It began, as ever, with a leak. With just hours to go until Microsoft's absurdly lavish... Wait a second, this is last year's intro. Oh well, it turns out it still works: where last year we heard about Kinect before we'd even donned our space ponchos, this year we knew about Halo 4 and several new Kinect sequels before Don Mattrick even had a chance to start educating us about "growth and innovation".
Last year's show ended up being light for big news, as we put it, and you could level the same complaint at this year's E3: with less than a handful of noteworthy exceptions, every game that we saw, played and talked about at E3 2011 had been trailed before anyone made it to the LA Convention Center. Nintendo made a decent fist of stirring things up with another disruptive console announcement - once we'd all figured out it actually was a console announcement, anyway - but the show proved to be more about first looks and hands-on previews than revelations.
That has led some to label E3 2011 a bit of a bore, but despite the long haul of this console generation this is an industry in genuine transition. Thanks in no small part to the rise of Metacritic, publishers hatched plans a few years ago to focus their businesses on quality in boxed games and to cut away the chaff. If E3 2011 was boring, it was because nobody rocked up with anything less than a thoroughbred to paint across its massive stand. It's easy to counter that point by moaning that all we saw were sequels, but if we will keep buying them...
Anyway, below you will find our picks of E3 2011. Rules are much the same as ever. Game of the Show is our top 10, effectively, with an overall winner, not segregated by platform or genre. Games had to be present at E3 in the form of actual working code. We award Game of the Show based on a mixture of quality and raw excitement, which is why games announced closer to or indeed at the show sometimes make a stronger impact than others.
The other four categories are Best Technology, which is open to both software and hardware, Best Publisher, which can go to a platform holder or third-party, Best Game Announcement, to recognise the headlines that hit hardest, and Best Video, because if nothing else E3 is a show-and-tell, and trailers and gameplay videos are the best way for publishers to stand out both in person and online.
Game of the Show: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Much as we loved Oblivion and Fallout 3, they were not only united in depth and diversity - they were also united in crimes against animation. Indeed, while Bethesda Game Studios' output is often cause for great celebration, it is just as often rough around the edges that matter most to those who need a little help willingly suspending their disbelief.
All hail Skyrim, then, because the massive presentation of the game at Bethesda's BFG event in Salt Lake City earlier this year, tweaked and tightened for its behind-closed-doors outing at E3 2011, is finally a heavyweight in attention to detail. Every aspect of the world tempts you to stop and simply observe, whether it's salmon leaping upstream, a woodcutter at the chopping block, a disinterested ogre rumbling down a mountain path, or candles flickering in the darkness.
The multiple systems of attack, magic and dragon shouts interlock and overlap in ways that drive you to experiment, while the texture and verisimilitude of the world and its inhabitants drive you to explore. Rather than simply add and expand, Bethesda hasn't been shy about reducing and refining, either, putting creativity and ambition ahead of convention and potential fan frustration.
It's still a few months away, and there are still many unanswered questions, but we almost don't want to know the answers: we just want to get conveniently sick around about 11/11/11 and find out for ourselves.
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
Bastion: Simply some of the best fun you could have playing a game on the show floor, this XBLA Summer of Arcade treat from Supergiant Games delighted with its punchy isometric action, colourful quasi-anime looks and gravel-voiced, hard-boiled narration. With a tone unlike anything you've ever played (or seen), this is not your average action RPG.
Batman: Arkham City: As so often with sequels to breakout successes, it's a game which everyone wants but which the perfectly-formed predecessor doesn't really seem to need. Credit to Rocksteady Games, then, for opening its claustrophobic adventure out into something quite different and more free-wheeling, while keeping that same brooding tone.
Battlefield 3: Raw technical horsepower, brilliant multiplayer - which we got to try ourselves - and a more sober style than the increasingly pantomimic Call of Duty series are the hallmarks of this uber-shooter. EA is betting everything on Battlefield 3 this year, and there's every indication that Swedish developers DICE are more than up to the task. An absolute monster.
BioShock Infinite: Infinite still lies somewhere in the distance, but should have no trouble looking fantastic when it does finally emerge. If it's not the best-written game released next year as well, we'll be very surprised. "We've always been successful about immersing people in a space," Ken Levine said recently, explaining Infinite's storytelling. "Now we want to immerse them in a relationship."
Dark Souls: We've seen it a couple of times before, but we still get chills every time this electrifying sequel to the brutal, bitter and brilliant Demon's Souls rears its head. Most games at E3 2011 were desperate to please; Mass Effect 3 basically dropped its trousers in the middle of LACC and shouted that it was anyone's. But Dark Souls stood there, arms crossed, and dared us to even try licking its boots. We grovel before it.
Luigi's Mansion 2: After years of tutting at cheering fanboys during Nintendo's E3 conferences, this year we almost joined them when Luigi's Mansion 2 was unveiled for 3DS. It seems to overcome the control disparity between GameCube and 3DS, overflows with charm and makes great use of 3D. Alongside Super Mario and Mario Kart, Nintendo's having a second swing at a launch line-up.
