Now that the dust has settled from E3 2011, it's a good time to look back at the past week of insanity and think about which titles stood out from the pack. It's obviously a challenge when you're looking at early games, many of which are more than a year away from release, but despite all that, several titles had magnificent showings. Some were expected, others came totally out of nowhere, but all of these titles are well worth keeping an eye on.
I wasn't too keen about the first demonstration of "Modern Warfare 3" during pre-E3 week, but the second demonstration, during Microsoft's E3 press conference, was undeniably spectacular. The level featured an underwater assault on New York's harbor, with a small team of Delta Force members sabotaging enemy submarines using SCUBA gear and remote explosives. The level culminated with a visually astounding escape through exploding battleships and aircraft carriers.
In addition to the campaign demonstration, I had the chance to go hands-on with Spec Ops - Survival mode, which took the best bits from "Call of Duty" Zombies and Spec Ops from "MW2." My underwhelmed impression has officially turned around.
Another total shock came from a game franchise that has always felt like it was working in the shadow of "Grand Theft Auto." The developers behind "Saints Row: The Third" appear to have finally gotten the right idea. Instead of just trying to match the tone and features of "GTA," they've gone completely, balls-out nuts. Realism? Ha! They're going to let you drive around a massive pedestrian cannon to launch civilians over the rooftops. Or take command of a VTOL jet loaded for bear with rockets. Or fire an orbital laser cannon to take out a rival gang. Or wear giant mascot masks as you rob a bank. "Saints Row" has always toed the line with realism, but now that Volition has completely left that urge in the dust, the franchise appears to be breaking out on its own.
When I heard about the XBLA Summer of Arcade line-up this year, I was surprised and disappointed that I barely recognized any of the titles. My surprise turned to elation as I managed to try the full slate and realized it's one of the strongest Summer of Arcades yet. While I loved "Bastion," "From Dust" and "Fruit Ninja Kinect," the break-out game of the show was definitely "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet."
The elevator pitch is that "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" is like "Limbo" meets "Metroid." The dark, hand-drawn art style is the first thing you'll notice, followed by clever, physics based puzzles using your UFO's (yes, you fly around in a powered-up saucer) grabbing claw. Then, slowly, you realize that you're in a massive, explorable world filled with collectible tools which let you delve deeper into the alien world. If you've been waiting for a new "Metroid-vania" to fill the "Shadow Complex" void, "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" is that game.
#7 - FAR CRY 3
"Far Cry 2" brought the franchise into the open-world genre in ways that the first game just hinted at. "Far Cry 3" appears to be sticking with those tenets, while introducing some truly remarkable character performances (the E3 demo opened with one of the most chilling rants I've ever seen in a video game) and down-right gorgeous graphics. Toss in a new character experience system, complete with unlockable perks and abilities, and you have a truly next-generation open-world FPS. The E3 demo was just a small sliver of the full game, but the potential is enormous.
#6 - WII U (MII CHASE)
Nintendo's big premiere of the Wii U was the hardware story of the show, but since the console isn't launching until 2012, it's still too early to see full-fledged first-party games. What Nintendo did show was a variety of "experiences," one of which was called "Mii Chase." It was basically multiplayer hide and seek in a maze, but the person holding the Wii U controller had the advantage of seeing a top-down view of the maze, along with the locations of all the other players. There's something sort of remarkable about knowing that you're hiding just out of view of someone standing right next to you, and it's something you could never experience in split-screen play. Easily one of the most fun games I played at the show.
#5 - GEARS OF WAR 3
The fact that "Gears of War 3" continues to look great came as no surprise, but I was a bit stunned that Epic continues to have surprises its sleeves. Last year we saw the excellent Beast mode, which had players taking control of Locust hordes as they attempt to crush human defense. This year it was Horde 2.0, an enhanced version of Horde which lets human players upgrade defenses using money earned from kills and assists. The defensive additions make the game much more tactical and encourage teamwork, even if you're playing with a crew of strangers.
