At its worst, E3 is like a restaurant where the chef makes you watch a video of the meal he intends to make and then asks you to come back next year when it’s ready. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the chef will prepare a sample of the food and then let you watch him eat it, so you can observe how delicious it is.
At its best, E3 is a restaurant where they take the food away after only a few bites. Still, at least you’re eating.
That’s why I’ve been turning down all of E3’s theater demos and developer-led presentations—those ubiquitous, aspirational commercials for the games that designers hope they are making. Instead, I’m spending time only with video games that someone will let me put my hands on (or, these days, my head inside).
To be fair, not all games show well in short demonstrations. Some require more time to grok the mechanics or to become familiar with the systems or to become drawn in by the characters and the story.
But at the same time, a good game usually reveals itself quickly, like a novel with a crackling first sentence.
Here’s what I played Tuesday that I’m looking forward to playing again:
1. No Man’s Sky. Bigger is not always better in video games, but the idea of exploring planet-size planets in what is practically a universe-size universe is so ambitious that I don’t mind that it’s still not clear to me what we’re going to do in this game once we stop marveling at its audacity. For the record, right now you don’t get rewards for killing the animals in the game, because Hello Games founder Sean Murray is, in the words of a member of his own team, “a hippie.” (“We will probably have to put it in, but it will be a sad day,” Murray said.)
2. King’s Quest. Framed as a series of stories that a grandfather is telling to his granddaughter, the new King’s Quest looks like a beautifully animated Don Bluth video game like Dragon’s Lair, except you can actually play it. This is the game I wanted to take home with me to play with my soon-to-be 5-year-old daughter.
3. The Banner Saga 2. It’s more of The Banner Saga, and I’m in favor of that. Still gorgeous, still somber, still Vikingish turn-based tactical battles that remind me of the galactic chess in Star Wars.
4. The Assembly. This game from nDreams aims to be a launch title on three virtual-reality platforms: the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s Project Morpheus. The “Assembly” of the title is a mysterious, scientific organization beneath the Nevada desert that thinks there should be no limits placed on the pursuit of knowledge. As the game began, I found myself barefoot, in a blue dress, being wheeled into the group’s desert compound. In the second level, I played as the game’s other main character, a male scientist who answered phones and looked at microscopes. (No, really, in VR this is interesting!) The first-person exploration was one part disorienting, two parts transfixing.
5. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. In order to spend 50 minutes with this game, I signed a non-disclosure agreement that, among other things, prohibits me from divulging “any and all story elements, plots ... and any details around any of the cut-scenes.” Nor am I allowed to mention “any details on any mission details.” Here’s what I can say: It was pretty good.
6. Transformers: Devastation. Would I like this brawler from Platinum Games if it didn’t have the characters and voice cast from the 1980s cartoon? Probably not. But hey, style matters, and so does nostalgia. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Grimlock do battle with the Constructicons? Energon cubes? I’m in.
Today I’m playing games from Microsoft, Nintendo, Oculus, Sony and more, including at least six opportunities to don a head-mounted display. Pinkeye may be the new E3 flu.