By EW Staff
June 04, 2012 at 01:30 PM EDT

The Electronic Entertainment Expo: The videogame industry’s annual celebration of innovative button-mashing, finely pixelated storytelling, and more sequels, threequels, and prequels than a Hollywood studio chief could dare to conceive. This year’s E3 doesn’t officially begin until tomorrow, when conference-goers flood into the two massive showroom floors in the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center and embrace the flashy gaming pavilions and bone-melting sub-woofers. But the festivities kick off in earnest today, with press presentations by hardcore gaming rivals Microsoft and Sony, as well as showcases by major gaming publishers EA and Ubisoft.

So what are the biggest titles and stories grabbing our attention heading into this year’s E3? EW’s Darren Franich, Adam B. Vary, and John Young break it down: 

The true Wii U debut, fo’

Last year at E3, Nintendo unveiled its follow-up console to the Wii, the even-more-playfully titled Wii U. While the HD-graphics and unique touch-screen controller impressed, the Wii U was so brand new, Nintendo didn’t have any games to show off on their sparkly new magic box. And the games really should be what the Wii U is all about. While the motion-controlled Wii remains the best-selling console of the current generation, it has been a notoriously prickly platform for any game publisher not named “Nintendo.” Yesterday, at a pre-E3 web presentation of the Wii U’s features, Nintendo revealed the Xbox-ish Wii U Pro Controller, as well as a fascinatingly obnoxious demo video that starred a geeky gamer stymied by a dark-and-spooky zombie slasher game. The message was clear: Hardcore gamers, and the third-party publishers who serve them, the Wii U is for, well, you.

The irony of Nintendo’s renewed investment in hardcore gaming, though, is that the gaming industry as a whole has been rocked but good by the explosion in digitally downloaded casual games like Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies. So while that aforementioned demo video was aimed squarely at twentysomething dudes with a lot of time and cash to burn, it also showcased the Wii U’s Twitter-esque gaming forums and Skype-like video chat. That touch-screen controller can be operated independent of the TV (though not separately from the main Wii U console), and the Wii U promises a giant “Miiverse” filled with opportunities to adorably interact with other gamers.

If it works, the Wii U could bring hardcore gamers and folks who live to waste time on their iPads and Android phones together on one system. The big question that remains hanging over Nintendo’s head like a persistant Lakitu, the question that this year’s E3 hopes to answer: Does the Wii U have the killer games to match its expansive ambitions? — Adam B. Vary

Halo parties like it’s 2001

It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of the Halo franchise in videogame history. The first Halo was a turning point for the Xbox, proving that Microsoft was definitively in the console business. Through two sequels and three spin-offs, Halo developer Bungie kept the franchise steadily evolving with a growing generation shooter-obsessed online gamers. Back in 2010, the prequel Halo: Reach set sales records for the franchise. It was also, in my opinion, the best pure gameplay experience the Halo series had achieved since the original game.

Now comes Halo 4, a title which brings back series protagonist Master Chief and reportedly seeks to launch a whole new trilogy of space-faring shooter action. But Halo 4 will be the first game in the series developed by someone other than Bungie. Early reports have indicated that the game will tweak the franchise’s basic shooter gameplay, which is exciting. (The game will also reportedly feature a deeper dive into the Halo mythology, which is somewhat less exciting.) As someone who played untold hours of the original game, I’m just intrigued to see if Halo 4 can recover the the franchise’s zeitgeisty mojo, especially since it’s hitting stores just one week before a certain other first-person shooter… — Darren Franich

Call of Duty parties like it’s 2025

The Call of Duty series has been getting more outré with every mega-selling installment. And although the Modern Warfare sub-series tends to get all the attention, I’d personally pick out 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops as my favorite of the recent batch, if only because of the horrifically addictive Nazi-Zombie mini-game. So I’m intrigued to see what developer Treyarch will do with Black Ops 2, which promises to send the Call of Duty franchise over the top from half-crazy eccentricity to bat-crap bananagrams insanity.

