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.
With this section, the problem wasn't defining it - it was pinning down which games might actually get released. Epic development cycles and earning potential measured in years rather than weeks make MMO scheduling a dark art. Some of our selections could easily slip to next year, and 2010 is where the action really is, as heavyweight licences arrive to slug it out for subs. Star Trek Online, DC Universe Online, LEGO Universe and Star Wars: The Old Republic are all at least that far off, as are dark horse Guild Wars 2 and the next WOW expansion. Instead, 2009 is all about diversification in MMOs. After several fantasy epics threw themselves fruitlessly at the granite cliffs of World of Warcraft's dominance last year, MMO developers are going everywhere but there.
Realtime Worlds doesn't talk about APB much - and rumours persist that's because it's trying to sell it to Rockstar as GTA Online. But we're told development is further along than we might think, and if anything holds the game up, it will probably be business. APB is a hot, hot property, and after buying out early partners Webzen, Realtime must have suitors queuing round the block.
This is what those suitors want: a medium-scale multiplayer game of cops and robbers with incredible depth and breadth of customisation, the Crackdown developer's way with urban landscapes and tactile action, and GTA creator Dave Jones' vision of the collision point between the single-player sandbox and the multiplayer play-pen.
And a free-form fracas with proper vehicle physics, and zero level grind, and car radios powered by last.fm, and video capture, and dynamic missions for variable team sizes, and user-generated content, and an easy transition to console and the ability to arrest other players. And, frankly, an MMO with some sense of cool.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
This slick, tongue-in-cheek squad shooter in a massively multiplayer frame has half the smartest ideas in online gaming right now, arch spy style in buckets, and a more structured mission and story arc than APB. If it's wrong to think that The Agency will see the inside of this decade, then we don't want to be right.
At last, a hard-and-fast prospect for a release this year - and for an MMO on a console. Cryptic's spandex MMO is uncomfortably sandwiched between estranged father City of Heroes and copycat twin DC Universe, but it has the richest-looking world of the three - a very important asset in MMOs - and the all-important foothold on 360. Underestimate at your peril.
SOE will sound the death knell for the wild-west days of free-to-play MMOs with this calculatingly clever, frighteningly polished family-friendly meta-romp - and thank God, frankly. Huge dollops of WOW, Disney, Nintendogs, Diablo, Magic the Gathering and PopCap have been ladled into this all-ages, all-persuasions MMO stew, and for the asking price of nothing, the world will be powerless to resist. Including us.
On: PC / Developer: NetDevil / Publisher: Codemasters Online Gaming / Release: first half of 2009
We predict this massively multiplayer space dogfighter - EVE with a short attention span and itchy trigger-finger - will take us all by surprise this year. In terms of budget it's a small game, but it should easily expand to fill a gaping gap in the market that goes beyond MMOs - there just aren't enough opportunities to sit in the cockpit of a space fighter and shoot stuff these days.
NCsoft makes another arduous trek from east to west with the sumptuous Aion: Tower of Eternity; old-school PVP nightmare Darkfall kills you dead and loots all your equipment; the rise and rise of EVE Online continues with a reissue, big expansion and maybe even Walking In Stations; Earthrise and Global Agenda do the future-dystopia PVP thing; Stargate fans pray that Stargate Worlds developer Cheyenne can survive the crunch; tidy indie MMO Chronicles of Spellborn comes to the US and UK; Runes of Magic survives the free-to-play cull; MMOs go sports casual in Empire of Sports and Football Superstars; pigs take flight as MMOFPS Huxley is released; Dofus gets a reboot and an unconventional sequel, Wakfu; and LOTRO and Age of Conan will try to squeeze expansions out before Blizzard's hype machine rolls too far out of the hangar.
Join us again tomorrow so we can punch you in the face thoughtfully.