By John Young
June 05, 2012 at 06:12 AM EDT
Sony Computer Entertainment

Whereas Microsoft seemed most concerned with highlighting the Xbox 360’s role as your living-room media thingamajig, Sony emphasized its games (and the PlayStation 3’s exclusive titles) more than anything else at its E3 press briefing Monday night. This resulted in one stunning game demo after another and theoretically positioned the PS3 as the true hardcore gamer’s system, even though the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii both enjoy a significantly larger user base.

We witnessed such PS3 exclusives as Quantic Dream’s intriguing new thriller Beyond, PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for the PS Vita, God of War: Ascension, and The Last of Us (pictured above). And, oh yeah, a new project from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, which showed promise and also stopped the conference dead in its tracks. Here’s what went down at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena:

Gaming’s next heroine is Juno? After SCEA president and CEO Jack Tretton offered a brief tribute to gamers everywhere, he brought out Quantic Dream founder David Cage to introduce the French developer’s next unannounced title. For those who don’t know, Quantic Dream was behind 2010’s critically beloved Heavy Rain, and this new project, called Beyond, looks just as ambitious. We learned that you’ll play a young woman named Jodie Holmes who has a unique link with “a spirit or ghost living between our world and the other side.”

The game will follow 15 years of Jodie’s life as you shape her future and maybe, just maybe, learn what’s beyond the end of one’s life. This is heavy material for a game, and Quantic Dream turned to Juno actress Ellen Page to provide the motion-capture performance for Jodie. The developer showed off an early scene in which a policeman is interrogating Jodie, and the real-time character animation looked startlingly realistic. However, there never appeared to be a moment where the gamer interacted with the scene; hopefully Beyond will look just as slick while you’re actually controlling Jodie.

Mr. Bubbles, fight! Okay, so PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale is Super Smash Bros. with Sony characters. That either excites you or it doesn’t. If it does excite you, then you’ll be thrilled to know that if you’re among the few who own a PS Vita, Battle Royale will also be available for the handheld system and is cross-compatible with the PS3. In the live demo we saw, two players were on the Vita and two were playing with the PS3. And Sony officially confirmed two more characters in addition to the six that have already been announced: Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake and BioShock‘s Big Daddy. As if there was any doubt, I’ll be opting for the latter character the next time I get my sweaty hands on this game.

Vita’s big exclusives: Sony announced two huge titles for their handheld: Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified (Is that one colon or two?) and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. We learned nothing about the former except that it’s being released this holiday season. But for Liberation, we now know for certain that it’ll star the series’ first female assassin — a part-French, part-African warrior named Aveline — and will be set in Louisiana during the late 18th century. Liberation is due out on Oct. 30, and I already smell those beignets.

The moment when J.K. Rowling showed up… in the form of a quote: The conference was moving along at a rapid clip when, all of a sudden, Sony decided to switch its focus from gaming to interactive family entertainment. The company unveiled Wonderbook, an augmented-reality storybook that uses the PlayStation Eye camera to “bring your book to life.” The first Wonderbook release will be J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells (due this fall). Using the PlayStation Move controller as a wand, Book of Spells allows players to cast spells from the Harry Potter universe and learn the history behind them. Except it didn’t completely work. At one point during the live demo, a woman had to cast a gate-unlocking spell four times before the PlayStation Eye correctly registered her movements.

The potential is there, but so far Book of Spells seemed a bit clunky, and far too much time was spent on the title. It didn’t help matters that Sony couldn’t convince Rowling to film a recorded greeting. Instead we were read a statement from the author, who said that “Wonderbook: Book of Spells is the closest a Muggle can come to a real spell book.” That’s nice, but Sony, you got to do better than that. Microsoft brought out Joe Montana and South Park‘s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and hired Usher for a live performance that likely cost them more per minute than most people make in a year. If Microsoft was releasing Book of Spells, you know damn well that Rowling would have flown into the stadium on a broomstick.

The best for last: Sony closed its conference with single-player demos of God of War: Ascension and The Last of Us. Both games looked astounding, but for very different reasons. Ascension (out March 12) featured God of War‘s typical over-the-top, non-stop violence. This was the first time we saw the game’s campaign mode, and we were introduced to some new baddies including a humanoid elephant and some sort of Kraken. The biggest reveal was a magic power that allows Kratos to quickly rebuild any structure that was recently destroyed, such as an elevator lift. 

The Last of Us also had its share of brutal violence, which the audience applauded maybe a bit too enthusiastically. But this post-apocalyptic thriller really impressed with some eerily quiet moments as our two protagonists, Joel and Ellie, explored what at first seemed to be an abandoned Pittsburgh hotel. This is chilling storytelling, aided by a sparse Brian Eno-esque score that played softly in the background.

At the end of the conference, Jack Tretton promised gamers: “The best is yet to come.” After today’s presentation, it’s hard to argue with him.

Read more:

Microsoft introduces ‘Tomb Raider,’ ‘Halo 4,’ ‘South Park,’ and more at E3

E3 2012 preview: The Wii U, ‘Call of Duty’ goes to the future, and the return of Master Chief and Lara Croft