LOS ANGELES — As a group, the most innovative games here at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles are PC games. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii have the attention of mainstream media, and with good reason—console games rake in about twice the cash collectively as PC games. And while the deluxe PlayStation 3 will sell for a startling $600 when its released in November, a computer with enough processing power to run the newest games can run $3000 to $5000 for a new model, or as much as $1000 per year to keep an old machine sufficiently upgraded. So the PC crowd is in the majority. Which might be why PC games continue to be so inventive.
The creativity and technical prowess runs the industry gamut, coming from the likes of Electronic Arts (EA), the world's largest game publisher, as well as from newbie outfits betting the farm on a single game in the hopes of attracting a distribution deal. The best-looking game we've seen here was , yet another first-person-shooter, with yet another alien invasion theme. Developed by Crynet, makers of the hit PC and console game Far Cry, and published by EA, Crysis is a straight-forward action game, but with an unbeatable game engine. The photos we took during our hands-on playing time don't do the game justice—in fact, as graphics get better across the board, the way they handle motion is what separates good looking titles from jaw-dropping ones. Crysis is jaw-dropping, with incredible use of varying focal lengths, as objects in the distance blur, moreso when you look at your own gun to change settings or select from various types of ammo. Its partly cinematic and partly realistic, and even more effective in night-time environments or when smoke, spotlights or general mayhem obscure your vision. The weapons in Crysis veer into laser-gun territory, but as one of the programmers told us, the intent was to make even the far-fetched technology look and feel gritty and realistic. They compared it to the movie Aliens … Aliens meets War of the Worlds might be closer. Crysis is a PC-only game, with no plans for a console port, and it should be out by the end of the year.
Another standout title was , a realtime strategy (RTS) game set in the year 1989. This is another alternate history game, but the premise is brilliantly, brutally simple: The Cold War ended, but Russia didn't fall apart. And a hot war followed. Players command infantry battalions, gunship squadrons, and tank divisions in teams, or one-on-one. Unlike many RTS titles, which are largely fantasy or sci-fi-themed, World in Conflict doesn't allow you to create barracks that spit out troops or factories that hammer together vehicles mid-battle. This is more realistic than any RTS we've ever seen—horrifying so, since one of the options you have is to launch low-yield nukes at the enemy. The graphics, especially for a strategy game, are stunning in a miniature sort of way as small-arms tracer rounds chatter across hillsides and Apaches launch rocket volleys at Russian tanks. But when the cruise missiles land, trailing smoke from the horizon, erupting in a screen-blinding flash and billowing, lit-from-within mushroom cloud, it feels like the end of the world. To make matters worse, any troops who enter the irradiated area will quickly die, and if you shift your view to survey the blast zone yourself, the color drains from the graphics, and a clicking buzz shakes the screen, due to residual EMP distortion. So even as an omniscient, all-seeing commander, you're prone to the ravages of nuclear war. World in Conflict, developed by Sierra Games, will be out in July of 2007.
And at the very bottom of the food chain is Alliance: The Silent War, a shooter that spans multiple generations of soldiers through some of the biggest battles of the 20th Century. The graphics and engine are top-notch, but the story is this game's strongest suit—a conspiracy of humans is manipulating world events, starting wars, toppling nations, and generally pulling our strings. These aren't aliens, monsters, demons or even overly zealous German soldiers. They're just a bunch of power-hungry power-brokers. And you represent another, similarly manipulative cabal, which may or may not be worse than your enemy. The demo featured Egypt in 1973, showing a gun battle starting in a cramped marketplace and ending in a mosque. Despite the fictional storyline, the action is largely sober, with no crosshairs to guide your aim, no option to zoom in on targets, just iron sights, lots of recoil, and a dead body or two to help absorb incoming fire. Your ability to take excessive damage before dying is disappointing, but only a handful of games allow you to be killed with one or two shots. We'll give them that one, especially since it's being developed by an industry newcomer, Windward Mark Interactive, who rented out a highly visible demo space near the main E3 entrance, apparently in the hopes of getting a publishing deal. Similar to an unsigned rock band sending demos to record labels, Windward Mark is taking a chance, pumping cash and time into a game that they might end up self-publishing. But considering the effort they're putting into this project, including compiling detailed ballistic info (and corresponding game mechanics) for over 200 real-world weapons, this talented little company could easily end up under the wing of a larger company. In fact, we'd be surprised if they haven't inked a deal by the end of E3. Windward Mark hopes to release Alliance: The Silent War sometime next year.
There are tons of honorable mentions among the PC titles here, but these were the three that impressed us the most. , the frantically-anticipated game from Sims creator Will Wright, wasn't available in any playable form here at E3. Players start as single-cell creatures, eating and mating until they crawl onto land, develop technology (including flying saucers), and eventually become celestial beings. If Spore were playable, we'd probably be talking about it more another five paragraphs. Actually, it would probably be the subject of every one of those blog posts. Look for further news on Spore in the coming months. —Erik SofgeEarlier: Hands-On With the PlayStation 3, Can We Sing? The PlayStation 3 Thinks So, Xbox360 Plays Well With Vista, PlayStation3: $500.
Hands-on footage from Crysis (PC): As you select your rate of fire, ammunition type and other gun-related options in the foreground, the background blurs.
Clearly, we're fighting a giant alien on the deck of an aircraft carrier in Crysis (PC).
A mushroom cloud from World in Conflict (PC).
A view of Electronic Arts's surround-screen trailer for Spore (PC), one of the most anticipated video games ever.