In the global console industry, it's pretty much been Sony's year so far – few will argue with that. The PlayStation 4 has sold 7m units, roughly 2m more than the Xbox One, if current figures are to be believed. Meanwhile, Nintendo has fallen way behind as consumers continue to spurn the Wii U.
With confidence high then, it's been another great E3 for Sony. The company's gargantuan stand held a strong range of PlayStation 4 titles, as well as row-upon-row of thoroughly appealing PlayStation Network games. Although many of those projects are scheduled for 2015, we managed to get hands-on time with several key examples. Here's what we thought.
Eyebrows were raised when Driveclub, the first blockbusting PS4 racing game from Motorstorm creator Evolution Studios, was delayed to October 7. But at E3, it was apparent that Sony took a sensible decision on that score. At last year’s show, the game looked distinctly average in visual terms, whereas now, it has acquired the polished graphical sheen that PS4 owners demand. And whereas last year its gameplay was shrouded in ambiguity, we now know that it is truly seeking to innovate beyond the conventional racing game format.
Design director Paul Rustchynsky describes the project as a “socially connected experience, with clubs at the heart of everything.” He admits that seamlessly integrating that social aspect was a factor in the game’s slippage. In Driveclub, you receive a “targeted feed”, containing online updates, face-offs and challenges designed specifically for you. Racing tasks may involve racing against your PlayStation Network friends, like-minded friends of friends or players with a similar skill level.
Importantly, Evolution Studios has worked out how to incorporate this element so that it won’t affect the general flow of your play. Rustchynsky said that one multiplayer mechanic will involve registering for events that take your fancy, which might be scheduled to take place at a specific time in the future; the game will send you notifications when they are due.
As the name suggests, car clubs will feature heavily, and the single-player mode, called Driveclub Tour, will include point-to-points, road races and track races, along with objectives which may not necessarily be about winning, but instead reward things like clean laps. There will be more than 50 cars, starting with the Golf GTI and tending towards the exotic. Settings will take in much of Europe, including Norway and Scotland.
Another key factor – marking Driveclub as a quintessentially British project – is its complex weather system. Evolution reckons it has taken this to new levels for a driving game with, for example, roads becoming progressively snowier in northern climes, and wind speed determining how quickly wet roads will dry out. The point behind this, and a day-night system, is to provide different driving experiences on the same roads.
The E3 demo we played gave no indication of the social side of the game, being a straight race around a road circuit in Scotland, but it did feature “dynamic challenges” in which you may have to get the closest to the racing line around a particular corner, or drift for the longest period around a hairpin bend.
As you drive around the long tracks, backdropped by highly impressive scenery, you enter delineated areas where you can discharge a set challenge to the best of your ability. Once you realise what is required (your efforts are rated at the end of each challenge section) this proves pretty good fun. The racing – against human opponents at least – is brutal, and car feel plentiful and authentic. There's a lot of exotic machinery to choose between, including a Ferrari F12, a McLaren MP4-12C and a Porsche 911.
Driveclub is already pretty moreish and definitely looks and feels like the top-line, flagship driving game that you would expect from Evolution Studios. However, the big question now is whether it will feel radically different from the likes of Forza Horizon 2 and The Crew, two titles competing on a very similar circuit.
The Order: 1886
Above all else, owners of newly launched consoles crave original, exclusive games – like The Order: 1886. It certainly has an unusual underlying premise: that mankind took an evolutionary swerve a millennium or so back, leading to the existence of animalistic half-breeds which fought furiously with humans until the industrial revolution gave the latter species the upper hand.
There’s a pinch of Arthurian legend in there, too. In the game’s alternate human history, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table discover a substance called Black Water which gives them the ability to heal and enjoy incredible longevity, and so they found the Order, which dedicates itself to acting as guardians of mankind. By 1886, a more effective industrial revolution than the one we know has put all manner of technology, including sophisticated guns and electricity, into the hands of the Order, but they have become identified with the upper classes so, as well as fighting the remaining half-breeds, they find themselves up against the rebelling masses.
The outcome of this florid back-story is a game world that looks like Victorian London but features steampunk weaponry and a dash of mysticism. At E3, we saw a sequence of the game in which player character Galahad first encounters a Lycan – a werewolf that can only be killed with some weapon or strategy beyond what our protagonist has available at the time. Ru Weerasuriya, the game’s director at developer Ready At Dawn, tantalisingly refused to reveal how the Lycans will be dealt with, and hinted that other types of half-breed will feature.
