Each year, the official E3 awards are voted on by an array of 51 different publications, including us. Though the games themselves are named winners, the awards really honor whatever playable demo is made available, as you can't get the full shape of a game from 30 minutes of futzing around with it. As a result, I've always viewed 'E3 awards' in general as a framework for measuring the early anticipation around a game, but not much more than that.
By looking back at these winners, I figure we can gain some perspective before going into yet another round of E3 gameplay reveals—or at least laugh at the gaps between expectations and reality.
I've picked out a selection of winners from previous years, focusing on PC winners, to see how they did or didn't live up to the high expectations their E3 showings produced.
Best of Show 2018: Resident Evil 2
Based on the Resident Evil 2 gameplay trailer from E3 2018, we predicted that Capcom was going to "do it right." With the year behind us, I wouldn't call the RE2 remake the overall best game of 2018 (Update: oops, forgot it came out in January, but I guess I still wouldn't consider it the best game of 2018), but it was great. We gave it an 89% in our review and it spawned wonderful Mr X jokes, vindicating its positive reception at E3 2018.
Sometimes what you see is what you get: a good gameplay demonstration, and then a good game. I'm sure that'll continue to be the case as we move down this list.
Best PC Game/Best Action Game 2018: Anthem
Or not. Here's a good example of how limited gameplay demonstrations and trailers must be enjoyed skeptically. Anthem did seem quite good back at E3 2018, because we experienced the best parts of it—flying around and shooting stuff—in isolation.
Based on that, we took a cautiously optimistic stance at the time. "Anthem handles really well and the shooting is pretty satisfying," Steven said. "But these games live and die on their content—for lack of a better word—and, right now, it's impossible to know just how much content Anthem is going to have."
We wondered about Anthem's structure, its story, and its loot, and hoped they'd at least be serviceable enough to support the fun combat. In the end, Anthem fumbled in all those areas and more, and to a far greater degree than we expected. Only after playing it for multiple hours could we diagnose those problems.
E3 demos have to be approached like potentially-hazardous cakes. At the show, they give you a bit of the frosting to taste, and it almost always tastes great. For all you know, though, the center of the cake is filled with old spinach dip and cat hair.
(I'll personally eat some spinach dip and cat hair filling here, because at the end of last year I predicted that BioWare could nail it with Anthem and surprise us all. I had reasons to believe that, but it turned out to be my least accurate prediction yet.)
Best Online Multiplayer 2018: Battlefield 5
Of all the online multiplayer games shown at E3 2018, it is not surprising Battlefield was selected by the judges: it's mainstream, beautiful, and the Battlefield formula remains fun. Was it brilliant? Not really. But it's a good shooter which solves some of Battlefield 1's problems (though I'm still a little fonder of BF1), and as of today, it has a decent battle royale mode.
There's not much to learn from one of the most popular online multiplayer series winning an award, except that popular series are popular and tend to win things because more people play and consider them than they do niche games.
Best PC Game 2017: Destiny 2
Two years in a row, giant shared-world looty games were awarded Best PC Game. Again, this probably says more about the panel and what was available for judging than the game: both Destiny 2 and Anthem are multi-platform games that don't really scream "PC," making them easy picks for console-focused judges, and they bring along dramatic trailers and lengthier gameplay reveal events.
"I sank an ungodly amount of time into the original," Tim wrote after a pre-E3 preview event in May 2017, "but having played Destiny 2’s first campaign mission and Strike through multiple times, and dabbled in some PvP, there’s absolutely no question in my mind now that the PC version is going to be the definitive one."
We were disappointed about the PC delay, and Destiny 2 has had its problems over the past couple years, but we liked it just fine at launch—Tim especially, and it has remained his passion.
PC Gamer's overall 2017 GOTY award, however, went to Divinity: Original Sin 2, which is what I'd consider the 'best PC game' of 2017 far more than Destiny 2. (If I recall our meetings correctly, I think I insisted that it win.)
The lesson here is that of course we're going to see and talk about and maybe enjoy the games that have a horde of marketers behind them, but there's a good chance the best PC game of the year isn't at any of the press conferences, or at E3 at all.
Best Action Game 2017: Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
Makes sense. The reveal trailer was well done, and Evan loved his preview of the opening minutes of the game, which is probably what earned Wolf 2 this distinction.
Describing the opening of the game, where BJ wakes up after yet another coma with non-functioning legs, Evan wrote: "It's a setup that instantly disadvantages you. It's also a nice echo to The New Order, where BJ sees years of his life time melt away as he's trapped in a vegetative state after the failed assault on General Deathshead's laboratory that begins the game."
