The First ­Parties Forge New Directions at This Year's E3

The First ­Parties Forge New Directions at This Year's E3

The big three make their bid for relevancy by moving in their own distinct directions.

E3 2015 marks the first time I haven't had to go to a press conference in about a decade, and the break was a huge relief.

I know those things are fun to watch from the sidelines, but they're kind of miserable when you actually attend in person — you stand in line beneath the blazing LA sun for an hour, crowd into tiny stadium seats, and try to post reactions on a wi­fi connection being hammered by tens of thousands of other dorks just like you.

So it's possible that my freedom from being ping­ponged around the city for two days to watch corporate pep rallies accounts for why I enjoyed 2015's press conferences so much. Possible, but honestly I think there's much more to it than that. For the first parties, at least, this year's conferences offered the greatest diversity of material I've ever seen at E3. I've already shared my thoughts on Microsoft's lineup, but Sony and Nintendo were right there as well. And, even more importantly, each of the first parties has adopted a very different tack from one another as well.

For the first time I can remember, watching E3's press conferences wasn't like sitting through a bunch of carbon copy bullet ­point lists. Microsoft's hung its hopes on a richer array of content that appeals to a broad range of gamers, a marked change from its usual macho swagger and violent shooters. Sony has brilliantly decided to parlay PlayStation 4's success into giving gamers everything they've ever wanted. And Nintendo has decided to become wacky and experimental, with a lineup filled with barely recognizable spinoffs of popular franchises as well as some intensely and unapologetically anime­-style offerings.

At the same time, each company still maintains its own identity. Microsoft has a ton of indie and niche games lined up for Xbox One, yes, but they still have three different demos here for Halo 5: Guardians. There's an overview presentation, the Hololens demo that blew Jaz's mind, and finally a 24­-man Warzone session that I participated in and used as an opportunity to deeply embarrass myself. It's clearly the game that serves as the cornerstone for Xbox One's fortunes this year, and a concerted effort by 343 Industries to restore its fans' faith after the rushed Halo 4 and the troubled Master Chief Collection. Guardians revisits the best concepts of classic Halo (the dual storylines of Halo 2, the squad­based play of ODST and Reach) while using Warzone to push into new territory more reminiscent of Titanfall or (fittingly, perhaps) Destiny.

On the other hand, Microsoft also has Cuphead, a game that looks like a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon a la Betty Boop or Bosco but plays nothing at all like you'd expect. Is it a platformer? A roguelike metroidvania, like so many other indie games? Shockingly, no; it's actually a love letter to the classic 16­-bit shooters of Nazca and Treasure. With its highly technical play (including the ability to lock yourself in place for eight-­directional fire and an aerial bullet-­parry mechanic that charges a super meter), Cuphead plays almost exactly like Gunstar Heroes. And its structure — it's a series of boss battles and nothing more — resembles Alien Soldier. The game's co­-creator (whom I spoke to briefly at a crowded Microsoft showcase) acknowledges these influences and also cites Metal Slug. The result is a brilliant-­looking platform shooter with an unrepentantly hardcore difficulty level.

While I haven't had time to absorb any of the other platform offerings, like the ethereal Beyond Eyes, I've nevertheless been impressed by all that Xbox One has on offer. Likewise, PlayStation 4 seems on­-point as well, for the first time. Well, that's not entirely fair. Sony's overall hardware strategy has been great from the beginning, a masterful counterpoint to Microsoft's clumsy early "we do everything and also maybe sometimes games" marketing, but until now PS4 has been fairly anemic in terms of exclusive original content. Big­-budget games like The Order, Knack, and Killzone have felt severely lacking, and if not for the company's impressive commitment to indie games, there would be little unique about PS4.

That clearly looks to change soon, thanks to the stunning lineup revealed this week. Of course there are usual suspects like Uncharted 4, which looks exactly like you'd expect of an Uncharted game running on PS4: It will no doubt be the most beautiful console game ever made, with an insane amount of care put into environmental details, animations, and set pieces.

But I see far more potential in Horizon: Zero Dawn, which is a pleasant surprise. I genuinely hated the last release by studio Guerilla Games (Killzone: Shadow Fall), and for them to turn around and offer something that looks so radically different comes as a welcome surprise. It's not the most original concept ever — think Zoids meets Monster Hunter in a Witcher III world — but (at least for the initial vertical-­slice demo at the show) it all comes together in a beautiful and engrossing way. Not only does it promise to offer a wealth of tactical options for hunting and combat, it also introduces some really smart interface optimizations that makes crafting less of a chore without dumbing down the action. And it may even end up being the game that gives PS4 its big breakthrough in Japan, where it's been met with a chilly reception; I overheard a Japanese journalist gushing about the enthusiasm Horizon has met with on forums back home. And if Horizon doesn't do the trick, I'm sure the Final Fantasy VII remake will — though that's years away.

What really impresses me about Sony's lineup this year is that the company is using its powers for good. Big corporations are ultimately only concerned with the bottom line, and those efforts often come at the expense of the greater good of the medium. And Sony, like every first-­party in game history, has a tendency to get cocky when it tastes success — just think back a decade to the PlayStation 3's debut for a reminder. The PS4 has already put Sony way ahead of the competition, which is right about where the company normally would go off the rails. But this time, Sony has chosen to pour its resources into bringing long­-desired gamer dreams to reality: The Last Guardian coalesced from its vaporous status, Final Fantasy VII is getting a remake, and — possibly the shock of the show — Shenmue III could actually happen. I don't think any other first­-party has the clout, resources, and wherewithal to write those kinds of checks, and it makes a great statement for Sony.

Nintendo's announcements this year seemed almost diametrically opposed to Sony's. Rather than delivering on fan demands, the company instead seems to have focused on building games for more casual players. This has elicited the usual reactions of betrayal and anger from the more strident corners of the Internet, capped with a sadly believable petition that demands Nintendo stop developing games for those people and start making them for us instead.

But all Nintendo is doing is making good on the plans and promises it's laid out over the past few years. Its internal studios are trying to find a balance between big­-budget projects (e.g. StarFox Zero) and smaller ventures. Most of what it revealed this week fall on the smaller side of the ledger: An intriguing multiplayer Zelda, an Amiibo-­powered Animal Crossing take on Mario Party, a Metroid spinoff that seems to be an attempt to make good on the promise Metroid Prime: Hunters never quite delivered on.

Nintendo seems increasingly determined to unmoor itself from the bog-standard definition of "video games"; two of its highest-­profile titles (Super Mario Maker and Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer) offer no end goalin and of themselves but rather exist as vehicles for creative expression.

Much has been made of Nintendo's determination to move into the mobile space, and its current mini-­projects feel remarkably like proto-­mobile experiments — but not in a cynical or exploitative free-­to-­play sense. I feel pretty confident that whatever Nintendo does on mobile platforms will demonstrate a certain degree of integrity. Because, after all, Nintendo can't afford to fritter away its good name as a game maker. It's all they've got.

In all, I found far more good than bad in each first-­party manifesto this year, which hasn't been true in recent years. While there was no shortage of core games filled with guns and violence, this year everyone seemed to aim bigger. It's a welcome change of pace, and it goes a long way toward giving me confidence that the industry is learning to adapt to its more diverse audiences and their changing tastes. There's something for everyone at E3 this year. Even for Shenmue fans!

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