The Top 10 Highlights of Gaming’s Biggest Show: E3 2021

It’s over already?

The build-up to gaming’s annual Electronic Entertainment Experience (E3) gala lasts for what seems like forever. We make our predictions and get probably way too excited. Then the multi-day show and surrounding week-long event cycle is a whirlwind of information pushed by publishers, developers and hardware manufacturers big and small, plus a plethora of enthusiast media presentations and general coverage.

And it’s over before we know it.

During that time, it’s a rush. There are so many conferences and games in and around E3, as companies try their best to carve out their sections to capture a super engaged audience ready for cool, new stuff. Sure, it’s scattershot in this digital format. Sometimes unclear which events are backed by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), who organizes E3, or which are on their own. Good news is that it’s all gaming for about a week straight. If you weren’t glued to the internet, I’ve got you covered.

2021 presented a number of challenges for the organizers and hosts plus all of the people working hard to make games while adapting to a COVID world. E3 went digital, and the results were certainly mixed when it comes to consistency and quality. I mean, it’s tough to make things during a pandemic.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a ton of great stuff across huge triple-A publishers, excellent indie presentations and informative interviews or panels. While I won’t cover everything, I’ll do my best to hit the major trends and most impressive reveals.

Congratulations to all the teams that did have something to show this year. It’s an accomplishment on its own to put yourself out there. I hope you get some temporary and much-needed rest before making that push to finish your projects.

Here are the ten biggest highlights from E3 2021, plus a little bonus for good measure.

#1: Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase

This year’s Xbox & Bethesda show was illustrative of effort across an entire generation of investing in a directional shift for Microsoft’s gaming division. The single biggest exclusive that team Xbox has isn’t Halo Infinite or Starfield. It’s Xbox Game Pass. Out of 30 games shown, 27 are hitting the subscription service which will also soon be available in even more places. Headliners included a blow-out on Halo Infinite, cinematic trailer for console exclusive Starfield, stunning reveal of Forza Horizon 5, August release date for Psychonauts 2 plus an awesome deep dive into S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. The Outer Worlds 2 from Obsidian had arguably the best “non-trailer,” poking fun at games that are revealed with nothing to show. Then its finale was Arkane’s secret vampire project, entitled Redfall.

The theme of Microsoft’s conference was reminding everyone that Game Pass is the best value in the industry. How it’s making games more accessible on different devices. In particular the team boasted a number of notable third party hookups like Back 4 Blood, launching day one into Game Pass later this year, in addition to a sequel to one of my favorite games of 2019, A Plague Tale: Requiem in 2022. 12 Minutes, Atomic Heart, Somerville and Replaced are all day one titles. Then there’s existing games like Hades, Among Us and Yakuza: Like a Dragon hitting the service.

Packed with released and future content at a brisk pace, I didn’t even mention Battlefield 2042 and Far Cry 6, Xbox & Bethesda showed exactly what a console manufacturer slash major publisher should do at E3. And did I mention there was Game Pass? Hit up Xbox Wire for more details.

#2: Nintendo Direct & Treehouse Live

Nintendo usually bookends an already hyped event on the final day, showcasing its projects during a curated Direct video then launching right into gameplay segments on Treehouse Live. While there was nothing from Animal Crossing or Pokémon and zero hardware other than the collectible Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, the Japanese publisher and console maker did have a ton to like and a little bit for everyone. Including long-suffering fanbases.

Top billing was of course the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which shared gameplay bits interspersed with cinematics, divulging that the skies above Hyrule will be an important part, prompting fan theories galore. Nintendo is targeting 2022 for that, perhaps to coincide with a certain console iteration. Fighting for biggest surprise of E3 overall was Metroid Dread, the first proper Metroid game in a decade set to be released in October, resurrected after its disappearance over fifteen years back. Even Advance Wars is hitting Switch in the form of the Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp collection.

