E3 2021 Review - The Good, The Bad, The Weird


The Electronic Entertainment Expo hit as hard as it does every year, with the all-digital format doing nothing to dampen the bombastic air of the premier consumer-facing video game business event, known for the biggest reveals and the most awkward celeb cameos.

While some publishers not playing ball with the rest of the kids have yet to stream their keynote, we've already seen over 100 brand new games, and E3 2021 had already had highlights, low points and bizarre moments. Let's look back on our annual look forward into the gaming market.

Note that the presentations and reveals listed here are the ones we consider to have had the most impact - in case you don't see your upcoming indie sweetheart or favorite blockbuster doesn't mean we hate it and it sucks, but simply that it isn't what this expo is going to go down in the annals for.

The Good

We're happy to report that the interesting and unique reveals of games that we're excited to look forward to in the coming months and years strongly outnumber any stinkers or oddities. In fact, based on what we know and have seen, the vast majority of the over 100 games seen so far look pretty damn good, actually.

In broad strokes however, the main takeaway from this year's E3 is that against all odds the industry is learning. Yeah, we were shocked too - an extremely vibrant and lively indie scene, the apparent revival of AA by certain mid-range titles like Soulstice, demos being a thing again, Square Enix releasing a single-player Guardians of the Galaxy title without any DLC, microtransactions or online requirement, etc.

Maybe this is just temporary posturing because the eyes of every player was fixated on these companies. Maybe a lot of the influence seen here will evaporate in the months to come - but we choose to be hopeful and consider this a significant step in the right direction for an industry many have come to criticize.

Elden Ring

They actually showed it! It isn't a few seconds long, laughably low quality leak, but an honest to god gameplay trailer and major official infodump. We actually know things about the long-awaited FromSoftware and George R. R. Martin collaboration.

Granted, nothing new we saw about Elden Ring is particularly surprising - it's dark, grimy fantasy set in an oppressively gloomy and broken world full of ancient evils that want to kill you with all the extraneous crap growing out of their misshapen bodies, with slow and tactical combat that is bound to set a new industry standard for difficulty.

While many of the themes, aesthetic choices and gameplay elements will be dead ringers for the Dark Souls series, and From is clearly not exactly leaping out of its comfort zone here, Elden Ring does offer plenty different.

The broad-strokes generic European medieval setting of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls and the Victorian setting of Bloodborne are now joined by a setting with more Nordic, Gaelic and shamanistic overtones, albeit based on the trailer some locations will be echoing the previous franchises in varying degrees.

Elden Ring will also be offering more of an open world approach, with a mount to help us traverse this shattered world and larger areas to explore and die in. By the looks of the trailer there will be some advanced travel mechanics, like weird shimmering magic mist that catapults our poor horse-thing into the air. Oh, the horse can also double jump!

We also have a release date! Elden Ring launches worldwide on 2022.1.21, which isn't as far away as we would have guessed.

Starfield

The second game this year in the "It's actually happening! There is official info about it!" category, Bethesda's Starfield got a huge amount of lip-service out of the blue following years of complete silence. Todd Howard went on to reveal more about the game in an interview, which combined with another behind-the-scenes look at Starfield gave us the best idea of what this game actually is in a long time.

In the undying words of Howard himself, Starfield is "Skyrim in space". It is also apparent more hardcore an RPG than anything Bethesda has done before, so it can't exactly be Skyrim in space, but... we'll roll with it. We know very little about the story so far, but it will concern a group of professional space explorers presumably exploring space.

The trailer that has been shown, featuring very early work-in-progress footage from the game itself, most gives us a feel for the interior spaces of a starship that we can only assume will be our hub of operations in the game. The developers gave the ship a fantastically authentic lived-in atmosphere. We imagine the goal here was to wow audiences with advanced, highly realistic graphics, but it was multitude of tiny details that got us.

Fans have been poring over the trailer to dig out extra information from any of the details throughout each scene. No prizes are being handed out for figuring out that the 11-11-21 on the display at the end refers to the November 11, 2021 release date, but some have noticed references to past cancelled Bethesda games, and theories about some of the books the protagonist (?) keeps on the ship being relevant to the plot have arisen.

Concept art shown off gives us an even better idea of what kind of a universe we will be exploring in Starfield, with a rugged frontier vibe permeating it. While not quite the retro futuristic patter of Fallout, the Starfield aesthetic definitely seems to be less high-tech than many other space exploration games.

Instead of glowing, holographic displays, the pilot pulls a control panel full of switches and buttons closer to them when powering up the ship, landing us closer to the CRT-punk style of Alien.

While we learned more about Starfield in a day than in all the years since its reveal, we still have waaaaaaaay more questions than answers. With about one and a half years to go until release, fans aren't going to have to spend extended periods of time starved out any more, though.

Take-Two's Unusual Keynote

When we heard that Take-Two Interactive Software will appear at E3, our obvious first thought was "GTA 6 real?". All subsequent thoughts were similarly video game related, but the published managed to surprise with a keynote presentation that had no games.

Now, you might be confused why a panel without any games goes into "the good" category, but that's because this unusual presentation was dedicated entirely to corporate responsibility and "diversity, equity, and inclusion" in the games industry.

A welcome surprise

It wasn't even one of those few minute skits done before the trailers are wheeled out to keep up appearances about not being a soulless evil corporation, honestly guys. It was 45 minutes! Among the people speaking at the panel were industry executive and USC professor Gordon Bellamy of Gay Gaming Professionals, Games for Change president Susanna Pollack, UFC professor Jim Huntley, and Girls Make Games founder Laila Shabir, touching upon many of the equality and discrimination issues in the video game industry today.

