By Clinton Ma
In the last month or so we've seen scads of highly anticipated console games pushed back to the first quarter of 2010. It's gotten to the point where some of my most hotly awaited titles have been given the heave-ho for this year. Splinter Cell: Conviction, Bayonetta and Dante's Inferno are just three games that I'll be without this holiday season.
The official line behind most of these delays are production or Q&A related but there's no denying the desire of many publishers to steer clear of the impending juggernaut that is Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Based on the enduring strengh of the CoD brand and the unbelievable sales seen by both Call of Duty 4 and Treyarch's Call of Duty: World at War, the franchise shows no signs of slowing down. It's enough to give anyone pause, even if you're a master spy gone rogue, a gun-heel toting librarian or a 14th-centry poet turned scythe-wielding dynamo.
But take heart, gentle reader, for I have compiled a short list of games still scheduled to see the retail light of day. These select titles may not have the profile or marketing muscle of a The Beatles: Rock Band or Assassin's Creed but to dismiss them as anything but potentially amazing games would be foolhardy at best.
Follow the jump for a guided tour of some of the juiciest morsels currently flying under the radar for release this fall (Note: release dates are for North America)
Batman: Arkham Asylum
(August 25th -- PS3, Xbox 360; September 15th -- PC)
A demo has already been released for both the PS3 and Xbox 360 and it's been garnering a fair bit of hype. Touted as the first ever Batman game to be "done right", Rocksteady Studios appears to have captured the essence of what it means to don the cowl and cape of one of pop culture`s most enduring crime fighters.
The gorgeous visuals are powered by the Unreal Engine 3 and the audio production seems equally up to par, with some top-notch voice work courtesy of animation series stalwarts, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, to name just two. More fan service comes in the form of a rogue's gallery of classic villains, which includes Bane, Scarecrow, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and of course The Joker.
There are already some shockingly positive advance reviews floating around on the Web. If all goes to plan for publisher Eidos, Batman: Arkham Asylum may become the new high watermark for all future comic book licensed video games.
(September 1st -- PC, Xbox 360)
Several years ago TimeGate Studios took the entrenched, tired RTS formula and turned it on its head with their release of Kohan. The game saw critical acclaim and spawned two sequels but never really reached the heights of success seen by the likes of the Starcraft and Command & Conquer series.
This September, TimeGate is turning their innovative eye towards the first-person shooter. Currently in open live beta, Section 8 is a fresh new take on the team-based shooter. While the game's presentation looks awfully generic, there's a laundry list of features that could combine to make it a truly awesome multiplayer experience.
Players take on the role of futuristic soldiers who drop into the battlefield from orbiting space ships. Game play-wise, this means that players can select where they spawn... even if it means landing directly atop an unfortunate enemy unit. Teammates can band together into squads, facilitating better teamwork and more strategic respawn drop points. Limited flight also makes a triumphant return to the shooter. Fans of the old Tribes games will be glad to see the use of jump jets as well as armour-assisted super-sprinting to get around quickly.
And we still haven't talked about how TimeGate has borrowed a page from Quake Wars in the way "mini quests" can be taken on to direct play towards specialized objectives that will aid in the greater battle and earn requisition points for purchasing upgrades. Frankly, there's just so much going on with this game, it's bound to be a bit of a liability when it comes time for the average gamer to decide if they're going pick this up at the store. An unproven track record as a shooter developer, a generic presentation and practically non-existent marketing are all very large hurdles for TimeGate. Throw in the fact that the game is very multiplayer-centric and will rely on a healthy online community to establish soon after launch.
I have my doubts but I'm pulling for Section 8 to succeed. It brings together so many great things from both classic and team-based shooters. A demo just dropped on the Xbox Live Marketplace on Friday, so give it a whirl and judge for yourself.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
(September 15th -- PS3, Xbox 360)
I'm not going to kid you: I enjoyed the hell out of Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Even though it was a brainless beat'em up with some RPG elements thrown in (and really, what game doesn't sprinkle in a little RPG these days), I still liked it enough to play it through twice with a friend.
The sequel's been a long time coming and development duties have been passed over from Raven to Vicarious Visions. This makes MUA2 a bit of an unknown quantity. Raven did a spectacular job of cramming so many Marvel super-heroes into one game and making all of them so playable. And while Vicarious Visions has a well of experience working on comic book adaptations and other licensed properties, they also aren't especially known for A-list design or runaway blockbusters.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 will follow the Civil War story arc already told in the comic books. There's some radical government law passed that causes a rift between the Marvel super-heroes, splitting them into opposing camps (Pro-Registration vs. Anti-Registration). Since I don't follow the comics too closely, all of this sounds almost too political and dry. Ultimately we can expect some hero-on-hero head bashing along with multiple endings depending which side of the conflict you choose to fight for.
