20 things that surprised me at E3

E3 2012 is over and while each annual show replaces the last as my least favorite there were still plenty of unexpected surprises and outbursts of joy. Maybe the biggest surprise is how few games there were overall. My feeds didn’t explode and I repeatedly ran out of press releases and uploads to check out at GamesPress. “Bigger games but fewer games” was the motto of the show for me but I’m not here to dwell on that point any longer. This is just a quick rundown of the games and reveals I didn’t see coming.

Avatar Motocross Madness (Bongfish for Xbox 360)
This one was a surprise for being mostly nonexistent to those of us not physically at the show. After the official tease leading up to E3 it was mysterious (and foreboding?) that the inoffensive “family fun” game didn’t get a spot in the made-for-TV press conference. It doesn’t even have a page at Xbox.com yet.

Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream for PlayStation 3)
Sandwiched between sequels was Sony’s “new AAA property”, Quantic Dream’s next astounding looking interactive movie starring Ellen Page and that guy I still haven’t identified. Quick Time Events look to be pretty frequent but the moments where you control the supernatural entity known as Aiden and can float away from central character Paige felt noteworthy. Detached from the “star” you can discover the next threat coming her way or set things in motion she may never even realize happened. It’s like watching a movie and being able to stay behind when the action moves to a new scene.

CastleStorm (Zen Studios for Xbox 360)
At this point anything Zen Studios does that isn’t pinball is a surprise. That CastleStorm looks to mix Angry Birds with real-time strategy only adds to the intrigue. While you’re hurling projectiles at teetering enemy castles you’ll also be managing a ground battle between classes of troops against some really well designed enemy forces.

Demon’s Score (Square Enix for iOS/Android)
This is my iOS/Android game of the show… not that there were any other contenders. Ouendan style beat matching played to tunes from “hit songwriters” as a cyber-girl slays fantasy beasts who belt out oddball dialog. I’m already sold but I’m still super interested in what the songlist is going to be like and what they mean by “hit songwriters”.

GameGlobe (Square Enix for Web)
Take all the “you make the game” games of recent years, throw them into a 3D powered browser-based format, and give it a dense and colorful art style. Somehow it’ll be free-to-play with tools complex enough to sculpt landscapes and control the timing of individual moving platforms. It looks pretty heavy on 3D platforming but the trailer also shows third-person combat, flying, and “endless running” style gameplay. That Square Enix is backing it also surprised me.

Lifeless Planet (Stage 2 Studios for PC/Mac)
You’re an astronaut sent to what looks like a life-sustaining planet but by the time you reach it you find out it’s a barren wasteland. Your crew goes missing, a mysteriously underdressed girl appears, and then it gets weird. You soon find signs of human occupation and realize that a Cold War Russia had colonized the planet unbeknownst to the world. And then something decidedly inhuman wakes up. I’m really excited to hop around a mysterious alien world in low-g, tempering my urge to explore against dwindling air and power supplies.

Lococycle (Twisted Pixel for Xbox 360)
This has something to do with a bike… and it’s from Twisted Pixel. All I can say is I’m sure it’ll be funny and that I can’t wait to find out more.

Matter (Blind Wink for Xbox 360)
It looks like Marble Madness with a personality sphere from Portal rolling its way through TRON. Oh, and it’s brought to you by Gore Verbinski, ya know, the director of Pirates of the Caribbean. The only downer is it’ll incorporate Kinect which may render it unplayable but I’m still super intrigued by this bizarre conglomeration of things.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted (Criteron for Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
We knew it was coming but not until the stage demo did I realize it would be a perfect mix of everything I loved about Need for Speed and Burnout. Open world, real cars, cop chases, loads of jumps and secrets with metrics tracked on seemingly everything you do. It’s not a mind-blowing revolution in comparison to Burnout Paradise and Hot Pursuit but it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

PlayStation Plus update (PlayStation 3)
Maxx and I still can’t believe that this crazy deal is legit. For $50 a year Sony is really giving away hundreds of dollars in free games that you can keep playing as long as you’re paid up? They sweetened the deal on stage by throwing out 12 titles that members could download including major releases like inFAMOUS 2 and LittleBigPlanet 2. If I didn’t already have a dozen games to play at any one time (or a bigger PS3 hard drive) I’d probably jump on this.

