Although Sony's approach to its E3 press conference had structural similarities to its rival's showing this year, the tone of the thing could not be more different. With those glossy, reflective interstitial graphics, racing games, and execs wearing leather jackets, everything Microsoft touches turns to Top Gear. Sony, meanwhile, chose the lofty, gilt interior of the Shrine Auditorium, dropped in a full-scale orchestra and allowed dapper maestro Shawn Layden to remain gaming's unknowable Gatsby, cheery yet restrained, impeccably mannered - whether he was offering his thoughts on Orlando or talking about a Crash Bandicoot remaster - and emerging only now and then in a pacy presentation that was a far cry from the days when Sony would roll out sales graphs and bang on about TV shows and Coca-Cola deals.
As with Microsoft, this was all about the games, although again, the shift in tone was everything. Sony's first handful of titles might leave you wondering if there was any other gaming aesthetic left beyond desaturated, possibly post-apocalyptic wilderness: landscapes of rust and stone and ancient trees where gloomy men, women and children fight monsters real and imagined. In truth, this was a brisk display of big-budget treats - ranging from God of War, with its new, sad dad Kratos teaching his son to kill (and to demonstrate a closer, almost over-the-shoulder camera) to SIE Bend Studios' zombie pile-up Days Gone - but the games could blur a little in their artful melancholy.
I'm not sure the idea of taking Kratos so seriously plays to the strengths of the character, who is best when he's blowing his top and indulging in antic splatter, but the game looked beautiful and many seem to think a change of pace is needed. Meanwhile, Days Gone's opening monologue, in which a lone biker mutters bitterly about a vanished world, fell away rather suddenly in a closing-act playthrough to reveal a game that throws the bodies at you so thick and fast it could be made by Housemarque. In fact, it's made by the people behind Syphon Filter - along with handheld outings for Resistance and Uncharted - but before there was time to think about all that, Sony was off again, whisking its audience to The Last Guardian, which got an October release date and a second Catweagle, this one with glowing eyes, and Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Horizon continues to look fantastic, a neat reversal on the norm - low-tech humans fighting robotic dinosaurs - playing out across what seems to be a vast landscape filled with opportunities for crafting and other survival elements. There are mounts to capture when you're covering long distances and dialogue wheels for conversations, and while the action looks wonderfully freeform and gadget-heavy - the rope arrows continue to appeal - the game's true potential shines in the quieter moments, when you ride a techno-buffalo past huge, gentle mechanical beasts grazing quietly in this mountainous world.
If anyone was going to shake us out of this mood, it was David Cage. Detroit: Become Human sees the addled auteur up to his familiar tricks, deep in the uncanny valley - he's dealing with androids this time, so at least it's thematically appropriate - and offering up cinematic set-pieces, rich with cliché, in which the outcome depends wildly on your actions. There's a hostage negotiation situation up on top of a skyscraper, see? A rogue android is threatening to drop a child into space. You're another android sent in to talk the guy down. Do you end up killing him? Killing the girl? Killing the girl and him? Killing yourself? So many options. "Face dilemmas," says the trailer blurb. Ponder the big questions. What, right, does it really mean to be human? I can't wait for David Cage to tell us!
With the chain of melancholy broken, it was time for VR, with Sony covering a wide array of options as it promised 50 games for PlayStation VR by the end of the year. Sony feels like the best bet for mainstream VR at the moment - setting aside the lingering worry as to how much of what was shown was running on the standard PS4 and how much was running on Neo. Between the October 13th release of the headset and January, we'll be offered the desert sci-fi blasting of Farpoint and the spooky open-world horrors of Resident Evil 7, which just dropped a demo and which will be entirely playable as a virtual reality title. Perhaps wisely, Sony's leaning on familiar names to draw people in. Beyond Resi, there's Battlefront X-Wing VR Mission, a Final Fantasy VR Experience which revelled, rather wonderfully, in the game's stuttery Harryhausen monsters, and a Batman Arkham VR game which showed little beyond moody teaser imagery. It's a far cry from the scrappy VR treats on Steam, and perhaps, to win over the living room, it needs to be.
Familiar names continued with a prolonged look at Call of Duty, which suggested the series had lost a little of its identity, moving into oil-slicked Battlestar space fights territory, right up until the moment the player dived out of an attack ship onto an orbiting piece of wreckage, Earth turning below them, and pulled out that familiar assault rifle. There's a grappling hook - a definite trend this year - and a lot of explosions, but although it's taken things into the sci-fi future, this COD lacks the jarring, terrifying strangeness of Battlefield 1's reinterpretation of the Great War.
No time to pause, though. After a glimpse of the remake of COD: Modern Warfare, which inevitably seems to have a much stronger sense of identity than Infinite Warfare does - although the comparison is hardly fair - Layden was back, announcing ground-up remasters of three Crash Bandicoot games, a Crash cameo in Skylanders Imaginators, and a look at the new Lego Star Wars. The Crash Bandicoot reveal seemed aimed squarely at the hooting fans that went so delirious with nostalgia at Sony's showing last year, and they obligingly went bananas.
In the turn towards home, Andrew House appeared to introduce Hideo Kojima, racing down a glowing runway and announcing "Hello everyone, I'm back!" before showing some wonderfully creepy imagery for his new game, Death Stranding, which appears to be about naked Norman Reedus hugging a vanishing baby on a beach littered with crabs and dead fish. From there, gears ground a little as we headed into Insomniac's Spider-man game, which wisely looks like a next-gen version of the Spider-Man 2 template, and then Layden was back to muse about how graphics and visuals were all very good, but the real thrill of games is about play. He's right, of course, and the zombie swarms of Days Gone, piling over each other and falling, en masse, under seemingly limitless fire from the game's glum hero, felt surprisingly arcadey given the coating of The Last of Us that had been applied.
Despite the wow factor of those tumbling swarms, it was a strangely anticlimactic ending, especially considering that Days Gone had already made its debut at the other end of the conference, and that it hardly packed the celebrity punch of Kratos or Kojima. It smacked strongly of a last-minute change of running order, and so we have to ask ourselves: what was originally intended to close out this conference? What didn't we see? A PlayStation Neo hype reel, perhaps, pulled when Sony realised it couldn't go toe-to-toe, teraflop-to-teraflop with Project Scorpio? Maybe, although Sony's commitment to not talking about Neo this E3 feels more entrenched and strategic than that, given the staged nonchalance of its non-reveal in a financial newspaper interview last week.
No, what would have been in keeping with this conference was another brand new game - another potential hit after the brisk parade of them that had already been offered. That thesis is supported by the vague gossip we've heard from LA, though it begs two questions: why was it pulled - and what could possibly have been bigger than a new God of War, a new Resident Evil? We can only guess. But, if there's any truth to this scenario, it says a lot for Sony that it could drop its big finish and still win E3 convincingly on new game announcements. For all that we love a bit of braggadocio at E3, a bit of mine-is-bigger-than-your rivalry - and for all that it was exciting to see a bullish Microsoft jump eagerly back into that ring earlier in the day - new game announcements will always, ultimately, be the only currency that really matters.