For the second year in a row, the pandemic thwarted plans for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game trade show colloquially known as E3, to stage its annual event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This year’s four-day, online-only gala was low on video game razzmatazz. At least it was until Nintendo brought the charm with its “WarioWare” party game and a preview of its sequel to “The Legend of Zelda” masterpiece, “Breath of the Wild.”
The follow-up to the “Zelda” franchise‘s 2017 entry will hit sometime in 2022. A brief clip showed a simmering fire around a floating castle rising into the sky. We didn’t learn much, just that hero, Link, will have some new abilities (the power to ghost his way through solid objects), and the game will largely take place in a kingdom in the air.
Nintendo’s showcase capped six days of online video game events, many of them dedicated for a conference whose prominence had been questioned even before the pandemic. Sony and other large players have pulled out in recent years. Others, such as Electronic Arts, now host their own video game expos.
And E3 didn’t exactly exert its dominance. The event was overshadowed by a similar extravaganza dubbed the Summer Game Fest, an offshoot of December’s the Game Awards.
Sony was again MIA from E3, instead spending the week promoting its hot new game in the “Ratchet & Clank” franchise. Other large studios, such as Warner Bros. Interactive, kept their most buzzed-about games under wraps. Although Square Enix pulled back the curtain on its “Guardians of the Galaxy” game and Ubisoft made a valiant effort to revive the “Avatar” franchise, E3 didn’t have the content to justify four days of online programming.
Thankfully, Nintendo gave us everyone’s favorite Mario nemesis: Wario.
Nintendo clearly would rather focus attention on its latest entry to the “Metroid” brand, but the collection of wacky mini-games “WarioWare: Get It Together!” strikes me as the perfect late-pandemic title to release.
That is, it’s a party game full of ridiculous and brief two-player challenges — clips appear to show players brushing teeth, trimming armpit hair — that are perfect for controller passing and equally enjoyable to watch. The game isn’t due until Sept. 10, but I’m already looking forward to my vaccinated-only “WarioWare” house party.
Seeing Wario fumble his way through odd challenges was the highlight of my week viewing online events. Here’s what else stood out from E3 and the Summer Game Fest.
‘Elden Ring’ and the burden of anticipation
“Elden Ring,” a FromSoftware game that features contributions from “Game of Thrones” author/Meow Wolf funder George R.R. Martin, was unveiled at E3 back in 2019 and has been something of a mystery since.
Expectations are high in the interactive world because “Elden Ring” is also the latest from famed designer Hidetaka Miyazaki, the mastermind behind the “Dark Souls” series. His games are punishingly difficult, and depending on your point of view he’s a “player’s designer” who emphasizes difficulty and rewards those who crave a challenge. Or he’s simply a masochist.
We still don’t know much about “Elden Ring” beyond the announcement of its Jan. 21, 2022, release date, although there are horses and lots of dark, medieval fantasy imagery. In other words, it looks a bit like the “Dark Souls” series but with horses. No matter, as FromSoftware has a style and runs with it. What else? We’re told there will be “grassy plains, suffocating swamps and lush forests,” as well as mountains and castles, but these words can describe hundreds of video games.
In addition, the game is said to emphasize role-playing elements and will accommodate multiple play styles. Don’t expect something easier than “Dark Souls,” but perhaps something that will offer more player choice.
By keeping such a tight lid, “Elden Ring” has succeeded in becoming a darling of two E3s now. But making a lot of noise at E3 is also a fast track to unreal expectations (see “Anthem,” “Cyberpunk 2077").
The existential crisis of ‘Halo’
“Halo Infinite,” once destined to launch with the Xbox Series X/S last year, has been delayed until this holiday season, a postponement that occurred after fans reacted poorly to what was perceived as last-gen graphics. I found them stylized rather than outdated, but an online outcry was initiated and now “Halo Infinite” has reemerged at E3 with a sharper, slightly more realistic art style.
What hooked me, however, was the brief look at the single-player campaign, which wasn’t based on action but the ongoing existential crisis of the game’s hero, Master Chief, the stern-voiced, technologically enhanced super soldier star of the series. The lore of the game can be a bit complex for the uninitiated, a tale of multiple, competing intergalactic forces and creatures, plus mysterious devices. But in recent years Microsoft’s 343 Industries team has zeroed in on Chief’s somewhat odd, borderline love affair with his AI companion, Cortana.
It isn’t “Her,” of course, as this is still an action-shooter, but there’s a lot to unpack.