Project Happiness (TOYBOX for 3DS)
Project Happiness aims to “help expand the player’s view of the world, and make them ponder what their life means to them.” That’s some Molyneux level hyperbole right there and I can’t help but take note. From Yasuhiro Wada, Creator of Harvest Moon, the game definitely looks the part from the teaser trailer but I’m intrigued to find out how it hopes to alter my world view.

Rayman Legends (Ubisoft for WiiU)
Ubisoft’s stage demo of this game nearly brought me to tears. The animation and art is wonderful and the way the layers interact looks so much more seamless than the stuff in LittleBigPlanet or Mutant Mudds. What really got me though was the musical level (of which there will be several) where the player with the GamePad taps objects on the touchscreen in time with a song to help out the other players. It doesn’t sound like much in written form but seeing it in action felt like something really, really special.

Scribblenauts Unlimited (5th Cell for WiiU/3DS)
It’s good to see Scribblenauts again and with their experience on iOS and hindsight after the DS original I’m expecting both versions of Unlimited to be much more playable.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Ubisoft for Everything)
I haven’t touched a Sam Fisher adventure since 2005 so I came away from Blacklist more excited and surprised than most. Yes, the demo wasn’t very stealthy and Michael Ironside has been replaced but they sold me with most of what they showed.

Star Wars 1313 (LucasArts for Next-Gen consoles)
I think this was most everyone’s surprise of the show. Not only did LucasArts emerge from a years-long development black hole but they showed the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen and a Star Wars experience set before all that crappy New Trilogy/Clone Wars junk. That it’s labeled as a “mature experience” and eschews focusing on force powers only adds to the surprise. Now, as long as it doesn’t disappear completely like that Indiana Jones game…

Tank! Tank! Tank! (Namco Bandai for Arcade/WiiU)
Maybe most surprising is that an arcade game was on display at E3. I may never see this game outside of the WiiU but in either format it looks like crazy, colorful fun that reminds me of classics like Tokyo Wars and Alien Front Online.

Watch Dogs (Ubisoft for Current and Next-Gen consoles)
After a showing of games I was increasingly excited for Ubisoft closed their show with the completely out-of-nowhere reveal of Watch Dogs. Part GTA, part Assassin’s Creed, part Deus Ex hackery, everything I saw of this game blew me away. I’m one of those folks who was a little bummed to see more cover-based gunplay at E3 but there’s no way that alone is going to stop me from playing this game.

WiiU social features (WiiU)
I don’t think anyone expected Nintendo to go so off the deep end of the social diving board as they did at E3. Game-specific Twitter-style feeds that pop up tips and lewd comments about individual levels. Friends and strangers chatting about whatever you have on your Dashboard. Impromptu video chat with practically anyone online. I am supremely interested in seeing how this works in practice, if anyone finds it useful and the time-to-headline of something like ‘Nintendo lets sex offender video chat with children’.

Wonderbook (Sony Computer Entertainmet for PlayStation 3)
Nothing at E3 had me repeatedly stammering “what? what? what?” like Sony’s Wonderbook reveal. I love the idea of a book full of AR codes that publishers (both the game and book kinds) can use to tell interactive stories. The J.K. Rowling connection behind ‘Book of Spells’ was a big part of the shocker but I could see it working just as well for Dr. Seuss or Sesame Street. I don’t expect anything for a more adult or “core” audience out of it but it definitely counts as a surprise. Like the guy on stage said “we managed to keep this a secret”.

Xbox SmartGlass (Microsoft)
The idea of Microsoft embracing anything but their own hardware is the biggest shock of the SmartGlass announcement. It’s definitely ambitious and mysteriously in-line with what Nintendo is doing on WiiU’s supplementary screen. What worries me is that Microsoft has never been able to get all their numerous divisions working in unison and they frequently abandon new products. Trying to make the experience work across dozens of hardware platforms and keep reliably in synch with on-screen action isn’t the kind of feat I expect from modern day Microsoft. I’ll be just as surprised if SmartGlass succeeds as I am here at its reveal.