As with RE2, a good demo did indicate a good game, and we gave Wolfenstein 2 the respectable score of 81%. Two singleplayer games that direct players from a clear beginning to a clear end both had cool gameplay demonstrations and both turned out to be cool games. Hm. I think we can safely infer (or just easily reason without the help of an example) that the simpler a game is in terms of structure and scope, the more likely its E3 showing is to reflect the whole. You can probably tell whether a skateboard works by looking at it, but the same is not true of an airplane.
Best Online Multiplayer 2017: Star Wars Battlefront 2
Hindsight doesn't treat this award well, but for different reasons than with Anthem. Battlefront 2 is a perfectly good Star Wars multiplayer and singleplayer game. Its flavor of large-scale combat didn't appeal heavily to me, but I get why others like it, and it demoed well at E3.
"In Battlefront 2, the lasers feel like chunky retro future weapons, replete with more recoil, rhythm, and scatter to make them feel like deadly light containers on the verge of exploding at any minute," James wrote in his preview at E3 2017.
But blaster chunkiness wasn't ultimately the problem. It was the progression and microtransaction systems, which EA walked back after being lampooned for overzealous use of loot boxes, that scarred the release of Battlefront 2. E3 trailers and gameplay demos rarely include microtransaction menus, it turns out.
Best of Show/Best Action Game/Best Online Multiplayer 2014: Evolve
I'm skipping a couple years here because they weren't that interesting. Fallout 4 was popular in 2015, and console games mostly stole the show in 2016, with Civilization 6 being the very obvious pick for Best PC Game. Jumping back to 2014, though, reminds me just how exciting Evolve was.
It was natural to be excited. The original Left 4 Dead creators had a new game. Asymmetrical multiplayer was unusual—this was well before the release of Dead by Daylight—and there were cool monsters. Cool monsters you could play as.
"Despite the absence of Valve, first contact leaves me impressed with [Evolve's] distinctly Left 4 Dead level of polish," we said in a 2014 preview. "Turtle Rock have evidently learned from the masters and grown as a game-maker. They've evolved, and perhaps the very idea of co-op will, too."
We weren't entirely wrong. Other games, such as Dead by Daylight, did succeed with similar many-v-one setups, and perhaps Evolve helped pave the way. And there was a lot to like about Evolve when it came out.
Balance problems, exploits, and its cost, however, saw to it that Evolve would never reach Left 4 Dead's heights. In a 2018 postmortem on Reddit, writer and designer Matt Colville said that what the Turtle Rock team had really wanted to do, and what it had been equipped to do, was design a cool world to explore, not make a competitive shooter. The 4v1 setup "caused more problems than we ever imagined," he said.
Ambitious, mold-breaking games generate a lot of interest—say, like No Man's Sky, which won Best Original Game and Best Independent Game the same year—but they don't always work on the first go. No Man's Sky, at least, has become something quite different and much-improved in the years since its release. Evolve is just a memory.
Best of Show/Best Original Game/Best PC Game/Best Action Game/Best Online Multiplayer 2013: Titanfall
Everyone really, really liked Titanfall.
"There's a variety in each noisy ten-second blast of combat that CoD can't hope to replicate," Tom said in a Gamescom 2013 preview, in which he praised the jetpacks and mechs.
Titanfall was novel at the time. Recall how the first game attempted to merge a singleplayer campaign with multiplayer matches. Plus there were mechs, which had been a little out of fashion for a while. There was generally a nostalgic feeling around it: Tribes: Ascend had recently released and seeing jetpacks and sci-fi worlds reenter the PC shooter space was exciting to me. It also came from the studio formed by ex-Call of Duty guys after their dramatic departure from Infinity Ward, so there was a juicy background story.
While Titanfall may not have reached the commercial heights EA had hoped for, it was a great game. Of course, other games that came out in 2013 and 2014 were also great. E3 can be a bit myopic.
The variety of games at E3 seems to be growing every year, though, and while Evolve and Anthem didn't fully realize their ambitions, we were fascinated by them because of that ambition.
While co-op shooters set on lush alien planets full of monsters haven't worked out great in the recent past, but maybe the best co-op shooter set on a lush alien planet full of monsters just hasn't come along yet. Maybe we'll see it this year.
In short, wildly ambitious ideas are exciting and frosting tastes good. Tell me you baked a life-changing cake and then let me try your best batch of Italian meringue buttercream and I'm bound to want more. But regardless of how convincing the baker's marketing is, the cake may turn out to be undercooked, or burnt, or 45% sea salt. Great cakes are hard to bake. Every now and then, though, they get it just right.