Primal Screen: E3 2017 – Dispatches from the Couch

E3 is weird. I’m not talking about the real-life version, the 68,400 people squeezed into the LA Convention Centre over three days for E3 2017, but rather the Electronics Entertainment Expo as most people experience it, the rapid-fire sequence of YouTube press conferences that shows off 85-90% of what’s coming over the next year. It’s obviously a huge event that shapes the entire videogame calendar but, outside the bubble, it just simply doesn’t exist, it’s barely covered by the mainstream media and will likely elicit blank stares from your non-gaming friends and family. In a strange way then, it feels like a secret club, the event that comes closest to uniting the disparate gaming communities that exist across the world (even if its inclusion of PC gaming feels like an afterthought and it still can’t quite decide how to cover eSports). In the UK, this feeling of gaming ritual is exacerbated by the fact that most of the conferences are streamed at odd times, if you’re up at 2am watching Sony show off its upcoming projects, you know you’re a hardcore gamer.

It’s also fascinating for the insight it gives into how companies want to come across, a process that started in relatively sedate style with EA Play on Saturday night. For a company which considers itself to be pivotal in the gaming world, it was a strangely toned down showcase, the air was filled with corporate sound bites and, until the show shifted into Star Wars: Battlefront II mode at the end, there was little that felt either particularly exciting or massively newsworthy. There was some theatricality, with New England Patriots drummers preceding the reveal of Madden NFL 18’s story mode and Stormtroopers turning up at the end but, compared to the megashows Sony and Microsoft put on later, this felt small, almost intimate. Some of the game decisions were also baffling, the FIFA 18 reveal was devoted almost entirely to the ultra authenticity that Cristiano Ronaldo will apparently bring to the game (which we already knew about) and the return of Alex Hunter in a revamped, expanded Journey mode. Now to some extent this makes sense, both these features are easy things to stick on the box, but far more info dribbled out after the conference from journalists briefed by the EA PR team, who also got to play the latest build of the game. Through their videos and articles, we learnt about the animation improvements, the multiple body types now in the game, and the details about just what the new focus on stadium atmosphere would entail. This is all well and good, but was there really no place for it at the actual show itself, no time for a FIFA 18 developer to come out and discuss the changes that will have a far greater impact than Ronaldo’s running style or the trials and tribulations of Alex Hunter? Instead, we got YouTube personalities (god, I hate that term) The Men in Blazers making lame jokes, a theme that would continue in numerous E3 conferences, with an inordinate amount of attention given to the sub-section of gamers who love to share their shouty exploits on the internet.

The next day was the most eagerly awaited conference of all, Microsoft, with their unveiling of Project Scorpio, the 4K behemoth that would supposedly knock the PS4 Pro out of the ring entirely. This reveal was shot through with US triumphalism, the newly monikered Xbox One X (surely one of the worst console names in history) was acclaimed as the world’s most powerful console, and Xbox execs proclaimed tech statistics with the proud booming tones of a parent announcing the weight of their new baby. For most of us, of course, these statistics are meaningless, personally I still can’t quite believe that “teraflops” are an actual thing and that they are something good (however, many times I hear it, it just sounds like a word for a massive flop). Just in case you didn’t get the message, the opening vid flashed “FEEL TRUE POWER” up on the screen, making it seem like a high-end infomercial for a new drill. When we finally got to the games that were supposed to show off this awesome power, it was hard not to be a little disappointed, yes, Forza Motorsport 7 looks beautiful, but Forza always looks beautiful, and without a side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to tell what difference that extra processing grunt is making. There are, of course, two major issues with trying to show off a new 4K console. Firstly, as we progress up the technological scale, the improvements become ever more incremental; and secondly, most people are not watching on a 4K screen and, for all the talk of the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro enhancing things on standard HD TVs, the upgrade case only becomes truly persuasive once you see the thing running on a 4K screen.

The Microsoft conference was just as in-your-face when it came to the games line-up, with Head of Xbox Phil Spencer boasting about showing 42 games and 22 exclusives, this latter aim requiring Microsoft to stretch the definition to the breaking point, actual exclusives, console exclusives also coming to PC, and timed exclusives were all proclaimed as “exclusive” in a deep movie-trailer-voiceover that preceded each reveal. There were, quite simply, too many games, the Microsoft conference jumping from one video to the next without giving anyone watching time to breathe and leaving many lost in the shuffle. Aside from Sea of Thieves, the cartoony Rare pirate-em-up which was shown off with a gameplay video that raised as many questions as it answered, the big hitters were both games that, in the natural order of things, really should have been shown off at other companies’ conferences. These were the long-awaited reveal of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which looked spectacular and takes the series’ now-trademark mix of stabbing, climbing and sailing to Ancient Egypt, and Anthem, the new IP from EA-owned BioWare which, as numerous people have pointed out, looks like a cross between Destiny, Titanfall and Mass Effect and revolves around men in mech suits doing battle against alien monsters in a vaguely dystopian future. Both looked amazing, but neither are exclusives, the message being that while Microsoft may, at a push, have 22 exclusives, it needs to look elsewhere to really make a splash.

