This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) marked an exciting moment for the videogame industry. New consoles. New blockbuster titles. Long-awaited sequels. What follows is a list of the 15 most exciting games I saw this year. I got hands-on time with most of them, but it’s important to remember that playing videogames at E3 is not the same as actually playing the videogames. At E3, you’re staring at the most expensive TV screens corporate money can buy, while various company reps urge you on and assure you that you’re much better at the game than all of the other journalists they’ve seen that day. (One developer assured me I was doing great after I died for the fifth time in two minutes.) With that in mind, each of these games comes with an addendum: What could go wrong between now and when the game is actually released?
15. Killzone: Shadow Fall
The franchise about futuristic space dudes with futuristic space guns gets a next-gen makeover. I’ve never been a Killzone fan. In fact, I couldn’t pick out the first three games from a lineup of futuristic-space-gun shooters. But the level I played through offered a fascinating array of possible tactical decisions. Also, this was The Year of the Ziplines at E3, and Shadow Fall lets you fire a zipline anywhere you want. (Playstation 4, End of 2013)
What Could Go Wrong: The title Killzone: Shadow Fall sounds like a straightfaced parody of a contemporary futuristic-space-gun videogame, and what little I could glean of the plot sounded like boilerplate from the post–Gears of War era.
14. Mariokart 8
After many months of hype and rumors, Nintendo’s biggest franchises were mostly no-shows at this year’s E3 — unless you consider an HD remake of an old Zelda game a new development (it isn’t) or you think Super Mario 3D Land is even close to Super Mario Galaxy (it ain’t.) But the new Mariokart offers some intriguing twists on the two-decade-old formula, with the ability to drive on walls. Also, the levels are so pretty in HD. (Wii U, Spring 2014).
What Could Go Wrong: It’s the same old Mariokart, except this time it’s on a console you still don’t feel like buying.
The standout game on the floor from the Playstation Network, Rain is a moodily bleak adventure where you play as an invisible boy wandering through the rain. At times, you can’t even see the character you’re controlling — making Rain an interesting technical exercise in addition-by-subtraction. (Playstation 3, Fall)
What Could Go Wrong: The puzzle gameplay was interesting, but seemed like it could get repetitive. Also, there’s a gradually expanding pantheon of moodily-bleak adventures which have a cool central gimmick with zero gameplay follow-through; call it the Lost in Shadow effect.
12. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
Confession: I didn’t like Assassin’s Creed 3. The last entry in UBisoft’s historical-adventure series was overstuffed and empty. But it had one brilliant aspect: The ship-sailing minigame. Black Flag appears to essentially be an expanded version of that minigame, with a Pirate-Era setting allowing you to explore a whole network of islands. The game plays seamlessly. In one demo, the protagonist ran from a village into a stealth mission in the jungle straight into a ship chase and a battle, before going to explore a different island. All of that in less than ten minutes. (Every conceivable platform, October)
What Could Go Wrong: Black Flag doesn’t shake up the Assassin’s Creed franchise so much as it foregrounds its best instincts in a cool new setting. After several years of annual release, AC might need a serious shake-up. Also, what little I saw of the Black Flag cinematics looked exactly as exposition-heavy and boring as the AC3 cinematics. But hey: Pirates!
The most distinctive visual style of any major-platform game I saw at E3, Puppeteer is designed to look like an actual puppet show, albeit the craziest and most hyperkinetic puppet show you’ve ever seen. Basically, imagine if Max Fischer from Rushmore created a puppet show out of an anime cartoon about a headless boy with a pair of magic scissors. (PS3, September)
What Could Go Wrong: The game, which features a magic cat named Ying Yang and lots of boisterous voice work, could suffer from a bad case of whimsy overdose.
