A Belated E3 Retrospective – EA and Microsoft

I’ve been a little busy with work and holiday lately, so this is my first post in a few weeks. But hey, what a time to get back to writing! I love it when E3 rolls around, and even though we’re some time post-E3 I’m excited to chip in with my reactions to some of the things we’ve seen from video game Christmas. I’m not going into great detail about all the games on show; instead I’ll be giving a general overview of the major press conferences and focusing on a few of the things that I’m most intrigued by, starting with EA and Microsoft. (I’ll post my thoughts on Sony’s and Ubisoft’s shows later on.) Feel free to agree, disagree, or share what has piqued your interest.

And so, the Electronic Entertainment Expo has come and gone once again. E3 is one of my favourite times of the year, a time when video game fans can bask in a glorious whirlwind of sparkling new gameplay footage, exciting teaser trailers, and cringe-worthy press conferences. It’s a unique time in the calendar when we forget our usual cynicism and allow ourselves to be swept away in a sea of sweet, sweet hype: yes, that game will come out when they say it will! Yes, that game will look that good when it’s actually released! Yes, the developers will deliver on all the promises they’re making!

The enormous showcase came to a halt a while ago, but I wanted to look back and delve into some of the storylines from E3. Now that the dust has settled and the flood of hot takes has abated, we can look more critically at what was on show, but I will still allow myself a few words here and there to speculate with giddy abandon about some games I’m particularly excited about. Let’s go!

EA leans hard on Star Wars: Battlefront 2

EA kicked off the proceedings with an hour-long press conference which, apart from a couple of small surprises, stuck to a conservative formula: new FIFA, new Madden, and a big slice of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 multiplayer action. They teased the new IP from BioWare, Anthem (more on that later), and unveiled a cool-looking local co-op game called A Way Out, in which you play as two brothers who work together to escape from prison. Here are my thoughts from EA’s showing:

  • Another sports game, another underdog story mode. Madden is now following in the footsteps of NBA 2K and FIFA, as they revealed a story mode called “Longshot”, where you play as a college quarterback looking to make it in the NFL. Story modes in sports games are contrived at best and insufferable at worst, but maybe Madden surprises us and gets this one right. Outside of this, EA unveiled NBA Live 18, an attempt to wrestle some basketball fans away from the mighty NBA 2K series. 2K has been so good for so long that I doubt EA’s effort will make much of an impact, but hey, good on them for trying.
  • Battlefront 2 looks great – but I’m not sure it’s for me. EA’s showstopper was a hefty chunk of multiplayer gameplay from Star Wars: Battlefront 2, which was very pretty indeed, even if I had no idea what was going on at any point. I’m already fairly multiplayer-phobic, and the orgy of laser fire and photo-realistic explosions did little to get me excited. That said, I am intrigued by the single-player campaign. If they can effectively translate the chaos of multiplayer into an engaging story, I’ll be impressed.
  • A Way Out looks really good. EA and Hazelight Studios’ ambitious game is trying to tell a personal story with inventive mechanics, as it has you playing as each protagonist simultaneously with a buddy. The ability to play together with a friend has always been a uniquely endearing quality in gaming, so it’s not surprising that people reacted well to the game’s reveal trailer. EA put a lot of emphasis on their work with independent developers in their press conference, and it seems like A Way Out is the poster child for this indie focus.

Microsoft comes out swinging

Even though I think the concept of winning or losing E3 is nonsensical, Microsoft was clearly outshone by Sony at last year’s event. Microsoft did their best to turn the tables this year with a breakneck press conference which began with the official reveal of the Xbox One X, finished with a brain-melting gameplay demo from BioWare’s new IP, Anthem, and spilled over with game announcements in between. Here’s what I thought of the show:

  • Anthem looks incredible. I promise I’ll only be a little bit cynical about BioWare’s beautiful, beautiful new game: I’m pretty sure we’re still in the foetal stages of the game’s development, and the final product has plenty of time to let us down between now and its eventual release, especially considering how ambitious it looks. That said: holy balls this game looks good. This was the kind of gameplay reveal trailer that makes you look around whatever real-world room you’re in at the time and want to vomit, because nothing you see in real life will ever be as beautiful as what’s on the screen in front of you. Okay, maybe that’s a bit too far. But did you see this shit? You are essentially an overpowered Iron Man, zooming around a lush, wild, vibrant ecosystem and finding missions to complete with your friends. I know I’ve gushed about how pretty it looks, but I’ll be most intrigued to find out how they blend a compelling story with the wide-open, Destiny-style co-operative play. BioWare have impeccable pedigree when it comes to story and world-building, but after the definite misstep that was Mass Effect Andromeda, I think they have some ground to make up with Anthem. Here’s hoping they deliver the goods.
  • Indie games galore. Microsoft very smartly showed off a ton of upcoming indie titles in the middle of their press conference, with stand-alone trailers for some games and a searing highlight reel that showed tantalising glimpses of many more. Indie development is a much-needed source of diversity and imagination in the world of video games, and it was refreshing to see such an effort to shine a light on games outside of the mainstream.
  • Assassin’s Creed is relevant again. A year off from E3 in 2016 seemed to do Ubisoft’s marquee franchise the world of good, as people reacted very favourably to the reveal of AC Origins pretty much across the board. The fact it’s set in ancient Egypt was one of the worst kept secrets in recent memory, but it’s nonetheless a welcome opportunity for the series to explore a fascinating period in history. The core gaming experience appears familiar, but there are a few new gimmicks, and Ubisoft are promising more open-ended missions and RPG-style elements to keep things interesting. Plus, the environments look gorgeous, and I’m pretty sure I saw a hippo in the trailer, so that’s cool.
  • Sea of Thieves looks like terrific fun. I really enjoyed this gameplay segment. Rare are playing up the sillier aspects of being a pirate, tapping into the sense of adventure we all felt at one point in our lives when we imagined ourselves hobbling about on a peg leg and brandishing a cutlass (come on, admit it. Everyone wanted to be a pirate back in the day). The exploration on both land and sea looks rewarding, and the art style is spot-on; in the end, however, I’m not convinced the overall game will be a rich enough experience to reach a big chunk of the mainstream audience. I hope I’m proven wrong.

I thought Microsoft had a very strong conference this year. They kept embarrassing game developer speeches to a minimum and gave fans what they want: a boatload of new video game footage. In comparison, EA’s conference felt rather uninspired, and I found the whole Battlefront 2 section needlessly silly; did we really need a whole formation of stormtroopers and the lead actress addressing us in character? I suppose it’s part of what makes E3 special: we get spectacular trailers showing beautifully-crafted characters and environments, and we also get some announcements so cringe-worthy they make you want to move to another country. Ah, E3.

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