For this year's E3, Gamecritics teamed up with the UK's GodIsAGeek.com to cover the show. Our own John Vanderhoef was representing the US, while Mike Stubbsy brought perspective from across the Atlantic.
While the GC senior crew will have their own podcast covering the Big Three and other show-related topics, you can hear John and Mike's impressions from the floor via the links below:
If you'd like even more info, we have John's written impressions below, and you'd do well to visit GIAG to see what Mike covered in text. As for now, here's what John saw fit to print!
Super Mario Maker
Modders and ROM hackers have been making insane Mario levels for almost two decades now, and while late to the party, Nintendo finally wants in on the action. A skeptic might suggest Nintendo wants to centralize and control this behavior. A more forgiving person might posit that Nintendo just wants to facilitate the creative process. Whatever your take on it, Nintendo's Super Mario Maker will finally make the creation of original Super Mario levels a company-sanctioned activity when it releases this fall.
Builders beware: don't let the familiar and enduring Mario visuals fool you. Nintendo has constructed a formidable level editor capable of producing some truly impressive levels with visuals from four generations of Mario games: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Brothers. If you need proof, you need only rewatch the finals of Nintendo's recent World Championship tournament where the company challenged two top players with some fantastic, yet cruel arrangements.
As soon as players start up the Create mode, they can get started on their levels. Using the stylus and the Wii U GamePad screen, players can navigate an easy, drag-and-drop, tile interface, grabbing enemies, blocks, and pipes from a menu and dropping them wherever they want in the game environment. Want a particular enemy, simply select the enemy drop down and gain access to a library of Mario baddies, new and old. Want to change the level to underwater or underground? Want to swap out 8-bit Super Mario Bros. visuals for the look of New Super Mario Bros? Again, these options are just as easy as selecting each from a drop down menu. Customization feels appropriately intuitive and very much in tune with Nintendo's design philosophy.
Nintendo has also streamlined the level testing process. Once a player has a section of the level ready to test, he or she need only press the "Start" button in the lower left hand corner of the screen to immediately start playing and testing the custom stage. And to make fine-tuning stages easier, the player's movements through the stage are recorded as a kind of ghost trail or residue that lingers. This way, if a particular jump is impossible or a piece of environment turns out to be a hindrance, players will know to move a block one or two tile spaces over or place an enemy slightly lower or higher on the screen. Through trial and error, and good planning, people can craft complex and engaging stages.
The tools Nintendo has developed are not only versatile but also allow for countless, unexpected combinations. Placing a mushroom item on top of an enemy makes them grow to monstrous sizes. Enemies can be stacked atop one another to create walls of independently moving death for the player. Based on my time with the Create mode, I can imagine truly skilled creators will be able to use these tools to craft brain-bending Rube Goldberg machines that unfold before the player's eyes, either resulting in Mario being sent zipping across the screen or barreling toward his demise. Fortunately, players can't upload levels until they are capable of being completed, which should prevent at least a certain level of trolling.
Speaking of sharing levels, the game will no doubt garner a strong creative community around it once it releases this fall. Unfortunately, if the level sharing feature of Super Smash Bros. Wii U is any indication, Nintendo does not have a good track record when it comes to searchability for its user-generated content. One way Super Mario Maker will attempt to solve this problem is by supposedly generating codes for each level created. Would-be designers can then share their level's code via social media, so their friends and followers can find it without trouble. When I asked about other search functionality, I wasn't given a straight answer, so beyond level-specific codes, we might be out of luck.
The only significant limitation I could see was that the creation tools did not seem to allow for verticality in the levels. While I could scroll horizontally across levels, I did not see an option for vertical scrolling. This feature may well be in the final game, but it might be a small blemish on an otherwise promising level creation tool. Indeed, the difficult part here in not creating the level on the GamePad but designing the level in the first place. This is how it should be and allows players to concentrate on design rather than wrestling with the software.
Finally, for those who enjoy playing Mario games more than the promise of building them, Super Mario Maker will come packaged with over eight worlds of pre-made levels from folks at Nintendo. So, even if you don't want to jump right into the robust level editor, you can still enjoy dozens of wacky stages that get more bizarre and difficult in later worlds.
Super Mario Maker might be an important first step for Nintendo. It not only signals that the company recognizes the growing interest in user-generated and fan-directed game content, but if successful, the game might also lead the way toward the development of similar concepts for other Nintendo franchises, like the Legend of Zelda.
Disney Infinity 3.0 – Star Wars
After already introducing characters from franchises like Pixar and Marvel, Disney will be expanding its Infinity brand of "toys-to-life" action figures with the release of Disney Infinity 3.0 this fall, accompanied by Star Wars and Inside/Out-themed play sets and characters.
