May you live in interesting times. It’s an adage that games publishers would probably rather disagree with, preferring instead a dependable return on each of their developmental investments. But even if the games business – like film – has always been somewhat hit-driven, the cost of getting a big title from concept to consumer has skyrocketed in recent years.

In the core gaming market, the Battlefields, Call of Dutys and Grand Theft Autos of this world cost some tens of millions to develop and are matched dollar for dollar in marketing. They’re titles that snatch up a sizeable chunk of the established gamer market and significantly more videogame tourists – consumers who buy perhaps one or two games a year, and who rely on brand recognition and advertising exposure to make their purchasing decisions.

At the other end of the market is the Apple App store, Facebook, and – to a lesser extent – Xbox LIVE, the PlayStation Network and Steam. These platforms service many millions of consumers who are looking for a little digital entertainment without the full retail price tag.

As a result, there’s a growing squeeze on the middle market, on those games that cost perhaps a couple of million to develop and have a limited advertising budget to reach those mainstream consumers but ask them to pay as much as they would for Red Dead Redemption or Uncharted 2 all the same.

Many recent developments ably model the market’s new corset. At the top, consider the recent shuttering of studios such as Bizarre Creations and Realtime Worlds, or Disney’s bowing out of the core games market in favour of the ‘freemium’ frontier. At the bottom, witness Nintendo’s concern about the App Store, the lukewarm 3DS launch and the (welcome) deficit of summer blockbuster tie-ins.

Of course, how much a publisher invests in a title is by no means any assurance of quality. There are more than a few critical and core gamer darlings that go unnoticed by many, just as there’s flash in the pan dross that captures a baffling share of the market. All the same, the trend is firmly established. Interesting times, then.

Nonetheless, several publishers are still looking to squeeze those increasingly scarce, succulent drops from the middle – just as their balance sheet is buoyed by sure-fire successes.

One such publisher is Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment. In April, WBIE released Mortal Kombat with much fanfare. It’ll be some months until the publisher releases sales data, but there can be little doubt it’ll be a resounding success for publisher and developer NetherRealm alike. Last week, we took a look at some of WBIE’s confirmed 2011 core titles: F.E.A.R. 3, Lord of the Rings: War in the North and Batman: Arkham City.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Capitalising on Warner’s license with the Tolkien estate, War in the North explores a parallel storyline to that outlined in The Lord of the Rings. Three stock heroes, a dwarf, a human ranger and an elf mage travel together in the northern regions of Middle Earth to investigate and combat an army massing under the banner of one of Sauron’s lieutenants.

The game is built around the traditional warrior, mage and rogue (or ranged) template that has been a hallmark of action role-playing development for decades. Players must work together and leverage each character’s talents to ensure the success of the group.

The dwarf, for example, is capable of absorbing damage while the ranger focuses on stealth, range and critical damage. The elf mage delivers sustained, heavy damage.

Each class also has unique abilities. The dwarf can see runes carved into bare rock that indicate secret passages, while the elf can gather herbs and fungi to create various salves, for example. As you’d expect, there’s also a surfeit of loot.

As characters progress, they’ll gain experience allowing players to upgrade select skills and unlock still more. Beyond the class triumvirate, a veneer of strategy has been layered on top. As players dispatch minions and chain together attacks, their character can enter a hero mode, supplementing their abilities.

The combat is hectic and visceral – limbs and heads are hacked from torsos – and it often descends into chaos if the classes aren’t working in concert. For now, there are more than a few flaws still to be polished. Characters appear to be frozen in place if an attack and its corresponding animation have been triggered, and they seem to interact with their environment only under duress.

Developer Snowblind tells us that they believe the game is best played as a couch co-op title for two, or online for three. Perhaps genuine camaraderie (and one or two drinks) between friends will be able to elevate this title upon its release, but for now, War in the North is a game that shows little mechanical ambition and appears happy to bet the quarter-acre on the loyalty of Tolkien’s established fanbase.

F.E.A.R. 3

We first saw F.E.A.R. 3 at E3 last year and had a handful of reservations about the singleplayer game. In spite of involvement by horror luminaries John Carpenter and Steve Niles, F.E.A.R. 3 is, at its core, a cooperative shooter with overtures of survival horror.

Set nine months after the events of the last instalment, players are able to control either Point Man or his brother, the former antagonist, Paxton Fettel. The pair’s mother, Alma, is in labour with a third child and her contractions are releasing wave after wave of paranormal activity.

In cooperative play, Point Man, the super-soldier archetype, and Fettel, his paranormally augmented sibling, must work both with and against one another as they dispatch wave after wave of henchmen through endless corridors and cover-ridden expanses.

The series’ established reputation for clever artificial intelligence appears to be safe hands with developer Day 1 Studios: enemies call out the brothers’ locations to one another and position themselves accordingly.

More promising is the game’s multiplayer component. Eschewing traditional first-person shooter modes such as capture the flag and deathmatch, F.E.A.R. 3 instead offers us “F**king Run” amongst others.

A kind of Horde mode, four players must take the titular cue as a wall of death advances across the map. If any one player is laid low by enemies, he can be revived but if any of the four are caught by the wall, the round is over.

It’s an admirable deviation from the multiplayer gameplay seen most in first-person shooters, and features such as leaderboards should keep dedicated fans plugged in long after the novelty has worn off for those who are merely curious.

F.E.A.R. 3 is not flawed by any means, but our concerns that the series is undergoing something of an identity crisis haven’t been addressed even as the release date looms.

Batman: Arkham City

Without a doubt, the belle (or bat) of the ball was Rocksteady’s sequel to 2009’s superhero blockbuster, the rightly acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum.

In 2011, the Dark Knight takes to the skies of a newly established criminal ghetto called Arkham City, ruled over by arch-nemesis The Joker.

The passage shown to Gameplanet in Sydney was the same we previewed at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year in San Francisco. As we reported then, Arkham City is an extremely promising reimagining of the tenets set down by the original.

Removed from the confines of the Asylum, the caped crusader is free to exact vengeance and distribute justice to the underbelly of Gotham in a rich open world composed of stylised districts that reflect the various personalities of the Bat’s adversaries.

Two-Face, for example, holds forth from a courthouse, half of which is dilapidated, the other kept in pristine condition.

Indeed the game brims with personality. Not one for extensive theatrics or protracted dialogue himself, Batman’s supporting cast is left to deliver the lion’s share of the performance. An encounter with The Joker’s femme fatale deputy, Harley Quinn, oozes character as she dances around Batman and teases a handful of doomed cronies before leaving them to their fate.

Batman: Arkham City appears to be every bit the worthy successor gamers have hoped for.

Roll credits

Arkham Asylum deserved greater mainstream cachet than it received and we have every expectation that the sequel will exceed its forbear’s fortunes.

Following the certain success of Mortal Kombat, and with the likelihood of important announcements coming out of E3 next month, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is by no means in hot water – in spite of the uncertain fates of War in the North and F.E.A.R. 3.

Besides, there’s every possibility that both games will surprise upon launch. The F.E.A.R. series in particular has always been difficult to judge based on gameplay vignettes.

Nonetheless, we’ll follow these titles closely as they seek to prosper in an increasingly unfertile trench between green pastures. In 2011, their performance could well be tied more closely to the publisher’s future business model than ever before.