One reader shares his thoughts on some of the big games at E3.
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‘New’ is a word that is much too often abused in the modern games industry, along with ‘innovative’ and ‘unique’. And every year, it is at the Electronic Entertainment Expo that such adjectives are relentlessly abused the most. These words, when tenuously latched on to every sequel, spin-off and reboot just start to lose any meaning they once retained in each glorious syllable. Until those words are actually attached to something worthy of such description. Then, dear friends, something magical happens.
Just for the record, I didn’t actually go to E3 this year. Or last year. Or ever. Sadly, I’m just not in that club. But, like many of you reading, my retinas were damaged over the last few weeks when I involuntarily glued them to my laptop screen, salivating with expectant glee, a Pavlov’s dog to E3’s chiming bell. Sifting through the same sequelly trash, each eight-minute installment more disappointing than the next. Of course, there were a few that I came across that made me nod my head in silent gratitude to NOT being a pile of pixelated sludge (Assassin’s Creed 3 springs first to mind… I can’t remember any others; go figure). But then I came across the first jaw-dropper: The Last of Us.
Of course it was Naughty Dog. It was always going to be Naughty Dog. Their track record as a developer is almost unparalleled in the modern games industry: Crash Bandicoot, to Jak and Daxter, and then to their most recent master-class series, Uncharted. And, from what I can gather from the gameplay, we have another groundbreaking classic on our hands. From the opening shot, in which we see a rugged 30-something-year-old panting, apparently having just ran away from an unknown entity (my guess is that it’s a scary unknown entity), and speaking with his… daughter? No, she couldn’t be, she’s in her teens… early teens? A young girl, then, who is more than a little reflective of a Kick-Ass era Chloe Moretz. Let’s just call her Chloe Moretz actually.
So, grumpy gruff guy and Chloe Moretz say some general stuff about ‘them’ being ‘gone’ and that the two of them are ‘safe’, and other largely ambiguous dialogue, in a self-aware attempt at preserving intrigue in the bustling E3 audience. It’s a very beautiful CGI cutscene – and then they turn around, and the guy at the front, his thumbs are twiddling about on the joysticks of the controller, in his hand, in direct tandem with what’s happening onscreen. It’s that moment when you realise that the whole game is going to look this beautiful. The hairs stand up on my arms as I gaze on in awe, nerd-gasming while I indulge in the hyper-real character animations, the specks of shadow that glide and ripple through each individually crafted hair on grumpy gruff guy’s head. I’m desperately trying to erase the niggling doubt in my head, that little reminder of the Killzone 2 scandal trailer that left so many Sony fanboys furiously disappointed. But it was so long ago… that wouldn’t happen again. Sony have learned their lesson.But it all looks a little too good.
A general overview: do you remember ‘I Am Legend’? Good, because this game pretty shamelessly copies the basis plot of that movie, except that instead of a man-made virus helpfully cutting down the population, it’s a fungus that one of the producers saw on the Discovery Channel. No, really. Okay, so it’s not the strongest plot for a game I’ve ever heard. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s quite heavily focused on the characters, and wherever there are great characters, there is a great story. Grumpy gruff guy and Chloe Moretz have chemistry that is genuinely breaking virtual ground, more empathetic than most movie protagonists are, striking a great balance between youthful optimism, and knowing caution. I saw them for eight minutes, most of which involved grumpy gruff guy scrapping with other grumpy gruff people, and I already feel more connected to them than I do most of my family.
The demo ends with a brutal, ‘morally questionable’ (that is, if you want to play along with Naughty Dog’s new spin on the ethics of murdering hundreds upon hundreds of armed foreigners – I’m look at you, Uncharted) shotgun fatality, and the lights go down with uproarious applause. Bravo. There’s no matching that, surely. And then I saw the ‘Watch Dogs’ demo.
Aaaaand we’re in a fully-functioning city, strolling down a sidewalk that’s drenched in such photorealism that many will declare it to be witchcraft. Immediately, Heavy Rain fans perk up with hope. A strong hint of melancholy badassness, without having to spoil it with a platoon of gun-toting marines? The demo is off to a great start. It matches the graphical technicality of ‘The Last of Us’ while sporting a different style. A little film noir, I suppose would be a good description. Again, our protagonist is wandering through a futuristic cityscape, but this time, it’s a sprawling metropolis of human (and maybe robot) activity in 2013 Chicago, set in an alternate universe where everything is controlled by a single computer system.
So it turns out that this game is about cyber bounty hunters; our cloaked hero slips past some guards by making their phones have a hissy fit, and enters a cybernetic art gallery called ‘dot ConneXion’. He’s after a guy called deMarco, who just happens to look exactly like Joe Pantoliano. Maybe it’s supposed to make us hate him more? Nevertheless, Mr. Ambiguous tracks deMarco by luring him to his own club – and causing a huge crash at an intersection by hacking the traffic lights.
It’s Hitman meets GTA, and the protagonist soon shows himself to be a different kind of anti-hero, the kind that doesn’t function out of rage, but out of cold apathy. He wants deMarco and he doesn’t care how. But it’s the final shot that might leave a bitter taste in the mouth; Mr Bounty Hunter Hero hijacks a car and goes for a joyride around a completely free-roamable sandbox city. And our hearts sink a little. Will the quality be sacrificed for the scope? Assassin’s Creed took a sequel to prove that Ubisoft were up to the task, but even so, it is hard to quell such doubt from a ten-minute trailer.
So what makes these games, as the titular statement declares, the best games at E3 this year? Let’s ignore graphics for a second, even though they both happened to be by far the prettiest games that were presented. What makes them different to all of the other widely-forgettable appearances? Well, it’s hard to summarize more than this: pace. The reason these games can’t fail to impress is that they don’t need to blow you away with huge set pieces. Around two-thirds of each demo is nothing more than the characters wandering slowly through their surroundings, speaking with each other, taking in the beautiful complexity of the world that has been lovingly built around them. We actually get a chance to get to know these people – it’s a touch of class. And it’s a big step in the right direction.
Bio: Jonathan Taylor spends most of his time thinking about, watching and playing video games. When he isn’t, he is working for www.appliancesonline.co.uk as a writer, or playing his guitar. He also fights crime every now and again. In Arkham City.
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