At the E3 convention in Los Angeles last week I got to see a lot of what the video game industry has to offer in the coming year. Hands down, the best technology I saw at the show came from Microsoft in the form of Project Natal, the company’s motion-sensing system which detects your body movements and relegates the handheld controller to the dust bin. But since that system isn’t part of a game yet, I can’t give it an award as the best new game.
In my view, the following are my picks for the best games shown at the event. These are the games that left me with my jaw hanging open. They’re titles that I want to play as well as some that I think will be blockbusters (regardless of whether they’re debuting in 2009 or 2010). I’m limiting my choices to games where I saw some actual game play, and I haven’t included the “top sleeper” or the “top kids games” because those lists are coming later. Feel free to challenge my list with opinions of your own. I’ve put the games in order, starting with the best.
1. Alan Wake (developer: Remedy Entertainment, publisher: Microsoft, platform: Xbox 360). This game is a “psychological action thriller” with an intriguing plot. It revolves around Alan Wake, a bestselling writer who’s had writer’s block for two years. He visits the idyllic Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls with his wife, only to find that she has vanished. Wake is now stuck in a nightmare because his latest work, a thriller that he can’t remember writing, is coming true word by word in front of his eyes. The work is inspired by creepy Stephen King novels such as Insomnia and the TV show Twin Peaks. That all sounds nice, but I enjoyed the execution of the idea. The game is paced like a horror movie, revealing things slowly. Wake finds that during the night, evil spirits possess the dead and living objects. Anything in the living environment, from a bulldozer to a tree, can become your deadly enemy once it is animated with evil. The resulting physics effects are quite cool, including what happens when the player summons a tornado. The only thing that holds the evil beings back is light. That forces the gamer to be on a constant hunt for flares and flashlight batteries, or for a well-lit haven. It’s quite satisfying to turn the tables on those nightmarish creatures when you shine a light on them with your light beams. The combination of clever plot, satisfying action, spooky sound, and horror-movie pacing could make this into a truly riveting game. The game debuts in the spring of 2010.
2. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (developer: Naughty Dog, publisher: Sony, platform: PlayStation 3). Here’s a rare sequel that might just be as good as or better than the original game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, which debuted in 2007 as a kind of male version of Tomb Raider. Naughty Dog showed off a scene from the game that starts atop a building with sweeping views of an entire city, showing off the graphics power of the PlayStation 3. Then Nathan Drake and his female companion have to start jumping and running for their lives as a helicopter gunship pursues them, cannons blaring. The duo then has to take out a bunch of thugs who hide behind obstacles, all the while trying to escape the helicopter. This was probably the most spellbinding scene at the show. If the game can live up to that one scene, Sony has a winner on its hands that could spread beyond the 2.6 million gamers who bought the first one. It debuts this fall.
3. BioShock 2 (2K Marin, Digital Extremes, publisher: Take-Two Interactive, platforms: PS 3, PC, Xbox 360). The original BioShock was one of the most delightfully original and terrifying horror-shooter games of 2007. I can’t tell you how much fun I had playing that game from beginning to end. The sequel returns 10 years after the events of the first game to the underwater city of Rapture, an art deco-style utopia that has been torn apart by a civil war. Now the player suits up as a powerful Big Daddy, a massive armored soldier armed with a rivet gun and a giant drill. The first game had an intricate plot, and this one promises more story-based first-person shooter combat. You have to figure out why “little sister” girls are being snatched around the world, and you have to deal with a new kind of villain, dubbed the Big Sister. Multiplayer online gaming is being developed separately by Digital Extremes. The original game had no online component, but this part of the game actually takes place in a different time in the storyline, before the fall of Rapture. Just as in the single-player game, you have endless options for arming yourself with different kinds of weapons and powers. This is a sequel, but I dare say it’s going to be a lot more original than some “original” titles. The game debuts Oct. 30.
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (developer: Infinity Ward, publisher: Activision Blizzard, platforms: Xbox 360, PS 3, PC). Infinity Ward rocked the first-person shooter market when it came out with the riveting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game in 2007. Now it’s back with different world crises but the same intense combat that has become the trademark of the series. You play the role of a special forces commando with a mission to take down terrorists in a variety of hot spots. One of the places you go is an icy mountain in Russia, where you have to scale a cliff with ice picks and then take out guards with a silencer. At some point, all hell breaks loose and you have to hijack a snowmobile and take out fleeing bad guys. Nobody creates intense and memorable fighting moments like Infinity Ward. It debuts in holiday 2009.
5. Avatar (developer: Ubisoft, publisher: Ubisoft, platforms: multiple, TBA). James Cameron’s sci-fi movie Avatar has been 14 years in the making. Cameron talked about the plot of the film for the first time at E3. The game is set on a distant world called Pandora where humans, compelled by a ravenous transtellar corporation, are pillaging a rainforest planet for its natural resources. They’re opposed by fantastic creatures who are 10-feet-tall and have blue skin. They have all of the help of various creatures from the rainforest, from hammerhead rhinos to flying dragons. I saw the game in a dark theater with 3-D glasses, viewing it on a 103-inch Panasonic plasma TV. The world of Pandora is gorgeous, with a night sky that shows of the lights, or biolumescence, in all living creatures. Since humans can’t breathe the air of Pandora, they developed a hybrid, or Avatar, that mixes human and alien DNA. Ubisoft isn’t duplicating the movie; rather, it is creating new plots for the game that pit the humans, hybrids, and indigenous natives against each other. You can play either the high-tech armed humans or the creatures who have the home turf advantage. The art direction is beautiful in this game. In some vistas, you can see the scenery of the lush landscape for miles. The game will answer which is more badass: guns or beasts.
