Yikes, what a year.
Is it just us or are most boxed games blurring into one homogeneous mass of 'gritty' hyperviolence and/or racing titles? With the promise of new hardware pulled away from us (many believing at the last minute) for another year, the rest of the games industry was left to put on a brave face and deliver what will undoubtedly be a mechanically excellent but creatively bankrupt line-up of video games for the next 12 months. And let's not forget what's happening elsewhere in the world of entertainment and games, with the big three publishers (and the media, on that note) looking enviously over at Apple, sticking their fingers in their ears and going "Lalalala, we can't hear you!" whenever someone mentions the indefatigable rise of social, casual and free-to-play games are.
Still - chin up! It's not all bad, and while there wasn't enough to spread across five full conferences, there are actually plenty of games to look forward to this year. We've decided to acknowledge what ticked our fancy by declaring our E3 2012 Game of Show, as well as detailing some runners-up that didn't quite wow us in the same way. You can probably already guess what took pole position, but we're not going to spoil it for you.
One quick caveat: our list excludes digital titles, which will be covered in another feature. All you need to know is that the downloadable space, for at least the third year running, will likely include some of the most creative and fascinating games of the year.
Anyway, on with the good stuff!
Game of the Show: Watch Dogs
Watch Dogs isn't at all guaranteed to be a phenomenal game - no-one's actually played it yet, its unveiling set more questions than it actually answered, and we're still not sure if the excitement from its announcement was lifted slightly by the almost complete dearth of anything new on show. But never mind all that: Watch Dogs succeeds by eliciting a rare glimmer of hope from a crowd of fans burnt by disappointing first-party conferences and a lack of genuine surprises. All too often the big E3 conferences do their best to leave actual games in the shade; Watch Dogs managed to go against the grain - and for that reason it simply has to be our choice for Game of E3 2012.
Watch Dogs mixes a cyberpunk theme with an open-world environment, a pairing so obvious and exciting it's a real shock we've not seen it before, and the core idea of being able to hack anything pairs-up perfectly with the freedom the genre provides. We're also particularly intrigued by the hints towards a connected multiplayer universe; part of the fun now lies with the fact that we're not quite sure how that'll all work, but we're eager to find out. Ultimately, we're excited because it looks good and it's not a sequel - though we're sure Ubisoft will grind out a Watch Dogs 2, 3, 4, and 7 if it ends up becoming a hit.
During the live unveiling, the shine and dazzle from those luscious visuals cast a spell over VideoGamer.com staff and forum users alike. Was this our first glimpse of the next gen? Ubisoft later confirmed the game would come to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but we'll eat our futuristic hats if Watch Dogs isn't one of the first titles for Microsoft and Sony's next machines too. While that's all some jolly fascinating stuff, we'll also be keeping an eye on Ubisoft's tablet companion app, and the publisher's attempt to step up to both the Wii U and Microsoft's SmartGlass. Watch Dogs arguably showcases the idea of asymmetrical gameplay better than most of Nintendo's own output - a big surprise in itself, if you ask us.
As more and more publishers gave up the struggle against EA and Activision for FPS dominance, this E3 saw fierce jostling over a new space: Uncharted-inspired third-person titles. Assassin's Creed III is likely to be one of the stand-out games of 2012, and Naughty Dog's own The Last of Us elicited one of the loudest cheers of the entire show. But once again, Watch Dogs emerged victorious here, allowing us the raw thrill of peeking beyond a familiar curtain to snag a glimpse of something fresh and unknown. If Ubisoft can successfully ride the wave of hype while fashioning Watch Dogs into a game that matches current expectations, it could quite easily be a defining titles of the next console generation.
How could anything else at this year's E3 possibly compete?
Assassin's Creed III
Ubisoft was quick to name-drop Red Dead Redemption when promoting last year's Revelations, but it's only now, with Assassin's Creed III, that we're starting to see how deep the influence from Rockstar's game actually goes. Ubi's take on the American wilderness certainly channels the spirit of Marston's celebrated jaunt, and one member of the VideoGamer.com team (guess who) also has a real soft spot for the 18th century, so on the list it goes.
