Having just returned from E3 2016, I’ve written a few brief blurbs about the games for which I saw or played any exclusive content so I could give people an idea of what I thought. The following is a breakdown of what I played/watched/interacted with and what I thought of it.
Note: If you notice a curious absence of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, my lame excuse is that the line was too much for me and my timing was never quite right for it. I really wish I’d gotten to check it out, but I just couldn’t manage it.
Interaction: 5-minute hands-on demo
Swag Acquired: pretty damn sweet t-shirt
What it is: ReCore is an upcoming title developed by a couple of small Microsoft studios and produced by legendary character designer and producer Keiji Inafune (of Mega Man fame). It’s an action-platformer that takes inspiration from classic series like Metroid and Mega Man.
Impressions: My first thought when I saw ReCore‘s gameplay was that it looked… underwhelming. The movement, the weapons, and the enemies all looked a little clunky and awkward at first glance, having a sort of old-school third-person shooter vibe that contrasted with it’s challenging and fast-paced style. The biggest takeaway I got from actually playing it was the realization that it feels and controls a lot better than it looked. Even though my time with it was pretty brief (and I was tossed into a point where I already had a bunch of abilities to figure out how to use), I pretty quickly found myself enjoying dashing, jumping, and blasting my way through various robotic beasts. When they took the controller away, I was sad that I couldn’t have seen more. ReCore‘s presentation was sharp and the gameplay felt satisfying despite a couple of awkward things about the controls (namely, I had to take my thumb off the joystick whenever I needed to use the d-pad to switch my weapon, which meant I had to briefly stop moving at tense moments). I must admit that ever since the first reveal trailer, I’ve been interested in this game for its cool desert aesthetic and it’s mysterious female protagonist; but after playing a bit of it, I have a newfound interest in how it plays as well.
Interaction: 10-15 minute hands-on demo (which I was able to complete)
What it is: Abzû is an artistic exploration game by Giant Squid Studios, a new studio from founded by big talents behind the games Journey and Flower. It is an ocean exploration game that is similar in spirit to Journey in that it focuses on peaceful exploration and impressive vistas.
Swag Acquired: A novelty cardboard diver helmet that looks like the in-game one
Impressions: The little slice of Abzû that I played was sort of exactly what I expected to see. I’ll see if I can explain what I mean. Coming from the talent behind Journey, it was no surprise that the demo’s graphics and sound were gorgeous and atmospheric, pulling me into a serene and beautiful ocean setting. Hundreds of fish swam in schools around me, golden rays of sunshine rippled through towering columns of kelp. For a game with 3D movement, it controlled fairly well, so I didn’t have too much trouble floating around and exploring the scenery. The other aspect I expected, of course, was to not get it. A short demo doesn’t really communicate what sort of far-reaching themes and concepts the whole game is likely to explore. There’s no way to know until I play more of it whether or not it has the thematic cohesiveness that made Journey such a unique title. So for Abzû, The beauty and serenity of the game is there in the shallow sense, but the depth and the soul of the experience remains a mystery (pardon the water puns). But for a game like this, that’s okay; I look forward to discovering what it has in store.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Interaction: 15 minute live gameplay demo, 10 minute hands-on demo
Swag Acquired: A silly inflatable spear
What it is: Horizon: Zero Dawn is a new IP from Guerilla Games, the creators of the Killzone series. It’s described as an action role-playing game in a post-apocalyptic world full of the overgrown ruins of ancient civilizations and dominated by enigmatic machines.
Impressions: From both the live demo and the hands-on portion, Horizon had a Far Cry-esque action survival feel to it. From what I played, the game boasts some pretty environments and nice animation as well as nice responsive and satisfying combat. Redheaded heroine Aloy has a variety of tools at her disposal, including various types of arrows, a tethering tool, a tripwire, and of course a badass mecha-spear, with which to hunt or fight the various mechanical creatures in her world (referred to as Machines). Wielding this arsenal, Horizon manifests as more of a run-and-gun shooter than the cover-based ones we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, thanks in part to a generously snappy roll ability that covers a good chunk of distance, giving players the ability to be constantly moving. There’s some awkwardness that goes with jumping into the middle of the game with an arsenal of weapons and skills you don’t yet know how to use, but I was happy to find that the core action of the game shows promise. With an open world game like this, combat doesn’t have to be amazing; it only needs to be entertaining enough to sustain the game’s exploration and story (think elder scrolls or early assassins creed; combat might be fun, but it’s not why you’re playing the game). With this in mind, the game’s combat looks like it’s likely to be strong enough to sustain a big open world game. What remains to be seen is whether the story, characters, and mysterious setting and lore can carry the game as well.
