The E3 2017 conferences reviewed

Today I watched the EA, Bethesda, Ubisoft and Microsoft conferences back to back, which is a non-stop bombardment of the senses that veers on torture. And here’s what I thought of each of them, minus the Sony one. It’s been a weirdly low-key E3, with very few on-stage embarrassments, which makes me weirdly nostalgic for the shambolic, teeth-gritting catastrophes of the early 2000s. We did our own conference of course, The PC Gaming Show, but it would be weird to review that, so follow that link to catch up with all the big announcements we had there. 

Electronic Arts 

The EA conference began with the thunder of percussion as a group of lads pounded on some drums. Then, after a Madden 18 trailer, the drumming ceased as CEO Andrew Wilson arrived on stage looking like a Bond villain. “We’re changing the way you interact with products,” he said, and I clapped, because I love interacting with products. The catchphrase for the conference seemed to be ‘new ways to play’, because almost every nervous-looking developer and slick, confident suit who went on stage said it.

Things kicked off with In the Name of the Tsar, a Battlefield 1 expansion which features an abundance of both snow and stabbing. We also saw a montage of streamers playing the game and screaming, which made me feel uncomfortable being an ancient games media dinosaur still chiselling words into stone tablets. There was a big focus on ‘content creators’ in this conference in general, including a cocky YouTuber suddenly becoming the least confident person in the world and flubbing his lines.

Need For Speed Payback seemed to be a game almost entirely about gently nudging cars and watching them dramatically crash in tedious slow motion. FIFA 18 claimed to be “fueled by the data of Ronaldo”, which sounds vaguely dystopian, and boasted some quite remarkable Frostbite-powered sweat effects. But it wasn’t until Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons creator Josef Fares took to the stage that things got interesting. I’ve interviewed this guy before and he’s passionate as hell, and this came across in his presentation of A Way Out, a co-op prison break adventure that looks like the Escape From Alcatraz game I’ve always dreamed of playing.

Patrick Söderlund, EVP of EA Worldwide Studios, talked about a group within EA called SEED, or the Search For Extraordinary Experiences Division. This lot are apparently working on deep learning technology, AI, and “virtual humans”, with one of their goals being “millions of main characters shaped by you.” Honestly, I’m not sure what he’s on about, but I’m getting visions of a bleak future where games are created by soulless algorithms based on player habits, and I can’t think of anything worse. And as for all this talk of virtual humans: hasn’t anyone at SEED seen Westworld? Just change your name to Delos and be done with it.

Then there was some NBA 18 and some Battlefront 2 and that was about it for EA this year. A few promising games on show, but nothing terribly surprising (except for A Way Out, I guess), and far too many vomit-worthy marketing buzzwords. I hate the way the games industry uses words like ‘product’ and ‘consumer’ so freely. But hey, E3 is as much for bloated shareholders with dollar signs spinning furiously in their eyes as it is for real people, so I guess they have to use language like that.

Bethesda

Bethesda kept things simple this year, and their show was all the better for it. It began with an actually quite charming video featuring developers and their kids. This stuff usually makes me want to heave my breakfast up, but it was pretty heartfelt and nice. Then Pete Hines, global vice president of PR and marketing, came out on stage. He must have a really long business card. Patrick Bateman would freak out if he saw it.

Fallout 4 and a tweaked version of Doom for VR were the first games on show. Virtual reality is a thing now, I guess, and you can buy a headset for a few hundred quid. But it still hasn’t taken off, despite the best efforts of various developers. I was a mad VR evangelist for a while, but now I couldn’t care less about the tech, so this drifted past me like a grey mist. I’m sure it’ll be exciting for those of you who are VR-equipped, though.

Then a bit of Elder Scrolls Online, with some YouTubers (I think) watching a trailer for the Morrowind expansion and getting overexcited. “It made me feel like I was 14 again,” one of them said, which made me feel like the oldest man in the world. When I was 14 I was playing Resident Evil 2 and Spyro the Dragon. Then we saw a dramatic Skyrim-flavoured trailer for card battler Elder Scrolls Legends. This is all fine, but isn’t about time you revealed the next proper Elder Scrolls? I need it. I yearn for it.

Creation Club, a store for Fallout 4 and Skyrim add-ons, was unveiled too. These’ll be developed as collaborations between Bethesda and modders, apparently, and if the quality is sufficient and the creators get a healthy cut of the profits, it could be a good thing. Bethesda is keen to stress that regular modding will remain a “free and open system”, presumably because a lot of people reacted badly to this announcement online. If someone works hard on a quality, DLC-standard add-on, I’m willing to drop money on it.

Then they bombarded us with a bunch of genuinely exciting games including a new Dishonored(!!!!), a new Wolfenstein(!!!!), and a new Evil Within(!). Basically, Bethesda had a bunch of good stuff to show us, and the tiresome between-game banter and embarrassing E3 stuff was almost nonexistent. It was by far the least meme-worthy conference at the show as a result, but sometimes you just gotta let the memes go, man.

Ubisoft

You can usually rely on Ubisoft for an absolutely meme-packed E3 conference, but they kept things pretty low key this year. Mr. Caffeine was nowhere to be found—he’s probably twitching on a coffee shop sofa somewhere—and even Aisha Tyler gave this one a pass. It was a fairly dry affair as a result, and her absence was felt, but it made up for it by squeezing in an enormous number of decent-looking games.

