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.
One thing that really surprised us when putting these lists together was the paucity of racing games due out in 2009 - and this after a less-than-stellar year for the genre in 2008. Another surprise was how narrow the selection is, with arcade and kart racers thin on the the ground, a glut of proto-simulators clogging the grid, and a handful of companies dominating the scene. And yet, it was still painful narrowing the choice to five; with experts like Bizarre, Codemasters, Turn 10, Polyphony, SimBin and Sumo weighing in, quality is bound to make up for quantity this year.
On: TBC / Developer: Codemasters Racing / Publisher: Codemasters / Release: 2009
Selling its videogame licence to a small enclave of engineers in the British Midlands - which, come to think of it, is exactly the kind of organisation that builds most of the sport's racing cars - might be one of the better decisions F1 governing body the FIA made last year. We can barely remember a time the world's top motorsport had a game worthy of the name (it would probably the last time Bizarre made one), and Codemasters is bound to change that.
There is no developer with more experience of turning real-world racing into virtual entertainment and evoking the drama of the track. Last year's Race Driver GRID showed Codemasters can add mass market accessibility, an innovative career structure, personal rivalries and presentation that shames games with far bigger budgets to its high-octane brew.
Now the GRID team has been tasked with delivering a world championship experience that can match the excitement of the 2008 season, and a handling model that most people can actually enjoy. We don't know what they're planning, but we wouldn't be surprised to see a few lesser formulae turn up as supporting acts, too, TOCA-style.
The bigger question marks hang over the source material. Can Formula One survive recession, and will the sport's penny-pinching retreat from the technological cutting edge generate the excitement Codemasters needs to feed off? Only one thing is certain - we'd never bet against Bernie Ecclestone.
Supporting cast (in alphabetical order):
Bizarre's mystery racer
On: TBC / Developer: Bizarre Creations / Publisher: Activision Blizzard / Release: 2009
If we knew anything about this at all - beyond the teasing soundbite from an advertising conference, "Mario Kart meets Forza" - it would probably have come top. Bizarre's blend of sensual handling, mouth-watering car porn and smart score-attack mechanics made Project Gotham the world's greatest racing series for four straight games. Activision Blizzard has bought its way straight into tarmac royalty.
Forza Motorsport 3
On: 360 / Developer: Turn 10 / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: 2009
This one isn't officially announced yet but leaked images, a regular two-year schedule and some large holes in Microsoft's 360 line-up for the year make it more than likely. Forza has nosed ahead of Gran Turismo in the eyes of handling aficionados now and the custom-paint trade is one of gaming's most fascinating subcultures. That said, we'll certainly be looking for a more diverting structure from this next instalment.
In the absence of a sequel to the wonderful Test Drive Unlimited (Atari has ruled it out for 2009), this will have to do. Also French, and also open-world on a massive scale, Fuel presents vast tracts of procedurally-generated wasteland for off-road exploration and racing. It's an unknown quantity, but it's different, and you have to assume Codemasters knew what it was doing when it signed this.
Gran Turismo 5
On: PS3 / Developer: Polyphony Digital / Publisher: Sony / Release: 2009
Really? Yes, really. Kazunori Yamauchi is coy, but Sony suits in the US and Europe are confident we'll see this at the end of the year. And say what you like about AI or damage - as a tech demo, the latest Gran Turismo is always hair-raising, eye-disbelieving stuff, and as a fastidiously detailed love letter to the automobile, GT5 will surely be peerless. As for the PSP version? Who knows.
A very special mention for Bizarre's "racing and driving" Bond game, due in September - now that's what we call smart licensing; ditto for the arrival of SimBin's superb sims on console with the 360's Race Pro; ditto again for OutRun Online Arcade, hopefully another brilliant Sumo home version in high-def and download form; Burnout Paradise gets an "ultimate box" (cheap, all the DLC) and a PC version; Need For Speed needs to go back to the drawing board (again); System 3's Ferrari racer goes non-denominational with Supercar Challenge; maybe Vin Diesel's magic grunt can enliven Midway's The Wheelman; which reminds us, what's Reflections up to for Ubisoft?