E3! 2019! It happened! Like last year! Let's talk about it!
Expectations were low for the show this year. Sony, one of the Big Three, announced ahead of time that they were going to skip it entirely, and with the next generation of consoles coming we're officially in the liminal space where not a lot of games get announced since developers are all making stuff for the new hardware that they can't talk about yet.
Maybe it's because my expectations were so low, but I found this year's E3 more satisfying than the last several. There wasn't a whole lot actually new, but we got better looks at exciting projects and it's become clear that the first quarter of next year is going to be absurdly stacked with promising-looking games.
(And EA, I'm rolling them together because there wasn't enough in the EA stream to talk about alone)
With Sony out of the picture, the big question on everyone's mind was how much Microsoft would talk about their next console(s), code-named Scarlett (the current scuttlebutt is that they're launching with two versions, one more powerful than the other). Would they pull another 360 and launch a year ahead of the competition, unveiling the consoles in their entirety for a release later this year?
Nope! Instead we just got a lot of vague hyperbole about graphical power. Come back next year!
But they did show a selection of big games, such as Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (or Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, or Star Wars: Jedi: Fallen Order or however the hell you're supposed to write that), one of the most anticipated games of the show. And it...looked very underwhelming.
The distinctly stiff and awkward animations and kind of lacklustre graphics could easily be fixed between now and the game's release, but that doesn't change the fact that the gameplay looks extremely dull, consisting of a lot of lethargic exploring and climbing coupled with boring combat. I guess it's entirely possible that whoever was playing the game when they captured the footage (supposedly an "expert" player) was instructed to go slow in order to show off the mechanics, but even still, my hype level for this is pretty much zero.
(Apparently there was a behinds-closed-doors presentation for journalists that made the game seem a lot more ambitious and exciting, which really makes me wonder why EA didn’t show that footage publicly)
The biggest moment of the conference by far, and probably the biggest moment of the show, was a new trailer for CDProjekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077, which ended with the reveal that everyone's internet boyfriend Keanu Reeves is in the game. And then Keanu came out on stage, and then he pointed dramatically and revealed the (surprisingly soon) release date...*fans self*
Which was utterly delightful, but I still have some pretty big reservations about Cyberpunk 2077, even ignoring the recent revelations about horrible working conditions at CDProjekt and other questionable things the company has done. I'll save my full spiel for when the game comes out and I can see whether it actually stumbles in the ways it looks like it might, but I worry that it's taking a particularly shallow and dated vision of a cyberpunk story and then drowning it in try-hard edginess.
The footage we saw at E3, with its constant barrage of (oddly bleeped-out) "fucks", does nothing to alleviate those concerns. I'm sure it will be gorgeous, slickly-produced and fun to play, but will it be the shining beacon of the cyberpunk genre that its fans are holding it up as? It would be nice to have one of those, given that the cyberpunk genre’s pessimistic predictions are becoming more and more relevant every year (in that they’re rapidly ceasing to be predictions).
Microsoft's entire conference was pretty much just one trailer and video after another--an increasingly common approach to consumer-focused video game presentations in general, and one I greatly appreciate--and nestled in among the deluge was the debut trailer for From Software's new game, Elden Ring. Like all From announcements, it was just a vague CG teaser with no concrete details whatsoever about gameplay or story, but we do know that the game is open-world (an exciting first for the makers of Dark Souls) and that George RR "Game of Thrones" Martin collaborated on the backstory and mythology in some capacity.
It sounds like it's going to be a fairly big departure for From in terms of how it will feel and play, but as far as the tone and story go we've got another dark fantasy set in a decaying medieval world that's being afflicted with some sort of metaphysical malaise. If it ain't broken...
Also present at Microsoft's presser: a surprise Blair Witch game. It looks cool and I'm interested to play it, but it sees to be drawing heavy inspiration from that terrible sequel that came out in 2017, which sucks.
The strangest moment of the conference was when the upcoming Gears of War 5 (or just "Gears 5", which it's apparently called now) was shown off. Instead of an extensive look at the single-player campaign, which was implied last year to be much more expansive and open than what the franchise has previously featured, the entire focus was on a new multiplayer mode; the only gesture towards the main game was the baffling teaser seen above.
Then the camera panned dramatically down under the stage, to reveal a themed chamber where three professional wrestlers were playing the game. It was extremely odd.
I always look forward to Ubisoft conferences, since they're a big publisher with a track record of announcing at least one big, exciting game every year (after it gets leaked by the press ahead of time, which also happened this year). E3 2019 was no exception, but before we get to that, we have to talk about the conference's important guest star: Bam Bam, the very good boy pictured above.
I guess he was with some sort of actor guy? Who was talking about a game? I wasn't paying attention. The important thing is that Bam Bam came out on stage and it improved the world in a measurable and concrete way.
