At Video Game Convention, a Crowded Field of Winners

A scene from the coming game Batman: Arkham City, a sequel to 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game features the voice of Mark Hamill.

LOS ANGELES — For anyone involved with the video game industry, surviving the E3 convention is an annual rite of passage. Many of the tens of thousands of developers, journalists and PR people here find themselves attending up to 16 hours of meetings each day for four or even five days straight, giving the whole thing the feeling of summer camp meets the Bataan Death March. In a good way. After all, we’re talking about video games.

Still, it is physically impossible for one person to see or play even a quarter of the coming games on offer. So all week everyone talks to one another, even direct competitors, about what they’ve seen and how they’ve felt about it. Usually a consensus emerges about the standout game or two.

Not this year. While there was buzz surrounding one hardware announcement, Nintendo’s new Wii U console, expected next year, no single game came out of nowhere to become the talk of the show.

But don’t interpret that as a sign of creative stagnation. Quite the opposite. Instead, the overall level of quality among the top publishers was so consistently high that a few games stood out because they were subpar rather than because they looked great.

We’ll spare those the harsh glare of ridicule until they’re released. Instead, here we’ll follow the games that most impressed in a crowded field. (Two caveats. First, three truly elite developers — Blizzard, Rockstar and Valve — didn’t show their coming titles at E3 at all. Second, the sheer size of the show prevented me from spending quality time with several publishers, among them Atari, Capcom, Konami, Namco Bandai, Sega and THQ.)
Now on to the good stuff.

BATTLEFIELD 3 This is the first military combat game in a long time that will give Activision’s juggernaut Call of Duty franchise a run for its money. Based on initial impressions, Battlefield 3 may be the most realistic-looking shooter yet. It is being developed by DICE of Sweden, a studio with an excellent track record, and is set amid a conflict between Russia and the West in the near future. (To be published by Electronic Arts on Oct. 25 for Windows, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.)

BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY This is the sequel to the best comic-book game yet, 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Developed by Rocksteady Studios, Arkham City is meant to outdo its predecessor in every way. Rather than a single island, the Dark Knight will have an entire precinct of Gotham City to explore and defend. Mark Hamill is back as the voice of the Joker, and Catwoman will be the playable character for about 10 percent of the game. (Warner Brothers; Oct. 18; Windows, 360 and PS3.)

BIOSHOCK INFINITE In narrative depth and intellectual ambition, Infinite appeared to be the top of the class at E3. Developed by Irrational Games, it appears to take place in the same fictional universe as the acclaimed BioShock (though that has not been confirmed). Instead of a city under the Atlantic, the milieu is now a floating metropolis called Columbia, set about a century ago. Infinite looks to mix blood-pumping action with a deeply philosophical story line about community and the role of the individual. (2K Games; 2012; Windows, 360 and PS3.)

CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3 Mixing military realism and over-the-top set-piece fabulism, Call of Duty has become one of the most lucrative and culturally important game franchises. In the first scene shown at E3, you are an American commando infiltrating and destroying a Russian submarine during a naval battle in New York Harbor. If that sounds wild, consider that the next scene was an explosion-riddled shootout amid hurtling subways in the London Underground. (Activision; Nov. 8; Windows, 360 and PS3.)

DEFIANCE The demonstration of this near-future shooter was most notable for what will not make it into the final product. In the presentation one developer on an Xbox 360 was actually playing online with another developer on a PlayStation 3. Microsoft and Sony are the Hatfields and McCoys of the game world, so this was stunning. The point the producers were trying to make, successfully, was that this is technologically possible. Unfortunately, neither Sony nor Microsoft will allow anyone to ship a cross-console game at retail. More’s the pity. (Trion Worlds; Windows, 360 and PS3; no announced release date.)
FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 Don’t ask why the sequel to Final Fantasy XIII isn’t called Final Fantasy XIV. O.K., fine: in its infinite wisdom, Square Enix had already used the XIV moniker for a separate game. The point is that XIII-2 seems poised to correct the design flaws that made XIII so frustrating. Most important, this game will actually let the player make some choices about where to go and what to do. (Square Enix; early 2012; 360 and PS3.)

FRUIT NINJA KINECT I ran into this game by accident, and it provided the most fun I had in three minutes all week. The only downloadable game on this list, Fruit Ninja will already be familiar to the more than 25 million people who have played it on mobile phones and tablets. On Kinect, instead of tracing your finger across a screen to slash open the flying produce section, you can use your whole arm. Haiiii-ya! (Halfbrick Studios; this summer; Xbox Live.)

GEARS OF WAR 3 Besides Halo, Gears of War is the most important franchise exclusive to the Xbox family. Gears 3 is still a gory, high-octane third-person shooter, but the alien environments your space marines fight through are now much more dynamic. Buildings crumble, monsters burst through walls, and the overall level of mayhem just seems higher. Additionally, the gorgeous lighting effects that Epic Games, maker of the nearly ubiquitous Unreal graphics engine, bring to the fore have only improved. (Microsoft; Sept. 20; 360.)

KINECT: DISNEYLAND ADVENTURES So far families with children have been the sweet spot for the Kinect, Microsoft’s controllerless control system for the Xbox 360. Now the entire Magic Kingdom is being recreated digitally. You can explore the park, meeting Disney characters and riding attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight and Alice in Wonderland. Except in the Kinect version, you’re not just riding along, you’re also going into an interactive mini-game based on the attraction. (Microsoft; this holiday season; 360.)

MASS EFFECT 3 BioWare’s space opera trilogy is finally coming to its grand conclusion. I didn’t think the second Mass Effect deserved all the laurels it garnered; narratively, it felt like a way station between the first and last parts (unlike, say, “The Empire Strikes Back”). Thankfully, the ending appears to hit the requisite high notes. The aliens who want to extinguish all life in the galaxy have arrived on Earth, and the moment is here for big-time heroism. (Electronic Arts; March 6; Windows, 360 and PS3.)
RAGE All you really need to know about Rage is that it is the long-awaited first-person shooter from the people who basically invented the first-person shooter, id Software. (They made some little games called Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake.) Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Rage appears to feature the tight, responsive combat mechanics players expect. What’s new for an id game are role-playing elements like quests. (Bethesda Softworks; Oct. 4; Windows, 360 and PS3.)

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM This is the most fully realized single-player role-playing game on the docket for this fall. All the requisite fantasy elements are here: Dragons to slay. Spells to sling. Magic swords to discover. Everything about Skyrim is big. There are more than 150 handmade (not randomized) dungeons in which to delve and more than 300 books to discover, if you care about the extensive back story. As in previous Elder Scrolls games, you should be able to spend many hours simply exploring this vast world without even scraping the main story line. (Bethesda; Nov. 11; Windows, 360 and PS3.)

UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE’S DECEPTION The previous entry in the Uncharted series, developed by Naughty Dog, redefined what an action-adventure game could be. At times Uncharted 2 really did feel like playing in an Indiana Jones film. Now Nathan Drake, our charismatic treasure hunter with a heart of gold, is back to his swashbuckling ways: battling through a sinking ship on the high seas, grappling with a bad guy on the open loading dock of a cargo plane high above the desert and doing everything he can to channel one of Hollywood’s summertime popcorn romps. (Sony; Nov. 1; PS3.)