The top ten games from E3 2018-2019

In spite of countless leaks and pre-show announcements, this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) still managed to surprise us. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the presence of so many well-crafted, single-player delights. We were also happy to see way fewer battle royale cash-ins than we’d feared—though maybe they are just taking longer to develop.

Since attending the show last week, our E3 brain trust (Kyle Orland, Sam Machkovech, Samuel Axon) has been arguing over our favorite hands-on and hands-off demos. We managed to settle on this definitive top-ten list, along with a slew of honorable mentions. Our selected games are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit

: Dontnod Entertainment, Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Release Date: June 26, 2018

This year, as we watched the various EA press conferences, my fiancée joked to me that the ESA should add a fourth E to “E3” to stand for “executions.” Many of the games presented front-and-center at the show featured some kind of hyper-violent execution sequence. Don’t get me wrong: I like an intense action game, but E3 is best when it’s highlighting the full breadth of experiences that games can provide.

That’s why Life is Strange spinoff The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit was such a delight to see at the show. The game stood out, sandwiched as it was between a Tomb Raider demo (in which Lara Croft went primal on a guy with a knife) and a Just Cause demo (which might have set the record for number of explosions per minute). Captain Spirit is about a 10-year-old boy who uses his imagination to escape from harsh realities, and I recognized my younger self in him while I watched.

While all video games are in some way about imagination, Captain Spirit really captures the childlike wonder of creating new realities. Like Life is Strange, Captain Spirit is more of a "narrative experience" than it is a "game," in that it's not rich with systems or progression. Still, the demo comes across as heartfelt, well-written, and well-directed. I have no doubt that it will charm anyone who is open to its gentle pace, especially given its announced price tag of "free." -Samuel Axon

Cyberpunk 2077

: CD Projekt Red. Platforms: TBD, Release Date: TBD

Every E3 has that one behind-closed-doors gameplay reveal that people can't stop talking about. The one that combines holy-cow gameplay, how'd-they-do-that visual trickery, and the mystique of hiding behind an “for industry eyes only” shield. The one that sets tongues wagging.

It's tricky to give too many accolades to such hands-off demos because, honestly, they could be fakes. We agonized over this vote, but Cyberpunk 2077's reveal included just enough believable future-mercenary RPG gameplay (which we previously described at length) to get us on board. For all the wild bits in the demo, it at least proved an important truth: CD Projekt Red's vision is decidedly different than Grand Theft Auto's. Every NPC appeared to offer dialogue options.

Every quest was teased with branching "be the criminal you want to be" options and tactics that were clearly visible on-screen. A truly William Gibson-like future-crime society should push the world's heel down on the hero's face—and force the hero to overcome the world in the coolest ways possible. Based on what I saw, Cyberpunk 2077 just might deliver on that vision. -Sam Machkovech


: Media Molecule, Platform: PS4, Release Date: TBD

After years of hands-off teases and hollow promises, Dreams finally landed in our hands as a living, playable video game. That might seem like a low bar to clear for E3 "success," but with Dreams' lofty promises, it's actually saying a lot. The game's creators cut their teeth on the "PlayCreateShare" philosophy of LittleBigPlanet, and we had just as much fun playing pre-made levels as we did learning how to build and edit them.

Already, we're seeing hints of an adorable, puzzle-filled campaign, and our build-a-level demo showed a tasty mix of simplicity and depth. On the simple side, we liked the game's intuitive grab-and-manipulate interface, which let us quickly feel good at remixing existing 3D levels. On the more complex side, tab- and option-filled submenus open up all kinds of logic, animation, and trigger options.

We could make bridges start moving, lava floors start expanding, and personally composed songs start playing in crazy, creative 3D worlds. The question of exactly when Sony will get this wild, ambitious game into PlayStation 4 owners' hands is still open. But our hands-on time indicates that this game finally has an honest-to-goodness foundation.

