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The 2018 E3 presentations' biggest highlights and trends

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Jun 11, 2018

Each summer, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known by its goofy Silicon Valley-style abbreviation, E3) arrives with all the grace of a tornado. It obliterates other video game discussion for roughly a week, sucking everything into its vortex. Headlines center on upcoming releases, changes to console hardware and services, surprise announcements, and quickly meme’d moments when CEOs in t-shirts and suit jackets, trying to appear both relatable enough to impress an audience of faceless, casual conference viewers and professional enough not to worry shareholders, inevitably embarrass themselves.

It doesn’t matter what players think of the show, whose highlight is unquestionably the series of publisher press conferences live-streamed across the world: E3 is the crystal ball of mainstream games to come. For better or worse, watching to see what is and isn’t featured during these presentations is the best way to know what to expect from the big budget, conversation-dominating “summer blockbuster” segment of the medium.

With that in mind, the following looks at each day of the conferences, running down what was shown in an attempt to see where mainstream games are heading in the near future.  

Saturday, June 9th

The event got started with a conference by Electronic Arts (EA), the publisher behind massive series like multiplayer shooter Battlefield, racer Need for Speed, role-playing games Mass Effect and Dragon Age, sports games like FIFA, Madden NFL, and the current rights holder for Star Wars video games. In a harbinger of the trend that would continue to become clear over the rest of the weekend, EA wasn’t showing much of anything new.

Most of its presentation focused on two shooters. The first, Battlefield V, follows up on EA DICE’s 2016, World War I-set Battlefield 1 (don’t worry about the numbering; it’s very confusing) by bringing the series to World War II. Though it looks exciting in the way that all Battlefield games are exciting — large-scale destruction, gorgeously modeled battlefields, and audio so sharp that nearby gunshots are legitimately terrifying — it’s also the latest in a long-running series and hardly a very original concept. In a similar vein, time was given to Anthem, the latest from Mass Effect and Dragon Age creator BioWare.

The first proper trailer for Anthem came across like a mix of both of these series, showing a swirl of science fiction robotic suits, giant fantasy monsters, and hints of a strange, otherworldly theology. Though it features co-operative play, similar to the Destiny series of online shooters, Anthem looks to have retained little of Bioware’s usual focus on character relationships and dialogue-heavy storytelling.  

Apart from these, EA spent time showing off updates to its sports games, following the iterative mold of both Battlefield V and Anthem. These games may all end up being very good, sure, but they also look like so much else we’ve seen before. The appearance of two twee releases from smaller studios —a sequel to the schmaltzy Unravel and Sea of Solitude, yet another fantasy world meant to wring heartstrings by abstracting and allegorizing personal trauma — did little to bring anything truly novel to the table.

Sunday, June 10th

Microsoft was next up, hosting a Sunday afternoon conference centering on games for its Xbox One console and Windows 10 computers. Despite its presenters’ constant references to games’ potential as an art form and the creativity on display in the work it publishes, Microsoft mostly showed off sequels to well-known series. Old favorites like Halo and Gears of War will receive new entries in the near future, we were told. There will also be a third Metro and fifth Devil May Cry game, a third Crackdown and umpteenth Forza racing game, a sequel to near-future political paranoia shooter The Division, a second Dying Light, the fourth Just Cause, and expansions to existing games like Cuphead and Sea of Thieves.

Amidst all of this, a few fresh ideas surfaced. CD Projekt RED, the studio behind the excellent The Witcher series of role-playing games, showed their Cyberpunk 2077, which trades sword-and-sorcery fantasy for grimy neon, dyed Mohawks, and retrofuturist DOS prompts. From Software, the team best known for the excellent Dark Souls series, debuted an action game called Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, its fantasy take on feudal Japan filled with the kind of imaginatively disgusting monsters expected from the studio.

Later in the evening, Bethesda, publisher of series like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein, and DOOM, continued in Microsoft and EA’s footsteps with a show devoted mainly to sequels. It had the post-apocalyptic Rage 2, which looks to have satisfyingly kinetic gunfights, but an otherwise generically over-the-top tone and bland, Mad Max-lite setting, a sequel to the wonderful 2016 DOOM called Doom Eternal, another Wolfenstein sequel, a new entry to Fallout called Fallout 76, which emphasizes recent design trends (an always-online world, reminiscent of Anthem, which is reminiscent of Destiny) — and nothing else really except for updates to existing games, an Elder Scrolls phone game, and a quick shot of a nebulously defined project called Starfield, which is, well, set in space. There was also a title card for Elder Scrolls VI … that doesn’t even have a subtitle yet.

While the first days of E3 have been too packed with sequels and thematically homogenous games to offer much to get excited about, Monday and Tuesday morning will bring a few more conferences — Square Enix, Ubisoft, Sony, and Nintendo — that could show something new. For now, the event is disappointedly centered on safe bets, showing a medium whose mainstream is dominated more by sequels and spin-offs than anything else.