MUA2 probably isn't going to make you forget that Assassin's Creed 2 is coming out later this year but if you're a fan of the first game I wouldn't be so quick to write this one off yet. It's arriving in stores September 15th, so it should provide a great appetizer before the fall crazy-ness shifts into high gear.
(September 15th -- PS3, Xbox 360)
NGP's managing partner Andrew Shin has been following the development of this Canadian-made action-adventure for quite some time. Developers Artificial Mind and Movement have certainly seen their share of drama in the last year. Having been dropped by Acitvistion Blizzard last summer, the future of WET was in dire straits until Bethesda Softworks stepped in to rescue the project this past April.
The move has all but guaranteed a September 15th release for WET, which along with Batman, positions the game as a sort of early kick off to the busy game-buying season this fall.
Details of the game have still be relatively scarce. WET expands upon the gun play mechanics found in Max Payne and Stranglehold by adding savage melee with a katana. The game also liberally borrows stylistic elements from cinema, most notably old exploitation flicks of the 1970s, The Matrix and the pop culture sensibilities of Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill comes most readily to mind).
Female protagonist, Rubi (voiced by the smoldering Eliza Dushku of TV's Dollhouse) is certainly a bad ass on the order of Uma Thurman's The Bride, but will all this attitude and style overshadow the substance? The jury's still out on how well WET fuses together all these influences into a wild action ride. For me, it's all these question marks that makes the anticipation for WET's release all the more difficult.
(October 6th -- PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Billed as "the espionage RPG", Alpha Protocol is Obsidian Entertainment's first original IP project and their first chance to truly prove themselves as first-rate RPG makers. They've long been regarded in some corners (yours truly included) as a second string developer, toiling in the shadow of more succesful studios such as BioWare. While their sequels to classics such as Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights were pretty well received, they've never had a game built from the ground up to call their own.
At first blush Alpha Protocol resembles Mass Effect with a major palette swap. The heavy 3rd-person shooter elements combined with the cinematic dialogue presentations and skill point advancement system bear a striking resemblance to BioWare's sci-fi thriller. As rookie CIA operative Michael Thornton, players find themselves betrayed by their superiors during a routine mission. Cut off from their usual resources, Thornton goes rogue and works to uncover a deeper conspiracy within the government.
The spy setting should be a breath of fresh air for gamers overdosed on dungeons and space marines and it should cause people to draw favourable connections to existing properties such as James Bond and Jason Bourne. Below the surface, we also have what looks to be a solid blending of action and RPG game mechanics, with a host of customization options and a great variety of skill specializations offering players many different ways of tackling the challenges offered in Alpha Protocol.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising
(October 6th -- PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
This could be "the game" this fall for anyone who has bemoaned the style shift of the big Tom Clancy franchises these last few years. While the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games have seen a sharp shift towards action and accessibility to appeal to a wider audience, the realism die-hards have been left out in the cold.
Certainly in a world of Halo and Call of Duty, an open world military shooter based on sophisticated AI and strict adherence to realism is either going to be a breath of fresh air or a very rude awakening. Personally, I prefer my games fantastical and over the top but there's no denying an under served market on consoles that is dying for a no-nonsense shooter experience.
The recipe for a great game is all here: fully fleshed out single and multi-player modes, 8-player online matches, drivable vehicles, dynamic weather system, real-time lighting and realistic ballistics. Where realism is concerned, there's even a feature available that will disable all HUD elements. Yes, that's everything. You'll need to keep track of how many rounds you've expended from your clip and rely on visual cues to identify hostiles and friendlies. And forget about an overhead mini map or radar!
I don't know about you, but short of donning the camo gear and heading out to the firing range, this is as real as it's going to get when it comes to realistic shooters.
(October 20th -- PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
I am excited about this one. Coming to us from Gearbox Software, makers of Brother in Arms: Hell`s Highway and some classic Half-Life expansions, Borderlands is an original IP that is also a bit difficult to explain.
The game is set in yet another trendy post-apocalyptic world, combining the sensibilities of Mad Max with an art style that crosses Fallout with Team Fortress 2. The hybrid result is being marketed as a "role-playing shooter" or RPS. There are a host of features guaranteed to get core gamers salivating, including 4-player co-op, a vast open world, classes and class-based skill trees and a procedural weapon-generation system that will supposedly provide a limitless number of permutations to the loot drops.
It's so strange to be talking about loot and leveling in the context of an edgy-looking FPS but that is just representative of the kind of bold approach Gearbox is taking with this game. Boldness is definitely something they'll need in spades. Borderlands is scheduled to hit store shelves in the competitive month of October. Aside from heaps of critical praise and word of mouth, it's going to need a healthy marketing push to stand out amid the retail noise.
So that's just a small sampling of some lesser known titles headed to your PC or console later this year. It's not the most exhaustive list and I had to make some cuts. I think the take away lesson is that in spite of the large number of games delayed into 2010, we still have a feast of gaming goodness ahead of us that will easily tide us over until Christmas and beyond.