E3 2010 – The Games I’ve Just Got to Play in 2010

Last week, the video game industry held their annual convention in Los Angeles, CA. Every year game publishers, developers and mainstream press come together to get a sneak peek at the new titles heading our way for the upcoming holiday season and beyond at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. And each year, the conference just grows larger and larger in terms of scope and exposure, if not necessarily attendance (as it’s been closed to the general public for a few years). With games occupying equal entertainment real estate as some of Hollywood’s largest blockbusters – the rest of the real world stops for a spell in June to take notice of what’s coming down the pike meaning these days you can ditch the Gamepro and scope all the cool sites on The Today Show.

In prior years, I made it an annual rite to cover each of the three big console manufacturers’ press conferences and offer up my top 5 games that I’ve just got to play in 2010. The thing is, last Fall we saw a new precedent develop in the industry. Publishers are afflicted with an irrational fear of Call of Duty – the FPS series that launches a new installment just before each Turkey Day.

I don’t get it.

Hollywood Studios know how to counter-program but for some inexplicable reason, game publishers think that one FPS is enough to rule them all and therefore we’ve started to see a number of big ticket items moving beyond the holiday frame into the late winter months. While that makes for a nice salve for the usual doldrums that settle in once the Christmas Tree is mothballed, I think this industry is large enough for all genres to flourish at the same time. It just takes a little creative marketing to get noticed. Hell – grab hold of social networking and let Facebook do all the hard work for you. If they can get Betty White to stay up past her bedtime, I’m sure a little viral campaign could move a few additional copies of Dante’s Inferno. Or maybe that’s a tall order for that bad example.

The point is – I’ve learned from this latest E3 that the majority of compelling content shown has a slim chance of seeing store shelves anytime in the next six months. So while Metal Gear Rising rates a Day 1 purchase with its “cut everything all the time” game play, it will have to wait until 2011 to grab face time on my Blog. So, for the purpose of this piece, I aim to showcase the games I know are coming in 2010 that I’m just chomping at the bit to play. Also, there’s no rhyme nor reason to how I’ve organized this post. There’s a lot of thoughts bouncing around this brain pan and I’m just gonna’ pour them out. Let me know what you think in the Comments below.

Before I hit the games though, I do want to spend a paragraph or two giving my reactions to the Microsoft conference which focused almost solely on their new tech and less on catering to the hardcore gamers who arguably make up their loyal constituency.

Microsoft XBOX 360 Conference – Held Monday June 14th

Nintendo used to infuriate me with their E3 press conferences, which worked overtime to get Matt Lauer’s attention ever since they debuted Wii Fit in 2007 and The Today Show gave it the 7:00 a.m. spotlight the very next day. From that point on, Nintendo forgot the core audience that brought them to where they were and decided to cater to the casual crowd. And their conferences were engineered to grab more air time on Ellen and Oprah than G4TV.

This year, Microsoft, in their continued push to wrest control of the dominant market share that Nintendo holds among the mainstream gamer, took a page from the Big N’s playbook and turned the bulk of their 90-minute presentation into a Kinect infomercial. Kinect is essentially and unapologetically an HD Wii. Sure, it has some amazing next gen interface control features that enable people to make that cool Minority Report tech a reality, but the games they’ve built for this overpriced add-on to the existing 360 look like nothing more than enhanced versions of Wii Sports. There’s really nothing new being brought to the table.

And I think this major marketing push that they are going to blast in a bid to lure the casual consumers who finally put a game system in their living room with the Wii is going to fall flat. After all, to the casual eye, the Nintendo Wii looks great. Most of these new born gamers haven’t owned a system since the NES days so the Wii marks a major evolutionary step. I find it hard to believe that they are going to be coaxed into dropping another $200 for a 360 Slim Arcade and another $150 for the Kinect system just to have that HD Wii which plays prettier versions of Wii Bowling. So, that’s one major share of the market that should remain in Nintendo’s back pocket.

Which leaves the hardcore crowd who I think have been left cold by all this Kinect commotion. Kinectimals isn’t going to sell them on the virtual pets (unless they can unleash them on their prey) and from what I’ve found in the hardcore crowd, they tend to play games for a long time. Hours upon hours deep into the night. For a system which is rumored to have trouble detecting players that are sitting down, I think many gamers are going to tire of running around their living room even if Activision is able to offer a motion sensitive Call of Duty. And talk about arm fatigue.

So, at the end of the day, this is a novelty priced too high to entice new users and offering nothing new that Wii owners don’t already have aside from easier ways to page through their Netflix queue. It might make for a nice building block for the 360’s successor but for this longtime gamer (and inhabitant of a Wii-60 household) it does nothing for me.

And here’s that last thing I’ll say on this before diving into the games I’ve just got to play in 2010. Nintendo may move more units of the Wii than the 360 and PS3 but one place it lags behind is in games per units sold. Sure, their systems sell a ton of games, but when you break down the numbers – 360 and PS3 owners are more likely to buy 5+ games a year vs. the 1 or 2 on average by Wii owners. With console manufacturers  constantly claiming they lose coin on every unit sold – it’s the software where they make bank – and the 360 and PS3 are holding court over gamers whose hobby has aged nicely alongside them and who now have more disposable income than ever before. In fact, even though we suffer through a horrible economy – gaming has continually seen an uptick. After all, once you lay down your $60, you have a month’s worth of entertainment ahead of you. Not a bad return on investment.

