E3 2015 Recap – Part I

This is part one of a two-part recap on E3 2015. To read part two, click here.

If E3 2015 should be remembered for anything, it should be how the industry took one step forward, one step backward, but then at the last second stumbled forward as if it was about to make actual progress, but on wobbly legs. Which, in a weird way, is a sort of success – the E3s between console releases tend to focus, naturally, on games, but this year we got some solid hardware announcements, plenty of sequels and new IPs, but it came at a price – remakes, definitive editions and an industry that sometimes suggests they are out of ideas.

That’s what E3 2015 should be remembered for, but instead we will all probably remember it for this:

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This is a real thing that really happened.

For Theory of Gaming’s first ever break-down and recap of E3, we’ll focus on the highlights of each of the main press conferences, and how these announcements could potentially impact the industry, and if these are signs of a healthy, growing market, or if there are troubles ahead. To illustrate just how weird this E3 was, we’ll start off with the first official press conference, which also happened to be the best of the show.

Bethesda Softworks

Many publishers presented for the first time in years. For Bethesda Softworks, it was the first time ever, and they did not disappoint. DOOM. Dishonored 2. Fallout 4. Everyone expected these games to be announced, and Bethesda certainly delivered. What’s fascinating is that each of these games set a precedent for the rest of the show, as each game represents both the promising and worrying aspects of the state of the industry.

Bethesda opened their conference up with highly-polished gameplay from DOOM, which looked like a healthy mix of old-school and new, modern game design. There were little details that fans of the originals will surely appreciate, such as the super shotgun and sound effects, such as the sound doors make when they open, or when items such as health and armor are picked up. These may seem like minor details, but they go a long way in making this version of DOOM feel like a natural evolution of the franchise.

Speaking of evolution, the gameplay was fast, and very vertical – instead of taking place across a traditionally horizontal plane, with the occasional enemy on a ledge above the player, the level design and gameplay focused more on the player jumping up to new sections of the level and quickly jumping back down to lower sections, all while taking place in tight corridors. Both of these elements have evolved dramatically, even since the last entry, Doom 3. Call of Duty almost demands all first-person shooters (FPSs) be fast, and although it didn’t quite hit the level of success they hoped, Titanfall has moved vertical movement away from the slow, lumbering jetpacks found in older FPS games into short, quick bursts that allow for actual tactical engagement. DOOM seems to be following suit, and I couldn’t be happier.

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DOOM looks like a pleasant mix of old-school and modern design.

The most promising moment was a scene that combined the old-school design of Doom with modern elements. Doom’s approach to level design is different than any FPS today – levels were mazes with locked doors, and players needed to find key cards or switches to unlock the way forward or find secrets. In the demo, the player comes to a locked door that can only be opened via fingerprint scan. As fun as it would have been to see the player character find a locked door and then track down a blue key card, it would have also felt like developer id Software was sticking too close to the design of the original. Instead, the player character must use a scanning device to track down the person whose fingerprints could unlock the door. The player chases a hologram of this scientist, who has been torn apart by a rather large demon. At the end of the hologram, the player finds the scientist, borrows his hand (for just a moment), and takes it back to the door to unlock it. It’s not the most original idea (it felt oddly similar to the forensic side-quests in Batman: Arkham Origins), but it showed that id Software still has the defining elements of Doom in mind while also acknowledging the advancements to the genre.

That said, what worries me is that what was shown (fast-paced, brutal combat) will not transfer over to consoles well. We’ve seen this before – F.E.A.R. plays masterfully on the PC, but when developer Monolith Productions shifted toward a console-focus for the sequel, the result was the underwhelming F.E.A.R. 2. Hopefully the combat isn’t toned down to accommodate consoles, or better yet, the console versions somehow make adjustments to match the PC version.

DOOM showed that the industry can still provide new experiences while acknowledging its past, and other publishers and developers would also highlight this throughout the conference. Once DOOM’s turn was over, it was on to Dishonored 2.

While little information was given on the game, two elements of the announcement caught my attention. First, Dishonored 2 features two playable characters – Corvo from the first game makes his return, but now gamers can also play as Emily Kaldwin, the focus of the first game’s story, and the possible (probable) daughter of Corvo. Each character will have their own set of powers and weapons (similar to Corvo and Daud, playable in the downloadable content (DLC) of the first game). By including a second character, it shows that developer Arkane Studios learned how beneficial it is to allow players to see this world and interact with it with a diverse set of powers and abilities. By introducing Emily as the second character, it also accomplishes something the first Dishonored was missing – a protagonist who has personality, character and a history. Corvo is a blank slate, to a frustrating degree, and I honestly could have cared less if he returned for the sequel. But I was legitimately excited to not only see Emily return, but that we can play as her.

