Wow, that was a long one. E3 2017 began for our away team on Friday last week, for those of us back in the UK on Saturday night, and has barely let up since. I’ve already mentioned that the volume of hype is now out of all proportion to the number of brand new game reveals, and that this is creating the impression of a flat show – but that impression isn’t a wholly accurate one. The buzz from the show floor has been positive – thanks in part to the raw enthusiasm brought by the decision to admit members of the public. And, as ever, there has been a ton of games to see. And many of them have seemed excellent!
As we did last year, we’re taking a simple approach to naming our picks of the show: five games, no more, no less, receive our E3 2017 Editors’ Choice award. They are not ranked, not divided by genre, and not separated by any other category of achievement. In order to be eligible, games must have been available to watch or play in a live gameplay demonstration, so no CGI trailers or canned gameplay reveals. Hands-on time isn’t a must, although it helps (and, in fact, we did get to play all five winning games this year).
Some of the most exciting games from this year’s show weren’t eligible for our awards: Beyond Good & Evil 2 had a spectacular CGI trailer, but is a very distant and vague prospect, with a slightly suspect relationship to the cult original. Anthem wows technically, and EA swears its Xbox conference demo was recorded in real time on Xbox One X, but we weren’t given an opportunity to verify this for ourselves – ditto Metro Exodus. And we were disappointed not to see Sony Santa Monica’s new God of War in the flesh, because it looks terrific.
A few further honourable mentions. There were a number of sequels out there that made up for what they lacked in sheer thrill factor with a confident sense they were taking their respective series in a good direction: we would highlight Assassin’s Creed Origins, Far Cry 5 and State of Decay 2. We would very definitely have given an award to Sea of Thieves if we hadn’t already done so last year, because it’s just a blast. And we can’t wait to see more of EA’s intriguing cinematic co-op game A Way Out and Klei’s role-playing game Griftlands.
Now for our five picks of the show!
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
It was a bad joke, and then suddenly it was a very good one. When it leaked that Nintendo had licensed Mario to appear in a game starring Ubisoft’s ingratiating comedy mascots the Rabbids, we were sceptical. When art emerged of Mario shooting an energy weapon, we were downright depressed. How wrong could we be? Kingdom Battle is a bizarre and insouciant blend of flavours that really shouldn’t work together but just do: XCOM-style turn-based tactical combat given some intriguing spatial twists, flippant French cartoon farce, and the unmistakeable candy-pop rainbow surrealism of the Mushroom Kingdom. It’s so wrong that it’s right.
It’s great to see this genre of game reinterpreted for a whole new audience – and whilst it may be easier and simpler than its intimidating inspirations on PC, Mario + Rabbids is definitely not dumb. Turn-based tactical adventures also like a great fit for handheld play, while its style and self-mocking tone also remind us of some of the most beloved Mario spin-offs of the past, like the anarchic Mario & Luigi role-playing games. The greatest joy it offers, though, is the uniquely pleasant surprise of having your expectations so comprehensively overturned.
The Artful Escape
This pretty indie rock-opera-platformer failed to meet its crowdfunding goals last year, but has been saved by Annapurna Interactive – the new games arm of the film production company behind the likes of Her and Zero Dark Thirty, which is proving to have a pretty sharp radar for interesting left-field games. It got a trailer debut at the Xbox briefing, along with a lot of other visually distinctive indies that all seemed set to briefly delight and then get crushed under the wheels of the E3 AAA juggernaut. But we’re still talking about this one at the end of the week. What happened?
Simple: Wes, who would normally be immune to something so hipsterish, played it and loved it. (The last indie game Wes liked was Papers, Please.) That must mean it has something special. “The developer [Johnny Galvatron] is this Australian hipster dude who is in a band and has composed and recorded all the music himself,” says Wes. “He has big blonde hair and was wearing a denim jacket with badges all over it, and he had 80s stubble. But then, when I spoke with him he was OK, so I thought I’d give his game a shot. And it was awesome.
