It's been a funny old year. Thanks to the worldwide economic slump, things haven't been as predictable as they were in 2008. Developers and publishers alike have cut back on staff and expenditure, and some have even disappeared completely.
We started 2009 on the understanding that the gaming industry was much like the alcohol industry, that is, "recession-proof". As demand for luxuries dropped, it was always assumed that people would still play games to relax, no matter how dire their financial state was. In many ways this was true, gaming sales still grew throughout the year, however the real cost was measured at the coal face. With less money for investment, many release dates were pushed out, and the creation of new intellectual property (with a few notable exceptions) came to a crawl.
2009 really has been the year of the sequels. However now - with the clouds clearing and development confidence starting to grow - what are we likely to see in 2010?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but each title on it will grab gaming headlines within the next twelve months.
#10 Alan Wake
Originally announced back in 2005, Alan Wake is set in the deceptively idyllic town of Bright Falls, Washington. As the protagonist Wake journeys deeper into the mystery of the town, he becomes consumed by darkness, and discovers his only ally in the form of light. Yeah, we don't really get it either.
The announcement of this title sent ripples flowing through the PC community, as impressive screenshots and news of the dark, psychological story surfaced. No wonder we were all so mesmerised - developers Remedy issued reports that Alan Wake would consist of a large, sandbox world and would also take advantage of the (then) new DirectX 10 standard to generate complex lighting and shadow effects.
Unfortunately somewhere along the line, the PC version came unstuck, and at this time Alan Wake is only confirmed for the Xbox 360. The future of the PC version is in the hands of the publisher, and as that publisher is it's-all-about-the-Xbox Microsoft, it's not looking good. In addition, game videos posted from E3 2009 and various other events show a more linear game than was first envisaged, leading to speculation that the title might not be the massive sandbox experience we were lead to believe.
It's all good news for Xbox 360 owners however, as despite the continuous changes, Alan Wake does still look promising. Expect it around autumn. (Official site).
#9 Red Dead Redemption
There are many certainties in life - you will have to pay your taxes. You will be cut off by a BMW driver. One day, all the atoms that make you up will shuffle off and do something else, and Rockstar make incredible games.
We took a look at Redemption back in August, and discovered that the scope of Rockstar's vision is only limited to the number of bytes you can put on a DVD. Redemption tells the story of James Marston, a kind of outlaw with a heart of gold who takes the side of the law, but isn't above breaking it himself. Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV game engine, suitably modified, is brought back for another round, and this time manages to project a stunningly accurate reproduction of the American West at the turn of the 20th century.
We've been promised more of everything with Redemption, and it's tipped to be the largest game world Rockstar have ever created. Not only that, but the depth of detail of every in-game asset is staggering - watching horses walk, trot and gallop shows that Rockstar have once again nailed the animation that they're so well known for. Ultimately though, it doesn't really matter, simply because westerns are cool, and the opportunity to chase down trains, shoot outlaws and curse excessively should never be missed. Redemption will be extremely popular indeed - it launches in April. (Official site).
#8 Mass Effect 2
The original Mass Effect was a groundbreaking game in many respects. Developers BioWare had previously employed judicial use of user-selected dialogue between the players and game characters in the rather excellent Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the experience gained there was put to good use with Mass Effect.
The result was a hugely emotive and technically complicated feedback mechanic that made for extremely addictive gameplay. As Commander Shepard, you actually felt as if the dialogue you chose really did have an effect on the world around you.
The game wasn't without fault however. Most reviewers identified balancing and AI problems, and there was reason to complain about the lack of depth in the planetary missions. We caught up with BioWare's Greg Zeschuk earlier this year, and he's assured us that these issues have been resolved in the sequel, but then he would say that, wouldn't he?
Sequels can be hard work, if for no other reason but the fact that you've lost the ability to impress gamers with a completely new concept. Mass Effect 2 has big boots to fill, and we'll find out late January if it has what it takes to keep fans interested enough to demand a third title. (Official site).
#7 BioShock 2
Speaking of sequels, this one will be interesting. If you've played through the original BioShock you'll probably fall under two categories - those that loved it, and those that hated pretty much everything about it.
The world of Rapture was novel, even if not particularly original, however it was really the story and the effects that elevated it ahead of the other shooters on the market. Developers 2K have an uphill battle here to provide enough new content to keep the game relevant without sacrificing the appeal of the original. With talk of BioShock 3 as well as a BioShock film in the works, there's a huge amount riding on this release.
Another thing to consider is how the addition of the new multiplayer will work. From videos we've seen to date, it does have a certain Quake feel to it, and it's not entirely clear how those plasmids will be balanced in combat when they were designed to deal massive damage to enemies in the single-player campaign. Come to think of it, how will 2K create enough diversity in level design when presumably all the maps will be based in the same derelict underwater city?
2K have shown us what they're capable of with the original, so here's hoping they don't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when this much anticipated sequel arrives in early February. (Official site).
#6 Half-Life 2: Episode Three
There's no need to delve into the history of one of the most successful game franchises ever. Suffice to say, if Episode Three is indeed released in 2010 as logic dictates, it will mark the end of the remarkable Half-life 2 trilogy, and allow Valve time to consider the future of the series. Will the Source engine get an update? Will Gordon Freeman make it to the end alive? Will Valve announce a release date then change it a week out? With any luck, 2010 will reveal all. (Official site).
#5 MAG (Massive Action Game)
It's been a real hoot watching Microsoft and Sony battle it out over the last few years. The mud-slinging, the technobabble, the pages and pages of console fans arguing on the internet about utterly insignificant differences. In terms of technology however, the ongoing war for console dominance hasn't really required extensive improvements to the underlying hardware. Sure, next year we'll see Microsoft's Natal motion-sensing addition, and Sony's flagship PS3 managed to lose a few pounds in time for summer, but this doesn't alter the fact that essentially whatever game you choose to purchase looks and plays pretty much the same on PS3 or Xbox 360.
MAG aims to change that. Boasting support for up to 256 players online, this PlayStation 3 exclusive will fire a salvo over Microsoft's bow when it's released in January to the North American market. MAG calls itself a MMOFPS - Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter - and features extensive rankings and character development. along with squad-based tactical warfare.
The real question is - how will Sony manage to service over two hundred players at the same time? Obviously peer-to-peer matchmaking is out of the question, so there will need to be a pretty impressive dedicated solution if it's to get off the ground. And even on top of this, does the PS3 have the widespread user base locally to fill the ranks, or will we need to join international servers and sacrifice latency for companionship?
Beta testing has been underway for some time now, no doubt Sony want to ensure the technology is up to scratch before unleashing it in February. (Official site).