An off-year for Infinity Ward means an on-year for everyone else, as the videogame industry unleashes the torrent of shooters it didn't dare put up against Modern Warfare 2. That phenomenon still casts a long shadow, however, not least over EA's attempt to claw back hearts and minds in Afghanistan with Medal of Honor, and whatever shape Activision's attempt to keep the Call of Duty franchise on a yearly schedule will take. The shooter's years of innovation may be over, but there's still ground to be broken, especially in online multiplayer: Brink, Lost Planet 2 and MAG all have some interesting answers.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
We know next to nothing about the solo campaign, but based on some hands-on time Bad Company 2 shouldn't have too much trouble clearing a niche for itself in multiplayer FPS combat, even alongside the mighty Modern Warfare 2. It's larger-scale and less frantic, with fantastic map design, and the disenfranchised private-server community on PC will flock to it in droves.
The West Coast splinter studio assembled to take BioShock over from its original creators in Boston undoubtedly has the ingenuity, intellect and skill to deliver another compelling FPS dystopia under the waves. Multiplayer is far from being the blasphemy we thought it might be, too. But with so much of BioShock's spellbinding appeal being down to an indefinable, fragile X-factor that must be as hard to reproduce as it is to define, we'll certainly be holding our breath on the way down.
Splash Damage, the modders-made-good behind the Enemy Territory games, attempt to turn their expertise in large-scale, objective-based multiplayer into a sort of holistic approach to FPS development - whereby co-op, competitive and solo gaming are seamlessly interchangeable, hot-swappable parts of the same whole. Brink is certainly forward-thinking, looks striking, has a (relatively) original setting, and promises to be the first game to really understand what Valve did right with Left 4 Dead.
Call of Duty
On: Unknown, but expect PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 / Developer: Unknown, probably Treyarch / Publisher: Activision Blizzard / Release: Unknown, probably 2010
The only completely unconfirmed game on this list, a new Call of Duty appearing before year's end is nonetheless a safer bet than many supposedly concrete prospects. The rumour mill suggests that, 65 years on, World War II is now officially over, and we'll be headed into the dense tangle of the Vietnam War (from which few games have emerged sane and whole - certainly not Rebellion's Shellshock series). Loose talk also has it that Infinity Ward is none too fond of Treyarch's stand-ins on the franchise, but Word at War's stellar sales and strong multiplayer shut many other critics up.
On: Xbox 360 / Developer: Bungie / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: Autumn 2010
Halo 3: ODST was made with such a light, playful touch you could almost mistake it as being offhand. In truth it was a clever game that was at its best when it was least like Halo, but that hardly satisfied fans' lust for more purple galactic ass-kicking. The prequel throwback of Reach seems designed to answer their desires, but you have to wonder if Bungie has enough time, or enough enthusiasm left in the tank, to pull it off.
Lost Planet 2
The insectoid enemies, mechs and crisp snowscapes are the same, but under the bonnet Capcom's sci-fi sequel is a little less Resident Evil and a little more Monster Hunter. Expect light RPG progression, customisable player characters and four-player co-op boss takedowns on an epic scale, with the online co-op extending across the whole campaign. Japan doesn't produce many top-drawer shooters or online hits, but this looks guaranteed to be both.
On: PS3 / Developer: Zipper Interactive / Publisher: Sony / Release: 29th January 2010
Word from the beta is that, when things really gel and players get organised, MAG is unlike anything else in multiplayer shooting. Battlefield's battlefields aren't too far removed in theory, but with fewer player-controlled vehicles and a more structured approach to maps and objectives, MAG is a bit more focused. Attempting to marshal the forces of up to 256 players, it will have to be.
Max Payne 3
He's back, he's bald, he's in Brazil, he's addicted to painkillers and there are third-person cover mechanics - which makes Max Payne 3 the bastard child of Heavy Rain, Gears of War and the favela level in Modern Warfare 2. It's probably going to hang together better than that would suggest, and hopefully better than the Mark Wahlberg movie. But it hasn't been seen in motion yet and original creators Remedy are busy with Alan Wake, so the jury is still out.
Medal of Honor
"Do as you would be done by," EA tells rivals Activision, as it attempts to steal the military FPS showboat back from the people who nicked Medal of Honor's schtick wholesale with the first Call of Duty. Unfortunately for EA, this time the developers themselves aren't up for grabs. DICE, taking Infinity Ward on in multiplayer, arguably has the harder job on its hands; Modern Warfare 2's swerve towards the fantastical makes room for EA LA's more down-to-earth take on Afghanistan, but it will need more sensitive handling than most of these games have managed in the past.
Coming in 2010
This month's Army of Two: The 40th Day may be no class act, but in terms of third-person, two-player co-op it still might be a tough act for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days to follow; Rebellion wants to revive past glories with Aliens vs. Predator, so here's hoping it's no Rogue Warrior; between Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat it's a crowded post-apocalypse in the former Soviet bloc; but if Homefront is anything to go by, America is more scared of North Korea these days; Singularity can't forget the Cold War either, even if it's through a sci-fi filter; Tecmo Koei tries to muscle in on the ballistic action with Quantum Theory; Wii owners can look forward to the Motion Plus-enabled Red Steel 2 and Conduit developer High Voltage's take on Left 4 Dead, The Grinder; Battlefield 1943 makes it onto PC, the original Perfect Dark turns up on XBLA; military simulation fans should look out for Tripwire's Red Orchestra: Heroes of Stalingrad; and isn't it time for another Ghost Recon? Come to that, what's Valve up to?
Probably not coming in 2010
SEGA will be looking to make the most of AVP and Gearbox will want to revel in the sleeper success of Borderlands a bit longer, so we doubt we'll be hearing anyone scream about Aliens: Colonial Marines this year; id's Rage is technically down for a 2010 release, but even if Carmack and company could make it, we think new owner Bethesda has enough going on with Brink and Fallout: New Vegas; and we have no info on Crysis 2's date, so we wouldn't be surprised if it was some time in 2011.
Join us again all week for more of our picks for 2010! Tell us what yours are below.