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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

EA @ E3 2015 Roundup - One for the Gamers

Electronic Arts is often the subject of harsh gamer criticism--it's the 'love to hate' company of the videogames industry, even though they make plenty of quality titles. But whether their reputation is founded or not, this year at E3, EA did everything in its power to shake that reputation and prove that it is a company that listens to and works with its fans.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

It has now been three years since we last had a Mass Effect game, and apparently we still have a while yet to wait. While EA did kick off their entire presentation with Mass Effect: Andromeda, what was shown was only a brief teaser that very nearly felt like repurposed footage from a certain Mass Effect 3 promo. It was a nod to the game's existence, but little more. We saw someone standing in a space ship, staring out into space, and they were wearing an N7 uniform despite being all the way out in our closest neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. The game is set to release Holiday 2016, so expect to see this one properly debut at next E3. UPDATE: EA did show off a little bit more of the game in a new announcement trailer.

Need for Speed

When EA first announced a series reboot for Need for Speed, I wasn't too impressed. As someone who grew up playing way too much of the first four games—particularly the fourth—Need for Speed going back to its roots doesn't equal EA's vision for 'authentic underground car culture' to me. But as it turns out, EA may be addressing its roots more than I thought. One diamond in the mostly rough string of last-gen Need for Speed games was Carbon, a racer that delicately balanced the past and future of the series in a wonderfully satisfying way. And the new Need for Speed gives off such strong Carbon vibes that the creators even acknowledged it on-stage. I would've said the game even has Carbon-style live action sequences...except they mostly aren't live action. Frostbite Engine has progressed an alarming amount, to the point where live actors can be superimposed over real-time 3D backdrops and the entire thing feels like a real set. It was amazing to watch as gameplay transitioned to cutscene and back completely seamlessly, with no prerendered environments to speak of. If you like a bit of story in your racers, the new Need for Speed will be right up your alley. The game focuses on building reputation and taking on bosses called 'Icons', a title you can claim for yourself the more you expand your turf. Each Icon has their own subplot, focusing on different styles of play. But don't worry, you can create your own style, too: Need for Speed places a heavy emphasis on customization, both aesthetic and mechanical. It's the deepest Need for Speed we've seen in a while, and it's coming November 3 of this year.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic has evolved a lot since it first released, and it's about to undergo a major change again with a new expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire. We only saw a cinematic trailer to set the stage for the expansion's story, but EA made some lofty promises for the real thing. Knights of the Fallen Empire is all about making good on fan feedback, going back to the roots of Bioware-style storytelling and dialog with branching paths and player choice. What's more, if you're a paying subscriber, the expansion will come absolutely free when it launches October 27.


EA is perhaps best known as one of the worst offenders for perpetuating the AAA formula—games that repeat the same basic trends, play it safe, and cost a fortune to make. But not all EA games are created equal, and this one is exactly the sort of refreshing change of pace they need. Unravel is a heartfelt little game where you play as Yarney, a toy made of wool, and traverse the physics-based puzzle platforming world, unraveling yourself the farther you go. The creators say the yarn in the game is a metaphor for life, and it definitely has all the marks of being both great fun and perhaps even inspiring and sentimental. It's a bit like a level made in LittleBigPlanet, but with a more serious tone despite its cute appearance, and I can't wait to play it.

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2

What started as an oddball spinoff is now a runaway hit. With over six million Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare players a sequel was inevitable, and that's exactly what we have here. In action it looks and feels more like an expansion to the original rather than an entirely new game, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The first was a passable effort with a solid foundation and really only needed a few tweaks and additions anyhow. Garden Warfare 2 introduces all new maps where the Zombies are on the defensive for a change, and both factions get a handful of new, wacky characters. There's also solo play against AI now, and split screen has become a series mainstay after just barely being pushed in at the last minute for Garden Warfare 1. If you enjoyed that game, the sequel won't be much that the first wasn't, it'll just be a bit bigger and better. Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 will release Spring of 2016 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, and any unlockables you've found in the first game will transfer over. In addition, EA has already committed to releasing free periodic content updates for Garden Warfare 2 post-launch.

