The promise of uncompromising gaming on the go, a sexy new console from the makers of the Wii and a robust lineup of must-have, must-play games topped this year’s celebration of all things gaming in Los Angeles last week.
This year’s E3 kicked off early with a look at what the makers of the Playstation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 have in store for us over the next year or so, and ended with a surprisingly robust laundry list of games everyone is going to want to play.
Sony’s biggest news of the show was the unveiling of the price and name of its next generation portable.
The Playstation Vita will cost a relatively low $250. That puts it in direct competition with Nintendo’s 3DS, which sells for the same price, at a time when the glasses-free 3-D device is struggling to match the success of the Wii or DS.
While Nintendo spent a segment of its press conference touting a long list of games coming to the 3DS, which launched this spring, the 3DS can’t help but come off as slightly over-priced compared to the hardware packed into the Vita.
At its heart, the Vita is a device aiming straight for hardcore gamers. It has two thumbstick controllers, something that makes games like “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” easier to play, high-end graphics displayed on a crisp 5-inch OLED screen and the ability to play games against people on a PS3 or save your own progress in game on a Vita and then continue playing on the home console.
While Nintendo launched its online store for the 3DS during last week’s show, it still hasn’t delivered on some of the device’s promises including activating Netflix, delivering movies or big games for the device. Much of that is still said to be coming.
Instead, Nintendo spent a bulk of its press conference talking about the next big thing, the replacement for the Wii home console.
The Wii U, set for a release sometime next year at a still undetermined price, appears to be a more refined Wii with one very special controller. The Wii U will include MotionPlus Wii remote support, the ability to deliver high-definition graphics and apparently a more robust processor. But the key difference is the device’s tablet-like master controller.
This special controller looks a bit like an iPad, but features a white frame that sports an array of buttons, a 6.2-inch touch screen, speakers, a microphone, motion sensing and a sensor bar. Players can use the device as a full game controller, with the screen showing things like a map, or secondary view in games, while they play on a TV. But the device also allows gamers to play a game without a television, meaning one could play a game entirely on the screen between one’s hands without needing to ever turn the television on, or while someone else is watching TV.
We’ve also been told that the device can be used to play motion games, setting it up on its charging dock and standing in front of it as one would a Wii and television.
Nintendo left quite a bit unanswered about their its console, not even revealing the detailed specs or price for the new unit, instead concentrating on its controller.
While there wasn’t a full game to try, there were quite a few demos and mini games. After spending a bit of time with all Nintendo had to offer I came away with the feeling that as with the Wii, this was a console that had great potential, but potential that would rely heavily on third-party developers to be fully realized.
During its press conference, Nintendo showed off an impressive, though apparently faked, reel of video game play from a number of big third-party studios. One of those included Gearbox Studios, which plans to bring “Aliens: Colonial Marines” to the device.
While “Colonial Marines” on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 looks like pretty standard fare, Gearbox says it hopes to use the Wii U’s controllers to allow gamers to do things like sweep for aliens, weld doors shut and manipulate 3D maps.
Lacking any new hardware to show, Microsoft stuck to trying to reinvigorate interest in its Kinect Xbox 360 add-on, showing off a number of new games coming to the device including a horror game, a game based on the popular role-playing series “Fable” and another on “Star Wars.”
The most interesting games of E3, though, were those that stuck to the standard mechanics of play and instead focused on deep stories and surprising themes.
By far, my favorite of the show came from designer Ken Levine, whose last big game married a dystopian world with commentary on Ayn Rand Objectivism to deliver a title filled with fun gameplay and shocking moments.
In “Bioshock: Infinite,” the third in the series, players take to a floating city in an alternate America on the hunt for a woman imprisoned in a tower. This gaming trope takes on new deeper meaning when blended with a troubling relationship that echoes domestic violence and set against a seething backdrop of nativism versus Marxism.
An easy second place of the show is the surprisingly deft reboot of the storied “Tomb Raider” series that examines the metamorphosis of heroine Lara Croft from college student to action hero. What I saw of “Tomb Raider,” and I managed to sneak in three screenings, left me feeling that this could be the greatest character-driver narrative of 2012 in gaming.
While “Infinite” and “Tomb Raider” were easily my favorite two games of the show, there were plenty of other big, surprising, enjoyable games that popped up over the course of the week.
Among them were Bethesda’s “Prey 2” and “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”; Square Enix’s “Hitman Absolution,” Activision’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” and Electronic Arts’ “Battlefield 3.”
Brian Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game website owned by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.