Our E3 coverage is far from over. We have hands-on previews, developer’s walkthroughs, and interviews that will be coming to you all month long to let you know what to look forward to, and maybe what to stay away from, for the next year or so. However, after careful evaluation of the very busy returned-to-form show floor, we have our best of the best picked out. There were a truly remarkable number of cool, innovative, and fun games on display, and I could probably name 5-10 for each category, but managed to bring it down to 2 (or 3 for a couple). Without further ado, these are the games you should start getting excited about right now.
Best Press Conference: Microsoft
They had the first presentation of the show, and set the bar high. Apparently, it was so high that it wouldn’t be reached again all week. They started with an incredible line-up of multi-platform games getting the spotlight with guest stars like Tony Hawk, Sir Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. They moved into exclusives with new Halo: ODST footage and Halo: Reach finally officially announced. Then there was Project Natal, the ambitious camera/microphone that promises to allow control of menus, games, and even interaction with hyper-advanced AI in the near future. New upgrades and features added to the NXE interface, and Metal Gear finally coming to Xbox 360 capped off the best, most well-rounded Press Conference of the show. Nintendo and Sony definitely had some nice surprises, but they didn’t quite reach Microsoft’s lofty level.
Runner Up: Konami: While they presentation was up and down, it was always entertaining. Tobin Bell and DDR’s head were such polar opposites that it felt like a bad trip, but the entire conference was worth every second to see the premiere of the new Castlevania trailer on a beautiful big screen, with all the tension and excitement of the crowd making it even cooler.
Best Booth: TIE: Activision and Sony
I just couldn’t choose. Sony had the best booth of the console manufacturers, barely squeeking out Nintendo’s. The booth was a testament to one big thing: GAMING. There were PS3s and PSPs everywhere, some literally hanging from the rafters. Massive sets of consoles were set up for God of War 3, Uncharted 2, and MAG, and a dedicated area for third party multi-platfrom titles featured almost all the other hot games from around the floor. It was a one-stop shop for excitement, and proved that Sony is ready to convince the gaming public that this thing is more than just a Blu-ray player.
Activision went for the extravaganza model, with an emphasis on performance. DJs mixed to trailer sequences, sometimes using the new DJ Hero hardware and software to do entire mixes. The performances were always fun and lent an uplifting atmosphere to the floor. Tony Hawk Ride’s multiple setups were constantly busy, and the folks manning the game from Robomodo were incredible. They helped people get used to the new Skateboard peripheral, guiding them along step-by-step for three days straight, never losing their enthusiasm for the game. Several other playables and theaters for trailers capped off a great, organized, open area that was a welcome respite from some of the other ultra-crowded booths.
Runner Up: Nintendo: New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Wii Sports Resort were joined by Conduit, Red Steel 2, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Crystal Bearers and about 20 other playable games, most if not all exclusive to the console. The sheer joy on peoples’ faces while playing NSMBW was great to see; the classic style clearly stoked nostalgic fires in a lot of gamers.
Best Wii Exclusive: Conduit
There was a surprisingly varied set of Wii Exclusives shown at E3 2009, but one has been hyped for several months and is finally complete and ready to wow gamers. Independent developer High Voltage came out from the suburbs of the Chicago to do one thing: punk every other Wii developer out there. Conduit is a first person shooter with tight controls, the best graphics seen on Nintendo’s system, a fun variety of weapons and items, and online multiplayer that doesn’t require friend codes. A very cool set of multiplayer modes should see a lot of people dust off their Wiis in a couple of weeks, including Assassin. With this, every player has one specific person they’re supposed to/allowed to kill. Killing anyone other than your target reduces your score, making for an entertaining and hectic game mode. The game played great, the developers were thrilled they could get so much out of the Wii, and this is a clear contender for the Wii’s best “hardcore” title yet. Even better, it comes out in just a couple of weeks, on June 23, 2009.
Runner Up: New Super Mario Bros. Wii: While it has a ridiculous five word title, at least it is obvious and descriptive. This game was a huge blast to play, and should be rocking the homes of both longtime Mario fans and newer fans introduced to games through the Wii when it comes out this Holiday season.
Best PS3 Exclusive: Heavy Rain
This game debuted with a trailer that approached the “uncanny valley,” the point where a simulated image is so close to the real thing, it becomes eerie to view. Over the last couple of years, it has had a few trailers and screenshots come out, but with very little gameplay involved. Having a chance to finally get my hands on it this year at E3, this will be without a doubt one of the most immersive and unique games on this generation of consoles. The no-HUD interface, the thought clouds, the investigative structure of the game, and oh yeah, the fact that the main characters can die without the game ending, make this an inventive game that will likely define a new genre. It’s beautiful, it’s intuitive, and it is just plain cool.
Runner Up: God of War 3: Wait, runner up? Well, the game is certainly gorgeous. It plays nearly identically to the first two chapters, so fans of the series will have no problem jumping right in and kicking mythological butt. At an E3 with a glut of God of War clones, it was refreshing to see that the originators are still doing their job as good or better than the rest. The QTE system has changed, bringing the button prompts to the edges of the screen, and coinciding with their positions on the controller, making for a much more seamless (and easier to follow) way of doing QTEs. The game is largely more of the same, but tweaks and slight re-inventions will definitely bring God of War back to the front of everyone’s minds.