That looks to continue with “Halo Infinite,” which picks up the story with Cortana having gone rogue and Chief trying to form a new relationship with another AI, also fronting, of course, as an attractive woman. Microsoft tells us that this AI character is known as “The Weapon,” which seems to foreshadow something not great. While 343 Industries keeps putting various guns in Chief’s hands, I just want him to see a shrink.
The best thing to happen in gaming this past week was not a teaser
Sony’s first major PlayStation 5 exclusive, “Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart,” is an absolute joy, continuing the series’ genre mash-ups but with more stylized animation and the tone of a zany, weekend-morning series.
There’s so much on screen in the opening hours of the game — we slide on rails, run and jump through sci-fi cities with oppressive nightclubs, or blast away at enemy robots and the authoritarian followers of Emperor Nefarious — that my eyes needed to adjust to the brightness, the fullness and the general sense of life present in the game.
I restarted “Ratchet & Clank” multiple times, not wanting to miss anything on a screen jammed with color and action. The game is also livened by the welcoming new character of Rivet, an alternate-dimension foil to Ratchet. Rivet’s very presence adds nuance to the series.
We see Ratchet’s confidence and jokes placed in contrast with her skepticism and optimism, the latter a trait she somewhat mistrusts. The jokes are corny, the action is wild and the nods to contemporary corporate life give it plenty for grownups to think about.
It’s the best animated film I’ve played — or seen — in 2021.
Let’s give the Game Awards its due
Overlooked often in stories about how televised award shows are losing viewers is the online success of Geoff Keighley’s the Game Awards, held yearly in December and in non-pandemic times broadcast from L.A. Live. The show in 2020 garnered 83 million live streams, and while viewers and streams isn’t a 1:1 — and the Game Awards also has the benefit of being readily accessible across multiple online platforms — there are lessons from Keighley‘s growing empire, which included this year’s online Summer Game Fest.
Summer Game Fest has become an extension in some ways of the Game Awards, albeit one that highlights even more games. Kudos to Keighley for including the independent-focused Day of the Devs event, a showcase from Echo Park’s art gallery iam8bit and game studio Double Fine Presents of some of the most adventurous projects in development. Day of the Devs was my introduction to “Musical Story,” a game from tiny French studio Glee-Cheese about how we communicate through song. I can’t wait to play it.
But the core difference between Keighley’s productions and award shows such as the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys is that the latter crop often feel like we’re watching a party we weren’t invited to. Keighley shifts the focus from what’s past to what’s next, giving us peeks at the production of some honored games but mostly just trying to celebrate what’s to come.
In turn, the award show becomes a bonding experience, one where viewers can celebrate what they connected over while making a shopping list for what’s to come. It’s a love letter to the medium rather than to celebrities.
Lastly, can we never do this again?
Lots of hard work went into pulling off nearly a week of video game trailers of hype. Combined, the Summer Games Fest and E3 offered hours of looks ahead and conversation starting points. But through no fault of their own, all of this, in 2021 as the pandemic continues to improve and the world opens, felt more than a little forced. Although Summer Games Fest was relatively focused and lively, with Keighley constantly telling fans when to temper their expectations and when to raise them, the virtual form of E3 had less purpose.
Maybe it’s just a year and a half of the pandemic talking, but six hours of daily YouTube watching is far more exhausting than 18-hour days spent running around downtown Los Angeles at a convention. Combine a lack of face-to-face, in-person conversation, as well as the inability to play a game, and the message is one of bland promotion. Besides, there’s only so much one can glean from a trailer. A week of empty calories has made me less excited to play these massive games than even the most stressful day at E3.
So, while a combined Microsoft/Bethesda showcase had enough new games, including “Halo Infinite” and Bethesda’s upcoming sci-fi game “Starfield,” and yes, Ubisoft’s “Avatar"-inspired game looks beautiful, most of the online showcases were flat, lacking in revelations or tension.
Worse, many of the between-panel convos were puff pieces with online creators or puzzling contributions from the likes of Rolling Stone, in which broadcasters tried to construct an imaginary video game soundtrack. There was a well-intentioned but poorly executed panel on diversity, a topic E3 would be wise to continue to explore, but with a bit more seriousness than a Zoom-like presentation.
Often, E3 was best on mute, especially the painful infomercials from Verizon and software/hardware manufacturer Razer. So if for some reason our pandemic world takes a turn for the worse — and let us hope it does not — E3, let’s just take next summer off.
Otherwise, see you at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 2022.
The annual E3 conference has gone virtual for a second year in a row, but its streamed presentations and trailers can still energize gamers.