The next day (UK time) was Bethesda’s moment in the spotlight, which was almost instantly judged a failure by many observers. On one level, this was understandable, the show lacked blockbuster announcements, there was no new Elder Scrolls title or Doom sequel, and everyone had already figured out what its two biggest reveals would be, The Evil Within 2 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Both of these are sequels to respected titles, but neither have the widespread recognition of some of Bethesda’s other series. However, if you watched wth more modest expectations, there was plenty to enjoy, Bethesda offering a stripped-down, 40 minute tour through everything it’s got coming in 2017 (an important point considering half the titles shown at E3 2017 were followed by those four disappointing digits, 2018). More than anything, Bethesda’s presentation felt like a refreshing change from the agendas on show elsewhere, there were no YouTube stars, no lame jokes, no dramatic staging, just Bethesda’s Global Vice President of PR and Marketing, Steve Hines, enthusing about everything coming soon from the company. Despite his title, Hines didn’t come off as a corporate suit, instead he exuded that rarest of qualities at E3, authenticity, he seemed genuinely excited by everything, from forthcoming forays into Skyrim and Doom VR (which could be amazing if pulled off properly), to a mobile card game. The show also kicked off with kids attempting to explain just what their Mummy or Daddy did for a job at Bethesda (“sits at a computer and does stuff” was definitely the highlight) which, combined with the Bethesdaland theme park idea that the presentation was structured around, added to the homespun aesthetic. Throughout, Bethesda was portrayed as a harmonious community of passionate gamemakers whose output just happens to encompass some of the most violent and horrific games around, a case of shiny happy people making your nightmares.

Part 2: Ubisoft, Sony & Nintendo

Ubisoft wisely kept the focus on YouTube players to its interminable pre-show, which was generally dull, annoying and honestly felt like a karmic punishment before the pleasure of the main event. Once its presentation started properly, Ubisoft’s approach was notable for its emphasis on developers, with creative directors for everything from Steep to Far Cry 5 appearing on stage. As well as allowing Ubi to effortlessly win its traditional award for “Frenchest E3 conference” at a canter, this provided a genuine mix of personalities, with Far Cry 5’s Dan Hay, an imposing bear of a man who resembles a bouncer more than your average video game developer, contrasting sharply with, for example, Assassin’s Creed: Origins Creative Director Ashraf Ismail, who embodied laid back urban cool with his shaved head and styled beard. Then, of course, there was Davide Soliani, one of the key creative forces behind the upcoming Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle (think Mario crossed with XCOM in what is looking like one of the weirdest titles of the year), who was shown literally crying in the audience when namechecked by his idol Shigeru Miyamoto (AKA the guy who created Mario in the first place). To use a dreadful cliche, you can’t fake that sort of emotion, and this focus on those who are the driving force behind each Ubisoft project paid dividends throughout the show. Obviously, these developers weren’t speaking off the cuff, and Ubisoft no doubt had a slick PR team in place to make sure they all hit the right notes, but it was a telling reminder that people are at the heart of this industry, just as they always have been.

Of course, Ubisoft is a massive corporation, with 10,000 employees spread across dozens of countries, but that’s not how it came across on this night, instead it presented itself, no doubt a tad disingenuously, as a haven for creators, somewhere every project is a passion project for the guy/girl at the helm, and everyone shares the same overarching passion for videogames. Tellingly, the entire conference was free of meaningless marketing jargon and pat phrases, there was no talk of “playing, sharing and creating” or other banal corporate drivel, and nothing was just thrown out there to make up the numbers (cough, Microsoft, cough). Rather, every game shown, whether a AAA blockbuster like Far Cry 5, the long-awaited sequel to a cult classic (Beyond Good and Evil 2), or alpine sports compendium Steep adding Winter Olympics DLC, was treated as a major title and given a decent amount of stage time. Overall, while Ubisoft’s conference had some clear newsworthy moments (Miyamoto and company CEO Yves Guillemot pointing replica Mario+Rabbids weapons at each other was all over the net the next day), it also felt like a selection box where you were free to pick your own highlight, and nothing was forced down your throat as this is the game that’s a really big deal. Most importantly, Ubisoft filled the stage with people who seemed to care about their games even more than we do, and it was this focus on developers that truly distinguished the company’s E3 2017 offering.

And then there was Sony. First up, another largely pointless official pre-show which primarily consisted of various people telling us how “amazing” and “incredible” everything was, and only really achieved any sort of meaningful interest level during a studio tour of Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital led by series mastermind Kazanori Yamauchi. Having sat through the pre-shows from both Ubisoft and Sony, I really don’t understand what the point of them is, surely hardly anyone is actually watching them, with almost everyone either tuning in for the main event or watching a third-party pre-show (GameSpot, IGN, Polygon etc.) that isn’t constrained by having to acclaim everything as wonderful. Thankfully, things improved immeasurably when the main show began, Sony putting on a slick showcase that was almost entirely focused on games. Unlike Ubisoft, there were no developers on stage (which, honestly, I kind of missed), and Shawn Layden (President & CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America) briefly came out twice to hype up the crowd as a sort of restrained ringmaster of this digital circus. Instead, what Sony created within the fitting confines of the Shrine auditorium was a sort of augmented videogame cinema which, aside from a brief diversion into PSVR titles, was almost exclusively focused on AAA games. While the focus was on the auditorium’s massive screen, a few titles received additional theatrical flourishes; the new trailer for Uncharted: The Lost Legacy was preceded by an onstage Indian musical troupe, a wintry DLC for Horizon Zero Dawn was accompanied by “snow” falling from the ceiling, and new gameplay from the post-apocalyptic open-wold zombie biker adventure Days Gone was mirrored onstage by “zombies” dangling from the ceiling and writhing at the appropriate point.

