E3 2014 was all about the games, and all three platform holders emphasized their upcoming slate of titles for 2014 and 2015. While Microsoft and Sony tried to convince gamers to continue buying Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s, Nintendo made a case for the relevance of its ailing Wii U hardware. For what it's worth, I think all three accomplished their respective goals. In addition, major publishers like EA, Activision, and Ubisoft showcased their top titles, including Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, and Assassin's Creed: Unity.
However, as good as the blockbuster games for PC and home consoles looked, the show floor was also overflowing with inspiring indie games from all over the world. I spent three days wandering the crowded expo floor and attending demonstrations. Below is a breakdown of some of the most interesting games I had the opportunity to play or see demoed.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The creative director of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mike Laidlaw, walked us through a guided demo of the game that illustrated how the exploration, real-time combat and rich narrative the franchise is known for have evolved in the latest title. While the central plot involves the player trying to close a giant portal into the demon world (Oblivion, anybody?), the demo showcased a mission that supposedly brings the longstanding feud between the Mages and Templar in the world to an end.
Starting in a lush forest environment, the demo player made his way through multiple locations before eventually storming Redcliffe Castle to confront the villainous mage there. The world looked massive, populated with more characters, flora and fauna than ever before. BioWare claims Inquisition is the largest Dragon Age they've built so far, with the playspace in the demo reportedly accounting for more space than DA: Origins in its entirety. Using a combination of real-time and pause-to-strategize combat, the demonstrator hacked and blasted his way through enemies including bears, demons, and massive high dragons.
Aside from showing off classic Dragon Age gameplay, the demo highlighted new abilities like a crafting system to build new equipment and a new spell called ‘Haste' that slows down time and uses an alternative resource called Focus to activate. Additionally, enemies now work as a team using environmental and contextual elements to their advantage.
Fans of the Dragon Age series have a lot to look forward to, especially after Dragon Age 2 left many feeling cold toward the franchise. Even in this early alpha build, Inquisition's visuals and mechanics look like solid and welcome improvements.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Publisher: WB Interactive Entertainment
Arkham Knight takes everything we love about the Arkham franchise and turns it up to eleven.
The guided demo I saw featured Batman infiltrating the Ace Chemical facility after it's been taken over by the game's mysterious villain, the Arkham Knight. The Knight also has a paramilitary army, and both supposedly work for Scarecrow. In order to get inside the facility, deal with the army and attempt to disarm the chemical bombs planted there, Batman employs the game's central new feature: the Batmobile.
In perhaps the most impressive iteration of the classic car to date, the Arkham Knight Batmobile is jam-packed with tricks: it can transport victims or villains in a containment unit, it can operate remotely to support Batman in a pinch, and it can even transform into a tank armed with heavy duty artillery. The demo showcased all of these abilities and more, including a winch to manipulate heavy objects and the ability to eject Batman into the air at incredible speeds — a great way to launch into battle and surprise unsuspecting foes.
Batman also has a few new tricks up his sleeve. The caped crusader can now launch bat scanner drones that circle an area and allow the player to scope out the terrain, track enemy routes, and determine the best strategy for dealing with whatever hostile situation presents itself. In addition, Batman can now execute fear takedowns that allow the player to chain together surprise instant takedowns in slow motion with the right timing and finesse.
Unfortunately, the demo was light on story, and the mysterious ‘Arkham Knight' character remains an enigma. Whoever he (or she) is, we learn that the Knight really, really hates Batman, has studied his methods extensively, and may have a very good reason for the hostility. More will be revealed, but even with many questions remaining, the action's definitely looking as intense and versatile as ever.
Developer: From Software/Sony Japan Studio
While the name may have changed, From Software's Bloodborne is very much a game that will look familiar to fans of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls.
Based on the guided demo being shown behind closed doors at E3, the main difference between this and the Souls series is that Bloodborne leaves the dark ages and goes to a 19th century gothic setting, emphasizing offensive maneuvers and dodging over slow-paced, defensive combat.
Bloodborne takes place in the decrepit city of Yharnham, a place famous for providing remedies to all manners of illness. The player travels there in search of such a remedy, only to find the city stricken with its own strain of plague that's slowly turning the inhabitants into monsters.
