E3 2018 was a cross between a victory lap for this generation of game consoles and a tease for the next one. Microsoft opened its conference with Halo Infinite, technically listed as an Xbox One game, but the sort of project that could be bumped or upgraded on next-gen hardware. The same could be said for Sony’s Death Stranding, which filled a large chunk of the company’s press event. Sony itself had no major first-party reveals, suggesting future projects may be in the works for its next console. And the best demo of the show, a 50-minute behind-closed-doors tour of Cyberpunk 2077, looked like a polished final product that would push against the limitations of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — assuming the game gets released before the hardware rides off into the sunset.
Some folks in our Twitter replies and comment sections were disappointed by an E3 that was slim on surprises. But assembling a list of the most promising games shown at the conference, we’re excited about the years ahead. Big studios, medium studios and small studios alike have bold, weird and ambitious projects in the works.
Of course, a best of E3 award doesn’t guarantee a game’s excellence. We’re going off trailers, choreographed gameplay demos and the rare hands-on experience. However, these games made a good enough impression that we can’t wait to hear more about them. In some cases, like with Spider-Man, we’ll only have to wait a couple months. In other cases, well, good things come to those who wait.
With the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015, completing a decadelong trilogy, developer CD Projekt Red established itself as a world leader in the open-world role-playing genre. But, headed into this year’s E3, fans and critics alike wondered out loud: Can a studio steeped in the tropes of medieval fantasy successfully make the transition to futuristic dystopia? After this year’s monstrous gameplay demo, which ran more than 50 minutes long, that answer is a resounding yes.
Cyberpunk 2077’s behind-closed-doors demo was a powerful statement of CD Projekt’s capabilities as a studio, a coherent vision of a futuristic America filled with enough sex, guns and rock-and-roll to make even a hardcore ’80s rockstar blush. And it was all produced with the same intimacy and lavish storytelling that we’ve come to expect from the Warsaw, Poland-based developer. There’s clearly lots of work left to do, especially when it comes to the game’s gunplay and bare-bones driving mechanics, but from what I’ve seen there’s plenty of reason to think that Cyberpunk 2077 could be the game of the year... whenever it is the studio gets around to finishing it.
Sure, “Tetris in VR” is not the pitch you’d expect to win an E3 award. Yes, Tetris has been repackaged and reimagined at least a hundred times. Forget all that for the moment, because Enhance Games’ Tetris Effect is the freshest take in years of the popular puzzler, making Tetris hypnotic and magical with its intoxicating visuals and synchronized beats. It’s a game you’ll actually want to play in VR; it’s an enveloping, relaxing experience. Enough new touches should please the Tetris-obsessed, while also allowing less dedicated players to sit back and let the game wash over them. This is one of the few E3 demos I’ve left feeling more refreshed than when I came in, a game that passionately embraces Tetris’ most underappreciated capability: It’s meditative.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
The E3 presentation for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was light on new characters, but full of polish, tweaks and treats for longtime fans. Sure, everyone’s enjoying the faux-rage at Waluigi’s snub, but the inclusions of Daisy and Ridley show that the developers know exactly what the community wants. Ultimate takes the fun and frantic gameplay of the Wii U game, revisits the series’ history to fill the roster (welcome back, Snake), and then polishes and tweaks the core gameplay to recapture the magic that has fostered competitive communities.
Super Smash Bros. has always been the fighting game for people who don’t yet know they like fighting games, and it looks like this version will be built to snag even more new players. But the love and care put into the nitty-gritty details, giving the game necessary depth, should ensure they’ll be sticking around. That’s arguably more exciting than any new character reveal.
Metro Exodus has all the hallmarks of a classic title in the Metro series, including stealth mechanics, scarcity of ammunition and tough, intelligent enemies. But it will also add semi-open-world environments to the game for the first time. That means more options to get from point A to point B, more places to spend time scavenging and more opportunities for environmental storytelling. In short, more of everything that makes the Metro series great. Toss in upgraded performance capture, top-notch voice acting and some of the most engaging outdoor environments we’ve seen since Half-Life 2, and you have the makings of something truly special.
It’s a challenge to talk about the upcoming Spider-Man without revisiting the character’s video game legacy. Every time Insomniac Games has shown gameplay of the web-head in action, it contains echoes of good Spider-Mans past — most notably, the best movie tie-in game of all time, Spider-Man 2. The E3 2018 demo, however, speaks for itself.
The combat is satisfying, the swinging feels natural and the story is promising, albeit pulpy. Of course, Spider-Man is doing lots for fans of the Spider-Man 2 movie game, but we’re happy the demo clarifies that Insomniac has bigger ambitions than producing a spiritual successor to a game from 2004. The studio is building something that learns from the past decade of games at large, a game that’s fast and fluid and beautiful in a way you expect from a big-budget project in 2018.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
FromSoftware’s portfolio over the last decade — the Souls games and Bloodborne — has been unfailingly impressive and interesting. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice seems poised to continue that tradition, and to twist the formula that the previous games popularized. Swapping a European-based sword and board aesthetic for a Japanese-style ninja fantasy, prominently featuring a grappling hook, promises to significantly alter gameplay. Along with its other E3 announcements, Sekiro feels like a bold declaration that From isn’t just a Souls developer (though you might as well prepare to die anyway).
Rage 2 deserves, if nothing else, the award for most improvement. The original Rage promised a humongous open world powered by an amazing engine, spectacular vehicle combat and tight gunplay. It delivered on very little. Rage 2 doesn’t look like a sequel; it looks like a second take. For the open world, Bethesda has partnered with Avalanche Studios and its brand-new Apex engine. Avalanche knows a good deal about car combat, having produced 2015’s interesting but disappointing Mad Max game. As for the gunplay, Avalanche is supported by id, and though the studio is responsible for the original Rage, it has most recently re-established itself in the shooter genre with 2016’s fantastic reboot of Doom. We had a chance to play a short demo, and it’s weird, gross and incredibly fun, like a mixtape of Bethesda’s grand portfolio.