In a notable contrast from Microsoft’s “exclusive” onslaught, Sony barely mentioned the word but showed a bunch of them – as well as Uncharted and Days Gone, there was God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Monster Hunter: World and, in a show-closing nine minute gameplay video, the new Spider-Man title from Insomniac Games. Pretty much every trailer hit its mark with beautiful transitions and the sort of high-quality production values more generally associated with Hollywood movies. There was also a refreshing focus on gameplay, with Days Gone and Spider-Man both showing extended sequences of the actual game rather than pretty cinematic trailers that tell us little about what it’s going to be like to actually play. There are, however, two major caveats to this deluge of praise. Firstly, it should be noted that very little of this stuff was out-of-the-blue announcements of new games, with the biggest new title announced at Sony’s E3 2017 conference being a remake of Shadow of the Colossus, a game that originally came out in 2006. This is a reflection of the changing nature of E3 which, over the years, has seen its undisputed status as *the* videogame showcase come under threat from other mega events, such as Gamescom in August and Sony’s own PlayStation Experience in December. To put it bluntly, there are not enough AAA games to go round, and Sony has already publicly admitted that it held back reveals for other events. The other major disappointment is that so many of the big-hitters are coming out in 2018, with God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Spider-Man, Monster Hunter: World and that Shadow of the Colossus remake all slated for release next year rather than this. Days Gone, meanwhile, is apparently still supposed to be released in 2017 but doesn’t have a firm date, so a slip into 2018 wouldn’t exactly be a surprise. Overall, while it lacked the truly blockbuster announcements of previous years, Sony’s conference was still one of the highlights of E3, offering a mouth-watering glimpse of what’s to come in the next year of PlayStation.

And finally, Nintendo which, in traditional Nintendo fashion, did things a bit differently. Instead of a live press conference, Nintendo simply showed a special E3 video, which made the whole thing feel a bit like one of those awards ceremonies where the winners can’t be bothered to turn up and instead send in a taped acceptance speech. The purpose of what was officially called “Nintendo Spotlight E3 2017” was to show off everything coming to the Switch, and it kicked off with a brief intro video that once again tried to insert Switch games into similar real-world scenarios. So, street racers fitted in games of Rocket League in between sitting on their cars looking moody, a footballer played FIFA Switch while balancing the ball on his neck, and boxers played ARMS after sparring. Quite what any of this is supposed to achieve is not really clear, but it’s fair to say that the Switch is succeeding despite its marketing rather than because of it. After that, the show barrelled on without much rhyme or reason, Nintendo executives showed up in front of CGI backgrounds and extolled the virtues of the Switch, footage of two JRPGs (Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Fire Emblem Warriors) combined beautiful visuals with terrible voice acting, and Tsunekazu Ishihara from the Pokemon Company informed us that Pokken Tournament Deluxe and a new full-blown Pokemon RPG would be coming to Switch. While primary-coloured first-party Nintendo fare dominated – including The Legend of Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma pulling a Master Sword out of thin air to emphasise its inclusion in the forthcoming Skyrim Switch – there were also hints of stronger third-party support than ever before; as well as Skyrim, FIFA 18 is coming to the Switch (although it’s going to be an underpowered, stripped-down, Journeyless version), and Rocket League is also going to be ported to Nintendo’s latest console. This last one makes all the sense in the world, its brief, frenetic games of car football are a perfect fit for portable gaming.

Mario appeared twice, with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot plugging the already announced Mario+Rabbids and the video ending with the first gameplay from what will surely be on of the Switch’s biggest draws, Super Mario Odyssey. From this new footage, two things quickly became clear, the first being that Mario’s hat now gives him power over objects in the world (basically, he possesses them, although for some reason Nintendo doesn’t want people to use the word possess and prefers capture). Regardless, it’s a mechanic that’s clearly going to be a big part of Super Mario Odyssey, with the video showing Mario’s hat controlling everything from a tank to a T-Rex. The other conclusion is that this is going to be the most varied Mario yet, with the multitude of game worlds shown making you wonder whether any idea was actually left on the cutting room floor. There were snow bits, desert bits (complete with sombrero), underwater bits, and bits set in what very much looked like modern day New York City. The constant, of course, was the moustachioed plumber who for decades has been the defining symbol of Nintendo. If the Switch is going to continue its momentum, then Odyssey needs to be another defining step, not just a hit, but one of those games that you simply have to play. It’s a huge test for a company trying to phase in new talent and new ideas but, with their track record, you wouldn’t bet against them pulling it off.

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