So, I think Microsoft and Sony need to be careful what they wish for in luring those coveted casuals as they tend to be a fickle bunch. Don’t get me wrong – more players of all types are crucial to the success of this industry and the health of this hobby – and that’s why companies need to cater to all demographics. It’s OK to cut in from time to time but dance with the one who brought you there too.

XBOX 360 – Top 5 Games I’ve Just Got to Play in 2010

5.   The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Special Edition

Microsoft hit on a great gimmick a few years ago when they launched their Summer of Arcade series – highlighting some of the better efforts to come down their digitally distributed pipeline. That was the summer of Braid, which to this day remains one of the most creative and original games I’ve ever played.

Last summer, they unleashed two instant classics – with the release of Chair’s Shadow Complex and the High Def remake of the classic LucasArts adventure game, The Secret of Monkey Island. I downloaded both and had a great time replaying Monkey Island, a game which makes me laugh heartily to this very day.

So, it’s a no-brainer that I am looking forward to Monkey Island’s sequel – which is getting the same spit shine treatment. In fact, I’m jonesing for this one more so as this remains the only Monkey Island game (aside from the recent Telltale episodic series) that I have yet to play. And from what I hear, this is the crowning jewel.

4.   Comic Jumper

Here’s another Summer of Arcade spotlight which finds its way high on my list due to the excellent pedigree earned by its developer, Twisted Pixel. This company first hit the scene with the XBLA exclusive, The Maw, a couple years back. They followed that up with last year’s ‘Splosion Man – which is one of the most inventive 2D platformers to come along in awhile. That it featured a wicked sense of humor only adds to its appeal.

Comic Jumper feels like they’ve been building to this crescendo all along. The art style is fantastic – helping to sell the tale of Captain Smiley – a superhero for hire – who finds himself journeying through disparate worlds drawn from various comic styles including Silver Age, Modern and Manga. The game then takes shots at both video games and comic archetypes – equally celebrating its forbearers while also roasting them too. The E3 trailer on the XBox Live marketplace has me sold so this is a day one purchase.

3.   Fable III

I was a big fan of the first Fable game but I felt the game really met its potential in the 2008 sequel – which added some compelling cooperative play to the third person role playing experience. Where games like Dragon Age leave me cold with their volumes of statistical tracking making the “play” feel more like work, Fable gives me everything I want in a role playing game. It whisks me away to a larger than life fantasy world but always manages to stay manageable – and most importantly – fun. And these games are just built to encourage you to explore and experiment.

The fun is in the details.

In Fable III, we jump ahead another century or two – thus opening up some steampunk aesthetics while keeping one foot on the world that birthed this tale. This time you are a ruler – lending some interesting Sim City-esque situations to the gameplay. Not only can you buy up towns but now you need to keep your people happy (or not) and deal with whatever consequences may come. And should you wish, you can choose to ignore all that and just head out into the dungeons and crypts, bashing skulls and boosting your abilities.

I used to love role playing games, but the older I get, the less patience I have for them. Fable is the RPG experience made just right for me.

2.   Halo Reach

It’s said that this is the last time Bungie will touch this property and as such, this looks to be a fitting swan song to the game that arguably built the XBOX. Without that original launch title, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft would ever have found themselves in this position where they aim to ape Nintendo.

So for the ending, Bungie goes back to the beginning – telling us a prologue tale to all the madness that comes later. While we lose Master Chief, we do get some of his Brothers-in-Arms and the journey back to the beginning of the tale appears to bring the story’s scope into more sobering light. This is back when the Covenant were a mean squad of alien beasties before they started joining forces with Master Chief and scrapbooking and whatnot.

I love this series. I know it has its detractors who favor Call of Duty’s more realistic take on warfare but those are multiplayer mavens. Me – I jones for a good solo or co-op campaign and Halo has consistently entertained. I love the expanded universe Bungie has crafted and I look forward to seeing how it all began this Fall.

1.   Limbo

Another XBLA game rates the top slot. That ought to say something loudly about the state of independent game development – a space where some of the greatest creativity flourishes these days. Having that pipeline straight to the masses allows some of these niche products to thrive much more than they could a few years back when symphonic, creative voices were drowned out by the mass market pop manufacturing.

A few years back I picked Braid as my game of the year. World of Goo is another title that grabbed that crown. Last year I fell hard for Shadow Complex. And this year, I’m looking to get into Limbo.

The artistic aesthetic sells this game alone. Set against a haunting monochromatic back drop, we control one lost little boy whose making his way through a fearsome, foreboding land. All sorts of environmental puzzles must be bested in order to win the day and see the boy home or to whatever destination he seeks. Beyond the animation and art style, I love the feeling of hopelessness. There are many sequences in the trailer where the boy’s best reaction to some new evil entity is to turn tail and run. That just ratchets up the tension immensely.

