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Wink If You've Seen the Future


You're reading Reaction Time, a weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.

E3 is always on the verge of devolving into a chaotic, inescapable din of competing mega-screens and marketing megaphones yelling over each other. Everyone is selling their own piece of the future. That's why, whether intentional or not, this year's show felt weirdly and stubbornly on message, as if a tacit agreement between every manufacturer and publisher ensured that nobody would step out of the here-and-now. If a gnawing absence of surprise and excitement pervaded the show, it's because everything we saw and discussed is expected to come out within the next twelve months.

Ubisoft was willing to venture much further into the future, surprising attendees of its own press conference with a snippet of Watch Dogs, a game that seemed too good to be true amongst E3's barrage of solid sequels. Here was a new intellectual property, with a serious and topical premise, and graphics too sophisticated to be running on a console from 2005. It's okay to talk about the next generation, apparently, as long as you don't explicitly call it that.

Running on a high-end PC hooked up to an Xbox-compatible controller, the Watch Dogs demo trails Aiden Pearce, a man obsessed with modern surveillance and communication networks. His smartphone, plucked discreetly from his coat pocket, becomes a vector for anarchy as he pries into the personal profiles of people nearby, blocks cell reception and disturbs traffic signals to complete an assassination. His mission degenerates into a shootout between stranded vehicles (an inevitability that might support the argument for this being a game for the current market) and eventually coerces him into fleeing from the police. The camera pulls away, farther and farther, to reveal another mysterious (and playable!) onlooker on top of a nearby building – another agent, presumably, in Aiden's cabal of hackers. It's a breathtaking urban shot, and it seems a little too slick for what we've come to expect from the ol' Xbox and PlayStation 3.

Ubisoft's official stance, of course, is that the game is coming to PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 "for sure." I fully expect the French monolith to release versions of Watch Dogs for older platforms – with less sophisticated lighting, textures and rendering techniques – but they'll appear noticeably inferior to E3's impressive presentation. Financial prudence demands that such an ambitious game be offered to large, entrenched audiences, even while it's striding out alongside new hardware with a small starting base.

Did Ubisoft win E3, then? The company has smartly seized the real promise of the annual exposition, of seeing a sliver of the industry's long-term trajectory, to position itself as a de facto leader in what we know of the next wave of games. Others will follow, bringing their major franchises and characters along, but there's immense value in being the source of surprise and vision at E3. People talk about you.

It's not that there's no excitement to be extracted from the familiar anymore. Halo 4 is shaping up to be a welcome augmentation of Microsoft's most important franchise, and Tomb Raider's gritty (and controversial) survival tale may purify a well that's been poisoned ever since someone dropped The Angel of Darkness in there. But the loud, flashing context of E3 suppresses the achievements of those games, compressing them into slick trailers that all end with SOMETHING FLYING AT YOU AND THEN TITLE SCREEN. And if it wasn't that, the game would become an unwitting entrant to E3 2012's most visceral competition: Which character excels the most at stabbing necks?

The unnecessary levels of presentation that seem so necessary at E3 deserves the brunt of that criticism, more so than the games themselves. The marketing machine is in control, and snaps its fingers to keep your attention locked to the games – the products – that'll be on shelves within the next few months. I understand it fully, but I can't help but think it's one of the reasons that every expo seems more curtailed and less ambitious than the last one. If you want to talk about the real future at E3, you have to do it with a wink.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

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