It's here at last! We've recovered from our post-E3 plagues, put the pieces of our lives back together, and took time to meditate in a sacred grove before doing battle in the PCG-awards-debate-ring of death to determine the best games at this year's E3.
Best RPG - The Elder Scrolls V: Dawnguard
Since Daggerfall, one of the best elements of The Elder Scrolls' sandbox gameplay has been the ability to be a secret monster among the bustling, unaware population of NPC sheep. More than anything, Dawnguard seems tightly focused on improving that experience. We've been teased a story that fleshes out vampires and their society in a way we haven't seen in a TES game since Morrowind. Said story will feature two possible factions to side with—the vampires or the Dawnguard—much like, one of the better quest lines in the base game, the Civil War. Plus, yay replayability!
On top of that, the expansion introduces a totally new creature form (the Vampire Lord) and full skill trees for both werewolves and vampires. Oh, and crossbows! At the end of the day, of course, we'll take any excuse to jump back into one of the best RPGs of the last decade with shiny, new content to explore.
Best Strategy - XCOM: Enemy Unknown
In a market that seems afraid to put out turn-based strategy titles, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is putting all kinds of alien anatomy to the wall, courtesy of heavy machine gun fire. Very much following in the spirit of the XCOM we know and love, every alien kill and every squad member death will be permanent (and all that more poignant realized in close-up, high-res 3D). Even the passive elements of the game, like watching your science teams dutifully experiment on the extraterrestrial scum between missions in the mesmerizing cross-section view of your space base, are filled with grit and flavor which we just can't wait to get our hands on.
The aliens are coming? We say let them come.
Best Update - Rift: Storm Legion
MMO expansion formulas can be simple: add a new continent with five new zones, raise the level cap five levels, add five skills per class, and add another class or race. Oh, and don't forget a large, evil bad guy for the players to kill in six months' time.
Much like the base game, Rift's next expansion does all that's expected of it and then adds an extra scoop of awesome into the mix. It's not just adding a new continent—Storm Legion adds two continents, each just as big as the entire existing game world. It's not just adding five skills per class—Storm Legion is adding two new souls (talent trees) for each class to tinker and play around with, so that you can pick which new skills you want to add to your character.
But the most promising element of the expansion—and what really won us over at E3—is how much experimenting the developers appear to be doing with the design of all that new content.
The demo of an open-world boss fight on one of the new continents showcased it best of all. The boss wasn't just a stack of hit-points. The 60-foot-tall monster had 5 or more different targetable areas. Hack at a specific piece of his body and you could knock off his armor or weaken a limb, and that'll affect the way he fights. Launch platforms around the area will fling your character across the sky at the collosal boss. Land on his shoulder and you can carve into him up close and personal, or crash into the energy well in his chest and you'll gain a temporary ability to blast him for mega-damage.
Best of all, when the boss is severely wounded, he doesn't just get a generic enrage buff—he goes on a rampage tearing down walls in the open world, which will temporarily open up a new part of the zone to everyone, complete with new quests and enemies to fight.
We haven't seen a lot of Storm Legion's content at this point, but what we've seen so far has us very excited about what other tricks the developers at Trion are packing into those two new continents.
Best Action Game - Assassin's Creed 3
Unless their branches are highlighted with a red “grab here” glow, trees are often off-limits in games. They’re tossed around environments to look naturey, bend in the breeze, and trap those who glitch into them. Watching the Animus’ new protagonist squirrel through a forest canopy and flick himself off a branch is almost disorienting.
After giving us grandiose playgrounds like the Coliseum in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Ubisoft could have stuck to its stonework and simply escalated the scope of movement with taller buildings. Instead, Assassin’s Creed III is taking an organic route, which we didn’t know we wanted until we saw Connor’s hunt so smoothly realized.
Pull away from that achievement in animation and there’s still more intrigue. How will Ubisoft handle the story of a half-British, half-Native American assassin caught in the upheaval of the American Revolution? Will the naval battle teased at Sony’s press conference be as fun as it looks, or a clunky side mission?
If any of it falls apart under hands-on scrutiny, it will at least have been a bold decision, and that deserves acknowledgement.
Best Hardware - John Carmack's Duct-Taped VR Headset
There's something very indie rock about coming to the mega marketing-splosion that is E3 with a $500 homebrew VR headset that's "literally held together with duct tape." And legendary Doom creator John Carmack is exactly the kind of guy you would expect to do it. A lot of great things in PC gaming have come out of these kinds of garage projects, and if the tech is as cool as our own David Boddington seemed convinced that it was after a hands-on demo, we could see this kind of thing becoming a pretty big deal among enthusiasts in the near future.
Best Indie Game - Natural Selection 2
“I think we should make our own modern FPS engine.”
“Hey, while we’re doing that, can we make the game look colorful, well-animated, and visually on-par with modern games?”
“So, we’re going to pursue an unthinkably ambitious design concept and make a multiplayer FPS with RTS elements.”
“Hey, you know what’d be a great idea? Left 4 Dead and StarCraft-style asymmetry between our alien and human factions.”
“Oh, and let’s make it an eSport.”
Best Sim - Arma 3
Bohemia Interactive understands the difference between authenticity as an experience and realism for realism’s sake.
But even shrugging off Arma 3’s refined mechanics and accessibility, it’s also the most impressive simulation of a real-world location we’ve ever seen in a game. Limnos (a near-clone of Lemnos, the Greek island) has a completely different feel: hundreds of enterable buildings, variegated terrain, and fine strokes that in 300-some square kilometers of virtual land. Fighting in it will be great and all, we’re sure, but man. Can you just let us walk around for awhile, Bohemia?
Best Shooter, Best MMO, Best of Show, Most Awards Received - PlanetSide 2
PlanetSide 2, on paper, almost seems too good to be true. In action, the "almost" disappears before your eyes and you're left wondering: How can something this ambitious actually exist? And if it can, why did it take this long for somebody to do it?
We didn't hand the same game the award for Best Shooter, Best MMO, and Best of Show lightly, but PlanetSide 2 clearly asserted itself as the top candidate in all of those categories. The shooting is fast, frantic, and fun. As an MMOFPS, it takes nearly every gameplay element that's been attempted in the genre up to 11, without making any compromises in its pursuit of its "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" premise. From what we've seen so far, PS2 has all of the elements PC gamers want in our ideal persistent, massively-multiplayer shooter, and probably a few we didn't know we wanted.
We love that everything you do, from the time your boots hit the ground to that inevitable moment that you're forced to log off by the sun coming in your window and the realization that you have to work, directly affects a world that doesn't go away when a match ends.
E3 hasn't ever really been about the PC, and this year featured a lot of big console titles, but we can say without any caveat that PlanetSide 2 stole the show for us. It's shaping up to be a transcendent experience, both as a shooter and an MMO, in a very "only on PC" kind of way.