Fallout 76

: Bethesda Game Studios, Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Release Date: November 14, 2018

What happens when a game studio that has spent 25 years iterating on the same game branches out? What happens when the indie-heavy survival genre is given the full force of a major, award-winning, big-budget team? We’ll find out in November when Bethesda Game Studios ships Fallout 76. While the game wasn’t given a robust demo at E3 itself, what amounted to a promotional documentary released during Bethesda's press conference revealed several details.

The video showed a weird hodgepodge of influences ranging from past Bethesda single-player RPGs to brutal survival crafting games like ARK: Survival Evolved and Conan Exiles to the character progression and cooperative loot grind of Destiny. It reminds me, in some ways, of early MMOs like Ultima Online and Meridian 59 that were my teen obsessions.

It’s such a hot mess of ideas, I can’t help but be transfixed. Yes, I’m eager for another decidedly single-player title from Bethesda, and the online-only Fallout 76 won't provide that. But with Guerrilla Games dropping a decade-long focus on Killzone first-person shooters to make open-world RPG Horizon: Zero Dawn (which was excellent), and with Ratchet & Clank studio Insomniac Games amping things up to make a Spider-Man game, the time seems right for old studios to try new things. And I'm all for it. I have loved pretty much everything Bethesda has done since the '90s, and while I'm not certain Fallout 76 will work smoothly right out of the gate, I am certain it will be a fascinating experiment to play. -Samuel Axon

The Last of Us, Part 2

: Naughty Dog, Platform: PS4, Release Date: TBD

There's a lot we still don't know about The Last of Us, Part 2, even after talking with the game's co-writer at E3 last week. The game's 15-minute "live gameplay" reveal at E3 amounted to a tightly scripted and ultimately thin vertical slice of a game, shifting from a calm church-like dance hall to gory post-apocalyptic killing so fast it made our heads spin.

Still, after seeing that hands-off trailer multiple times, it's the little things that really make The Last of Us, Part 2 stand out. It's the effortless, casual realism of the cut scene conversations. It's the gentleness and passion of a motion-captured kiss. It's the liveliness apparent in every unique animation and the apparent intensity in the combat. It's the unflinching gruesomeness that's intentionally designed to repulse the player.

Maybe we're investing too much into these small hints of what Part 2 will be like, extrapolating from the wholly satisfying world and story of the first Last of Us. But the prospect of seeing Ellie struggling to grow up into an awkward teen/killing machine has us excited to get more than just a hands-off taste for this game as soon as possible. -Kyle Orland

Mega Man 11

: Capcom, Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Release Date: October 2, 2018

Late last year, we were instantly skeptical when Mega Man 11's initial reveal showed that the series' familiar pixelated graphics had been replaced with awkward-looking 3D models. Eight years after the perfectly retro Mega Man 10, we worried the graphical change was a sign Capcom had forgotten what made the series so perfectly tuned. After playing through two levels at E3, we can now say those concerns were overblown. Mega Man 11 feels just like its predecessors, with tight jump-and-shoot controls, tough-but-fair room layouts, and bosses that feel overwhelming until you figure out their patterns.

Mega Man 11 also brings the series forward a bit with a new "gears" system, granting the blue bomber time-limited powers with the flick of a shoulder button. One gear slows down time, letting you escape tricky situations or get in precision hits on quick-moving enemy weak points. The other grants more powerful shots for a time, limiting the button-mashing needed to get through the hardiest foes. While these powers regenerate automatically when not in use, you have to remember to turn them off before they short out and leave Mega Man powerless for a long while. The gears system, like the rest of Mega Man 11, feels fresh without deviating from what the Mega Man series has always stood for. Here's hoping we won't have to wait eight more years for Capcom to evolve the series past this point. -Kyle Orland

Outer Wilds

: Mobius Digital, Platform: Windows, Release Date: 2018

After winning the prestigious Seamus McNally Grand Prize at GDC 2015, Outer Wilds went into hiding. Even back then, its core concept—a space-flying adventure that combines the open-ended flight wizardry of Elite Dangerous and the time-limited, time-rewinding weirdness of Majora's Mask—was tantalizing.