If Arkane Studios would have stopped here, that would have been enough, but they also revealed Dishonored: Definitive Edition for eighth generation consoles, but instead of being an exciting announcement, all this did was highlight how the industry has been completely caught off-guard with the success of the Xbox One and Playstation 4. According to their announcement, all this version will do is include the original game and all DLC with updated textures. That’s fine for someone who has never played the game before, but it would have been nice if they also included a new game plus mode and tried to weave the DLC into the main game, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut did. It also would have been nice to see them import the choices made by players in Dishonored. By allowing choices to carry over, Emily could start Dishonored 2 aligned as either good or evil, with possibly different powers unlocked under each circumstance. It would add value to the Definitive Edition, and make it worth purchasing, even if you own the first game and its DLC.

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Fallout 4 will almost certainly be a good game, but some of the new crafting mechanics might not gel with the franchise.

Finally, they arrived at the big announcement, and the reason Bethesda even held a press conference – Fallout 4. It was nice to see the game in motion and to hear it is (allegedly) coming out this year. A few things struck me right away – instead of aiming for a realistic art design, the game seems to be embracing a smooth, Pixar-like quality, which fits the franchise perfectly. It’s also a great decision because players will spend years in this world, and although gameplay takes precedence over graphics, if Bethesda can cut down on how quickly their games appear to age by taking on a bold art style, I’m all for it.

While everything they showed off was impressive, and I will certainly pick this up day one, I was a little concerned over the new crafting system. In some ways, it feels like a natural fit for Fallout – everything in the game, from guns to armor, can be modded and customized from anything scavenged from around the wasteland… and they mean anything. In order to make a scope, players will need an adhesive item, a glass item, screws and steel. Instead of having to find one adhesive or a pile of screws, players can use any item in the game that contains that element, such as wonderglue, a microscope, toy car and wrench. These items littered the world in Fallout 3, but their only use was often as ammo for the Rock-It Launcher. Now, every item has a purpose, meaning scavenging truly feels like an integral part of the game.

However, I am cautiously optimistic about crafting homes, settlements, trading stalls, caravans and defenses for my new dystopia. At first I loved it – I can now carve out a part of the wasteland (multiple parts, if I want to put the time into it) and call it my own. This is a welcomed change after Fallout 3, which only featured two homes the player could acquire, and only one of them could be utilized on each playthrough. However, what I loved so much about Fallout 3 was that, at its core, the design represented a departure from the path Bethesda took with The Elder Scrolls. Clearly, Bethesda utilized what they learned making open world games and applied it to Fallout 3, but it was a much more brutal experience that didn’t allow players to become god-like beings. The Elder Scrolls has always felt more like an open-world sandbox hybrid – those games are never really challenging, but that’s not the point. The point is to be able to become a god, whereas in Fallout 3 the point was to survive. While nothing in the Fallout 4 demos point to the player becoming as powerful as a level one-hundred mage hurling fireballs at will, the crafting system seems to stem directly from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. To see a Fallout game be so clearly influenced by an Elder Scrolls game gives me pause – they should be following two different paths of game design. I have faith in Bethesda, and am sure this mode will work fine, but I worry that the line between the two franchises will begin to blur.

Microsoft

This year, of all years, E3 seemingly should have focused on games over hardware. But right out of the gate Microsoft shattered that expectation, in a way that shows how adaptable this industry is when those at the top take a moment to listen to what the fans actually want.

Of course, they showed off plenty of games. Halo 5: Guardians opened the conference, and it looks to deliver on some of the items we asked out of the franchise – specifically, the story won’t focus solely on Master Chief. The scope of the game seems to be rather large as well, and the multiplayer has followed, opening up levels to twenty-four players and computer-controlled bots. From that moment on, the games were relegated to mostly trailers, with a mix of sequels (Forza Motorsport 6, Dark Souls III, Rainbow Six Siege, Gears of War 4) to new properties (The Division, ReCore, Gigantic), followed up by a slew of indie titles (Tacoma, Ashen, Beyond Eyes and Cuphead all looked amazing). On the game front, it seemed as if Microsoft was trying to appeal to everyone, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make for a somewhat watered-down E3 press conference.

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Although games may have been secondary to hardware, Microsoft still brought out the big guns with Halo 5: Guardians.

But Microsoft chose not to define its E3 2015 story by games, but instead by hardware. Not even a full two years removed from the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft took time to highlight the many changes coming to the console itself, and the message was clear – the Xbox One is adaptable, meant to play any game at any time, just like a gaming PC. For years, observers of the industry have commented that home consoles really are PCs with their own unique interface, but that line has never been as blurry as it is now.

The first of these announcements was the addition of backwards compatibility, a feature we have long called for. Finally, gamers will no longer have to keep both pieces of hardware around to play the still excellent games on the Xbox 360 – the Xbox One can handle it all. Even better, Xbox 360 games will be able to take advantage of some of the Xbox One’s unique features, such as screenshots and streaming. Microsoft really went out of their way to include a feature that fans demanded, and it’s one that everyone should be thankful for.

