E3 2021 was better than we could have expected

E3 banner
(Image credit: ESA)

The run-up to this year's E3 did not inspire confidence, and not even for the obvious reason of it being held amidst a global pandemic. Other large events have transitioned to the digital demands of the moment, but the ESA has a recent history of online cock-ups, including thinking about charging for this year's event at one point and leaking the personal data of 2019's attendees. I was wondering what would go wrong this time.

In the event itself: nothing. Well, apart from some chronic banter between hosts, but that happens every year. Not all of the credit can or should go to ESA of course: other companies clustered their own livestreams around this digital E3 period, adding enormously to the sense of occasion (even if some of their offerings left a little to be desired cough Capcom).

The whole period exceeded my expectations. First there was the sheer quantity of games announced (we've rounded up everything here). Some people thought there were in fact too many, but for me that has always been the great pleasure of E3: the feeling of being utterly blitzed from the number of new announcements and games you never knew existed.

More importantly, the balance was right. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. Personally: I need STALKER 2. But we got real megatons like most-anticipated-game Elden Ring and Starfield (with plenty of details too).

Triple-A games that had previously looked a little shaky turned up reinvigorated: Halo Infinite's multiplayer looks like a potential return to form for the storied series, and then there was the likes of Riders Republic. It was already known about but has now transformed into what might be the most amazing mash-up of extreme sports ever made. 

Big projects from big developers? How about Platinum Games, or Eidos Montreal's excellent-looking Guardians of the Galaxy

The indies just kept on coming, and arguably made even more of an impression than the obvious big-hitters. My pick was Somerville, which looks like the business and has some of the talent behind Inside involved. And there were unexpected oddities as varied as the atmospheric Russian MMO/FPS Pioner and Sam Barlow's next game.

Look at PCG's best of E3 awards: every game on that list has something interesting about it, and none is quite like the other. It would be a genuinely impressive lineup in any year. In 2021, you have to really take your hat off.

Oh and best of all: a huge amount of them are out this year (heck, even Elden Ring's coming next January, woop!)

Just like every other E3, this year trends: tonnes of games with rocket ships, birds, and Left 4 Dead vibes to name but a few. It also showed the industry in general moving away from things like loot boxes and, in the case of Battlefield 2042, ignoring the push towards every FPS being a battle royale.

The one thing it did lack, as Andy Kelly rightly pointed out while reviewing the various shows, was the cringe: the human factor. When I think of great E3 moments past, it's the stuff like Kaz Hirai saying Riiiiidge Raaaacer that really brings a smile to my face. We had plenty of awkward hosting moments but without that huge crowd and the magic of audience reaction, something isn't there.

And it's not like there wasn't any cringe. In Final Fantasy Origins we got a trailer that was such a WTF moment that in years to come people will talk about it in the same breath as giant enemy crabs. What do we want? To kill CHAOS! 

Nevertheless (most of) the livestreams did what they needed to. Bethesda and Microsoft's showcase was a belter that would have stood out at any E3. On top of Starfield there was Forza Horizon 5, Arkane's next game Redfall, Psychonauts 2, and tonnes more. Summer Game Fest was great too, and while we got some pretty awful showcases in amongst everything (hello Gearbox) rarely were we ever too far from the next exciting announcement.

The most obvious sign that E3 2021 was a success is the excitement it's generated—was that an Elder Scrolls 6 tease? Yeah I've seen people moaning about the show, and I certainly wouldn't claim this was an unalloyed success. But it was a success. In the weeks and months leading up to it as the ESA stumbled from PR disaster to disaster, it didn't always look like it would be.

That's not all down to the ESA, far from it—but this is an organisation that's taken a lot of justified criticism: so credit where credit's due. E3 2021 was much better than it had any right to be.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."