It was the E3 that nobody wanted to happen. Rumours around the show floor claimed Microsoft had been planning to announce its next-generation Xbox until a couple of months ago but pulled out and Sony gratefully followed suit - or the other way around. Which left us all standing around like party-goers when the guest of honour doesn't show, politely grazing on the canapés of previously-announced games and making smalltalk. Awkward!
Still, the show must go on. As last year, the quality of games was high, but in contrast to the twilight of the previous console generation, the well of invention ran dry. This was the year that everything was Uncharted and the games - at Microsoft's conference in particular - blurred into an indistinguishable stream of overproduced, loud and often sickeningly violent action. Nintendo, actually showing new games of a different sort for a new console, was handed a golden opportunity to shine but was so anxious to explain itself that it fluffed its lines.
Thank heavens for those companies that ignored the next-gen amnesty and slipped a vision of the future, or a fresh idea or two, past the guards. You won't be surprised to see them singled out below in our pick of the best of E3 2012.
Game of the Show presents our top 10 with an overall winner, not segregated by genre or platform. Games had to be present at E3 in the form of actual working code, whether it was playable on the show floor or a live demo behind closed doors. Game of the Show is a measure of both quality and raw excitement, so you'll find more recently announced games than known quantities in the shortlist. Best Technology is open to both software and hardware. Best Publisher could be a platform holder or a third-party - whoever brought the broadest, strongest and most innovative line-up to LA. Best Game Announcement highlights the headlines that hit the hardest. Best Video showcases the trailers and game footage that most effectively got us hyped, or were simply enjoyable on their own terms.
Finally, you'll find a few more categories as a footnote, just for fun.
Game of the Show: Watch Dogs
Watch Dogs stunned on multiple counts: actually being a surprise, not being a sequel, having some exciting ideas and looking so good we thought it couldn't possibly run on current consoles. (Publisher Ubisoft has subsequently announced it for Xbox 360 and PS3, but we suspect it'll be a "cross-generational" game at the very least.)
It's for all those reasons and more that Watch Dogs tops our list, and appears here at the expense of several similar games. Third-person action was an even more overcrowded genre than first-person shooters this year, and games like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider and Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed 3 looked very good but didn't do enough to distinguish themselves.
The best thing about Watch Dogs' E3 showing was that, after the thrill of seeing (maybe) your first real next-gen game faded, you still had plenty to chew on. The hero's ability to hack anything in his surroundings is such a perfect match for emergent gameplay in an open world, and Ubisoft's realistic cyberpunk theme is perfectly timed for an era of corporate suspicion and rampant data-mining. That theme then ties in perfectly with a companion tablet app that allows a second player to mess with the game world in real-time, which could be a more compelling hook for this year's buzzword, asymmetric multiplayer, than anything Nintendo showed.
There are still plenty of questions, and Watch Dogs isn't guaranteed to pay off, but it simply displayed a greater sense of ambition than anything else at this year's E3.
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
Beyond: If Watch Dogs had any real competition, then it was Quantic Dream's follow-up to Heavy Rain, which again boasted stunning visuals and dared to dream big. Its greatest achievements are likely to be in performance capture and camerawork rather than gameplay, which looks to be a more interactive and intense take on Heavy Rain's cinematic 'interactive drama' style. But amid all the inhumane brutality surrounding it, here was a game with humanity to spare.
Far Cry 3: As Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Halo 4 and their peers trod water, the FPS star of E3 was easily this unhinged sequel which looks to reinvent the Far Cry series yet again. Channelling Alice in Wonderland and Apocalypse Now, it's a full-on bout of jungle fever that embraces satire, philosophy and psychedelia on the way to a post-modern examination of games themselves. What? No idea, but sign me up.
Hawken: It's always been a struggle to get PC games noticed at E3, and that's never been more true as digital distribution and free-to-play move the format further and further away from the traditional publishing that dominates the show. Props to developer Adhesive and publisher Meteor, then, for organising a delightfully old-school LAN party to promote their visually impressive and highly enjoyable multiplayer mech shooter. Like much of PC gaming, Hawken goes out the other side of uncool to become the coolest thing around - and it's going to be big.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted: It wasn't hard to get noticed amid a dismally unimaginative E3 showing from EA, and it's admittedly not much more than a brand-graft onto the framework of Criterion's own Burnout Paradise. But Most Wanted doesn't deserve such faint praise. With forward-thinking open-world multiplayer and stunning graphics (on PC), this was simply the most fun we had playing a game on the show floor.
Pikmin 3: It was one of the high points of the show to see Shigeru Miyamoto on stage at Nintendo's conference talking about deep gameplay systems and engaging with the design problems posed by strategy games. Pikmin 3 is as gorgeous and charming as you'd expect - and rather than being forced into a particular shape by Wii U, it uses the machine's unique set-up to offer a variety of complementary gameplay styles.
Project P-100: Nintendo has a secret hobby - publishing unusual games for its machines by some of Japan's most creative and hardcore developers. It's in that tradition that we discovered this Platinum Games Wii U gem. An isometric action game by Hideki Kamiya with striking toy-town graphics and retro verve, this had a distinct whiff of both Treasure and Super Nintendo about it - and as such would have made an ideal fanboy sop for the press conference.
