I’m not quite sure when I realized it.
It wasn’t EA’s conference – by the numbers as usual, with sports, Star Wars, and a BioWare title ruling the day. It certainly wasn’t Microsoft’s conference, which seemed designed to send a clear message to loyal Xbox supporters and skeptics alike, bringing the heat with first-party titles and third-party partnerships alike.
No, it was definitely Bethesda’s.
Bethesda’s press conference was similar to EA’s in that it didn’t stand out as particularly unique from its predecessors. Representatives from id and Avalanche came out on stage and showed off Rage 2, unveiled a couple of months prior via an untimely Walmart leak. Various Elder Scrolls offshoots made an appearance, among them Legends, the card game, and Online, the franchise’s eschewed MMO cousin. Prey DLC appeared, a Wolfenstein spin-off was revealed, and a sequel to Doom was announced, all of which caught no one by surprise, given that they were all practically forgone inevitabilities. And, of course, as it did back in 2015 at Bethesda’s very first E3 showcase, Fallout dominated the evening, with Todd Howard emerging from the shadows to formally unveil the Fallout/Destiny hybrid known as Fallout 76 with an announced launch of this November. It almost seemed like Bethesda was intent on repeating the formula established at that 2015 conference – by far their most well-received to date.
But then, something happened.
Then, Todd Howard stayed.
He had more to talk about, he said. Fallout Shelter was coming to the Switch that night, he announced, in yet another (unintentional?) surprising callback to that 2015 event. An Elder Scrolls mobile game was in development with dungeon-crawling mechanics and a customizable town, which is probably the closest the iPhone will ever come to seeing Skyrim for the foreseeable future. Blades looked impressive – the graphical quality was striking given which platforms it was designed for, and had me actively wondering if Oblivion could be ported to the iPhone given enough effort.
And then came two of the biggest announcements of the evening. Todd Howard (it’s impossible to refer to him in any other way but his full name, no matter how hard I try) wanted to give us a glimpse into the future of Bethesda Game Studios – their next large-scale single-player RPGs. And so it was that he confirmed the long-rumored existence of Starfield, a brand-new original IP from BGS, followed by the internet’s white whale: The Elder Scrolls VI, confirmed to be coming down the pipeline following Starfield’s TBA release. And then, after dropping those two bombshells, Todd Howard vanished into the ether of E3, never to be seen again.
My initial reactions to the conclusion of Bethesda’s showcase were a mix of stunned confusion and mild annoyance. After all, the announcements of Starfield and ESVI were so unusual when placed against Bethesda’s usual modus operandi. No release dates in sight, no gameplay footage to show. They were both unveiled via teasers that seemed to pass in seconds. Implicitly, it’ll be years before we see either game – I’ll be amazed if we see The Elder Scrolls VI before 2025.
Then, after the initial confusion wore off, I returned to thinking on the particulars of both games’ announcement, and that was when I remembered the words with which Todd Howard had introduced Starfield’s trailer:
“We have also been working on a brand-new, next-generation, single-player game.”
And that was when all of the pieces clicked together nigh-instantaneously:
E3 2018 had just had its Watch_Dogs moment.
For those who might not recall, back during E3 2012, Ubisoft concluded their press conference with a stunning reveal trailer for Watch_Dogs, then a new IP that had never been seen before by the public. Boasting graphics that had never before been achieved on the Xbox 360 and PS3, the trailer took E3 2012 by storm, becoming the talk of Ubisoft’s conference. It was only at the beginning of the following year that Ubisoft addressed the elephant in the room regarding that game’s visual fidelity, admitting that it was also being designed to run on the as-of-yet unannounced next-generation hardware coming from Microsoft and Sony.
When comparing the two, one can notice many similarities between E3 2012 and E3 2018. Ironically, in 2012, Microsoft and Sony demoed Halo 4 and The Last of Us, respectively, with both games serving as the talk of their conferences. This year, those titles were held by Halo Infinite and The Last of Us, Part II. Ubisoft again unleashed a visual spectacle for gamers to feast on again this year – except instead of closing their conference with Watch_Dogs, they chose to open it with Beyond Good and Evil 2’s phenomenal CG trailer. Sony committed conference faux pas both years – in 2012, it was the prolonged presentation of Wonderbook, whereas this year, it was the 20 minutes of dead air following The Last of Us, Part II’s demo.
Looking back at this E3, it was hard to escape the feeling that we were witnessing a console generation in its death throes. Microsoft’s conference, which at the time seemed to symbolize a console manufacturer recommitting to its audience, now clearly reads as a promise of future developments: a new Halo announced built on a new engine, unveiled via a tech demo, five studios bought in the pursuit of developing new first-party IP that won’t be released for years, and Phil Spencer’s vague allusion to the rumors of an open-world Fable being developed by Playground Games all send a clear message: Xbox has begun its marathon towards winning back the trust of its fanbase, but such a victory likely won’t be achieved until the Xbox One is dead and gone.
Sony had its leanest – yet most disorganized – E3 in half a decade, showcasing four first-party titles in extensive detail and only unveiling a handful of new reveals from third-parties. This generation’s leading console manufacturer had very little to discuss this year, managing to generate conversation around exclusives that had already been previously announced rather than acknowledge that most of their studios were coming off of monumental launches within the past year and likely had nothing to show. This created an atmosphere surrounding Sony’s first-party lineup that evoked Microsoft’s – the four exclusives shown on Sony’s stage this year will likely be among the final salvo of first-party titles in the PS4’s lifespan.
The companies that didn’t play the long game this year were the ones that you might expect: EA was focused on the majority of their annualized titles and the forthcoming launch of Anthem. Square Enix spent their thirty-minute showcase focusing on games that had already been seen repeatedly in other press conferences. While Beyond Good and Evil 2 is clearly quite a few years off, most of Ubisoft’s titles, among them The Division 2 and Starlink, launch relatively soon. And, of course, the first-party manufacturer that had no reason to play the long game this year was Nintendo, still riding the high of the year-old Switch’s extreme popularity.
That said, while this year’s E3 managed to generate the usual rabid excitement for games new and old (Cyberpunk 2077, anyone?), it seemed that some of the most fervent conversations were already beginning regarding the next generation of hardware. Microsoft’s successor to the Xbox One, rumored to consist of multiple devices, already has a codename: Scarlet. People are already speculating as to when we might see these new boxes – 2020 seems to be the most likely year of launch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we started hearing more about them around E3 2019.
E3 2018 was a year of few surprises, CG trailers, and promises for the future – fitting, since any glance at the “2018 in video gaming” Wikipedia page will show you that the present is already packed to the brim with exciting titles. While the concept of a new generation of consoles might seem bittersweet, especially when juxtaposed against the substantial lifespan of the 360/PS3 era, it also holds boundless potential. It’ll be exciting to see how Sony and Microsoft continue to innovate and improve upon their hardware.
For now, however, there’s much to look forward to: Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption II, Kingdom Hearts III and more impending launches have the latter half of this year and beginning of the next well in hand.
The future, as always? That’s anyone’s guess.