E3 is basically Games Christmas. The week leading up to it is Christmas Eve. You see your presents under the tree and prod gently, trying to guess what they are. Occasionally, like this year, some asshat will unwrap a few early and destroy the surprise. But there are always presents left. When Christmas morning comes, you scamper downstairs, eager to discover what Entertainment Santa has delivered. Sometimes it’s everything you hoped for. Shenmue 3! The Last Guardian! Miyamoto with the Master Sword! Other times, it’s Ridge Racer. Riiiiidge. Racer.
Now it’s Boxing Day. As we lie comatose, gorged on fatty game news, sweating with our belt buckles undone, it’s time to look back at the ten of the biggest surprises from this year’s show, and six things that weren’t surprising at all.
Some of you made the link between Kitchen and Resident Evil 7 before E3, but the specifics are what made this such a great surprise. The refined trailer felt happily removed from Resident Evil 6’s directionless commotion. It’s a new direction - exactly what Resi needs after years of identity crisis. Resi 7 embraces solitude. The zombies and giant sharks are gone, replaced by the ferocious modern horror of films such as Rec. The influence of P.T. is even clearer. Being able to grab the demo immediately felt like an amazing treat, giving us something to do during the tedious wait for release. Now will somebody please tell me what that goddamn mannequin finger is for?
This is exactly the sort of reveal that works well at E3. A familiar face, an unexpected reveal, and a game that requires no explanation. We don’t know much, apart from the fact this will be set in an original Spider-Man universe and won’t be an origin story, but the key beats are obvious from the trailer: quips, combat and swinging. Lots of swinging. Rumours prior to E3 suggested it would be developed by Sucker Punch, but we now know it’s Insomniac. They’re a perfect fit. Sunset Overdrive is a sort-of superhero game, but suffers from having characters that feel like they were designed by a committee of men in comfortable slacks. Swap that with an immediately relatable character like Spider-Man, and this could be outrageously good.
The God of War reveal was a classic Sony surprise: a low key intro, contrasting with the booming orchestral opening; the shadowy reveal of a PlayStation favourite; a lustrous beard. But the biggest shock in the God of War demo didn’t come from facial hair, fighting, or frisson. It was in one quiet moment that gave the rest of the demo context. Towards the end, Kratos reaches out to comfort a child who’s just completed a rite of passage. He can’t do it. He’s spent the demo ripping the horns off trolls, but actual human contact is beyond him. It’s brilliant. God of War can’t get any bigger, so going smaller is the smartest thing to do.
Perhaps the real shocker is that Ubisoft finished their show without guns, gas masks or Tom Clancy’s Tom Clancy. Instead, we got Steep, a spiritual successor to SSX 3, and a fantastic, unexpected treat. It’s an extreme sports game developed by Ubisoft Annecy, offering a crisp world full of cool tricks, unique runs and reasons to show off. My only question is this: how does anyone learn to use a wingsuit without dying?
It’s a little known fact that John Carmack can appear anywhere, at any time. As I type this, he could be inside my Mac, waiting to climb out and take me on a whimsical Gear VR tour of the latest Minecraft update. He’s the Candyman of computer-simulated reality. That’s what happened during Microsoft’s E3 conference, and it was weird and brilliant and completely unexpected. We were halfway through a Mojang update when Carmack appeared like a wizard, talked excitedly about Minecraft in VR, then evaporated into the ether from whence he came. A classic E3 moment.
It’s a surprise that Prey still exists at all, after Prey 2 spent years in the vapourware latrine, but it’s great to see it back and in the safe hands of Dishonored developer Arkane. The new direction is intriguing. Nothing remains of the neo-noir bounty hunting promised in Prey 2. Instead, we’ve got something glossy and conspiratorial - think Groundhog Day, but with menacing shadows and ooze. The lead character also looks like Dishonored’s Emily Kaldwin with a beard, but this is probably a conspiracy too far.
This one sounds like bullshit info from your mate Brian in the pub. The guy who ‘knows someone at Ubi’, who got thrown out of the SAS for being too dangerous. “So they’ll get them Comic-Con types from Star Trek - not Picard or anyone big, but the ones all the nerds love - and lock ‘em in a dark room to play VR with Judge Dredd.” Off you fuck, Brian. But true enough, there’s a Star Trek VR game that lets you pretend you’re on the bridge of a federation starship, and it looks incredible.