Mario Golf: Super Rush, Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD all had segments since their respective launches come over the next few weeks. Switch’s back half of 2021 lineup is rounding out as well, seeing as Nintendo announced WarioWare: Get It Together! in September and Mario Party Superstars in October. Third party exclusive Shin Megami Tensei V drops in November. Sprinkled in were segments on Life is Strange, Danganronpa, Just Dance 2022 and even Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water. Ubisoft crossover Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope made its second appearance of E3 here.

All in all, Nintendo showed strongly with its theme of rapid pacing, quality exclusives and ongoing partnerships for Switch that appealed to various swathes of its audience. Well, except for Bayonetta fans. Read a full recap here.

#3: Indies, Indies Everywhere!

It was nearly overwhelming trying to follow along with all the amazing mini-showcases featuring or solely focusing on independent creators this year. Guerrilla Collective. Day of the Devs. Future Games Show. Indie Game Showcase. ID@Xbox sections. Devolver Digital. And more. Indies positively stole the week in this digital format, the most consistent and wide-ranged showing ever for that slice of the industry. The best part of this format is that indies can share, or even capture, the spotlight and instantly hit the radar of fans and even people that might not normally check them out.

Between titles already announced and brand new reveals, I can’t count how many indies I want to play after the past week. Off the top of my head I can list over a dozen that are worth exploring. 12 Minutes, Black Tail, Bramble The Mountain King, Death’s Door, Happy Game, Harold Halibut, Lake, LifeSlide, Loot River, Lost in Random, Moonglow Bay, Replaced, Sable, Sifu, and Tunic. There’s way more, appealing to all tastes because that’s the forte of there being so many talented creators working in the space. Some even have limited time demos out on Steam or Xbox platforms.

That’s the beauty of the indie scene, and I’m ecstatic that smaller teams can hang with the so-called “big guns” this time of year. Perhaps even outshine them.

#4: FromSoftware’s Elden Ring

This one should be no surprise. Shoot, I dedicated an entire article to it right after its reveal last week.

In the most substantial get for Geoff Keighley and Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live last Thursday, FromSoftware shared an Elden Ring trailer for the first time since 2019. Right after, publisher Bandai Namco pushed press materials and screenshots that delved even deeper into the dark fantasy role-playing game, a collaboration with A Song of Ice and Fire writer and Game of Thrones showrunner George R.R. Martin. It temporarily satiated the appetite of the core gaming discourse online, with analyses and investigations into what it will end up being when it’s out in January 2022. A release target that’s way sooner than expected.

And for good reason. An open area soulslike made by the masters of the genre with different biomes, bespoke dungeons, towering bosses amidst the usual expert environmental design expected of FromSoftware. Especially if Elden Ring can strike a balance between story and lore, which is usually opaque in the developer’s prior titles, it could end up as the showpiece for games of its kind.

Right now, it’s 100% my most-anticipated upcoming release. I’m nowhere near alone in that regard.

#5: Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live

Tying in with the prior entry on this list, Summer Game Fest Kickoff Live marked the unofficial beginning of “E3 Week” as Geoff Keighley and his talented team produced a jam-packed stream featuring game reveals, musical performances, celebrity guests and, of course, that Elden Ring finale.

What’s great about anything Keighley does, including The Game Awards, is that he leverages industry relationships to make inclusive events that blend commercial and hardcore, and he just knows how to put on a show. His passion is evident immediately, and the sheer breadth of content is usually there. Since it’s not actually affiliated with E3 or any major console manufacturer, this is a place mostly for third parties and independent labels. This year’s stream featured Tiny Tina’s Wonderland, Metal Slug Tactics, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding: Director’s Cut, Jurassic World Evolution 2 (introduced by Jeff Goldblum), Salt and Sacrifice, Two Point Campus and even a new publishing label from Koch Media called Prime Matter.

Admittedly this one didn’t have the best pacing, with a notable lull in the middle. Luckily it started strong and was able to crescendo in the back third, not unlike its couple of great musical performances. Especially Japanese Breakfast singing over the serene gameplay of Sable. Following along was a fun way to begin the festivities, mainly because of production value and the know-how of its organizers. Visit the website for a replay.

