Sony & E3 2012

Sony’s press conference has come and gone, and it went just about the way any skeptical fan might expect; safe, interesting, but flat on the surprises. Like Microsoft, Sony is in a transitional period, pushing their developer and publishing partners to ready their opening salvoes for an announcement of a new console next year. What that means for this year is that the Japanese giant has covered a lot of old ground competently, with little in the way of “megaton” announcements. That’s not to say that Sony’s E3 press conference was terrible, just not very ambitious.

 

Things did get off to a strong start, however, with the announcement of Quantic Dream’s new game. David Cage made quite a few waves with both Heavy Rain and his provocative statements about the state of the industry in the wake of Heavy Rain’s critical and commercial success. This time, with his new game entitled Beyond: Two Souls, he seems to be reaching back to the more paranormal aspects of his earlier titles like Indigo Prophecy and Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Beyond seems to be focused on a spirit guide of sorts, a girl named Jodie Holmes—played by Ellen Page—who is hunted by a well-armed, government force. She is in communication with an extremely powerful spirit capable of great acts of psychokinesis, possibly even able to possess others. The graphics engine seems to have been refined even more since Heavy Rain, with facial performances comparable to LA Noire. It looks like Sony is trying to retain momentum for their “arty, cinematic games” reputation.

After that, the re-introduction of Playstation All Stars Battle Royale came and went with the expected polite reception. We’ve been seeing more and more of this game, and even playing it at events, so it’s not much of a surprise at this point to see it in action again. The “shout-casting” of the on-screen action was a bit much, but questionable presentation aside, this is still looking like a decent—if obvious—pander to Super Smash Bros fans that might own a PS3. It’s a nice touch that it’s coming to the PS Vita and is cross-compatible, but at this point the only thing that will really keep the Vita relevant are some killer games and a price cut. An additional announcement about PS one classics coming to the Vita as well is nice, but being able to play Crash Bandicoot across multiple platforms is not exactly a “killer app.”

However, one Vita game that DID attract some interest was a new Assassin’s Creed game that introduces a new character. The title is Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. It seems to take place in the 18th century as well, so this new, black female assassin killing in the streets of New Orleans is likely a peer and ally of Conner, the hero of the main game. As usual for a Vita game, it looks phenomenal as a portable title, and certainly one more reason to consider a Vita. Whether it’s enough to decisively make people say “That game is one I NEED enough to go out and buy a Vita” remains to be seen. It was also nice to see Ubisoft follow this up with the revelation that the main, console release of Assassin’s Creed III will also be including naval battles. How Conner goes from scalping British redcoats in wintery America to sailing the high seas of the Caribbean is a mystery at this point, but the reasoning is almost sure to strain credibility to the bursting point, as is traditional for the series. Another nice touch was Ubisoft announcing that Farcry 3 would include a 4 player co-op mode. Seems like Ubisoft is actually having a stronger year than the hardware manufacturers.

And then we come to the low point of the presentation. While the concept of an interactive, digital book—dubbed here Wonderbook—is a great idea for kids, it should never have been the centerpiece of the entire press conference. And yet it was. Using a combination of the Move system, and special books printed for the software, Wonderbook is supposed to bring augmented reality-style interactivity to reading for children. It’s quite a coup that they managed to work with JK Rowling on the first title, and certainly it might prove to be a noble, profitable and educational experience for the market, but an auditorium filled with thousands of adult journalists can only fidget in uncomfortable silence for so long as people play with magic pictures. There’s a potentially good idea here, just not for over 10 minutes of a press conference.

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Another announcement that could potentially be interesting in the future, but is not terribly exciting right now is the partnering up with HTC to manufacture the first Playstation Certified, non-Sony phone. The idea of bringing Playstation experiences to Android phones and tablets could yield great rewards in the future, as could the access of Playstation-styled development tools to a wider range of indie developers, but this is all possibility, not a promise.
And of course, God of War: Ascension is… God of War. And, like Halo, that’s all people want, really, is just more of the Awesome they are familiar with. Because this is a prequel, it’s unfair of players to expect it can top the audaciousness and sheer epic scale of the previous games, but as long as it lives up to the franchise reputation of brutality, senseless, violent excess and unbridled rage, I can’t see many people complaining. As to be expected, it looked great, and Sony Santa Monica showed off some extremely painful looking QTE finishing moves. This may be the pizza or hamburger of gaming, but when it’s this tasty, few people will criticize it for lack of originality.

Finally, there was The Last of Us, probably the game that most people attending the conference wanted to see. It’s by Naughty Dog, which means the pedigree is already impressive. But more importantly, it’s something quite different for the developer of Uncharted. The breezy, modern pulp/serial feel of Nathan Drake’s adventures has been replaced with something more basic, brutal and thematically interesting. In many ways, this post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his teenage companion feels like the game Ubisoft envisioned with I Am Alive, but it manages to keep the scope and scale the French publisher had to cut back on. Like Nathan Drake, the main character, Joel, is not a superman, and it’s obvious in his desperate, far from accomplished combat animations. But unlike Nathan Drake, the levity isn’t there. When people bump into walls and punch each other, it doesn’t feel cinematic and spectacular, but desperate and brutal. There might be something special going on here with this game, but with still no release date in sight, we’ll have to wait.

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And then there are the omissions. Some games were announced quite early at the start of this generation, and they have yet to materialize. Sony’s own The Last Guardian is still MIA, though it’s understandable in the wake of its well-publicized production woes. Final Fantasy Versus XIII somehow got side-lined by Final Fantasy XIII-2, Final Fantasy XIV is still flying under the radar, and many are starting to wonder if The Agent is even still in production. Sony’s still got another year with the PS3 as the current console before they make their likely announcement at next year’s E3 about a PS4. I fully expect we’ll see far more in the way of “megaton” announcements and surprises then. For now, as with Microsoft, they’ve done what they need to in order to keep treading water into 2013.