Star Wars: 1313: Let's be perfectly honest - 1313 was far from the most original or substantial game to be shown at E3 2012. LucasArts' presentation smelled a little of smoke and mirrors - it's not exactly clear who is making this game - and once again we expect this will be a 'cross-generational' release. But - look at it. Just look at it. If anything can make Star Wars exciting again (and that is debatable), it's this.
The Unfinished Swan: It would be disingenuous to call it 'indie' - like thatgamecompany's Journey and Flower, The Unfinished Swan is an arthouse game with corporate sponsorship. But its conceit of painting in a blank world to find your way forward was one of the few totally novel interactions at E3, and it looks both memorable and fun.
ZombiU: Ubisoft's generous commitment to the Wii U launch isn't a surprise, but this scrappy and innovative original certainly was. Other companies showed (or didn't) some basic or gimmicky ports, but this is a bespoke survival adventure that owes as much to Dark Souls as it does the possibilities of the Wii U GamePad; die and you have to start from the beginning (and face yourself as a zombie). Yes, there were great Wii U games at the show - it's just that they crept up on you.
Best Technology: John Carmack's Magic Hat
It's not even a commercial product. Its appearance was just a publicity stunt for Doom 3: BFG Edition. It's an attempt to revive a decades-old idea that has fallen so far out of fashion it has become a running joke. But we'll eat our magic hats if it didn't come close to stealing the entire show.
John Carmack's improvised virtual reality headset combines stereoscopic 3D goggles with a motion-sensor for head-tracking. But the magic is in the firmware code he's written that turns off-the-shelf components into a blindingly responsive device that offers overwhelming immersion in the game world. (That, and some judiciously applied masking tape.)
It's not just impressive - it's a reminder of a time when video gaming was driven not by marketing but by new technology, raw engineering talent and big ideas. A particularly welcome reminder at this E3.
Unreal Engine 4: You had to look past the ghastly artwork and the evasive answers to questions, but Epic's new engine demo was nothing less than a look at what the next generation of games will be able to do. It's all about active lighting, with a million particles on screen and lens flare that would make JJ Abrams happy in his pants. But no, it's actually about a splendidly intuitive and flexible interface that will allow developers to sculpt their games while they're running in another window, hopefully making life better for everyone.
Luminous: Epic's wasn't the only next-generation engine on display. Square Enix showed a spectacular Final Fantasy-themed tech demo that looked just like one of its famous pre-rendered CG sequences, running in real time on a commercial PC. It was less interactive than the UE4 showing but, with its gorgeous art and action scenes, more representative of how games will look in a couple of years' time: absolutely stunning.
Best Publisher: Ubisoft
Given that it got three games into our top ten, this will be no surprise. But surprise is exactly what Ubisoft brought to a lacklustre show, not just by climaxing its conference with a new (and possibly next-gen) property called Watch Dogs, but with ZombiU's creative approach to a new platform, Far Cry 3's bonkers new direction and more.
Rounding out the slate was Assassin's Creed 3, a franchise sequel of great scope and polish set in a cleverly chosen and beautifully realised milieu. The only slip was Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which combined a drab setting with the worst of the show's gratuitous grisliness (and that's saying something).
Sometimes the French publisher can seem like it's just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks - and maybe there's some truth to that - but next to the extreme conservatism of its rivals, its devil-may-care attitude and willingness to take creative risk is invigorating.
Sony: Not everything Sony tried this year worked - we're not sure even JK Rowling's endorsement can save Wonderbook from the cupboard under the stairs - and the lack of first-party Vita games was truly worrying. But by bookending its conference with Beyond and The Last of Us, Sony demonstrated a commitment to new games late in the generation - a commitment backed by fun curios like The Unfinished Swan and Tokyo Jungle. 2013 is looking rosy for PS3, even without The Last Guardian.
No-one else: Perhaps it was down to the next-gen no-show, but short-termism and conservative thinking were endemic at E3 2012. Microsoft didn't want to talk about what new games it had, Activision was on autopilot (still), EA's stand was a time warp to two years ago and Square Enix only had two games of note. (Tomb Raider and Hitman do look good, mind.) Nintendo had some great stuff, of course, but there's no escaping the fact that it did not show enough games (or the right ones) to sell Wii U to the watching public. Must try harder.
Best Game Announcement: Watch Dogs
Seems only Ubisoft still practices the lost art of keeping a secret. Leaks are now regarded as such a certainty that games like Gears of War: Judgment and Star Wars: 1313 had their first official unveilings a few days before E3, just to be on the safe side. So this award is mostly for actually managing to keep Watch Dogs under wraps - but also for daring to make a brand new game the star of its show when the publisher had no end of hotly anticipated sequels, including Assassin's Creed 3 and a new Splinter Cell, to lean on. (And, we might add, for jumping the gun on the next generation - never mind what the press release says.) Ubisoft's reward: a communal geek meltdown on Twitter that swept the firm all the way to the E3 PR throne. Well played.