The first trailer for Black Ops 2 unexpectedly sent you into a futuristic battle zone, featuring giant attack robots and high-tech weaponry and a new war between China and the United States, which is at least more vaguely topical than Modern Warfare‘s perpetual fascination with demonic Russians. The game will feature branching shorelines and flashbacks to the ’80s. With this entry, it feels like the Call of Duty franchise is trying to stretch just a little bit. And even if that stretch fails… well, Black Ops 2 also promises more zombies. — Darren Franich

Assassin’s Creed III: Can the American Revolution be as cool as the Renaissance?

The Assassin’s Creed franchise remains one of the most quixotic blockbuster franchises in gaming today. Set during the Crusades, Renaissance Italy, and 16th century Constantinople, the previous installments were as much elaborate history lessons as bloody open-world action-adventure games. So much of the fun of the games has been simply wandering through the bustling back alleys of Venice or Florence listening to merchants peddle their wares, or scampering up the sides of iconic landmarks like the Colosseum and the Hagia Sophia. And then, at the end of each game, everything suddenly shifts into crackpot pseudo-religious sci-fi that barely scratches the surface of basic logic and narrative coherence.

For the first true sequel in the franchise in three years, though, that formula seems to be going through something of a re-think. The setting: The American Revolution. The hero: A half-Native American named Connor Kenway who’s good with a tomahawk and bow and arrow. But instead of urban bustle, game itself seems to take place as much in the woods and on wide-open battlefields in as nascent American cities — cities, by the by, without many recognizable iconic landmarks(It’s not like Connor can climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty to get a full sense of New York harbor.) Changing things up can be good for any franchise; it will be most intriguing to see if it’s been so for this one. — Adam B. Vary

Tomb Raider starts at the beginning

One of the highlights of last year’s E3, Tomb Raider returns with an excellent shot of being this year’s Best of Show. Although it’s the ninth title in the main series, Tomb Raider is actually an origin-story reboot. Instead of being an over-the-top dinosaur-killing heroine — or a scantily clad movie action star played by Angelina Jolie — this version of Lara Croft is a young, frightened archaeologist who hasn’t yet developed her combat skills. We know that Lara gets shipwrecked on a mysterious tropical island near Japan, and will have to contend with both the indigenous wildlife and a group of brutal mercenaries.

The recently unveiled gameplay trailer promises a cross between the Uncharted series and Assassin’s Creed, with Lara having to spend equal amounts of time exploring, hiding, solving puzzles, and killing baddies when necessary. If Tomb Raider plays as well as it looks, we might have trouble letting go of the controller. — John Young

The Last of Us aims for Uncharted meets I Am Legend

Announced late last year, this post-apocalyptic action-adventure game comes from Uncharted developer Naughty Dog. That fact alone should be making you salivate with anticipation. And based on the gameplay footage EW saw last month, what the studio is cooking up here appears to be something truly special — and extremely unnerving.

Set two decades after the outbreak of a brain fungus that transforms humans into ravenous monstrosities known as The Infected, The Last of Us follows a middle-aged man who’s tasked with smuggling a 14-year-old girl out of a military quarantine zone. The game’s atmosphere recalls post-apocalyptic works like I Am LegendThe Road, and The World Without Us, as our protagonists struggle to survive in an eerily vacant Pittsburgh that has been reclaimed by nature. The Last of Us could represent a major step forward in serious storytelling for the videogame medium. No pressure, Naughty Dog. — John Young

And the Top-Secret Prize goes to Sony and Microsoft!

Ever since Nintendo introduced the Wii U at last year’s E3, rumors have been running wild that Sony and Microsoft were thisclose to announcing the PlayStation 3 and the XBox 720. Those rumors remain unfounded, and at press time, it seems unlikely that either company will announce a new console. But maybe they will? And even if they don’t, surely they have to say something about the impending end of this generation of consoles? Or maybe they’ll announce that, as part of a merger, they are preparing for the release of the PlayBox XStation 723? (Probably not that last part.) — Darren Franich

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