Most significantly, following the release of 3.0, Disney will roll out three Star Wars expansions: Twilight of the Republic, Rise Against the Empire, and The Force Awakens. Each play set will introduce a new set of beloved Star Wars characters, along with new worlds to explore and master.
While the game appears to be more of the same, Senior Producer on Disney Infinity Sean Patton emphasizes what new features 3.0 will bring to the toys-to-life franchise.
"With the Star Wars expansions specifically, what we really wanted to do was vary the gameplay. Players can go from playing the Battle of Hoth, which is a lot more mission-based, to the battle of Yavin IV, which is flight-based." For instance, the battle of Yavin IV mission, in which the first Death Star is destroyed by Luke Skywalker, features a mixture of free-flight and on-rail sections.
Besides varying gameplay, one of the main design motivations for the Star Wars expansions is to recreate iconic cinematic moments from throughout the Star Wars saga. The Battle of Hoth stage provides an example of both philosophies in action.
"Taking down an AT-AT is no small feat," explains Patton. "We actually borrowed ideas from Shadow of the Colossus and thought, wow, what if we make the whole act of taking it down a puzzle? So you can take it down as a character by blowing up the legs, climbing up a leg, taking out its batteries (because everything is a toy in our universe), or you can take a snow speeder, use your tow cable from the film, fly around it a few times, and take it down that way. In fact, if you're really good, you can land on top of an AT-AT, open up the remote control, and use the AT-AT to take down all the others in the field."
The Star Wars expansions introduce a plethora of characters from the Star Wars mythos. Players can now collect and play as characters from the bloody awful prequel films, like Obiwan Kenobi, Darth Maul, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker, and as characters from the beloved original trilogy, like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leah, Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Chewbacca.
As in previous installments, players can level their figures up by earning experience and unlocking unique skills. For instance, as they level up, Jedi and Sith characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader can learn lightsaber abilities.
Outside of the main game, the customizable Toy Box mode now includes a hub area where players can experiment with gameplay elements. Disney flexes its franchise muscle by allowing players to mix and match characters from across the Marvel, Pixar, Disney, and Star Wars universes for the first time. This is especially good news because 3.0 offers a over-the-top brawler gametype in the revamped Toy Box, allowing players to create dream teams of Disney icons. This gametype supports two-player split screen and up to four players online. Ever wanted to see Rocket Raccoon team up with Chewbacca? That is totally possible now.
Avalanche is still the core team behind the Disney Infinity games, but Disney has also brought on new studios with specific expertise. For instance, Avalanche worked with Ninja Theory, the developer behind Enslaved and the recent DmC, to completely reimagine the game's combat systems, adding nuance to what was a rather simple series of button mashes.
Drawn To Death
Drawn to Death is the newest game from David Jaffe of Twisted Metal fame. The basic game is a cel shaded, black and white, third-person shooter where post-apocalyptic freaks duke it out using outlandish weapons. Visually, Drawn to Death draws heavily from the ill-received MadWorld from Sega and Platinum Games. The demo on the floor presented a deathmatch setup between several twisted characters in an urban environment. While the standard automatic rifles and snipers endemic to the genre were present, the game also features exaggerated weapons, like a casket from which players can launch explosive corpses. It's an amusing piece of weaponry and suggests the game has some creative spirit, even if it's anemic. The deathmatch demo itself was a bit of a bore, and despite a half-way unique visual motif and Jaffe's trademark sense of dark humor, the game might be dead on arrival.
As a spiritual successor to Dead Nation, Alienation is a co-op-focused, top-down shooter that emphasizes swarms of enemies, fast-paced action, and character building. The game is the latest shooter from fan-favorites Housemarque, the Finnish developer behind PS4 launch darling Resogun. I played a pre-alpha build, alongside a Housemarque team member, and we died almost a dozen times before finishing the demo level. So it has a healthy level of difficulty, to say the least. Indeed, Alienation's difficulty demands players master its key mechanics, including dashing, activating special abilities, like shields, managing explosives, and strategically using each characters weapons, which will stop operating if used continually. If players try to spam attacks, they will quickly find themselves confronted by a wall of alien bugs while all of their defensive and offensive weapons are on cool-down.
