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May 21, 2012

E3 2012: So What Now?

Did you know that I like video games? 

Yep.  I’ve been following them closely since my indoctrination via the Sega Genesis.  I’m certainly older (and marginally wiser) than I was back then, so it’s hard to say whether my admiration of the hobby will last until my final moments on my death bed.  If I am still a gamer, I’d like to think I’d tell my family to screw off while I tried to unlock the final bonus stage in Elite Beat Agents…which would beg the question of why I’d be carrying decades-old technology, but whatever.  I’d be a wizened old man at 46, tranquilly accepting my end and proud to know I beat Sin and Punishment 2, if nothing else.

And in less than a month, the event that any gamer worth his arcade stick knows about will be upon us.  The Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3.  It’s a moment of celebration and wide-eyed anticipation for gamers everywhere; developers set up booths that sprawl as far and wide as the average house.  Notables from the industry assemble en masse, bringing with them no shortage of celebrities.  Technology and games that can potentially change the world are showcased with reckless abandon, all for the sake of ensuring the loyalty of fans already hanging off the word of every presentation, and staving off the need for food, water, blinking, and attention to family members for the sake of experiencing the action.

E3 is almost upon us again.  And I look forward to it with equal parts excitement and fear.

I’ve mentioned it once or twice on Facebook, but for the record let me be clear: Nintendo is one of, if not THE best gaming companies around.  Admittedly it has its faults; starving us hardcore gamers for content, a justifiable lack of innovation, ignoring all but a few of its golden franchises, lagging behind in terms of connectivity, and setting a slew of precedents in motion -- motion controls, the rise of casual gamers -- that will likely be felt for years to come.

But in spite of those faults, it’s still a company that delivers with almost frightening reliability.  In a world where brown and gray dominate, Nintendo gives us colorful areas by the hundreds to explore.  In a world where shooters can have the same universal controls and skillsets, Nintendo has games challenging players and developers to use the technology -- the hardware, not just graphics -- to interact in new ways.  In a world where the price of development would leave NASA bigwigs with hurting wallets, Nintendo has offered a bastion for cheaper venues, ones that sacrifice graphical power for expression in other ways.  Style, gameplay, story…it’s not a canvas that always gets tapped well, but when it does there’s more than enough masterpieces on the DS and Wii.

The upcoming Wii U may have a lot of unknowns to it right now, but overall I’m not too worried.  It’s not like we’re going to have another Virtual Boy on our hands here; given that it’s the successor to the Wii, I can only assume that Nintendo will take the original’s strengths and weaknesses to heart and act accordingly.  Barring that, all they need to do is show footage of a next-gen (or quasi-next-gen) Zelda game, and we’ll be seeing the infamous “It prints money!” image macro all over again.  And given that they’re slated to show off a new Mario as well as -- finally! -- a new Pikmin game…well…

With Sony and Microsoft…well, who’s to say what they’re up to?  Reports suggest that they’re not going to announce new consoles anytime soon, and even if they do they’re both a ways off (compared to the proposed Holiday ’12 release of the Wii U).  So what have they got left to show this year?  Well, one would think it would be about the games instead of trying to make you fall in love with what’s essentially six-year-old tech.  But that makes me wonder just what games they have in store.

Let’s look at Sony for a minute.  It’s feasible that they’ll show off some content for God of War: Ascension and Playstation All-Stars, but what else?  Suffice to say they’ll have their fair share of surprises, but what that extends to I can’t rightly say.  Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider have both been announced and delayed (and they’re multiplatform).  Rayman Legends is also in the works.  Right now, the games that most people are itching to get their hands on have already been revealed thanks to the internet, games journalists, and the companies themselves.  You could argue that Sony still has console-exclusive franchises to fall back on, but I wonder if it’s the right time for them to make their appearance.  

We just had Uncharted 3 (and to a lesser extent, Uncharted: Golden Abyss), Killzone 3, and Resistance 3; one would think that the narratives therein deserve a break, especially since I’d assume Killzone is largely wrapped up.  The same could be argued for God of War, but…well, money.  Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, and Jak haven’t been relevant in ages, and while I’m glad there’s a new Sly Cooper on the way, the fact that we already KNOW there’s a new Sly Cooper on the way takes some wind out of Sony’s E3 sails.  Maybe they’ll announce a new IP?  Possible, but given the general insistence that IPs in this day and age on hefty HD platforms aren’t the safest gesture, I don’t have very high hopes.  Maybe we’ll see a few, standing alongside The Last of Us (already announced…); maybe we’ll finally get to see some more of The Last Guardian (already announced, though who knows what’s going on with that one?).  I’ll remain optimistic, but I won’t be surprised if we just get another sequel to a sequel.