Monday, June 11th

Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, and Dragon Quest publisher Square Enix began Monday’s glut of conferences with a short one of their own. Over half an hour of pre-recorded video, viewers were shown footage of more sequels, including this autumn’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a new entry to the long-running Dragon Quest and Kingdom Hearts series, more footage of the upcoming Octopath Traveler throwback role-playing game, and over-the-top destruction simulator Just Cause 4.

While most of its conference followed suit with what we’ve seen so far — updates and sequels — the publisher did show off Babylon’s Fall, a hazily Judeo-Christian inflected take on a dark knights-and-dragons fantasy being created by PlatinumGames, a studio whose action games (Bayonetta, Nier: Automata) are always worth keeping an eye on.

Elsewhere, while certainly original, the trailer for The Quiet Man, which blends cringingly campy live-action footage with a brief, computer generated fight scene, was unintentionally disquieting in its ‘80s crime wave depiction of a New York City populated by threatening, Spanish-speaking gang members. (The effect was tempered somewhat by the hilarity of these same “tough guys” wearing clothes like a leather jacket with sleeves decorated in a weed leaf pattern.)

Later in the day, international developer/publisher Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Far Cry) continued the trend of showing off a whole lot of updates and expansions for existing games. Many of these were expected — a Chinese history spin-off for its brawler, For Honor, news on tactical shooter Rainbow Six Siege and racing game The Crew 2, more details on the ancient Greece-set Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and footage of Skull & Bones, a multiplayer pirate game about naval warfare.  

Most notably among all of this, the long-awaited Beyond Good and Evil 2 had an impressive trailer that showcased a scummy, “realistic” space fantasy in the vein of Star Wars (only with greasy-spoon chef pigs and talking monkeys) but not much in the way of tangible details. Still, even through footage of non-interactive cinematics, it looked lively and earnestly imaginative in a way that was soon undercut by The Division 2, which was shown off through a pair of unsettling trailers. In them, viewers were shown a near-future America in complete social collapse that, naturally enough, has been turned into a co-operative shooter where heavily armed players fight to retake control of a decimated Washington, D.C. Footage of children trembling in a ruined city and citizens executed on the streets was genuinely unsettling. While other media may use the power of this kind of imagery to offer commentary on modern American cultural paranoia, the first Division did little to make anything but a power fantasy for players with itchy trigger fingers out of a similar premise, so there’s reason to be concerned.  

While as filled with sequels as the other conferences, there was still more of a variety in genre and tone on display here than in the other presentations to date. As mentioned, Beyond Good and Evil 2 looks genuinely creative, its sci-fi aesthetic refreshingly unlike the gleaming robotics and high-tech computers common to games. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey also looks to take the right lessons from last year’s Origins, set in late period Ptolemaic Egypt, by expanding its new role-playing game-style with conversation and relationship systems. The best aspect of the series has always been its virtual recreations of bygone times; providing more ways to interact with the population of these worlds seems like a great idea.

The PC Gaming Show, set up by PC Gamer magazine and consisting of announcements from various studios and publishers united only by the fact that they’re all set to come out on computers, was even more varied than Ubisoft’s presentation. Games ranged from Maneater, which casts players as a murderous shark terrorizing swimmers, to Sable, a gorgeous exploration game deeply indebted to the visual style of French cartoonist Moebius and scored by Japanese Breakfast. There were, of course, the expected, derivative projects — some new The Walking Dead adaptations, a few forgettable-looking space games, and trend-chasing “battle royale” online shooters — but, overall, the scope of the PC Gaming Show was wide enough to actually show off some of the originality that exists outside of the major publishers’ more predictable showcases.

Sony ended the evening with a more in-depth look at a smaller number of games than most of the other conferences, but managed to show a welcome level of variety, too. The expected sequels — The Last of Us Part II, Nioh 2, a Resident Evil 2 remake — were present as per usual, but a good amount of attention was given to original games.

The standouts were Ghost of Tsushima, a gorgeously rendered samurai action game set during the late 13 century Mongol invasions of Japan; and Death Stranding, a bizarre, dreamily constructed science fiction thing from Metal Gear Solid director Hideo Kojima’s new development studio. Alongside Control, the latest from Max Payne and Alan Wake creators Remedy Entertainment, another previously revealed game, this fall’s Spider-Man, gave the conference a sense of liveliness missing from too many of the others. (In video games, at least, superheroes haven’t been run into the ground yet.)

Sony’s showing was, like much of the rest of E3 so far, filled with games both numbingly violent and predictable in design style — even Ghosts of Tsushima and Spider-Man seem, ultimately, like interesting variations on the weirdly codified “open world” genre. And yet, as it moved from trailer to trailer, shifting focus from The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima’s rain-soaked blood-spilling to the colorful irreverence of Death Stranding, Control, and the more lighthearted Spider-Man, there was at least some novelty on display. While this may not be saying much, it’s often the best we can expect from the biggest budget, most risk-averse section of the medium.