The PS4 version of Tearaway retains much of the charm that made the PS Vita game stand out so much: a world made of paper, a stop motion animation style, and gestural controls. However, in order to account for the change in hardware, the PS4 version uses the DualShock 4's touchpad and gyro controls to approximate some of the gestural controls of the original handheld version. In the demo I played, the player, acting as the fabled Messenger of the franchise, must help the main character scale a mountain, using finger swipes to change the direction of the wind and swapping items between the game-world and the controller; and back again in order to increase the potency of projectiles. It sounds bizarre, but is actually quite charming in actuality. Additionally, those who have the PlayStation Camera can snap photos that can be used as textures in the game for particular environments and creatures. I plastered my ugly mug onto the side of a deer, a sort of perverse branding, I guess. Cute and novel, it remains to be seen if Tearaway can garner much of a following on the Vita's big brother.
What Remains Of Edith Finch
Have you ever wanted to play through the dreams of a young girl? Well, in one of several short stories included in the first-person exploration game, What Remains of Edith Finch, now you can. While the full release (scheduled for 2016) will include a collection of short stories to play through, the demo Sony brought to E3 was confined to the previously mentioned dream sequence. While experiencing the little girl's dream, players take control of several creatures, all of which are on the prowl for something living to eat. As a cat, players chase a bird from branch to branch. As an owl, players stalk rabbit in a snowy field, diving down, claws extended, to scoop up their prey. As a shark, players navigate a bed of kelp while trailing a seal. And in perhaps the most bizarre section of the dream, players take control of a tentacle monster and slither across the deck of a ship, swallowing its inhabitants. The genre trajectory of the demo, then, proceeds from whimsical to almost Lovecraftian, which is never a bad thing. If this short sequence is any indication, the full version of What Remains of Edith Finch will be special indeed.
Until Dawn has garnered a lot of media interest since its announcement, and Sony has not been shy about showing the horror-themed, cinematic game at various events. The basic premise borrows heavily from tropes of the horror genre. A group of typecast teenagers get stranded in a cabin on a mountain for the night while a demonic presence slowly hunts them all down. However, if the latest demo at E3 is indicative of the final game, I'm afraid (pun intended) that Until Dawn will be a huge disappointment. Many compare the game to Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, games that also wrestle control away from the player and share a penchant for quick-time events and cinematic presentations. However, as an unabashed fan of those games, I can confidently say that Until Dawn doesn't hold a candle to them. It hits all of the lows without coming close to any of the highs.
The demo I played involved climbing a radio tower and attempting to summon help after two teenagers realize they and their friends are trapped on the mountain and in serious danger. Although the demo was probably only fifteen minutes long, it felt like an eternity, since I had very little to do during that time. While Quantic Dream games are known for having sparse gameplay (press X to Jason), they appear almost overflowing with interaction compared to Until Dawn. The game almost never lets the player do anything besides choosing between one of two impossibly stupid dialogue options, slowly walking in a single direction, and selecting a handful of objects in the environment. It doesn't help that the voice acting is irritating (although this is no doubt on purpose to mimic cheap horror films). I have nothing else to say about Until Dawn. I was left with one agonizing sentiment after the demo concluded with the death of both of my characters: that was a bit shit, wasn't it?
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Deus Ex Mankind Divided is an action RPG based on four primary pillars of gameplay: combat, stealth, hacking, and social gameplay. The game emphasizes deep choices and consequences, so the actions players take will alter the narrative as it progresses.
Mankind takes place in 2029, two years after the end of Human Revolution. At the end of that game, augmented people were forced to go on a killing spree that altered the world forever. Mankind Divided picks up in the aftermath of this global event where the world has turned against augmented people, turning them into second-class global citizens forced to live in government-sanctioned, segregated "Aughettos" under heavy police surveillance.
"It's kind of Deux Ex meets the themes of District 9," says Mary DeMarle, Executive Narrative Director, who walked us through the behind-closed-doors extended demo of the game at E3.
Adam Jensen returns in Mankind Divided, now working as a counter terrorism agent for a newly formed division at INTERPOL. He is trying to stop black market crime, augmented terrorists, and even those responsible for creating the task force he is working for, who he believes to be the Illuminati, the clandestine global organization that secretly runs the world.
The alpha-build demo we saw was divided into two parts. The first part demonstrates the state of the world after the augmented killing spree. In it, Jensen arrives in Prague, where the majority of the game takes place, and meets up with another augmented agent. The scene is reminiscent of the beginning of Half-Life 2 when Gordon Freeman arrives in City 17. The scene is desperate and foreboding. Armored guards patrol the train station, checking everybody's papers. Normal people on the sidewalk curse augmented people as they pass them. After a brief conversation and a walk up the platform, a terrorist attack on the train station ends the scene.