10. Tom Clancy’s The Division
Ubisoft’s big reveal this year is a massively multiplayer third-person-shooter open-world RPG, and probably features a couple other genres we haven’t invented yet. The very model of a next-gen game, The Division looks huge and appears to offer infinite variations of shooting people in a New York overrun with contagion. (PS4 and Xbox One, 2014)
What Could Go Wrong: Given the impressive evolutionary gameplay on display in the game, the storyline and the setting seem a bit too safe. (Another post-apocalyptic shooter?) Also, how many different Tom Clancy sub-franchises can Ubisoft create before it reaches Peak Clancy?
9. The Wonderful 101
Just a few months into its existence, the Wii U already appears to be precariously unlikely to attract any third-party exclusives — which means we could be looking at a future of infinite Mario variations. Which means we really ought to cherish this curio from Platinum Games, a bizarre mob-warfare action game where you control a whole parade of superheroes. It’s the one Wii U title where the Gamepad actually seems to make sense as a control scheme. (Wii U, August)
What Could Go Wrong: Wonderful 101 vaguely resembles fellow Wii U title Pikmin 3; both allow you to control large groups of people with distinctive gameplay mechanics in eccentric settings. I give the edge to Wonderful since it grabs your attention faster, but Pikmin might have greater gameplay depth. Also, The Wonderful 101 is a terrible title.
This is the first game by Respawn Entertainment, the studio founded by banished Infinity Ward execs Jason West and Vince Zampella, who guided the Call of Duty series through Modern Warfare 2 before a very public parting-of-the-ways with Activision. Titanfall feels like the product of creativity unleashed from its bounds. A first-person shooter that mixes human combat with giant-exoskeleton-combat in a multiplayer campaign. It’s less flashy than many of the next-gen games I played, but it’s an addictive and fluid playing experience — I suspect it will actually look more attractive this time next year, when we’re past the bells-and-whistles phase of the next generation. (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, 2014)
What Could Go Wrong: Future! Space! Guns!
7. Project Spark
Spark‘s not just a game. It’s a game-maker, allowing you to create whole digital worlds, dictate the specific behavior of digital things, and ultimately create your own distinctive game. Essentially, you get to play God. Spark feels like the happy corrective to all the anti-Microsoft vitriol that’s been building up since the Xbox One announcement, empowering users to create in a dynamic new way — and it’s free. Honestly, watching developers play with Spark was the most revelatory experiences I had at E3. (Xbox One, Windows, No release date.)
What Could Go Wrong: Watching developers play with Spark was cool…but the developers knew what they were doing. Spark could have a sharp learning curve that belies its populist aspirations — and for it to really be a success, it will need to develop a community of users beyond the hardcore-gamer demographic.
6. Beyond: Two Souls
Most of the games at this year’s E3 were gigantic in macrocosmic scope. But the most impressive digital effect in David Cage’s follow-up to Heavy Rain is Ellen Page, who plays the protagonist via performance-capture in one of the most impressive examples of digital-acting this side of Andy Serkis. In contrast to the subdued Heavy Rain, Beyond appears to be a genuine action game: You variously control Page and the supernatural figure that possesses her. (PS3, October)
What Could Go Wrong: Let’s get one thing out of the way: Beyond might be utterly absurd. In the 12 months since the last E3, the game has been pitched as a quietly cinematic drama with action elements. That notion was completely thrown out the window this year, when Sony revealed a sequence set in the Middle East that looks straight out of Call of Duty. If Beyond can combine Cage’s semi-abstract game style with blockbuster action, it could be a crossover hit…or it could be a neither-here-nor-there mish-mash.
A first-person RPG set in a far-future solar system that simultaneously suggests gearhead science-fiction and high fantasy, this is the first non-Halo game created by Bungie. Like Titanfall, Destiny feels like the product of creative minds excited to explore new boundaries beyond their previous franchises. Unlike Titanfall, Destiny is just flat-out huge. You create your own character. You interact with other people online. You can go, apparently, anywhere. Bungie is promising an incredible depth of gameplay, with a steadily evolving world that could make Destiny a years-long gaming proposition. (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, 2014)
What Could Go Wrong: Is Bungie promising too much? Destiny could fall victim to Spore syndrome: The rare case of a well-regarded game developer spending years building up Second Coming-level buzz for a flawed-but-fascinating-and-ultimately-underwhelming experiment. Destiny was probably the most polarizing of the major announced games this year — for all the promised depth of gameplay and the beauty of the game’s world, this is yet another game about, yes, being in the future and shooting things with space-guns.
