Next-generation games are getting better, but they’re also getting more creative and surprising. That was my takeaway from the giant Electronic Entertainment Expo video game tradeshow last week in Los Angeles.
The show was thinner than in past years, as some publishers fall by the wayside in the transition from traditional publishing to digital publishing and others focus on fewer, more substantial titles for the next generation. In 2013, 210 exhibitors were at E3, compared to just 193 this year. But more people showed up in 2014, with more than 48,000 attending. This reflects a lot of turmoil in the game business, which is expanding into social, mobile, online, and new platforms. But even with all of that change, I had no trouble coming up with a list of high-quality games.
I started with more than 20, and then I whittled the list down painfully. I think this means that, whatever moaning we’ve heard about the death of triple-A games, that’s a load of bunk. I saw some outstanding games at E3, and most of them were blockbuster console efforts. Even the smaller indies that drew my attention will debut on machines like the PlayStation 4. So don’t worry, gamers. 2014 and 2015 are going to be pretty exciting years for great game experiences.
This list will be a little different from my votes as an E3 judge for the Game Critics Awards, but I didn’t care in my list if the game was shipping this year or it was not playable at E3. This is just a list of my favorites.
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive’s 2K Games Label
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release date: Oct. 21
The multiplayer-only Evolve pits four human hunter characters against a single monster in matches that lead to a lot of hooting and hollering. Other co-op games made the mistake of pitting four human players against an artificial intelligence character. But the maker of the Left 4 Dead games had an insight that a human-controlled monster would be much smarter.
The humans have tricks and technology for hunting, such as tracking cameras, drones, a smaller monster named Daisy who can sniff out bigger beasts, and a big trap that keeps the monster stuck in one area. Turtle Rock promises to keep releasing new kinds of monsters and hunters. The hunter classes include assault, medic, support, and trapper. They have to coordinate, preferably by voice chat, to corner the monster.
The landscape itself is a big factor in the gameplay. The monster can evolve by eating the creatures in the jungle, becoming stronger and more resistant to the human weapons. But if the monster scares birds while running, the hunters will seem them fly and zero in on its location. Evolve is like the perfect cat-and-mouse game, with beautiful next-generation graphics. My only beef with Evolve was that I saw the first demo weeks ago, and so it wasn’t a surprise at E3. But I have to acknowledge that it was the best that I saw at the show.
Developer: Creative Assembly
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Release date: Oct. 7
The original Alien and Aliens films were at their scariest when characters like Ripley were vulnerable and being hunted. Alien: Isolation takes those moments and builds a game around them. Ripley’s daughter stars in this survival-horror game set on a space station that has become infested with a xenomorph.
Isolation is a nice twist on the sci-fi genre. Ripley doesn’t have any high-tech weaponry. In the E3 demo, she starts unarmed and has to find tools to help her navigate through the devastated station. At one point, she picks up a crude motion detector, like the one in the film that is most useful for telling her that something is moving nearby. Most of the time, she has to scurry to find supplies and a way out. When an alien approaches, she has to hide inside steel cabinets. As the menace passes by, she even has to hold her breath so that it doesn’t hear. Other dangers are aboard, like rogue human survivors and androids. As Ripley, you spend your time on the run. It’s a tense and nerve-racking journey.
I hope that Alien: Isolation really lives up to this demo, because there have a lot of mediocre Alien games in the past. This one builds emotion and a real sense of fear. As a side note, I tried out a demo of this game on the Oculus Rift virtual reality platform. While the experience wasn’t as fun as it was on a PC in a darkened room, it was still a bit scary.
Developer: Ready At Dawn Studios
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Release date: Feb. 20
Sony hasn’t shown a lot of this, but everything I’ve seen so far shows that it could be the start of a great new franchise. The Order has great voice acting, realistic human faces, and fast first-person 3D action. The Victorian outfits and anachronistic weapons really embed you in another world. From the little I’ve seen, the game does a good job of taking you back to the look and feel of 1880s London, with its narrow streets. The art director is the same one behind the look of Dishonored, which also featured a London-esque setting.
You control Mallory, who fights in a squad of four knights who deal with both human and more monstrous enemies. The transition from cinematic videos to gameplay is seamless. The E3 demo featured a “thermite gun,” which sprays pellets of aluminum iron oxide above the heads of your enemies. Then you shoot a flare at the dispersed dust, and it ignites into a fireball. This flamethrower-like weapon can turn the tide against enemies who are shooting down at you from barricaded rooftops. But it also has some real mystery and a tangible sense of fear about what the four knights are up against.
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release date: 2015
Ubisoft has done a great job coming up with ambitious new games, and the next big one falls under the Tom Clancy brand. But the premise behind The Division is well thought-out, as it predicts that the apocalypse begins with bio-infected money that circulates on Black Friday. Society falls apart quickly, and the task of restoring order falls to sleeper cell agents whose job is to take back places like the fallen New York City.
The Division wasn’t playable on the show floor at E3, but Ubisoft released a beautiful trailer, and I saw the working game in a behind-closed-doors session. The new Snowdrop game engine takes full advantage of the next-generation consoles to render the ruined New York that comes after the plague. Your task is to scout different sections of the city and use your squad of agents to take them back. You can unlock supplies or transportation options with each victory, but you have to watch out for well-armed vigilantes and other survivors who are the agents of chaos. When you approach a group, you can attack them from different directions. You can go head on or use stealth. You also have to prepare for the likelihood that an extended firefight will draw in enemy reinforcements. The Division does a great job painting the apocalypse and making you feel like you are immersed in it.