The next scene takes place in the wake of the terrorist bombing and find's Jensen investigating the leading suspects of the atrocity, the Augmented Rights Coalition (ARC). To do so, Jensen travels to an "Aughetto" (this will never be feel right to write) to talk to the leader of ARC.
While working their way through a barracks-like setting to reach the ARC leader, the developers showed off a number of gameplay features, both new and old.
One new feature is the ability to switch between three different ammo types on the fly, including an EMP bullet, which temporarily disables electronics. The developers use these bullets on a security camera and quickly pass by it, undetected.
The cloaking augment returns from Human Revolution. Cloaking, the developers slip past a few guards having a conversation and climb up a ladder to take an alternative path past a cafeteria.
Jensen now has a number of gun-arm augmentations. To illustrate this, the developers use the Tesla gun arm, a weapon that can lock onto four enemies at a time and deliver a massive shock, taking them down non-lethally.
Following this, the developers demonstration yet another new augmentation. While Human Revolution features the Icarus legs that allow players to fall from great heights without taking damage, Mankind Divided adds the Icarus Dash, which allows players to leap across great distances. In execution, it's very similar to the blink ability in the first Dishonored game. The ability can also be used in combat to smash into enemies, like a powerful punch.
The smart vision augmentation is back, and it's been upgraded to include more information about the environment. Also back are hand-to-hand takedowns, both lethal and non-lethal. But this time, takedowns can also be used while in stealth. They can be used without leaving cover.
After taking down an enemy from cover, the developers then previewed another new augmentation, the remote hack. Players can now hack computer terminals from across the room. Cameras and sentry drones can also be remotely hacked in order to either disable them or get them to work for you. The hacking system from Human Revolution returns as well, with more features, so players can use and upgrade abilities for both hacking styles.
The Nano Blade has also gotten a number of upgrades this go around. Players can now use the Nano Blade as a projectile, like a bolt that can pin enemies to walls. The Nano Blade can also be launched onto walls to distract or attract enemies; it can then be remotely detonated to take down unsuspecting foes.
After a series of ventilation shafts, the developers showed off the game's improved combat mechanics. The combat now feels more like a traditional shooter. An augmentation called Titan Shield allows Jensen to harden his skin with an onyx shell and march into combat unafraid. This ability looks very much like a similar ability in the Crysis franchise.
After that brief combat demonstration, the developers came upon an automated turret. While this situation can be handled in several ways, depending on player preference, in the demonstration the developers used an EMP grenade to stun the turret and then, in real time, switched to armor piercing rounds and destroyed the turret. Alternatively, they could have hacked the turret or tried to sneak by it using another path. In other words, classic Deux Ex gameplay persists.
Finally, the developers confront the leader of ARC, using the opportunity to showcase the social aspects of gameplay. As with Human Revolution, players always have several dialogue options when conversing with NPCs. In the demo, Jensen tries to convince the ARC leader to turn himself in and prove his innocence. A few exchanges later, the developers failed to win the leader over. He triggers a silent alarm only moments before his augments are seemingly hacked by a mysterious agent. His mechanical parts spasm and he soon falls dead before Jensen, bleeding from his orifices.
The demo ends with the developers fighting their way through some more enemy forces and exiting the area on a shuttle. A bald, bulky augmented walks slowly in Jensen's wake, ominously staring as Jensen's shuttle flies away. The game seems to hint he is one of the central villains, if not the largest threat players will face when it's released in 2016.
The Division has been anticipated since it's announcement trailer over two years ago and at this year's E3 Ubisoft finally showed the game in playable form. However, while the game shows promise, it doesn't yet live up to the transcendent online experience many billed it as initially.
In a post-apocalyptic New York City destroyed by disease, players work in teams of three to survive the inhospitable landscape, scavenge the ravaged urban environment, and defend themselves against hostile forces. In other words, it's an excuse for Ubisoft to create another third-person shooter, this time one influenced by the RPG genre and focused on small, squad-based combat in a shared, online world where players can stumble upon hostile human players just as easily as typical NPCs.
Based on the demo I played, the world map is split into PvE sections and PvP sections called Dark Zones. While PvE zones make for the typical co-op experience where three friends work together to complete objective-based missions, the PvP Dark Zones add an additional level of challenge and unpredictability: human opponents.
At the start of the demo, my team had to kill a squad of NPC enemies and acquire small yellow pouches full of hazardous materials, either radioactive or diseased, I couldn't tell. We then had to take these materials to an extraction zone to meet up with a helicopter. The catch was that three other online teams were headed toward the exact same extraction zone. Initially, it's a race to see who can get to the zone first, but after we all converged, it became a makeshift King of the Hill game type, for better or for worse. Each team tries to control the area long enough for their packages to be lifted into the helicopter.
