Smoke and Mirrors: The Half-Truths and Misrepresentation of Past E3s

I spy with my cynical eye...


E3 is a hype machine. It’s a chance for companies to trot out their best, to show an entire industry what they have planned out for the next few years. With press, enthusiasts, and retail reps in attendance, it’s important every company does their best to show off the most polished product possible.

There is a downside to this practice; an ugly aspect that occasionally leaves a dark stain on a game’s advertising campaign. Because the pressure to show a visually and technically impressive product is so intense, publishers and developers will sometimes do their very best to create a far and away better version of a game than the final release could ever hope to be.

Impressive demos, gussied-up trailers, and promising projects that never see the light of day often pop up in the months following E3, so it’s best to approach everything with a quasi-cynical optimism. Here are a few games whose end results were slightly less desirable than we originally thought.

Watch Dogs

The most recent example of this controversy is Watch Dogs, the action hacking game from Ubisoft that thrilled with its impressively detailed graphics during its reveal at E3 2012.

From the look of Watch Dogs’ demo, it seemed like Chicago truly was a plaything in protagonist Aiden Pierce’s hands. He could cut off power to an entire section of the city to make an escape, cause traffic to slip into deadly bedlam, and tinker with the city in ways ranging from annoying to outright catastrophic, all through the device in his hand.

What we saw at Watch Dogs’ release, however, was very different. The environments were significantly less detailed, animations were not as fluid and dynamic, and the seemingly sandbox nature of hacking was actually just a handful of repeated prompts available at strategic points in the map. We understand the need to show off a great and promising product—especially with a new IP—but Watch Dogs’ presentation was so disingenuous that it caused a lot of fans to turn against it after release.

Rainbow Six Siege

Like Watch Dogs, Rainbow Six Siege’s demo was sold on some half-truths and misrepresented features. In its impressive E3 demo, we saw a fully destructible house where players could leverage practically the entire building around themselves to safely extract a hostage. Heck, even the hostage in the demo was animated and created to convey feelings of nervousness, trepidation, and fear.

But when it released, Siege was limited in scope. It turned out technically not everything in the house was fully destructible, many of the textures were slightly more muddy than they were in the demo, and the hostages had been reduced to emotionless husks with no personality and thus, no emotional connection to the player. Was it a bad game? No. But it also was not entirely the game we hoped it would be.

Fable Legends

There was a brief moment in time when gaming companies had turned to a multiplayer model pitting one player in an adversarial role against a group of their friends in a competitive setting. This took different forms ranging from the monster versus hunters of Evolve to the infamous Fable Legends, where one player served as a crooked game maker of sorts and attempted to make life difficult for the team of players.

It was first announced in 2013, then shown off and teased in many of the major games shows that followed.

And then it was cancelled, taking Lionhead Studios down with it.

Its cancellation was a shame. Fable has stumbled to regain its footing for the past few years, releasing sub-par and highly divisive games since Fable 2. With Fable Legends, it seemed like Lionhead had found a way to finally adapt the Fable universe into something that wasn’t exploitative or a radical departure from its predecessors.

Rest in peace.

The 2009 Project Natal Milo Demo

Snow is cold, water is wet, and Peter Molyneux likes to make big, grandiose statements about his virtual creations. But what makes the Milo demo especially lackluster is how badly it misrepresented what Microsoft eventually did with Project Natal a.k.a. the Kinect.

During E3 2009, Molyneux took the stage at the Microsoft conference and began speaking about the wonders of Natal and how it was allowing him to create things “science fiction hasn’t even written about.” To prove this, he turned the time over to a mini-featurette showing off Milo, a character demo he and the other developers at Lionhead had made for the Kinect.

Based on the demo shown, Milo was supposed to be a deep, interesting character a person could get to know simply by interacting with. He could hold nuanced and subtle conversations, read emotions, express his own emotions, and even take real-life objects from the player’s hand when they were scanned in using the Kinect.

Now, why would you want to hang out with a virtual pre-teen boy eternally trapped in a Creekside tree? That’s a question we never saw the answer to, alongside the arguably more important question of how any of this actually worked. Because when the Kinect was released, it barely performed a percentage of what was seen in this demo. It was difficult to set up, had strange restrictions and requirements needed to make it work, and ultimately was used by Just Dance enthusiasts and kids who wanted to test out their new Xbox 360 bundle at Christmas.

There were no virtual best friends, no artificial children imprisoned in a dream world. In fact, the only time you might interact with it was to ask the Kinect to turn off the console when you couldn’t be bothered to get up and do it yourself.


Remember Fuse, the completely generic third-person shooter? Of course you don’t! It was an unremarkable, dull, generic game that had so little personality it cut off the faces of its characters on the front of the box.

But what about Overstrike, the quirky secret agent action game unveiled by Insomniac Games in 2011? That one you might remember, because its trailer was actually entertaining and had levity. But, focus testing and publisher demands eventually forced Insomiac’s hands, which were then used to completely overhaul Overstrike into the dusty fart Fuse became.

BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite’s pitfall wasn’t in how it looked, but how it failed to deliver the promises shown off in its multiple demos. In trailers and demos leading up to its release, we were given a sense of what Columbia would be and all we could do within it. Elizabeth had incredible summoning powers that could seemingly draw in items and instances from anywhere, the Skyhook appeared to connect multiple sky islands, and some of the story instances looked incredibly intense.

Ultimately, Elizabeth’s powers were limited to spawning turrets and other humdrum items to aid Booker in combat, the Skyhook was a glorified Merry-Go-Round transporting Booker in a limited section of the map, and some of the instances (including the ones with Songbird) never quite made it into the final product. BioShock Infinite was far from unplayable trash, but was a somewhat falsely advertised bill of goods.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Aliens: Colonial Marines’ troubled development and history is now more widely regarded than the game itself. Originally announced as a Gearbox Studios project, it was supposed to be a direct sequel in the Aliens franchise and had impressive demos flaunting highly-detailed environments, dynamic lighting, and stylized cinematics.

The end result was a buggy mess of disappointment and wasted potential. Textures and environments were murky, lighting was adequate at best, and entire cut scenes had been removed from the final game. Worse, controversy surrounding its development eventually found Gearbox defending itself in court. It’s a sad, disappointing downward spiral that was eventually made up for (mostly) with the very solid horror game Alien: Isolation.

Dead Island

Dead Island as a game is fairly divisive, but its initial trailer conveyed it as an emotionally gripping experience as it showed a young girl’s death accentuated by emotional piano music.

Based on what we saw, you’d imagine it would be a self-serious game about loss, humanity, and our downfall.

Instead, it was a decent RPG about completing fetch quests and bashing zombies in the face with a super baseball bat.  

Contributing Editor
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