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For the first time in a few years, I’m not one of the E3 judges who evaluate the best games of the video game industry for GameCriticsAwards.com. Not to worry. I’ve filled up my schedule and I won’t have to try to see every single big game. But I’m a game fan at heart and I’ll be going to the show not just to write about business, but to evaluate the best games from my own point of view. Here are my picks for the “most anticipated” games of the show. This post is much more in tune with my old job of being a game reviewer. But you can expect me to voice my opinion on the best of what I see. It’s a good exercise to give readers a flavor for where the innovation is strongest in the $50 billion video game industry, which is finally drawing its share of high-caliber financial investors.
Fallout 3 (PC, Xbox 360, PS 3) Bethesda Softworks, Oct. 2008. Although I hesitate from putting anything with a “3” after its name on a list of innovative titles, this game has consistently won buzz and it takes pains to create a graphically beautiful rendering of a world after a nuclear war in the year 2077. The Capital Wasteland is chock full of radioactive creatures and mechanical beasts. It’s also got a wry sense of humor, which tells you that mixing serious subjects with humor — such as playing happy music in the midst of a destroyed world — is one way to broaden the audience for a first-person (action role-playing game) shooter. That’s a lesson of last year’s BioShock.
Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) Microsoft/Epic Games, Nov. 2008. OK, OK. More of the same. Yes, it’s in a post-apocalyptic world again. But these one has been ravaged not by nukes but by an underground race of demon thugs who are among the hardest things to kill with a game controller. This is the kind of game with gripping sound and graphics that makes you want to buy a 1080p high-definition TV. The story picks up six months after the last epic battle to save humanity and takes the previous third-person shooter title a step further in tactical combat. You can, for instance, duel another player with a chainsaw bayonet and wound your enemies in the legs before you decapitate them. The previous game helped get the Xbox 360 established in the market and sold 4.7 million units worldwide. That’s $282 million sales at retail.
Wii Music (Nintendo Wii) Nintendo, no date. Now we’re finally getting into the cute little Nintendo characters that everybody loves. The industry’s leading innovator has taken its own sweet time with this title. Consider it Nintendo’s answer to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. It’s overdue for release and predictions suggest that it’s highly likely that Nintendo will finally show off this title. Music has become extremely popular in games and it represents the most-proven way to broaden the video game audience to females, young kids, and older gamers. This title will be innovative because it can make use of the Wii’s motion detection to allow you to play conductor for a virtual orchestra by moving your arms around. Nintendo demoed this game at E3 in 2006. It’s time to let it out of the bag.
Spore (PC, Mac), Electronic Arts/Maxis, Sept. 7, 2008. They’ve been talking about it since 2005, but EA’s Maxis division is at the finish line for Will Wright’s latest brainstorm. Nobody questions that this is an original title. You can create your own cell-like creatures, races of creatures, and galactic civilizations in the ultimate god-like simulation from the creator of SimCity and the Sims. The later has sold more than 100 million units since it debuted in 2000. If EA executes on Wright’s vision, the sky is the limit for the sales of this title. There are, however, plenty of people who are worried that this game is the most over-hyped in video game industry history.
Resistance 2 (PS 3) Sony/Insomniac Games, holiday 2008. I was thinking of putting Killzone 2 on the list and I have no doubt Sony will give a pulse-pounding demo again and we won’t see that game appear anytime soon. The next-best thing on the PS 3 is Resistance 2, the latest game from Ted Price’s Insomniac Games, one of Sony’s few golden geese in game production. The first title enabled the PS 3 to get off the ground in 2006 and it has a good grudge match going with the Gears of War 2. I trust that Insomniac is going to to up the ante to make sure that this title doesn’t get lost in the console war.
LittleBigPlanet (PS 3) Sony/Media Molecule, Oct. 2008. The biggest compliment for this game is that it’s something you would expect from Nintendo. It has cute rag-doll characters and is a side-to-side movement game, like the old 2-D platform games of years past. But it has photorealistic 3-D graphics and the ability to mix and match character appearances and their accoutrements so that they’re uniquely your own creations. Then you use those characters as a team to try and get past a series of puzzle-obstacles in their paths.
Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360, PS 3) Capcom, 2009. This title is going to be bloody and controversial, even more so than your typical zombie-shooting game. Gamers and the makers of this franchise have long known there is a joy to blowing the heads off of zombies. It’s likely to be a slow-moving game compared to other fast shooters, but that gives you time to think of how you’re going to take out the nearest zombies with limited ammo. You’ll be thinking, “My kingdom for one more shotgun shell.” The stories in this series are good, even if they’re some kind of weird derivative of “Night of the Living Dead.” If RE5 is anything like Resident Evil 4 on the Nintendo GameCube, it will be a hit.
Final Fantasy XIII (PS 3), Square Enix, no date. I can’t say that I’ve ever finished one of these games but they’re always beautiful to look at. The series always has a new story that keeps the gamers coming back and the game play, which is in the turn-based role-playing game style that many don’t like, keeps on getting better. For sure, you spend a lot of time watching cinematics in this kind of game rather than mashing buttons, but this is where games are pushing the envelope on movie-like effects.
Fable 2 (Xbox 360) Microsoft/Lionhead Studios, Oct. 2008. Peter Molyneux, the head of Lionhead, always gives eloquent demos when he shows off his titles. He creates a kind of reality distortion field, and sometimes there is a comedown when the games don’t come out as good as he says they will be. But Molyneux is on the right track for making great works of art that emotionally move you. Fable 2 sets up moral dilemmas and dramas. You can use your pet dog as a scout, but you’ll regret if you let Rover die as he helps get you out of a scrape. That’s an emotional attachment that Molyneux is counting on.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PS 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS 2, PSP, DS), LucasArts, Sept. 16, 2008. This game was probably too long in the making and might be the reason for a big change in management at George Lucas’s video game studio. But it has lifelike environments with physically accurate features, like leaves that move in the wind or cliffs that create rock sides when they’re hit with explosives. It also has realistically animated human characters who react intelligently to what happens to them. That foundation is the perfect underpinning for a game that allows you to use “the Force” the way always wanted to. You can pick up anything in the game and, with Jedi powers, throw it at anything else. Also, the story is probably one of the most intriguing that I’ve ever seen in the Star Wars universe. It’s been a long time coming, but hopefully it will live up to the build up.
Other titles worth noting:
Halo Wars (Xbox 360) Microsoft/Ensemble Studios/Bungie, Oct. 2008. Like playing Halo, only with little tiny miniatures in real time.
Tomb Raider Underworld (Wii, PS 2, PS 3, Xbox 360, PC, DS) Eidos/Crystal Dynamics, holiday 2008. The latest in the Lara Croft series.
Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360, PS 3, Wii), MTV Games/Harmonix, Sept. 2008. Bang a drum. Get it on.
Call of Duty: World at War (PC, Xbox 360, PS 3) Activision/Treyarch, fall 2008. The same engine as Call of Duty 4, but back in World War II in places such as the Pacific theater. That means jungle warfare.
Here are some other lists to compare mine to:
Big Download’s top PC games list
Next Generation’s top 30 anticipated titles
IGN’s top PC games list