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

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