So far in our 2010 preview we've covered shooters and racing games, dabbled in the instant thrills of fighting, puzzle and arcade games and settled in for the long haul in what looks like a big year for MMOs and RPGs. In tomorrow's final instalment, we'll look at one genre to rule them all and another that's making a healthy comeback. Today, however, it's all about tactics and accuracy (and sibilant alliteration) as we explore strategy, simulation and sports games.
Every year, you hear promises to take the RTS forward, other promises to roll it back, further promises to make it work on consoles, and one or two lonely voices wondering what's so great about doing strategy in real time anyway.
The games themselves are usually well-meaning and at least partly successful at what they do, but the end result of being pulled in all these different directions seems to be that strategy gaming always ends up back where it started. 2010 will probably be no different. But at least everyone will be sitting up straight and paying attention because, after seven years away conquering the world, Blizzard's back in the room.
Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight
On: PC / Developer: EA Los Angeles / Publisher: EA / Release: 19th March 2010
No more soap star slap-and-tickle, no more standalone expansions to sequels to alternate-universe prequels, no more camping it up to camera - and after this, there's a real possibility that there will be no more Command & Conquer. At all. Word is that most of the C&C development staff were let go in the last round of EA layoffs, while the producers themselves have vowed to bring the 15-year-old Kane story to a close. In honour of that, they're playing it pretty straight in cut-scenes and on the battlefield - but the mobile bases are the sort of apparently casual change that can destroy decades of hard-coded RTS habit. For good or for ill, we don't know yet.
Napoleon: Total War
On: PC / Developer: Creative Assembly / Publisher: SEGA / Release: February 2010
"The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself," ABBA sang when comparing one of the most decisive battles in military history to letting someone snog them in Waterloo. Creative Assembly begs to disagree, letting you rewrite the course of events in 18th and 19th century Europe in this Empire spin-off, the most focused and personal Total War yet - insofar as you can ever call the great, century- and continent-spanning strategy series focused or personal. But if its only crime is thinking big, it couldn't have a better poster-boy than Bonaparte, anyway.
This year's sacrificial lamb to console controls and high-concept accessibility in real-time strategy is this World War II entry from Parisian developer Eugen. R.U.S.E. is all about the big picture, whether in the extreme zoom levels of the camera or the philosophy of simplification, stripping out micro-management in favour of the titular deceptions and gambits. It's easy enough to grasp, but still hard to tell if this will get Ubisoft any firmer a foothold in RTS than Tom Clancy and voice commands did.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
On: PC / Developer: Blizzard / Publisher: Activision Blizzard / Release: Spring 2010
Yes, it really will come out this year, although we wouldn't be surprised if spring was a dim memory by the time this epic development climaxed in the launch of the first of three games. Blizzard's been held up by the perfection of the new Battle.net, a next-gen Xbox Live-style service that will be individually tailored to every game it releases. Good, they needed slowing down. In seriousness, the superb new ladder system will open competitive StarCraft to ordinary people and be the most copied online gaming feature of the new decade, while the campaign chooses to innovate in endlessly varied level design rather than time-honoured mechanics. We were sceptical that this could ever justify the amount of time it's taken, but the closer it gets, the more we believe.
Supreme Commander 2
Creator Chris Taylor's pitch for Supreme Commander 2 - that the hardcore RTS doesn't need innovation and accessibility and experience points, it needs careful fine-tuning and a better single-player experience - should get a warm reception, even if it brings his game uncomfortably close to Blizzard's war machine. Still, with unit design that's simultaneously tighter and showier, and a firm focus on awesome scale, there's no reason to think this won't deliver the goods (on PC - the first Supreme Commander was an awkward fit on 360).
Also in 2010
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II expands with Chaos Rising; Stardock takes its turn at fantasy strategy with Elemental: War of Magic; we love DS "struzzlegy" Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes so much we just had to mention it again - it's out next week; Sony Online Entertainment knows its card-battling onions, so is a good choice to make Magic: The Gathering - Tactics; Kingdom Under Fire II is sort of an MMO on PC, sort of not on 360, makes little sense and looks awesome either way; Heroes of Newerth is an interesting indie take on Defence of the Anicents; and is the tower defence thing over yet? Not a chance - they'll be clogging every format you can think of.
One of the few genuinely reclusive and exclusive subcultures in gaming, simulation is still one we like to pay attention to when we can, but we found rooting out intriguing prospects for 2010 quite difficult. Possibly because we didn't know where to look. If you can think of more than these two, let us know.
Silent Hunter 5
On: PC / Developer: Ubisoft Romania / Publisher: Ubisoft / Release: "Early" 2010
We didn't realise we knew so many frustrated U-boat captains until Silent Hunter 5 broke the surface last year and caused genuine waves of excitement among our friends, especially among the staff of Eurogamer's various European sites. If the goal of simulation games is wish-fulfilment as well as authenticity, then the chance to wander about your sub in first-person will drive them crazy, and it's enough to get us more than a little intrigued, too.