Mark Cerny is the jack-of-all-trades videogame talent behind famous titles like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and a wide variety of other games; he was also one of the lead consultants on the PS4. Knack looks like a marvelous showcase for Cerny’s gifts. You play as a tiny robot who can absorb objects around him and steadily grow larger; the result is a game which looks cartoony but plays hardcore. Cerny described it to me as a mixture of Crash Bandicoot and Katamari Damacy with just a bit of God of War, which is essentially like saying “fun gameplay mixed with brainteasing eccentricy with just a bit of awe-inspiring graphics.” (PS4, End of 2013)
What Could Go Wrong: The cartoony aesthetic could overshadow the gameplay. Also, in an age when indie developers have mastered retro-style adventure games, Knack will need to prove it’s worth the presumably-full-price console-game cost.
3. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
The most distinctive game I saw at E3 this year was a tiny little adventure lurking in the corner of the Xbox tent. The fairy-tale story of two siblings who set off on an adventure, Brothers has you controlling the two siblings simultaneously, thanks to a fascinating and brainteasingly difficult control scheme. (You move the older brother with the left stick and the younger brother with the right stick.) It might sound like a gimmick. I played it for twelve minutes and found it addictive, beautiful, and heart-tuggingly poignant. (XBLA, Late Summer)
What Could Go Wrong: It might get boring. I doubt it, though.
2. Watch Dogs
The biggest surprise of E3 2012 became the coolest full-reveal of E3 2013. Watch Dogs is a fascinating cerebral expansion of the open world genre. You don’t just explore the world; you actively control it, hacking into the operating system of an alternate-world Chicago to control security cameras, stoplights, smartphones…everything. Watch Dogs featured the most intriguing use of next-generation drop-in multiplayer, with the ability to step into other people’s games and hack into their character’s server. The new demo also showed off the variety of gameplay options: When you’re trying to reach a computer tower, you can reach it any number of ways. It’s a mechanic that proved incredibly addictive in Far Cry 3, also from Ubisoft. (Every conceivable platform, November)
What Could Go Wrong: Like Destiny, Watch Dogs is promising a whole lot of things we’ve never seen before that seem almost impossible. And it’s already disappointing in one respect. The developers constantly say that in Watch Dogs, the most powerful weapon is your smartphone. But in the demos I’ve seen, protagonist Aiden Pearce wields a pistol and a collapsible baton like a every other parkour-superhero from the last few years of videogames. Given all the buzz, will it be enough if Watch Dogs is just a particularly eccentric action game?
1. The Witness
Jonathan Blow made Braid, and now he has made something utterly different from and very similar to Braid. Different, because The Witness looks nothing at all like the 2-D sidescroller: The new game is a first-person 3-D open-world adventure, set on a mysterious island filled with puzzles. Similar, because The Witness once again finds Blow reducing gameplay to its core elements in fascinating ways. In a relatively small space, The Witness is densely packed with mysteries, requiring you to pay attention to every aspect of the environment. (There is no negative space.) It’s tempting to say that Blow has been overpraised, but what I saw of The Witness looked like another fascinating demonstration of pure interactive wonder. (PS4, iOS, PC, Early 2014)
What Could Go Wrong: Whereas Braid was gorgeously overdetailed, The Witness is purposefully subdued in its art style — a profound and certainly well-thought-out aesthetic choice which nevertheless comes dangerously close to looking, well, boring. And even though Blow happily admits the homage, The Witness really does feel a little bit like the second coming of Myst — though you could argue that Braid was basically a tragic retelling of Super Mario Brothers.
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