There were no new consoles at E3 this year, no expensive new peripherals. Nothing, at long last, to distract from the videogames. And what games! The 2014 videogame megaconvention found the three major companies adjusting to a new kind of normal: a kinder-gentler Microsoft, a swaggery Sony, a Nintendo that suddenly realized it was time to throw a Hail Mary on the Wii U. Across the board, there was a sense of experimentation. Major developers iterated old franchises in new directions. Smaller developers made bold splashes with highly independent visions.
E3 lives in a vortex of hype. Most people only get to play a few minutes of games that will ultimately last dozens-if-not-hundreds of hours. So, for my list of the twenty best games I played at E3, I’ve attempted to offer a sobering assessment of everything that might be horribly wrong with them when they finally arrive on store shelves. Consider this a skeptically hopeful list of games that could usher in a new creative era in the interactive medium. Pray for No Man’s Sky.
20. Mario Maker, Wii U, 2015
E3 2014 saw Nintendo embrace its glorious past in a manner that went beyond endless iterations of ’80s platformers. Mario Maker lets you design your own old-school Super Mario game, in the stye of the original NES Mario or the more recent 3D reboots – the implicit promise being that, when the game finally arrives, you might be able to create bespoke levels based on your own hyper-specific Mario preferences. (Birdo fans, unite!)
What Could Go Wrong: This is Nintendo dipping its toes into the realm of “shareable content.” The question remains whether anyone outside of hardcore Minecraft heads actually wants videogames built on “shareable content.”
19. Destiny, everything besides the Wii U, September
Bungie debut as The Company That Isn’t Making Halo anymore!
What Could Go Wrong: It’s possible they accidentally made Halo.
18. Evolve, PS4 and Xbox One, October
The Left 4 Dead guys created a new multiplayer game where four humans fight a monster. Twist: It’s a five-player game, and the fifth player controls the monster. It’s a subtle tweak that could give the next generation its first defining shooter.
What Could Go Wrong: Or maybe it’s just Left 4 Dead with a monster nobody wants to play.
17. Battlefield: Hardline, everything besides the Wii U, October
The thinking-man’s Call of Duty leaves the military milieu for a world of cops and robbers. For some reason ziplines are involved. Best case scenario, the new Battlefield marks a bold departure for a legacy military shooter, at a time when the competition is flailing with Cool New Future Stuff.
What Could Go Wrong: Worst case scenario, nobody understands why a game called Battlefield is about cops and robbers.
16. Super Smash Brothers, Wii U and 3DS, October
Hey, everyone loved Mario Kart 8! And on the floor at the Nintendo booth, everyone loved the new Smash Brothers, which adds in luminaries like Mega Man and Pac-Man alongside Nintendo deep cuts like Little Mac from Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.
What Could Go Wrong: Everyone loves Smash Brothers. Will people buy a Wii U just to play Smash Brothers?
15. Sunset Overdrive, Xbox One, October
The breakout hit of Microsoft’s booth is a wild and raucous third-person-shooter. It looks a little bit like a more refined Saint’s Row. The mere fact that Sunset Overdrive is mildly irreverent grade-inflates it, given the Xbox One’s moody slate of self-serious badassery.
What Could Go Wrong: Could be all hat and no cattle. Lead character vibes like a Poochie.
14. Assassin’s Creed: Unity, PS4 and Xbox One, October
Ubisoft’s defining franchise has been drifting into decadence, with oversized maps and undercooked variations on the parkour-nina gameplay. Unity promises a back-to-basics approach, setting the character down in a single, vibrant city: Paris, during the French Revolution. If they’ve figured out the multiplayer, Unity could be a key crossover point for single-player experiences online.
What Could Go Wrong: Or Unity could just offer further proof that people who like to play open-world adventure games don’t really want multiplayer. Also, a lack of female-character options led to the biggest controversy of the week, although a cynic might point out that Ubisoft will score an easy win if they delay Unity for a month and add in some women already.
13. Alien: Isolation, everything but the Wii U, October
An Alien game that isn’t terrible? It’s possible. The level they were showing off at the Sega tent emphasized sneaking over shooting: Your best weapon was the motion detector from Aliens, and the xenomorph hunting you quietly through a darkened room was the scariest thing at E3 this year. Also: A female lead character! Huzzah!
What Could Go Wrong: Unclear if the sneaking gameplay will get repetitive after the first ten seconds. Also unclear if the level I played was supposed to be incredibly difficult, like Dark Souls, or was just annoying complicated. Let’s give Alien the benefit of the doubt, in the hopes that we can someday have a cool thing set in the Alien universe that isn’t some kind of Prometheus sequel.
12. The Order: 1886, PS4, February 2015
A brand new shooter fantasy set in a steampunk-ish London filled with cool guns, werewolf-things, and mustaches. In a year filled with multiplayer knickknacks and online components, The Order’s focus on gorgeously art-directed single-player storytelling already looks vintage in a good way.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s also vintage in a bad way: The level I played through was a shadowy flashlight-meander straight out of Resident Evil 4, and the game appears to still utilize Quick Time Events about a decade after everyone realized Quick Time Events were the worst thing ever.
11. The Community videogame, next-gen platforms, Q4 2015
The interactive adaptation of the beloved NBC show promises to be a mindbending experiment in genre-hopping, with levels themed around different eras and genres of videogame history, including a 64-bit platformer, an Earthbound riff called Britta’s Revenge, and a puzzle game wherein Abed attempts to hold a normal conversation.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s not real, but we can dream.