DmC: Devil May Cry
An unconventional choice perhaps, but Ninja Theory's take on the series left us pleasantly surprised. The Enslaved developer certainly still has a lot to prove with their reboot of this cult series, but we like the mixing of a UK studio, a punky new Dante, and a (very English) narrative revolved around smashing the establishment. Our first impressions with the combat left us feeling positive too, and a demo on the show floor featured a boss so tricky that most people couldn't do it without losing a couple of lives first - exactly the kind of thing people should want from a Devil May Cry game, if you ask us.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Despite everyone and their mum knowing it was coming, Most Wanted's announcement stood out as a breath of fresh air in an almost wearyingly familiar Microsoft conference. A nice approach to multiplayer helps the game stand out, and a revamped Autolog system will likely go down equally well. Striking us as a fusion of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Burnout Paradise, Criterion isn't exactly stepping outside of their comfort zone with this high-speed open-world racer - but when the results are this fun, we're certainly not going to complain.
343 Industries has one of the most challenging jobs in games development at the moment, attempting to step out from Bungie's shadow as they continue the Halo franchise. But the custom-built studio is also being bankrolled with the entire weight of Microsoft's corporate machine, and those millions upon millions of dollars are clearly being spent on something. The single-player demo was one of the scant highlights of a horrific Microsoft E3 conference, but it was an intriguing take on co-op multiplayer – the slowly-unravelling Spartan Ops campaign – that left us most curious. Dear Halo 4: please don't be bad.
It was a good E3 for open-world racers, with Microsoft lifting the lid on its Forza spin-off at roughly the same time EA revealed Criterion's Most Wanted. While Most Wanted is going directly after the arcade racer crowd, Playground Games' Horizon is a more serious take on the genre. Yes, the frame rate is only 30 fps, but the mix or sim and arcade handling in a racing festival setting is good enough to make up for it. Horizon looks gorgeous too, which makes Microsoft's decision to gloss over the game during its E3 conference even more baffling.
Crystal Dynamics' rough treatment of Lara Croft has certainly raised a few eyebrows – especially given Ron Rosenberg's recent words to the press. Controversies aside, it's obvious that this will be the most interesting Tomb Raider game in quite some time. There's a definite Uncharted vibe to the big set-pieces, but in place of Naughty Dog's comic charm there's a grittiness, tempered by a smattering of Lost-style mystery. Several competing gameplay styles have been thrown into Crystal Dynamics' mixing pot, and it all looks rather gorgeous too.
The Last of Us
Heavy violence was the go-to ingredient at this year's E3. The Last of Us uses the safety of a young girl to justify its nastiness, which includes stabbings, skull-shattering shotgun blasts, and a bit where one poor chap goes face-first into a pointy table. Naughty Dog's animation skills are gruesomely effective here, but there's much to admire in the game's more subtle areas – particularly the interplay between the two leads, which suggests that BioShock won't be the only 2013 game to feature a winning guy-gal combo.
Beyond: Two Souls
After so much hype, the follow-up to Heavy Rain fell a bit flat at Sony's keynote. Behind closed doors, however, David Cage revealed a game that's bubbling with promise. The extended demo only afforded us a brief glimpse of Ellen Page's acting skills, but the lengthy chase on show offered tension and bombastic big bangs. But Cage suggests that the game as a whole won't be so concerned with blockbuster dramatics; given that the demo's melancholy beginning was arguably the best bit – just as Heavy Rain excelled in its quieter scenes – that may be no bad thing.
Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 might just be the most unusual FPS of the year (and no, Dishonored doesn't count). This is a game that's determined to stand out from the crowd, whether it be through psychedelic hallucinations, the unexpected murder of endangered species, or simply by pushing a pair of tattooed boobs in your face. To be honest, there's still a fair bit we don't know about Far Cry 3, and every time we think we've got a handle on what it'll be like, another bonkers trailers takes us in a different direction. All the same, it's colourful, still has amazing fire effects, and is full to brim with personality. Let's hope the final product lives up to our expectations.
Honorable mentions: Dishonored, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Borderlands 2.