E3 2015: Electronic Arts Conference Roundup

Megalithic developer and publisher Electronic Arts took to E3’s stage this year and did, well, everything everyone expected them to do. There were sequels, guns and lots and lots of sport. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although the show lacked the mystique and wow-factor that yesterday’s inarguably superior Bethesda conference commanded. The spectacle no doubt rewarded hard-core EA fans whilst appeasing buyers with exactly what they asked for, but leaves us with a burgeoning question. Just how sustainable is a sequel-based business plan? Only time can tell us just how much longer gamers will be contented with EA’s battle-worn cannon. And that is, in many ways, the problem.

EA blared out the gate with a rapid succession of promising affirmations. Determined to break the “evilest company in the world” image, the company dazzled with sickly smiles and charitable gestures. Proceedings kicked off with a tantalisingly modest taste of Mass Effect: Andromeda. A quick trailer gave little more than a glimpse of the iconic N7 logo.

With pallets suitably moistened CEO Andrew Wilson directed audiences’ attention toward The Need for Speed series’ latest self-titled iteration. Hitting stores November 3rd, the speed junkie Mecca promised double the scope of Need for Speed: Rivals. Some impressively seamless live-action to gameplay transitions ignited the usual fanfare of fast cars and slightly-shinier graphics. Add assurances of “the most customisation Need for Speed players have ever seen” and you have the makings of a very EA sequel.

Next up was the company’s long-struggling MMO RPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic. A fancy CG trailer that surely set someone back a pretty penny delivered a suitably space opera-esque yarn of fellowship, love and betrayal. The short heralded the coming of a meaty expansion pack dubbed Knights of the Fallen Empire. The DLC will arrive free to all subscribers in the near future.

Following this came perhaps the conference’s biggest surprise. Swedish developer Coldwood took the stage to announce a new original IP, Unravel. Far from EA’s usual haunt of camo, big bangs and burning rubber, Unravel splashed some much needed colour into proceedings. The title looks set to meld the creative zeal of any competent indie developer with EA’s penchant for monstrous production values. Handing the player control of the adorable Mr. “Yarney”, Coldwood task players with negotiating a series of physics based puzzles. The game’s presence is a nice reassurance that the future of big development bucks doesn’t all have to be tangled within miserable shooters and creativity scourging realism.

After a refreshing foray into some uplifting multi-toned territory, EA took a decided U-turn to remind everyone that they are, well, EA. A cartoon zombie quite literally stormed the stage to warn everyone that Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 was about to hit, hard. A live demo showcased a wealth of new attacker classes. Superhero zombies and sniper rifle-toting plant pots were abound. New game modes include the chaotic 24 player herbal assault mode and the far more tactical 4 player co-op, Graveyard Ops. The kicker, though, was this: all characters from PvZ1 will be importable. The more cynical gamer in me can’t help but translate this to: “don’t want to get trounced on come launch day? Then don’t forget to spend as much as you can on in-game transactions!” EA seem thoroughly committed to the pay-to-win model to a somewhat deflating degree.

In true EA fashion, the company then proceeded to launch into a tedium of sports game jargon. Familiar franchises like NHL, FIFA and Madden, and even semi-newcomer Rory McElroy’s PGA Tour, were once again littered with superlative affirmations of “innovation” and “never seen before” tech. A deluge of trailers promised pretty visuals and sweatier sweat than ever before. EA Sports’ Executive producer Sean O’Brien promised ultimate levels of control in a fashion that will undoubtedly be repeated next year.

EA followed up their comprehensive showing of sporting fancies with a proud parade of mobile titles. Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Minions Paradise found top billing under boasts of crazy player numbers and hours played.

As one of the conference’s low points teetered away, Peter Moore proceeded to doll out the good stuff. Star Wars: Battlefront blistered onto the stage with a battle of Hoth-inspired showcase that could melt the heart of almost any jaded, lifelong fan. This is a true, balls to the wall, AAA next gen affair; rebel scum and clone trooper villainy alike looked dazzling real in a wide, chaotic multiplayer space. EA showed off some epic aerial combat with a smattering of X Wings taking on a giant ATAT. Everything down to Tie fighter interiors looked beautifully authentic. This game is so Star Wars it hurts. EA may have already shown the game off twice in Sony and Microsoft’s press conferences now but it’s crystal clear why: they’re confident as all hell in this game. Granted, the demo was most definitely, and very painfully, scripted to a chemical tee. Developer Dice certainly have a sordid recent history with online multiplayer games that flat out don’t work as promised. The training wheels are going to have to come off at some point, and EA need to own everything from seamless online play to delicate balancing. For now, though, it’s enough to know that Dice understand and are delivering what exactly Star Wars fans want.

EA’s 2015 E3 showcase was a mixed event, in all. While we won’t be seeing the company winning any awards for shock tactics, they stuck to their guns in an (almost) entirely respectable way. With the exception of Unravelled, this is a press conference we could have sketched out over a year ago; racers got shiny cars, sports fans got various ball shapes and everyone else got guns. Without winning over any dissenters, EA appeased their giant install base with an at times entertaining amount of pomp. Going back to that burgeoning question; just how sustainable is a sequel-based business plan? Only time can tell us just how much longer gamers will be contented with EA’s cookie-cutter cannon.

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