Hottest Trends from E3 2009

We’ve already recapped some of our favorite titles from E3 2009, but like any good tradeshow, E3 is as much about the big picture – the future of gaming – as all the individual tidbits of candy we can’t wait to savor. After a long flight home and a weekend to let all the neon memories stew, we’ve stepped back to examine some of the bigger trends that developers have brought to the table this year. Here’s what the bleeding edge of gaming looks like this year.

Life’s a Sandbox

Non-linear gameplay isn’t just for Grand Theft Auto anymore. Technology has made building entire digital environments for players to romp around in far less daunting for developers, and many new games that formerly wouldn’t have required this level of freedom seem to be taking advantage of it. Assassin’s Creed II and Just Cause 2 both awed us with enormous (and detailed) environments that players could explore end-to-end without interruption, and others, like Scribblenauts, offer constrained environments with a nearly limitless number of objects to play with and accomplish a challenge. For gamers who want to think their own way through games, the prospects have never been brighter.

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2

The Wii is Growing Up

Wii players are finally getting a taste of blood. The family-friendly console that sprung to popularity by allowing elderly people to bowl in nursing homes and kids to race karts with Mario has finally started accruing some more mature content, including new Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Red Steel and Metroid titles, plus some new names like Sega’s conspiracy-themed The Conduit. They’re not the first of their kind by any means, but the sheer number of mature titles that debuted for the Wii this year tells us that its cartoony reputation may be fading fast.

Red Steel 2

Red Steel 2

New Hardware for Motion

Credit Nintendo Wii with the original focus on more intuitive game controllers, but this year, everyone was on board. By far the most impressive offering was Microsoft’s Project Natal prototype, which uses cameras and an infrared projector to capture accurate input from a gamer moving in front of the screen – no controller needed. Sony also showed off its own version with a demo of a super-accurate motion controller that could digitally place weapons into the hand of a player on the fly, or serve as a controller for tasks as fine as writing. Both remain prototypes for the time being, but the massive R&D dollars being poured into these types of projects clearly show what’s next for the industry.

Microsoft's Project Natal

Microsoft’s Project Natal

No More Discs

The game industry has finally discovered what pirates have known for years: It’s a lot easier to download games than go out to the store and buy them. Microsoft has always offered downloadable add-ons, content, and free demos, but it will also begin serving up entire games through a service called Games on Demand. Likewise, Sony’s new PSP Go commits even more to digital distribution because it has no disc drive to speak of, relying entirely on the PlayStation Network for new content.

Sony PSP Go

Sony PSP Go

Graphics Keep Getting Better

Call it the most obvious observation on our list – and one you have to expect every year – but we would be remiss if we didn’t point it out: Even though all three major consoles have been on the market for years now, developers continue to push their graphical potential further and further with any number of unbelievably realistic titles. On the PlayStation 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2 all dropped jaws, while Xbox fans couldn’t peel their eyes away from Forza Motorsport III, a game so realistic that developers literally admit they’re running out of things to simulate. Nintendo’s Wii still lags well behind its high-def, high-dollar counterparts in the graphics department, but developers have still found ways to push it further than last year with titles like Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles, Silent Hill Shattered Memories and even Spyborgs.

Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2

The PC’s Not Dead Yet

The PC gaming industry may not pay for a glitzy pre-E3 press conference along with the likes of Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, but developers haven’t forgotten about the humble platform, either. We’re pretty sure the PC-exclusive Star Wars: The Old Republic demo had lightsaber-loving console gamers pining for PCs, and quite a few titles will come out across multiple platforms including PC such as The Agency, BioShock 2, Borderlands, and Left 4 Dead 2. And though we wouldn’t quite call Microsoft Surface a PC, Ruse definitely looked killer on the massive multitouch table, and we’re sure the final variant will be much more fun with a mouse and keyboard than a controller.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Sequels Live On, and On, and On

Even the most diehard Final Fantasy fans must have trouble keeping track of all the new games lately: Square Enix trotted out no less than five for E3 this year. That seems to be the continuing trend in the industry as whole, where many of the hottest games this year drew from a rich lineage, like Assassin’s Creed II, God of War III, and BioShock 2. You could chalk this up to lack of originality, but as gamers ourselves, we’re definitely guilty of buying games that promise more of what we love.

God of War III

God of War III

There’s Always Room for Little Guys

Let’s face it: E3 is a show of big-budget blockbusters developed by massive and well-known game studios like 2K and Bungie. But some of the most surprising hits from the show came from little studios. Take the aforementioned Scribblenauts, from humble 5th Cell, which allows you to usually virtually any object you can imagine to solve puzzles. Or Pluff, which uses a plush controller of an in-game character as an input, rather than a controller. We’re expecting these hot ideas to grow legs, proving that you still don’t need to hire the Beatles for promo work to sell a quality game.

Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts

Side Scrollers Never Stopped being Fun

Who would have guessed that a 2D side scroller that wouldn’t look too out of place in 1993 would be the very first announcement of Nintendo’s press conference? New Super Mario Bros., along with Majesco’s Wii remake of A Boy and His Blob, and even the graphically ramped up Shadow Complex for Xbox 360 all prove that the classic side-scrolling formula still works, even on next-gen consoles. Innovative titles like Invincible Tiger even put a new twist on it by allowing players to switch back and forth between free-roaming and side-scrolling mechanics.

A Boy and His Blob

A Boy and His Blob

Photorealism Isn’t Everything

As we already pointed out, there’s always going to be a certain class of game seeking absolute realism in gaming, and that crop of titles took yet another leap forward this year. But games also continue to venture out into new stylistic grounds. Cel shading remains a popular technique, as evidenced by titles like Fat Princess, Red Steel 2 and Borderlands, but other techniques showed up as well. The Saboteur, for instance, takes place in black-and-white environment at the start of the game, but as the main character liberates pieces of Nazi-occupied France, color begins to bleed into the world in swatches, similar to the use of red in Schindler’s List. Meanwhile, Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time strives for totally imaginative and unearthly worlds, and BioShock 2 revisits the old-timey look and feel of the original.

Fat Princess

Fat Princess

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