10. Counter-Spy, PS3 and PS4 and Vita and OS, sometime in 2014
A nifty riff on the side scrolling shooter that emphasizes stealth, Counter-Spy is a sneakily addictive retro-delight.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s always unclear whether retro-delights played at E3 are as delightful at home.
9. Project Guard, maybe the Wii U, maybe never
One of Shigeru Miyamoto’s experimental “Projects,” Guard marks one of the best uses of the Wii U Gamepad so far, allowing you to control twelve cameras at once while attempting to hold off attacking robots. It’s a legitimately brainteasing puzzle that’s also a high-stakes adrenaline fest.
What Could Go Wrong: Miyamoto admitted that his Projects are essentially sketches that might get absorbed into another game, and told me that “Guard” might find its way into Star Fox. Which leads into the larger question of “Can Star Fox save the Wii U?” that we’ll all be asking next year.
8. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, everything but the Wii U, possibly early 2015
Hideo Kojima’s new last Metal Gear Solid promises to take the stealth series into the open world. Skepticism is running high for the Konami series, which is one of the first videogame franchise to enter a decadent phase. (Metal Gear Solid 2, Raiden, endless cinematics.) But the open-world gameplay was impressive, and director Hideo Kojima appears to have regained his sense of humor after the turgid MGS4. Full disclosure: I’m a Metal Gear Solid believer, so I’m prone to magical thinking on this one
What Could Go Wrong: What I saw of Phantom Pain basically looked like Far Cry. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a thing.
7 and 6. Tom Clancy’s The Division and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege, next-gen platforms, 2015 and probably 2016 respectively
Ubisoft continues to aggressively expand their Clancy brand, showing off last year’s Hot New Item The Division while also debuting this year’s Hot New Item Siege. Of the two, The Division looks more ambitious – it’s Ubisoft attempting to double down on Watch Dogs’ online-open-world multiplayer – and Siege looks more fun, a team-on-team shooter that prizes strategy over run-and-gun tactics.
What Could Go Wrong: The Division is a vaguely post-apocalyptic shooter at the tail end of a looooong post-apocalyptic trend. The blandness of Watch Dogs’s Chicago isn’t encouraging for The Division’s New York. And Siege could be the umpteenth FPS nobody wanted.
5. Batman: Arkham Knight, next-gen systems, 2015
Rocksteady brings its Batman series into the new generation with a bang, showing off new accessories (yay, Batmobile!) and a return to the wish-fulfillment bombast of the great Arkham City.
Arkham Knight promises to be bigger and more vivid than City, and even introduces a new character to the Batman mythology – the titular Arkham Knight, who looks like a Dark Link version of Batman. Cue several months of chatter about who the Arkham Knight really is (Jason Todd? Is he part of this universe?) and also several months of chatter about whether Arkham Knight will conclude the Arkham series or just leave it wrapped up for another, lesser developer.
What Could Go Wrong: Last year’s lackluster Arkham Origins – which Rocksteady didn’t work on – undoubtedly took some of the shine off the series. Threequels are rough. The Arkham Knight could be the Joker in disguise. Ugh.
4. The Oculus Rift/Project Morpheus
Virtual reality continued its comeback at E3 this year, with the Oculus Rift playing to long lines while Sony showed off Project Morpheus behind closed doors. I found both experiences to be, in a word, fantastic, a legitimately new and disorientingly vivid experience.
Oculus appears to be veering in the direction of straightforward gameplay – there was a shooter, a platformer, and a space-fighting game featuring the voice of Katee Sackhoff. Project Morpheus was just showing off ambient experiences (including a shark attack underwater.) Unclear whether we’re seeing the dawn of the next Betamax/VCR-HD-DVD/Blu-Ray war. But expect to read more about VR in the months to come.
What Could Go Wrong: Could be that people just don’t want to wear weird visors, dammit.
3. No Man’s Sky, PS4 and then other systems, someday
Without a doubt, the most ambitious game of E3. Already a beloved title for the geeks of the world who wish every videogame was more like Journey. Which, guilty.
What Could Go Wrong: It could absolutely be Spore With A Gun.
2. Splatoon, Wii U, early 2015
Nintendo does a shooter? Sort of. This paint-based squad-on-squad game looks goofy, but extended playing revealed a surprising amount of strategy. The runaway hit on the floor at E3 this year, and evidence that Nintendo is up to more than endless iterations of franchises it created three decades ago.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s essentially ’90s Nickelodeon reimagined as Call of Duty. Wait, that sounds great! But can Nintendo reach the shooter-loving demographic? And if not, who’s the demographic for Splatoon?
1. Far Cry 4, everything but the Wii U, November
How did Far Cry become one of the biggest franchises at E3? The loud reaction to Ubisoft’s naturalist-hedonist open-world shooter implies that the stealth masterpiece Far Cry 3 has found a large audience in the last 18 months. And Far Cry 4 promises to expand on its predecessor in every way, offering a massive map that takes you from jungle valleys to snowy peaks.
The developers doubled down on the anyway-you-want-it tactics, allowing players to attack forts with stealth, with helicopters, or with an elephant. Or with a friend: Far Cry 4’s invite-a-friend co-op mode looks like the least annoying multiplayer add-on to a campaign. Even better: On the Playstation, you can invite friends even if they don’t own Far Cry 4. For Ubisoft, this could be the moment that Far Cry becomes the Zelda to Assassin’s Creed’s Mario.
What Could Go Wrong: Those of us hoping for something more aesthetically adventurous – like the DLC Blood Dragon – now have to face the fact that Far Cry 4 could be Far Cry 3 but snow this time.