All the big E3 conferences reviewed

Another E3, another parade of expensive, flashy conferences filled with pre-rendered trailers of upcoming games. Some publishers eschewed the traditional format this year, namely Electronic Arts. But there were still a few old-fashioned press briefings, all of which I am now going to review. Well, except for the PC Gaming Show. For obvious reasons.

Overall it's been a pretty muted E3, and I feel like the organisers of these conferences are actively trying to make them as uncontroversial and straightforward as possible. Which is good for their stress levels I'm sure, but has resulted in the least funny E3 in history. I'd even be happy if Mr. Caffeine returned at this point, just to mix things up.

Microsoft

After a slew of trailers including Minecraft Dungeons, which is essentially a blocky Diablo, Xbox head Phil Spencer took to the stage to a chorus of cheers and, unbelievably, grown men making an X with their arms. Spencer gave a heartfelt but baffling speech that contained hundreds of words, yet somehow said nothing at all. "This moment isn't just about finding SOME new games," he said with the unearned gravity of a general addressing an army before a decisive battle. "It's about discovering YOUR new games."

The word 'crossplay' got a trickle of applause for some reason. Then someone, presumably an overeager Microsoft employee angling for a promotion, shouted "We love you!" at the top of his voice. I can't think of another industry where people loudly proclaim their love for business executives (even ones as likeable as Spencer) in public. Games are weird.

Then Microsoft brought out the big guns. From a smoky portal, like some futuristic episode of Stars in Their Eyes, emerged Ted Theodore Logan himself, Keanu Reeves. The crowd went mental, and in this case it was the appropriate response. For years Reeves has hidden away from the limelight, only appearing in vertical phone videos of him being violently polite in public. But now he's everywhere, including as a character in Cyberpunk 2077, and he was impossibly charming as he revealed the release date.

Other highlights included some really gorgeous 4K footage from a new Microsoft Flight Simulator, Tim Schafer showing off Psychonauts 2, and an evocative trailer for FromSoftware and George R.R. Martin's Elden Ring. But overall, Keanu aside, this was a pretty straightforward conference. No awkward moments, no goofs. Just a lot of footage and trailers, which is fine, but I do miss when E3 felt a little more anarchic.

8/10

Bethesda

Bethesda loves kicking its conferences off with breezy, saccharine videos of its developers talking about how much they love working there—and this year was no different. "I see you," says a procession of talking heads. "Because we ARE you." And then a group of people enthusiastically shout "We are Bethesda!" It's kinda nice in this age of relentless, wearying cynicism. But also feels a little like a Scientology recruitment film.

Bethesda's head of comms, Pete Hines, takes to the stage in a bomber jacket and the hooting and hollering of the crowd is somehow even more obnoxious than it was at the Microsoft show. A reference to beleaguered online survival game Fallout 76 is met with such a powerful cheer that I can only assume they had the entire development team in the room.

Then Todd Howard, who is also wearing a bomber jacket, takes to the stage, which several people think deserves a standing ovation. He hasn't even said anything yet! Tone it down. Jeez. Howard talks about how great the Fallout 76 community is (more suspicious cheering), briefly mentions the still in development Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI (lots of cheering, perhaps more understandable this time), then he sods off.

But the star of the Bethesda conference was undoubtedly the wildly charming and entertaining Ikumi Nakamura, creative director of Tango Gameworks' new horror game, GhostWire: Tokyo. She lights up the stage and the game sounds interesting too: a supernatural mystery set on the rainy streets of Tokyo, where people are mysteriously disappearing.

Other games of note included thrillingly violent co-op shooter Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Arkane's new thing, Deathloop, which involves two competing assassins caught in a time loop. But, again, this was a fairly muted conference. It seems the big publishers are playing it safer than ever this year, which is a shame. But hey, it's Ubisoft up next, and you can always count on them to have a bit more fun at E3.