Tomb Raider: This list is in no particular order, but if it had been then Tomb Raider would have been nearer the top than the bottom. Some found Lara's transformation from queen of the underground into frightened and harassed castaway slightly uncomfortable, but the survival slant gives Tomb Raider new energy and a degree of pathos it has rarely sought, let alone found before. As one rival product manager remarked to us after seeing it in action, "I wouldn't want to be releasing against Tomb Raider in 2012."
Prey 2: There's Rage, but we've known about that for years, so Prey 2 is the closest thing Bethesda has to new IP just now. Speaking of rage, that was the initial reaction when most of the original game's fans heard that Human Head Studios had hit the reset switch and abandoned Tommy in favour of a puzzle-free, non-linear bounty hunter adventure on a distant planet in the future. After half an hour in its company, however, it's hard to argue with the change of direction.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: Naughty Dog doesn't just do game levels, it does massive, sprawling set-pieces that unfold over minutes rather than seconds, and no one owns the word "cinematic" in gaming quite like Nathan Drake. E3's capsizing ship level, which saw Drake's world turned upside down by a hole in the hull, was a great example, but judging by the snapshots in the accompanying teaser trailer it will struggle to make the top ten in the final game.
Best Technology: Wii U
Confusing? At the time, perhaps, but now the dust has settled we know exactly what Wii U is: it's a new console which Nintendo believes has the muscle to match PS3 and Xbox 360, with a new controller that is part tablet, part control pad.
What it has to almost embarrassing excess, however, is potential, and while potential alone is never enough to guarantee success - just look at last year's winner in this category, the 3DS - it is an increasingly scarce commodity among the homogenised video game platforms, where last year's innovation is this year's sinkhole for mini-game compilations.
There's a mountain for Nintendo still to climb (actually two mountains to climb - let's call the other one "online"), but once again we exit an E3 wishing Miyamoto and friends the best of luck along the way.
PlayStation Vita: Perhaps more so than its big brother the PlayStation 3, this one only does everything. Everything Sony could think of, by the sound of it - offering so many means of interaction that it's in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own technological diversity. Wii U offers choice but it is still channelled into a particular focus; we wait to see whether Vita can find its own. We hope it can though - it's lovely to use, and the games industry could do with a successful, specialised gaming handheld rather than ceding the space to a half-interested Apple.
OnLive: Whisper it, but it's getting better. It's still not HD gaming piped over the internet in the way that its owners would like us to think and proclaim, but it is making strides all the time, and OnLive had a solid E3. The universal controller is a clever idea and along with tablet support lowers the barrier to entry for the kind of excellent, specialised content that the traditional games industry really needs to sell to a broader audience.
Best Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
A few glitches and Need for Speed regressions aside, none of the bigger publishers had a notably bad E3, so this is a tougher category than ever to call. The focus on quality and pedigree was in evidence everywhere you looked, especially among the platform holders - Nintendo's stand was so rammed with software and demo units, for instance, that it was virtually unadorned.
Bethesda's stand was hardly unadorned, with every corner expensively sculpted to frame its contents, but it had a right to show off. Things may not have gone entirely to plan with Brink (and the PSN outage was rotten timing), but Skyrim will be epic enough to justify its headline billing - which included a custom-painted advert on the side of the Figueroa Hotel near the LACC, easily six figures' worth of hype - while Rage is quietly looking like the best thing id's done since Quake 3 Arena, and Prey 2 is so much of an overhaul that it barely qualifies as a sequel.
Few companies have made as much noise as Bethesda since it expanded its publishing operations in 2009, and with unannounced projects still to come from Arkane, Shinji Mikami's Tango Gameworks and ZeniMax Online Studios - that we know of - the next 12 months could confirm its ascent to the top table of video game publishing. And looking to the next generation of consoles, well, they employ John Carmack. They should be alright.
Nintendo: Sequels, yes, but even the most sneering 3DS sceptics probably gulped down some enthusiasm at the sight of Super Mario, Mario Kart, Luigi's Mansion 2, Kid Icarus and Star Fox dancing around the screen. Wii U won most of the other headlines, and let's not forget little old Skyward Sword. When the most ambitious Zelda game ever is the support act at your press conference, you must be doing something worth caring about.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment: Arkham City is the sequel Batman deserves, although perhaps not the one it needs right now (we'll see), but Warner's Sesame Street game looks like it's channelling the best children's TV show ever made responsibly, and we were pleased to arrive on its stand and find ourselves directed toward the charming Bastion, a small game but one that the publisher rightly wants to champion. Refreshing.
Best Game Announcement: Luigi's Mansion 2
"The first brother of video games is back and he's got his vacuum." And about freaking time. Like all gamers, we spend most of our lives walking the hypocritical line between moaning about unwanted sequels and moaning about unwanted change, but Luigi's Mansion was treated roughly when it accompanied the GameCube to market at the start of the century, and while it burned brightly for those who did fall under its spell, it only did so briefly. We've got unfinished business, then, and having been associated with a weak console launch once before, how perfect would it be for Luigi to come full circle and reinvigorate another one 10 years down the line?
