Previously on Coming Attractions: yesterday we discussed some of 2010's highlights in fighting, puzzle and arcade games, and on Monday we toured the gallery of shooters and racing games due in this first year of a new decade. (Yes it is. Don't start.) Today: all things grind.
"With this section, the problem wasn't defining it - it was pinning down which games might actually get released," we wrote last year. Almost none of them, it turns out. We knew even then that the big guns would lie silent until 2010, but in 2009 it seemed like the entire MMO industry, smarting from the immense hype and immediate deflation that surrounded Age of Conan and Warhammer Online's launches in 2008, had retreated to its bedroom to think about what it had done.
NCsoft made a success of its western launch of Aion and Cryptic hurried Champions Online out of the door, but that was about it. Even World of Warcraft seemed unnaturally quiet. We're sure that 2010 will be better, much better, but MMOs being what they are, there are still few safe bets to see the right side of Christmas on this list.
On: PC / Developer: Realtime Worlds / Publisher: EA / Release: Spring 2010
On paper, you can debate whether APB is really an MMO - capped at 100 players per city, and with no subscription or other ongoing revenue stream, this cops-and-robbers action game could just as easily slot next to the MAGs and Battlefields of the world. Then again, you'll never play with more than 100 others in an instance-based MMO like Champions Online, and APB, with its deep customisation, total persistence and "players as content" commitment to all-multiplayer action, all of the time, has more genuinely massive thinking in its design than most conventional MMOs. Even though the closed beta's already under way, EA isn't shouting about APB yet and we still haven't had a go ourselves - but that's just how Realtime rolls. Crackdown came out of nowhere; APB's going somewhere. Somewhere very interesting.
DC Universe Online
With Cryptic, Realtime Worlds and others retreating from any pretence of releasing their games on consoles - and Microsoft apparently being obstructive - hope for massively multiplayer gaming on the sofa now resides with the PS3 and this superhero knockabout (as well as the next game on this list). SOE supposedly has an inside advantage, although its Free Realms has yet to make the jump, which isn't a good sign. Expect the PC version first then, and a better sense of physicality and free-wheeling action gaming than Champions Online managed.
Final Fantasy XIV Online
Square Enix is absolutely adamant that this game is coming out in 2010, although with all the info coming from the pages of Famitsu in Japan so far, it's possible the Western world will have to wait a little longer. If we do, we'll be waiting for luscious character art and a loose, level-free advancement system based around equipment rather than class that has learned valuable lessons from FFXI's punishing grind. The publisher's muscle and resolute console focus should ensure a simultaneous PS3 version, too. FFXIV has both pedigree and bravery - a rare combination in any genre, but hen's teeth in MMOs.
On: PC / Developer: NetDevil / Publisher: LEGO Interactive / Release: 2010
This has long been our dark horse bet for the next properly mass-market MMO, and a confident showing at CES last week - live alpha demos and an awesome trailer - did nothing to change that. The thematic kitchen sink, the construction elements that scale from "press A to make rocket" to brick-by-brick house-building, the easygoing platforming smash-and-grab gameplay lifted from the TT games; LEGO Universe looks accessible, stuffed with ideas, and happy to set MMO convention aside for the all-consuming love of the brick.
Star Trek Online
On: PC / Developer: Cryptic / Publisher: Atari, Namco Bandai / Release: 5th February 2010
Cryptic continues to have the temerity to make MMOs in a couple of years and release them more or less when it said it was going to, despite the common consensus that this isn't possible. Champions was a bit rough and ready as a result, and the signs are that Star Trek will be too, but wringing every last drop of power from its licence and multi-track approach to content should be enough to get it to warp speed. The naval combat is fresh and fun, too.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
On: PC / Developer: Blizzard / Publisher: Activision Blizzard / Release: 2010
We were happy to assume that WOW had peaked with Wrath of the Lich King and lead designer Jeff Kaplan's departure, and would now settle into comfortable routine - but somehow, despite being engorged with 11 million players, Blizzard's still hungry. This momentous effort to rewrite the classic game and drag it up to the standard of the latest content - plus serve a full expansion on the side - will ensure WOW still stays years ahead of rivals' reach. More fun, more of the time: Blizzard's secret recipe is really that simple.
Also in 2010
Taut sci-fi fragging arrives soon in the form of the massive deathmatch game, Global Agenda; Allods Online is a free-to-play Russian epic with skyships and tasty art; cower in fear from Mortal Online, otherwise known as This Year's Darkfall; inscrutable indie beauty Love shows us the oh never mind; EverQuest II expansion Sentinel's Fate arrives next month; talking of expansions, Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer doesn't have a release date, but we wouldn't put late 2010 past it; Ankama delivers more isometric quirk with Dofus 2.0 and Wakfu; EVE Online has an exciting year ahead, with its social network New Eden, planetary gameplay, and, at long last, avatar expansion Incarna; the toothsome Free Realms finally turns up on PS3; Earthrise deputises for the never-happening Fallout MMO; Heroes of Telara takes the straight fantasy route; and whatever happened to Jumpgate Evolution and Huxley?
Probably not coming in 2010
The Agency's gone AWOL; The Secret World is still shrouded in mystery; Guild Wars 2 is going the whole hog, and taking its time about it; EVE spin-off DUST 514 is shooting for the moon, not least in tying console servers to a single universe, and CCP's in no hurry; and we've just heard that Star Wars: The Old Republic won't make the cut, so it looks like WOW's safe for another year. Or three.