The next big shocker came from, who else, Bethesda – Fallout 4 director Todd Howard announced that the Xbox One version of Fallout 4 would be able to use, free of charge, mods made for the PC. This is a huge announcement, and it was followed by many games featuring cross-platform multiplayer – PC to Xbox One. Add to this the fact that, with Windows 10, PC users will be able to stream any of their Xbox One games to play on that hardware, and the line between the two platforms has blurred.

Smaller announcements, such as the partnerships with Valve VR and Oculus Rift, show a Microsoft that is not only forward-thinking, but critical of the present, and how they can make their hardware better. The addition of Xbox Game Preview, which works identically to early-access games on Steam, was also welcomed, if gamers are into trying out new games while still in development.

But these announcements were overshadowed by HoloLens, the possibly revolutionary technology Microsoft has been working on. While I still question how useful the device will be for gaming, Microsoft did impress with the demo of Minecraft. What struck me the most is how Microsoft hyped up the fact that HoloLens lets players see their games in a different way, by showing off how Minecraft worlds can be viewed from an overhead perspective. Before getting my hands on the updated version of Grand Theft Auto V, I would have questioned the usefulness of seeing games from a new perspective, but now I am excited to see if Microsoft can really open up new gaming possibilities with this hardware.

Overall, the games Microsoft showed off have promise, but it was hardware that stole the show, and I consider this to be the biggest step forward the industry took this year. Stagnation is what can kill a medium, and Microsoft proved we don’t have to worry about that, at least for another year.

Electronic Arts and Ubisoft

For as big a step forward as Microsoft took, it was Electronic Arts (EA) and Ubisoft who helped everyone take a step back. Maybe not a giant leap back, but watching their press conferences is a reminder of how focused the industry is on not only sequels, but now on mobile gaming.

Theory of Gaming has always taken the stance of being platform agnostic – we will play any game on any hardware, so long as it is a good game. DEViCE 6 still stands out as a memorable experience, and that game can be played on an iPhone on the way into work. But it’s telling how focused EA and Ubisoft were on mobile games – the industry is shifting, and the way we play games five years from now could be radically different.

Different they may be, we’ll at least be familiar with them – EA opened up with a trailer for the new Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was a great start, but then it was quickly on to the new Need For Speed, which looks so similar to previous entries that I am still not certain on what makes this one so revolutionary. What was worrisome was the focus on narrative in a racing game – it brought to mind the discussions we’ve had on the importance of genre labels, and I couldn’t help but wonder if developer Ghost Games was emphasizing narrative to the point that it would diminish the actual racing component. That said, they’ve been at this for a long time, and the story didn’t seem too deep or complex, so these worries may be unfounded, but I was still shocked at how much time EA used to discuss the story elements of a racing game.

Beyond that, most of EA’s conference was spent on their line-up of sports games, which was interrupted with a sit-down interview with soccer legend Pele. It really felt as if EA had little innovation to show off, and instead of focusing on a booth on the showroom floor, they tried to eat up time at a press conference. Which was strange since they put the two games everyone wanted to see – Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Star Wars Battlefront at the very end of the show.

The new Mirror’s Edge has potential and promise, and it was another example of publishers listening to fans instead of shareholders – the first Mirror’s Edge didn’t sell particularly well, but the fanbase is loyal, and vocal. Star Wars Battlefront looks like every Star Wars fan’s dream, but with such a polished, controlled gameplay demo, it remains to be seen how successful developer EA DICE will be in bringing that experience to life.

At this point, Ubisoft’s press conference could be viewed as a footnote, showing off a host of games that will get players excited, but won’t revolutionize the industry. Sure, it’s not fair to expect revolution with every presenter that takes the stage (and I was thrilled that they opened with a new South Park game, South Park: The Fractured, But Whole), but I did start to worry when I realized that, again, this year, we would be getting a new Assassin’s Creed game. It’s nothing new for Ubisoft to release new entries in a franchise on a yearly basis, but what struck me is that, after listening to Bethesda and Microsoft, and even EA, these open-world games that are so detailed and carefully constructed take time. Yet every year, Ubisoft has another Assassin’s Creed, seemingly ready to go, and every year a new controversy emerges as to how broken or unplayable these games are, yet gamers keep lining up to buy them.
I really noticed it this year when Ubisoft, with seemingly just a year to prepare, added in a female protagonist into Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. A cynical person may view this as a response to last year’s controversy over the lack of female characters, and I would tend to agree with them here. But there is no way Ubisoft could have taken the time and care to change a game so much in such a short span of time, and have it turn out great. The signal this is sending to the rest of the industry is that it doesn’t matter what condition a game is released in, so long as a new entry comes out on a regular schedule. I can’t help but think this notion is toxic to the industry, and after Microsoft and Bethesda’s amazing conferences, I find myself back at square one, hoping someone else comes along to propel the industry forward.