We knew something was coming from David Cage, but the chutzpah of Beyond's downbeat introduction, with Cage lecturing the Sony conference on mortality, was the old showman at his best. Miyamoto has mentioned Pikmin 3 at every E3 for the last 73 years, so it wasn't really a shock reveal, but the utterly adorable intro video and shocking focus on game design and features in its presentation warmed our cockles. Star Wars: 1313 could have done with a bigger stage, but the unexpected direction for such a huge licence certainly registered on the EG seismometer. Gore Verbinski's Pinball, or whatever it's called [it's called Matter - Ed.], was perhaps the only thing at the Microsoft conference that made us sit up and take notice with its sleek, abstract, Portal-inspired look. We'd love to mention Project P-100 here, because it's a Platinum game, looks cool and was completely unexpected, but Nintendo didn't really announce it, so we can't. Only we did.
Best video: Beyond
At the end of a long day of dubstep and frenetic murder simulation, suddenly there was silence. There were awkward gaps in conversation, shifty looks, tiny nuances of performance. As an opener for the Sony conference, a showcase for Quantic Dream's astonishing performance capture tech and a platform for its star signing Ellen Page, the Beyond trailer was both brave and brilliantly judged - and it was absolutely the only video or demonstration during the whole of E3 week to posit that less could actually be more. Thrown into even sharper relief by the hysterically noisy competition, it stands alone. (It does have explosions and car chases at the end though!)
There wasn't a lot of honour on display, to be honest, in a flood of trailers and gameplay videos that threw throat-stabbing, wubwubs and jingoism around with offensive abandon. So we'll restrict ourselves to nods toward the hugely entertaining trailer for South Park: The Stick of Truth, and all those shiny graphics in the gameplay debuts of Watch Dogs and Star Wars: 1313 as well as Square Enix's Luminous engine demo. In the absence of much else to enjoy, here's that video of Snoop Dogg threatening to dickslap Bertie again.
The Party Like It's 1999 Award: Xbox 360, which will soon boast support for Napster, AOL and Internet Explorer. Can't wait for the Geocities app.
Most Bloodthirsty Mob: The fans who ended Sony's conference in a disgusting display of unfettered bloodlust, whooping and cheering every gory execution in The Last of Us. Stay classy, guys.
Most Horrifying Gastronomy: Reggie Fils-Aime, who provided one of the least comprehensible moments of E3 at the Nintendo conference when he bellowed "I LIKE FRENCH FOOD" while his simulated zombie face melted onto his shoulder. Bon appetit.
Most Morally Bankrupt Game: A hotly contested one, this, but it has to go to Medal of Honor: Warfighter, in which "you can draw a line from every conflict in the game to a real-life one" according to Danger Close's Greg Goodrich. Looking forward to the Syria expansion.
Biggest Money Bonfire: Usher promoting Dance Central 3 at the Microsoft conference, which probably cost a dollar for every copy the game will sell. [That's charitable. -Ed]
Best Rented Celebrity: Snoop Dogg for Tekken Tag Tournament 2. "The Dogg is a fan of the Frog, yes indeed - I love Frogger like I love my motherf***ing weed," as the great man put it in his rap battle with Bertie.
Best Cab Driver: The hilarious Armenian who drove us to the airport on the last day. "F*** YOU. I'M GOING TO STONEHENGE."
Most Ubiquitous Developer on the Show Floor: A tie between Yoshinori Ono and Peter Molyneux, who were everywhere you looked. Ono just seemed happy not to be working, while Molyneux shot his mouth off to anyone who would listen about all sorts of things he really shouldn't be talking about. Don't go changing, Peter.
Least Useful Technology: SmartGlass and Xbox Music, which allow you to do all sorts of things you can already do, but in a more connected way. Did they mean to say "more branded"?
Best Diss: "How many times have you been watching an episode of South Park and thought, I'd like to watch this on my television, which has been hooked into my mobile device, which is being controlled by my tablet device, which is hooked into my oven, all while sitting in the refrigerator?" South Park's Trey Parker doesn't spare his hosts at the Microsoft conference.
The Gerry Anderson Award for Least Human Arm Movements: Don Mattrick.
Best Comedy Patriotism: "God Save the Queen," said Craig Sullivan of Criterion after presenting a Need for Speed demo (on Jubilee day) in which the contestants were called Harry, Elizabeth and so on. Most of the audience didn't appreciate the irony.
Best Technobabble: The inimitable John Carmack, for getting "drift it to a gravity vector" into a breathless interview in which he also casually mentioned that he programs rocket ships.
Executive Least in Touch with Reality: EA's John Riccitiello, who made his ludicrous "we're more Sundance than Hollywood" claim again before showing a slate exclusively composed of shooting, sports and racing sequels.
The "Let's Chill Here on the Deck" Kaz Hirai Memorial Award for Excellence in Strained Banter: Reggie Fils-Aime, a master of the art, who carpeted the Nintendo conference in more awkward, scripted and entirely false bonhomie than we can list, all delivered with his customary dead-eyed menace. "I feel like a purple Pikmin." What, like eating one?