There were a lot of great games at E3 this year, but only one can be the best. PC Gamer's editors pick their favorites from the show floor.
Logan: Watch Dogs
Go ahead and fiddle with your Facebook privacy settings all you want: Aiden Pierce knows exactly who you’re sleeping with and how you feel about them. He can tap your cell phone to listen to what you’re telling somebody or he can jam it so they’ll never hear it. He knows where you work, how much you make, and if you stash your cash in a private account he can plunder it at the nearest ATM. And if you try to get away from him, you better run someplace that isn’t under the domain of ctOS—the central operating system that administers Chicago’s infrastructure—and hope that he doesn’t mess with the traffic signaling system on your way out.
In an unexpected and wonderfully audacious demo, Watch Dogs ruthlessly teased me with the power to take the technological apparatus of an entire city and press it into my service as a tool of surveillance, reconnaissance, or destruction—while also giving me glimpses of what may be the terrible consequences of my actions (such as a hapless bystander desperately trying to resuscitate his dead wife after an accident that Pierce caused).
It’s still an action game—there’s shooting, there’s free-running, there’s bullet-time, and there’s beating a guy with a retractable baton—but throughout an E3 smothered by overbearing, barely differentiated violence in sequelized blockbusters, Watch Dogs feels far more ambitious. It seems to see in gamers not folks who will dutifully respond to more, bigger, and louder, but instead people who want their cunning, skill, and resourcefulness challenged in new and more imaginative ways.
Evan: PlanetSide 2
Fighting against two factions instead of one activates some dormant area of my FPS brain. It's not simply that you have more and differently-colored soldiers to shoot at, but you experience this novel feeling of competition over resources that matter. No other shooter gives me that sensation. Occupying someone else's base means something—just by contending for an outpost, you're earning a tiny trickle of resources. Own it, and that earned-over-time allowance extends to your whole empire (while being denied to the enemy). The magic of that mechanic is apparent even in an hour-long play session with a character I'll never use again in a crowded, loud convention center. Whether you like it or not, you're a part of something.
Beyond that, PlanetSide 2 is better-looking than Tribes, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and (save for Natural Selection 2, which I love the look of) any other multiplayer shooter I can name. The sci-fi context has let SOE's art team run wild with neon and high-contrast player and vehicle skins in a way Battlefield can't. It's a miracle that this will be free.
Runner-ups: Arma 3, Natural Selection 2
Rift never really grabbed my attention at launch. I've dabbled over the past year since its launch, but the game's first expansion, Storm Legion, cannot be ignored. A lot of information was revealed during E3, and everything I've seen has convinced me to re-up my subscription and dive back in headfirst. The expansion adds two continents that are each as large as the entire game world that exists today. That's cool, but it wasn't what had me scrambling for my credit card. What got me was the E3 livestream demo of Storm Legion content that showed a massive open-world boss who, when he's defeated, tears down walls to open new zones of the continent to players. Let me reiterate: this boss doesn't just drop loot when you take him down, he drops ENTIRE ZONES OF CONTENT. That's awesome, and so is everything else I've seen about this expansion so far.
Runner-ups: Planetside 2, SimCity
T.J.: The Elder Scrolls V: Dawnguard
It's hard to put into words how big a Skyrim fan I am. Three of my favorite things in the world are Vikings, werewolves, and The Elder Scrolls series. Letting me play in the homeland of the Norse-flavored Nords and be a werewolf in an open-world Elder Scrolls game almost gave me a fanboy heart attack. However awesome you think Skyrim is, multiply that by Odin to get how awesome I think it is. The only thing missing was an organized faction of wussy-ass vampires (you heard me, consider the gauntlet thrown!) to tear apart with my Nordic werewolf claws. Dawnguard gives me that, plus a new werewolf-specific perk tree. It may just be an expansion, but with the relatively lackluster showing of PC RPGs at this year's E3, it was the one thing I was most excited to hear more about.
Runner-ups: Assassin's Creed 3, Planetside 2
SimCity is looking more and more like the reboot the series deserves. The new engine is simulation-oriented, and changes the game's underlying processes without mucking with the SimCity mechanics we're used to, such as zoning areas. City specializations, resources, and vertical integration create opportunities for industrious mayors to noodle around with economics. The buildings have been pared down to their identifying features, making them charming and easily readable. The sound design makes crunching buildings into their foundations seem forceful and satisfying. Oh, and you can build cities next to your friends' if you want. It's evolving where it should while keeping the core SimCity concepts in play. If Maxis had asked me what I wanted from a new SimCity before it started on this project, I wouldn't have come up with anything I wanted as much as what it's promising.
Runner-ups: Divinity: Original Sin, PlanetSide 2
Tom Francis: Dishonored
Sipping tea in my rain-lashed manor back here in England, my view of E3 has mainly been the major publisher's press conferences. Their weird blend of family games and relentless, brutal, fetishised ultra-violence left me wondering if there was anything there for gamers like me.
But tucked away from the main stages, there was something for us: Dishonored. An open ended infiltration game with teleportation, possession, Force Push, and no small measure of fetishised ultra-violence. But they showed it in context, and demonstrated that the decision to put a blade through someone's skull was up to the player - that makes it meaningful. The generous 9-minute walkthrough video is hugely entertaining, and it's now the game I'm most excited about playing.
Tom Senior: Watch Dogs
Drab, misguided showings from many of this year's major players at E3 made me wonder what E3 is really for. Most of what was shown this year has been on the radar for a while. We were seeing new footage of largely known entities, but then, in the final moments of the Ubisoft press conference on day one, this appeared. An open world game of assassination and high tech espionage in an interconnected Chicago. Entire minutes passed without anyone being hit with a stick or shot in the face (that came later). There was investigation, conversation, and slow walk through rain slick streets in a flapping trenchcoat. There was a bit of GTA in there, and a bit of Deus Ex. It was beautiful, cool, and most importantly, new. E3 should be about surprises, which makes Watch Dogs my pick of E3 2012.
Runner-ups: John Carmack, Dawnguard
Chris: Assassin's Creed 3
What I'm looking for at an E3 presentation is a sense of the game I'll actually end up playing. It feels like the higher-profile the franchise, the less likely that we'll get to see what we'll actually be doing when the autumn rolls around.
Aside from the fact that Dishonored and Watch Dogs were taken, this is why Assassin's Creed 3 is my pick of the show. The seven minute demonstration at the Ubisoft conference certainly had its (seemingly) impossibly cinematic moments, but it was glued together by sequences that looked very much like an Assassin's Creed game - and a good one at that.
The moment when Connor returns deer meat to the forest encampment, for example, or when a passer-by asks him to fetch some mercury: that's what you're going to be doing come November.
It doesn't really bother me that Connor is the kind of assassin who'll ride a horse right up to the enemy gates, or blow up half a fortress to distract a target. Assassin's Creed has always been more of a gymnastic badassery simulator than a stealth game, and in that regard it's looking really, really slick. Also, their heavy enemy type appears to simply be defined as 'Scotsmen'.
Finally, the E3 screenshots refer to countryside parkour as 'treerunning'. Good work, Ubisoft. Pun of the show.
Runner-ups: Dishonored, Watch Dogs