Best Xbox 360 Exclusive: Halo: ODST
This is probably my least surprising pick, but man was this fun. This was one of the most fun 10 minutes of multiplayer I have ever played. The game plays similarly but not exactly the same as Halo 3, as ODSTs are markedly different from Spartans. They can’t use equipment, they have Stamina ratings instead of shields, but they’re still tough-as-nails and enjoy killing covenant. The new wave-by-wave mode is similar to those seen in other prominent shooters, but there are some cool new additions. The life pool is great; all players draw from one pool of lives, so teamwork and supporting the least experienced player is very important. There are, of course, new maps, and the one we got to play was a great mostly outdoor map where the players start at the top of a massive hill and the enemies get dropped in from below. Also, the new pistol, reminiscent of the pistol from Halo 1 is incredibly useful and fun to pick off grunts with single headshots. This was the best of Halo 3 with great new twists and a better team focus than ever before, and without a doubt the best Xbox 360 exclusive at the show this year.
Runner Up: Left 4 Dead 2: Oh yeah, more survival zombie action is coming this fall. It may seem early for a full sequel, only one year after the original (and only a few months after a substantial free upgrade for the original), but the additions to the gameplay were varied and fun enough to warrant a new game. Incendiary ammo certainly came in handy, the new special infected were vicious and tough, and chainsaws and axes were just so cool to chop up zombies with in this fast-paced multiplayer game.
Best Closed Door Presentation: Modern Warfare 2
This was the very last closed door presentation of the show for me, and what a way to close it out. After a brief tease of gameplay at the Microsoft Press Conference, I was certainly anxious to see more. The mission shown took the player and one cohort on a massive infiltration, destruction, and escape, all in the middle of a massive snowstorm that made visibility about 10 feet. Of course, you can take advantage of this, picking off and stealth killing the defenders of the base one by one. The AI, both assistive and enemies, is much smarter and more useful than in any shooter before. The villains don’t constantly respawn, either, so when you evaluate the enemy lineup and take them down, they’re down. The graphics and sound were simply jaw dropping, and every sequence was more exciting to see than the last. Immersive, nerve wracking, and suspenseful, this looks like it will redefine shooters, something Infinity Ward seems to like doing. I simply can’t wait to get my hands on this game, and the show Infinity Ward and Activision put on at E3 made it clear they want to give gamers more than they even knew they wanted.
Runner Up: Just Cause 2: This was a day one view for me, and stuck with me the whole show. I was telling people from rival game companies, other press, PR folks, and really anyone that would listen how cool this game looks. Eidos Interactive showed off a game that does things with movement and physics that I’ve never seen. Movement is done primarily via a grappling hook and a stunt parachute. That may not sound so mind-blowing, but seeing it in action certainly was. Having not played the original, I still look forward to this game, putting it towards the top of a crowded list of games coming in the next year. The first time you hook a pursuing jeep to a bridge support, sending it careening over the side and dumping the enemies out in the process, I challenge you to not scream out with glee.
Best Playable Sequel: The Beatles: Rock Band
Everything about this game just makes me happy. The Beatles music fits so perfectly into the band game, it may as well have been made specifically with this inconceivable future in mind. The game’s presentation includes actual venues they played in, faithfully recreated with the assistance of McCartney and Starr. The later studio epics have trippy animated dreamscapes instead of screaming fans, and it works beautifully. Only ten of the 45 shipping songs have been announced thus far, but with DLC available day one (the complete “Abbey Road”) and more planned, fans are sure to find their favorite songs at launch or soon after. Playing the game was some of the most fun I’ve had with music games yet; 2 and 3 part harmonies were especially amazing and rewarding when we hit them perfectly. Another set of fake instruments is likely in my future as well, as The Beatles replica instruments look (and feel) great. The only bad thing I have to say about this game is that it’s not out yet and I can’t go home and play it right now.
Runner Up: TIE- Madden 10 and Tony Hawk: Ride: Man, there were a lot of great sequels at the show this year. Two massive franchises showed up with their A game and deserved to be mentioned here. Madden 10 is a real return to form for the series. The developers present admitted the game had gotten too complicated, so simplicity was the focus this year; play calls are picked from three plays on screen at a time again, presentation is improved with a lot less breaks and loading times in the game, and the new online features, including management via iPhone, ensures I will be dedicating a ridiculous amount of time to my fake football team.
Tony Hawk: Ride, meanwhile, has completely reinvented the skateboarding game. The peripheral is very intuitive and easier even than a controller to get a hang of and immediately start having fun. All the venues are real locations, the graphics are solid, but hey, those are all just standard. This is an exciting new way to play games, and looks so far like it will surprise everyone with its ease of use and intuitive, fun gameplay.
Best Game of E3 2009: Batman: Arkham Asylum
This one was easy. I’ve already talked at length about one of my experiences playing this game. After that first playthrough of the demo on Tuesday, this was the only game on the floor that I went back to not 1 or 2 other times, but a total of five. Every chance I had to try something new with this game, I took. It has the perfect mood, graphics, sound, animation, movement, controls for fighting and evading, and without a doubt puts gamers into Batman’s shoes for the very first time. Rocksteady, Eidos, and WBIE have crafted an honest-to-goodness Batman game, and this is going to be a huge hit in what’s looking like a banner year for comic book games.