So Let’s Talk About E3 2021…

Deep down, we all knew it had to happen.

Only a full E3 show would get me writing agai

Something had to give. Following on from a year without the traditional Los Angeles summer videogame hype extravaganza – a year peppered with spread-out morsels of tasty videogame announcement news carrying a considerably lower combined profile due to the all-consuming effects of a global pandemic – the Electronic Entertainment Expo returned in June 2021 more electronic than ever. This time, it was all-digital, all the way; and after so long for fans in the proverbial desert, the inevitable had to happen. Millions of gaming pundits lined up to sate their thirst, and plenty set their expectations into overdrive.

And who could blame them?

Like many things in life, the global pandemic rendered the gaming events of 2019 a distant memory. Way back then, we were wondering how relevant a trade show like E3 truly could remain in a world where major game publishers were growing increasingly confident following the example of the revered Nintendo Direct model, holding their own digital news events on their own time. Discourse was shifting steadily towards questioning its very existence; but fast-forward to 2021 and the benefits of a concentrated week of hype are now abundantly clear. Lots of eyes, lots of Twitter accounts, lots of people who want to want things, all looking in one place; in greater and more idle numbers than ever before.

Too Many Cooks

Not Enough Recipes

But the industry isn’t magically positioned as it was five years ago just because a legion of fans feel nostalgic for a bit of LA-flavoured normalcy. Understandably, not every big company was ready to march to the beat of the notoriously difficult ESA, E3’s governing body. Traditional E3 heavyweights Sony and EA decided their plans did not line up with a mid-June blowout – as they have for the last three years at least – and even a considerable pack of parched players was not enough to change that. But the opportunity was there, and so the ESA made the call to bolster the size of the event by widening its arms.

The ESA began to rope in the increasingly numerous satellite showcases from recent years with a history of capitalising on residual mid-June excitement, making them officially a part of the E3 lineup. And so the likes of the PC Gaming Show, Guerilla Collective showcase, Future Games Show, and yes, Devolver Digital all suddenly had pride of place on official E3 Twitch and YouTube feeds – complete with lead-ins by well-known games media voices on a souped-up soundstage. What’s more, without a traditional show floor to show off their typically limited wares, some familiar publisher names decided to add their clout to the ever-expanding roster and pivot to a conference/showcase format.

Whether or not they had anything new or noteworthy to show off.

Some, like Warner Bros and Bandai Namco, prepared expectations by announcing beforehand that their shows would only focus on a limited number of titles (in the aforementioned pair of cases, only Back 4 Blood and The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes respectively). Others, like Gearbox and Capcom, flattered to deceive with smoke, mirrors and a hefty dash of repetition. Hey, at least Capcom’s show looked like it had a modicum of focus.

And speaking of repetition, if you were trying to watch as many of the showcases as you could for fear of missing anything – or were checking in with your favourite YouTuber / Twitch streamer trying to do the very same – you would have become intimately familiar with a handful of reoccurring titles. E3 was never a stranger to the odd instance of Call of Duty or FIFA double-dipping (neither franchise was at this year’s E3, incidentally), but the likes of Geoff Keighley’s high-polish Summer Games Fest kickoff ensured we saw Far Cry 6 shown off on a big stream four times in well under two weeks.

But for the first time in official E3 history, indie and smaller-budget games were not immune to this phenomenon. The unprecedented combination of voluminous showcase numbers and lean triple-A offerings ensured that games like SkateBIRD, Moonglow Bay, Loot River, Unpacking, and Two Point University ended up doubled up – or worse – and thus felt more deflating than they deserve (they each look great), and when games showed up more than once despite already being released – such as the excellent DUSK – the effect was exacerbated. But that’s enough negativity because it’s still definitely worth celebrating…

Indies Rise Up

How many cats???

Though there are obviously more factors at play, E3 2021 sure painted the picture of a pandemic-boosted explosion of fascinating indie game development; and with fewer big boys taking up the spotlight, these games received a golden chance to shine on the biggest stage like never before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many smaller-budget games catch my attention in one place – and with such pace! It’s no doubt going to take me weeks, months and even years to pick through the highlights – many of which were announced or updated without a release date. On the flip side, amidst an E3 otherwise unusually light on shadow-drop announcements, the indies really helped pick up the slack.

The indie-focused showcases almost reached double digits themselves, so it’s simply much easier to shout out my favourite presentations than my favourite individual titles. If I had to pick a top three, I’d give the nod to the early-2000s awkward humour and genuinely cool physical edition announcements of the Limited Run showcase (featuring serial E3 guest stars Mega64); the unreal pace and unrelenting cosiness of the Wholesome Direct; and the near-perfect balance of humour, polish and tap-dancing-flex announcements of third-time-charmer Devolver Digital:

And if you like picking out patterns and trends in E3 shows (God knows I do – It was the whole point of my E3 posts back in the day), then 2021 was the E3 for you! The big one was cats; there were just so, so many games shown with cats at the forefront of their sales pitch – maybe even more than every other dog-focused game I’ve ever seen at E3 combined. I picked out almost an entire handful of organisation / design games – a newer subgenre I welcome with open arms – as well as a surprising number of cooking games and a tidal wave of photography-focused adventures that now seem perfectly timed to ride the wave of New Pokemon Snap.

