This post will look at the standout games of this year's E3: while not necessarily the most high profile, these are the titles which I believe offered new perspectives on familiar genres or have the potential to take the gaming medium in new directions.
This year's E3 had disappointingly little that was genuinely new: Microsoft and Sony's motion controllers don't appear to be going anywhere the Wii didn't go four years ago, while Nintendo had a strong showing with plenty of previously unseen games, but relied heavily on nostalgia and familiar gameplay rather than true innovation.
The 3DS looks impressive, but is definitely one of Nintendo's evolution
(SNES, GameCube) rather than revolution (NES, N64, Wii) consoles.
Thankfully there were a handful of games which did stand out, whether
by design or by accident, offering a glimpse of where gaming might be heading in the upcoming year.
Platforms: PlayStation Network
Flower might have looked like a slightly bland Dutch postcard, but its mantra of play as a form of relaxation rather than competition or conquest was brave, executed with uncomplicated elegance and much acclaimed. Developers thatgamecompany return with a similarly open-minded and post-modern concept, this time seeking to embrace gaming's ability to give its players unworldly powers and the freedom to enter the unknown.
Journey will put you in the role of an unnamed explorer, crossing a desert to a distant mountain and along the way discovering traces of a lost civilisation. Emphasis is being strongly placed on discovery and exploration for their own sake, of allowing yourself to uncover new ways to interact with your environment, to leave your mark on it as well as finding marks left by those who have crossed the desert before you: the game is an online title, meaning you will occasionally meet up with other explorers and share your experiences (how sparse this desert will be if a million people find themselves playing simultaneously is another question entirely).
What story there is will be told through indecypherable glyphs and ruined monuments, asking players to give them meaning. Whether definitive answers will be given once explorers reach the distant mountain remains to be seen, but be in no doubt that this is as perfect a conceivable example as could be of a journey being more meaningful than the destination.
Designer Jenova Chen is hoping that
players discover something about themselves and their relationships
with the virtual worlds they inhabit while trekking across the dunes
and while it's a strong bet that a large number of penises and
obscenities will end up marking those wind-kissed sands, Journey
looks set to offer the kind of introspective depth and meaningful
minimalism that is all too rare in a medium overflowing with the empty
pleasures of gunplay and sportscars.
Platforms: 360, PS3, PC, Mac
While I find myself perpetually underwhelmed by the Valve games that seem to get universal adoration elsewhere (was I the only one who played the Half-Life 2 vehicle sections? Or slog of a finale?), even I couldn't help but fall just a little bit in love with Portal. While I'm not surprised that a sequel has been unveiled, I am a little worried: I preferred the original game when it was content to be a series of puzzle rooms narrated by an amusingly sinister announcer.
Although GlaDOS was a fantastic villain, I felt the game went downhill once it started trying to bring in a plot. Expanding that four-hour game into a fully fledged retail release raises therefore quite a few questions, most pertinently whether plot will become an increasingly vital part of the experience and also how the gameplay will evolve, given how puzzle rooms can only stay entertaining for so long no matter how inventive they are.
Early signs suggest that Valve are sticking to what has gone before, with a few bonuses (new items that change protagonist Chell's ability to interact with her environment) and an expanded story (the return to the Aperture Science laboratories see them overrun with vines and weeds). Although Valve's assurances that they're abandoning the cake jokes that became one of the more tiresome internet memes of recent years would suggest a willingness to look for inspiration outside the elements that made the original game popular, I'm hoping they are more ambitious in their structuring of the game than has been revealed so far.
My feeling is that ten-or-so hours of progressing through a series of small rooms will rapidly become tiresome, no matter how many variables are added for our amusement. I'd like to see the game's environment become more open and more natural puzzles replacing individual staged events.
Being able to use the
Portal gun in a Super Metroid-esque world, full of freedom,
exploration and hidden secrets, would allow Valve to indulge their
enthusiasm for storytelling and keep the formula fresh without straying
from the core gameplay. If we are to see more small games like Portal
being expanded into full-length experiences, Valve's sequel may well
prove a barometer for how successful we can expect them to be.
