Sports, guns, racing, Sims. EA doubles down on predictability.
EA’s bevy of reveals at E3 2013 was particularly strong, throwing us a few Mirror’s Edge and Titanfall-shaped curve balls alongside the usual heavy focus on sports, Battlefield, and Plants vs Zombies. 2014 had a lot to live up to then, and as the Star Wars theme tune tinkled through the speakers and a black screen faded into the snowy wastelands of Hoth, they certainly started with a strong foot striding dramatically forwards.
To be fair, it wouldn't take a whole lot to appease Star Wars video game fans these days, but what little footage they showed of Star Wars: Battlefront certainly painted the upcoming multiplayer title in a good light regardless as to prior outings. Crisp visuals were showcased off-screen on development kits working overtime to produce the sort of high-fidelity and smooth experience that EA wants us all to believe in, but precious little detail was eventually divulged. The studio evidently believes in what it’s creating, and that’s a thought as warming as a Tauntaun’s intestines, but 2015 is still far, far away.
But not to worry, because filling in that gap will be EAs next show-piece title, Dragon Age: Inquisition, introduced to the stage with an extended sequence involving blood-red lighting and a live cellist reproducing a dramatic musical score with a good dose of facial gurning.
Encouragingly, EA seems to be genuinely pressing forward with their showcase fantasy-RPG series, moving on from the repetition that marked out the second version to a shift away from black-and-white moral dilemmas into the grey middle ground most human beings (and elves, wizards and orcs) operate within. Visuals and combat both looked suitably up to a next-gen spec and were a clear step forward on what came before, and overall Dragon Age: Inquisition left a strong impression in both aesthetic and potential. It’s also a big budget next-gen video game being release this year, and that has to be worth celebrating.
And while the next game on EA’s roster definitely won’t be releasing this year, a simple confirmation of its existence still managed to trump pretty much everything else on show. Mass Effect is indeed returning, and although gameplay footage was limited to a few level fly-by’s and a couple of close-ups of N7-branded armour adorning a new hero, the accompanying interview ruminations were enough to settle the nerves of hardcore fans and assure us that Bioware are back on track. Exploration and freedom is a key push for the series, as is listening to fan feedback and returning the series to more a more comfortable level of storytelling with all-new characters.
But slightly more surprising was the revelation that Bioware is also working on a brand-new IP, and given its close connection to the Mass Effect footage, it’ll leave a lot of people excited. Taking shape as a series of planetary vignettes showcasing a dynamic weather system and promising a series “as big and as imaginative as anything they’ve ever done”, the brief glimpse of those sci-fi visuals hinted at something on a grand scale. Thoroughly mysterious and intriguing, it’s a project that begs for more information to be divulged.
Not that it was all invention of course, and EA was soon back in the comfortable swaddle of its Sims and Sports franchises.
Sims 4 was demoed with a lengthy sequence of events that prompted more questions than it answered, although the focus on a new trait system and story generation through relationships seemed to go down well with a whooping audience. It was frenetic stuff, and that high octane tempo led directly into some rather mundane footage of their UFC franchise reboot, which is co-incidentally out next week and already has a demo available right now for your own perusal. Although cleanly presented and animated to an impressive amount of detail, the sensation of connection still doesn't appear to beat the classic Fight Night series, and Bruce Lee is presumably charging up a power fist for misrepresentation from the grave.
Moving into full EA testosterone mode, NHL 15 followed up that sweaty grappling with a bit more sweaty grappling, but little was shown of the improvements to their hockey franchise outside of a resplendent level of detail and a deliciously atmospheric crowd. Given how polished and refined the NHL franchise already is however, I suspect those few bells and whistles will be enough for a fan base still missing out on a launch title for next-gen consoles.
Tiger Woods and Madden were next and also looked to be firm evolutions of their respective titles, with Tiger hanging its hat on a new Frostbite-driven engine and Madden concentrating on evolving its defensive game to encompass directional-specific blocks and a greater level of fine control when choosing which player to attack. Both franchises were upstaged by the predictable appearance of FIFA 15 to whoops, cheers and an Idris Elba voiceover, while EA’s premier sports franchise this year promises to capture the “Emotional Intelligence” of players on the pitch, whilst grass now physically cuts up under boots and facial accuracy appears to be on a whole new level. Better ball trajectories and a few visual nips and tucks (wobbling goalposts!) rounded out the trailer.
And while the finely-tuned updates to EAs sports franchises were enough to get some of us moistly anticipating the on-pitch action this coming autumn, the introduction of a brand-new Criterion Racing Project was a little further out of left field. Promisingly, the studio best-known for anarchic racing fun appears to be returning to what they do best, but this time incorporating quad bikes, buggies, sky diving, wing suits and helicopters for good measure. The concept footage was rough but bursting with enthusiasm, and Criterion appears to have built its newly-refurbished development studio around a fully-working pub, which has to be a good sign.
Dawngate was next on show and looks to be every bit the MOBA it’s yearning to be, with a slew of tweaks and changes to differentiate it from the DOTAs and LOLs of the world. Of course at casual glance Dawngate looks almost exactly the same as its Valve and Riot-developed inspirations, but is at least attempting to “avoid being a clone” (actual words spoken by a developer) and present new angles on the meta-game content with a more open approach for newcomers. In other news, MOBAs are quite popular, did you hear?
Less popular was the original Mirror’s Edge, but EAs newly-minted sequel was nevertheless given a share of the limelight with an extended developer commentary trailer that showed a title remarkably similar to its previous outing. The first-person free-running action appears to have made the transition intact to a new generation, whilst the black, white and red styling offered up a clean aesthetic that neatly dovetailed with the original. The trailer’s small focus on combat also managed to avoid showcasing any gunplay, which will no doubt buoy the spirits of anybody that remembers *those* late-game sequences.
And to finish with a bang, Battlefield: Hardline’s previously-outed cops vs robbers gameplay was given extended airtime with a shoot-out in a desolate LA clearly taking inspiration from Heat, whilst multiplayer footage revealed a ridiculous amount of level destruction themed around what appeared to be a checkpoint-driven heist mission. It looked tremendous fun, if a little thematically shoehorned into an engine better suited for wide-open spaces, but you needn't take my word for it: the Battlefield: Hardline beta was announced as open for registration right now. You can sign up here.
So with shooting, grappling, sports, racing, RPGs, space operas, MOBAs, life simulations and whatever the hell Criterion is making on show, EA’s 2014 E3 presentation was a mixture of a few tentative steps into the unknown backed up by a series of money-makers that show no signs of abating. It was solid stuff and entertaining throughout, but nonetheless a little underwhelming compared to the very best reels of yore.
With long-term prospects such as Mass Effect finally looming into view however, it was difficult not to leave with at least a fuzzy anticipation of future adventures. You might need to cling to those shoots of enthusiasm, because 2014 is still looking incredibly lean.
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