharted 3, the franchise’s cinematic-platformer aesthetic has been absorbed and imitated by worthy inheritors. (See: The rebooted Tomb Raider series.) Could look a bit old-fashioned in our Open World moment. Never a good sign when a franchise starts adding long-lost siblings.
13. Halo 5: Guardians (Oct. 27, Xbox One)
I didn’t like Halo 4 because it felt like a retread. Halo 5 feels like something new. The “Warzone” multiplayer mode is a brainteasing shoot-em-up delight, with two teams fighting over neutral zones that transform into massive multi-level vehicle-stuffed battle royale. Even better: The campaign sounds intriguing, with perspective shifting between an on-the-run Master Chief and the mysterious Spartan Locke.
What could go wrong: This industry has no shortage of futuristic first-person shooters.
12. Beyond Eyes (sometime this year, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux)
The year’s Unfinished Swan Memorial Award for Best Experimental Art Project That Could Also Be Described As A Game goes to this whimsical, painterly adventure. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A blind girl sets off on a journey through farmland, villages, and harbors, feeling her way forward gradually using her other four senses.
What could go wrong: “Whimsical” and “painterly” don’t necessarily equal “something you want to play.” The indie-games renaissance is primed for the moment when all the bold adventurous experimentation dead-ends into twee self-regard—what historians refer to as “The Garden State Moment.”
11-9: Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy Triptych (Rainbow Six Siege coming October 2015; The Division coming 2016; Ghost Recon Wildlands coming sometime later; all on PS4 and Xbox One, apparently)
With no Far Cry this year, and with Assassin’s Creed still recovering from the last iteration’s bad buzz, Ubisoft bet all the chips on their Tom Clancy megafranchise this year. Rainbow Six Siege is a first-person multiplayer that requires you to work together as a team of specialized soldiers on tactical missions. The Division is an open-world massive multiplayer that turns post-apocalypstic New York into your playground. And Ghost Recon Wildlands lets you play with three of your pals, running rampant through a Bolivia overrun by cartels.
As a Far Cry fan, I’m most excited for Wildlands. (Ubisoft claims that the game will represent their largest open-world adventure.) The hands-on time I had with Siege was a blast, though. To my eyes, The Division looked a little bit shakier on the graphical level—Ubisoft’s cityscapes always feel a bit bland, especially compared to their gorgeous outdoor environments—but the sheer size of the game feels like a legitimate attempt to test every buzzword that’s been attached to this new generation of games. The Division is a campaign and a multiplayer and it’s a mlitary shooter and it’s an RPG.
What could go wrong: Wildlands is another Far Cry at a moment when other companies are starting to perfect their own Far Crys (see #4.) Siege is arriving in a field that is suddenly very busy with compelling first-person multiplayer options (see #13 and #2.) The Division could be a genre mulch—and it feels like a potential servers-gone-wrong teaching moment for massive online games. General blandness of the Tom Clancy brand always makes these games feel like beta tests for something cooler.
8. Horizon: Zero Dawn (2016, PS4)
Sony’s big new franchise is a post-post-apocalyptic adventure starring a cavewoman with a sweet bow and arrow who hunts animal-machines.The gameplay trailer looks gorgeous.
What could go wrong: Guerilla Games previously worked on the Killzone series, which looked gorgeous and is maybe everyone’s fourth-favorite future-shooter. That title has to go: Either call it Horizon or call it Zero Dawn or call it Cavewoman vs. Robo-Dinosaur.
7. Fallout 4 (Nov. 10, PS4, Xbox One, Windows)
Bethesda’s passionately beloved open-world apocalyptic shooter-RPG returns, now with better graphics and the promise that you can do even more of whatever the heck you want. If you account for 2010’s New Vegas as an off-brand iteration—that game was developed by Obsidian, not Bethesda—then Fallout 4 is arguably more long-awaited than The Last Guardian, since it’s been on the horizon ever since 2008’s Fallout 3.
What could go wrong: Sheer amount of choice offered by Fallout’s digital world cripples the global economy, ironically causes real-world apocalypse. Apparent lack of co-op or multiplayer or anything that vibes “connectivity” is a great creative decision and also maybe out-of-step with the times. People could suddenly no longer want to experience joy. I’m reaching.
6. For Honor (2016, PS4, Xbox One, PC)
The most addictive multiplayer experience I had at E3 came from Ubisoft’s new swordsman mash. You play as a knight, a viking, or a samurai, in four-on-four battles that require split-second dexterity with realistically clunky bladed weapons. It’s like a future shooter, but with past swords!
What could go wrong: It’s still early, so I couldn’t get a sense of how diverse the gameplay was. Samurai obviously the winner every time.
5. Super Mario Maker (Sept. 11, Wii U)
Nintendo went meta at E3 2015. They didn’t have a new big-huge Mario game—but they’ll let you make your own! Super Mario Maker is arguably more tool than game—more iMovie than actual movie—but you could also argue that it’s an legitimate attempt to target game creation software towards the mainstream. Possibility of creating an online community of brand new, wacked-out Mario levels feels like something that could give Nintendo a whole new lease on life.