Ubisoft's other big moment (and actually their only other big moment, if we're being honest--when the show started with an Assassin's Creed musical performance, I knew to adjust my expectations downwards) was the previously-leaked unveiling of Watch Dogs Legion, the third entry in Ubisoft's hacker-vigilante series.
I have a tumultous history with this franchise. I was pretty negative on the first one when it came out, finding its edgy batman-but-with-guns-and-a-phone protagonist utterly insufferable and its gameplay often fiddly and frustrating. Doing a master's degree in IT security in the intervening years has only further highlighted how ridiculous the game's depiction of hacking is, even compared to other fictional portrayals of the practice.
However, I recently revisited it and discovered that I do enjoy its core open world stealth and driving mechanics, enough that I'm now playing the sequel (which I might review when I'm finished). As such, I went into the announcement of the third game with a degree of cautious optimism, as this potentially seems like another example of Ubisoft stumbling while debuting a new franchise before finding its footing in later installments.
That optimism held throughout the footage we saw. Watch Dogs Legion is aiming very high, with an amitious and never-before-seen idea of letting you recruit and play as literally any NPC in the game in lieu of having a central protagonist and core cast of characters. Underpinning this is a frankly unbelievable level of NPC simulation, with a city full of people who go about complex daily routines which can be altered and disrupted by the player's actions. We've heard all of these claims many times before and they never panned out, but procedural generation has been making great advances lately and games journalists who got a chance to play it are reporting that it appears to be working as advertised. Again, cautious optimism.
Story-wise, the game is an interesting swerve. The original Watch Dogs was slammed for being overly self-serious and grim, which led to the sequel taking on a lighter, more fun tone as as we moved from Aiden "My Niece Is Dead" Peirce shooting people in a grey, rain-swept Chicago to a group of young hacktivists operating in sunny San Francisco. But Watch Dogs 2 was also mostly developed during a time of relative optimism in American politics, with a popular Democrat president in the Oval Office and another one expected to take his place soon. There's an obvious Donald Trump analogue in game, who's portrayed the same way Trump was viewed by most people in 2014 and 2015: as a buffoonish blow-hard with zero actual chance of getting elected.
Given everything that's happened, it seemed likely that a third game would take a darker tone, and Legion certainly is: set in a dystopian post-Brexit London where technological surveillance is omnipresent...
Wait, back up. In this version of the grim future, automation has devastated the economy and led to widespread poverty and financial hardship!
No? Okay, get this: anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, and people are being hauled away by deportation squa--
The jokes. They're so easy to make. Ha ha. Ha.
So yeah, it's definitely taking current concerns and ramping them up a bit, as is the habit of dystopian fiction in general. This is heartening--a game whose message is that "everyone has a reason to fight" and where The Resistance is framed as a populist movement and not the pet project of an elite squad of badasses is both welcome and needed--but certain aspects of this dystopia also make me worry. The oppressive force is seemingly not the actual government of Britain, but a group of overbearing tech companies who stepped in to fill the void when the government collapsed. So it's not the police who are beating people in the streets (the jokes), it's the private security company that's largely taken over the police's function.
Is this going to be a story where "victory" comes about when you restore the authority of the "rightful" government? Is it going to be yet another piece of dystopia fiction where the end goal is simply to return to our current status quo?
The rapid growth of technology companies' wealth and power is a very real concern; it feels like we're currently halfway to the classic cyberpunk situation where mega-corporations have taken over authority from the civilian government, and that end-state is growing more likely every year. It's not hard to envision a scenario where some crisis (like, say, the rapidly-approaching automation revolution that is definitely going to severely fuck us unless we either stop it or change our economic system) weakens civil authority to the point where the government willingly hands power over to large companies. This is a valid worry, and I'm glad we're getting a piece of high-profile fiction that's addressing it.
At the same time, is that really the point the game's priniciple designers wanted to make, or was this a concession to the famously politics-averse Ubisoft? Is it helping anyone to take real abuses and oppressive actions that are being carried out by governments and frame them as a problem of corporate power? With any dystopian fiction, I always ask the following question: can the people benefitting from, supporting, or even actively carrying out current systems of oppression come away from this seeing themselves as the good guys? We'll have to see what Watch Dogs Legion's answer to this is.
AKA the Fallout 76 apology hour
The question on everyone's mind was how (or whether) Bethesda was going to address the garbage-strewn elephent in the room that is Fallout 76, and to their credit they didn't pussyfoot around the topic, acknowledging the poor reception it's recieved before announcing an expansion that seems tailor-made to address the biggest complaints. Whether this will be enough to win back the crowd remains to be soon.
But I'm guessing the answer is "no".
