In spite of countless leaks and pre-show announcements, this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) still managed to surprise us. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the presence of so many well-crafted, single-player delights. We were also happy to see way fewer battle royale cash-ins than we’d feared—though maybe they are just taking longer to develop.

Since attending the show last week, our E3 brain trust (Kyle Orland, Sam Machkovech, Samuel Axon) has been arguing over our favorite hands-on and hands-off demos. We managed to settle on this definitive top-ten list, along with a slew of honorable mentions.

Our selected games are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: June 26, 2018

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This year, as we watched the various EA press conferences, my fiancée joked to me that the ESA should add a fourth E to “E3” to stand for “executions.” Many of the games presented front-and-center at the show featured some kind of hyper-violent execution sequence. Don’t get me wrong: I like an intense action game, but E3 is best when it’s highlighting the full breadth of experiences that games can provide.

That’s why Life is Strange spinoff The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit was such a delight to see at the show. The game stood out, sandwiched as it was between a Tomb Raider demo (in which Lara Croft went primal on a guy with a knife) and a Just Cause demo (which might have set the record for number of explosions per minute).

Captain Spirit is about a 10-year-old boy who uses his imagination to escape from harsh realities, and I recognized my younger self in him while I watched. While all video games are in some way about imagination, Captain Spirit really captures the childlike wonder of creating new realities.

Like Life is Strange, Captain Spirit is more of a “narrative experience” than it is a “game,” in that it’s not rich with systems or progression. Still, the demo comes across as heartfelt, well-written, and well-directed. I have no doubt that it will charm anyone who is open to its gentle pace, especially given its announced price tag of “free.”
-Samuel Axon

Cyberpunk 2077

Developer: CD Projekt Red
Platforms: TBD
Release Date: TBD

Every E3 has that one behind-closed-doors gameplay reveal that people can’t stop talking about. The one that combines holy-cow gameplay, how’d-they-do-that visual trickery, and the mystique of hiding behind an “for industry eyes only” shield. The one that sets tongues wagging.

It’s tricky to give too many accolades to such hands-off demos because, honestly, they could be fakes. We agonized over this vote, but Cyberpunk 2077‘s reveal included just enough believable future-mercenary RPG gameplay (which we previously described at length) to get us on board.

For all the wild bits in the demo, it at least proved an important truth: CD Projekt Red’s vision is decidedly different than Grand Theft Auto‘s. Every NPC appeared to offer dialogue options. Every quest was teased with branching “be the criminal you want to be” options and tactics that were clearly visible on-screen. A truly William Gibson-like future-crime society should push the world’s heel down on the hero’s face—and force the hero to overcome the world in the coolest ways possible. Based on what I saw, Cyberpunk 2077 just might deliver on that vision.
-Sam Machkovech

Dreams

Developer: Media Molecule
Platform: PS4
Release Date: TBD

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After years of hands-off teases and hollow promises, Dreams finally landed in our hands as a living, playable video game. That might seem like a low bar to clear for E3 “success,” but with Dreams‘ lofty promises, it’s actually saying a lot.

The game’s creators cut their teeth on the “PlayCreateShare” philosophy of LittleBigPlanet, and we had just as much fun playing pre-made levels as we did learning how to build and edit them. Already, we’re seeing hints of an adorable, puzzle-filled campaign, and our build-a-level demo showed a tasty mix of simplicity and depth. On the simple side, we liked the game’s intuitive grab-and-manipulate interface, which let us quickly feel good at remixing existing 3D levels. On the more complex side, tab- and option-filled submenus open up all kinds of logic, animation, and trigger options. We could make bridges start moving, lava floors start expanding, and personally composed songs start playing in crazy, creative 3D worlds.

The question of exactly when Sony will get this wild, ambitious game into PlayStation 4 owners’ hands is still open. But our hands-on time indicates that this game finally has an honest-to-goodness foundation.
-Sam Machkovech

Listing image by Aurich Lawson

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