Developer: Slegehammer Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Release date: Nov. 4
Last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts fell short for me. I didn’t like the single-player story, and I didn’t stick with the multiplayer combat for a long time. But the E3 demo for the latest in the multibillion-dollar Call of Duty series has a next-generation feel. You know that when you see a swarm of drones fly through the scene like a school of fish. The interweaving of cool cinematics and actual gameplay is seamless, and the developers squeeze a ton of action into a scene at the same time. This Call of Duty also has a Hollywood screenwriter penning its story and solid acting from the likes of Kevin Spacey. Sledgehammer games put three years of work into this title, and it shows. There are cool new weapons like a tossed sensor that can map out the locations of enemies in your surroundings.
The game setting has taken the full leap into sci-fi, as it is set in the year 2054 when cool tech is plentiful. Soldiers have exoskeleton armor and they can leap to the top of two-story buildings. Private military corporations have become powerful enough to challenge governments, and that gives Spacey, the head of one of those corporations, the leeway to be a great villain. It looks like Sledgehammer is going to deliver something fresh, and that’s not easy for a franchise that comes out every single year.
Publishers: Deep Silver and Crytek
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux
Release date: 2015
Crytek found a gem when it acquired the Homefront property in the bankruptcy proceedings of THQ. It assigned its team in London to make the game into a next-generation CryEngine title. The original Homefront from 2011 depicted a war in which the North Koreans conquered the U.S. This new first-person shooter is set in Philadelphia in 2029, four years after the invasion. The North Koreans rule with high-tech surveillance and a full military occupation. Crytek’s demo showed that a new American revolution is in the works, as guerrilla fighters try to stir a rebellion. Crytek is trying hard to make the City of Brotherly Love look both beautiful and rundown, reflecting society in a state of decay. The gameplay features American guerrillas led by “lone dude” Ethan Brady, using subterfuge and stealth to get around enemy defenses and bring down the enemies. This game has a next-generation look and a big ambition to it. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Release date: Oct. 7
EA’s BioWare division has steadily become more ambitious with its Dragon Age dark fantasy series that first debuted in 2009. With Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare is going all out to make the third installment into the equivalent of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The world is bigger, the graphics look great, and the story and characters look pretty intense. During the demo, I closed my eyes and listened to a cellist. It made me feel like I was listening to the pulse-pounding music of Halo.
The storyline is scripted, and the voice acting is excellent. But you can explore a large world as you move from mission to mission. The graphics have been upgraded for the next-generation consoles. That’s evident in the big dragon battle that EA showed during its demo. This series may have started in less ambitious times. But it certainly seems like EA is leveling up this franchise so that it can be a contender with titles like Skyrim, which won multiple Game of the Year honors. I like what I’ve seen so far.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Platform: Wii U
Release date: Q1 2015
You’re a squid and you squirt ink. You squirt so much of it out of your gun that you can paint the entire landscape. That’s a fun mechanic. But it’s even more fun because there are a bunch of other people who are spraying different colors of ink, trying to cover up your paint and cast the world in their colors. Splatoon is a goofy entry in the ink-splatter genre that reminds us of The Unfinished Swan and De Blob from years past.
The action gets pretty wild when four players take on four others in multiplayer. You have to swim down in the ink in order to replenish your ink gun. But you can also hide under the surface and ambush other players. If you blast them with ink, you knock them out and cause them to respawn. You can respawn on your friends, but it’s best to go where there are no other players so you can paint the town in your own color. This game made me laugh and shout, much like with Evolve. But I could see myself playing this game with a room full of kids and adults. Based on the hints we got from Nintendo, we’ll see more modes in the future and probably a single-player game, too.
9. No Man’s Sky
Publisher: Hello Games
Developer: Hello Games
Platforms: PS4, TBA
Release date: TBA
No Man’s Sky is a sci-fi title that seems like an intriguing experiment. It has a procedurally generated open universe. You can explore a planet’s environments or move into deep space. You can fly endlessly toward the horizon on land or explore the depths of the ocean underwater. You’ll see creatures like dinosaurs and strange, colorful flora along the way. The music adds to the sense of wonder about exploring a land with alien sounds and ambient life all over the place. When you find a new species, you are rewarded for your discovery. But there’s also space combat, too, as you soar in a fighter into an asteroid belt and an armada of enemy ships to fight. Players start with an uncharted universe and uncover new planets. You collect things and upgrade your ship. It’s a surprising accomplishment for a team of just four people that previously made Joe Danger.
You could usually tell in past games when procedural art was being used. Things like Spore made use of it, but it seemed a little soul-less or out of place. In this game, the difference is that the procedural art makes your eyes open wider. We’re glad to see such creativity coming from an indie studio.
10. Guns Up!
Developer: Valkyrie Entertainment
Platform: PS4, PS3, PlayStation Vita
Release date: TBA
Guns Up! is a free-to-play strategy game that looks simple at a glance. But it has some pretty side-scrolling graphics and interesting gameplay.
You fight your way from one end of a map to the other, using troops that you earn by scoring small victories on the battlefield. You spend points on soldiers such as snipers, flamethrowers, or rifle squads. They start moving automatically toward the enemy lines. The enemies have machine gun emplacements, mortars, bunkers and other defenses that make it tough. So you have to guide snipers to the right targets, and keep purchasing new soldiers as the initial troops are mowed down. It all happens in real time, with sounds of battle and explosions making the time pressure more urgent. The design of the game is both clever and easy to learn. Based on seeing a single level, I have high hopes, and I’m glad to see another indie taking the last slot on my list.
The choices were tough this year. I even had some trouble coming up with my runners-up. But here they are: Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Civilization: Beyond Earth, War Thunder, World of Warships, Rainbow Six: Siege, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, The Sims 4, Battlefield Hardline, Dying Light, and Lucky’s Tale.
Please vote for your own favorites in our poll and explain your vote in the comments.