Games of E3s Past–Mass Effect (2006)

E3 2013 has come to its end and the gaming world is returning to its day-to-day life. As I do every year, I saw a lot (secondhand, mind you, I’m nowhere near established enough financially or otherwise to actually get into E3) to really excite me about the future of gaming. In my last post, I shared my favorite announcements and trailers to come out of E3, and invited you all to do the same. Today, I started reminiscing about games of E3s past and thought, “Hey, that could make for a fun article series.”

The weeks that immediately follow E3–really those weeks that follow any major game announcement or reveal–have always been fascinating to me in a Schrödinger’s cat sort of way. For those of us not directly involved in their development, many of the unveiled titles from last week exist only in the hypothetical which means that they can be–in our imaginations, at least–everything we want them to be. As a kid I used to expend no small amount of time and effort imagining how an anticipated game might finally play once I got my hands on it, writing out lists of features I hoped to see, or plotting my future character’s development.

Who am I kidding? I still do that.

Of course, the paradox is that the closer a game gets to release, the more solidified its content becomes and the more restraint is imposed upon our imaginations. We move from the realm of the hypothetical to that of the practical. We learn exactly how a game will look, sound, and play. There’s an excitement in that, sure, but there can also be great disappointment, particularly if we (or the game’s developer) set our expectations too high. Even for those titles that turn out to be nearly everything we hoped they could be, it’s inevitable that something neat, maybe even something that was shown at the game’s unveiling, will be left on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Case in point, the above demonstration of the original Mass Effect shown at E3 2006, roughly a year and a half prior to the title’s final release. It was a big year for E3, not unlike this one, which focused almost entirely around the impending release of Sony’s PS3, Nintendo’s Wii, and the final transition into the next generation of gaming. I must have poured over the trailers released that year for games like Final Fantasy XIII, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Metal Gear Solid 4 dozens of times (kind-of like how I’ve poured over the trailers released this year for MGS 5, Wind Waker HD, and Final Fantasy XVhow history does love to repeat itself).

At the time, BioWare was still an independent developer and we knew very little about their new franchise except for what they had teased a year before, that it would be an all-new IP (BioWare had really made their name before then by working within existing IPs like D&D or Star Wars) and that it would launch exclusively to Xbox 360 . BioWare’s name was as good as gold, though, and the content that they showed in ’06 confirmed that Mass Effect was going to be something special. We were stunned by the next-gen visuals, particularly the detail of the character’s faces, all of which we were told were rendered in real-time. I remember vividly the excitement that the dialogue system, of all things, stirred up in the community. It felt so fluid and fast, a vastly different system than the standard text menus of older RPGs. BioWare promised a science-fiction RPG experience unlike anything we had ever seen before, complete with the command of our own ship, the ability to customize our hero, and the freedom to explore the galaxy to our hearts’ content. “This is your story,” project director Casey Hudson offered. “Your adventure.”

Mass Effect proved to be not only one of my all-time favorite games, but one of my favorite franchises. Still, even as I was hopelessly addicted to the game, I couldn’t help but notice certain aspects of the final product that weren’t exactly in line with the expectations I had originally set based on the video above. BioWare had kept plenty of their promises: divers armor, weapons, and abilities; custom gear; dynamic character interactions and choices that felt meaningful. But combat in Mass Effect ended up being pretty straightforward, so much so that it was nigh impossible to play the game at the upper difficulty levels without a “New Game +” save. The game and its sequels featured squad-based combat as promised, but your control over that squad was gimped when compared to the tactical system BioWare had originally proposed. The E3 2006 trailer demonstrated a far more hands-on approach to squad tactics (it even looks like the player is able to take full control of one of the party members at one point, something that would not be possible in the final release of the game). Oh, and what happened to those destructible environments? Being able to bring down a concrete wall with biotics or heavy weaponry like they showed in the video would have been a blast, but I can’t think of a single, unscripted instance in the actual game where that was possible.

In game development, it’s the name of the game to remove those features and ideas that don’t really fit the game’s vision. Developers need to trim away these things to bring development costs down or to tighten up the final game’s feel. It’s safe to assume that most of the cuts are made with good reason, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes about what little gems might be lost along with all the junk.

What about you all? Can you think of a game of E3s past (or any other gaming event) that didn’t quite live up to the expectations set by its original trailer or reveal?