E3 2018: Cyberpunk 2077 astounds, but so do the crowds
Dispatches from the show floor, where E3 continues to struggle with delivering a satisfying show for the public
With every year that passes, games are becoming bigger, the worlds they depict more alive and persistent. In part, this trend is about opening up new avenues for monetisation, the lifetime of individual games growing from hours and days to weeks, months, and even years, becoming platforms through which to sell content in the process.
But it has also pushed the industry's AAA developers to new heights of ambition and scale and fine detail. That much is evident in so many of the games at this year's E3, and nowhere more so than CD Projekt Red's long awaited Cyberpunk 2077.
Actually seeing Cyberpunk is another matter, however, and if you were one of the thousands that entered E3 on a (far from cheap) public ticket, even getting close to the show's most talked about game is all but impossible. Last year the feeling on the show floor was that the actual public experience of E3 needed improvements to justify the cost of entry. This year, it seems that precious few of those lessons were heeded and acted upon.
As you wander the halls of E3 2018, it's impossible to miss the show's self-advertising banners and the event's slogan: Where digital worlds meet real innovation.
"Cream of the crop is undoubtedly Cyberpunk 2077... CD Projekt Red's RPG is shaping up to be everything fans hoped for"
The extent of that "innovation" varies from title to title, but there's no denying that developers are on top of their game when it comes to creating immersive digital worlds. Most of the games I've seen - either through an in-depth tour or hands-on experience - centre on taking players to a vivid setting, whether fantastic or realistic, that you can't help but want to explore.
Forza Horizon 4, for example, is a fictional microcosm of my home nation, but Playground Games has gone into such detail - yes, including potholes - that any British gamer will feel like they've really driven down each road before.
Dying Light 2 is attempting to step beyond the zombie action game tropes and deliver a world that is genuinely shaped by your actions. Chatting to the developers, I learned just how many systems and rules are enabling the city to govern itself, with factions losing and reclaiming territory without the direct action of the player. Historically, games have been static things, only coming to life as you interact with them, but we're reaching the stage where that's no longer the case. The world exists without you.
Unravel Two is stunning to look at, drawing you into the smallest nooks and crannies, where even a twig can be a major obstacle. Spider-Man delivers the most gorgeous-looking Manhattan we've ever had the pleasure of swinging around. Anthem is set in a shared online world that will change over time, a digital realm that will be unrecognisable years after it first launches. Even the linear dungeons of The Elder Scrolls: Blades feel like part of something larger, a wider landscape that stretches beyond the frame of your smart device.
But cream of the crop is undoubtedly Cyberpunk 2077. Shown only to media and industry members behind closed doors, CD Projekt Red's sci-fi RPG is shaping up to be everything fans hoped for. The dirty, neon-lit metropolis of Night City is bursting with life wherever you go: the passers-by, the traffic, the sound, the atmosphere - it's almost like you can smell the place. It's the closest sci-fi buffs will ever get to living out their Blade Runner fantasies, and it's a world I can't wait to explore thoroughly (whenever it finally comes out).
"My lasting impression of the show this year is that E3 is simply not the ideal fit for anyone"
I haven't seen the Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay demo (yet), so pardon me if I'm not as excited as James, but my lasting impression of the show this year is that E3 is simply not the ideal fit for anyone.
For the 15,000 members of the public who purchased their way into the show, E3 is a week of long queues, more for photo opportunities than for gameplay experiences. It's a week spent standing in the aisles of the show floor, having Nintendo representatives guide you around their Byzantine lines for access to the non-competitive Smash Bros. Switch experience, or a gameplay demo of Pokemon: Let's Go Pikachu.
If you're particularly flush, maybe you drop some coin on an exclusive Funko Pop or something from the Sony, Microsoft, or Square Enix stores. But for the most part, you're an excited bystander, unable to access anything substantial, but able to pay $30 for a T-shirt from your favorite platform holder.
For the rest of the industry, this E3 has been as crowded, stuffy, inconvenient, and difficult to get around as any in memory. As much as ever before, there seems to be one E3 for the well-connected attendees, and a second, frustratingly walled off E3 for the people who managed to get into the doors of the show, but didn't have the readership, name recognition, or contacts to arrange reserved preview slots with the publishers of their choice. There was always going to be growing pains when it came to letting the public into the show, but E3 2018 showed apparently few lessons learned from the previous year's experiment.
However, in the interest of positivity, I will say that the security canines were uniformly very good dogs. Very Good Dogs indeed. Yes they were. Who were good dogs? They were. Yes they were.