If you watched the Infinite Warfare trailer live, you probably struggled to recognise it. That’s a surprise in itself. The most widely played and recognisable game on the planet, sneaking past us like three children in a raincoat, pretending to be a grown up game. Ignore the downward thumbs on YouTube - this looks like a bright, necessary departure. There’s a galaxy map, for Christ’s sake - a video game trope that recalls the progressive space-shagging of Mass Effect. It should feel out of place alongside the dunderish escalation of Call of Duty, but it just doesn’t, and that’s a surprise in itself.
It says plenty about Days Gone that it’s yet another game about the zombie apocalypse, but it still manages to make this list. It’s a fast, reactionary take on an over-used theme, and it works because there are so many zombies. At times it feels like they’re pouring into open spaces like undead breakfast cereal. Don’t be fooled by the Freebirdy, whimsical, wind-in-my-bandanna trailer - this is a vicious game. As well as spraying bullets, there are also some seriously nasty one-on-one encounters. Lead character Decon stabs eyes, chops heads and even minces a zombie’s face on a circular saw. The GamesRadar verdict so far: “It might be the end of the world again but it's not looked this good for ages.”
If you told me before E3 we’d see Crash Bandicoot, I’d have smiled and said, ‘yes, probably!’, then worried about you behind your back. If you’d told me we’d see him in four games - four games! - then I’d have called the authorities. That’s a madness only to be whispered in the company of your closest friends. Against all expectations, you’d have been right. The PS4 is getting remasters of Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, and Crash Bandicoot: Warped, and he’ll also be appearing in Skylanders: Imaginators. It’s not as surprising as a ‘proper’ new Crash game, but it’s close.
Try to imagine Microsoft finishing E3 with a confusing message, years of crafted branding slipping through their fingers like a smashed crow. It’s not hard to imagine, because it happens almost every year. After an excellent conference in 2015, Microsoft has regressed, returning to the jumbled confusion that typified the reveal of Xbox One. Is Scorpio four times more powerful than everything else, or is it an upscaler? Is there any reason to buy an Xbox One S? Are pandas dangerous? Can someone dig up Don Mattrick and replace his batteries? It’s a catastrophe.
This one is a semi-surprise, constructed for social media types to excitedly pretend Brian Crecente was conducting the God of War theme (it was actually Bear McCreary). Of course Sony had an orchestra. Sony is the conference equivalent of a handsome friend who always manages to be better than you at everything, but you still can’t force yourself to hate because they’re lovely. Well nice one, Sony - you’ve made all the other conferences feel shitty about themselves. Also: I love you.
This entry is dedicated to all the games you hoped would be at E3, but weren’t. You know the ones. The games we’ve been waiting for forever, that can never meet the expectations we’ve built for them. I’m talking about Beyond Good and Evil 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Half Life 3, Agent, Smarties Meltdown 2, Haven 2. But what’s Games Christmas without some numbing disappointment? Or Actual Christmas, for that matter. Pass the bottle of gin.
Naked Norman Reedus washing up on a beach then cradling an oil baby almost made it on the surprises list, then I remembered everything Hideo Kojima has done, ever. Naked Reedus isn’t a surprise. In fact, it’s impossible to think of a Kojima surprise, because even the most ordinary, predictable thing would become surprising through its ordinariness. If I understood or cared what Schrödinger's cat was, I’d say it was like that, but with more sand in its asscrack.
We almost got through an entire Ubisoft conference without a single mention of Assassin’s Creed. Then a man came on to talk about a film, and all sense of momentum and purpose was lost. I was praying for the terrifying giraffe to come back. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from gaming conferences, it’s that you never, ever spend more than two minutes talking about something that isn’t a game. I’m looking at you, Powers.
David Cage’s new game has a SWAT team. David Cage couldn’t make a risotto without including a SWAT team. The man’s obsessed. He’s the Michael Bay of running around in Kevlar. He either needs to stop it altogether, or take it to parodic extremes. Cooking, romance, pachinko - it doesn’t matter, so long as it always ends with special forces rappelling through a window. Or maybe a SWAT game without combat. I don’t care anymore.