The so-called “HD-2D” graphical style defined by pixel-art-in-gorgeous-3D-space made famous by Square Enix’s 2018 hit Octopath Traveller is starting to proliferate at an alarming rate among indie titles, as was eagerly demonstrated by Firegirl, Replaced, Eiyuden Chronicle, Snacko (one of said cat games) and many more besides. Judging from how varied these games look, I don’t think the style is in danger of getting old any time soon.

Speaking of Square Enix…

The Supporting Cast

Square or ‘Soft?

As the only two traditional third party game publishers to rock up at E3 2021 with a full show, it could be argued that Square Enix and Ubisoft had to do an awful lot of extra lifting this year in the absence of some of their usual contemporaries. Even with Keighley’s unofficial opening show adding a de facto fifth triple-A show, there were an awful lot of expectations placed on both – fair or not.

Of the two, it’s hardly controversial to say Ubisoft had the more solid showing; although the aforementioned Far Cry 6 overexposure and an unfortunate eleventh-hour leak of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope (by Nintendo themselves!) dampened the impact a tad. A stunningly heavy reliance on talking heads to pad the runtime also felt weirdly tone-deaf (in more ways than one). But for what it’s worth, Rider’s Republic had an absolutely stellar showing that certainly hooked me in, and the many delays behind Rainbow Six Extraction look to be paying off in both quality and release timing. A new wave of PvE co-op shooters is evidently almost upon us (see also: Back 4 Blood, Redfall, The Anacrusis, Contraband) and I for one am excited to round up some mates and jump in.

As far as Square Enix goes, it’s safe to say this was not the company’s best E3 showing. They also had to contend with a leak of sorts – the new Souls-borne-esque Final Fantasy spinoff heavily rumoured in the lead-up to E3 – but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show with such cool announcements so comprehensively undermined by weird pacing.

Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it could be a great time; it’s got great development pedigree, true single-player focus, a neat choices mechanic, and potentially strategic combat UI – plus it’s coming really soon. It was low-key one of the best-shown games of the week. But it was always going to draw unfortunate comparisons to 2020’s ill-fated online-only Marvel’s Avengers, and you just don’t show a game like this for that amount of time when you’re dealing with a JRPG-hungry audience that’s about to be seriously short-changed. The same, sadly, goes for Life is Strange: True Colors.

Square’s shockingly brief, Switch-free rendition of what could have been a gigantic announcement: brand-new pixel remasters of Final Fantasy V and VI (along with the first four games, which have incidentally already been remade a couple of times); will likely serve as the perfect example of how not to do a legacy content reveal going forward. And then there’s the Souls-borne itself, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. The complete botching of the game’s attempted shadow-drop demo allowed Twitter to tear apart the game’s bizarre anachronistic presentation and mozzarella-special dialogue for two full days before the action-focused gameplay was at last let out into the wild, able to temper the negativity a bit. What a mess.

The Best Conference

Microsoft Masterclass

The memes about Nintendo saving E3 may be plentiful online, but there’s no doubt in my mind who put forward the strongest overall message through their presentation during E3 2021. With the considerable might of Bethesda under his wing, Phil Spencer’s latest Xbox extravaganza put forward a heavy-hitting presser packed with power plays from the very first moment Todd Howard appeared to open the show with Starfield. From there the messaging was coherent and undeniable; game reveal after game reveal looked technically stunning, and 9 out of every 10 games ended with that killer “Day One Game Pass” message. Only the four most recognisable faces of recent Xbox and Bethesda E3s showed up to talk, and their messages were mercifully to the point.

The only developer to get face time was one of the leads on the (mostly) unexpected Forza Horizon 5, a November 9th-dated reveal that absolutely nailed the euphoric feeling playing that series gives to so many people – myself very much included. The jaw-dropping Mexico-set driving showpiece was understandably given the largest chunk of time in the show (closely followed by a stunning S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 segment), even pushing the thrilling Halo Infinite multiplayer overview to the following day.

