It’s impossible to tell how good a game is going to be based on what we see at E3. That should be obvious. If the press even gets to play a game, we’re only playing a small portion that’s very carefully presented and that might not actually represent the final game that well. Many games aren’t even playable, even for the press—we just watch designers demo footage that may or may not actually be a playable snippet of the game in progress. What I saw in Los Angeles in June may bear little resemblance to whatever you’ll see in your living room once any of these games actually exists as a retail product. The list below ranks the ten best games I actually played, followed by thoughts on both other games that I played or games that I merely saw in theater demos.
10. Killer Is Dead (Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3)
Release date: 8/27/2013
I can only follow Goichi Suda so far—Lollipop Chainsaw was an embarrassment. The Japanese auteur returns to his roots with Killer Is Dead, which resembles both the bizarre noir Killer7 and the satire No More Heroes. Our brief glimpse at E3 revealed a cel-shaded beauty of a game with the Lynchian weirdness and over-the-top violence we’ve come to expect from Suda. Largely missing was the immature prurience of Lollipop, which obliterated the line between cheap fan-service and the kind of winking meta-commentary found in earlier Suda games.
9. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)
Release date: 12/2013 (tentative)
After a few minutes with the new 3D Mario game I feel comfortable in saying it probably won’t be the near-flawless revelation that Super Mario Galaxy was. I also feel comfortable saying that it’s still an incredibly fun and cleverly designed 3D platformer, and that the multiplayer legitimately enhanced my experience even though I have absolutely no idea who I played with. The new cat suit fits perfectly into the Mushroom Kingdom, and the Wii U GamePad functionality was useful and unobtrusive. It’s easy to be cynical about the constant deluge of Mario platformers, but as long as the quality remains this high you won’t hear me complaining.
8. Voronoid (web browsers)
Release date: already available
I hate to reduce every game to reference math, but Voronoid is like Hokra crossed with Qix crossed with a racing game, which means it’s actually just incredibly difficult to describe. Instead of keeping a blip in a box for sixty seconds, the goal in Voronoid is to possess as much territory on the screen for as long as possible. That territory is constantly shifting from one player to the next depending on their spatial relationships to one another. You can momentarily steal others’ turf by gliding across their line or bumping into their avatar, but as players move across the board those borders change as often as Congressional districts in Republican-controlled states. Above the playing field is a progress meter with an icon for every player—those icons move towards a finish line, with their speed dictated by the amount of territory you hold. It’s a little more complex than it looks (which isn’t hard—it looks like an Atari 2600 game), but not as complex as I’m making it sound. It’s the kind of quick, competitive multiplayer game that shows well at a convention like E3, where there are always people to play with. It’s also already playable here.
7. Saints Row IV (Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 / PC)
Release date: 8/20/2013
Saints Row games still make me uncomfortable. I realize they’re satire, that they thoroughly ridicule the caddish assholery that’s taken over pop culture, but like a lot of satire they come too close to celebrating and reinforcing what they’re ostensibly mocking. They can be funny, though, and the series has turned into a more fun and ridiculous alternative to GTA. Saints Row IV adds in superpowers, and along with the resolutely unserious tone it’s now effectively more like Crackdown than GTA. That’s a good thing. Also at E3 the blatant parody of Saints Row felt refreshing after two days of watching and playing violent, self-serious shooters that are unwitting parodies of themselves.
6. Towerfall (Ouya)
Release date: already available
Towerfall is actually already out, courtesy of the tiny little Ouya console. This multiplayer scrum is a frantic four-way archery duel, like a single-screen Smash Bros. with a retro aesthetic and arrows instead of fists. Towerfall is intentionally limited to local-only play, which is a bummer if you don’t have friends over. Once you a get a group together, though, it’s as tense and trash-talkingly fun as the Mario Kart and Goldeneye bouts of our collective memory.
5. Fantasia: Music Evolved (Xbox One / Xbox 360)
Release date: 2014
It’s surprising to see this game on this list—I’m one of those nostalgic goons who couldn’t understand how the only music in the first trailer for a new Fantasia game could be that horrible Bruno Mars song with all the thrusting. Fortunately PR confirmed that there’d be at least some classical music in Fantasia: Music Evolved, and that plus time cooled me down enough to give Harmonix’s new one a proper chance. It’s still kind of an oddity, with the clear-cut goals of Rock Band and Dance Central replaced with a nebulous form of sound manipulation where you wave your hands around like a conductor (the kind who wears tails, not overalls). That sensation of materially impacting how music is performed with a simple wave of the hand is unexpectedly powerful, though, especially when combined with the beautifully designed and interactive environments. It may not sound like Fantasia, but it has the same kind of charm.
4. Tearaway (PlayStation Vita)
Release date: 10/22/2013
In a way Media Molecule’s Tearaway is the flagship game for the Vita’s arty new direction—it has the look and spirit of an indie but has the resources of one of the world’s largest companies behind it. Tearaway preserves the charming whimsicality of Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet, with a beautiful papercraft aesthetic based on the designs of Rex Crowle. You interact with the game world as if it’s made of paper, using the Vita’s touchscreen, touchpad and other features for a virtual arts and crafts session within the context of a rollicking adventure game. At one point during the E3 demo I had to grab two on-screen tabs and pull them apart to stretch out a sheet of paper. It was like the inverse of a Mad Fold-In. Smart and cute, Tearaway might finally justify your Vita purchase.
3. Hohokum (PlayStation 4 / PlayStation 3 / PS Vita)
Release date: 2014
Maybe one day I’ll tire of doodly games with Eno-y music and vague goals that might be entirely optional. Probably not, though. I can see some skeptics dismissing Hohokum as a prefab “indie” wannabe, cynically courting the pro-Katamari, anti-Dew crowd with its colorful and cartoonish art, an ambient score that adjusts to the player’s actions, and a general sense of laid-back aimlessness. I can see a lot of misguided people saying a lot of misguided things. I also see myself spending way too much time with Hohokum in my own living room at some undetermined date in the future, idly tracing loops through the sky as I scoop up tiny bear-like creatures and their beehive noisemakers. Imagine if Sound Shapes was a Pixel Junk version of Noby Noby Boy, and then excuse me for that tortured chain of comparisons.
2. Transistor (PlayStation 4 / PC)
Release date: 2014
Supergiant’s follow-up to Bastion was one of Paste’s favorite games at PAX East this year. It’s also one of the best games I saw at E3. Despite the use of narration and a similar art style, the turn-based sci-fi adventure Transistor isn’t a Bastion retread, swapping out that game’s action for a more strategic form of combat. Reflexes and button-presses are still important, but smart planning is just as vital. When a certain meter is full you can freeze the action and string together a sequence of commands for your character. Think of it as a tactical RPG dressed up as an action game, with the same isometric view found in both Bastion and Final Fantasy Tactics. Bastion was a tremendous union of story, mechanics and art design, and so far Transistor promises a similar level of quality.
1. EVE VR (Oculus Rift)
Release date: TBD
Yes, EVE VR tops this list almost entirely because of the hardware for which it was created. Without the Oculus Rift’s virtual reality it’d be a pretty basic and non-descript space-fighting game, not too different from Wing Commander or any number of old Star Wars games. With that goofy headset EVE VR becomes as much of an amusement park ride as it is a game. Forget GTA or Far Cry 2 or any of them old-ass Scrolls—EVE VR immediately creates a more realistic-feeling world without any hint of a story.
Keep reading for our Honorable Mentions…