But this E3 saw the small development team at Mobius Digital match that early puzzle-exploration potential with more polish and much more story. The game's opening village teases an incredible amount of lore and mystery across its tutorials for flying, space walking, and using gadgets, and by the time you actually unlock and launch your ship, you'll have gotten historical context and near-religious analysis of an impending apocalypse—and a hint as to how you might stop it.

The planets we flew to featured vague and intriguing puzzles, including one misty, monster-filled flight through caverns that the developers confirmed was a 360-degree flight version of a classic Zelda puzzle trope. I uncovered some particularly meaningful moments in my 30-minute journey through this game's wilds, including an interstellar sun-dial system that I could reconfigure to point to various coordinates across the galaxy. I also used a scanner to uncover surprisingly organic—and coordinated—songs playing at every end of the solar system. We cannot wait for this game to get a firmer "2018" release date so we can figure out where those signals are coming from. -Sam Machkovech

Spider-Man Developer: Insomniac, Platform: PS4, Release Date: September 7, 2018

Insomniac unlocked a ton of Spider-Man content for its gameplay-premiere demo, and after two playthroughs, I found that the learning curve—which seems staggering at first—is absolutely surmountable. And the game is a freaking blast, to boot. Spider-Man's combat system already feels faster, more dynamic, and more exploratory than the admittedly similar Batman: Arkham games. Once I got the hang of certain web-swinging abilities, particularly a perfectly timed swing-and-jump maneuver, I found myself speeding through the game's ridiculously dense take on Manhattan.

That combination of high-speed traversal and nimble, wall-climbing combat already realizes the kinds of Spider-Man gaming oomph I've hungered for ever since Treyarch gave the idea a spin in the '00s. The E3 demo's boss fight against comic villain the Shocker, in particular, synthesizes everything that separates Insomniac's Spider-Man from other open-world superhero games. Thanks to all of that, plus a beautiful world and a hilarious script, I'm optimistic for the game's scheduled September launch.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Developer: Nintendo, Platform: Switch, Release Date: December 7, 2018

We didn't have to go hands-on with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to realize how massive this Switch game is. Nintendo's latest "mascot fighter" sequel emerged on Tuesday via a lengthy reveal of its cast and content, both as a show of confidence and as a way to put doubts to rest. The 65-character strong, "every character ever" announcement was a pointed declaration: Don't call Smash Ultimate a Wii U port. After playing a few matches, we can confidently say that doubters who still scoff at counting this game a "true sequel" should rest easy.

Each character has received a spit-shine treatment, both mechanically and visually, and the two entirely new characters offer surprising-yet-familiar options to the roster (which we didn't think was still possible). Perhaps most importantly, over an hour of fights on the E3 show floor still didn't feel like enough. There's more fun to be had in Smash Ultimate, even in its unfinished state, and that bodes pretty darned well for the final version coming in December. -Sam Machkovech

The Tetris Effect

Developer: Enhance Games, Platform: PS4, Release Date: Fall 2018. 

It may seem odd to pick a game that has remained essentially the same for three decades as one of the best games at E3 2018. The Tetris Effect is basically the same block-dropping, line-clearing, real-time puzzle that it has always been (with relatively modern features like "quick drop" and the ability to save a single block in reserve for the right moment). What makes The Tetris Effect special boils down mostly to presentation. Like Lumines before it, every single action in The Tetris Effect—moving, rotating, dropping a piece—adds a note to the game's wonderful, ethereal, trance-inducing soundscapes.

