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Video Games at E3 That Were Neat or Cool, By Brad

Let's leave behind all that grousing about the expo and just talk about good games, shall we?

Strap a contraption built by John Carmack onto my face, check.
Strap a contraption built by John Carmack onto my face, check.

First it was trendy to malign this year's E3 for being too big, too out of touch, too gauche, or too boring. Then maligning the people doing the maligning became the thing to do. I suspect we'll be yelling at the people who are yelling at the people who are yelling about E3 soon enough, but before this snake of negativity begins to eat a second tail it didn't even know existed, let's cut through all the nonsense and admit that whatever issues the video game industry and the expo itself may have, there were more than enough games to get excited about scattered around the show floor.

The two most memorable moments of E3 actually happened back-to-back for me on the afternoon of the first day, when I first got to talk to John Carmack about his homemade head-tracking VR unit, and then get a look at the absurdly gorgeous Star Wars 1313 demo. But we've covered those things plenty, so let's move on to a handful of the other stuff that I thought was most impressive at the show.

Dyad and The Unfinished Swan

I grouped these together because they're the two PSN indies I had a chance to spend some real time with, but also because they exemplify how well Sony is approaching and supporting small games and small developers lately. I've heard over and over how easy Sony makes it for indie studios to get onto the platform, and both of these games seem to show off what a small group of people can create when they've got the support and confidence of the platform-holder.

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You can't really get smaller than a team of one guy, Shawn McGrath, who's making Dyad. The game made a big splash back at GDC, and now having played it myself I can easily see why. It basically does for Tempest what Geometry Wars did for Asteroids, bringing the tube-racing format into high definition with a pounding, adaptive soundtrack and lots of neon lights. More importantly, the basic rules of the game never seem to stop evolving, so the mechanics you rely on in one level may have flipped upside down or completely given way to some other objective a couple of levels later. McGrath said that nonstop reinvention continues right up to the end of the several dozen levels in the game. Sounds like fun to me.

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The Unfinished Swan is also coming from a small team, but one that's had the benefit of literally setting up shop inside Sony's famed Santa Monica Studio. Five minutes with the game made it clear this is going to have the same appeal as Journey, with its dreamlike emphasis on exploring an environment at your own pace. There's a storyline, but it seems like you're only going to see as much of it--and indeed as much of the world that contains it--as you're interested in revealing for yourself. The stark, minimalist art style is really joyous to see; I can't wait to see more of it.

SimCity

The idea of being able to import commodities like electricity from your neighbor's city is enough to get me interested in playing a new SimCity. It's such a sensible and thematically appropriate way to incorporate multiplayer into the game, beyond some really basic sort of "check out the layouts of all your friends' cities!" functionality. But the thing that really impressed me about SimCity when I sat down for a 15-minute demo was just how elegantly put-together everything seems to be.

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The interface looks like it will be a beautiful exercise in minimalism. All of the controls I saw were arranged along the bottom of the screen in a tidy little row that sort of looked like the Windows taskbar. The only interface elements I noticed that actually get in the way of your city pop up in the form of little info cards that float around near the thing they're describing, almost in an augmented-reality sort of style. Combine that with the everything-is-tiny effect of the tilt-shift photographic filter they're using, and the droll sense of humor with rockabilly criminals running around and such, and I will be very happy to waste an absurd number of hours on city planning and governance in February next year.

Watch Dogs

There's not a lot to say about this one that you can't see for yourself in the lengthy demo, especially since Ubisoft wasn't showing anything else or really revealing any other information afterward. Like seemingly everyone else, I'm excited about Watch Dogs purely for the reason that it's something other than a sequel. But beyond that, the information-warfare aspect looks both really entertaining from a gameplay standpoint and also distressingly prescient as we barrel into the over-connected digital future. Though, the part in the demo where Watch Dogs went from imaginative cybercrime stealth game to standard-fare third-person shooter is where the game lost me a bit, but I'm remaining hopeful that slow-motion shootouts will be only one of multiple ways to address your objectives. I'd rather hack into power grids and disrupt communications from the shadows to get my dirty work done. With all the nifty high-tech tools at your disposal, it would be shame if you're railroaded into blowing a bunch of guys away every 30 minutes.

All that stuff would be reason enough to keep an eye on Watch Dogs, but that little tease at the end of the demo implying some kind of dynamic cat-and-mouse multiplayer makes this seem like it could be one of the most exciting new properties to come along in quite a while. We need to see a lot more of this game to be sure it works as advertised, but what's out there now sure is promising.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

Even if this game looked like poop, it'd deserve a mention here just for the 90 seconds Trey Parker and Matt Stone spent rescuing Microsoft's press conference from the robotic executive doldrums that were dragging it down. But considering how deeply involved those guys are in the actual writing and production of the game itself, is it any wonder this thing actually looks completely fantastic? OK, so it's probably not the toughest feat to nail the dinky construction-paper aesthetic of the TV show, but still, they did it. Most importantly, the trailer seems to show off exactly the right mix of subversive and ludicrous humor that's kept South Park going on television for what, 15 years? It's mindboggling that the show is still even remotely good or relevant, but it is, and if you combine those sensibilities with the spot-on presentation of the show and what sounds like some well considered RPG mechanics, The Stick of Truth honestly sounds like it could be the video game South Park has deserved since its very beginning.

The Last of Us

The Sony press conference demo was merely OK, with its focus on killing everyone in your way as brutally as possible, but it was the much longer, closed-door demo I got to see with Patrick and Alex that convinced me The Last of Us is going to be something special. For me, step one of establishing that I really want to play this game was confirming that no, you don't have to shoot every bad guy you encounter in the face with a shotgun. In fact, you don't have to shoot them at all, or even engage with them in any way; sneaking around roving groups of enemies will be a perfectly acceptable way to deal with them. The unexpected step two for me came in the realization that while you may elect to play The Last of Us as a pacifist out of moral responsibility, you'll be making a very real mechanical sacrifice to do so. Those bandits may be carrying some very precious supplies that you won't get access to if you don't take them forcefully, and what's more, those guys are scrounging the area for the same found items you are. So if there are bandages or bullets in a drawer somewhere and they get to that drawer first because you were busy hiding in a closet waiting for them to pass, you've lost your chance at getting those items. It sounds like a game that will ask you to make a lot of tough decisions on your feet, and that's more interesting than gunning down hundreds of thugs could ever be.

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However underwhelming or one-note this year's press conferences were, however offputting the treatment of certain show staffers was, however repetitive and unimaginative the product cycle may be getting this late in the hardware cycle, at least there were still more individual great-looking games to see than one person could reasonably have time for. Top of my list of games I'm sorry I missed, there's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, The Cave, and Far Cry 3. And plenty of neat stuff barely missed making this list, like Pikmin 3, Halo 4, and Assassin's Creed III (which I didn't even bother to go look at, because, come on, who's not going to play that?).

There's talk that E3 may move cities next year, if Los Angeles goes ahead with its plans for more downtown stadium development. In light of all the criticisms about how this year's show played out, maybe a change of venue is just what E3 needs. What could make for a bigger shakeup than literally picking up and moving to a new stage? Wherever E3 ends up next year, and whatever wild hardware shows up there, I'm at least confident coming out of this year's show that we'll have plenty to play and talk about until then.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+