CHILD OF EDEN
Platforms: 360/Kinect, PS3/Move
Developers: Q Entertainment
Arguably the one game Microsoft really should have put on stage at their show rather than the deluge of sports, mini-game and fitness titles, Child of Eden has the potential to be a perfect 'bridge' title between the new gamers Kinect is courting and the old-school many feel the 360 is abandoning. More than that, it is stunning to watch and the most inventive use of Kinect's hands-free mantra that was seen anywhere at E3.
A semi-sequel to Rez (a 2001 Dreamcast and PS2 game), Child of Eden is a fusion of arcade shooter and music game. Taking place inside the matrix of an artificial intelligence, gamers have to shoot down viruses who are corrupting the software. The differences between this and the multitude of other shooting games on the market are twofold: the first is that the environment you play through is constructed entirely out of sound.
Each virus you destroy creates a new musical note, in turn changing the landscape (if you can call it that) around you and creating new colour. The second is that by moving away from the traditional controller, players do not so much 'play' the game as they conduct it: the on-stage demonstration of the game suggests that viruses appear in such a fashion as to encourage the gamer to move his arms in time with the music, connecting them to the music and the visuals in a way which would never previously have been possible (as if Wii Music didn't already look limited enough...).
still many questions that must be asked about whether Kinect can offer
gaming experiences more extended than five-minute workouts or mini-game
competitions, but Tetsuya Mizuguchi's conduct-'em-up is a welcome
reassurance that in the right hands, full-body gaming really could take
interaction to a whole new level.
Platforms: Wii, Nintendo DS
This is probably the last title anyone would expect to see on a list of games offering a glimpse into gaming's future, but it's on here for reasons deeper than the N64 original being my all-time favourite game.
Activision's take on GoldenEye 007 is the final entry on this list precisely because of its relationship to the past: we've seen countless games being ported onto new platforms with small enhancements (the XBLA version of Perfect Dark here proving an ideal example), but this might be the first time we've seen a game being genuinely remade in the Hollywood meaning of the word – taking an original story, situation and characters, then using them to create a brand new experience.
Everything we've seen to date, be it the God of War PS3 ports or The Twin Snakes on GameCube, have been more akin to remasterings, reissues or Director's Cuts. Activision's GoldenEye 007, entirely by accident, could be treading in entirely new territory and lay down a precedent for the future. Naturally the announcement has been greeted with some trepidation by gamers who aren't sure what to expect: is this a port, or a whole new game? What's Daniel Craig doing there? Why is 006 present in the Dam? Where's Sean Bean got to?
As is the case with cinematic remakes, the key to success will lie in staying true to the spirit of the original – a player-defined balance between stealth and action, non-linear objective completion, plenty of cheats and scientists to test them on – while carving out its own identity in level design, storytelling and gameplay enhancements. Early signs have proven surprisingly positive and developers Eurocom seem respectful of the original's legacy without being shackled by it, with new levels (Zukovsky's bar from the film) and scenarios being brought in.
Certainly, this looks to be nowhere near as lazy as EA's Rogue Agent, even if it's near-impossible to shake the suspicion that the use of the GoldenEye name was entirely driven by money-making concerns. I read a messageboard comment that suggested it was clear Nintendo had a successful E3 because they got their own brown-and-grey shooter: an interesting observation about how few mainstream third-party games the Wii has hosted, also raising the question of whether this most beloved of licences is merely being used to make more palatable to Nintendo's aguably more exclusive audience a game that would otherwise be lost in a sea of identikit alternatives.
Whether Eurocom find the right balance
between modernising and nostalgia will only be known at the game's
release in November, but until then we'll just have to settle for a few
more rounds in the Complex with Pistols and Licence to Kill. Now tell
me you're not looking forward to seeing Mr. Bond again.