E3: My Judgment Is Rendered. My Official Picks For The E3 Game Critics Awards

It was my first time wearing the proverbial wig – and holding the literal gavel. We were E3 judges. There were only 36 of us, all reporters by trade.

There were 18 categories on each of our ballots, which we have to finalize by this Thursday. What was the Best Handheld Game? What was the Best Sports title? What was Best of Show?

To see what it’s like, take a look below. Then scroll down to see which games I chose.

A few notes on my judging process: I may cover games for a living, but I don’t regularly review them. Frankly, I discovered at E3 that I’m not all that adept at comparing them, not in a way that measures, for example, whether a game that was already brilliantly fun at last year’s E3 (“Super Mario Galaxy“) but didn’t seem to improve much is more deserving of an award than a game I find only slightly less wonderful but was making its E3 debut in 2007 (“Little Big Planet”).I also came to regrettably accept that the new time-crushed E3 wouldn’t allow me to play as many games as I wanted to. I never did get to try any role-playing games – unless you count “Zelda” – and have to rely on my glowing impression of “Mass Effect” from March’s Game Developers Conference for my pick in the RPG category. (I’m not sure this is allowed. The E3 judge rules state: “Do not vote for games you only saw on videotape or only ‘heard about’ from friends.” Well I saw it at GDC and heard it was top notch at E3 – does that count?)

So bear in mind that my picks should not necessarily guide your purchasing decisions. These are my best assessments based on playing incomplete games just a few minutes at a time each. Put that on the back of your game box, dear publishers.

Here are my top picks for each category:

Best of Show
The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

My friends and loved ones will be shocked. Yes, I picked a “Zelda” game. Why not “Rock Band” or “Call of Duty 4” or some of the other show favorites? All of the games I just mentioned do a sterling job of drawing the player into an experience that makes them forget they’re playing a game. All are exhilarating. But on paper I would have expected “Rock Band” and “CoD4” to work; on paper I would have expected an all-stylus “Zelda” to be a debacle. For rising far above my expectations, it’s my best in show.

Best Original Game
Little Big Planet

I wanted to pick the PlayStation Network’s out-of-nowhere out-of-nowhere “Pixel Junk Racer” racing game. It was a blast and should be on the radar of all PS3 owners. I wanted to go with “Zack & Wiki: Quest For Barbaros’ Treasure,” which takes an adventure-game style familiar to older PC gamers, pretties it up with modern cartoonish graphics and grafts good Wii remote controls that have you gesturing to saw logs, light torches, and other activities. But I had to go with “Little Big Planet,” since it was the best original game of the winners below.

Best PC Game

At last year’s E3 “Crysis” was a beautiful jungle-set first-person-shooter that felt like a marketing tool for expensive computer graphics cards. I was more excited by “Spore.” This year I didn’t get to play many PC games – and knew in the back of my mind that some of the best PC stuff of 2007, the games made by bedroom programmers, weren’t going to be at E3 anyway. Still, “Crysis” won me over with my first dose of zero-gravity first-person-shooter action. Better still, I gained a new favorite video game ability: tree-punching. If you’re going to make a game featuring trees that crack and tumble with realistic physics, then give me super-strength to fell those towering trunks on top of my most hated gaming bad guys.

Best Console Game
Little Big Planet

It’s the best game of my picks listed in this post that you can play on a home console.

Best Handheld Game
The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

It’s the best game of my picks listed in this post that you can play on a game machine that fits into a jeans pocket.

Best Peripheral / Hardware
Wii Fit Balance Board

So I had a choice among a PSP that looks and mostly functions like the original PSP, a Wii Zapper that Nintendo didn’t want to show a flagship game for or the Wii’s very own bathroom-scale-turned-yoga-and-skiiing-game-controller? I’ll take the Balance Board.

Best Action Game
Little Big Planet

Halo 3,” “CoD4,” and “Super Mario Galaxy” all missed by a tad. Of those games, I found “LBP” the most fun to play, the most fun to watch and the most interesting to describe. There’s a decent chance that my runners-up have more meat on their bones, but girth is not the sole indicator of quality (see “Tetris”). And I’ll only know if “LBP” is too slight to take top billing when I get a few hours with each and all of them. Can’t do that at E3.

Best Action/Adventure Game
The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

See my comments above for Best of Show.

Best Fighting Game

The best fighting game I played at E3 was “Virtua Fighter 5.” But it was also the worst. That’s because it’s the only fighting game I played. That’s an insufficient sample size, as they say. I’m sitting this category out.

Best Role Playing Game
Mass Effect

All signs from GDC pointed to this Xbox 360 game as the RPG to beat. Nothing I saw at E3 suggested otherwise. The scripting, the cinematography, the sense of scope and scale all demoed in March. Now that I think of it, I didn’t play enough RPG’s at E3 to provide the minimum three selections for the category. When I submit my official ballot, I think I’ll need to skip this category too.

Best Racing Game
Burnout: Paradise

Open-world, wreck-filled, cleverly featured hardware-pushing racing –- with a crash mode redesigned to play like a combination of “Katamari Damacy” and “Madden.” Demoed at E3 on the PS3.

Best Simulation Game

See Best Fighting Game, but replace “Virtua Fighter 5” with “Sim City Societies.”

Best Sports Game

I thought the world didn’t need another skateboarding franchise. But EA’s “Skate.” does something sports games seldom do: take a familiar mode of play and offer a radically but successfully different way to control it. Players move their character’s body and board primarily with gestures of the 360 and PS3 thumbsticks, offering control reminiscent of EA’s boxing series “Fight Night.”

Best Strategy Game

See Best Simulation Game, but replace “Sim City Societies” with Sega’s real-time strategy title “Universe at War.”

Best Social/Casual/Puzzle Game
Rock Band

Is there a more promising party concept for the fall than what is essentially a multi-player “Guitar Hero” using multiple instruments? Yes, this game is backed by MTV. But people who aren’t paid by MTV were buzzing about this game at E3 plenty more than I was.

Best Online Multiplayer Game
Burnout: Paradise

The game has innovative open-world active multiplayer modes, an inspired passive multiplayer feature that constantly logs the best performances on each of the game’s city streets – and lets everyone on a friends list know how they compare – and it snaps embarrassing photos of your online victims.

Special Commendation for Graphics
Call of Duty 4

Games that weren’t playable at E3 are eligible for these final two categories. Nevertheless, “CoD4” is my pick here. The development didn’t just push the limits of graphical detail but has programmed characters to move with the most realistic animation of any game I’ve seen. Even better, they have applied distinct color filters to different levels – and even specific moments – of the game, evoking a great deal more atmosphere and mood than I’m used to seeing in a realistic-looking game.

Special Commendation for Sound
Everyday Shooter

Sure, “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” are cool, but were they made by one guy who created all the sound-effects for the game with the guitar and amp he has set up in his basement apartment? No, but that’s what can be said about the PlayStation Network’s upcoming downloadable game “Everyday Shooter.” It’s a shoot-em-up in which every exploding particle is scored with the notes and chords programmed by the game’s sole developer, John Mak.

One last note (edited 7/2/07): Only playable games were eligible for all but the final two awards. As a result I couldn’t even consider some major games. For example, I wasn’t permitted to play “Killzone 2” or “Grand Theft Auto IV,” so neither was a factor in my judging.