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The best games, demos, and tech of E3 2019

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And, yes, every entry in our preview-filled list came from real-time gameplay.

LOS ANGELES—There’s no getting around it: Walking through the Los Angeles Convention Center for 2019’s Electronic Entertainment Expo felt weird. This year’s new Sony-sized hole compounded the fact that Xbox and EA held events elsewhere (and Activision, once again, didn’t really show up).

As a result, this year’s E3 was the most thinly attended iteration we’ve seen in years—but that was by no means the fault of the games on offer. We left E3 2019 impressed by a variety of games old and new. While we’re still working through a backlog of hands-on impressions, the Ars gaming braintrust is already ready to name its favorite games of the show—all of which were games shown with real, live gameplay. Admittedly, narrow preview builds mean devs could still be fooling us with some smoke and mirrors—this is E3, land of unfinished games—but all of the below demos presented well enough at E3 to pass our sniff test for hype and BS.

Here, for your consideration, is our unranked list of the Top 10 games of E3 2019, along with a selection of honorable mentions.

Borderlands 3

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4, Stadia
Expected release date: Sept. 13, 2019

In a lot of important ways, our E3 2019 demo of Borderlands 3 simply provided more Borderlands. That means more ridiculously frenetic and colorful shooting with an unapologetically self-aware, over-the-top, post-apocalyptic attitude. After a seven-year wait since the last numbered game in the series, that’s almost enough on its own. In terms of sheer feel and beat-to-beat gameplay, we’re still not convinced anyone has topped existing Borderlands games in the looter-shooter genre, and this one already feels more polished in action than its predecessors.

That’s the case before we even take into consideration some important new tweaks to the formula. For one, each character now gets a couple of special abilities, each with their own independent recharge timer. For my character, that meant juggling a portable energy shield and an independent drone that could distract and fire upon enemies. Each ability also now comes with stackable “emblems” that can augment the powers if you pour enough ability points into the applicable field.

Outside the demo, we were also sold on coming social quality-of-life features. This includes the thankfully standard split-screen co-op for local couch play, but there’s also a newfound ability to sell extra guns to friends asynchronously via in-game vending machines or simply send them directly via an in-game mail service. You’ll also be able to find a bevy of skins and cosmetic customization options for you and your guns in order to tailor your own look for others to see when playing online.

But that’s mostly icing on a cake that we’ve been jonesing for another slice of for years. Borderlands 3 provides just the excuse we need to collect a lot of virtual guns to shoot at a lot of oversized beasts. -Kyle Orland

Control

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4
Expected release date: Aug. 27, 2019

It’s been nearly a decade since Remedy Entertainment launched a video game I could unequivocally recommend (Alan Wake) and three years since the studio’s uneven Quantum Break showed that the developer knows how to craft impressive, trippy combat.

In great news for Remedy fans, everything I liked about Quantum Break—jaw-dropping visuals, dimension-shifting weirdness, and telekinetic superpowers—has been paid forward to Control, a new video game where mystery and plot don’t get in the way of compelling action.

My hands-on time with Control’s E3 demo let me flex the new game’s early superpower muscles, and gosh, did it feel good. Warp-dodging past enemies, aiming the morphing pistol, and using random physical objects as throwable weapons—I quickly hit a nice groove in zipping around like some X-Men character who’d been kicked out of Xavier’s school for being too awesome. And Remedy’s combat arenas are designed to emphasize the game’s strengths by making sure attacks are always coming from above and below, thus forcing her to keep her wits and strategically consider which ability to bust out for each takedown.

The handsome lighting models and per-object motion blur from Quantum Break are back for this newer game, as well, only with even more tantalizing distortion and color trickery. These are met by a plot that has clearly broken the “weirdness” dial, and the combined package already has me excited for what’s to come in “summer 2019.” -Sam Machkovech

Cyberpunk 2077

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4
Expected release date: April 16, 2020

2019 was the second year in a row that Cyberpunk threatened to steal the show. But it was the first year that we could see the skeleton of a complete RPG in a behind-closed-doors presentation.

