This week we've already guided you through the coming year's hot picks for Indie and Esoterica and Sports and Music games. Still to come are Fighting, Strategy, Action, Adventure, Shooters and Racing. But today we're looking at two sectors with the same dice-rolling roots that are heading in more than two different directions in 2009 - role-playing games (RPGs), and massively multiplayer online games (MMOs).
You could argue, without much difficulty, that the role-playing game has never been more influential. RPGs' core of customisation and character-building now informs everything from sports games to deathmatch shooters, hybridisation abounds, and Fallout 3 and Fable II stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the biggest and bravest blockbusters of 2008. Yet RPGs' heartlands are under threat; Japanese console RPGs suffer from a lacklustre run of form and dwindling home audience, while their Western PC cousins are cannibalised by the massively multiplayer monster. 2009 is all about reclaiming home turf for role-players.
The chances of a US or European release in 2009 are relatively slim, but Final Fantasy XIII still towers over this year's turbulent RPG landscape. In the eyes of many, this is the only game that can save the JRPG from stagnant marginalisation. Of course, its radical and brilliant predecessor already made a persuasive case for how to do that back in 2006, but nobody listened.
Anxious to tread carefully between the stifling traditionalism of FFX and FFXII's daring departures, Squenix is playing its cards close to its chest. We know that combat will retreat from real-time back into the traditional Active Time Battle, but still be more fast-paced and flashy. We know that the setting leans towards the futuristic third of Final Fantasy's stylistic triptych of sci-fi, steampunk and high fantasy. We know that it will be nothing short of immense - a grand-standing Japanese super-game of the sort only Metal Gear could muster in 2008.
Until we see the game running - it's due to surface in a playable demo in March - Final Fantasy's defection to Xbox will remain the talking point. But there's so much more going on here, not least two whole other games, action-RPG variations Agito XIII for PSP, and Versus XIII for PS3. There's no doubt that this is 2009's biggest, most exciting, most heart-in-mouth roll of the dice.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
Surprise surprise, it's shooter everymen Gearbox who propose the most complete synthesis of FPS and RPG since Deus Ex. Dusty and fusty its post-apocalypse may look, but the online co-op's more complete than Fable II's - and half a million procedurally-generated guns must be the loot table to end them all. A trigger-happy Diablo?
Dragon Age: Origins
On: PC, 360, PS3 / Developer: BioWare / Publisher: EA / Release: "early" 2009 (PC), "late" 2009 (consoles)
BioWare fans recently discomfited by space, Sonic and the prospect of other people can draw deep draughts of comfort from Dragon Age's handsome revivalism. It might not bear the Baldur's Gate name, but this is straight from the D&D old school and proud of it. Choose your own adventure - as long as it's epic enough to trump Tolkien.
Dragon Quest IX
On: DS / Developer: Level 5 / Publisher: Square Enix / Release: March 28th (Japan)
All butter-wouldn't-melt bucolic charm, this is the quieter half of Square Enix's twin franchise attack. But it's also on the world's most popular games machine, and stands a good chance of being out here in time for Christmas. The PS2 predecessor lovingly restored JRPG traditionalism in our hearts, and this year we get to carry it with us.
The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf
On: 360, PS3 / Developer: CD Projekt / Publisher: Atari / Release: Autumn
Strange as it may seem to highlight a platform port, this transposition of the Polish low-fantasy yarn from PC to console looks like it might be the glorious culmination of the one of the longest, most ardent labours of love in RPGs. Pared-down and polished, the strong story will breathe easier and the combat flow faster than before.
Yet more DS Dragon Quest, with remakes of V and VI; Puzzle Quest returns to eat the future in Galactrix; SEGA and Obsidian try the spy-RPG in Alpha Protocol on 360 and PS3 this spring; Level-5 summon medieval mechs on PS3 with White Knight Story; SEGA tries valiantly to hold back Monster Hunter with DS Phantasy Star Zero and PSP Phantasy Star Portable; the impenetrable PlayStation cults of Persona 4 and Disgaea 3 come to Europe at last; new Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for both Wii and DS; console versions of Sacred 2 are a poor substitute for Diablo III coming out; last but definitely not least, a new Mario & Luigi RPG for DS.