Sly 4: Thieves in Time: This originally appeared on our shortlist with four exclamation marks next to it, such is our enthusiasm for all things Thievius Raccoonus. OK, it's not being made by Sucker Punch, but Sanzaru Games did a bang-up job porting the PS2 games over to the current generation, and the trailer shown at Sony's conference ticked all the right boxes. Plus, Wikipedia informs us it's host to "an ego-centric tiger named El Jeffe". MORE OF THIS.
Dust 514: Although it was first revealed some time ago to CCP's hardcore audience of EVE Online players, Dust 514's appearance at the Sony conference - and confirmation as a PS3 console exclusive - was definitely its big moment. A large-scale multiplayer shooter that plugs in to a persistent universe and talks to an entirely different game - EVE's cerebral space trade and warfare - this remains one of the most interesting and exciting games in development anywhere. And now the whole world knows about it.
Halo 4: Surprise! Well, not really - ah, the perils of internet publishing. And not really in any event - what else did we imagine 343 Industries was doing? It remains to be seen whether gamers will accept a Halo not made by Bungie, but as Microsoft's Chris Lewis pointed out to our sister site GamesIndutry.biz, if the game is good then the game is good. Let's hope it is.
Far Cry 3: "Have I ever told you the definition of insanity?" Yes - in your conference, on your booth and in the trailer. The fact we're not bored of being told about it reflects how much we enjoyed Far Cry 3's energetic reveal. The game looked a little predictable in places, but now Crytek's given up on jungles, this is a welcome sight.
Best Video: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
With Star Wars: The Old Republic pre-emptively disqualified from this category due to spamming us with CGI and never actually coming out, this one wasn't difficult to call. Most games borrow or steal from cinema, but few have learned as much as Uncharted under the stewardship of Amy Hennig, and that's evident even in the trailers. This one is as good as any film teaser we've seen in 2011.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations missed out but not by much, and easily has the best music of any trailer released during E3, although Just Dance 3 had the best musician in Katy Perry. Halo 4 gave us very little to go on but just enough, and Fruit Ninja Kinect features men dressed as ninjas and low-fi fruit doing pretty advanced choreography in feudal Japan, so what's not to like?
Dharma Initiative Award for Advanced Corporate Clarity: Wii U. Days later, people still thought it was an add-on.
Most Fetishistic Approach to Warfare: Ghost Recon's amazing GunSmith Kinect thing, where you hug and caress invisible guns in the air to make them more deadly.
Biggest Cock-up: Putting Halo 4 on Xbox.com two hours before the Microsoft conference. Hey, at least they didn't leave it on a bar stool...
Least Appropriate Change of Direction: Brothers in Arms: Furious 4, or "Rise of Turbo Hitler" as we've renamed it.
Best Use of Number Three In A Title: Tied between Serious Sam 3, Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3, Dungeon Siege 3, Saints Row 3, UFC Undisputed 3, Ninja Gaiden 3, Far Cry 3, Modern Warfare 3, Resistance 3, F.E.A.R. 3, No More Heroes 3 and Pikmin 3.
Biggest Money Bonfire: Eurogamer's hire car. A Cadillac Escalade.
Best Apology: Jack Tretton. "You are the lifeblood of the company. Without you there is no PlayStation. I want to apologise personally and on behalf of the company for any anxiety we've caused you."
Best Quote: Jack Tretton. "To all our esteemed members of the press I say, 'You're welcome.'"
Best Rented Celebrity: A tie? Sony had Kobe Bryant, but then Microsoft had Ice-T. Neither of them can play video games.
Most Forced Attempt At Meme Generation: Ubisoft's Mr Caffeine. Doodledo doodledo doodledo.
Best Simulated Families: Microsoft's amazingly fake brother and sister combos, who laughed and danced their way through demonstrations of Disneyland Adventures without biting each other's arms or even pulling hair.
Best Banter: Tretton again - "Great news on Vita but I can't believe Kaz made fun of my tie. I was tempted to bust out that Ridge Racer line, but I like my job too much."
Best Executive Panic: Kaz Hirai's face when the audience laughed and jeered at the AT&T Vita exclusivity announcement.
Least Memorable Corporate Mantra: Don Mattrick's "You search, Xbox finds it." We had to look it up. On Google.
The "Let's Chill here on the Deck" Kaz Hirai Memorial Award for excellence in strained banter: HUT, HUT, TWENTY TWO. Those NFL-playing lunatics at the Microsoft conference. Made all the more wonderful, as ever, by the presence of their lines on the massive autocue staring most of the audience in the face from the back of the room, which at one point included the prompt: "[Pause] WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO".
Compiled with help from Oli Welsh, Martin Robinson, Christian Donlan and many others. See you all next year.