These gameplay-intensive showings were balanced out nicely with surprising teasers for brand-new projects Redfall, Contraband, and most excitingly for me A Plague Tale: Requiem. Add the apocalyptic scale of Battlefield 2042‘s gameplay debut, an unexpected Disney collaboration for the Pirates of the Caribbean X Sea of Thieves campaign, a generous and welcome sprinkling of actual release dates (Flight Sim and Psychonauts 2 are coming to console within the next two months!), some prestige indie love (look out for Somerville from ex-Limbo/Inside dev talent) and a very tasty cherry on top in the form of Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s immediate release on Game Pass; and you have a balanced, strong show even without that relentlessly appealing subscription message. The value of the Game Pass service to PC and Xbox players continues to shoot higher and higher. One day, in Australia, that may extend to Android users as well – please?

But on a Personal Note…

ADVANCE WARS!!!

It lives! After thirteen long years, the Advance Wars series lives again! Words cannot adequately express how little I expected to see anything from this long-dormant, brilliant series this year; how many times over the last decade I thought up ways Nintendo could bring it back; how long it’s been since I seriously entertained any of those thoughts; or how long it will be until a Nintendo Direct is able to get me to yell and jump around like I did when Advance Wars 1+2 Re-Boot Camp was announced during Nintendo’s stellar E3 2021 showcase.

I am really going to try to keep this brief because I could fanboy for pages here. But if you want a short-hand window into understanding why so many older Nintendo fans have been freaking out this past week, it’s worth pointing out that in addition to the Advance Wars sucker punch, it has also been well over a decade since we received any of the following:

  • A WarioWare title focusing on brand-new microgames;
  • A 20-turn-default, truly free-for-all Mario Party game with proper boards and without experimental gimmicks;
  • A Super Monkey Ball entry unafraid to be brutally difficult;
  • A brand-new entry in the massively influential 2D Metroid series (let alone one that sticks to its long-rumoured codename Dread).

We got all of those announced at this very E3, and they’re all coming out this year. So is the previously Wii U-trapped Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water (to non-Nintendo consoles as well!) and the most complete Danganronpa collection yet – featuring a minigame expansion that’s no longer a minigame, but the standalone Danganronpa S. Not only is the Danganronpa series the best cross-media story I’ve ever experienced, but its side content is already notoriously meaty, so I will be there with bells on Day 1 for that.

I also can’t wait to hear more about the new Smash Bros character, Kazuya from Tekken; particularly about his accompanying stage. If that Tekken-esque hyper-zoom camera angle is a permanent part of the new arena, the possibilities for the lads’ next Smash tournament will be rather exciting indeed. And even if I’ve never really had a personal connection to Tekken, I seem to be drawn towards people who do, and one thing is for sure: the music will rock.

It’s been a long time since a Nintendo home console was allowed to reach that wonderful 4th-to-5th-year window where their underappreciated franchises come out to play; the Wii U didn’t get the chance and the Wii wasn’t interested. So for me personally, this E3 Direct will be very hard to top in the coming years – even if I understand the hordes of new Switch-era Nintendo fans might be left scratching their heads for now. Regardless, the big N has just filled out the rest of their release schedule this year in one clean motion, out-pacing even their ridiculous Switch launch year of 2017 in terms of pure, spread-out exclusive releases. And the move to place Shin Megami Tensei V right in that crucial mid-November release slot, next to Pokemon? So bold, so risky; I adore it.

I am a little concerned about the major new post-2021 footage Nintendo showed off – the much-anticipated sequel to Breath of the Wild. It looks to be even further away than many suspected – Eiji Aonuma’s slippery wording seems to hint that 2022 may not even be accurate. There doesn’t seem to be much interest within the development team in bringing back some of the older Zelda elements absent from BotW, either – but when we do eventually get this game in our hands I’m sure it’ll be excellent regardless.

The Biggest Absentee

Wherefore Art Thou Sony?

It’s difficult to sit here and not wonder what this E3 could have been like if Playstation had shown up with their own show. Jim Ryan and the rest of the Playstation team have been marching to their own beat more than ever in recent years, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to do so. There may even be another chunky State of Play released in the ensuing weeks to make this post outdated in record time.

But given just how alive and vibrant so many corners of the wide gaming community have been for this long-awaited E3 return, it’s hard not to see this as a bit of a missed opportunity for Sony. Just imagine how much more buzz that stunning 15-minute Horizon: Forbidden West footage from a few weeks ago would have attracted had it been slammed into the middle of an E3 hype storm; visibility certainly would not have been an issue, and if anything some of the many indie developers on show this week may have been afforded a bigger leg-up in the ocean of overwhelming contemporaries. Sony’s absence certainly did not help Square Enix’s conspicuously XVI-free presentation, that’s for sure. But what do I know? Not the fruits of Sony’s inner marketing meetings, no sir.

In the end it may have dragged on in places, covered plenty of ground more than once, and offered a surprisingly light JRPG presence; but thanks to E3 2021 the rest of the gaming year rolling into 2022 looks positively stacked. A glimpse of all-too-welcome familiarity in the realm of videogame hype – for all the pros and cons that entails – has gone down an absolute treat. Welcome back, E3.

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