Limbo is not part of the Summer of Arcade promotion but is due to drop soon. The second it does, I’m looking to get lost in it.

Nintendo Wii – Top 5 Games I’ve Just Got to Play in 2010

5.   Lost in Shadow

This looks like a kissing cousin to my #1 pick on the XBox list. I don’t know what it is about these 2D puzzle platformers but they just seems to tickle my nostalgia bone while realizing worlds far more expressive than those limited by hardware constraints back when 2D was all the rage in the NES days. So, we get to have out cake and eat it too – getting to play new 2D enchantments buoyed by all the bells and whistles our current gen powerhouses can pump out.

Two of my favorite games of the last decade are the PS2 classics – Ico and Shadow of the Colossus – both engineered by Sony’s Team Ico. Lost in Shadow looks like a merger of those haunting masterpieces combined with the puzzle-drenched platforming of the old school Prince of Persia series. In this title, the player controls the characters shadow – hurtling his avatar through a perilous world of mazes and traps as you look to rejoin your shadow with your character.

The Wii may suffer technical limitations when it comes to the latest eye candy but it’s through games like this where it shines – allowing art style to pick up the slack and really make these games sing.

4.   Kirby’s Epic Yarn

And with this pick, I hand over every last Man Card I own. That said, I can’t help myself. There is a simple joy to this game’s patchwork art style that is infectious. And as has become a trend in this post, I’m really jonesing for creative platformers. And this one offers creativity in spades. There’s a reason this title is being listed by many major games publications as Best in Show for the Wii. The level of interactivity that Kirby has with his environment is amazing to watch and this just looks like one of those games that could become a timeless classic with an art style so perfect in its cartoonish rendering that it will never go out of style.

The only thing is Kirby as a character is sickeningly sweet. It’s hard to get your testosterone flowing when guiding a Hostess Pom Pom through rainbow bright worlds. But – that’s why I have kids. They can be my excuse. Not that I need one. This is a Must Play this holiday season.

3.   Metroid: Other M

Beyond the inexplicable title, which a year later has still yet to be properly defined, I can’t wait to get my hands on the next installment in the Metroid series – which ranks alongside Mario and Zelda as my all-time favorite series. This title, which was handed to Team Ninja (the guys responsible for the Ninja Gaiden series), places more of an action-bent to this – moving away from the first person adventures that Retro crafted for the Prime trilogy in favor of a third-person title that bridges the gap between Super Metroid and the later installments.

Everything I’ve seen about this game has me excited. Games developed in-house at Nintendo or by their hand-picked partners always shine a little brighter and this one positively glows. Handing the reigns to Team Ninja appears to have been a ballsy choice as they’ve kept the necessary trappings that make this unmistakably Metroid while adding their own over-the-top action histrionic flair to the title.

Coming at the end of summer, this looks to kick-start the Fall gaming season with a nice shot of adrenaline.

2.   Donkey Kong Country Returns

Speaking of Retro, those Austin-based wizards that masterfully brought Metroid into the new generation, had secretly been working on another beloved Nintendo franchise. The smart-money was on a Kid Icarus reboot but as each successive E3 came and went with nary a whisper, the team maintained radio silence. Then – in the day or two before this year’s big show – rumors began to fly fast and furious. It wasn’t Icarus that they were shooting to new heights. It was Donkey Kong – a title thought lost to time when his previous captor (Rare) was purchased by Microsoft.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is a big-budget reboot of the classic 2D Super NES side scroller. In those days, Donkey Kong Country represented the best graphics consoles could generate. Nowadays – Nintendo lags behind in the tech department – but I maintain that one elixir they have managed to retain is their magical ability to generate fun play experiences. And like the other platformers on my list, this title looks like it innovates and creates in ways platformers never could in the good old days.

Plus – they had me at “monkeys”.

1.   Epic Mickey

This title sold me on its concept alone. First off – it’s developed by Warren Spector, the genius behind the original Deus Ex – whose company was bought by Disney Interactive a few years ago to begin churning out titles on par with the amazing first party software that Nintendo brings to market. Spector is a big time animation nerd and he had a genius idea. He wanted to make Mickey hip again and in order to do so, he had to drag him down a few pegs by bringing him to his knees.

The scenario he came up with would make a helluva movie. In this game, Mickey discovers that the fantastic worlds he and the other popular Disney characters inhabit are being erased by the has-been stars of Disney’s past. These forgotten fiends are jealous of the acclaim Mickey and the other characters have achieved while they have been left to nostalgia so they stage a coup – looking to erase everything from existence. So Mickey must head out through a variety of Disney-derived worlds looking to set right what once went wrong.

The concept art on this has been fantastic and the latest previews from E3 show a game drunk on artistic and creative freedom. I think this will prove to be something special when it hits this winter.

And that’s a wrap. I’ll be back later in the year with my usual Best Of lists and then when we turn the year to 2011, I’ll be able to hone my focus on those other amazing games we saw at E3 that unfortunately remain just beyond arm’s length.