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Inside E3

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Jonathan Pile braves the orgy of giant aliens and fevered anticipation that is E3

The alien creature towering above me is 20ft tall, with huge claws, sharp teeth and drool dripping from its mouth. To the right is an even bigger creature, but this one has been taken down – two men are having their picture taken by its head. Straight ahead is the Batmobile surrounded by photographers. Next to that is a group of Sonic The Hedgehog characters with none. And further down a nearby corridor, a giant brain, hovering above the ground. This is all completely normal. Welcome to E3.

This year, E3 – the video-game showcase officially known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo – was technically 12-14 June. It’s on all the printed publicity material, the website and the giant signs outside the LA Convention Centre. But for most people, it actually begins the day before with the press conferences. There are currently four (Nintendo called time on its one a couple of years ago) with EA and Ubisoft also showing up, but it’s the Sony and Microsoft ones that everyone has their eyes on. This is where E3 is ‘won’, a subjective notion based on two hours of shouting about new video games as CGI trailers and gameplay snippets are shown.

But ‘winning’ isn’t without its merits. Last year, as both companies laid our their plans for their upcoming console launches, Sony’s customer-first policies meant it won E3. Its new shiny black box was seen as a better purchase than the other new shiny black box. And all before the three-day show actually started. But it was borne out in sales figures that left Microsoft to play catch up in the new generation of hardware.

Saddle up

Tradition dictates that Microsoft goes first (although quite why it needs to go at 8.45am rather than, say, 11am while serving a breakfast buffet, is unclear). This year’s conference is a good one. Not many surprises, but secrets are hard to keep – Time magazine blew Nintendo’s big reveals with an almost-certainly-not-planned-to-maximise-page-hits early post about the new games. But details of colourful Xbox-exclusive shooter Sunset Overdrive and a remastered Halo 2, plus information on next year’s Halo 5, and Assassin’s Creed Unity drew cheers. As did the unexpected reveal of Lara Croft’s return in Rise Of The Tomb Raider. So far, so good. But people forget that everyone was reasonably upbeat after Microsoft’s (now, with hindsight, ‘clearly disastrous’) conference last year. How would Sony fair?

The problem both Microsoft and Sony have is they’re often talking about titles available on both PS4 and Xbox One, so there are compromises to be made. Take Activision – Microsoft talked about Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Sony got new (presumable) franchise Destiny. Last year Microsoft showed new Metal Gear Solid V footage, this time it was Sony. There’s no mention of the competition, just a promise the games are “better on PlayStation” or “first on Xbox”. GTAV’s enhanced edition isn’t just coming to PS4, but you’d be hard pressed to know it from watching the show.

There are, of course, some exclusives: Sony’s included world-building LittleBigPlanet 3 (with an expanded set of characters that brought to mind the Sonic roster bloat that gave us Big The Cat and Charmy Bee), steampunk shooter The Order: 1886 and a reveal of Uncharted 4, which gained the biggest cheer of the night. And with that, the debates began. Who had won?

These debates generally happen at the same bar – a western-themed place on Sunset Boulevard called the Saddle Ranch. It’s partly out of habit, partly because most of the hotels are by it, and partly because whenever you walk in, you’re almost guaranteed to see a group of familiar people. For a week a year, it’s the UK gaming industry’s equivalent of Cheers. Albeit a Cheers with a mechanical bull, a floor soaked with a mix of beer and tears of desperation, plus an unspoken but unmistakeable agreement that everyone would be happier somewhere else.

The first morning of the show proper is Nintendo’s LA stand. Although, as all the conferences are streamed, you can technically watch them all this way. And some do, although it’s not without its perils: one year a journalist streamed the previous year’s Microsoft conference by mistake then wrote a piece announcing games that were already out.

Game on

Nintendo reveals upcoming titles, including a new Zelda game that’s coming in 2015 but that’s the case with a lot of the newsworthy games. There’s also a Mario-based level-making title called Mario Maker. It’s sort of Nintendo’s version of LittleBigPlanet, but given that the first things people build in LittleBigPlanet are Mario levels, quite where they’ll start is baffling. No one needs a new version of Super Mario Bros that looks and plays exactly like Super Mario Bros.

Back on the show floor there’s a subplot this year surrounding virtual reality – Sony’s Project Morpheus against Facebook-owned Oculus Rift. Sony has a new street luge demo: you lie down on a beanbag and, as you plummet, shift your body left and right to avoid obstacles and steer under trucks. In response, Oculus Rift has Alien Isolation. It’s so intense that even one of the developers freaks out as he plays it.

But mostly the three days are a blur of two things: gameplay demos and missed gameplay demos as schedules are knocked out of shape by the length of the show. We turn up three hours late to Dead Island 2, which turns out to be our final appointment of the first day. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, often frustrating and sometimes boring as not everything is shown off to good effect.

We know we posed a question earlier, and we also realise we left it unanswered – “who had won?” Unlike 2013, both sides’ slates reviewed well leaving them in good spirits. Maybe it’s because, in all likelihood, we won’t know until all the games are at least playable. Ask us again in 2015. We’ll be at the Saddle Ranch.

(Images: Jonny Pile; Activision)

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