#6: Ubisoft Forward

From a pure presentation standpoint, Ubisoft is one of the best in my opinion. Engaged hosts, snappy segments and often times gameplay features right after teaser trailers. Even if the content was a bit lighter than usual this year, for obvious reasons during a global pandemic, the massive French publisher’s event contained multiple intriguing projects.

Pre-show started with updates on already out titles like Watch Dogs: Legion, For Honor, The Crew 2 and a crossover between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Brawlhalla. Which was all an appetizer for the main course. Rainbow Six Extraction, the co-op first person shooter that previously had the unfortunate subtitle of Quarantine, featured both a trailer then gameplay demo. Guitar teaching software Rocksmith+ and annualized dance franchise Just Dance 2022 performed here. In the most intense and honestly fun showing, multiplayer extreme sport title Riders Republic brought a lot of energy. Every time I see that game, I’m more interested in trying it.

Ubisoft talked about how 2020’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will get another year of updates, implying that the next mainline game is a ways out. It showed a segment on its Film and Television content, then Far Cry 6 and the formal reveal of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. That “one more thing” moment came in the form of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, setting a release window for this action-adventure game as next year. We’ll see about that!

While nothing mind-blowing, Ubisoft’s lineup is about ongoing support and consistency of franchise appearances. The lack of Prince of Persia, Skull & Bones and Beyond Good & Evil 2 is unfortunate. Splinter Cell was only mentioned in passing, as is the case lately. It was still the most robust single third party publisher event this E3 season, and a full rundown can be found here.

#7: Wholesome Direct

The winner of this past week for “best vibes” totally goes to Wholesome Direct, an indie developer showcase strictly focused on the most chill, upbeat of new releases. There were at least 70 games shown, all of them non-violent and positively charming.

It’s hard to pick out individual games from so many, and it was really more about getting to see an entire showcase where everything was so darn cheery. But here are some that stood out to me. Lake is a narrative game about a delivery driver returning to her hometown. Moonglow Bay is colorful and set in a fun fishing town. Snacko is a simulation game about being a cat. Behind the Frame is a story puzzle game using art as its delivery method. Letters is a choice-based story about pen pals.

Admittedly, some are pretty self-explanatory. You battle as cakes in BattleCakes. Unpacking is a meditative, reflective game where you unpack boxes. The player cooks yummy meals in Soup Pot. In Skatebird.. well, you skate as a bird, of course!

And last but certainly not least was Pupperazzi. Yes. This is a game about taking photos of cute dogs. If that doesn’t sell you on the entire concept of Wholesome Games, I don’t know what will. Its website has lots of deets.

#8: Halo Infinite

Of all the games shown that aren’t named Elden Ring, Xbox’s Halo Infinite was probably the single most important single showing for a company presenting at this year’s E3. During the aforementioned Xbox & Bethesda show, a large chunk in the middle was dedicated to the latest mainline game in the Halo franchise since 2015’s divisive Halo 5: Guardians. While 343 Industries has been providing monthly updates on the upcoming project, this was its chance to perform on the big stage. Especially after a disastrous trailer last year.

And this time, it did. Not only was there a cinematic story trailer in which Master Chief talks to an artificial intelligence that isn’t named Cortana, who is allegedly dead now, 343 also showed off ample footage of the multiplayer mode.

One huge element of the multiplayer is that it’s free-to-play, breaking down the usual barriers to entry of purchasing a full-priced title. Even those without Game Pass can play at no cost. Xbox confirmed that both campaign and multiplayer will launch at the same time.

The most curious part to me is that Microsoft is still playing coy with a launch date for Halo Infinite, what everyone expects to be its flagship 2021 title. After all the E3 coverage, it’s still listed as Holiday. As that time approaches without a firm date, the more skeptical I become that it will be out this year. For now, I’ll take them at their word.

