Following two years of nauseatingly reserved E3 expos that would make a linoleum flooring convention look like a good time, plenty of industry skeptics doubted whether ESA could bring back its circus of excess for 2009. But after three days of plowing through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, shouting over throbbing subwoofers in flashing booths the size of houses, and enough open bars to put the unrestrained journalist into a coma, we’re happy to say they’ve done it. And with developers now learning how to take full advantage of the most powerful generation of gaming machines ever produced, the games this year hit a new high, too. Here are 10 titles that stood above the thickly seeded forest of games we combed through.
COP: The Recruit
If the crowds hadn’t subsided by the end of the day when we got to play COP, we may have felt bad for hogging the demo for as long as we did. But we couldn’t pull ourselves away. Sure, it’s just Grand Theft Auto as a cop, but Ubisoft has nailed all the elements that make the series fun, like a massive city to play in, loads of weapons, intuitive controls, and ultra-fluid motion and physics when you’re behind the wheel.
Assassin’s Creed II
Ubisoft put some serious thought into selecting the next historical locale for this series and giving it more variety than the first title. By the looks of the demo, it has paid off. From squares full of reveling Venetians in carnival masks to flying machines and intricate stone buildings, the gorgeous and totally open environment Ubisoft has spun up for Assassin’s Creed II promises to be as intriguing as the action itself. The blade-wielding protagonist will also get new maneuvers, like an impressive dual-assassination for dispatching two guards at once, and new challenges, like “seeking” guards who will probe potential hiding spots, rather than just standing around waiting to take a knife in the neck.
French developer Quantic Dream has concocted an ambitious premise for this thriller: The player essentially becomes the actor, writer and director in a film that plays out as the game carries on, and the plot and ending will be different for everyone, as different players make different moral decisions that direct the flow. We’re still slightly skeptical that it can deliver on that amount of freedom without all the constrained choices of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but allegedly, any of the four different characters in player control can die and the game will continue to move forward, and there are dozens of different endings. The graphics definitely peg a near-cinematic highpoint, though, and the fact that we saw different events playing out on different screens reassured us that the choices in this game carry real weight.
Check out our E3 2009: Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer video.
First-person shooters have collided with role-playing games many times before, but this particular genre blender seems like one of the most polished we’ve encountered. It probably leans a bit more toward FPS than RPG, but certain details, like 500,000 different weapons available from different in-game brands, vehicles that spawn from a replicator like in Tribes, and different character classes that can each be heavily specialized using a sprawling skill tree definitely appeal to our role-playing sides. The beautiful cel-shaded graphics are just the cherry on top.
Imagine pretty much any object at all, and you can all it into being and interact with it in this game simply by typing it in. We have no idea how developers built the amazing library of 10,000 different objects, from ladders to dynamite and even living things like walruses and dragons, but having so much variety means that the way you solve over 200 puzzle levels truly is up to you. And since any given level can essentially serve as a playground with 10,000 toys when you’re not trying to move forward in the game, we see a lot of replay value, too.
Forget alien worlds, war-torn French villas and apocalyptic desert terrain, Kaos Studios treads where few first-person shooters have gone before: the American suburbs. (After an energy crisis and brutal home-front war with North Korea, of course.) Oddly enough, by keeping the environment and story only a few degrees from the reality many of us know, Kaos has made Homefront seem even more engrossing, and even a little disturbing. We only hope the developers can serve up a story and action that follows suit.
Check out our E3 2009: Homefront video.
It’s really about time someone put a fresh face – in this case, a tux and bowtie – on an MMORPG, rather than regurgitating the same old fantasy worlds and monsters with better graphics every few years. And with its rich history in these games, Sony Online Entertainment has the pedigree to do it. The Agency may not run as deep as World of Warcraft or other hardcore MMOs, but the spy-themed gameplay we saw looked like a blast, and should draw in a fresh audience of geeks who grew up watching James Bond movies, not reading Piers Anthony.
Your team’s princess has been stolen by another team, then fattened up with cake to make her harder to rescue. With a premise like that, it’s hard to see how this capture-the-flag (err, princess) game can derail. A top-down view with colorful cel-shaded graphics gives it a playful vibe without pandering too hard to kids (there’s still a ton of blood spillage), and players can choose between five different character classes on the fly by literally swapping hats. Our brief play time against AI enemies had us eager to get real friends behind the controls and start rescuing some fatties.
Forza Motorsport III
Forza has always been a car game for car guys, but with the third edition, it seems like Turn 10 Studios has finally figured out how to fulfill its self-described mission of turning car lovers into gamers and gamers into car lovers: Just dumb it down a bit. With the addition of new settings that let amateurs stay on the track more easily and rewind the game to correct mistakes, Forza III opens its garage of over 400 cars to the masses. Gearheads can still play a hyper-realistic sim that lets them experiment with different suspension settings and replay their favorite races in every agonizing, life-life detail, but casual fans get to drive, paint and gawk over cool cars that look just like the real thing. We’ll see if Forza can manage to shake its stilted reputation and draw over Need for Speed fans, but if nothing else, we dig the concept.
Check out our E3 2009: Forza Motorsport III video.
Just Cause 2
Don’t have the heavy-duty gaming hardware necessary to run Crysis on your home PC? Consider Just Cause 2 a comparably breathtaking substitute for Xbox 360. We were amazed how well the Avalanche 2.0 engine handled everything from skyscrapers to fields of flowers without stuttering, and helicopters, grappling hooks and parachutes make gameplay a truly aerial affair. Throw in a fun physics engine and the ability to tie any two objects together with cables you can shoot, and we’re smitten.