If you want to catch a glimpse of where gaming is going next, there's no better place to be than the Electronic Entertainment Expo. This year's show, which attracted 46,800 industry professionals to L.A. in early June, was headlined by the announcement of Nintendo's successor to the Wii, the introduction of Sony's new handheld, and announcements of many amazing new games set for release later this year and into 2012. Here are my E3 highlights from the Big Three console manufacturers and my top games of the show.
Nintendo: Meet the Wii U
Over the past five years, no gaming system has done more to build mainstream awareness of our industry than the Wii. But now, with Wii sales down over 60% in 2011, Nintendo knows it needs to introduce its next gaming system soon. Wii U, unveiled during the company's E3 press conference, is scheduled for release sometime in mid-to-late 2012. It's based around the idea of a controller with its own touch screen that works alongside your TV. In practice, this means games can display information on the touch screen (like an overhead map), or allow you to stream a game on the touch screen and free up the TV for someone else in your family. Nintendo also promises that Wii U will feature HD graphics that rival the PS3 and Xbox 360, and displayed a stunning Zelda HD demo to give gamers a taste of what's to come.
Nintendo took the wraps off the successor to the Wii, named "Wii U".
Sony introduced its new handheld, the PS Vita.
Overall, Wii U is an interesting concept. But with graphics that look about the same as the Xbox 360 and PS3, I'm not sure why core gamers would upgrade - besides the allure of games like Super Smash Bros. and Zelda in true HD. The touch screen could introduce interesting gameplay possibilities, but it will likely be a few months until we hear how developers plan to use the screen to differentiate their games.
Wii U was the main focus of Nintendo's E3 push, but current Wii fans can look forward to the launch of Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword later this year. On 3DS, there are a slew of new games set for release soon including a new Mario Kart, a Luigi's Mansion game in 2012, and a new Mario Bros. featuring the legendary Tanooki Suit flying power-up which longtime Mario fans remember from Super Mario Bros 3. 3DS owners can also look forward to Kid Icarus: Uprising and Star Fox 64 3DS for the holidays.
Sony's New Handheld: The PS Vita
E3 was the official unveiling of the final name and price of Sony's latest handheld that was first announced earlier this year, now known as the PS Vita. Scheduled for release late in 2011 or early 2012, Sony made a lot of waves at E3 with an attractive price announcement: $249 for the Wifi device or $299 for the 3G version. A follow-up to the PSP, Sony's handheld boasts a beautiful OLED touch screen, dual analog sticks, and a host of big-budget games including an original Uncharted adventure, Uncharted: Golden Abyss. My favorite game is a music-inspired platformer called Sound Shapes from Jonathan Mak, an indie designer known for the title Everyday Shooter. Sony has also announced that there will be an original Call of Duty game for PS Vita, and Ken Levine made headlines by announcing a new BioShock game for the device as well.
Many gamers will have valid questions about PS Vita's viability in a world of iPad and iPhone gaming, but at $249 it will be a steal - especially since the system's two analog sticks and gorgeous HD graphics mean we can expect some big-ticket action games that aren't possible on other handhelds.
Speaking of amazing graphics, Sony's press conference was dominated by a new demo for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, scheduled for release in November. Developer Naughty Dog has once again upped the ante for cinematic action. The new E3 level shows Nathan Drake navigating through a sinking cruise ship as water rushes on board, and a behind-the-scenes level on a cargo plane left my jaw on the floor. The action in Uncharted looks amazing, and better yet, everything you see is real gameplay.
Microsoft: Core Games with Kinect
Kinect posted big sales last holiday season, but so far 2011 has been strangely quiet in terms of new Kinect games. At E3, Microsoft was determined to showcase a new slate of titles and convince hardcore gamers that Kinect can be fun for them too. So, while new titles like Kinect Star Wars, Kinect Disneyland Adventures, and Dance Central 2 were on display, Microsoft spent a lot of time displaying core games that will be "better with Kinect." For instance, in Mass Effect 3, gamers will be able to issue squad commands via Kinect's voice array microphone. In Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, a new feature called Gunsmith lets you explore weapons and rotate them around using your hands with Kinect. While there has been no news on how Gears of War or Halo will use Kinect, it seems like every major Xbox release going forward will somehow incorporate Microsoft's new motion-control hardware.
That said, if you're a fan of controller-based games, Microsoft still has a few big releases on the schedule. The delayed Gears of War 3 will finally emerge on September 20th with a new tower-defense inspired Horde Mode for multiplayer and an epic single-player campaign. The racing of Forza Motorsport 4 arrives in October with some Kinect support as well. And to close out its press conference, Microsoft announced that Master Chief is back for Halo 4, scheduled for a Holiday 2012 release. This will be the first Halo game not created by Bungie, so fans have a lot of questions that Xbox will need to answer over the next year.
Other Game Highlights
Outside of the Big Three press conferences, a number of other major games were on display from third-party publishers. Here are four games that made a big impact at the show:
The title with the most buzz was BioShock Infinite from Ken Levine and Irrational Games. Set in Columbia, a city in the sky, this completely re-imagined BioShock world is rich in detail and ripe with cool gameplay, including skylines that let you fly through the world like you're on a rollercoaster circa 1920s. The E3 demo focused on the player's emotional relationship with Elizabeth, a girl who's trapped on Columbia and watched over by a giant mechanical creature named the Songbird.
The E3 demo for Batman: Arkham City focused on a big twist: Playable Catwoman. While Batman is still the main focus, for about 10% of the game, you'll play as Catwoman and use her whip to take down foes. Arkham Aslylum surprised a lot of players, and the sequel looks bigger, better, and bolder than the first game with more villains (Penguin was just announced) and an open-world setup that lets Batman glide across all of Gotham.
Due for release in November, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim will be a major event for die-hard RPG fans. At E3, designer Todd Howard was holed up in a theater presenting a 30-minute demo of the full game and engine, which brings Tamreil to stunning life with changing weather effects and gigantic dragon battles.
No game was a bigger surprise than the reboot of Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics. Unveiled at the Xbox press conference, this game tells the story of a young Lara after she's shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. The graphics are stunning and the game's rich, textured world makes you forget all the bad Tomb Raider games over the years. Although it's not scheduled for release until late 2012, Tomb Raider is a game you'll want to get in