Kingdom Hearts 3
The Kingdom Hearts 3 team dropped not just one trailer, but three unique trailers during three massive press conferences. Fans and skeptical onlookers have waited over 13 years for the end of Sora’s plot, as described by director Tetsuya Nomura. That wait appears to be nearly over, as the developers used E3 to announce a January 2019 release date with confidence.
We still have concerns: Many fans and potential newcomers have been confused by the lore created in the six titles between Kingdom Hearts 2 and the upcoming sequel, and none of the Final Fantasy characters have made an appearance. But if the short clips of dazzling gameplay and heartwarming Disney camaraderie are an indicator of what’s to come, then Sora’s saga will have a spectacularly fun (if not perplexing) conclusion.
Resident Evil 2
Woe to any team that tries to remake a beloved game and doesn’t do it right. Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the case with Resident Evil 2, which Capcom has rebuilt entirely to incorporate some modern systems (goodbye, tank controls!) and a more fleshed-out story. It’s still a classic Resident Evil game, with bullet-sponge zombies depleting your supply of never enough bullets as you pilot rookie cop Leon through his first day on the job, or help Claire Redfield search for her missing brother. It’s familiar but new — a game that feels like the game in our memories, rather than that actual game.
The Last of Us Part 2
The first The Last of Us was, in many ways, as close to a perfect story as we’ve seen from a massive AAA title. The ending between Joel and Ellie was so perfect that some fans were alarmed at the announcement of a sequel. How can you possibly have a Part 2 without marring that ambiguous, bittersweet conclusion? Naughty Dog’s E3 presentation settled a lot of those doubts by focusing entirely on Ellie and Dina, and it was obvious from the footage that the developers are putting so much care into environment and every frame of animation. The Last of Us: Part 2 has a lot to live up to, but if the final game matches the E3 trailer’s gorgeous visuals, and expands upon the sweet bookend vignette, it stands a chance.
Ghost of Tsushima
While Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Nioh 2 emphasize the fantasy and folklore of Japan, Ghost of Tsushima appears to be a more grounded adventure, one set at the end of the 13th century. In the demo, a man silently treads through moonlit wheat fields, only to face off in a climactic, samurai-style showdown. The shots are long, tense, wreathed in flame. Battles play out slowly, with warriors drawing their blades, adjusting their footing, waiting for the perfect moment to deliver a lethal strike. The creators don’t hide their obsession with Kurosawa, nor should they. Ghost of Tsushima has a rich, artistic quality that will hopefully mesh well with its stealth and brutal sword combat. Like so many of Sony’s exclusives, it looks to be the sort of game that demands a photo mode.
In the wake of Mass Effect: Andromeda, developer BioWare entered E3 2018 with a little less prestige and a lot more to prove. Its next game, Anthem, carries an immense weight on its shoulders, a potential return to form for the creators in the form of an always-updating new brand. One very important thing was apparent from our hands-on time with the game: Anthem feels and plays like a first-class shooter. There’s still much we don’t know about Anthem, particularly when it comes to its story, but for a game that aims to make MMO-like cooperative fighting central to its experience, the combat-heavy demo is a good sign — especially from a developer that hasn’t specialized in tight shooter mechanics or cooperative multiplayer of this type before.
E3 was awash in gaudy future worlds full of cool tech. The occasional demo, like Cyberpunk 2077, nodded to techno-anxieties and the complexities of life as humans and hardware merge together. But the sci-fi game with the most promise to say something potent and necessary about the current moment is Neo Cab. The game is described by its creators as “an emotional survival game about gig labor, tech disruption & the experience of being a driver-for-hire... perhaps the last of their kind.” As the gig economy gradually consumes the transportation and hotel industries, with a new company threatening to “disrupt” other markets each month, Neo Cab sounds like a game that might allow us to process what’s happening in this world within the safe (and beautifully animated) confines of a virtual one.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
“Big ships turn slowly” is one of those phrases I hear every year at E3 when I ask developers why an old franchise continues to do the same old thing. The biggest franchises feature thousand-person staffs and span multiple studios across the globe; it’s hard to make any game, let alone change its formula. Big ships turn slowly, but in this industry, big ships often barely turn at all. That’s why last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are so impressive.
For a decade, Ubisoft largely stuck to the proven formula of devising an intellectual property that can be tweaked over and over and over for annual releases. But a few years ago, the company’s leadership seemed to recognize that survival demands change. So the series took a year off, and now we’re witnessing the big ship change in front of our eyes. Origins scrapped the series’ iconic (but stale) combat and added RPG-lite weapons and armor. Odyssey will let people play as a man or woman, romance who they want regardless of gender and participate in conversation via dialogue trees. We’re still curious how loyal the game will be to historical accuracy and the franchise’s meta-story — two tenets of the brand — but we’re excited about Assassin’s Creed, mostly because it’s gradually becoming something else.
Forza Horizon 4
It’s rare for a game to grab us this strongly largely with its visuals, but it helps that Forza Horizon 4 is the next game in a series that has handled racing exceptionally for years. This is the arcade year for the franchise, which alternates between simulations and games that focus on playful open-world racing. The social features plus persistent weather and seasonal effects should help give the Britain setting even more depth and a sense of shared experience. Forza Horizon 4 feels like going to your favorite restaurant and ordering your favorite dish, and finding out that today it will be prepared and garnished with ritzy, fresh ingredients.