Storm of War: Battle of Britain
On: PC / Developer: 1C: Maddox Games / Publisher: Ubisoft / Release: 2010
Meanwhile, in the skies, we find EG contributor and sim expert Tim Stone's pick of the year, which he thinks "should be pretty special". The long, long-awaited sequel to the 2001 classic IL-2 Sturmovik couldn't feature a more iconic setting than the Battle of Britain, nor more iconic hardware than the Spitfire, Hurricane and, er Fiat BR.20, not to mention the Bristol Bolingbroke.
Tom writes: As EA boss John Riccitiello noted in an investor call this week, 2010 promises "FIFA in a World Cup year". It also promises - although hasn't officially promised yet - a FIFA World Cup game in a World Cup year. Thanks to EA Canada's footballing behemoth, sports was the one genre that stood toe to toe with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 (at least in Europe), and while many of the dollars and pounds directed in its direction in 2010 will head for one or two games only, there are more interesting stories to be told than you might imagine.
On: PS3, Xbox 360 / Developer: NaturalMotion / Publisher: 505 Games / Release: Spring 2010
It's an American football game, made by a physics engine company. Anyone? Perhaps it won't be a monster hit, and it certainly won't dethrone Madden, for which EA is promising innovations this year (infer what you like). And we don't know whether it has a better solution to the developer's dilemma of trying to capture being and thinking in two different places at once, quarterback style. But if Backbreaker's unique selling point is that it captures the physical minutiae of matters atop the gridiron better than its rival, then whatever else NaturalMotion does with the game it may rest upon a threatening set of foundations. The iPhone version was cheap and excellent too, for what it's worth.
On: Unknown - but expect EA to challenge everything / Developer: EA Canada / Publisher: EA / Release: Unknown - expect November 2010
2011 is a challenging year for the football development team at EA Canada, which has to deal with being the critical and commercial market leader not just for the first time, but for the first and second times in a row, thanks to the inevitable, albeit unannounced World Cup game and the prospect of the real deal, FIFA 11, some months later. Some changes and updates will be simple and obvious - dial down the crazy goalkeepers, bug-test Manager Mode - but while there's clearly a lot of make-believe tarmac still to cover on the development team's gameplay roadmap, FIFA 10 is already an excellent simulation, and so in order to consolidate its position this year's instalment may call for that rarest of things in a sports game: imagination.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2011
On: Unknown - but expect PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360, etc. / Developer: Konami Tokyo / Publisher: Konami / Release: Unknown - but expect November 2010
PES 2010 had its moments, but not enough of them to worry FIFA 10, and not enough to outweigh the stagnation elsewhere. Even the Konami development team was under few illusions about this, flying journalists over to a French press event prior to the game's release to effectively admit they weren't sure of themselves any more and ask for input. With expectations set lower than ever, though, PES 2011 can only be an improvement, and does have positives to build upon: overdue but wilful attempts to break free of the series' ingrained rails of movement for one, the perennially superior Master League for another, and of course the official Liverpool FC licence. (Actually, I probably can't get away with the last one.)
Activision Blizzard may be the biggest third-party publisher in the world, but in a year that saw its rivals diving around to avoid Modern Warfare 2's crosshairs, bubbly brunette Bobby Kotick won't be pleased that so many of us finished the year pondering the apparent commercial failure of DJ Hero, Band Hero, Guitar Hero 5 and Tony Hawk: RIDE. EA may be in the ascendancy again, but would do well to keep this in mind as it rolls out a third instalment in the popular but hardcore Skate series this May. Online team-building, new multiplayer modes and better on-foot behaviour are the sort of marginal-sounding changes that could divert Skate 3 into the same cul-de-sac the previously lovely Tony Hawk found himself rolling down before he went a bit 3/10 and lost it on Twitter. We're hoping Skate 3 is a coronation instead.
Also in 2010
Frozen Britain would presumably work as a good PR angle for this month's Vancouver 2010 were it not discouraging people from going to the shops; Tiger Woods is cutting down on public appearances anyway, so it's a good thing you can play the Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online open beta at home this month; Cyberbike's full-size exercise bike definitely needs to be kept behind closed doors; Hot Shots Tennis for PSP is an unknown quantity, supposedly imminent; EA put PS3 and 360 Grand Slam Tennis on the back burner, but you never know, it might show up come Wimbledon; John Riccitiello says this year's Madden will be "innovative" (perhaps it's about baseball); and 2010 FIFA World Cup is an as-yet unannounced inevitability, hopefully with better goalkeepers.