Song of the Deep
Interaction: 15 minute hands-on demo
Swag Acquired: A cute little pin
What it is: Song of the Deep is a 2D action puzzle game by Insomniac Games (Ratchet and Clank, Sunset Overdrive, etc.), produced via a surprising collaboration with games retailer GameStop. Players control a submarine and explore a mysterious underwater world in search of the main character’s father.
Impressions: As a fan of studio Insomniac’s games, I was really looking forward to getting to play a bit of Song of the Deep. After playing it, however, I’m a little bit more cautious. The simple fact is that an atmospheric exploration game like this simply doesn’t do well in a short-form demo. The demo began with some introductory story that had nice art and voice acting, and led into the first level of the game. Piloting the sub around was nice, and using the tether gadget once I got it was pretty neat, but unfortunately the demo didn’t really stick around long enough to stand out. Gameplay was fairly refined but didn’t feel unique or novel in any significant way. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell whether this is a reflection of the game itself or just the fact that I only played it for fifteen minutes. Ultimately, I’m still intrigued by mysteries put forth by the game’s introduction, and I have high hopes for the story and art that will fill the rest of the game. As for the gameplay, however, my expectation is that it will likely be decent but not really anything to write home about. But who knows? It could surprise me.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows
Interaction: 20 minute hands-on demo
Swag Acquired: Nothing 🙁
What it is: Masquerada is a recently-kickstarted game by indie developer Witching Hour Studios. It’s a story-driven action role playing game featuring an art style reminiscent of The Banner Saga and a fully-voiced story with a cast of beloved voice actors, including Matt Mercer, Jennifer Hale, and Ashly Burch.
Impressions: While Song of the Deep’s demo was awkward because it started at the beginning, Masquerada’s demo was awkward because it didn’t. That said, I feel like I got a good sense of what to expect from it based on this demo. For the demo, I took control of two characters as the investigated leads related to… something? I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on as I had been plopped in the middle of a particular subplot, but the fully voiced banter between the characters had a certain charm to it and reflected well on the voice talents involved. The game itself had a sort of action roleplaying game style, allowing the player to switch between characters, move them around, and trigger special abilities between basic auto-attacks. While at first it was confusing, I managed to start figuring out how to go about fighting my way through. The demo consisted of some exploring and storytelling interspersed with tangles with monsters and human enemies. Combat felt decent once I got the hang of it, but there wasn’t much challenge (this could just be the balancing of the demo). Engagements also took a little longer than I’d have liked, and narrative sections had quite a bit of handholding (immediately highlighting interactible things in the room). Balancing aside, though, it’s clear that a lot of effort is going into Masquerada’s story and art. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the title and seeing what its Kickstarter backers think of the finished product.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero
Interaction: 15 minute hands-on demo
Swag Acquired: Nothing 🙁
What it is: Half-Genie Hero is the followup to the well-received Shantae and The Pirate’s Curse, developed by WayForward Games. Following the adventures of the titular half-genie Shantae, this new title brings back animal-transformation mechanics from older titles in the series and shifts the graphics to a 2.5D style.
Impressions: As a quick disclaimer, I have not played either of the first two Shantae games. I have, however, recently played Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the most recently released title (from 2014). Having really enjoyed Pirate’s Curse, I was looking forward to trying out a demo of the upcoming title. My first impression was, frankly, very underwhelming. While some of the art in the new 2.5D style looks awesome (namely, the backdrops and some of the lighting and color), the 3D modeled platforms and obstacles are underwhelming, as are Shantae’s animal-transformed character animations. The demo also included two of the new animal transformation abilities. While they both had interesting movement styles and abilities, the need to change between them to access secrets and solve problems was a little bit tedious, especially since the monkey form couldn’t attack and the spider form moved very slowly when on the ground. The amount of transforming that was necessary to keep things moving along disrupted the flow of the game, since each animal had such varied movement styles. I am hoping, however, that the level design in the final game is a little more refined to allow players to focus on using one of Shantae’s forms at a time and minimize the amount of context switching. Until I see more, though, I’m skeptical that this game can live up to the high bar that Pirate’s Curse set.