In the demo, the player used a shotgun and a combination saw/cleaver weapon to hack through hordes of deranged city dwellers, rotting dogs, grotesque giant crows, spindly werewolves, and a massive tree demon. Without the ability to block, players will have to be much quicker on their feet and focus on destroying the enemy as soon as possible. This adds a sense of speed and intensity to the core Souls formula that was already arguably intense as it was.
Also unlike previous Souls games, enemies seem to actually inhabit the world rather than just waiting for the player to happen by. For example, at one point the player stumbles upon a group of infected citizens stumbling toward the town square. At this point, the player could ether engage these enemies or slip by using an alternate path and get the drop on them from behind. This was a promising change, as it suggests more varied enemy behavior and (hopefully) better artificial intelligence.
Based on the little I saw, Bloodborne looks to advance the basic mechanics of the franchise while giving the game a stunning visual makeover.
Developer: Switchblade Monkey
Publisher: Switchblade Monkey
Secret Ponchos is a four-player competitive isometric shooter set in a zany Wild West setting.
After choosing one of a handful of colorful characters, players dash around small arenas and try to blast, stab, and explode their rivals. Armed with various guns and a secondary weapons including dynamite and throwing knives, players alternate between engaging their opponents, emptying their clips, and rolling to safety to reload. This engage-and-escape rhythm is what gives Secret Ponchos its unique feeling and results in dynamic cat-and-mouse encounters. Players can also pick up power-ups to give them distinct advantages in the chaotic melee. Secret Ponchos will launch on Steam Early Access this summer and PS4 later this year.
Please Be Nice 🙁
Developer: Aran Koning
Please Be Nice 🙁 is an experiment in crowdsourced, iterative game design.
The game's developer, Aran Koning, started Please Be Nice : ( with the basic concept of moving a small cube to a checkered board in the lower right corner of a game screen. He then asked players to suggest changes to the game. Rather than picking and choosing between the suggestions, Koning takes each one seriously and adds them, no matter how absurd.
At the time of E3, there had been more than 100 iterations of the game, and the basic concept had evolved to include shooting mechanics, enemies, bosses, obstacles, character selection (Nicholas Cage is now selectable), a bunny launcher, and sock explosions, just to name a few.
While it's disconcerting that a starting as an environmental navigation game quickly transformed into a shooter, at least it's one that's increasingly hilarious with each new addition. Owing to its development ethos, Please Be Nice 🙁 will never actually be finished, but Koning says that he will eventually abandon the project and it will stop evolving.
Developer: Pringo Dingo Games
A surprisingly fast-paced and enjoyable experience, Paparazzi is a two-player competitive indie about the morally-questionable practice of celebrity photography.
Paparazzi asks one player to run between buildings and crowds of people while the other player controls a camera reticule and tries to take his or her picture. Each player gets scored based on his or her performance at the end of each round when the celebrity player finally reaches a stretch limo. Though a simple concept, the game was incredibly engaging and a blast to play thanks to the instant competitive dynamic that forms between the celebrity and the photographer. The game also asks interesting questions about our celebrity-obsessed culture and the ethics of celebrity photography, whether purposefully or not.
Developer: Turtle Cream
Developed during Global Game Jam 2014, Long Take is a platformer that challenges the player to keep the game's protagonist in the camera's frame at all times. Rather than controlling the hero in the 2D environment, players control the camera, moving the frame and zooming in and out in order to keep up with the hero on-screen.
The brilliant part of the game is that objects outside of the frame do not move at normal speed, so the player must strategically use zooms and pans in order to keep obstacles out of the hero's way as he auto-runs to the level's exit.
Elegy for a Dead World
Developer: Dejobaan Games
Publisher: Dejobaan Games
Another small game, Elegy for a Dead World is a creative writing game that combines 2D sidescrolling with inventive wordsmithing in genres like poetry and the short story.
