11 Things to Expect (or Not to Expect) from E3 2012

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Here comes E3 2012, like Slim Pickens strapped to the world’s fattest ballistic missile, carrying a bottomless Santa Claus tote full of goodies. Don’t let the June 5-7 dates fool you: The show actually kicks off on Monday June 4, when Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Sony stage their press shows from morning to dusk.

In broad strokes, this year there’s Nintendo primed to show more of its already-announced Wii U (we’ll be liveblogging it here), Microsoft training all its special effects lighting on Master Chief’s new foil in Halo 4, Sony with whatever Sony has planned for the Vita and then the standard bazillion game sequels flanked by public relations all but waving glittering pom-pons. We’re also staring down a laundry list of wild hypotheticals: Will we see a new Xbox? The next PlayStation? A slimmer 3DS with a second thumb-stick? Gameplay footage of Grand Theft Auto V? Will Microsoft buy Sony and launch something called the PlayBox? Will Sega finally roll out the Dreamcast 2?

I kid about the last two, but that’s the speed of reality heading into an E3. It’s like Steve Jobs‘ reality distortion field times the size of downtown Los Angeles. Bearing that in mind — call it our “prognostication may vary” disclaimer — here’s a rundown of what we’re expecting from this year’s show, along with a few things we’re not.

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We won’t see new consoles from Microsoft or Sony. Both companies have implied, repeatedly, that they won’t show new hardware at E3 2012. And why should they? They’re neck-and-neck in global system sales, have large install bases, developers are nice and comfy with the systems’ idiosyncrasies and design tricks, consumers aren’t really clamoring for new tech (or to spend more money on it) and even the newest kid on the block, Nintendo’s Wii U, reportedly just brings Nintendo up to par, power-wise, with the competition. Sure, whatever’s next is the elephant in the room this far into the current gen’s life cycle, and maybe — maybe — we’ll get a tease. But I wouldn’t count on it. And I certainly wouldn’t count on nit-picky platform specs or interface specifics, since we’re at least a year out from a next-gen Microsoft/Sony launch.

We won’t get our first look at Grand Theft Auto V. It’s Rockstar’s elephant in the room, a game the company announced last year and has said nothing about since. With Max Payne 3 out the door, we’ll finally see this thing go large at E3 2012, right? Wrong. CVG says Rockstar’s going to do what it usually does: make like Axl Rose and shrug off the show. Which, frankly, would be fine by me — I’m with guys like Irrational Games’ Ken Levine, when he suggests pre-hype and previewing can spoil a game’s impact and says “[preparing] for these events takes time away from development.” Amen.

Sony will double down on the Vita. The Vita hit the ground running in March with better-than-decent originals like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Wipeout 2048 and Escape Plan, as well as sterling ports of games like Disgaea 3, Rayman Origins, Ninja Gaiden and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Since then, it’s been slow going. The next big thing is probably Gravity Rush, due out the week after E3, but Sony needs more than this exclusives trickle to get the Vita moving. I could care less about a Call of Duty or Battlefield game, say, but from a commercial standpoint, the system needs something like that to pry open wallets. Expect Sony to lay out its “Vita Stage 2″ plans, including the handheld’s fall/holiday launch lineup, at the show.

Nintendo might introduce a diet-sized 3DS with dual analog thumb-nubs. No one iterates handhelds like Nintendo — the company’s released how many versions of its DS (even before it slapped a ‘3’ in front of the moniker)? Its latest — the 3DS — is kludgy-looking and battery-life-challenged, and with the secondary control stick add-on tray, it’s kind of a franken-mess. What are the odds the company could roll out a slimmer 3DS with twin thumb-sticks and improved battery life at this year’s show? Long, but then so were the odds on a titanic and totally unexpected $80 price cut less than half a year after the 3DS launched stateside in March 2011.

