The best games, demos, and tech of E3 2019

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C'mon, how can you deny Keanu?
Enlarge / C'mon, how can you deny Keanu?
Xbox / Microsoft

LOS ANGELES—There's no getting around it: Walking through the Los Angeles Convention Center for 2019's Electronic Entertainment Expo felt weird. This year's new Sony-sized hole compounded the fact that Xbox and EA held events elsewhere (and Activision, once again, didn't really show up).
As a result, this year's E3 was the most thinly attended iteration we've seen in years—but that was by no means the fault of the games on offer. We left E3 2019 impressed by a variety of games old and new. While we're still working through a backlog of hands-on impressions, the Ars gaming braintrust is already ready to name its favorite games of the show—all of which were games shown with real, live gameplay. Admittedly, narrow preview builds mean devs could still be fooling us with some smoke and mirrors—this is E3, land of unfinished games—but all of the below demos presented well enough at E3 to pass our sniff test for hype and BS.

Here, for your consideration, is our unranked list of the Top 10 games of E3 2019, along with a selection of honorable mentions.

Borderlands 3

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4, Stadia
Expected release date: Sept. 13, 2019

In a lot of important ways, our E3 2019 demo of Borderlands 3 simply provided more Borderlands. That means more ridiculously frenetic and colorful shooting with an unapologetically self-aware, over-the-top, post-apocalyptic attitude. After a seven-year wait since the last numbered game in the series, that's almost enough on its own. In terms of sheer feel and beat-to-beat gameplay, we're still not convinced anyone has topped existing Borderlands games in the looter-shooter genre, and this one already feels more polished in action than its predecessors.

That's the case before we even take into consideration some important new tweaks to the formula. For one, each character now gets a couple of special abilities, each with their own independent recharge timer. For my character, that meant juggling a portable energy shield and an independent drone that could distract and fire upon enemies. Each ability also now comes with stackable “emblems” that can augment the powers if you pour enough ability points into the applicable field.

Outside the demo, we were also sold on coming social quality-of-life features. This includes the thankfully standard split-screen co-op for local couch play, but there's also a newfound ability to sell extra guns to friends asynchronously via in-game vending machines or simply send them directly via an in-game mail service. You'll also be able to find a bevy of skins and cosmetic customization options for you and your guns in order to tailor your own look for others to see when playing online.

But that's mostly icing on a cake that we've been jonesing for another slice of for years. Borderlands 3 provides just the excuse we need to collect a lot of virtual guns to shoot at a lot of oversized beasts. -Kyle Orland

Control

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4
Expected release date: Aug. 27, 2019

It's been nearly a decade since Remedy Entertainment launched a video game I could unequivocally recommend (Alan Wake) and three years since the studio's uneven Quantum Break showed that the developer knows how to craft impressive, trippy combat.

In great news for Remedy fans, everything I liked about Quantum Break—jaw-dropping visuals, dimension-shifting weirdness, and telekinetic superpowers—has been paid forward to Control, a new video game where mystery and plot don't get in the way of compelling action.

My hands-on time with Control‘s E3 demo let me flex the new game's early superpower muscles, and gosh, did it feel good. Warp-dodging past enemies, aiming the morphing pistol, and using random physical objects as throwable weapons—I quickly hit a nice groove in zipping around like some X-Men character who'd been kicked out of Xavier's school for being too awesome. And Remedy's combat arenas are designed to emphasize the game's strengths by making sure attacks are always coming from above and below, thus forcing her to keep her wits and strategically consider which ability to bust out for each takedown.

The handsome lighting models and per-object motion blur from Quantum Break are back for this newer game, as well, only with even more tantalizing distortion and color trickery. These are met by a plot that has clearly broken the “weirdness” dial, and the combined package already has me excited for what's to come in “summer 2019.” -Sam Machkovech

Cyberpunk 2077

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4
Expected release date: April 16, 2020

2019 was the second year in a row that Cyberpunk threatened to steal the show. But it was the first year that we could see the skeleton of a complete RPG in a behind-closed-doors presentation.

This year's demonstration focused on Pacifica, a half-finished “luxury” section of future Los Angeles that was abandoned by its developers after a disaster ruined its economic underpinnings. It's now been resigned to the impoverished Haitians who helped build it, gathering together into gangs and makeshift economies that both react to your in-game reputation. The world-building you'd hope for from a developer like CD Projekt Red shines through in the little details, like the way “real meat” has been outlawed by powerful corporate interests pushing synthetic replacements with stories about diseases carried by real animals.

Your character's extreme customization starts by picking a backstory: did you rise up through the streets or come down through the corporate world? It extends to the myriad choices you get to make, from standard assigning of points to basic character traits to the way you make your way through challenges. A netrunner might hack their way into the security guards' mind to force them to turn their weapons on themselves, while a stronger character might rip their way through the door and the guards too.

Those choices extend to who you want to trust in the ever-shifting battle between the gangs and the Netwatch agents trying to rein them in. From the demo, it wasn't immediately apparent there was a single answer to that question that could be assuredly considered “good” or “safe” or “moral” over the other.

While the game's urban world seems interesting enough, the end of the demo hinted at a much wider story in cyberspace itself, where hackers continue to search for a way to upload their consciousness and free themselves from their physical prisons. And that's not even digging into the non-cyberspace portion's promising mix of stealth, hacking, weapon customization, limb-specific damage modeling, handsome lighting effects, and Keanu freakin' Reeves as your hero's occasional accomplice.

Crucially, the hour of traversal, conversation, and combat we saw looked like a real game this time, as opposed to last year's shoot-for-the-moon reveal. Yet apparent technical limitations in terms of rendering, crowd sizes, and other technical details didn't get in the way of us finally buying into the same sales pitch as last year: a gorgeous near-future romp that we might get to play exactly how we want. -Kyle Orland

    <em>Listing image by Xbox / Microsoft</em>
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