Before playing, the player chooses what form of writing he or she wants to practice and then traverses an alien world as a space explorer, stopping at specific points to contribute to an ongoing poem or narrative. Elegy provides some words for context but leaves several blank spaces for the player to fill in with creative combinations. At the end of each level, the player can review and marvel at the on-the-fly creativity – or lack thereof. Elegy even includes a workshop feature where players can request feedback on their work or comment on the work of others.
Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Flying Wild Hog
Juju is a two-player cooperative adventure starring a pink panda named Juju and her lizard companion. After unwittingly unleashing an ancient evil into the world and allowing her father to be kidnapped, Juju must travel through four themed worlds in order to reseal the monster and save the day.
Flying Wild Hog emphasizes that Juju is a game designed for parents who play games with their children. Owing to this, it's a very approachable, cooperative experience.
However, while the game starts simple and cute, its later levels provide enough challenge to please veterans of the genre. One particular level late in the game has players sliding along ice at high speeds, ducking below obstacles, and dash-jumping over frozen, treacherous water. The level rewarded careful rhythm and timing, and felt reminiscent of New Super Mario Bros. and recent Rayman games.
Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Shadow Warrior is a reboot of the classic 3D Realms game from 1997 for PC and Mac and is an adult-oriented, violent first-person shooter.
Armed with a katana and a handgun, players can quickly dash around the large, open battlefields, slicing up foes up-close and nailing headshots from a distance. The game seems to encourage quick, satisfying swordplay with plenty of visceral dismemberment and gore.
Movement feels smooth, and the level design is minimalistic while still looking crisp and sharp.
Shadow Warrior is a slick, no-nonsense, old-school first-person action-adventure game, and even though it lacks a lot of the variation of contemporary, higher-budget games, I couldn't put the controller down thanks to the cathartic, over-the-top violence and effortless momentum the game maintains.
Publisher: Grey Box
An upcoming free-to-play space combat game that eschews small fighters for floating behemoths, Dreadnaut situates itself between deep space simulators and simplified arcade shooters.
In the demo, I played in a 5v5 match above a ruined city. Players can choose between five classes of ship – Dreadnaut, Destroyer, Scout, Healer, and a ship that's basically a giant sniper rifle – before jumping into battle. Each ship has four abilities mapped to hot keys, two primary weapons, and the ability to divert energy to thrusters, weapons, or shields.
Learning to use all of these functions strategically and in collaboration with teammates is the key to success in Dreadnaut, and looks promising for fans of tactical space combat while not being overly-complicated. While it is free-to-play, the developers promise microtransactions will not hinder the competitive nature of the game.
Developer: Petroglyph Games
Publisher: Grey Box
Grey Goo is a classic real-time strategy game that allows players to choose between Humans, Betas, and the titular Goo.
Humans are the most defensive race and are best at turtling inside their bases made up of interconnected structures. The cat-like Betas are more offensive, but in my limited time I wasn't able to fully grasp their strengths. Finally, the Goo features a mobile base of operations in an oozing slime ball that can constantly morph and adapt depending on context.
With the ability move around the battlefield, disaggregate, and transform into necessary units on the fly, the Goo seemingly subverts a lot of RTS conventions, opening up a range of strategic possibilities.
Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: WB Interactive Entertainment
Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt presents an incredibly detailed, narratively-rich and enormous open-world to explore.
Players once again assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf and world-famous demon hunter of the franchise. The basic mechanics of the Witcher games remain largely unchanged – difficult combat, limited magic use, and the strategic use of potions to improve the chances of survival. However, combat now feels smoother than the previous two games, and the scope of the world has been expanded in incredible ways. Now, if the player can see a location in the distance, he or she can travel there. Additionally, choice still matters a great deal, and maintaining relationships with dozens of NPCs in the world will shape the way the narrative unfolds.
The demo showed a snippet of Geralt's quest to track down an ashen-haired woman. He traveled from one dubious character to the next, solving their problems in exchange for another clue that might help him locate the woman at the center of the story. Accordingly, more than anything else, Wild Hunt ultimately feels like a game built around an economy of favors. Although a bit contrived, the cascading series of tasks is a nice way to maintain momentum while also forcing players to explore the vast world.
