The last days of 2011 came and went with me desperately trying to finish off as many of the big name releases as possible, zipping through story modes and campaigns just before the clock stuck twelve. Yet despite my best efforts there were still two games on my shelf left untouched, still in the crisp cellophane. There just wasn’t enough time towards the end of the year to play everything as it came out.
2011 was a busy year for gaming, as I’m sure you noticed, with a myriad of tantalising titles leading up to a kind of interactive shuddering climax towards the end of the year. Between adventuring in Skyrim, crusading around Arkham City and having happy nostalgic flashbacks thanks to Sonic Generations, I’d almost forgotten all the great stuff that had come out earlier on in the year.
Dragon Age 2 proved to be one step too far in Bioware’s attempt to streamline the traditional RPG, with many fans of Dragon Age: Origins decrying the clipped down customisation and the less focused story. Portal 2 made a fully-fledged release out of the premise of its predecessor and Deus Ex: Human Revolution brought us a current day interpretation of the classic Deus Ex. Yet if 2011 was a premium year for games in general it wasn’t for innovation. Most of the big name games coming out this year have been new entries in already established series. The likes of Dead Island, RAGE and to a lesser extent Brink performed admirably in the critical and commercial spheres yet this was a year dominated by big budget sequels with many of the new IPs overshadowed. L.A Noire was one of the biggest original successes of the year but its post-launch was dogged by the emerging stories of its torturous development cycle, eventually leading to Team Bondi’s closure later in the year.
Game development is getting expensive, to the point where most studios can’t afford to take many risks on big budget games. Luckily the Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, Steam and Wiiware platforms are offering new alternatives to the competitive top-tier market. In 2010 Double Fine withdrew from the console market and began delivering smaller, more niche games digitally – the kind of games that may well have bombed had they been developed for consoles. With Alan Wake getting its next iteration as a downloadable title, I think it’s fair to say that we can see more developers choosing the digital route in 2012.
Where does this leave us for 2012? It’ll mean more sequels and less innovative releases, with most of the unique experiences coming from smaller developers on digital platforms. Not that the AAA landscape under this kind of outlook would necessarily be a bad thing. Most of the bigger budget games are ever going to give us the kind of polish and technical fidelity that only a massive budget can fuel.
But enough of last year. Here are the things that I’m looking forward to seeing in 2012, both because I’m genuinely looking forward to playing them and because some of the outcomes will no doubt be interesting from a critical perspective, even if not necessarily fun.
Not a new franchise by any means, but Ken Levine’s next game doesn’t retread the same ground quite as much as other big releases next year will. More a successor in terms of story and themes, Bioshock Infinite looks set to give us the kind of unique narrative experience that the original Bioshock did in 2007. For me Bioshock didn’t do anything particularly special in terms of its shooter/RPG crossover mechanics but its atmosphere and intelligent themes made it gripping for entirely different reasons.
Why am I interested in Bioshock: Infinite? Because I think I’m hoping it will prove to be a landmark title in how games tell stories, much like its predecessor was. As the game can make me care about the characters, the city and the ideas just under the surface, I’m confident in Bioshock Infinite delivering to my expectations
Mass Effect 3
Another game that may well become a landmark title for storytelling in games, Mass Effect 3 closes off Commander Shepherd’s galactic fight against the reapers. What makes the coming third iteration noteworthy, however, is that this will see the cumilation of all of Bioware’s various threads from the last two games. With each decision allegedly having an impact on the wider world, it’s down to Mass Effect 3 to showcase how a dynamic story can come to a satisfying, coherent conclusion.
Yet the third game is also going to have to be able to prove itself in its gameplay as well. While many found Mass Effect a little on the obtuse side with its awful inventory management, more people decried the slimmed down interface and customisation of Mass Effect 2. In addition to bringing the trilogy to an end, Mass Effect 3 is also going to have to show us that it can find a happy mediation between deep, engaging RPG elements and accessibility.
Battleblock Theatre and Other Indie Games.
It’s not all sequels, but like 2012, most of the stuff that isn’t a sequel or re-tread of familiar ground is going to be found in the indie sphere. Enter Battleblock Theatre, the long awaited third game from The Behemoth of Castle Crashers fame. Ostensibly just another cooperative/competitive platformer with an eye-catching art style, Battleblock Theatre at least looks set to deliver with The Behemoths trademark surreal humour. Personally I can’t wait to play as Prisoner 10298 Ceiling Cat.
Why the catch-all ‘and others’ you ask? Because from my experience very few titles set to launch in 2012 on digital platforms get much in the way of hype until very near their launch. While I’ve got little idea what else is around the corner, I’m still looking forward to playing it. The Xbox Live Summer of Arcade is always a reliable source of quality, small-scale games, with 2011 seeing the release of the critically acclaimed Bastion, as well as Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet and From Dust.
While it’s a shame that the top end of the gaming industry has become so expensive and risk-adverse, it’s at least a consolation that the digital platforms have stood up to deliver. I’m pretty certain we’ll see some fantastic titles beaming to us over the internet this year.
The Handheld Landscape
The 3DS has managed to bounce back after a disappointed from the brink thanks to a price drop, but it’s future still remains uncertain, and the main threat to its life isn’t even the Playstaion Vita.
In my eyes the real battle of the portable market this year is going to be between traditional handheld consoles and app-fuelled smart-phones. In a world where everything is being increasingly paired down into single devices, many people can’t really see the point in carrying around a dedicated gaming device. At the same time the likes of iOS games are getting steadily more impressive. We now have the likes of Infinity Blade and The Dark Meadow gracing our smartphones, not to mention competent ports of the like of Grand Theft Auto 3. While the iOS platforms have proved to be formidable competitors in the portable market, the more traditional Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita are going to have to prove that they’re still relevant, starting in 2012.
There are of course many titles I haven’t touched on. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is promising to change the way games tell stories, while we’re also expecting new iterations in the juggernaut Halo and Assassins Creed franchises, not to mention the inevitable release of Treyarch’s next Call of Duty game. On the surface it seems very much business-as-usual for the industry next year, but we’re going to see plenty of interesting things emerge from the coming year. I can’t help but be an optimist in these things, so while I think 2012 is going to see some shake-ups I think it’s all ultimately for the best.
The likes of Bioshock: Infinite and Mass Effect 3 are going to inform our storytelling in games for years to come, and I’d be shocked if some outlying indie titles also didn’t make some significant impacts in that area, not quite unlike Bastion did in 2011. While most of the big budget games in 2012 are going to be unoriginal in concept, the financial power of the biggest studios is no doubt going to continue to push the envelope in technical achievement
So here’s to 2012. May it be our finest year!