Each stage also has its own unique visual style, too, dominated by pulsing, abstract particle effects pumping just behind the blocks themselves (and flying at you in 3D when playing in VR). Put these together with the new Zone Mode power—which pushes any unorganized detritus straight to the bottom after you make a line—and you have an instantly entrancing and bewildering version of Tetris that makes the classic game feel like new. Our only concern at this point is that those visual effects still occasionally get in the way of viewing the blocks themselves! Other than that, this feels like the perfect excuse to rediscover a truly timeless game. -Kyle Orland

Honorable mentions

Control: Remedy's latest is a profoundly creepy tale of a woman who comes to unexpectedly heed the mysterious Federal Bureau of Control, and Control takes strong inspiration from the X-Files for its unexplained paranormal events and transforming architecture. Underneath all that is what looks like a solid third-person shooter where levitation and telekenesis lead to some impactful freeform action. -Kyle O.

Forza Horizon 4: We’re still waiting for proof that its lofty always-online modes will actually be fun, but the core driving already looks and feels noticeably better than FH3. What’s more, Playground Games confirms the game will work wholly offline if you want. -Sam M.

Little Dragons Cafe: Sometimes we play video games to escape from the pressures of modern life. Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada is a master at those types of games, and he's working on a new one called Little Dragons Cafe. In it, you'll raise dragons, run a cafe, and develop friendships. The combat-free game promises to be a nice break from all your troubles. -Samuel A.

Metro Exodus: In spite of rough edges, 4A's return to the Metro series is possibly the most ambitious open-world game at this year's E3. The reason: it pumps new life into the stale concept of "optional" side quests. -Sam M.

Neo Cab: Interactive fiction can be a hit-or-miss affair, but Neo Cab stands out as a series of tales surrounding one of the last human cab drivers in a near-future dominated by self-driving vehicles and a tech-driven panopticon. The world-building takes place effortlessly through well-written conversations with the passengers, asking you to make decisions both meaningful and trivial, all set to a pumping soundtrack and stylish animation. -Kyle O.

Ninjala: It's kind of incredible that more games haven't taken overt inspiration from Splatoon just yet. Ninjala seems set to be one of the first, with madcap, candy-colored battles between gumball-blowing children whacking each other with inflatable bats. The game is quick to pick up and instantly have fun in a way that doesn't require a lot of depth. -Kyle O.

Octopath Traveler: What would a classic SNES RPG look like if it was made today, but without any of the trappings and ambitions of big, triple-A titles? It would look like Octopath Traveler, a Switch exclusive with a stunning retro-modern art style. We'll see if the turn-based battle system lives up to classics like Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest, but I’m optimistic. -Samuel A.

Resident Evil 2: The Resident Evil 7 engine returns to make this remake look, sound, and feel delightfully creepy. E3's half-hour demo version already feels like the best "fully 3D" third-person RE entry since the Code Veronica series. -Sam M.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: From Software takes its own shot at pumping new blood into their Dark Souls formula. Their ideas—a grappling hook, new mystical combo-attack powers, coming back from the dead—might be a true answer to Tecmo's Souls-like game Nioh. -Sam M.

Trials Rising: A quick hands-on demo provided more of the same balance-based hill-climbing gameplay as the first two Trials games, which is enough to get this sequel on my radar all by itself. The new tandem mode—which lets two people fight or cooperate for control of a single bike—helps put it over the top onto our honorable mentions list. -Kyle O.

Trover Saves the Universe: Squanch Games' misleading announcement trailer did this game zero favors, but Trover might be the most clever 3D platformer in VR yet. Its brief hands-on demo has smart ideas about player perspective, and it is flooded with clever, fourth-wall-breaking humor. (An aside: We hope its E3 demo, full of jokes aimed at game journalists, sees public release some day.) -Sam M.

We Happy Few: Our lengthy hands-on confirmed that this game's original "Bioshock meets Brave New World" sales pitch is actually coming to fruition. Its stealth elements, world exploration, and dark mysteries got our tongues drooling for its summer 2018 launch.



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