EA Sports

Next up was sports, one of EA's more profitable divisions, and also one that changes very little from year to year. Sports fans, after all, are not exactly looking for novelty, just stats, realism, and more ways to engage in their favorite activities. In that regard, EA hit a home run this year (pun completely intended). NHL 16, NFL 16, the first PGA Golf Tour to be built on Frostbite, NBA Live with a face-scanning companion app to import yourself as a player in the game, and even soccer legend Pele on stage to promote FIFA 16—it was all there, and while the changes are incremental, by now they've incremented long enough to be pretty impressive sports simulations. Catch them at a glance, and you'd be forgiven for thinking they're the real thing. EA even introduced a couple management hubs to take your virtual game to the next level.

Mobile Games

Say what you will about mobile games: the viability of smartphones and tablets as gaming platforms is undeniable, and if you're a big publisher and developer like EA, you'd be downright stupid to ignore such a vast, hungry audience. In fact, EA has already provided us with a number of pretty great mobile games in the past. For E3 they had two in particular to show off. First up was Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, a card-collecting game spanning both current trilogies, and next up was a complete tonal shift with Minions Paradise, a building simulation game featuring the little yellow guys everyone is so crazy about. While neither game will be everyone's cup of tea or serve to prove what smartphones can do as gaming platforms they will each appeal to their respective fan bases when they land on the Apple app store and Google Play later this year.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst

Back in 2008, EA wasn't exactly known for taking risks on creative titles. Mirror's Edge was a distinct exception, introducing first-person freerunning to the world as a new style of gameplay. The game was met with mixed reception, but a strong cult following that has actively campaigned for a sequel ever since. We were finally told that one was in production last E3, and this year we finally got to really see it in action. Mirror's Edge Catalyst is actually a prequel, an origin story of the first game's protagonist, Faith. It takes place in a city ruled by corporations with no government, no individual freedom, and no privacy. It's darker, deeper, and bigger. Players will face story missions, races, time trials, environmental puzzles, and more, and all without loading screens or walled-off arenas. The world is entirely free-roam, which is an impressive feat for a game that takes place not just on the ground, but also the rooftops of the city skyline. The game still maintains the original's iconic minimalistic color scheme, which was designed to imitate the way a 'runner' would see the world, though there is a bit more color this time around. Maybe it's to show Faith's inexperience at this stage in the story? We'll find out when the game releases on PC, PS4, and Xbox One February 23, 2016.

Star Wars: Battlefront

Few franchises have as big an audience as Star Wars, and few Star Wars games have as big an audience as the Battlefront series. While there's been some controversy over DICE's Battlefront containing less actual content than the games released a full decade ago, after seeing live gameplay in-person I'm convinced fans have little to worry about. No, this isn't Battlefront III, it's a reboot with a similar but still divergent vision. This Battlefront is dedicated to realism, strange as that may sound for a science fiction videogame. But in this case it's really true: Battlefront uses some of the same assets as LucasArts used in the films, and it's clear that great effort was put into making Battlefront look, sound, and feel like a movie set brought to life. "Authentic" was the word used on-stage, and for good reason. And not in regards to the films only--despite its differences, this is still clearly Battlefront. Gameplay is handled in both first and third person, which can be toggled on-the-fly, there are special Jedi heroes, and while they don't serve quite the same function, Uplink stations serve to replace Command Posts as a nod to past games. No, there aren't space battles, but you will be able to participate in aerial and ground combat simultaneously, on a single map, which is something Battlefront I and II never did all that well. The new Battlefront will also feature a number of game modes, both online and offline against AI, as well as splitscreen local multiplayer. If gamers can keep an open mind about this one, it's highly likely it will pay off for them. Battlefront will release on November 17 of this year for the PC, PS4, and Xbox One.