Night in the Woods
Developer: Alex Holowka and Scott Benson
My short hands-on time with Night in the Woods was spent wandering around as Mae, an anthropomorphized cat who also happens to be a college drop-out that's now living back home with her mother.
While the basic mechanics of walking, jumping, and talking to people around town work smoothly, the real joy in Night in the Woods is the iconic art design and 2D animations, in addition to the clever, thoughtful, and even heartfelt dialogue between characters. I wasn't able to progress much past finding my friend and skipping along the rooftops of my drowsy neighborhood, but even from the little I saw, Woods feels like something special in the making.
Publisher: WB Interactive Entertainment
Dying Light is a new IP from the studio responsible for the original Dead Island games. Yet while those games suffered from some visual hiccups and awkward controls, Dying Light is a visual feast and offers vastly-improved controls.
These smoother controls are important, since one of the game's main attractions is the free-running that allows players to create their own paths through the environment, whether that's sliding through openings in crumbling walls, dashing through narrow gaps, or climbing over buildings and leaping between rooftops effortlessly. However, it does feeel slightly awkward to keep the left thumbstick pressed in to enable running, especially when the player will probably be running most of the time. I would have preferred one of shoulder buttons to be used for running, but considering all the other functions those buttons are currently used for – combat, climbing, throwing – I can see why running has been mapped there.
With day and night cycles, dynamic weather, impressive graphics, inventive weapons, and hints at stealth-based and strategic gameplay, Dying Light is a formidable competitor in a landscape already overrun with zombie games.
The best way to describe Hellraid is as a first-person Diablo-inspired dungeon crawler — and that's a really good thing it turns out. Since the first-person fantasy genre is dominated by the likes of Skyrim, Hellraid is smartly-positioned as a more arcade-like, hack-and-slash adventure game.
Rather than forcing players to specialize in any one combat form, Hellraid allows players to switch between magic, brute force, and ranged combat at any time, freeing the player to pick the best strategy for the situation, and allowing more varied combat scenarios as a result.
Hellraid features a central city hub where players can receive quests, visit the blacksmith and other shopkeeps, and then use portals to explore far-off dungeons, castles, and crypts to gather loot and advance the story. With up to four-player online cooperative play, Hellraid seems to be a great complement to other isometric dungeon crawlers while differentiating itself from other standard open-world games seen recently.
This War of Mine
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Most games about war put players in the role of hardened soldiers, but This War of Mine takes the opposite approach and asks players to play as civilians trying to live through the siege of their city.
In a survival-strategy game that adopts a 2D perspective, players control three survivors who try to make a home in an abandoned building while war wages outside. Although there are multiple characters, each playthrough randomly chooses three people for players to start with, ranging from cooks to former businesswomen, and even murderers.
Each day the player must order the characters to perform tasks like clearing debris, scavenging for supplies, eating, and building various items necessary for survival. At night, the player has to assign one of three tasks: sleeping, standing guard, or leaving the stronghold to look for supplies in other parts of the city. Players can monitor the moods and thoughts of their survivors, and tending to their needs (fatigue, hunger, etc.) becomes vital to survival.
Although the game does not have a specific morality system, it does ask the player to make difficult decisions, such as choosing whether or not to pillage a home occupied by an elderly couple, or even whether to kill them. These decisions will dramatically affect the physical and mental health of the survivors, depending on who they are — a murderer won't lose sleep over killing the couple, but an average person will fall into a deep depression and be unable to perform tasks for days afterwards.
This War of Mine is a richly complex, contemplative, and productively disturbing game that provides a great combination of engaging and meaningful mechanics.
In college John fell to poetry, short story writing, and journalism, but ultimately took to writing critical, academic work on video games. He was actually surprised this was an option. For reasons he will never be completely sure of, he ended up in graduate school where he wrote about the discursive mapping of gender onto the terms "hardcore" and "casual" and the power hierarchy of legitimate and illegitimate games that creates. He is a proud feminist.
Currently, John is a PhD student in the Film and Media Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He continues to study gender, race, and sexuality in video games, video game culture, and the video game industry. He also mulls over issues of creative labor, cultural hierarchy, and power, among other random subjects.