When you factor in Horde 2.0, Beast mode, straight-up multiplayer and the campaign, it'll be tough to find a better bang-for-your-buck release this holiday season.
#4 - TOMB RAIDER
When it comes to gaming royalty, Lara Croft easily stands astride Mario and Master Chief. But her cultural impact hasn't exactly matched her game quality lately. Crystal Dynamics is hoping to change that with "Tomb Raider," a reboot for the franchise which tells the story of Lara's first days as an adventurer.
The first thing you'll notice is the change in tone. This new Lara is serious, scared and starts out nearly-helpless. It's a far cry from the one-liner spitting heroine we've all come to know. You'll also notice a darker, more foreboding world in which the developers are more than willing to rough their star up. The classic puzzles from the franchise have gotten a retouching, and there's now an open island to explore, aided by some "Metroid"-style gear-gating. Although this first demo really just scratched the surface of what Crystal Dynamics is trying to offer, it's this sort of total reimagining that's required to ensure Lara lives on for the next generation of gamers.
#3 - BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY
As the sequel to our pick for the best game of 2009, "Batman: Arkham City" has a lot to live up to. Thankfully it appears to be meeting the challenge head on. Rather than the corridor-heavy exploration of "Arkham Asylum," the sequel is wide open, letting the Dark Knight glide and grapple across Gotham with ease. It's also gorgeously detailed, with fan service touches like a Flying Graysons poster hanging on a building. Toss in Catwoman as a fully-playable character and you begin to realize that Rocksteady isn't resting on its laurels with this title. "Arkham City" is a definite holiday season heavy hitter.
Few developers know how to kill 80 hours of your life better than Bethesda Game Studios. Their last game, "Fallout 3," was my pick for the best of 2008, and now they're returning to the RPG franchise that made them a household name (presuming your household is full of nerds, of course). "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" is set in the northern realms of Cyrodiil, which means you're dealing with snow, mountains and tons of dragons, apparently.
The same open-world tenets exist across this new realm, but plenty of new gameplay additions help to keep things fresh. You can now dual-wield spells, letting you toss fire with one hand and ice with the other. There's also an all-new character creation system, now with a focus on "Fallout"-like perks for each of your skills. And then there are dragon shouts, ultra-powerful spells which you can only cast every once in a while, but result in things like massive electrical storms. There's little doubt that my social calendar is going to take a hit when this one drops in November.
#1 - BIOSHOCK INFINITE
There's a certain safely that comes with an established franchise. After all, if people love the world you've created and think your gameplay mechanics are fun, you basically just need to enhance what you've got for the sequel. Or if, you're like Irrational Games, you can toss out everything and start from scratch. That's what they've done with "Bioshock Infinite," which abandons the underwater city of Rapture in the 1960s for the hot air balloon city of Columbia in the early 1900s.
We've seen "BioShock Infinite" once before, and while that first demo was clearly heavily scripted, it showed promise. In this demo, we got a much better sense of how the game will player, complete with a fully-realized Sky Line system, which lets Booker, the game's protagonist, ride airborne rails like a rollercoaster to get the jump on enemies.
I'll admit, I was a bit overwhelmed by my first viewing of the demo during pre-E3 week, but after a second viewing, I was able to notice gameplay mechanics at work. For example, players can latch on or jump off the Sky Line whenever they wish, so long as they're a safe place to land (indicated by a targeting circle on a safe surface). My initial viewing made the game feel like a linear sprint, but now it's clear what sort of potential the Sky Line holds as a combat and exploration device.
It's also an artistic triumph that "BioShock Infinite" looks like no other game before it, with a tone and style all its own. It's a world I want to get to know better...but it's also a world I'd prefer to enjoy as a whole instead of in small, bi-annual bits until the game releases in 2012. Unfortunately examining small, bi-annual bits is part of my job, so I'll just have to take it for the team.