After indie and esoterica, sports and music, MMOs and RPGs, fighting and strategy and action and adventure, we conclude our look at what's coming this year with two fields which tend to put refinement ahead of innovation. Can shooters and racing shake themselves up in 2009?
We love to have a go at a genre that never seems to tire of depicting a brown monster's face at the end of your gun, but there's more going on in the world of shooters than you might think. As well as spinning off into hybrids so removed they belong elsewhere - Mirror's Edge, Portal, Borderlands, Riddick - the simple Doom-defined gameplay template is being used as a launch pad for new subject matter, new business models and new technologies. The question is, can web games like Battlefield Heroes do enough to break the link between FPS and high-end graphics so that we'll start seeing big shooters for formats other than PS3, 360 and PC? Not this year, it seems.
Halo 3: ODST
On: 360 / Developer: Bungie / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: Autumn 2009
Strange to think of a Halo game as an unhyped, unheralded underdog. More than strange - unthinkable - for its announcement to be leaked, postponed, teased out, fumbled and eventually made to a Tokyo Game Show audience that didn't particularly care. Once the victor, with ODST Halo finds itself the victim: of an awkward name change, of an unfortunate child-abduction gaffe, of franchise fatigue, of dampened expectations, and mostly of an undignified divorce spat between Microsoft and Bungie. But forget all that.
Yes, it's only a brisk three to five hours' entertainment, not counting the new multiplayer maps. That didn't stop Portal topping game of the year lists, including ours. Surely, in 2009, we no longer measure quality by the yard. It's not the contraction in length that interests us, but the contraction in scale.
Halo has always been the ultimate in sci-fi bombast, the epic tale of an invincible superhero and insurmountable odds against the backdrop of a raging interplanetary war. ODST is a side-story, a vignette about a future paratrooper picking cautiously through the rubble of a ruined city after the Covenant leave Earth, looking for his lost comrades. Part shooter, part mystery, the tone of the narrative and the gameplay are necessarily going to be worlds away.
Expect open-world map design, storytelling through playable flashbacks of multiple characters, player-defined waypoints, and even a little light detective work. Oh, and the great Nathan Fillion in the voice cast. Bungie's outrageous talent with muscular, unpredictable combat can be relied on, but this is the super-developer stepping quietly - almost surreptitiously - into new territory for the first time in eight years. That automatically makes Halo 3 ODST the most intriguing and exciting prospect in the shooter genre this year.
Supporting cast (in alphabetical order):
On: PC / Developer: DICE / Publisher: EA / Out: 2009
Delays to this small-scale freebie reboot of Battelfield are surprising in theory, but not in practice - combining social network website, strategy meta-game, MMO advancement and RPG skills with an ebullient cartoon deathmatch shooter is a tricksy and ambitious project. Battlefield Heroes is an important tactical play for EA too - along with Sony Online's Free Realms and id's Quake Zero, we expect it to revolutionise free-to-play gaming this year.
The prospect of a combined prequel and sequel to 2007's sumptuous arthouse shooter is appropriately thrilling and mysterious. Quite how you expand its vacuum-sealed, snow-globe world and the perfect parable of its story is beyond us, but we'll find out soon. Can't wait, although the move away from ideas hothouse 2K Boston and creator Ken Levine is a cause for concern.
On: PS3 / Developer: Guerrilla Games / Publisher: Sony / Release: 25th February
After the gratifying extravagance of last year's Resistance and Gears sequels, Killzone 2 comes across almost like an anti-blockbuster: a grim, claustrophobic, demanding tactical shooter that just happens to have sky-high production values. Less sci-fi extravaganza, more gritty future war movie, Killzone 2 leads PS3 shooter fans somewhere other than the 360's coat-tails.
One of the longest shots for 2009 release that we've included in our Coming Attractions series (and there have been a few). But we love Rage for being everything FPS gaming used to be: a nerd-storm of new engine technology, virtuoso coding, willy-waving texture resolutions, wild promises of untold gameplay freedom, ugly mutants and a Linux version. Plus it will probably beat Duke Nukem Forever to the shops.
Call of Duty 6 (or Modern Warfare 2) is unlikely to surprise but will deliver - this is a "good" (Infinity Ward) year after all; Operation Flashpoint 2 fights it out with bastard brother ArmA II for the military sim crown; no such problems for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, as spiritual sequel becomes actual sequel next month; Quake Live shakes up browser shooting; Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines is still coming in the first quarter, apparently; Nintendo waves The Conduit's Wii graphics in your face, but it remains an unknown quantity; Red Faction: Guerrilla explores new ways of making things fall over; Rebellion does more psycho 'Nam horror in Shellshock 2; there's Tribes-style, sci-fi team shooting in Section 8; Wolfenstein might just resurface; and we wouldn't rule out a new Clancy or two, with Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon both due back on shelves.