Endless attention and accolades were directed at the big first-person shooter third acts during the 2011 E3 video game expo last week. Games like Gears of War 3 on Xbox 360, Resistance 3 on Playstation 3, and cross-platform powerhouses Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 are slam dunks due to the continuation of a formula that’s been established and proven successful in their prior acts. Even Uncharted: Drake’s Deception, though a third-person shooter, is also following the same path to guaranteed riches.
Other franchises, however, are looking for new life via reinvention rather than regurgitation. Whether by returning to their roots or taking a hard left into new territory, each upcoming game stood out during my E3 demo rounds and each is more than worth keeping tabs on until they eventually arrive in stores.
The original BioShock introduced the underwater world of Rapture and its sequel, BioShock 2, expanded upon the city’s twisted mythology. Rather than complete a loosely tied trilogy with one last trip to waterlogged Rapture, the original BioShock developers Irrational Games have left the ocean’s depths behind and taken to the bright blue skies in BioShock Infinite.
This new adventure set in the BioShock universe offers gameplay scenarios and scale unlike anything seen in the previous two games. Enclosed spaces and dark hallways give way to towering buildings and a maze of theme park-like rails that can be ridden and traversed with reckless abandon. The action is not only frenetic but psychologically demanding as leaps of faith must be made over multi-thousand mile drops in hopes of catching an out-of-sight rail below.
Rapture and its mysteries were great, but journeying to the floating city of Columbia in circa-1912 is a radical and needed departure for the franchise. Based on a little tease given during the E3 demo, 1912 may not be the only time period BioShock Infinite pays a visit to.
In years past it was easy to groan at the thought of another heartless Tomb Raider video game installment. The franchise with its titular heroine and puzzling ruins had essentially run its course with Tomb Raider Underworld. Lara’s male counterpart in Sony’s Uncharted franchise, Nathan Drake, became gaming’s top archaeological treasure hunter without a huge bust or the need to gun down countless animals.
Tomb Raider needed a fresh start to become relevant again and developer Crystal Dynamics, entering their fifth game in the series, chose to take the Batman Begins route and explore the events and circumstances that made Lara Croft become the hardened adventurer we all know she will become. To do this in next year’s Tomb Raider they’ve made two dramatic changes to the core gameplay. First, Tomb Raider has been designed to seamlessly integrate cinematic sequences that require context-specific actions from the player with platforming gameplay. When combined with visuals that are amazingly on par with Uncharted, the return of Lara Croft next year is already putting all previous entries in the series to shame.
Second, Lara Croft has been written as a person instead of a tool with a heaving chest and pistols. She’s still proportionally pleasing to the eye, of course, but she’s also highly emotional and uncomfortable with being stranded on a hostile island. She’ll be faced with killing an animal for the first time, and the decision to do so will shake up her emotions. Every action for young Lara in her fight for survival will help define the woman she will eventually become.
Had I sat down watching the E3 demo for Prey 2 not knowing what game it was, I would have told you it was a new IP heavily inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner with its neon-futuristic metropolis crawling with criminals and seedy types. What Human Head Studios has done is take the idea of Prey, being hunted, and turned it on its head.
In Prey 2, you are the hunter instead of the hunted and must survive on a hostile alien world while recollecting lost memories and earning cash by accepting contracts. Prey 2 runs with this idea in allowing you to make life-or-death decisions with targets that will affect your payout and standing with a client. Taking a cue from Batman Arkham City, this gameplay takes place within a hugely vertical world that removes the H.U.D. and allows gunfire while hanging or clinging to any surface or ledge. Prey 2 looks great regardless of the small narrative connections to the original that many gamers never gave a chance.
2K Marin has been tasked with reviving a franchise that apart from an unlicensed homage here and there has been dormant for a full decade. To do so, they’ve taken a hard look at the original XCOM game and brought forward some of the key thematic elements into a retro third-person shooter where aliens are not only here, but they’re able to take us to the depths of space where they came from.
So far XCOM is looking like a 1960s version of The X-Files with team-building strategy that helped define the original games married with third-person action and some enormous set pieces. It’s a far cry from any previous XCOM game that has come before it with a multi-faced enemy that appears to be unlike any we’ve seen in a video game to date.
Four franchises counting on radical gameplay changes to help them stand out amongst the competition on Xbox 360, PS3 and the PC. Thanks to strong E3 demos that in some cases were expected and in others not, all four are now firmly planted as permanent blips on my upcoming must-play games radar.
– Dan Bradley