Price cuts, price cuts, price cuts. Nintendo’s Wii baselines for $140, the entry-level Xbox 360 with just 4GB of storage costs $200 and the 160GB PlayStation 3 runs $250. Expect those numbers to come-on-down next week. With the next-gen systems probably coming in 2013 (or technically this year, if we count the Wii U) and system sales slowing, price cuts — effective immediately or by the holidays — seem like a no-brainer.

We’ll witness plenty of The Elder Scrolls love. There’s Dawnguard, the big who-wants-to-be-Van-Helsing Skyrim expansion, as well as The Elder Scrolls Online, the game every Elder Scrolls fan is chewing nails either for, or over. Will Dawnguard be amazing? Probably, though I’m less intrigued by the vampires-with-a-side-of-vampires angle than the big gameplay changes Bethesda may be hiding up its sleeves. Word is TESO won’t be playable at the show, but that we’ll see more revealing canned footage of the game in action — the launch trailer was just a slow-pan symbol voice-over, though we’ve since had a peek at over a dozen in-game screens.

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This year’s show is mostly about the Wii U. To everyone who won’t be walking E3’s convention halls in person (that is, 99.9% of gaming-dom), the show typically resembles its biggest reveals, usually rolled out at the press shows on Monday and Tuesday. In recent years, that’s been stuff like Kinect and PlayStation Move. Last year, it was the Wii U, and this year, it’ll still be the Wii U with high-def reboots of series like Mario Bros., Zelda and Metroid no doubt in the offing. Then there’s the gamepad-tablet angle, which everyone’s curious about. Will it catch on, or go the way of missteps like the Virtual Boy? In any case, whatever Nintendo’s up to warrants close watch (without the Wii, no Kinect or PlayStation Move). Will Nintendo change the system’s clumsy-sounding name? Doubtful. Remember when everyone thought the name “Wii” sounded ridiculous, too?

There’s this whole late-breaking Star Wars 1313 thing. Star Wars meets Assassin’s Creed? Maybe. LucasArts just dropped word that its latest in-house developed Star Wars game will let you “take control of a lethal bounty hunter in a never-before-seen dark and mature world.” Recent Star Wars games have been more bad than good (oh, for the halcyon days of X-Wing and Tie Fighter), but you never know, and the source material — “a ruthless criminal underground deep below the surface of the planet of Coruscant” — would be a welcome shift from the series’ Manichean light-side/dark-side vibe.

There’s also this new Gears of War thing. Please say it’s not for Kinect, but yes, Game Informer teased the next Gears of War installment on Thursday, meaning there’s probably a 0.01% chance we won’t see it at the show next week. Of course there’s this other rumor going around that it’s actually for Microsoft’s next-gen system…but we already decided they’re not showing that at E3 2012, right?

The media’s going to ignore mobile gaming, as usual. Master Chief and Mario may be more interesting to traditionalists than interstellar pig-pummeling birds or pocket-sized post-apocalyptic plague sims, but the latter market is huge on smartphones and tablets, partly because those smartphones and tablets are approaching the power of game consoles, and partly because the games cost a fraction as much as console and PC fare. And mobile gaming is also the new locus for intrepid indie projects (see Plague Inc., linked above) that’d probably bounce off corporate gaming’s cost-benefit force-field. Alas, don’t look for (much) coverage of this increasingly huge part of the biz at E3 2012.

And all the pretty games, of course. Besides Halo 4The Elder Scrolls games and probably a few surprises, we’re looking at hands-on time with stuff like Borderlands 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2K Games), Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Activision Blizzard), Lost Planet 3 and Resident Evil 6 (Capcom), Crysis 3 and Sim City (Electronic Arts), Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Konami), God of War: Ascension and The Last of Us (Sony), Kingdom Hearts 3D and Heroes of Ruin (Square Enix), Company of Heroes 2 and Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium Online (THQ) and Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft).

Ready, set, headsplosion? Don’t worry, we’ll help you cut through the hype next week.

MORE: Follow Techland’s coverage of E3 2012

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