#9: Guardians of the Galaxy

Finally, a big surprise! (Well, almost.) When talking major publisher showcases, Guardians of the Galaxy was in fact the most surprising of all reveals to me. Even if it leaked ahead of time. Before the event, Square Enix said a new game from Eidos Montreal would headline its digital event, and this was it. In conjunction with Marvel Games, the Canada-based team is making a game based on the oddball superhero crew.

What shocked me most is that it’s a single-player narrative action game where the player only controls Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, in his adventures with a misfit crew that includes Rocket, Groot, Gamora and Drax. Not only did Square Enix play a cinematic trailer showing the classic witty banter between these characters and story setup, it had a lengthy gameplay demo as well.

Combat is third-person action with Star-Lord using his blasters and jet boots to face against alien foes. The player can command each member of the team, almost like a special move. Rather than someone controlling every character like Marvel’s Avengers, this is solely a solo experience.

There also looks to be at least some narrative depth when it comes to choices and decision-making, where Star-Lord can decide to agree with one crew member over the other. How much that will dictate how things play out is anyone’s guess, but it’s a great system in concept.

Bonus points here for a release date of October 26th across all current and prior generation consoles, PC plus Nintendo Switch via cloud version. I’m looking forward to the usual humor and gallivanting across the stars from the Guardians later this year.

#10: Forza Horizon 5

What a ride it’s been! Speaking of, Xbox finally revealed what the rumors suggested: That Forza Horizon 5 is this year’s racing game from Playground Games, and it’s heading to Mexico. This was single-handedly the most gorgeous title shown across the entire week, featuring fast cars, stunning vistas and beautiful backdrops for the open world driving franchise that’s arguably the best in its genre.

2018’s Forza Horizon 4 is still popular these days, so many were anticipating what would come next. Now we know, as Playground boasts its “largest and most diverse world.” Features include dynamic weather and an “ever-evolving landscape.” It boasts a campaign mode plus co-op and competitive play, with classic game modes plus fun new ones such as bowling and piñata breaking.

Where it gets ridiculous is on the technical side. HDR. Raytracing. Photogrammetry, where the team takes photos or video of the actual locales in Mexico and somehow, I think using magic, translates all that data into realistic visuals with insane graphical fidelity within the game space. Then there’s all the cars, including the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE that’s featured in the gameplay sections.

Forza Horizon 5 was voted most anticipated game *overall* at the E3 Awards. Nearly unheard of for a racing game. Not only that, it’s out in November! We won’t have to wait long to see this beauty in action.

Bonus Game: Battlefield 2042

It’s bonus time. While technically revealed right before even Summer Game Fest, Battlefield 2042 was featured prominently at certain showcases including Xbox.

I believe the latest military spectacle shooter published by Electronic Arts has the most trailer views of any game revealed in the past week or so, currently at upwards of 15 million for the trailer at its official YouTube channel alone. Development team DICE shared a gameplay segment during Xbox & Bethesda’s stream, boasting futuristic weaponry, weather effects and a ton of outlandish multiplayer moments. Battlefield 2042 is the first mainline game in the franchise since 2018, and it’s proving a popular revitalization at least according to general interest during its announcement phase.

The much-anticipated and technically impressive shooter will certainly be a focus of Electronic Arts’ EA Play digital event on July 22nd. For now, head to its website for the latest info.

There you have the ten biggest stories from E3 2021 and a bonus to boot. A unique show in the scheme of things, but not without its amazing spectacle and awesome reveals. Judging by how long my gaming “watchlist” is compared to this time last week, I’d say it was still a good one.

Now it’s time to start planning for next year’s show, which is scheduled to be back in Los Angeles, California. In person! No word on dates yet.

What was the highlight of the show for you? How did your predictions go? Which showcase was your favorite? Do you prefer the digital format?

Be safe, and see you next year for more E3 coverage!

Sources: Company Press Websites & YouTube Channels, Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

-Dom

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