Second-screen apps get a primary role at E3

LOS ANGELES—For all the focus on the new consoles at E3, developers sure seem to be in a rush to get you to put down your controller and pick up your tablet.

Don’t get me wrong—standalone tablet and smartphone games were in scant supply at E3. The stars of the mobile show this year were second-screen apps, designed to augment the core console gameplay experience. While the idea was thrust to the forefront at last year’s E3 with the introduction of Nintendo’s Wii U controller and the Xbox SmartGlass app, developers never really cashed in on the possibilities inherent in the technology until now.

The first wave of SmartGlass apps for Xbox may have failed to impress, but that’s changing with the latest generation of second-screen apps for games.

Many of the major new games announced at E3 feature some sort of companion app. And while the first wave of SmartGlass apps were often lackluster afterthoughts that consisted of simple maps and maybe—maybe—some menu options, the second wave of second-screen apps appear poised to truly enhance the gameplay of the titles they’re tied to, no matter whether you’re playing solo or with friends.

Ruining days from afar

While bolstering your own gameplay experience is nice and all—Ubisoft’s The Crew has a companion app that will let you pimp your racer’s ride, for example—many of the companion apps on display at E3 are more interactive than that, allowing you to help your in-game buddies… or ruin their day.

Cue the evil cackling.

The Division’s tablet app turns you into a floating in-game drone capable of buffing other players, highlighting enemies on the map, or calling in a devastating airstrike. Its entire purpose is to interact with people playing the full-fledged version of the game online. Watch Dogs’s companion app, meanwhile, allows you to hack objects and control police forces in other players’ games.

An iOS and Android app is one gateway to Battlefield 4’s “Commander Mode,” which gives you an overview of the multiplayer battlefield and unlocks the ability to rain gunship and missile strikes down on adversaries. (You can also run Commander Mode on a normal PC.) Likewise, a live demo of Need for Speed Rivals at EA’s press event Monday showed a tablet-wielding player dumping roadblocks and deploying helicopters to assist the cop trying to capture a speed limit-defying street racer.

Playing nice

All that said, some of the most interesting second-screen applications on display at E3 don’t involve screwing others whatsoever, and the best of those seem centered on Microsoft’s Xbox One.

Dead Rising 3’s SmartGlass app sports the kind of stuff found in the apps mentioned above, according to Joystiq—primarily, the ability to call in airstrikes and drones, set waypoints, or locate specific items or areas. Cool stuff, but even cooler is the way that the SmartGlass app can be used to deliver in-game calls or texts, dragging the series’ love of walkie-talkies into the real world.

Project Spark may have been developed for Xbox One and Windows 8, but a SmartGlass app lets you add more detail to maps created within the game.

Then there’s Project Spark, Microsoft Studios’ awesome world-building adventure. The game was built for Xbox One and Windows 8, but you’ll also be able to rock the SmartGlass app to further flesh out the maps you create in-game, adding fine-tuned terraforming details from the comfort of your phone or tablet. It’s an absolute blast—and the second screen experience should truly make the game better.

The future lies in the cloud

The evolution of second-screen apps on display at E3 is a welcome one indeed. They’re still fully optional, but if you do decide to partake in the mobile mayhem, this next generation of games will reward you with an experience that is not only enjoyable, but actually affects your in-game experience. Sayonara, simple maps and menus.

And as awesome as the newly improved second screen experience appears poised to become, the future could be even brighter. As more and more games move to the cloud, the opportunities to impact your games from your mobile device should only become more plentiful—and potentially much more powerful.

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