After something about Mario that has no business being on a PC gaming website Ubisoft wheeled out a really quite stunning trailer of environments from the Ancient Egypt-set Assassin’s Creed Origins. I’ve been waiting on an AC set in this period for years, and I can’t wait to slide down a pyramid. I don’t even mind if it’s just Assassin’s Creed again, as frustrating as that series can be, because of the setting. I’m a sucker.

The Crew 2 looks ludicrously ambitious, adding planes, boats, and motorcycles to the mix. I found the original a bit stiff and charmless, and this certainly looks a lot more lively. But in a world where Forza Horizon 3 exists, it’ll have to be pretty damn special. We also got a new trailer for South Park: The Fractured But Whole, which looks like an enjoyable, funny superhero send-up. I hope it’s as good as the brilliant Stick of Truth despite RPG masters Obsidian not being involved in this one. Then Elijah Wood turned up to talk about some weird VR game called Transference, and we even got some pirates courtesy of Skull & Bones, which looks like an entire game of Black Flag’s naval  battles. Phew. I need a lie down.

Then, realising that they hadn’t done anything ridiculous for an hour, Ubisoft brought some robots out to dance to a Jamiroquai song, who were later joined by a panda. You can always count on the Just Dance series to make things a bit embarrassing at E3. I loved the contrast of the bubbly madness on stage and the sea of stony-faced games journalists watching it by the glow of their laptops. Oh, and Bebe Rexha came on stage too and did a bit of singing. This was the most E3 moment of the show for sure.

Later there was an Olympics expansion for Steep, some footage of the brilliant-looking Far Cry 5 in action, and, finally, the biggest surprise of the evening: Beyond Good & Evil 2. This cinematic teaser was ridiculously lavish and beautiful, with cinema-quality animation and a cockney monkey that I think I love a bit. They must have spent a fortune on this, and when Michel Ancel came out afterwards he looked like he was going to break down in tears: maybe because he remembered the budget. I don’t know what the hell BG&E2 will be like as a game, but the trailer sure is pretty.

And that was Ubisoft. A good conference, I thought. Solid selection of games, and only a handful of awkward moments. The general lack of on-stage slip-ups and gif-worthy embarrassments at E3 this year is puzzling, though, especially since that stuff can often give a game more publicity than it would’ve otherwise. Must try harder to make an arse of yourself next year, Ubisoft. And bring back Aisha Tyler, yeah?

Microsoft 

And let’s not forget Microsoft. Since the whole ‘Xbox platform’ thing, every (or almost every) game announced for Xbox will be coming to PC too, so that’s exciting. Bossman Phil Spencer came out on stage and announced that “there’s no power greater than X”, revealing the confusingly-named Xbox One X, which is a superpowered 4K console. But we don’t care about that. We can already do 4K, mate. Get with the times.

We do, however, care about Forza Motorsport 7. Forza handling is sublime, and I’m delighted the new game is coming to PC. It’s a more simmy alternative to the daft, fun, knockabout Horizon series, and man, it sure looks pretty. The rain effects are especially impressive. To celebrate the reveal of the game, Microsoft unveiled an actual car on the stage, which is apparently the first time it’s ever been seen outside of Porsche HQ. I can’t get excited about a car just sitting there, but I’m no gearhead. Maybe if you’re into motors it was properly incredible and exciting.

But one of the biggest surprises for me was the reveal of a new Metro game. Called Metro Exodus, it’s what you might expect: desolate city ruins, monsters, gas masks, stunning visuals, and so on. But it looks a lot bigger and more open. It was super scripted, though, with camera movements that no human would ever make, and enemies behaving a little too conveniently for the sake of drama. But I’m sure the actual game will be great, and I never expected to see another Metro game, honestly.

Ubisoft treated us to a bit of Assassin’s Creed Origins in action, but it focused on the stealthy action, which is the least interesting bit of that series for me. I just wanna see cool historical settings and meet cartoonish versions of famous figures. We also got a sniff of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which is coming to Xbox, and the news that Minecraft is going cross-platform. That’s actually pretty cool, letting PC players pal up with Nintendo Switch gamers, and so on. Sort of fits in with the creative, collaborative spirit of the game, you know?

Then there was a fast-paced volley of smaller, weirder games including some bizarre side-scrolling platformer featuring a lad playing a guitar, but you can read about that somewhere else. There’s simply too much to write about in this light-hearted recap. Microsoft have always championed indies and small developers, and this is an example of that. But, again, there was a distinct lack of embarrassing madness at the show. I was waiting patiently to find something absurd to gif, but it never happened. Why has everyone gotten so shy at this year’s E3? The meme well is dry.

The Microsoft conference ended with Anthem, a new robot-battling action from BioWare that looks kinda fun, especially all the jetpack stuff. But is this a sign that the dev is moving away from lavish, expensive RPGs after the mixed reviews of Mass Effect: Andromeda? I hope not. I love BioWare’s stories and characters (well, for the most part), and it would be a shame to see them leave their RPG roots behind. And that was about the size of it for Microsoft and Xbox. I’d be happy if the entire show was just white blinking text on a black screen saying ‘Forza 7 on PC’, frankly.