During the course of three overwhelming days of E3 and three mildly intoxicated nights of after parties, I had demos or hands-on time with nearly 60 videogames, all of which will be released sometime between now and March of next year. Nothing made me want to chew my arm off in exchange for getting it early, but there was an overall consistency in quality and mild innovation that, if not revolutionary, was still impressive.
Surprisingly, my favorite moments largely came from games I never would have predicted or in ways couldn’t have guessed, another testament to the sheer variety of experiences on display at the show.
1. Deus Ex 3: Human Revolution
Like just about anyone else with a pulse in 2000, I loved the first Deus Ex. The sequel, subtitled Invisible War, came and went without ever popping up on my radar. As far as I was concerned, the franchise was dead but I went to check out the press demo of Human Revolution to make sure. It wound up being the one thing from E3 that I just can’t get out of my head.
Everything that made the first installment so great was on display: action, a good stealth mechanic, cybernetic gizmos, labyrinthine conspiracies, interesting characters and a solid variety of options to get through any given situation. But it was the game world itself that truly impressed me. Bathed in golden light, Hong Kong of 2027 is a seedy cyberpunk vista brimming with advertisements and derelicts and technology and soaring architecture that borders on the Baroque. The rich atmosphere of that glowing city truly enticed me to explore it.
Hmm, maybe I could be convinced to gnaw off an arm after all…
2. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
The news that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood had multiplayer initially left me cold, but the execution (no pun intended, I swear) made for a game I could have played for hours. The structure of the scenario immediately reminded me of the old Steve Jackson game Killer. Players stalk a random target while being stalked themselves. Thus, I am looking to kill Michael, Michael wants to murder Chuck and Chuck is primed to knife me in the back. To make matters more interesting, the entire city is populated by duplicates of the playable characters (Courtesan, Priest, Banker, Doctor, Hunter, Executioner, Engineer and Barber) so any flashy maneuvers will surely draw the attention of your pursuers.
This need for anonymity creates a tense, low action but high intensity multiplayer experience far removed from anything I’ve played. My instincts tell me that a sequel pumped out in little over a year can’t be anywhere near as good as the original, but if this multiplayer mode is any indication of the total package of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I am prepared to eat my words. Gladly.
3. Portal 2
Is anyone surprised that Portal 2 looks pretty good? Valve remains an industry darling even when people are cranky with them (where the hell is Half Life 2: Episode 3?) because of the high quality of the games they deliver. If you doubt me, just look at how quickly those Left 4 Dead 2 protesters changed their tune.
By all accounts, Portal 2 is going to be a bigger and better experience than the first one, even if the freshness of the franchise has been diminished (endless over-quoting and rebuilding the surprises of the original is a near-impossible feat). The mind-bending physics puzzles are there, with new mechanics and tools and blah blah blah. None of that is what made me love the first Portal. None of that is what made the sequel’s demo so great.
What did? That’d be the laughter.
Portal 2′s comic timing has come through intact. At no other point at E3 did I laugh as hard and as frequently. For something that is a universal human pursuit, it is something we don’t do nearly enough with videogames. Valve, with their perfect mix of cynical, dark, dry and bizarre humor have practically cornered the market on laughter in the medium.
And they use it to their great advantage. Portal 2 is always at its most menacing just as the laughter dies away, you monster.
I’m running around a futuristic complex that is under siege by some kind of robot army. I’m wearing a suit of high-tech armor that allows me to power slide the length of a football field, go slo-mo for precision aiming and punch the spine out of anything that gets too close to me. Every quarter second something new is exploding.
Amidst all the chaos, I slide up to a wall and take cover while the game developer clarifies a couple of controls. In this brief moment of inaction, my digital soldier becomes impatient. Disregarding the incoming tracer fire, he slides back the face plate of his helmet and takes out a cigarette (I don’t see from where. Perhaps the battle suit comes equipped with a mini vending machine). He lights it, takes two quick drags, then flicks it off to the side. The robots, equipped with heat sensitive vision, shoot the butt out of the air. The digital soldier looks out of the screen at me. It is a look that says, “Are we going to do this or what?”
In the realm of badassery, few things compare.
5. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair
According to Wikipedia, there are 36 installments in the Castlevania franchise (my favorite title: Rondo of Blood). Harmony of Despair is the 37th and it was the first game I got hands-on with at E3.
It is a side scroller in the tradition of the classic Symphony of the Night. Like all the Castlevania games, it is a mish-mash of features that coalesce into a familiar whole that balances on the knife point of nostalgia for the original 8-bit games. The result is extremely comfortable, like a pair of favorite broken-in shoes.
The unfamiliar territory in Harmony is the multiplayer where up to six players may join in. The usual exploration has been removed in favor of a fully revealed castle map, a clear goal (in the case of the E3 demo, a boss monster whose beam attack cuts through the entire castle) and a not very generous time limit. To ensure that all the players can be seen on screen at once, the map can be zoomed out until you are playing in miniature. It was strange and somewhat unforgiving but not without its charms.
On Thursday afternoon, I met up with my friend Ray and his wife Christa on the floor of the show and took them around to see a couple of things I considered highlights. We eventually wound up back at the Konami booth, where we collaborated with two other guys to try and map out all of Alucard’s classic moves from Symphony of the Night. After they moved on, Ray and I concentrated on playing through the co-op, hooting and hollering the entire time.
As the timer in the game wound down and E3 itself came to a close, I was stuck, in grand Castlevania fashion, on a difficult jump between two moving clock pendulums. Ray had made the jump and was waiting on the ledge I was trying to get to, unhelpfully using the game’s built in voice communication to mock me.
Then the timer zeroed out and we died, a perfect ending for a videogame trade show.