Action is an expansive term, and for the purposes of this list encompasses games that combine a number of elements to dazzle you with violence and tragedy, usually in an openworld setting - like Grand Theft Auto and Mafia II - along with games traditionally lumped into the equally hazy "action adventure" bracket, like Bionic Commando, Assassin's Creed 2, and other sub-genre fare. Two things unite them, though: they aren't specifically anything else, and they're packed with action.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
On: DS / Developer: Rockstar Leeds, Rockstar North / Publisher: Rockstar Games / Release: 20th March
Microsoft tells us we should be most excited about GTA IV's downloadable The Lost and Damned, and we certainly haven't lost our appetite for cruising around Rockstar's glorious update of Liberty City nodding along to Goodbye Horses, but it's Chinatown Wars that we find ourselves increasingly excited about - especially after a recent visit to Rockstar's West London headquarters to play through a number of missions.
We can't be too specific about the things we saw for the moment or Rockstar's lawyers will honk their horns, sleep with us, take our money and then run us over, but enough of the good things are already in the public domain: the action, which takes place on the top screen, is viewed from an elevated, almost top-down vantage point, but the dinky polygon characters and cars are typically charismatic, and comparisons to the oldest of the GTAs would be wide of the mark. This is closer to Grand Theft Auto IV in playset and production values, and pleasingly inventive, particularly during its numerous cutaways to the touch-screen for brief, amusing use of the stylus.
It's not exactly tame, either, although as one rep put it, "When it comes to the censors there's a difference between baiting and bear-baiting." Which, we wonder, is the drug-dealing strategy sub-game? Whichever, it's a moreish sideline that makes good use of the game world - Liberty City from GTA IV, with Alderney cut away to make space on the cart - and the new PDA system that replaces its predecessor's mobile phone. Overall the game looks vast and assured, and very much a part of the modern GTA canon. Don't be surprised if it's one of the first third-party games to perform as consistently as Nintendo's own money-printing DS output.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
Former Devil May Cry director Hideki Kamiya regularly says he hasn't bothered playing other action games, so we have no idea where he got the inspiration for an acrobatic, ultraviolent witch with guns and magic coming out of her feet and hands to shoot monsters in the face. We're not arguing with it though.
We visited Starbreeze during the making of the original Chronicles of Riddick, and had pizza with banana and artichoke toppings. The idea of this calmly savage and empowering stealth cool-'em-up dazzling again in its new guise is much less bizarre.
On: PS3 / Developer: Sucker Punch / Publisher: Sony / Release: Spring
The Sly Raccoon games were like Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank's forgotten siblings, but they were no less colourful and imaginative. inFamous takes a much darker turn, but its electro-superhero-in-a-moral-vacuum openworld guise is a promising match to a developer of Sucker Punch's skill.
It's coming, racist or not, in just two months' time. Zombies on fast-forward may be as clich nowadays as slow zombies were before 28 Days Later, but few approached Resident Evil 4 with enormous expectations either, and look how that turned out.
Rockstar's GTA: The Lost and Damned could be the biggest thing yet to happen to downloadable content on 17th February; Uncharted 2: Among Thieves will focus on the things the excellent original got slightly wrong later in the year; The Godfather II is looking surprisingly assured and EA's Dante's Inferno is nothing if not adventurous; as is the former Sierra game Prototype; Atari has Afro Samurai and Ghostbusters due out in the first half; Capcom plans to follow up the enjoyable Bionic Commando Rearmed with the real next-gen deal, and its US-developed cover shooter Dark Void and ambitious Wii port Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop; Midway's up for fighting, racing, gambling and partying in This is Vegas; Just Cause 2 and Mafia II are still quietly in development; we keep hearing good things about 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand (even though we can't quite believe them); A2M won't give up on its unsigned Lara-with-blades-'em-up, Wet; and Codemasters has Damnation and Rise of the Argonauts on the way. Plus, there's the possibility of Assassin's Creed 2, and whatever you thought about the first one, that's an intriguing prospect.
Ambitious adventures often swerve into action or RPG territory these days and rarely leave, but not everyone has given up on thoughtful and slow-building games where players walk rather than run and the dialogue is something to be savoured rather than skipped or discarded. In fact, of all the genres covered by this year's Coming Attractions, we're pinning a disproportionate number of hopes in the adventure category.
The premise is simple: Chicago's been crippled by an unexplained earthquake, and you've got to cut across it to try and find your girlfriend. But this is no platformer and no shooter. Instead you fend off other survivors fighting for bottled water by tricking them onto disintegrating glass panels, hold looters at bay by waving an empty shotgun in their direction, and avoid confrontation, despite the first-person perspective.
Ubisoft has been responsible for some of the most ambitious game-worlds of the last few years (Assassin's Creed, Far Cry 2 and Prince of Persia most notably) but there's often been a tension between the technology and the increasingly predictable gameplay overlaid upon it - a trend the unpredictable landscape of a post-disaster Chicago will hopefully arrest in I Am Alive.
It might not work out - and the developer's previous game, Cold Fear, was a bit spotty - but Ubisoft's permanent determination to do something different is beguiling, despite a few missteps, and the thought of a disaster scenario built on restraint rather than reflexes is enough to propel this to the top of our most-wanted list.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
It's Michel Ancel back doing his thing. The first game was beautiful, elegant and charming beyond its means, and deserved the success the first Prince of Persia reboot, launching at the same time, found instead.
It's Tim Schafer back doing his thing, this time with a little help from manic funnyman Jack Black. The story - a roadie dragged into a fantasy world based on rock culture - is straight out of a Tenacious D record. As Psychonauts proved, the game could be anything; it'll certainly be something.
On: PS3 / Developer: Quantic Dream / Publisher: Sony / Release: Second half
It's David Cage back doing his thing. Fahrenheit was inventive but a bit divisive and grew increasingly ludicrous towards the end, but you couldn't not finish it. Heavy Rain is even more ambitious, and strives to provoke a similarly kaleidoscopic emotional response.
On: PS3 / Developer: Amusement Vision / Publisher: SEGA / Release: 2009
It's Toshihiro Nagoshi back doing his thing. The Yakuza games' bare-knuckle scuffles may be pure action, but their appeal is really all in the whisky-sodden melodrama, hostess-bar seductions and street-strutting cool. The first PS3 instalment wowed TGS with virtual actors to match Heavy Rain's and an actual drunk karaoke mini-game; here's hoping SEGA gives Yakuza a louder Western voice this time around.
The interminable development of Alan Wake rumbles on at Remedy, but we vaguely expect to see it this year; Telltale persists with its impressive episodic adventure efforts by calling upon Nick Park's lovable Wallace & Gromit for Grand Adventures; and Tecmo manages to stop re-enacting a Neighbours episode in the courtrooms long enough to put out Project Zero 4 on the Wii, with a bit of help from the excellent Grasshopper Manufacture.
Coming Attractions concludes on Monday with the long-awaited Shooters & Racing.