Gravity Rush 2
Interaction: 15 minute hands-on demo
Swag Acquired: A little notebook shaped like an apple
What it is: Gravity Rush 2 is the sequel to Gravity Rush, a generally well-received launch title for the ill-fated PS Vita. It’s an open world action game in which the player controls an amnesiac with gravity shifting abilities as she explores and fights her way through a mysterious floating city plagued by monsters. Having recently remastered and ported the original to PS4, Sony is doubling down on the franchise and bringing the sequel to living rooms as well with a PS4 release slated for some time this year.
Impressions: Despite its silly storytelling and sometimes-clunky control and combat, I had a blast with the original Gravity Rush on vita. So naturally I’m excited to see what the sequel has to offer. Playing the demo was a pleasant return to the crazy gravity shifting world of the original, now with some slightly refined controls and a plethora of cool new gravity powers, including the ability to shift between normal, lunar (light and fast), and jupiter (heavy and hard-hitting) forms. Gameplay was somewhat held back by some camera wonkiness and combat is still extremely disorienting at times, but it certainly feels varied and exciting. Floating around the city was also fun, and the crazy finisher moves that can be performed with the help of Raven (who returns as an ally) have a ridiculous anime-style charm to them. I’m skeptical about the writing, as the first game was nonsensical and all over the place, but I’ll withhold judgment until I find out more. With the same stylish cell-shaded character rendering and a much more detailed world than was possible on the Vita, Gravity Rush 2 is off to a great start, especially if it can manage to overcome its remaining control and camera issues.
Extended Gameplay Demos
Interaction: 15 minute live gameplay demo
What it is: Days Gone is the upcoming game from Sony’s Bend Studio, previously known for its handheld titles (including the Vita Uncharted title). It takes place in an open world zombie apocalypse, following a bounty hunter chasing down his marks while evading hordes of vicious undead.
Impressions: The Sony press conference live demo began with a character getting off of his motorcycle, grabbing some supplies, and heading into a lumber mill in search of his target. He finds his target, grapples with him, and ends up getting the attention of a massive swarm of undead, who proceed to chase him throughout the environment as he slams doors and knocks down piles of lumber in his wake to slow them down. The exclusive extended demo that we saw was, unfortunately, hardly any different. It began the exact same way, had an extra lap around the lumber mill in the middle of it (which involved knocking down some more things and throwing a couple of molotovs) and then ended exactly like the press conference demo. Overall, the game seems to be devoid of any sort of strong differentiating feature, instead seeming to be a generic amalgam of gaming trends in recent years. There may yet be something fresh or surprising about this title, but the extended demo (extended is a very fitting word) I saw served only to make it seem even more generic.
Interesting Expo Setups
The Last Guardian
Swag Acquired: A super adorable T-shirt
What it is: The Last Guardian is the highly-anticipated, long-awaited follow up from the studio behind beloved classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. With an out-of-nowhere announce last year, this year’s promotional content further prepares players for its impending drop this fall. In the game, players take on the role of a small boy who explores an ancient ruin with a mysterious griffin-like creature.
Setup: The Last Guardian‘s setup was actually just a wall. It was a giant wall, on which a projection of Trico, the beast from the game, is simulated. Expo-goers were able to walk up to the projection and wave their hand to call to him, guiding his head around the screen as if playing with a gigantic dog. There were also props, including a barrel that he would paw at (and that moved with internal motor
s in response to his supposed touch) and a large stained-glass looking shield, that seemed to agitate him and awaken an ancient power, causing his eyes to glow ominously. The whole thing was a neat little walk-in-his-shoes of the boy in the game, giving those who played with it a sense of the relative scale of the beast as well as its personality. The fact that they fully simulate the creature and have it interact with the expo-goers was incredibly cool and a great way to promote the upcoming game.
photos courtesy of my friend Jessica
Swag Acquired: A little keychain and a temporary tattoo
What it is: Dishonored 2 is the sequel to 2012’s Dishonored, a project by Bethesda and Arkane Studios that explored a gritty, steampunk city through the eyes of a former bodyguard who must overthrow the new establishment. This time, the previous game’s young damsel-in-distress becomes a full-fledged playable character, with all the same determination and skill as our favorite vengeful bodyguard.
Setup: The booth for Dishonored 2 was a museum-style room with a bunch of display cases, fitting of the extravagant aristocratic settings that have been teased in the upcoming game and were prevalent in the previous game as well. It had a giant model of one of the new mechanized monsters that’s been teased in the game as well as a number of smaller replicas of things like Corvo’s mask and weapons as well as the main characters clothing. Dishonored 2‘s setup definitely scored some points for immersion, especially since the museum style feels right at home with the world the game takes place in.