Stu’s Five Best Gaming Moments of E3 2011

E3 is a beast. There is so much to see and so much going on that it is practically impossible to not be overwhelmed. Once you are adrift in that ocean of pixels, many things seem more amazing than they really are. It is extremely easy to be caught up in the rush of the conference. I learned this last year, when games that I loved on the show floor turned out to be nearly unplayable upon release (Castlevania: Symphony of Despair) or lacking the depth that they initially promised (Vanquish). Others made good on their promises (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Portal 2) and other still await release (Deus Ex: Human Revolution).

What remains is the fact that those games from E3 2010 the impressed me so continue to be some of my favorite memories of the show. In the exciting, hectic three days of the show, those games were the best of the best, even if the future wasn’t as kind.

With that in mind, these were my favorite gaming moments of E3 2011.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I liked Oblivion despite not really enjoying Morrowind. If what I saw at E3 2011 is any indication, I will love Skyrim despite coming to loathe Fallout 3.

Part of it is the scope and beauty of the game, which is to be expected at this point from the studio. Part of this is the snowy Norse setting and the sense of place that the art and architecture conveys about the world. Part of it is just because the NPCs finally look a bit like actual people and less like soulless automatons (the robots of Westworld were cuddlier and deeper than most of the Elder Scrolls’ previous characters).

But mostly, it is the dragons.

During the demo, our first real glimpse of the terrifying monsters came about halfway through, when we emerged from a dungeon to find a group of giants herding mammoths across snowy tundra. The ensuing battle was interrupted when a shadow darkened the skies and snatched one of the massive giants, carrying him off to parts unknown. Moments later, the creature returned along with a second dragon, the pair blasting fire and ice in turn.

It was riveting – I cannot wait to slay my first dragon [Editor's Note: Stu is a Dungeon Master. He knows dragons].

Dark Souls

I also can’t wait to die over and over again, if my brief encounter with Dark Souls is any indication. The spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls¸ which I loved to the point of suffering, looks to be at least twice as punishing as the previous game, which is exactly the point. The sword and sorcery world is filled with dangers that constantly prove deadly, which creates a trial and error gameplay that should be frustrating but is instead riveting and addictive. I still want to discover the best path around that armored boar lurking in the Undead Priory. I want to rain my vengeance down upon it for the dozens of deaths it inflicted upon me…and when I am done with him, the next challenge – bigger, stranger –will be a similar dance of attrition.

A game like this is a delicate balance between challenge and frustration, but so far Dark Souls appears to walk the tightrope well, with its defeats inspiring determination rather than despair.

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3, meanwhile, is a terrifying examination of insanity.

I loved Far Cry 2. I didn’t play it until well after its original release, but the amount of thought I have devoted to the game and my actions within it since is pretty much unparalleled. It goes without saying that I have high hopes for the follow up.

The new game leaves blood soaked Africa in favor of a mysterious tropical island not unlike the original (and forgettable) game in the series. Instead of mutants, however, this island is populated with crazy people with guns. One such madman, in an unbalanced monologue filled with barely restrained physical brutality, explains that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting the results to change. He also insists that this is the second time he has had to kill you, just before throwing you off a cliff to drown. You escape, of course, and attempt to flee using a nearby helicopter, which is shot down in short order. Climbing from the wreckage, you see the man from earlier emerging from the jungle to ask, “Have I ever told you the definition of insanity?”

It was a fever dream of a demo that is bound to be only the beginning of a long, delirious ride.

Bastion

One the most gratifying videogame related experiences for me this year has been watching Bastion slowly go from a little known indie title into full-blown critical success. I am friends with Darren Korb, the audio designer for the game (he was an amazing emcee when we used to run Rock Band nights in the city). My first exposure to Bastion was him telling me that he was doing audio for a videogame. My second was actually hearing that audio, which was nominated for an IGF award, on the floor of GDC 2011, an experience that I was not fully prepared for – the game uses contextual music and narration to surprising effect. Coupled with the lush, hand painted visuals (which were also nominated for an IGF) and the retro-isometric view, I was sold.

Bastion didn’t pick up those awards but at PAX East 2011, the word was that Warner Brothers had picked up the distribution. Now, at E3 2011, Bastion was announced as a Summer of Arcade title on Xbox Live, had a booth covered in award ribbons and a new level to demo. While I played the level (which was much harder than the previously available demo), I most enjoyed watching people who didn’t expect much from the game turn into true believers after playing for a few minutes.

It’s nice when your friends make things – I am a supportive guy – but it is great fun to see your friends make something awesome and be rewarded for their efforts. I can’t be objective at all about Bastion so I can only hope that fact will leave you even more inclined to check it out.

BioShock Infinite

I don’t particularly like the BioShock franchise nor do I believe that designer Ken Levine’s status in the videogame industry as an iconoclastic auteur has truly been earned. These are, at best, high concept games with mediocre executions.

But that doesn’t mean things can’t change.

I still hate that Infinite has the BioShock branding writ large above it, despite only the slightest of connections between those games, or the System Shock games that inspired them. I am not thrilled that the combat mechanics again rely on the use of plasmids (or whatever they are called in this go-round) or that their narrative justification will likely be as weak as the sea slug nonsense we suffered in Rapture.

What I loved in the E3 demo minimizes those worries, at least for the time being. The setting is bright and unique, the combat set pieces frenetic and versatile and the story’s political commentary much less heavy handed (in fact, politics may be a red herring – Infinite seems to be more a musing on abusive relationships than philosophical ideologies).

But most of all, it is the emotional connection I felt towards the characters that impressed me most. Over the course of the fifteen minute demo, the range of emotions displayed by Elizabeth, the mysterious woman you are trying to rescue from the steampunk city in the sky, easily outstripped any kind of personality delivered over the course of two BioShock games.

And if that didn’t get me, the rip in time leading to a city street in an alternate 1983 where Revenge of the Jedi was listed on a theater marquee certainly did…

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Follow @StuHorvath on Twitter and you too can see him change his mind at the drop of a hat!

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