Peculiar bedfellows, perhaps? There was always going to be a clash somewhere in this year's Coming Attractions as we sorted our way through 12 categories, but you could argue there's more that unites fighting and strategy than divides them. Both are about trying to take maximum of advantage of your opposition's weaknesses, both reward patience, concentration and consideration, and as of Red Alert 3 both have a thing for impractical women's clothing.
However, 2009's fighting games - or beat-'em-ups, as we and apparently no one else still enjoy calling them - can be forgiven for gimmickry, because there's a sense that few would pay attention otherwise. Fighters like Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Tekken: Dark Resurrection have done reasonably as downloads, but others - even the licence-heavy Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe - have flopped. And for the most part, that won't change in 2009. But for once there are two or possibly three fighters that have the potential to capture the public's imagination, and not just the ring-fenced pounds of an ill-fed hardcore.
Street Fighter IV
Street Fighter IV is already a massive achievement in one sense: there's more buzz ahead of its 20th February release than there has been for any other beat-'em-up in this generation of hardware - even including Fight Night Round 3, which headlined PlayStation 3's coming-out conference and won the occasional 10/10. Some of SF IV's success here is coincidence - even Capcom wouldn't have predicted the her-off-Smallville Chunners film would be done at exactly the same time - but the Japanese publisher has also been canny: with those animated shorts, with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and with bespoke peripherals made out of knobs flown in specially from Japan.
But for all the hype, the arcade version proves it is all the things people keep saying it will be: Street Fighter II's re-ignition, fuelled by tweaked characters, draped with new tactical layers and smothered in snazzy graphics. All of which is enough to satisfy the two traditionally discrete beat-'em-up consumers: the button-mashing have-a-go-Honda and the Shotokan-denying Third Strike disciple. A last-minute critical collapse isn't inconceivable, but HD Remix ran the online code past enough scrutiny for it to work, the arcade balance is tight, and Capcom's not only spent a year figuring out the best way to use the PS3 and 360 pads, but it's made its own for people who still don't like them.
Whether it will work at the tills is the bigger question, but in the meantime let's enjoy something else: Street Fighter IV can't be ripped off like for like, as there is no other videogame company with the right beat-'em-up IP, under the right circumstances, to do so. But for every other Japanese - or Western - publisher with hot 80s or 90s IP smouldering in the trademark office, it's a blueprint for revival we'd be happy for them to nick.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
Fight Night Round 4
Fight Night Round 3 was great, but it's as well remembered for giving up its gamerpoints as it is for its analogue attacks, bone-cracking visuals and entertaining fighter balance. We hope Round 4's remembered for more than giving Tyson a paycheque.
King of Fighters XII
Like SF IV, it's an overhaul, but on different terms, with new hand-drawn sprites on 2D backgrounds and a professed desire to be the best 2D fighter ever. New features include a critical counter system, allowing players to follow a strong counter with a flurry of attacks and a special.
On: Wii / Developer: Next Level Games / Publisher: Nintendo / Release: Summer
Silly and simple but memorable, the original Punch-Outs are enough to put this on the list. We're also pleased that boxing's role in Wii Sports hasn't ruled out the commission, which may bode well for potential returns for Mario Tennis and Mario Golf further down the line.
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Cross Generation of Heroes
On: Wii / Developer: Capcom, 8ing / Publisher: Capcom / Release: TBC (out in Japan)
The latest game in the splinter series that brought us Marvel vs. Capcom and Capcom vs. SNK, with similar mechanics. We may not have a clue who half the Tatsunoko characters are, but we'll enjoy taking them down with variable assists.
Fight Night Round 3 wasn't the only game at the original PS3 conference: Tekken 6 was there too, and is finally due out later this year, on 360 too. In the meantime there's Castlevania Judgment, and Western bows for PS3 and 360 versions of Battle Fantasia; and BlazBlue, with the odd arcade unit sneaking into the UK this month.
Like beat-'em-ups, strategy games have a hard time looking glamorous - but not just because they have a hard time looking glamorous. They're often about fascinating but unfriendly subjects, they take ages to figure out, and most damagingly they're very difficult to market: the one-line summary is almost impossible. So while Valve is often heralded as a futuristic cabal of geniuses, companies like Relic and Creative Assembly are ignored, even though their achievements, and the near-faultless ascendance of their talent, are often just as risky and thoughtful. Like beat-'em-ups, this won't change in 2009, but like beat-'em-ups again, it's getting closer.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
On: PC / Developer: Relic / Publisher: THQ / Release: 20th February
It may be the least fashionable of this year's potential blockbusters, but Dawn of War II may end up being the very best, whether you worship the absurd, excellent Warhammer fiction or not. And, more crucially, whether you worship the usually cruel and intimidating RTS genre or not. Base- and unit-building are banished and reinforcement scaled back in the squad-based single-player, which borrows thoughtfully from the RPG genre: most notably in persistent, upgradeable units, and a reward structure that showers you in War Gear, which you keep throughout to customise your four squads.
It's a change of pace, which will be a struggle for some, but then PC strategy fans are used to the struggle, and therein lies the point: Relic's mastery of the RTS genre will be a deep and compelling new playground for them, but Dawn of War II should be a more approachable, friendlier proposition for everyone else. At least, as friendly as you'd expect for a game primarily about crusading, genetically modified Space Lancelots fighting for a permanent, soul-harvesting God-Emperor.
And for those who were here to begin with, adjusting to the new world order has its own thrills. The single-player may be knotted around less traditional foundations, but so too is the multiplayer, and in ways more obviously suited to the ravenous tactical brains of Dawn of War lovers: three-on-three co-operative battles with base-building, annihilation and control-point based combat, and four playable races, including the frothing Tyranids, who never made it into Dawn of War despite a host of expansions. Like a lot of big games in unfashionable genres, Dawn of War II is trying to be several things to several groups at once; it may or may not mean bigger sales for Relic, and we doubt it will be the first mainstream RTS, but it makes for a fascinating game.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
On: PC / Developer: Gas Powered Games / Publisher: Stardock / Release: March
Alright, Space Siege was pants, but this hybridised action-RTS-RPG, inspired by the tournament-dominating Defence of the Ancients Warcraft III mod, seems to be more of a labour of love for Chris Taylor and chums.
Empire: Total War
On: PC / Developer: Creative Assembly / Publisher: SEGA / Release: March
They live a few miles up the road, they make games about manly war, and they have a witty name. Creative Assembly are clearly our heroes, and unlike Relic their games remain shamelessly daunting and mysterious, and always better than the last.
On: Xbox 360 / Developer: Ensemble Studios / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: 27th February
The last new thing you'll ever be able to buy with Ensemble Studios' name on it may also be the first good RTS you'll ever be able to buy and stick in a console. It's been said before, of course, but the scale here is more sensible and the controls considered. The IP's not bad either.
On: PC / Developer: Blizzard / Publisher: Blizzard / Release: TBC (hopefully 2009)
Does anyone doubt that this really will be three full, amazing games? Or that it will be the ultimate competitive RTS? One of the reasons we admire Blizzard is that if it isn't, it simply won't come out.
Creative Assembly takes to the post-apocalypse in Stormrise on PC, PS3 and 360; Codename Panzers delves into the Cold War in February; and EA continues to fondle the mad-dolphin/Z-list-upskirt sub-genre with download-only Red Alert 3 Uprising this March.
Coming Attractions returns tomorrow at the usual time!