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Plugged In

E3 2012: Gaming’s next big trends

Plugged In

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Microsoft's SmartGlass

It may not have quite lived up to its "Innovation Unveiled" billing, but E3 2012 still managed to do what it was supposed to: give us a glimpse into the future of video games. No, we didn't hear about any new consoles from Microsoft and Sony, but we were treated to a wealth of polished, solid games and a few surprising new bits of tech. What's the Next Big Thing in gaming? Perhaps one of these:

Second screen entertainment

Do more screens equal more fun? We're about to find out. In the coming months, gamers will have the opportunity to use the screens of smaller devices to bolster their consoles.

On the Wii U, that means ogling maps, managing inventories, or tinkering with strategies on the system's tablet controller while playing the main game on your television. It's been built from the ground up to be intrinsic to the Wii U, and every one of the 23 games shown at E3 utilized the tablet's screen in some capacity.

Sony's Vita, meanwhile, can be used as a PlayStation 3 controller and can display separate information on its glorious 5-inch OLED touchscreen. Very cool if you already own both devices, but it's doubtful such tech will justify the purchase of a Vita. Still, it's a no-brainer from Sony and works harmoniously with the Vita's other crossover abilities.

Perhaps most impressive is Microsoft's SmartGlass technology, which transforms the smartphone or tablet you already own into a touchscreen controller or secondary display for the Xbox 360. That could prove to be a big deal — most of us already watch TV or play games with a phone or tablet a few feet away — but questions linger about the business model. Who's footing the bill for designing extra content for an optional device? We'll doubtless learn more in the coming months.

[ Related: Hottest trailers of E3 ]

Girl power

Mario, Master Chief, Nathan Drake, Kratos -- male characters have dominated gaming for years, but a crop of new games starring some strong female leads is aiming to change that.

That begins with the return of gaming's most famous heroine, Lara Croft, who returns early next year in a gritty reboot of Tomb Raider. An origin story, it paints a darker, more realistic picture of the adventurer than past games in the series, showing an unsure, vulnerable Lara evolve into a serious badass. Sony's The Last of Us , considered by many to be the breakout star of E3, tells the story of two survivors struggling to make their way through a post-apocalyptic disaster. While you'll primarily play as the rough-and-tumble Joel, it's his 14-year-old companion Ellie that steals the show, thanks to some of the most impressive A.I. programming this side of Spielberg.

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The Last of Us

You'd be forgiven for mistaking Ellie for Jodie Holmes, the troubled lead of Sony's Beyond: Two Souls. Played by Juno star Ellen Paige, Jodie's relationship with a ghost-like entity makes her a potent force of nature — and enough of a threat to make her something of a fugitive. The same can be said for Aveline de Grandpré, the first playable female assassin in the history of Assassin's Creed.  She stars in Assassin's Creed Liberation for the PlayStation Vita coming out later this year.

[ Related: Lackluster E3 for Nintendo raises more Wii U questions ]

Anger mismanagement

Now that they're protected by the First Amendment, don't expect blockbuster games to get any nicer. In fact, they're going for the jugular.

You couldn't walk ten feet at E3 without being sprayed in virtual blood. Military buffs will blow each other away in Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Medal of Honor: Warfighter, while fans of nimble types can shank and run in Splinter Cell: Blacklist or Assassin's Creed III. God of War: Ascension might be the most gruesome God of War yet — no Cyclops eyeball is safe — and Microsoft's Gears of War: Judgment again puts the iconic chainsaw gun to good use. Zombies are still all the rage; you'll spray brains in Resident Evil 6 and Wii U flagship Zombi U (a surprisingly gory game for Nintendo). Lara Croft endures agonizing pain left and right in Tomb Raider, and even showstopper The Last of Us, a thoughtful, humanistic survival affair, lets you whack people in the face with a pipe (granted, it's one of the few games in which you feel somewhat guilty doing such a thing).

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Tomb Raider

Yes, there are plenty of terrific non-violent games coming in the next year as well, but by and large, gaming's mean streak is only growing.

[ Related: Inside the new Star Trek game ]

New game franchises?!

Tired of the same old games? Tough luck — nearly every big game coming out this holiday has a number at the end of it. Halo 4, Black Ops II, Assassin's Creed III…the list goes on and on.

But another list is forming, and it's significantly fresher.

Sony is leading the charge with brand new game experiences, bringing gamers the gorgeous, cinematic survival game The Last of Us and the tense, dreamlike Beyond: Two Souls in 2013.  The company also showed off the well-received Unfinished Swan, a downloadable title that lets players explore a vast white canvas by flinging paint at it.

Even buzzier? Watch Dogs from Ubisoft, which shocked showgoers with what appears to be the first glimpse at the next generation of game visuals. It's an early look, to be sure (no platform or release date was announced), but it gave E3 a big boost. And while it's not entirely fair to call a Star Wars game a 'new IP', the impressive Star Wars 1313 — the first mature Star Wars game ever created — sure feels like one.

We even saw some new games from Nintendo, who typically rely on proven franchises to launch their systems. But sure enough, the creepy Zombi U and the bizarre Project P-100 stole the spotlight from tried and true titles like Mario and Pikmin.

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