Getting Some Play: Highlights from E3 2011

Welcome to Getting Some Play— the spiritual successor to Sarah Warn’s excellent Good Game column — where we’ll take a look at the latest releases, news and developments in the world of videogames.

Late breaking

Greetings, players. I’ve just arrived back from E3 2011, the game industry’s major trade event , and good lord, did I see a lot of games. For this very special edition of Getting Some Play, I’ll give you the rundown of highlights (with perhaps a lowlight or two thrown in for good measure) from the show.

New Hardware for U

One of the biggest reveals of the show was Nintendo’s Wii U, the company’s brand new console. The biggest addition (aside from much more power under the hood for HD graphics) is a brand new controller that looks a bit like a tablet, with a big, bright touchscreen in the middle and the usual array of buttons and triggers around the sides. I was able to get my hands on the unit itself, and it felt great, and the small demo games were tons of fun, but no games have been shown for it yet, so we’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for details.

On the handheld front, Sony unveiled the PlayStation Vita (which was code-named the NGP until the conference), a gorgeous, HD handheld coming in both 3G AT& T and regular old wi-fi models. Seriously beautiful-looking UnCharted, ModNation Racers and LittleBigPlanet games were demoed at the show, and the hardware looks slick.

Mixed Kinect-ions

One year after the Kinect’s big unveiling at E3 2010 and the platform is looking shaky. On one hand, Dance Central 2 looks fantastic, as does the Double Fine Studios Sesame Street game, Once Upon a Monster (which is so adorable it will make you want to borrow a young child if you don’t have your own). In the middle, there is Kinect functionality being shoehorned into all sorts of “hardcore” games like Mass Effect 3 (mainly for voice recognition), and on the other, sadder side, there seemed to be a ton of games for the platform that just didn’t look so hot. Kinect Star Wars had its moments, but most show-goers weren’t too impressed, while “hardcore” games like Rise of Nightmares and Blackwater (yes, based on that Blackwater) just felt like shallow experiences. Maybe its growing pains, but Kinect simply didn’t have a stellar showing at this year’s E3.

Games, games, games!

This year was very, very good for big-budget games, both in terms of scope and (at least perceived) quality. Mass Effect 3 looked good in its closed-door demo, though I’ve already hit my self-imposed moratorium on writing about that game simply by mentioning the title. The new Tomb Raider reboot looked stellar – it’s a grittier, more visceral take on the adventure/platformer genre, starring a younger Lara who is just getting to terms with her own athletic and intellectual (read: puzzle-solving) abilities, and the demo looked absolutely beautiful.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution also looked great, with a demo that took gamers through the thoughtful gameplay. You can choose any number of augmentations (abilities) to guide the protagonist through the complex levels – and there are myriad paths through every section. Also looking good was the new Star Trek (based on the reboot), a co-op game wherein one player controls Kirk, the other Spock, and each has his own unique abilities and weapons. I want to play as Uhura, but of course; we have no idea what all the options will be at this early date.

Three smaller games also grabbed my attention: Skulls of the Shogun was being shown at the Indiecade booth – it’s a very peppy (and action-oriented) turn based strategy title with funky art and a wacky storyline (you play as a dead samurai general making his way through the afterlife). Bastion was an equally funky action-RPG with awesome character designs and a persistent voiceover system that “tells your story” as you play. Finally, War of the Worlds (based on the old movie property, Tom Cruise is nowhere to be found here) boasted Out Of This World style action with gorgeous black and white visuals and voice work by Patrick Stewart.

Perhaps the highlight of the show, however, was BioShock Infinite, made by the original BioShock developers, Irrational Studios. The new game boasts a much more intricate storyline (concerning warring factions in a turn of the century floating city – and the protagonist’s mission to rescue a wildly powerful woman, Elizabeth, from imprisonment) and wide-open spaces in which to fight your many powerful foes. Narrative sophistication, moral choice and customizable combat were the pillars of the original game and everything we’ve seen about Infinite suggests that these will be even more central this time around.

New Releases

One of the biggest 3DS releases of the year (and certainly one of the most hotly anticipated) lands on June 19 is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the gist: Ocarina is one of the highest rated games of all time. it’s a 1998 adventure that represented the first 3D chapter in the revered Zelda series. It’s now coming (with revamped graphics) to Nintendo’s actual 3D handheld, so you can now blow through the Water Temple on the bus.

If you’re into stealth (and the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series before it sort of jumped the shark with last year’s installment), you should check out Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Classic Trilogy HD – a rock-solid compilation of the first three titles (Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory).

The latest installment of the horror shooter series, F.E.A.R. 3 is out for PC, PS3 and 360 on June 21, featuring a very interesting asymmetric co-op mode (where else do you get to shoot dudes with guns as one guy and possess others as a phantom as the other?

There’s more horror in Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D (June 28) and the downloadable Shadows of the Damned (June 21), which is arriving on PSN and XBLA. Another downloadable game that you really shouldn’t miss (since it’s from Double Fine, makers of Stacking and Costume Quest) is Trenched, out on PSN and XBLA on June 22nd. It’s a sort of action/tower defense hybrid, with signature Double Fine humor.

That’s all for this super-sized edition of Getting Some Play. Be sure to check back next time for any post E3 details and more on the summer’s upcoming big releases.

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