Military themes are omnipresent at E3. Giant screens show bloody scenes of combat carnage and statues of beefy soldiers loom over attendees. So many people are walking around dressed in military garb that at times I have been unable to tell whether they were actors promoting a game or genuine life-takers and heart-breakers.
Some folks call the video game industry's exploitation of military action "war porn." And sometimes it is. But sometimes it's also undeniably fun.
I spent the first half of my Wednesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center viewing demos for first- and third-person shooters, starting with Gears of War 3.
Epic Games has left no question that this is the final entry in the series -- a rarity for a genre that typically spits out a neverending series of sequels for popular franchises. But the Epic spokesperson who demoed Gears of War 3 for me said that his team has done its best to pack the final entry with so much content that it will keep people playing for months on end.
The campaign mode -- of which I saw a brief but intense snippet that saw fan favourite Cole crossing a collapsing bridge swarming with Locust enemies -- is the longest of the series and will be playable in co-operative mode by up to four players. What's more, groups of friends can revisit it in arcade mode and work together, Rock Band style, to drum up points while at the same time competing with one another for high scores.
Everything you do in the campaign mode will contribute to your Gears level, which is built up not just while playing the story and arcade modes but also in the game's multyiplayer modes. The goal, I was told, was to create a perpetual sense of progression and to keep players striving to grow their level, all the way up to 100.
On the subject of multiplayer, we can expect a revamped version of the franchise's popular Horde mode, which sees players defending against wave after wave of aliens. It gives players the ability to build up defences -- including barriers, wires, and decoys -- and become better at building them as they progress in experience. It also presents players with interim goals -- such as chainsawing a certain number of enemies to receive a loot box with a powerful weapon inside -- and allows groups to choose one of several command posts to act as the location at which they'll make their stand.
Then there's the Beast mode, which lets players take on the role of an unstoppable Locust monster and work to clear waves of human attackers as efficiently and as quickly as possible. You can't die. It's designed to promote pure aggression -- which is fitting, since, at its core, that's what Gears of War is all about.
After Gears I headed off to Activision's booth to see Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which made its debut Monday at Microsoft's E3 press conference (not including the leak that took place a couple of weeks ago).
The first half of the behind-closed doors screening was a repeat of what the world saw Monday, which was an early mission in the game that sees the player fighting in and around war ships floating in a ravaged Manhattan harbour. It remained as impressive as it seemed earlier in the week, though on second viewing I was struck by how linear it seemed. That's not a bad thing -- in fact, from a cinematic perspective, it's almost necessary -- but it stands in contrast with what would appear to be the slightly more open campaign experience of Modern Warfare 3's chief competitor this fall, Battlefield 3.
The second half of the screening showed a ground mission in the city from later in the game. It began with the series' now familiar high-altitude black-and-white surveillance imagery before zooming down to the combat zone, where a group of soldiers began a stealthy incursion that, by the end, somehow turned into a spectacular chase through New York's subway system with the player firing from the back of a truck. I won't spoil how it ended, save to say it received an ovation from the dozen or so journalists packed in the demo room with me.
The session closed without a chance for questions or any further details on what we had seen. It seems developer Infinity Ward wants to let the game speak for itself for the moment.
The third shooter I was shown Wednesday was Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary, a remake of the game that helped launch Microsoft into the console market, and I have to say that I'm much more excited about it now than I was when rumblings and rumours about it first began several months ago.
For starters, they haven't mucked at all with the way the original game played. All of the controls are the same, as are the in-game physics. I was told that it's running off much of the same code, with the only real differences being cosmetic.
In fact -- and this is incredibly cool -- you can actually switch between the upgraded graphics (which make it look like a game developed for Xbox 360, complete with realistic water effects, individual blades of grass, and much more detailed models) and the original Xbox graphics at the touch of a button, mid-game. You can even play through the whole campaign using the 10-year-old graphics, if you want.
The only significant change to the story mode is that its original hidden terminal messages -- essentially Easter eggs (hardcore fans of the game know what they are) -- have been altered to tell more of a story and provide something of a prologue to the recently announced Halo 4.
The multiplayer portion of the game, meanwhile, has been completely overhauled. Designed using Halo: Reach's multiplayer engine, the original Halo: Combat Evolved maps are all present and accounted for, but have been given such an extravagant facelift that portions of the one I was shown were hardly recognizable.
What's more, they take advantage of all of the new features found in Halo: Reach, which means you can expect to see, among other things, Spartans blasting around maps with jet packs.
Interested in the multiplayer but not the rest of the experience? Microsoft says that the Anniversary edition maps will be made available to Reach players as a download at a later date.
Speaking for myself, though, the Anniversary edition is all about the campaign. Few shooters have resonated with me the way the original did. It's a defining part of my personal gaming history, and I can't wait to experience it all over again this September.