One day...

The obvious answer, then, is for Sony to support its up-and-comers: the Vita and the Move.  Given how much hype the Vita received before its release, you’d think that Sony would show its dedication to making it viable by throwing a few games at it.  Games that only the Vita can create, mind you -- not just ports of already-released games, or compressed versions of console titles.  In the same sense that the DS wasn’t just a mini-GameCube and offered its own unique library, Sony needs to establish that the Vita can do things that no other handheld has done before.  Basically, if the Vita can offer its version of The World Ends with You, it’ll be much better off.

The Move, on the other hand…boy, I think that one needs some work.  I am seriously hard-pressed to think of any game that serves as the Move’s killer app.  Granted it’s only been…what, a year since it came out?  Surely it has to go through that awkward period where it has to find itself.  And by the time it grows out of it, we’ll have moved on, and all their efforts will be for naught.  (You’d think that if Sony was going to ape the Wii, they’d duplicate all its successes WITHOUT duplicating its faults thanks to some six years of hindsight.)  Sony needs to show why the Move matters -- and this E3 might be their best chance to do it.  Just…don’t spend half an hour trying to sell it.

Speaking of overselling motion controls, let’s shift to Microsoft.

Regrettably, this happened.

Microsoft is reliable like Nintendo, but in a different capacity.  They’re sitting pretty with a bevy of first- and third-party titles.  They’re decidedly modern and connected, and tend to NOT get fatally hacked (though as I understand it, it could happen).  The Xbox is the go-to system for games…though if Microsoft has its way it’ll be a hub for all your entertainment needs -- advertising included, grimly enough. 

But I digress.  It still suffers from the same problems that Sony has; we know most of the games coming out for it -- chief among them, Halo 4.  What else can they possibly announce to get gamers tight in the trousers?  We need another Gears of War like a shot in the pancreas; Fable looks primed to be competent, but fail to deliver on its delivery of platinum eggs; Assassin’s Creed III is as multiplatform as it is posed to deliver stabbings by the dozen.  What the hell is left?  More footage of Call of Duty, knowing full well that people are already selling their souls for early copies?  Don’t tell me Microsoft’s going to try and break into the handheld market.

Hopefully, it won’t be another Kinect-fest like last time.  I’m not opposed to motion controls, or the games related to them, and I’d like to see at least one game that makes me wish I’d plunked down the money for one.  What I DO have a problem with is brain-dead gimmicks like this:

Seriously, guys.  We’re not babies.  We’re your target audience that is willing to sit through more than ninety minutes of junk just to get to a thirty-second teaser trailer.  Don’t make those ninety minutes impossibly painful for us, or we’ll be mocking you for years to come.  You would think that a simple, no-nonsense yet semi-casual event like this would be easy to nail.  And yet…

And now let’s have a serious discussion.

You know what?  This is between you and me, but I hope -- really, really hope -- that the new Sony/Microsoft consoles aren’t announced until next year at the earliest, and even then don’t hit shelves until a year or two later.  I don’t have anything against technology, but if this generation has shown us anything (as Nintendo prophesized), it’s that more power =/= better games.  What have better graphics given us in the six years since their arrival?  Railroaded design laden with set pieces?  Eschewing color and design for the same bland palette and style?  The near-deaths of several franchises, companies, and even genres?  Focusing solely on horsepower at the expense of everything else?  Look , I know it’s inevitable for technology and visuals to get better.  I get that.  I respect it, too; none of the games I like today would be possible if not for the advances made from the days when the Genesis walked the earth.   And even today, in this era that makes cynics out of the most idealistic gamers (barring myself, because I don’t know any better), we still get games like Skyrim and Xenoblade Chronicles that taps the tech for our benefit.  There’s a lot to hate, but there’s still a whole lot more to love.

With that said, the next generation of games scares me shitless.  With talk of a new Unreal engine and new motion capture and rendering technology and physics engines, I can’t help but fret.  The last time I checked, games cost twenty to forty million dollars to make; how much more are they going to cost if those new systems are put into practice?  And to what end?  So we can walk down the world’s most realistically rendered halls?  So we can have more cookie-cutter characters while the developers tout a “cinematic experience”?  So we can have more Michael Bay clones loaded into our console trays?

We stand at a crossroads.  Where we’re headed -- towards stability, prosperity, or ruin -- has yet to be seen.  But whatever the case, this E3, like all the E3s before it, will remain important.  It’s the great decider.  It’s going to be a proving ground, the likes of which, in spite of reports and speculation we may be unprepared for.

Get your bodies ready, folks.  Anything could happen.

At a competitive price, I hope.

(I wouldn't mind seeing Persona 5, though...just sayin'.)

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