What could go wrong: Everyone likes playing games. Not everyone likes designing games. The kind of people who would gravitate to a theoretically vibrant online community of Mario Makers are also the kind of people who probably don’t own a Wii U.
4. Metal Gear Solid V (Sept. 1, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows)
I played over an hour of the new Metal Gear Solid. I could’ve played another hour. It’s unclear precisely how involved longtime franchise steersman Hideo Kojima is—although a Ubisoft representative told me he is finishing the game, and his name is all over the opening credits. And without spoiling anything, the story looks more bananas than usual. But the occasionally obtuse gameplay of the later Metal Gear Solids has been transformed by the promises of the open world. It really does seem like you can attack every base at least seven different ways. And here’s something that never gets old: putting unconscious enemies on a rocket parachute back to your base.
What could go wrong: The first four mainline Metal Gear Solids drew a lot of their power from their rails. Everything that happened to Snake unfolded like a realtime nightmare, getting wilder as it went along. MGSV feels like a well-stocked open world—but I wonder if people will miss that craziest-action-movie-ever quality.
3. No Man’s Sky (No release date, PS4 and Windows)
The big question still looms: What do you do in No Man’s Sky? I played for about ten minutes with creator Sean Murray at my side. I warped to an undiscovered planet, landed, swam through a cave, dug for minerals, and found a couple new species. When Murray took over, he shot a couple animals, got attacked by mysterious robot sentinels, flew into space and watched a couple ships attack a space station. A lot of the appeal of No Man’s Sky rests on the idea that exploring a new (procedurally generated) landscape is fundamentally interesting—and that people will work hard on building up their characters and their ships so they can explore newer, dangerous place. I am a believer.
What could go wrong: People get bored of digging for minerals. Outside possibility exists that No Man’s Sky is a farm sim wearing Halo clothes. Sheer size of game’s infinity reminds players of how alone man truly is in the universe.
2. Star Wars: Battlefront (Nov. 17, PS4, Xbox One, Windows)
In a split-screen co-op match—split-screen co-op! what an idea!—me and Will Robinson played a couple Rebels crashed on Tatooine fighting off wave after wave of Imperial. I took down an AT-ST with an ion cannon and felt young again. The game also features a gigantic multiplayer mode. I played an Imperial attacking the Rebel base on Hoth and started wondering if The Empire Strikes Back is the movie where the good guys win.
What could go wrong: If you’re a hardcore FPS head, Battlefront could just feel like every other first-person shooter reskinned with highly-authentic Star Wars design. (This does not seem like something that will bother anyone.) EA played it a bit cagey with the game, only letting you play through literally the two most popular environments in Star Wars history. (Who cares about Endor?) The last time people were this excited about a new Star Wars thing, it turned out horribly for a decade. (But we’re all optimists now!)
1. The Last Guardian (2016, PS4)
I am that gamer cliché who has turned The Last Guardian into a religion. But I got to see creator Fumito Ueda play the game for awhile, and what I saw scratched the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus itch like nothing else in the last decade. It’s intriguingly possible that The Last Guardian is Ueda’s boldest game yet—even Shadow let you have some cool weapons—and the game’s emotional power comes across in the poignant friendship between Boy and Giant Canine Catbird Beast.
What could go wrong: Decade of high hopes grade-deflates a just-okay puzzle-adventure into generation-defining disappointment. Lower-than-expected sales scare publishers away from original titles. Ten years from now, every game is just a new iteration of Tom Clancy’s Star Fox Wars: Zero Dawn of Halo Maker.
The most interesting new franchise announced for the Xbox was ReCore. In the best way possible, ReCore looks oddly similar to Horizon: Zero Dawn—they’re both female-fronted post-apocalypse adventures—and ReCore‘s play scheme looks like it could be brainteasing than Horizon‘s action-heavy gameplay. Another reason this year’s E3 was so good: A whole lot of games suddenly had female protagonists just because. That’s true of Dishonored 2, the sequel to one of our favorite games of 2012. Elsewhere in the far-out sequel round-up: Ubisoft’s South Park: The Fractured But Whole promises to put a superhero spin on The Stick of Truth‘s RPG antics. Kingdom Hearts 3 will once again mash Disney characters with Final Fantasy characters—this in an era when what defines a “Disney” character has gotten quite a bit more extensive. (Lightsaber vs. Keyblade?) Lots people have already given money to Shenmue 3 via Kickstaer, even though the game’s financial background seems helplessly problematic. Microsoft showed off a long level from Gears of War 4, which looks a lot like a Gears of War game. And BioWare announced Mass Effect Andromeda, a reboot of the franchise which has a passionate fanbase—albeit a fanbase that wasn’t happy with the last game’s controversial ending.
Stay tuned for more details throughout the back half of this decade.
See any games at E3 that you loved? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll talk more in next week’s Geekly mailbag.