THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT
Polish developer CD Projekt Red does one thing and one thing only: role-playing games. This year was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's second E3 and it still faces the same problems that it did in 2013. Namely, the game looks like a ton of fun when it's condensed to short snippets onstage at Microsoft's media briefing, but otherwise what makes the game special, like story-affecting choices and scouring the map's nooks and crannies, just doesn't demo well. I saw an uninterrupted 45 minutes of gameplay during a private demo and witnessed monster-hunter-for-hire Geralt exterminate harpies, undead swamp people, werewolves and demonic tree roots (seriously), and while that was cool, he was mostly an errand boy in between battles. To me, this robbed him of any narrative weight or importance.
Tracking a gigantic, bleeding griffin through the forest using supernatural forensics, however, and then delivering a killing blow and carrying its head into town on the side of your horse looks unbelievably badass. You'll be able to check the game out for yourself come next February 24th.
METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN
"Let the legend come back to life." At some point in the extended gameplay demo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, those words are uttered in Big Boss' direction... and then a horse shits. That's just a partial taste of how Hideo Kojima has colored this new, open world of MGS.
MGS V: The Phantom Pain picks up nine years after Big Boss has fallen into a coma and shows the character severely scarred and brandishing a curious bit of horn-shaped shrapnel sticking out of his head. The gameplay doesn't vary from the series' typical blend of action and stealth, but thanks to Kojima's Fox Engine, the environments (said to be roughly "200x the size of Ground Zeroes") and character models are much more detailed. In fact, Konami reps said that a key game dynamic -- the ability to fast-forward time with a Phantom Cigar (e-cig) -- is entirely possible because of this new engine. The resulting effect is not unlike that of high-speed cinematography, where a static landscape is shown passing from day into night and back again. MGS V also throws in an entirely new element for longtime fans: the ability to visit a dynamically expanding Mother Base populated with all the characters, materials and artillery you've Fultoned back. And yes, that even includes livestock.
I've gone on record saying that I was very much disinterested in Destiny, but that was until I actually got to play developer Bungie's latest. Going hands-on with the former Halo studio's game felt like a welcome trip home; damn near everything about the game just feels right for me as a Halo fan. Gunplay is tight and strikes a solid balance between the heft of a Killzone or Battlefield versus Titanfall's or, say, Call of Duty's feather-light locomotion. The environments I've seen are gorgeous, feeling lived-in and appropriately desolate and even in the early state I've played, the game feels incredibly polished.
Everywhere I turned, it seemed like I was seeing an idea that Bungie had wanted to put in its next game for the past 10 or so years. Whether the studio couldn't due to hardware limitations or because its next game was always Halo-related, though, isn't clear. Things like summoning vehicles on-demand to help get across the game's vast expanses of geography, for instance, are more than welcome. Or, even better, the way voice-chat audio subtly reflects your current environment (in a metallic tunnel, it sounded like my co-op buddy's voice was echoing off the steel walls) was super neat. Tricks like this make me keep wanting to go back. I'm just worried that I'm not the only one who initially wrote it off as Just Another Shooter.
It's surreal to play a first-person shooter that's based in the same city I'm currently visiting. In Battlefield: Hardline, I played cops-and-robbers on the battle-scarred streets of downtown Los Angeles. Since it was a war zone, no civilians were around to get in the way. I was one of the robbers wandering around parking structures, stairwells, hotels and office buildings, searching for loot and evading law enforcement with the rest of my team. Saying that the round was chaotic would be a gross understatement; cars and helicopters alike flew around corners, and thanks to the tech running the game, rubble, shrapnel and destroyed buildings were everywhere. If being a bad guy isn't your style, you can also play as a cop that's trying to prevent the opposition from snatching the booty.
While the game's extreme levels of action are pretty awesome, this is a Battlefield game in name only. Seemingly, the sole aspect that ties the title to its namesake are the tools developer Visceral Games used to make the game and what you use to wreak havoc on the ground. Hardline is essentially a re-skinned Battlefield 4: Cops kill the robbers and robbers, well, they kill cops. Each side is essentially the same, despite their respective vocations, and is made up of soldiers fighting a virtual war. And you'd be justified to remain cautious about whether the game will work as advertised at launch based on series history. There's a beta test happening right now, well ahead of the fall release, should you be (morbidly) curious about how the game plays.
