E3: EA PLAY Conference – News and Views

E3: EA PLAY Conference – News and Views

It’s my favourite time of the year again, when Journalists, investors, publishers (and for the first time, the public) descend on the Los Angeles Convention Centre for the Electronic Entertainment Expo; the noisiest, showiest and often most vapid event in the gaming industry. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit in the comfort of our homes, observing the chaos from afar while we tweet and stream with passionate snark and sarcasm.

This year we begun proceedings with EA PLAY, the relatively new offshoot of E3 where the industry’s most loathed publisher showed us what they’ve got lined up for the next year or so. As usual, things got off to a rough start. EA began with a trailer that announced a story mode for Madden 18, which hardly comes as a surprise after they gave FIFA the same treatment last year. Following this was the announcement of a new Battlefield 1 DLC in September, entitled In The Name of the Tsar. With it, developer DICE promises six new maps, a new playable faction (the Russian army), new vehicles and new weapons that are all themed around the Eastern front. Whilst neither of these announcements are worth being particularly critical of, one must admit that this was hardly the strong opener that conferences like these normally deliver, as both things they announced seemed nothing short inevitable (and therefore rather dull). And that would have been fine too, if mundane had not become the very essence of the conference.

Following the mundane opening, we were brought rather swiftly into the widely lambasted Sports segment (often referred to as the piss-break). Here, EA spent a good ten minutes or so advertising their interest in e-sports, as they announced their largest ever FIFA championship as well as championships for other titles. Then came the entirely unforeseeable presentation of a FIFA 18 trailer. Here, we saw that while FIFA 18 may have sparkly AI and nice visuals, it is indeed just another game about football. Once again it has a story mode too, which will follow the ongoing story of Alex Hunter, protagonist of FIFA 17. It’s important to note that in all of this, we saw absolutely no gameplay. There was the occasional trailer as well as screenshots, and the usual showing off of new engine tech, but otherwise absolutely nothing substantial in the first 25-30 minutes of the show. Way to bore us right off the mark, EA.

Next we saw a bit of Need For Speed Payback – a game that promises CARS! STUNTS! EXPLOSIONS! And not a lot else. Nothing they had to show was particularly exciting, but on the upside we finally saw some actual gameplay, so at least it didn’t bore the audience to tears. The demo itself involved a car chasing down a truck, someone jumping from the car to the truck, and stealing another car from the back of the truck. All the while, a police chase rages all around. It’s hard not to note the Fast and Furious influence here, in what is another clear attempt by the Need For Speed team to meld storytelling with silly car action. Let’s hope it’s not another catastrophe like the one we saw in The Run.

Following this demo was the definite highlight of the show: the announcement of A Way Out, the new game from Hazelight (those chaps that made the truly wonderful Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons). As a studio who have hitherto shown a willingness to attempt something a bit different when it comes to game design, the reveal did not disappoint, as they announced that A Way Out would be an exclusively two-player co-operative experience. The trailer that they showed established the plot of the game, which follows two men as they attempt to escape from a prison to go on some sort of revenge mission. A Way Out looks to take a lot of inspiration from cinematic third person adventure games like Uncharted, but also seems to offer enough original ideas to make it of note. In the subsequent gameplay demo, Hazelight showed off several interesting features, such as a mechanic that sees one player in a cutscene while the other plays normally, and different narrative outcomes based on which character completes which action.  Overall, Hazelight delivered an incredibly strong first showing for their new IP, and indeed the only showing of the conference that left me pining for more. At least EA gave us one thing to look forward to.

Next up was the announcment of another new IP, this one from Bioware (Dragon Age, Mass Effect): Codename Dylan is now officially called ‘Anthem’. A reveal tease dropped along with the announcement, but all that it really gave away is that we can expect Anthem to have a science-fiction setting: In which a big wall keeps people safe while other people fight the big monsters that are outside. Beyond that we know very little other than that Anthem is an action game, and that Bioware/EA will be showing us more at tomorrow’s Xbox briefing. It’s hard to feel excited or even intrigued for the project at this point, so let’s hope the proper reveal gives us something juicy.

After an incredibly mixed bag, EA brought us onto what they thought would be the main event: the first gameplay reveal for Star Wars Battlefront II… though of course, not before they revealed DLC plans and a bullshot trailer first. Following Titanfall 2’s model, aka the Overwatch model, all extra content for the game after launch will be completely free. The first pack of content will include Finn and Phasma as playable characters, as well as a map based on events in the upcoming film, The Last Jedi (so expect it to launch sometime after that movie). While I much prefer this to paid content that could divide the playerbase, one has to wonder how EA will make it viable. Though they didn’t announce it, microtransactions are arguably on the cards, which is always questionable in a premium triple-A title. The trailer that followed these announcements was of the typical variety, where doctored, scripted engine footage is shown in place of genuine gameplay, to make the multiplayer segment of the game same much more intense and action packed than it’ll ever be in reality.

EA then made the dumb decision to follow up the trailer with an actual live gameplay demo of the multiplayer, which only highlighted this issue – and several others. The entire battlefield that was on show looked vastly empty in comparison to what we had just seen, with only small packets of action opening up here and there, arguably highlighting the usual problem of putting a smallish number of players in a huge playspace. It also didn’t help that the direction of the live demo was terrible. There was no map fly-through to give us an awareness of the combat space or context to the action that was taking place. Whoever was selecting the different player-screens did a very poor job, often switching the perspective to somebody who would die moments later, or showing us a ‘dogfight’ that was literally just somebody flying around the level, almost aimlessly. It’s a damn shame that a game that looks and sounds as good as this seems to look so shallow on a mechanical and interactive level. Overall, the demo fell flat, as it delivered on the promise of showing us an increase in content, but sadly forgot to show us a compelling game.

I was also expecting to see a single-player portion of the game on show here, but that did not happen. Indeed, the strangest thing about this conference was perhaps the lack of presence from modes and titles that have been previously announced. Sea of Solitude, Fe and Visceral’s Star Wars game were all missing from the proceedings, which was odd given that EA clearly had time that they needed to fill. Overall it was a conference of great disappointment and general boredom, with just the occasional spark of something interesting. Did it’s job then, as that sums up the publisher’s products rather well.