The chunk of the The Order: 1886 that we played was promising, but typically for show demo, very short. The gameplay mainly consisted of cover-based shooting punctuated by cut-scenes, which sounds a tad tired, but there were enough twists to keep it fresh. Galahad, for example, is equipped with a thermite gun, allowing him to fire a flammable cloud that can be ignited with a mini-grenade. This not only takes out groups of enemies, it also blasts background objects, which proves useful in environment puzzles. The Black Water acts as a healing agent, and at times, you can trigger Blacksight, a sort of focus mode.
Atmospherically, The Order: 1886 is impeccable. Ready At Dawn uses its own proprietary engine, designed to let it build levels which are packed with detail and what Weerasuriya characterises as “density”. Incredible texture-work adds to the distinctive yet believable feel of the environments, and the performance capture on the character models is of the highest order.
The Order: 1886 looks beautiful, has original ideas and promises top-class shooter-style action. It will need a good sense of pace in order to stave off repetitiveness, though, and we will unfortunately have to wait until next year before getting our hands on it.
We didn’t get hands-on with Bloodborne, but this action-RPG, developed by Dark Souls creator From Software, is another vital exclusive. Its Gothic visual approach renders the murky environment almost black and white at times, but all this studio's elements are clearly visible: no-compromise combat, terrifying bosses and cranked-up difficulty levels.
The game’s central mechanic is its combat system, which centres on an unusual weapon – essentially a giant spring-loaded blade. When folded, you can use it for quick attacks, but unfolding doubles your reach – this is handy for enemies you don’t want coming too close, but it makes attacks much slower. In your spare hand, you have a blunderbuss, which is very much a secondary weapon, and is employed to send troublesome enemies staggering back, so that you can then move in for the kill with your blade. As with any From Software game, dodging is vital.
The inhabitants of the town visited in the demo are in the grip of a deep paranoia caused by a monster invasion. As an outsider, you would be attacked on sight, so it is a good idea to take a stealthy approach. The combat looks challenging, and the atmosphere chilling, with villagers engaging in dubious rituals inlcuding burning their fellow townsfolk at the stake. And the giant boss at the end of the level is as over-the-top as you would expect of a From Software game.
Once again, Bloodborne is expected to ship in 2015. Those who want to experience this combination of RPG and survival horror will have to develop a virtua familiar to fans of From Software's game design: patience.
Shot through with delightfully quirky and cynical British humour, Counter-Spy is a side-scrolling third-person shooter with elements of stealth and platforming and a great Cold War art style that puts one in mind of The Incredibles, Team Fortress 2 and Spy Vs Spy. You’re cast as a spy working for an agency called Counter, in a world divided into warring Imperialist and Communist chunks, both of which are bidding to be the first to detonate a nuclear device on the moon.
You must stop that happening by making your way through procedurally generated levels, stealing plans for nuclear attacks and sabotaging the planned missile attacks. There are various weapons available, but sneaking up behind enemies to take them out seems the preferable option. Counter-Spy keeps its gameplay simple but bolstered by the subtly humorous narrative it's a compelling take on the stealth-platforming sub-genre.
Developed by two groups of students from the Carnegie Mellon and San Jose State universities, Entwined enjoyed a very positive reception at Sony’s E3 press conference, thanks to a brightly colourful abstract art style and neat controller mechanic. The mythological back story involves two lovers who must be combined to become a dragon. This is achieved through an unusual spin on twin-stick controls: you move forwards into the screen, and must manoeuvre each stick into the correct orientation so that both characters run over colour-coded shapes in order to unite.
It’s reminiscent of a simplified Rez, and visually, it’s almost as extreme as Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Dreamcast classic. The final part of each level, which sees you transforming into the dragon and painting contrails around the environment, is particularly magnificent to behold, although not quite so much fun to play. We weren’t convinced that Entwined will have much longevity or replay value, but it’s certainly distinctive – and an amazing achievement for its very young development team.
Guns Up eschews flashy art in favour of infuriatingly compulsive gameplay. It’s a top-down military real-time-strategy title with more than a whiff of Cannon Fodder. You can create different types of troops, including general grunts, machine-gunners, and bazooka and flame-thrower specialists. You can then control them directly, but use objects such as markers to tell them where to concentrate their fire.
As your troops start to do their stuff, you’re rewarded with power-ups such as air-strikes, tear gas bombs and rocket attacks – plus currency, which lets you build more troops. It’s simple yet surprisingly tactical; the environment comes into play with, for example, barbed wire causing blockages which your troops can’t traverse, and there’s a real skill in making the best use of your power-ups. Plus, it’s thoroughly frenetic – as all RTS games should be.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010