Even though it's hard to find games in any genre you don't level up in these days, 2009 was "all about reclaiming home turf for role-players," we wrote last year. We were half-right, with the end-of-year hits being straight-laced fantasy epic Dragon Age: Origins and straightjacketed FPS hybrid Borderlands. BioWare's dominance wraps around into the New Year with the imminent Mass Effect 2, but it won't last long, with Final Fantasy XIII leading a varied schedule bursting with single-player and multiplayer monster-mashes in every flavour on every platform. Looks like a vintage year for the experience point.
RPGs shrugged off their association with dungeons and dragons some time ago, but it's still rare to see this structure applied to the contemporary real world. With its glamorous, globe-trotting espionage setting, Alpha Protocol is the game to do that, and hopefully the game to see Obsidian step out of the shadow of mentor BioWare and realise its potential now that the Aliens RPG has been blown out of the airlock. With Interplay legend Chris Avellone directing operations, we're looking forward to being sneaked up on.
Dragon Quest IX
On: DS / Developer: Level-5 / Publisher: Square Enix / Release: 2010
The biggest game of 2009 to not even cause a ripple in the Western hemisphere, Dragon Quest IX was a social gaming sensation of Monster Hunter proportions in Japan. The world's most tradition-bound RPG series stealthily rewrote itself on Nintendo's handheld, with a shorter narrative extended by expansive, open-ended and repeatable side-questing and local co-op multiplayer. Square Enix may have been quiet about Western plans so far, but we're sure they are big ones this time.
On: Xbox 360 / Developer: Lionhead / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: Autumn 2010
Fable - particularly the second game - is the series in which Peter Molyneux's twin ambitions to push gaming boundaries and make playable games for everyone finally met in the middle. He'll be threatening to breach that peace again with Fable III by throwing Natal support into the mix, not to mention attempting to blend his age-old god complex with role-playing monomania by giving the player-character a kingdom to rule. But it wouldn't be a Lionhead game if we were absolutely sure it was going to work, and anyway, where would the fun be in that?
Fallout: New Vegas
We don't know the first thing about this - other than it is a single-player RPG set in the same universe as Fallout 3 without being a straight sequel to it, and it's Obsidian's second game on this list. Going by the developer's profile we'd expect a less open-ended experience, but one still driven by narrative choice - and without being unkind, one that's quite likely to slip. Even if it doesn't make it, following the RPG sensation of 2008 (and, for that matter, most of 2009) ensures it will dominate the skyline like a mushroom cloud.
Final Fantasy XIII
"In the eyes of many, this is the only game that can save the JRPG from stagnant marginalisation," we wrote when including this on the strength of its Japanese release date last year. We now know that it won't be achieving that goal via innovative design or any deviation from strictly linear storytelling or character progression, although the battle system has some depth. So it will be FFXIII's overwhelming spectacle, star power and chest-bursting sentiment that make a splash. Over 20 years on, Final Fantasy still does epic like nothing else, and true to its title treats every moment like it's going to be its last.
Mass Effect 2
Tom writes: Choice and consequence have been key themes for BioWare since the studio was old enough to count the faces of a 21-sided die, but Mass Effect is their most ambitious application - a series of games that begin in one place and, three games later, could conceivably end in two dozen. The second instalment already looks much stronger than its predecessor in traditional terms, with refined classes, more dynamic action sequences and smarter support systems, but its greatest challenge will be to convince players of the significance of their actions in the original game while forging its own unique identity.
Monster Hunter Tri
On: Wii / Developer: Capcom / Publisher: Capcom / Out: 2010
Monster Hunter is a cult, even in Japan where it's nationally popular: an arcane, initially impenetrable grind that spreads virally between friends and becomes a brainwashing obsession. The main barrier to its success over here has been its insistence on local multiplayer, so Tri's embrace of the internet should change everything, not to mention provide the Wii with its most compelling online attraction to date. This writer at least is going to make it his first Monster Hunter. Join us.
Also in 2010
Dragon Age: Origins wakes up to first expansion Awakening; Resonance of Fate sports the quintessential JRPG title; bask in the warm nostalgic glow of Golden Sun DS; it's a great year for RPGs on the Nintendo handheld, which also gets Platinum's ice-cool starship odyssey Infinite Space; meanwhile, the PSP enjoys the considerable charms of Valkyria Chronicles II; Diablo III still isn't out, but never mind, because here comes Ron Gilbert to satirise it with the rumbustious DeathSpank; there's plenty of dragon-wrangling on DS courtesy of Monster Rancher DS and Phantasy Star Zero; central Europe keeps it trad with Two Worlds II, Drakensang: The River of Time and ArcaniA: A Gothic Tale; Star Ocean: The Last Hope hits the PS3; Fragile: Farewell Ruins of the Moon on Wii looks cute and spooky; and we're not sure if Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is really an RPG, or if it's coming out this year, but we wanted to mention it somewhere. Edit: Also, you lot have kindly reminded us that the Western version of White Knight Chronicles, Level-5's rather lovely PS3 exclusive, is out this year.
Join us tomorrow for even more of what's happening this year. Or what isn't happening this year, if we go by the success of last year's predictions. But join us!