The sharp tang of nerd sweat is slowly fading from the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Centre, but the end of E3 really just means the beginning of the 2014 gaming season. Unlike many past E3s, there were a LOT of known quantities going into 2014, a side-effect of longer development times and many delayed releases. That doesn’t mean there were no surprises, and it’s those unexpected titles that still managed to stand apart from the crowd at this year’s latest Electronic Entertainment Expo.
This is the title that is going to firmly divide a lot of gamers down the line of taste and preferences. Gearbox’s ill-fated Aliens: Colonial Marines tried to be everything to all gamers; an Aliens recreation, a twitchy first person shooter, and a unique competitive multiplayer experience. It failed at its first two ambitions, and just barely rose to the occasion for its third. Alien: Isolation is an entirely different beast, and the keyword here really is “beast” singular. It’s still a first person perspective experience, but now it’s a survival horror game. This means little in the way of weapons, and a profound sense of danger and helplessness. As Amanda Ripley, daughter of the famous Ellen Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver, you negotiate the devastated trading station of Sevastopol, playing a game of cat and mouse against a single, lethal alien as portrayed in the original 1979 film. There’s no running and gunning here, no power fantasies of big guns and bigger explosions. Instead, players must hide and evade, trying to stay one step ahead of a nearly unstoppable predator that has its own lethal artificial intelligence. This alien doesn’t follow any set, repeating patrol paths, and actively hunts by sound or any other disturbance.
This didn’t sit well with some players who prefer a straight up gun fight, but for those that miss the days when the alien was a thing to be feared, instead of just insectile cannon fodder, it was a breath of fresh air. It remains to be seen whether running and hiding can be sustained for the length of a full game, but Creative Assembly has nailed the atmosphere and authenticity of the first Alien film perfectly. There are still other surprises waiting in the wings, like other human survivors on the station as well as the expected not-very-cooperative androids running about.
BioWare is kind’a, sort’a going open world with the latest Dragon Age game, and that means one thing for E3; no chance to actually play it whatsoever. However, that also means a 36 minute, strictly hands off demonstration by none other than Mark Darrah, the executive producer on the game. In the lengthy demo, Darrah showed off a lot of the key features for the Dragon Age: Inquisition, including the introduction of mounts, the vast and richly detailed environments, and the combat. There was more of an emphasis on console friendly, real-time combat, with the player having the ability to jump from one character to another at the touch of a button, but strategic combat was given a tip of the hat so as not to alarm tacticians. It’s there, it’s just obviously not as sexy to look at as the more visceral real time controls with meaty axe hits and powerful spells exploding everywhere.
This was also the first time BioWare unveiled a bit of a surprise for hardcore DA fans; the main character created for the purposes of the demo was a female Qunari mage. In real world terms, this is similar to finding out your roommate is actually Sasquatch; there were rumors, of course, but you never thought you’d actually run into one. The game is looking quite impressive visually, although it still doesn’t have the insane realism of The Order: 1886. The important thing is it’s a literal huge step up from the size and scale of Dragon Age II. The one thing BioWare was painfully aware of going into this year’s E3 was the disappointment of fans with the previous game. They had to prove they’d learned from past failures, and while a 36 minute demo is not a definitive statement of lessons taken to heart, at the very least, it’s a reassuring hint that things really will be different this October. It feels more Origins and less DAII, and that’s what fans are hoping for.
I’ve saved the best for last. This is, bar none, the biggest and most pleasant surprise of E3 2014. The most fun, unexpected, original competitive multiplayer shooter of E3 is… a Wii U exclusive. My head still reels every time I consider that. Splatoon is the definition of a “didn’t see that one coming” game. Players control a cartoony squid that transforms into a human armed with a super soaker rifle filled with paint. Two teams are unleashed on a sizable level with the goal of literally painting the floor. The team that paints the most floor by the end of the round wins. This is one of those concepts that falls in the classic easy-to-learn-difficult-to-master category that the best games exemplify. Painting the floor allows players to move at normal speed while human, and move extremely fast when transformed into a squid. Walking over opposing color paint slows players down to a crawl, so there’s an element of strategy and tactics to the painting.
It’s this unexpected presence of strategy that wends its way through all the seemingly comical features of the game. Running out of paint requires refilling by simply sinking into any piece of floor painted in team colors, but this also has stealth options, allowing players to hide in the paint and ambush others when they go walking by. Shooting paint from a rifle is just as obvious as shooting tracer fire in a normal combat game, so whenever that rifle is fired, observant players will immediately know the source. Finally, the squid form, rather than just being odd and funny is all about speed and mobility, with the best players quickly taking advantage of both forms play intelligently and aggressively.
There’s an enormous amount of depth and a surprising amount of fun in Splatoon. It’s a must own title for shooter fans looking for something enjoyable, tactical and different. But you’re going to have to get a Wii U for this gem. To be honest though, even at this early stage, it looks exciting enough to justify it. The Wii U just got its first non-Mario related killer app.