This year’s demonstration focused on Pacifica, a half-finished “luxury” section of future Los Angeles that was abandoned by its developers after a disaster ruined its economic underpinnings. It’s now been resigned to the impoverished Haitians who helped build it, gathering together into gangs and makeshift economies that both react to your in-game reputation. The world-building you’d hope for from a developer like CD Projekt Red shines through in the little details, like the way “real meat” has been outlawed by powerful corporate interests pushing synthetic replacements with stories about diseases carried by real animals.

Your character’s extreme customization starts by picking a backstory: did you rise up through the streets or come down through the corporate world? It extends to the myriad choices you get to make, from standard assigning of points to basic character traits to the way you make your way through challenges. A netrunner might hack their way into the security guards’ mind to force them to turn their weapons on themselves, while a stronger character might rip their way through the door and the guards too.

Those choices extend to who you want to trust in the ever-shifting battle between the gangs and the Netwatch agents trying to rein them in. From the demo, it wasn’t immediately apparent there was a single answer to that question that could be assuredly considered “good” or “safe” or “moral” over the other.

While the game’s urban world seems interesting enough, the end of the demo hinted at a much wider story in cyberspace itself, where hackers continue to search for a way to upload their consciousness and free themselves from their physical prisons. And that’s not even digging into the non-cyberspace portion’s promising mix of stealth, hacking, weapon customization, limb-specific damage modeling, handsome lighting effects, and Keanu freakin’ Reeves as your hero’s occasional accomplice.

Crucially, the hour of traversal, conversation, and combat we saw looked like a real game this time, as opposed to last year’s shoot-for-the-moon reveal. Yet apparent technical limitations in terms of rendering, crowd sizes, and other technical details didn’t get in the way of us finally buying into the same sales pitch as last year: a gorgeous near-future romp that we might get to play exactly how we want. -Kyle Orland

Doom Eternal

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Stadia
Expected release date: Nov. 22, 2019

I am struck by how pristinely iterative this game feels—a perfect execution of the cheesy poster quote, “If you liked DOOM 2016, you’ll love DOOM Eternal.” By carrying familiar elements forward and then supercharging them with compelling twists, DOOM Eternal (launching November 22 on Windows 10, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Google Stadia) could very well rank alongside past elite sequels like Super Mario Bros. 3, Uncharted 2, and Burnout 3: Takedown.

In addition to new “mod” attack options for every weapon and new twists on the previous game’s “glory kill” mechanic, I really appreciated a new open-air quality to the game’s previously claustrophobic battle arenas. All three of these elements combined to keep me doing more of what made the 2016 series refresh so fun: bouncing, dashing, blasting, bashing, and ultimately bathing in demons’ rainbows of weirdly colored blood and gore.

Couple all of that with ridiculous real-time visuals and more of Mick Gordon’s crushing industrial-metal soundtrack, and you’ve already guaranteed a must-play spot on my late-2019 list. -Sam Machkovech

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Platform: PS4
Expected release date: March 3, 2020

I have not seen or played enough of Final Fantasy VII Remake to confirm exactly how the PlayStation 4-exclusive game will play out when it launches in March 2020. What I can say so far, at least, is that I’m far from a Final Fantasy or JRPG apologist, and yet 1.5 hours with the game’s E3 2019 debut has me absolutely excited.

Really, I’m shocked to admit that. Yet familiar elements, new combat, and incredible polish across the presentation and dialogue have me convinced that I’ll be a day-one FFVIIR player, no matter how well, weirdly, or poorly the final game turns out. A new approach to storytelling means the game’s original, clunky script will be expanded upon with a “high-budget, quirky anime” approach to voice acting and dialogue. A new approach to combat, even in this early stage, is already more appealing than the clunky “active JRPG” systems of Final Fantasy XV.

And, gosh, remastered Midgar looks cool. The game’s familiar characters look great as realistic-yet-cartoony 3D recreations. Square Enix’s shift to Unreal Engine 4 has helped the team build a game that already looks more impressive in action (which I played on a PS4 console) than FFXV. And the scope of the game’s first underground lair is already cool enough via sheer traversal, let alone once it’s lit up by a rocket-launching, laser-blasting robo-scorpion. -Sam Machkovec

Lone Echo 2

Platforms: Oculus Rift
Expected release date: Q1 2020

For the past few years, Oculus Studios has struggled to exceed the efforts of indie game makers, and the ambitious single-player adventure game Lone Echo is a prime example of good VR ideas hobbled by underwhelming pacing and execution. Consider its sequel’s placement on our E3 2019 list as a good indicator of how much developers Ready At Dawn have evolved and improved in only two years.

