LOS ANGELES — It was an unusual E3 this year in Los Angeles, and not always in a good way. Sony had no presence at all at the expo. Microsoft wasn’t on the show floor. Neither was Electronic Arts, nor Activision. The absences left things eerily quieter on the convention floor, but that didn’t mean there were slim pickings when it came to upcoming titles stirring excitement from gamers. It just meant you had to dig deeper to find the most promising games the showcase had to offer.
‘Shenmue III,’ Deep Silver
When the first Shenmue was released for Sega’s Dreamcast in 1999, it was the biggest financial flop of the era. But fans loved its gorgeous graphics and homage to Japanese myths and lore. The long-awaited, Kickstarter-fueled third edition is the real deal, with challenging hand-to-hand fighting and wise, wry snippets of dialogue from the older adults in the villages. One frantic writer nearby exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m finally playing Shenmue!” It is exciting, if not in a cry-out-loud kind of way.
‘Wolfenstein: Youngblood,’ Bethesda Softworks
The decades-old Wolfenstein series now supplements its Nazi themes with potent satire and an engaging, hard-charging narrative. In this edition, set in the 1980s, humor and fear in the face of bloodshed bedeck a campaign for two starring twin women, one of whom vomits seconds before her first kill. Later, she gleefully remarks, “Can you believe we’re shooting Nazis on a [expletive] zeppelin?” Alas, it’s been reported that micro transactions will be available to “speed things up. But only if you want to.” Do not want.
‘Halo Infinite,’ Xbox Game Studios
While I’m not a huge series fan, the trailer for “Halo Infinite” was so moving, my heart skipped a beat. Taking inspiration from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” uber hero Master Chief is floating aimlessly, lost in space. But it’s the worried astronaut who pulls him into the spaceship that won the presentation in a touching scene of “Rocket Man” loneliness. Microsoft has never gotten narrative right in this otherwise worthy franchise, but it’s on the right track. The game will be out in tandem with Microsoft’s next Xbox in late 2020, so Halo has to be stellar.
‘Watch Dogs 3,’ Ubisoft
Ubisoft’s stealth hacking series set in a dark, devious post-Brexit London has finally hit its stride. Here, you’re an operative that can engage anyone on the street to work with you to destroy evil, mission by mission. The most exhilarating part is flying on top of a drone, Green Goblin-style, and shooting your enemies below with a shock-wave gun. The politics of the game weren’t brought to the fore in the demo I played, though, something Ubisoft has avoided in the past. If they’re ever going to take a stand, the time is now.
‘CyberPunk 2077,’ CD Projekt
When Keanu Reeves stepped onstage at E3 to promote CD Projekt Red’s sci-fi epic, the crowd gave him a lengthy, rousing standing ovation. Beyond the superstar hype, the Polish gamemaker showed off a thrillingly busy, slightly eerie, righteously dystopian Night City. Here, you’ll get a feel for its RPG and novel source material, but it appears to be so much more. Whether this open world will be as rich with uniqueness as the studio’s landmark “Witcher 3” won’t be known until after release day next year (April 16, 2020), but it’s off to a generally impressive start.
‘The Outer Worlds,’ Private Division
The Cystypigs got me. Gross yet imaginative, the porcine entities are farmed for their bacon-flavored tumors. That kind of parody is rife throughout “The Outer Wilds,” an open-world game made by two creators of the lauded, dystopian Fallout series. The ideas here are compelling, too. If your character has a flaw, you get skill points to level up your character. Oh, and you can play as a hero ... or a psychopath.
‘Forza Horizon 4: Lego Speed Champions,’ Xbox Game Studios
It’s a pure, exhilarating thrill ride in the competitive world of Forza — except everything has Lego skins and environments. Racing seems just as exacting as any Horizon game. But with a wacky announcer and a sudden rain of giant soccer balls on the track, you’ll giggle like a kid when you put your pedal to the metal. It was so enjoyable, I enthusiastically demanded to play the E3 demo twice. Unlike most E3 games, this expansion pack is available now.
‘Final Fantasy VII,’ Square Enix
Arguably the best game in the long-running role playing game series, “Final Fantasy VII” holds a special place in my soul because it was my first review for Wired magazine. After years of work, extraordinary graphics, extra dialogue and a new combat system may make playing again more adventuresome and, because of a certain tragic plot point, more heartbreaking. Hopefully the story will be clearer than it was in the past. It’ll come out in parts, the first so big it will fill two Blu-ray discs. Wow!
‘Marvel’s Avengers,’ Square Enix
While the quips need to hit harder, especially from Iron Man, the incoming disaster sequence cinematically set around a fictional San Francisco is so stunning, you feel the rising tension. The bridge is about to crumble, while Hulk smashes, throwing enemies hither and yon. Elsewhere, the agile Captain America drops his foes with fantastic form, at one point banking his shield off his foot (which I wanted to try in the game immediately). Yes, there have been numerous games featuring these comic book veterans, but if they tweak this with attention to every detail, they’ll have a game that will be remembered. Free post-release content downloads are also something to get excited about.
‘Luigi’s Mansion 3,’ Nintendo
It’s creepy, but it’s the kind of humorous creepiness that attracts kids and parents alike. Here, Mario’s brother deals with all manner of ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night, all in a haunted hotel. The persnickety masters of Nintendo level design assure an unusual, even soulful, experience that will be as challenging as it is charming. When Luigi is startled, gets big-eyed and tiptoes back, Disney at its best has nothing on these animators.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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