The game controls like a typical third-person shooter, with cover-based combat and a rolling maneuver. However, to me, the controls feel sluggish. Notably, The Division lacks the smooth running and tight snapping-into-cover of the Gears of War games. Exploring the environment and jumping and dashing between cover points just felt a little off. Running is currently mapped onto the L3 button, like many FPS games, but since players want to run often, it would be better suited to one of the face buttons for easier use.
Everybody playing the demo was assigned a character with a specific load out. I had a healing-based character, while my teammates had a turret and mines, respectively. It's unclear to what degree players can customize the physical appearance of their characters (ours seemed randomly generated), but I assume that player load outs can at least be tweaked. In addition to primary and secondary weapons (typical rifles and shotguns), players can make use of special weapons, such as the aforementioned health packs, turrets, and various kinds of mines and grenades.
Interestingly, the developers described The Division as an RPG shooter when discussing the game. However, outside of displaying the damage of each of your bullets when attacking enemies, the RPG elements were not shown off during the hands-on demo. Therefore, it remains to be seen how character development will actually be implemented.
Honestly, my short time with The Division was a frantic experience. My teammates did not coordinate with me, and we were stomped by an opposing team consisting of writers from the same venue who obviously had the tactical advantage of knowing each other. It also doesn't help that during the heat of battle, while all three teams converged on the extraction zone, my demo build froze up on me and the developers had to restart my Xbox One unit. This mishap, combined with the rather shaky mechanics and a complete lack of RPG features in the demo, makes me think that The Division is still a long ways off.
A promising game, but one that still needs a lot of work in order to live up to its potential.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands
In a packed room within the massive Ubisoft booth at E3 this year I sat at a chair, put on some headphones, and watched four Ubisoft developers showcase the upcoming Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Wildlands takes place in Bolivia a few years from now when the country has somehow overtaken Columbia as the world's number one producer of cocaine. Owing to its newfound cash crop, Narco terrorists quickly besiege the country and oppress its citizens. As members of the Ghost Recon team, players enter the open world of the game with the mission of taking the drug cartels down.
As the narrative implies, the open world of Wildlands takes place across the country of Bolivia. While the developers didn't indicate the true size of the game, when at the top of a mountain or in a helicopter high in the sky, players can see for dozes of miles, suggesting the scope of the game is massive. It's also quite diverse. There are mountains, lakes, salt flats, fields, towns, and cities strew across the map. In order to cover so much ground, Ubisoft has implemented four-player co-op, a core feature of the game.
At any given time, players can work together or separately to accomplish mission objectives. For instance, in the demonstration one player subdued and interrogated an enemy in order to discover the location of a target. Meanwhile, the other three players were all busy exploring separate parts of the map searching for similar clues. Once one player gains intel, all players can then head toward the correct location and work together to accomplish the mission.
How players choose to travel from one area to another, and whether they do so alone or together is part of the fun. One player hijacked a pickup truck and barreled down a dusty road. Another player took a dirt bike off road. Another slinked through wheat fields. Eventually two players took to the sky in a helicopter. The combinations are staggering.
Teamwork and coordination are key to accomplishing mission objectives quickly and cleanly. While the developers did say that the entirety of Wildlands is playable in single-player, I can't imagine the game being as fun or as forgiving without three human allies there to plan and execute assaults.
With the target acquired, the four players converged on a small Bolivian town full of people living their daily lives under the cruel hand of the drug cartels. Each citizen reacts to the player in different ways depending on their allegiances. Some run. Some ignore you. Others might trigger alarms. Luckily, a street festival provided distraction during the demonstration, so the players were able to dispatch a few enemies and make their way to the target who was locked in a cage.
Two players went in on foot to free the target and provide ground fire. The other players were in a helicopter above providing air support. Using this tactic, the four players easily took out the enemy forces and the ground-based players were able to throw the target in the trunk of a car and escape. This is just one of hundreds of possible scenarios. Any given mission can be approached in a unique fashion. Of course, most will probably all end in some kind of shoot out. At least, the demo didn't highlight any purely stealth-based missions, although one has to assume the developers would accommodate this type of approach, though.
Even though it's ultimately just another open world military shooter, Wildlands was impressive both from a visual and scenario standpoint. As long as you can muster up three friends, or don't mind working with strangers, the game has a lot of potential. However, it will ultimately come down to whether or not the single-player is tenable or how diverse and unique the game's missions prove to be.