The real glory of Lone Echo 2’s world-premiere demo is how it silently addresses the first game’s biggest issues. Ready At Dawn has smoothed out all of the original game’s annoyances and pace-slamming possibilities in ways that players might not notice if they weren’t looking for them. The first clever touch I noticed came when I glided toward Olivia, the first game’s human ally. I reached for her face with my hands—because, derp, I’m a giggling VR game tester—but to my surprise, she batted my hand out of the way, made eye contact with me, and told me to cut it out.

That philosophy applies to every moment, big and small, in the game’s E3 demo. Organic dialogue, clear objectives, comfortable movement, compelling use of hands to solve puzzles: With all of this stuff established, Lone Echo 2 could spend more of its energy building a sense of creeping dread about whether its viral monsters might strike, helped in part by a sense of constant movement and momentum from one place to the next.

As a result, Lone Echo 2 absolutely has my attention in terms of a VR-exclusive vehicle for plot, puzzles, and mystery. -Sam Machkovech

Luigi’s Mansion 3

Platforms: Switch
Expected release date: 2019

The most striking thing about Luigi’s Mansion 3 is the sheer intensity of emotion that shines through Luigi’s body at all times. Through hunched shoulders, gritted teeth, exaggerated screams, bulging eyes, and all sorts of other little touches, Mario’s brother exudes more raw feeling in a tiny E3 demo than some more stoic game heroes do in a complete game’s runtime. The phrase “controlling a living cartoon” hasn’t felt this apt since Cuphead, and that cute game wasn’t rendered in three dimensions.

But the real star of the show here might be Gooigi, Luigi’s gelatinous doppelganger that can split apart from his progenitor to help solve simple puzzles. Having one player trade off control of two characters isn’t an extremely new idea in gaming, but Luigi’s Mansion 3 pulls it off with a sense of style and grace that’s already apparent even in this early version.

We could go on about the sheer Turtles in Time-esque joy of slamming a ghost to the ground, or the hidden-on-plain-sight collectibles that require some clever puzzle solving to fetch, or the cathartic satisfaction of vacuuming up every valuable object you see. For now, though, we’ll say that guiding Luigi through his latest haunted adventure already has us feeling more protective and joyful than we have since… well, the last Luigi’s Mansion game. -Kyle Orland

The Outer Worlds

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4
Expected release date: Oct. 25, 2019

This is a weird entry on our list.

I am allowed to tell you that I played a certain portion of this game, and I am allowed to tell you that this hands-on opportunity convinced us at Ars Technica to slap this game in our “best of E3” list (and, personally for me, a top-three slot). But until further notice, I cannot say more than that.

Instead, we must ask you to read between the lines of what was unveiled at Xbox’s E3 2019 press conference. Its trailer was made up entirely of real-time gameplay, and it largely revolved around the upcoming game’s opening sequence. The Outer Worlds begins with players landing as the sole survivor of a planet-colonization space mission gone awry, and the new trailer shows off a variety of powerful weapons being shot at massive monsters—between first-person conversation sequences that very fondly recall the studio’s work on Fallout: New Vegas. -Sam Machkovech

Psychonauts 2

Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Xbox One, PS4
Expected release date: 2020

It’s been a long time since Psychonauts’ 2005 release, but while the game industry has changed a lot, the game’s formula hasn’t. Judging from the large chunk of the first level shown in an E3 demo, Raz’s adventures in the literally mind-bending Psychonauts corps are just as inventive and madcap as ever.

The fun begins with a cute fake-out, leading players to believe that the Psychonauts’ day-to-day operations now take place in a humdrum, cubicle-filled office workplace. Turns out, this setting is part of an effort to infiltrate the mind of Dr. Caligosto Loboto, the mad dentist from the first game, in order to get him to give up the name of his boss. This means chasing the good doctor through the darkest recesses of his mind, a twisted place full of exposed nerves, masses of gum tissues, and teeth, teeth, teeth sticking out everywhere you look.