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This was a supremely surprising turn from Take-Two, and we're frankly happier with this keynote than we would be with trailers - remember how we said this year's E3 showed that the industry is learning? More of this, please.

Possibly even more surprising was how willing the audience was to roll with it. Despite the expected toxic, horrid comments on Twitch and YouTube that are to expected from a particular demographic of ignorant, hateful basement dwellers who being to froth in impotent rage whenever "diversity" is mentioned, viewer counts show that very few people tuned out of the livestreams in lieu of trailers, and a large number of positive, supportive and hopeful comments countered the bile.

A Ton Of Games Launching This Year

Both Elden Ring and Starfield have 2022 release dates, but well over a dozen games are actually coming out before the year is over, meaning throughout the upcoming six months. Many of these titles are indie releases, but there are a few heavy hitters included such as Halo Infinite, Battlefield 2042 and Forza Horizon 5 with its highly detailed cactus pricks.

While the video game market is more saturated than ever before, we imagine the pandemic and quarantine measures helped a lot of you burn through some backlog, meaning the prospect of not having to wait until next year for some of our most anticipated newly announced titles is a welcome surprise.

The Bad

There's no getting around it - sometimes, some reveals just aren't up to par with the rest of the show, or have one particular caveat that dispel the magic. Sometimes we're just mildly disappointed, but sometimes we're utterly bewildered at how anyone could approve of this.

The latter, at least, is usually memorable.

Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin

We're not certain, but we suspect the lad in the button down wants to kill Chaos. Not sure though. The trailer for Stranger of Paradise really wasn't clear about his motivations. Why are these three at the shrine of Chaos? No clue! Sooooo mysterious.

One day I hope we get to see a documentary about what went down over at Square Enix in the lead up to E3 2021, and what outlandish circumstances could possibly have possessed them to think this is okay, because it had to have been a chaotic period.

Stranger of Paradise is a Final Fantasy spin-off that replaces the RPG gameplay with a standard hack-and-slash action approach, and takes fans back to the setting of the first game, serving as a sort of prequel to it. Three fighters who claim to be the prophesized warriors of light (we know they're not) seek to kill Garland/Chaos (we know they won't).

Look at this idiot

On paper, none of this jumps out immediately as being particularly egregious, but then there's the trailer. Definitely the worst E3 trailer of 2021 and in the race for worst E3 trailer ever, the whole thing felt more like the product of a cynical critic parodying the worst tropes that Final Fantasy has to offer.

The protagonist is literally wearing the most boring, real-life modern day clothing imaginable and looks like the least interesting generic white dude character conceivable. Not only is the design trite, but it looks out of place next to his much more overtly Final Fantasy-looking companions and the setting, and the huge dumbass sword on his back.

We are treated to some of the worst dialogue in recent memory, with this idiots banging on about Chaos and killing Chaos and whether or not Chaos is here throughout the whole thing, interspersed with some nonsensical editing. What the hell did we just watch? Nomura and Nojima utterly losing touch with what fans of this series actually expect from Final Fantasy games, is what.

It's a shame too, because Team Ninja are capable developers, and the gameplay of this might actually be great - but Chaos is already too much of a meme.

Babylon's Fall

Babylon's Fall is a live service game, for whatever reason. You were so close...

After three years of radio silence, Platinum Games' Babylon's Fall is becoming reality, and the fantasy hack-and-slash is being realized as a live-service co-op game. Squeenix was going well with the DLC-free single player Guardians of the Galaxy game, but this is a step back, and combined with Stranger of Paradise that's two duds on their account.

At least it looks good, right?

Sure, Babylon's Fall might be good, but years of experience have taught us that little good will come of any kind of live-service game. The term is generally used as a palatable way of saying "we're going to go ham on microtransactions and DLC". The game itself looks fine based on the gameplay trailer that was shown off, but while Square Enix found the time to announce the live-service elements, they didn't announce a release date.

The Weird

Not necessarily bad, not necessarily good, but certainly noteworthy - every E3 has these kind of reveals, and 2021 was no different.

Elex 2

Remember Elex? We sure didn't until the sequel was announced! Elex was a serviceable, mid-range RPG developed by Piranha Bytes and published by THQ back in 2017 which took a swing at tackling sci-fi and fantasy at the same time. We don't mean science-fantasy, but literally having overt sci-fi bits and also over fantasy bits sort of co-existing in the same game.

It wasn't bad, got mixed-positive reviews and is decently enough received on Steam, but it certainly didn't make any big waves in the industry. We didn't imagine it was successful enough to warrant a sequel, but apparently enough of us picked it up on a whim during a sale or something.

Elex 2 is coming, and is packing its sci-fi and fantasy mashup DNA once again. The cinematic reveal trailer is a bit wack, feeling like a relic from a decade ago, but we're interested to see how this unexpected franchise develops.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2

While what we saw of the sequel to Breath of the Wild is definitely "the good" tier, many elements of the game definitely land it in weird territory too. Link has a cybernetic arm which lets him control the elements and use the force, or something. There are red, evil glowing tentacles. There is a lot of Skyward Sword inspiration going on, with flying mechanics, floating islands and just an pervasive theme of "oooooh big sky".

We're definitely hyped for Breath of the Wild 2, but it's weird - in a good way, and we love to see it embrace the weirdness.

Aron Gerencser
Gaming at least as long as he's been walking, Aron is a fan of all things sci-fi and lover of RPGs. Having written about games for years, he's right at home reporting most of the breaking news in the industry and covering the happenings of the e-sports world. When not writing, editing or playing, you can find Aron on Facebook.