6. MAG, or Massive Action Game (developer: Zipper Interactive, publisher: Sony, platform: PlayStation 3). Sony showed a snippet of video for this game a year ago. But this year it demonstrated the full online play for this title, which allows an unprecedented 256 players to fight in a fast-action first-person shooter game in the same battle. Most other games can accommodate only 64 or 32 players. With so many soldiers in the same modern combat style fight, commanders can organize the fray, dividing teams into eight-player squads. Teamwork is required to advance from goal to goal, such as taking out an antiaircraft battery so that you can launch air strikes on bunkers and fly fresh troops into the forward area of a battleground. The graphics are good, but it remains to be seen as to whether Zipper can truly craft the massive maps that will keep gamers coming back for battle after battle. And the 256 players will be a true test of whether Sony’s PlayStation Network is built to handle the network traffic that would clog other games. It debuts this fall.
7. Assassin’s Creed II (developer: Ubisoft Montreal, publisher: Ubisoft, platform: Xbox 360, PS 3). This stealth-oriented title was one of the most successful original games in 2007. Now it’s back, with a new lead character in a new time. The previous game was set in the Crusades. But this one is set in the Renaissance, in the time of Leonardo and the Medici. You play a nobleman-turned-assassin, Ezio Auditore di Firenze. The game features outstanding art direction that really makes you feel like you’re amidst the canals of Venice or the streets of Rome. The assassin is armed with knives that pop out of his sleeves, but you can also disarm foes and use their weapons against them. The object remains to sneak undetected through a crowd, pounce on your victim, and then make your escape. This game just has some of the highest production values I’ve seen. It debuts this fall.
8. The Beatles Rock Band (developer: Harmonix, publisher: MTV Games, platforms: Xbox 360, PS 3, Wii). It’s high time music games gave fans access to the fabulous library of the Fab Four. In this game, you play faux instruments such as guitars and drums to bring The Beatles music to life. The game includes cool animations of John, Paul, Ringo and George as they climb the charts in rock history. In contrast to other Rock Band versions, this game tells a story as The Beatles rise to new challenges and lose themselves in psychedelic imagery. The music is straight from the masters in the archives and is produced in cooperation with The Beatles and Apple Corps. It will be interesting if this one sells. Certainly older gamers are likely to flock to it, but the younger gamers who have been the main purchasers of music games may not like songs from a generation ago. It debuts Sept. 9.
9. Scribblenauts (developer: 5th Cell, publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, platform: Nintendo DS). This was perhaps the simplest of games with the most creativity. The game presents you with a scene where you have to solve a problem. You write letters into boxes, spelling out a word that you think could be used to solved the problem. If you have to clear a path through an obstacle, you can write the word “shovel.” A shovel appears in the picture and then you can use it to dig your way through. Matt Cox, the lead designer, says the team has come up with tens of thousands of words that can be visualized in this way. It debuts this fall.
10. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction (developer: Ubisoft, publisher: Ubisoft, platform: Xbox 360, PS 3). This is the fifth installment in the Splinter Cell franchise, where the object is to sneak around and pull off stealth missions. But this game has a lot of soul and madness in it, as agent Sam Fisher goes off the reservation to find his daughter’s killer. Fisher is truly frightening as he interrogates bad guys by smashing their faces into toilets and walls. This game looks far different than the previous version shown a couple of years ago, when Fisher’s main mission was to stay hidden. Now he’s almost like a madman intent on taking down enemies in as ruthless a way as he can. The real experiment in the game is a command dubbed “mark and execute,” where you choose who Fisher will take out in a given firefight and then you watch the action unfold. It will be released in the fall.
There were a lot more great games at E3. I’d also give honorable mentions to God of War III, Brutal Legend, Ruse, Dante’s Inferno, Mass Effect 2, Darksiders, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Supreme Commander 2, Wii Fit Plus, Wii Sports Resort, Heroes of Telara and Halo ODST. They were all contenders in my mind.
The pattern I’m seeing is that blockbuster games with giant budgets still dominate the video game industry. Ubisoft is clearly hitting some out of the park. But Scribblenauts is just one example of how a tiny indie developer, in this case 5th Cell in Seattle, can come up with a creative title that makes it all seem so easy to do. And it looks to me like Sony’s PS 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 are poised to make gains on Nintendo, which had a surprising lack of creativity among the series of sequels that it showed at E3. I wouldn’t predict that Sony and Microsoft are going to turn the tables on Nintendo. But it’s time for Mario to look over his shoulder and for Nintendo to return to the creativity that has served it so well over the years.