While we’ve seen this kind of run-and-gun-and-jump platforming before, the imaginative mind-environments are still the highlight. In this world, walls can become floors, a “bottomless” pit can become the inside of an open mouth, and subconscious thoughts can float through the air to kill you at a moment’s notice. Every single room is a new visual showcase, complete with unique art and layout that makes other games look downright cookie-cutter.

It’s all bookended by Double Fine’s traditionally clever writing and wry delivery, which mixes just the right amount of world-weariness and inventiveness. The result is a gameplay reveal that looks—and feels—like a Saturday morning cartoon. -Kyle Orland

Through the Darkest of Times

Platforms: Windows, MacOS
Expected release date: 2019

While playing through this virtual exploration of historically accurate mid-1930s Germany, I didn’t have what I’d call a rollicking time managing its “antifa” efforts of average German citizens. But that is itself a crucial distinction. TtDoT’s first playable build cannot in any way be misconstrued as a silly or tasteless interpretation of the earliest days of the Nazi regime.

The trick to TtDoT’s compelling gameplay is a rarity in the turn-based, resource-management genre: a clear set of stakes in which players are very much expected not to prevail. Instead of constantly aiming to achieve a series of increasingly major successes, you’re doing your best to tread water in a timeline that you know isn’t going to turn out very well. Your comrades are going to die. Your money or “morale points” are going to occasionally deplete. Every session of this game is a matter of creatively making the most of bad odds and poor dice rolls.

That quality means that eking out tiny victories has a surprisingly satisfying quality to it. By staging the entire game as a political battle, not a military one, the sense of slowly chipping away at a gargantuan objective feels more tolerable, I found. This was helped immensely by the game’s efforts to have you empathize with the victims of Nazi brutality within Germany. After only 45 minutes of gameplay, I was already convinced by this game’s truly unique combination: a compelling script, all-too-familiar news headlines, and a surprisingly approachable “surviving against tough odds” system. -Sam Machkovec

Honorable mentions

Carrion: You play this side-scrolling action game as a blood-red monster with dozens of gooey tentacles reaching out from its core. Use these to quickly crawl-roll through tight corridors, grab terrified humans, and consume their writhing bodies. The stakes quickly get higher (soldiers with flamethrowers, laser-blasting drones), so quick reactions and wise use of your monster’s special abilities are a must.

Bleeding Edge: The lead designer of Ninja Theory’s impressive DMC: Devil May Cry returns with this promising fusion of melee craziness and MOBA-inspired team combat. Imagine the lane management and class-based strategy of a game like DOTA 2, only with a renewed emphasis on making combat happen more often and more dynamically. Its “closed alpha” test starts June 27, and we’ll return to talk about that one, we promise.

Beat Saber, 360-degree edition: If you’ve ever played Beat Saber (and anyone with a VR headset really should), then imagine if all of its “note fields” came from multiple directions. This mode is admittedly very, very early in development—it has no release date and is currently an Oculus Quest exclusive—but the Beat Saber team was kind enough to let us sample its world premiere, and already, we’re loving how it imbues the game with a true dancing sensation.

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair: The ex-Rare developers at Playtonic Labs have clearly taken their lumps about the first Yooka-Laylee’s missteps. This time around, they’re in side-scrolling territory, and the dev team’s aim, according to an interview with Ars, is to loudly honor the quality of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze via a short-and-sweet homage. If you like momentum-driven platformers, this upcoming game might deliver the impossible for you.

Project Xcloud: Not a game, we know, but Microsoft’s take on cloud-powered game streaming is already an absolute stunner in its preview state. Both of Ars’s E3 attendees played Halo 5 on a Samsung Galaxy S10, connected to a Microsoft data center solely through WiFi, and enjoyed hair-trigger, 60fps action using a wired gamepad. Will it work that well at our homes? We don’t know. But even in a “controlled” environment, that’s insane for WiFi performance.

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