“This is a game where you mash a button to shred your guitar, and whenever you do it it just works with the background music. There are beams of light you ride where you hold down a button to play amazing 80s rock. The control system is amazing; each button on the controller does a different note. The music reminded me of Turbo Kid, which I love. This is a game where you can summon and dismiss your guitar like a mount in an RPG.” Sold.
Star Wars Battlefront 2
Funny thing about 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront; it wasn’t all that great, but we played it a whole heap anyway, and not just because Star Wars (though that was a big part of it, and the fan service was beautifully rendered by DICE). It was, above all, an authentically different flavour of multiplayer first-person shooter: something distinct from the competitive teamplay of Overwatch, or Call of Duty’s relentless killbox, or the massed battles of Battlefield. It was looser, lighter, more… relaxing, if a PVP shooter can be such a thing. It was multiplayer comfort food, which is a hell of a trick to pull off.
But it wasn’t all that great, not really, which is why Battlefront 2 stands out from the many polished blockbuster sequels at E3. It has dazzling tech upgrades, a proper single-player campaign, characters and locations from beyond the original trilogy, deepened and refined multiplayer dynamics, and free DLC. But more compelling than any of those is that it has a reason to exist. The 2015 Battlefront was only halfway to being the Star Wars game we all wanted. This looks like it will be the real deal.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
We’re going out on something of a limb with this one. Not because we doubt that the developers at MachineGames will turn in another polished and grotesquely entertaining single-player shooter campaign – we’re sure they will – but because, well, that tone. It could go either way. Many loved Wolfenstein’s trashy revenge fantasy set in a US under Nazi rule, but others felt it tipped – even deliberately – into crass trivialisation. Wolfenstein 2, going by its bonkers reveal at Bethesda’s conference, is doubling down in a dangerous way, by making a deliberately offensive, flippant and violent game about diversity. The New Colossus simultaneously baits politically correct liberal tastemakers with its cavalier misuse of the gravest events in 20th century history, and taunts their alt-right opponents with its almost parodically politically correct cast of revolutionary heroes (BJ Blazkowicz even starts the game in a wheelchair). That’s a hell of a high-wire act, and let’s be honest, it could go badly wrong.
But for now, we’re going to cling on board this ride into uncharted waters of the culture wars. Mostly because we’ve played it, and it’s a lot of fun. And also because, amid a lot of very tonally safe reveals at E3 – Anthem looks beautiful, for example, but everything about its post-apocalyptic mech fantasy is purest video game convention – here was a bracing piece of trailer theatre with real character and daring. Now that’s how to get our attention.
Super Mario Odyssey
In which the mighty Tokyo EAD, the studio behind Super Mario Galaxy and video gaming’s most prolific ideas factory, has its first stab at the sandbox gameplay style of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, and in doing so appears to comprehensively lose its marbles. Which is good, because Mario games should be mad, but this looks like it might be the maddest of them all. If that’s not enough for you, here is a transcription of part of the above video, recorded by Chris and Aoife on the show floor. This is the sound of two people playing Super Mario Odyssey:
Aoife: Watch out, it’s a Bullet Bill!
Chris: Eeeeee! Eeeeee!
Chris: No! No! No! So far my response has been: throw a cap at it. OK, just as planned…[BOTH GASP]
Aoife: What? What did you do?
Chris: So. Oh my god it has!
Aoife: It’s got a little mustache!
Chris: That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.
Aoife: Do it again! Do it again! Fly through those golden rings. That is awesome! Weeeee!
Chris: I’m conflicted because I want to look at his mustache.[A FEW MINUTES LATER]
Aoife: Oh my gosh, look at the wall!
Chris: Oh my god, tell me that you have to… You do! This is so cool!
Aoife: OK that’s amazing ohmygod
Chris: Video games are great. Video games are just great.
Aoife: Video games are the best. I… This is amazing.
Chris: Games are good. Games are so so good. They should keep making them.