Other than that Bethesda had a perfectly fine show, giving everyone a better look at the much-anticipated Doom Eternal and showing off a few other titles. But there was only one question on my mind: would we see the next game by Arkane Lyon, developers of Dishonored, my favourite game franchise of the modern era? Given that they were roped into helping out on Wolfenstein: Youngblood, I thought it was unlikely that they were even making something, let alone that we'd see it this year.
But we did! Sort of. In a CG trailer, which is the way everyone announces their games these days. It's called Death Loop, it's about two warring assassins caught in a temporal loop, it has two black protagonists (which really shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age, but is) and it looks stylish as hell, layering Arkane's signature aesthetic with a splash of grindhouse. I can't wait to see more next year.
Bethesda also unveiled (also with a CG trailer) an intriguing game called Ghostwire Tokyo, which is notable for a number of reasons: it's the new game by Shinji "Resident Evil" Mikami, the premise--hunting for supernatural beings in modern day Tokyo--is interesting, the trailer was cool, and "Ghostwire Tokyo" is a totally rad name for a video game.
But the game's announcement also introduced the internet to Ikumi Nakamura, the game's director. Her bubbly, theatrical stage presence and expert use of Antics was a breath of fresh air compared to the usual parade of blazer-wearing executives shuffling around the stage with their arms held awkwardly a few inches from their torsos and tripping over their teleprompter lines. If Bethesda has any sense, they'll get her on a stage or in front of a camera every time the game comes up in the press.
Y'ALL LIKE FINAL FANTASY???
Among the five thousand remasters and re-releases announced at the Square Enix show, we also got some lengthy new footage of the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII remake, which I'm increasingly convinced isn't actually giving fans of that game what they want. As well as replacing the old semi-turn based combat with something much more action-focused, the characters now talk incessantly during combat. This kind of turns Cloud into a different character, and it makes the already-uncomfortable portrayal of Barrett even more racist, as he now comes off like a buffoonish Mr. T caricature.
On top of that, the idea is still for the project to be episodic, with each "episode" consisting of a full-price, (supposedly) full length game. Given that this first installment apparently only goes to the end of the section of Final Fantasy VII set in Midgard--which those who have played it will remember is basically just a very extended prologue--I have to wonder how long this entire project is going to take to complete...or whether it will be.
And when you keep in mind that most fans of the game probably just wanted a carbon copy of the original but with nicer graphics, the whole thing starts to feel like a very expensive wild goose chase.
In addition to its more famous core business of developing Japanese role playing games, Square Enix is also a publisher that owns a stable of western developers. This year's E3 saw the official unveiling of its Avengers game, which was announced two years ago and has been totally incognito since, and it was...odd.
Skipping over the fact that this version of the characters is clearly based on the movies but without actually using any of the actors' voices or likenesses so that it feels like you're watching a bunch of cosplayers, the footage shown here was just plain odd. There were only a few tiny snippets of gameplay; the rest was all cut-scene and story, sandwhiched between producers and voice actors blathering on about how great the game is without actually showing any of it. Towards the end of the presentation one of the producers did the usual "and now watch this!" thing that usually presages a lengthy gameplay demo, only to show...a short cinematic revealing that Ant Man is in the game.
What I'm getting at is that between the weird presentation and the fact that the game vanished for two years after it was announced, I'm starting to wonder if it isn't having a troubled development. Indeed, journalists who saw a closed-door gameplay presentation (part of which has apparently leaked) have reported that it looked extremely rough and unfinished. This is what Square Enix moved Eidos Montreal onto instead of making another Deus Ex, so it damn well better shape up.
And then, finally, we come to Nintendo.
I feel like Nintendo has two modes at E3: either they totally blow the doors off the show and put everyone else to shame, or they completely faceplant. This was a rare year where they didn't go to either extreme; their presentation had a solid amount of good games--enough that I'd probably say they "won" E3, if I had to pick someone--likely because they're in the middle of their console cycle rather than at the end like everyone else.
We got some more in-depth looks at games that had already been announced (that was a running theme this year) , with the Links Awakening remake and Astral Chain both looking like good Switch exclusives, and the long-awaited next Animal Crossing game was finally unveiled. In between, Nintendo showed that their strong third-party support from independant and smaller developers shows no sign of slowing down. All good stuff; had the show wrapped up with that, I'd have come away satisfied.
But then, right at the end, they pulled a "just one more thing" and revealed a sequel to 2017's Zelda: Breath of The Wild.
I never ended up blogging about it because it came out right before I had to quit work long-term due to medical issues, but BoTW holds a special place in my heart. I did not expect to see the next Zelda game announced so, and I definitely didn't expect it to be a direct continuation. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long before we can play it.