Let me get this out of the way up front: Alien: Isolation is difficult. The developers at Creative Assembly not only nailed the atmosphere of director Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece, but they also ensured that I respected just how fragile life in deep space is when the hulking monstrosity pictured above is out to murder you every chance it gets. My demo tasked me with few objectives, but most related directly to me making it toward the next area in one piece. That didn't happen. However, with each successive go at it, I made considerably more progress toward my goal. On my first attempt, I tried sprinting down a desolate corridor with the intent to make it through the doors I imagined were at the other side. No dice; the xenomorph noticed me before I even knew it was there and the next thing I knew, its double mouth punched another hole in my face.
The next attempt I made it a little farther, grabbing a flame-thrower before I exited the first room and figuring out how to use my motion tracker -- the latter of which caused me to fail an optional objective. When I rounded the first corner and the alien spotted me, I darted back and jumped into a storage locker, figuring I'd be safe. Nope. The alien ripped me from my haven and murdered me. On my third try, I noticed a series of air vents big enough to crawl through. Huddling down, I crouched and made my way into the first one that I'd spotted. Hooray! Progress! That was short-lived. I got cocky and thought that I could traverse to the next one without paying attention to where the xeno was. I'd heard the thundering footsteps behind me, but figured I'd be safe as the vent closed behind me. Not so much: The alien reached through and ripped me out of there, making my face see-through in the process. I loved it.
You're a fan of the tough-as-nails Dark Souls series, yeah? Then you'll likely feel right at home in its mastermind's latest, the PlayStation 4-exclusive Bloodborne. Atmosphere and mood aren't the only things the game is dripping with. As the title implies, there's also a lot of blood. Buckets of it. Set in a 19th century gothic city, your task is to eliminate the blight plaguing it by any means necessary, be it with a giant straight razor or a hand cannon, and well, trying to not die too much in the process. As combat proceeds, the player character becomes covered in progressively more blood, and it never faded away during my hands-off demo. Getting a sense for how difficult the game is wasn't particularly easy since the presentation had an invincibility mode turned on (staring at loading screens and repeatedly falling at the hands of nightmare creatures and undead townspeople isn't exactly exciting), but I was assured that the game doesn't stray far from its roots in terms of just how hard it is. This supposedly makes each victory that much more satisfying. You know, if you're into that sort of thing.
HOMEFRONT: THE REVOLUTION
What would America feel like under North Korean occupation? That's the question Homefront: The Revolution wants to answer. You might remember Homefront from a few years back as a hokey, underwhelming shooter from the now-defunct publisher THQ. From what I saw during a presentation, new developer Crytek London took what was good about that game (the concept of an invaded United States), married it with a sense of dread and hopelessness and added a dash of fancy graphics. The brief demo I caught followed a citizen making his way through the streets of an open-world Philadelphia, passing brothers and sisters in arms who were figuring out how to ration off enough necessities to survive planning an uprising. The sequence reminded me an awful lot of the intro to Half-life 2, Metro 2033 and Resistance 3; the sense of despondency was palpable, thanks in large part to solid voice acting and environmental design. Once the combat started toward the end, Crytek's other strengths showed through: gunplay and weapon design, with the latter sporting an upgrade system with part-by-part modifications akin to the Crysis series. We're still a year or more off from this game releasing, but it already looks and feels killer.
MORTAL KOMBAT X
I've got bad news for you: I don't play fighting games. The last Mortal Kombat game I played with any sincerity was for PlayStation 2/Xbox, and even then I wasn't that good at it. So what can I tell you about Mortal Kombat X, Mortal Kombat fan? This game focuses on a gaggle of new characters -- somewhat expected given the fatality-laden ending of the last MK game -- and NetherRealm Studios had three such new characters available to play at E3 2014. We got a look at all three, as well as returning favorites Scorpion and Sub-Zero.
Here's the good news: Mortal Kombat is still hella fun. Even with my vast ignorance of fighting games, it was a blast leaping around in that world once more, trying my best to avoid Cassie Cage's utterly revolting "X-ray" move. Like the last MK, "X-ray moves" are back in Mortal Kombat X; one such move has Cassie pulling an homage to her father's iconic split attack. Not clear enough? She does a split and punches her opponent in the genitals, which I watched explode in X-ray mode. It was the only demo at E3 where I turned to the demo assistant and said, "Really?" Even he, a NetherRealm Studios employee, was a bit bashful about it. Anyway, the other new characters I tried were neat as well, with Ferra/Torr standing out as a highlight (dude throws a person at you to attack -- pretty serious!). The game is way early at this point, but it looks to be shaping up really well already.
Ben Gilbert, Brad Molen and Joseph Volpe contributed to this report
[Image credit: AFP/Getty Images]