Grading The Big Three at E3

 Grading The Big Three at E3

The several morsels of evidence we’ve scrounged up over the past year or so from both trusted and anonymous sources have pointed to holiday 2013 as the start of the next generation. There are no games being talked about for PS3 or Xbox 360 releasing around that time, PC technology is beginning to pull ahead of our current, aging hardware, and fresh ideas in the form of new IPs are almost absent from the next 12-month release schedule. Developers are planning ahead; hedging their bets on the next big thing.

Where does that leave The Big Three at this year’s E3? Sadly, they’re stuck in a precarious situation with an evident lack of surprises ready to be unveiled. With Microsoft and Sony almost stalling until the next wave of machines make their way to the market, 2012 has been set up as Nintendo’s show to shine. In many ways, this year’s E3 has felt like a stop-gap year for the majority of first and third-party developers, but the industry buzz around Nintendo and its Wii U added some excitement to an otherwise quiet time. With such high expectations for the Mario machine and so little hype behind the HD consoles now getting up there in age, it seemed like there would be a clear standout once the dust settle. Still, the big question must be asked – who won this year’s E3?

It felt as if Microsoft merely rested on its laurels at last year’s E3 – showing a very limited number of strong, first-party titles not “enhanced” by the Kinect technology. It’s difficult to blame the makers of the 360 due to their massive success in the market, but the company’s insistence on displaying social integration and new Xbox Live applications just didn’t feel welcomed in a show primarily about games. What’s the best way to push those memories aside and start off strong in 2012? Halo 4.

Before anyone even managed to take the stage, Master Chief brought down the house with an extended demo of the holiday blockbuster. Though 343 Studios hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel with this new chapter of the now-legendary saga, what was shown was undeniably impressive. New, non-Covenant enemies along with a mechanically fresh arsenal brought some excitement to the combat. Shooting aliens looked fun again, and it’s obvious that 343 had spent some serious time making the fourth entry in the franchise the most visually striking Halo game yet.

Speaking of strong brands under the Microsoft banner, Splinter Cell: Blacklist moved from the rumor mill into reality once members of Ubisoft walked out on stage. A heavier sense of action was instantly apparent, though the multiple kills and few instances of stealth were still quite stylish and brutal. It was a strong debut, but the first-party games that followed didn’t receive the same high-class treatment that Microsoft has been known for in the past. Gears of War: Judgment, Fable: The Journey and Forza Horizon were given short, unappealing trailers that left little to be impressed with. This would be an understandable move in a content-packed presser, but with a chunk of time given to a demonstration of Bing in Spanish, it was baffling to see games that most 360 owners care about get brushed under the rug.

Third-party support, like always, was brawny. Tomb Raider is shaping up to be the reboot the franchise has been in dire need of for quite some time, and South Park: The Stick of Truth may just be the most pleasant, humorous surprise of the year. Xbox SmartGlass, a service that allows the use of tablets and smartphones on the Xbox 360 was one of the biggest, non-game announcements of the show. Similar to Nintendo’s Wii U, gadgets other than the controller can be used as input devices to control applications, internet browsers and even some games. Existing tablets that aren’t made by Microsoft will work with SmartGlass, and while it’s doubtful that we’ll see the next Fable or Halo game being controlled by The New iPad, it’s still a potentially game-changing move that could have implications on how Nintendo’s next console is received.

Even with some great games making their way on stage, nothing quite reached the high of the opening. Halo 4 started things out with a big, thunderous bang, and while South Park and Tomb Raider almost met it atop the mountain, the remainder of Microsoft’s conference felt flat. The once game-focused company seemingly wants to bring every conceivable service to Xbox Live. But, as I said before, E3 is about the games. The software just wasn’t there, and an overall lack of surprise made certain segments of a rather short show drag. The closing Black Ops II demo just reinforced the “playing it safe” message the entire conference seemed to unknowingly express, as it felt as if Microsoft wasn’t willing to take any risks on new franchises or unique properties.  After the last bullet was shot in what’s sure to be this year’s biggest seller, the prospect of something new and different next year became substantially more appealing.

Grade: C+

Every conference has a standout speaker, but none find quite as much success as the charismatic yet humble Jack Tretton. Mr. Tretton is a class act, and while he had to deal with the PSN outage before anything else last year, this year’s conference carried no Sony fouls or burdens from earlier in the year. The Vita’s less-than-stellar performance may fall into this category, but instead of opening on a sour note, Sony was able to take a risk by revealing an exciting new IP from the bright minds at Quantic Dream.

Beyond: Two Souls may have had an unfortunate leak before the conference began, but that didn’t stop David Cage’s new baby from making a breathtaking debut. Heavy Rain was one of the most unique and refreshing titles of the generation, and it looks as if Beyond will add both action and improved animations to that solid yet unpolished foundation. There was little in the realm of gameplay, but PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale helped to bring some mascot-smashing fun to the stage after a very serious display. Four players fought their hearts out on stage: two playing the game on the PS3, and two enjoying the experience from the Vita. As one of the many Sony games meshing the handheld and home consoles, Battle Royale looks to be headed in the right direction. The character announcements of Nathan Drake and a Big Daddy from BioShock weren’t exactly a surprise, but hopefully we’ll all see the true insanity of developer SuperBot Entertainment in the near future.

Vita games continued to take the stage from there, but not nearly to the degree that many had hoped. Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation both look and sound like solid, unique holiday titles for the fledging handheld, but other than the addition of PlayStation One Classics to the Vita, nothing else appeared that made the $250 piece of hardware sound more appealing. As a Vita owner myself, I’m looking for originality; not just a portable PlayStation 3 that plays slightly less-stellar games. There was a fantastic indie segment about the PlayStation networked that showed promising titles like The Unfinished Swan and Papa & Yo for PS3, but it would have been great to also see the Vita get similar treatment.

