Like a tired action-movie sequel, the blitz of games from last week's E3 video-game blowout featured much familiar spectacle. Action, racing and sports games echoed those from last year — and those of the years before that. Video-game sequels aren't necessarily a bad thing; like other computer programs — think QuickTime, Internet Explorer or Apple OS — a video-game sequel can be as much a refinement as it is a cash-in. But completely original video games are still a rare breed. At this year's show, amidst new editions of "Madden," "Tony Hawk" and "Zelda," we caught encouraging glimpses of several games that are a bit different from the norm.
- "Black" (PS2/Xbox, February 2006)
On paper, "Black" is nothing special. It's a first-person shooter, competing in the same arena as "Halo 2," "Doom 3," "Quake IV" and a slew of other trigger-happy power fantasies. But Alex Ward, chief of "Burnout" developer Criterion, feels that most FPSs wimp out, failing to convey the concussive destruction that would ensue if someone, say, went guns blazing at a row of parked cars. In "Black," glass shatters, giant letters fall off giant signs, columns crumble and the camera shudders, making familiar gaming experience appear strikingly new.
- "Destroy All Humans" (PS2/Xbox, June 2006)
Mocking the old-fashioned hysteria over little green men, flying saucers and exploratory probes, "Destroy All Humans" casts players as invading aliens preying on 1950s America with goofy menace. When the game opens, your little gray anti-hero is ordered to communicate with the landing area's apparent leading form of life: cows. Soon missions involve meddling with small-town life, disintegrating the celebrants at a pool party, frying houses from the comfort of a UFO and so on. This is the rare game that tries to be funny and, if movies like "Mars Attacks!" are your thing, succeeds.
- "Lost In Blue" (Nintendo DS, September 2005)
Players control a pair of teenagers marooned on a tropical island, and gameplay focuses on survival instincts such as finding food and shelter. That's a unique-enough premise, but the game's promise comes in the unusual ways it uses the DS. To search the beach, players have to rub the sand on the system's touch screen. To start a fire, players whittle a stick by tapping the system's shoulder buttons and blow into the microphone when there's a spark. To cook: drag and drop recipe ingredients into a pot, then cover the pot by closing the clamshell DS. Opening it too soon leaves the food undercooked, and the kids get sick.
- "The Movies" (PC, Fall 2005)
The brainchild of game designer Peter Molyneux, more renowned in gaming circles for stellar concepts than for follow-through, "The Movies" is a "God game" that gives players control of a burgeoning movie studio. Over the course of a century, players must deal with advances in moviemaking technology, the idiosyncrasies of actors in need of better scripts or trips to rehab, and the ever-fickle tastes of press and fans. The game also allows players to zoom in and film their own short movies, mixing and matching actors, costumes, props and thousands of staged scenes.
- "Nintendogs" (Nintendo DS, August 2005)
Already a phenomenon in Japan, "Nintendogs" is a dog simulator for the Nintendo DS. Players pick a realistic-looking puppy to raise, petting it via the touch screen, and use the system's microphone to teach it to respond and to do tricks. Players can flick Frisbees for their dog to fetch, take them for a walk in a digital city and win new toys for their canine by winning dog-show competitions. When two systems with the game are nearby (even when the machines are asleep), copies of each machine's dog will jump into the other to play with their dog, along with gifts and — creepy or cute, you decide — a voice greeting from the owner.
- "Okami" (PS2, 2006)
In still shots, "Okami" looks less like a game than a painting. The lead character is a wolf, illustrated with what appears to be brush strokes from a calligrapher's pen. Backgrounds are textured to appear as if made from parchment. In motion, flowers grow at the spot of each footfall (anyone else seen "Princess Mononoke"?). Enemies swirl with color. The landscape is afire with cartoon effects. The plot involves restoring color to a drab world, and the gameplay is a mixture of wolf-based combat and the use of the PS2 controller to "draw" effects onto the world. But the main attraction is the game's look, which makes it worthy of hanging in a museum.
- "Pursuit Force" (PSP, TBD)
Announced for release in Europe but not yet America, "Pursuit Force" was among the rare sights at E3 (see "Behind E3's Closed Doors: VIP-Only Games, Works In Progress"): a game for Sony's high-tech PSP that didn't seem to be a port of a PS2 game. Some of the trappings of "Pursuit Force" are conventional; it's a racing game with some shooting. The goal is to ram, run down or even outgun enemy cars. Here's the trick: members of the "Pursuit Force" have the ability to leap from one moving car to another, even at speedometer-maxing speeds. Think of a racing game in which the driver can hop from car to car to get ahead of the field and you've got this game figured out.
- "Shadow Of The Colossus" (PS2, September 2005)
From the makers of cult PS2 favorite "Ico," "Shadow of the Colossus" is a moody, quiet game about a boy who climbs lumbering giants. Across a vast landscape lurk 16 giants, each far more massive than the TV screen they appear on. They tower over the game's hero, a diminutive boy on horseback who must ride to each behemoth, locate the titans' weak spots and figure out how to climb and conquer them — all without falling off as the colossi rumble forth.
- "Spore" (PC, 2006)
From "Sims" and "SimCity" inventor Will Wright comes "Spore," a game that starts as a modest reinterpretation of "Pac-Man" but develops into something far grander. Players begin by controlling a mere single-cell organism, steering it through the hostile primordial ooze. A character editor allows players to add a spike or stump to their creature and let it mate so that it can evolve. After a few generations, the organism is multicellular, and the game plays like an early 3-D action title. Then the evolving creature steps on land and stars in a colorful game of survival of the fittest. Players control the species and then, as civilization develops, the game turns into a simplified "SimCity." Eventually comes a phase that mirrors the strategy of the society-building game "Civilization," followed by the discovery of UFOs, which allows the exploration, colonization or destruction of worlds in a view that zooms out to ultimately include an entire universe. If that's not ambitious enough, the creatures and worlds created within one copy of "Spore" will be transmitted to an online database that will disseminate them to the universes of players around the world.
- "Trauma Center: Under The Knife" (Nintendo DS, Winter 2005)
Classified as a medical-simulation game, "Trauma Center" lets players practice their ER skills with the touch screen of the Nintendo DS. Rivaled only by "Lost in Blue" for most unusual controls at E3, "Trauma Center" displays troubled body parts on the DS touch screen and allows the system's stylus to be used as suture, stitching needle and, of course, scalpel. Shards of glass must be plucked gingerly from a wounded arm, cuts require the rubbing of ointment, and organs have to be delicately removed. If video games truly do inspire copycat behavior, expect a surge of amateur surgeons.