7/10 

Ubisoft

Last year Ubisoft kicked its conference off with a dancing panda. But in keeping with the generally understated vibe of the show this year, this was a much more civilised affair. An orchestra played a bunch of music from Assassin's Creed, then threw over to a couple of community managers who were, I must say, a nice change from all those super polished execs. Ubisoft conferences always more fun and laid back than the others.

The first big hitter is Watch Dogs Legion, which looks absolutely brilliant. You can read all about it here, but my main takeaways are that I really want to explore this vision of a dark, dystopian Big Smoke, and I can't wait to run about as a gun-toting granny. Watch Dogs 2 is, for me anyway, Ubisoft's best open world game, so I am well up for more of this series. Amazing that the deeply tedious, self-serious original led to all this, eh?

Rob McElhenney (y'know, Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) took to the stage to talk Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, a sitcom set in a game development studio. Why's this at an E3 conference? Because it's co-produced by Ubisoft Motion Pictures, who is also involved in a forthcoming movie adaption of The Division starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Seems the French publisher is ready to grow beyond the world of videogames.

Punisher star Jon Bernthal turned up (with his dog) to talk about his role as the villain in Ghost Recon Breakpoint. Then we had the inevitable Just Dance presentation, which was a welcome burst of colour and energy after a lot of serious, moody games—particularly when the friggin' dancing panda showed up. I will never play Just Dance, but these segments always feel like the silly old E3 of days gone by and I am fully down with that.

An enjoyable conference, then, but far from Ubisoft's most entertaining. The highlight was, by far, Watch Dogs. I'm excited to see what Far Cry 2 director Clint Hocking does with the game, and I'm all for open worlds based in cities that aren't American for a change. No sign of Beyond Good & Evil 2, however, a game that feels like it's been in development for 50,000 years. Ubisoft loves showing trailers of this thing, so its absence is unexpected.

6/10 

Square Enix

Last year Square Enix didn't have a proper conference, opting instead for a series of trailers narrated by Keith David. But this year it's gone old school, renting a theatre and kicking things off with a crowd-pleasing glimpse of the Final Fantasy 7 remake. I love FFVII, but had no interest in the remake. Then I heard that music and saw Aerith and it was goosebump time. Pathetic. It's intriguing, however, that all the footage shown so far of the remake is from the first moments of the game.

Then, for a good long while, we were subjected to a bombardment of trailers. Kingdom Hearts DLC (can we get it on PC now, please?), Octopath Traveler (it's already out on PC, cheers), and free-to-play WW2 FPS Battalion 1944, which is also already out on Steam. A bit of a weird selection of games, honestly. More exciting was the news that a bunch of classic Square Enix videogame music is now on streaming services. I'm currently listening to the Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack on Spotify. So that's nice.

Sebastian Wojciechowski from People Can Fly took to the stage briefly to introduce Outriders, a new co-op shooter from the Bulletstorm studio. This was another of many pre-rendered 'mood trailers' at the show—and not just the Square Enix conference, I mean all of 'em. I guess they're useful for establishing the tone and feel of a game that's early in development, but seeing the thing running would be so much more effective. Fancy cinematic trailers just aren't as exciting as they were ten years ago.

Square Enix got its biggest cheer when it revealed its long-awaited Avengers game, which is being co-developed by Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal. There's something weird about seeing these characters with familiar costumes, but completely different faces and voices. Like when you'd get a knock-off action figure down the market and it wasn't quite right. The trailer claimed to be created with in-game footage, but it was so heavily directed that it was impossible to get a sense of what it'll play like.

And there we have it. Another E3 in the bag. The Avengers reveal was a little bit underwhelming, even for fans of the characters, which I admittedly am not. Final Fantasy 7 looks cool, but I wonder if it'll manage to capture the strange, often surreal magic of the original. I keep saying it, but this was another strangely low-key showing from Square Enix. Maybe the industry has finally had enough of E3. Or maybe it's because we're in that weird limbo before the new console generation is revealed. Whatever it is, I hope next year's E3 is a little more stupid and embarrassing. I miss that.

5/10