Third-party support continues to grow on the PlayStation 3, and this was clearly displayed by debut gameplay of naval battles in Assassin’s Creed III and four-player co-op in Far Cry 3. Did either of those features look like game-defining elements? Not really, but they still filled time and impressed the crowd. Speaking of filling time, Wonderbooks is coming to the PlayStation Move. After spending five minutes amazed that the PlayStation Move is still a thing (I own one, by the way), I snapped back to consciousness to witness a story being told via the PlayStation Eye and what seemed to be EyePet technology. The involvement of J.K. “The Hairiest of Potters” Rowling made the product instantly seem legitimate, and honestly, the prospect of experiencing a storybook with the Move does sound pretty fun. What really killed the demo and stunted the growth of a seemingly strong press conference was the absurd length of the demo. It took far too long to explain what really didn’t seem that complicated, and some portions of the story were brought to a halt due to technological issues. I was almost sold on the unique promise of Wonderbooks, but clumsy stage time brought the whole thing back down to earth.

The last two demos really brought down the house, but for very different reasons. God of War: Ascension’s single player looks, well, just like a God of War game. That’s absolutely fine, and it seemed like the crowd was really digging the brutality of the whole spectacle. Yet, the combat sequence shown didn’t nearly reach the highs of the God of War III presentation from a few years back. Kratos still looked fantastic cutting dudes up, and in some ways, he even looked better. Everything about Ascension appears absolutely serviceable, but I just don’t think we really need a new God of War game on this generation of consoles. It feels like the title’s only being made because we’re on an extended console cycle, which is the opposite sense that The Last of Us gave off. As the second true new IP of the show, The Last of Us looks to take the fantastic graphical fidelity, character banter and traversal of Naughty Dog’s past three Uncharted games and put a more focused, survival spin on them. A palpable amount of tension makes this a unique experience for both Naughty Dog and the PlayStation 3, and it’s encouraging to see the developer take a chance before the console takes a backseat to new hardware.

Sony shocked the crowd with its opening and closing segments, impressed with its key franchises in the middle, and disappointed its fans with a dull Wonderbooks demo and lack of Vita content. It was like a sandwich with medium-grade meat but fresh-baked, IP-riddled bread. This won’t go down as one of the best conferences Tretton ever hosted, but it got the job done. There’s plenty to look forward to in the next 12 months and more than a few reason to still get excited about the PlayStation 3.

Grade: B

All eyes were on Nintendo at this year’s E3. While Sony and Microsoft were scrambling to find something to bring excitement to an otherwise hushed event, Nintendo found itself preparing to present the first “next-generation console” of The Big Three. Last year’s unveiling of the Wii U left quite a bit to be desired, but all signs pointed to 2012 as being the tablet-based device’s coming out party. Games needed to be shown, as well as a solid reason to throw money down on the Wii’s successor.

Shigero Miyamoto instantly put the focus on games with a demo of Pikmin 3. Though not something as established and loved as Mario or Zelda, Miyamoto’s display of the adorable title felt like a true treat for all of the Nintendo fans out there unsure of the company’s current gaming direction. Pikmin 3, along with Reggie’s promise of over 20 exciting titles to be shown on stage, painted an encouraging picture for the rest of its hour-long showing.

Yet, few of the high hopes built from the opening were met. Fun titles like Super Mario Bros. U and Scribblenauts Unlimited looked just fine, but a game never came along that made the new hardware look attractive. What really makes the Wii U version of this Mario title so different that an entirely new, possibly expensive console is required? Why would I ever buy Batman Arkham City: Armored Edition at full price when it seems to do little more than add a few gimmicky features on the controller’s screen? Third-party titles like Mass Effect 3, Darksiders II and Aliens Colonial Marines show an encouraging trend for Nintendo’s future support of titles that aren’t first party, but the company showed no solid reason to buy these games again on the Wii U.

Instead of actually presenting unique, interesting Wii U games, Reggie and company seemed to just talk about how an hour wasn’t enough time to explain why their new console is going to revolutionize gaming. You know what would have been a better use of that time? Game demos. The 3DS also failed to make a solid impression, though Luigi’s Mansion and Paper Mario Sticker Star seem to be shaping up quite nicely. A separate conference displaying 3DS titles picked up a little bit of the slack a few days later, but it would have been nice to see more at the proper show.

Was the conference a disaster? Not in the least. The games there had the Nintendo charm, and if third parties keep up this level of support in the future, the Wii U should do just fine. Yet, Nintendo did a poor job of selling the Wii U to an unconvinced audience. The magic of the original Wii doesn’t seem to be with the company this time around, and with the casual listeners being so fickle, there’s no guarantee that Wii fans will be lining up for the latest hardware this holiday season.

The Wii U could be great, but nothing at Nintendo’s E3 2012 press conference proved that.

Grade: C-


E3 2012 was almost devoid of surprises, but that’s to be expected in what many people believe to be the year before a new generation. New IPs like The Last of Us, Watch Dogs and Beyond: Two Souls were difficult to ignore, but there are few companies willing to take a chance on hardware now seven years old. Even Nintendo, with the E3 gold essentially destined for its mantle, failed to deliver both original experiences and a real reason to get excited about the Wii U. No one crashed and burned, and there were some honest bright spots that got the crowd going in each of the three conferences, but 2012 won’t go down as much more than the interlude before a new era. Let’s just say I’m planning my 2013 trip now.

Who do you think won this year’s E3? Do you think any of The Big Three had a truly stellar year? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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