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Sticking the landing at E3: Good games vs good gamesmanship

E3 2015

Now that the industry marketing supertanker that is E3 has cruised past for this year, gamers are left bobbing up and down in the massive wake of hype and excited expectations for the coming year or two (or eight, in the case of The Last Guardian). And said hype ship has left behind much to be excited about. Now that the waves have settled, we have a chance to take a good look at what publishers and developers showed off, and try to figure out what was actually good and what was just good showmanship.

As I’m something of a believer in games as an art form, I’d like to think that game developers (and maybe publishers) are striving for something more evergreen than just pushing out a short lived hit of the week. Very few games worth showcasing at E3 turn out genuinely bad – if they are, it can end a developer – but a great many are disposable: played for a few weeks, set aside in a month, and forgotten by the next E3 until it’s inevitable sequel is announced. What separates them certainly isn’t polish – the games industry is better at sanding the rough edges off of a game than ever before – and it’s rarely a simple failure to make the game, y’know, good.

E3 2015So when it comes to which games came out best at E3 2015, the big difference, for my money, is sticking the landing.

What I mean by “sticking the landing” is something very simple: having a cohesive concept and story (if the game has one). Even at this early stage, you can get a feel for which games have been completely thought through from front-to-back, and which are a Frankenstein’s monster of mechanics, aesthetics, and a story developed in isolation that was then roughly sewn together with fishing line. E3 presentations might not reveal it all, but the bad stitching still usually shows through.

Competent mechanics and polished gameplay aren’t  really that much of a problem for AAA games 99.5% of the time. What trips everyone up is stuff like an uninspired story, disjointed mechanics, vestigial play modes, and/or cookie-cutter design. Not respecting the genre, source material, or the players enough to pay off the promises a game makes is also a killer.

If you successfully nail those things you can get away with some pretty big flaws (does anyone really care that Fallout: New Vegas is still a bug-ridden mess?), but dropping the ball on any one of them can lead to a game that hits its numbers, but is about as exciting to the average gamer as said sales figures – it’s great for the accountants and executives, but boring and forgettable to everyone else.

With so many games on the way over the next two years, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we strive for a little more bang for our gaming buck, no? And if developers want to convince us where to put our money, E3’s not a bad place to start doing it.

E3 2015Fortunately enough, E3 2015 has provided some primo examples of games that appear to have nailed said landing – two examples both came from Bethesda. Doom and Fallout 4 carried the swagger of games that knew exactly what it wanted to do and how it wanted to do it. The developers at id and Bethesda know they pulled it off, and it showed.

Although they look very good, the mechanics and aesthetics of Fallout 4 aren’t exactly groundbreaking (impressive gear and town customization aside). Thankfully, Bethesda has proven that they understand the pacing and world of Fallout from front to back, and so there’s very little worry that they’ve somehow dropped the ball there, at least at the conceptual level.

Bethesda knows the Fallout audience. It proved that with a presentation that highlighted a new world to explore, but it’s one that firmly belongs in the now re-established Fallout world, building off the impressive rebirth (of sorts) of the series that began with Fallout 3. This gave Bethesda the freedom to spend its E3 time focusing on what’s new, including the aforementioned gear customization and town building mechanics, and giving us just a taste of this new corner of the Fallout universe.

E3 2015Bethesda didn’t need to sell Fallout 4, it just needed to remind us why it is already great and let us know why the series is in good hands.

Doom is the far more interesting example here. After Doom 3, Quake 4, and Rage, id Software seemed to kind of lose their footing a bit – the games remained technical triumphs, but the gameplay and feel never really meshed. That, combined with the departure of id Software co-founders like John Carmack, left serious doubt as to whether or not id Software could pull off another truly great game.

It seems like all id needed was a return to its roots, because Doom looked, well, like Doom: fast-paced, with crazy guns, freaky demon baddies, and buckets and buckets of gore.

E3 2015The original Doom was ground-breaking for both subject matter and mechanics, and watching that trailer gave all sorts of hints that id Software has found their way back thanks in part to the new ownership from Bethesda. The ultra-violence and speed that Doom’s Marine moved around the levels was obvious enough, but there’s one particular thing that’s worth highlighting: the complete lack of hitscan enemy attacks.

One of the primary mechanics of the original Doom was that most attacks, with the exception of weaker enemies like the Undead Soldiers and Sergeants, were not instantaneous and could therefore be dodged. This encouraged players to learn how to use their rapid pace and the open level design to their advantage, as well as adding another degree of difficulty when space got tight. A skilled Doom player could make it through even the most intense firefights without even taking a point of damage, simply because they knew how to move.

The new Doom seems to have remembered that. Doom 3 was a great game, but it forced you into confined hallways, partly to build up the horror aspect. It was great, but it wasn’t what Doom was built on.

Multiplayer has also come back to the old school, with modes and mechanics looking like they were ported straight out of Quake. Bringing those mechanics back into the new Doom is a very good sign that id Software has the mechanics, design, and most importantly the feel of Doom figured out, bringing it all together into that elusive cohesive whole.

And it’s that final degree of attention to detail that can really elevate a game, be it either aesthetically driven as with Fallout 4, or mechanically like with Doom. No game featured by a major publisher or platform at E3 is going to be incompetently made, true, but so many of them simply look like yet another Modern Military Shooter or Generic Open-World Violence Simulator.

E3 2015There were others that stuck the landing and proved they had a clear vision – Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Uncharted 4 (technical bugs in the demo aside), and more for example. The common thread, I think, is that each of these games seems to be made by a team that at least gave some priority to a vision of the game as a finished product.

If developers and publishers really want to have a demonstration that will set your game apart from the torrent of trailers and debuts coming out of E3 every year, don’t focus on how your game isn’t terrible – show us that you know what you want to say and that you damn well know how to say it.

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As a writer covering the video gaming and automotive industry, Kasey Kagawa has reported on events ranging from E3 to the Concours de Elegance. Why people trusted him to do this mystifies him to this day.
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