Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Games of 2012 (Part 2)

And we're back with the final five games of my 2012 rundown.

Up first...

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: 2H 2012

The next expansion pack for the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft was revealed at 2011's Blizzcon, and from the details it seems that the game is going to be shaken up considerably, as well as increasing the level cap from its current 85 to 90.

The Pandarens (humanoid pandas) are added as a playable race, as well as the Monk class.  Pandarens do not choose Horde or Alliance, but play the game as neutral to both factions until level 10 where they make a choice about which to join, which is certainly an interesting way to add them into the game.  Additionally, Monks will be able to tank, heal and DPS through their specialisations.

Talents are also being revamped in MoP, with talent trees being removed in favour of a tiered system in which you can select one new ability from a choice of three every 15 levels (so 15, 30, 45, 60, 75 and 90).  These skills will be broadly based on the three talent trees that currently exist for each class, but can be chosen completely independently of each other every time you make a selection.  Blizzard recently stated that they felt the old talent tree system was unfixable, and that a simpler system would be beneficial to players who felt they had to "min / max" all the time in order to be a good player.

The release date isn't exactly set in stone, but summer seems to be the earliest that it is expected to ship, if not later.  Since The Old Republic, The Secret World and (probably) Guild Wars 2 will have been released by then, WoW's dominance is going to challenged by several different players.  We'll see if they can deliver the goods under pressure, or whether their recent loss of subscribers turns into a flood.

Mass Effect 3

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 6th March 2012 (NA), 8th March 2012 (AU), 9th March 2012 (EU)

Slated originally for the holiday season of this year before being delayed to March of next year, Mass Effect 3 will be the final installment of the trilogy started by the original game back in 2007 (on the Xbox 360, 2008 on the PC).  One of my favourite game series ever, I have high hopes for ME3 since ME2 hit almost all of the right buttons in 2009 and was the one of the leading candidates for Game of the Year.

As was the case in ME2, you will be able to import your existing saved game from ME2 into ME3 to continue the story of "your" Shepard.  BioWare have stated that over 1,000 data points are tracked and affected by this process.  Enemy AI is believed to be much improved, and there are said to be many returning characters from the first two games who will make an appearance in the third as it attempt to tie up the storyline of the Reapers.

ME3 will also be the first game in the series to incorporate a multi-player mode to the game.  Known as "Galaxy at War", the multi-player campaign will not see you take control of Shepard as in the single-player, but you will instead create an entirely new character from one of the major races (human, drell, asari, krogran, salarian or turian) and will work towards what has been termed "galactic readiness".  This is completely optional, and you can choose to do as much or as little of it as you wish.  The galactic readiness level can also be fully achieved from the single-player game, so you don't lose anything by not doing it.

Considering how phenomenally successful the Mass Effect series has been I think it's highly unlikely that this will be the final outing for Commander Shepard and his team.  If BioWare listen to the protestations of myself and the Internet at large then Mass Effect Online will be swiftly kicked into development following the release of ME3.  I think the Mass Effect universe is ripe for an MMO-style game, especially since their only competition would be the recently-released Star Wars: The Old Republic (so they'd essentially be competing against themselves).  Barring an MMO, I expect to see other stories set in the ME universe, possibly starring Shepard and other established characters, both in DLC down the line and perhaps a full title in a new storyline (as is the case with the upcoming God of War IV on the PS3).

The Secret World

Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Funcom / Electronic Arts
Expected: April 2012

Funcom's newest MMO looks set to be released in April of next year (although I think it's still possible that date will slip).  Set in the real world, TSW explores what would happen if all of the scary stories, myths and legends that you have ever heard were actually true.  Hollow Earth, werewolves, vampires, global warming, ghosts; all of these things which clearly do not exist are part-and-parcel of TSW's lore.

The three factions of The Secret World are already well-known: the chaos-embracing Dragon, manipulative Illuminati and ancient Templars, and while you will be able to team up with members of other factions for PvE quests and missions, for PvP it is strictly your own faction versus the other two.

TSW has the potential to change the MMO landscape considerably, with its focus on real-life locations and incorporating puzzles and search engine use into quests.  It has some grand ideas, but the variable here is Funcom itself.  Their last title, Age of Conan, received decidedly mixed reviews, and transitioned to a free-to-play model after release.  With no levels or classes, TSW might appeal to MMO purists from games such as Ultima Online which had you select a number of skills from the dozens that were available in order to make a character that was truly yours.  Funcom have stated that there will be hundreds of skills available at release, with the possibility of more being patched in down the line.

I have been following TSW's progress for a few years now, and think it really could be a game-changer.  I'm just not sure Funcom have the chops to put such an ambitious project together and deliver on what has been promised.  The beta is apparently underway and hopefully we'll get further details as the release date approaches.  This one could be Big, but could also be Terrible.  Fingers crossed folks, I think it's going to be a bumpy ride.

PlanetSide 2

Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Expected: "2012"

You knew it would be here somewhere.  The sequel to PlanetSide, the original (and best) MMOFPS that has ever existed, PlanetSide 2 is a "re-imagining" of the original game, with all-new models, physics and gameplay to satiate what has been a vastly under-represented aspect of the MMO genre.

Regular readers will know how likely I am to explode while writing anything about PlanetSide, so I'll try to stick to the facts and avoid the hyperbole.

PlanetSide 2 abandons the classless system of the first game in favour of class-based certification trees that will unlock skills and abilities as you progress further in the tree.  Six classes are known to be available at release, two of which are confirmed to be the Engineer and the Infiltrator.  It's probably not too much of a stretch to think that the Medic will be another of these six, and perhaps MAXs from the first game as well.  You will, however, be able to change classes on the fly whenever you respawn, so you are not locked into any one particular class or playstyle.  This gives some added flexibility, especially to the support classes who enjoy pewpewing it up every once in a while.

Sony have also created an all-new engine to power the game.  Known as ForgeLight, it uses state-of-the-art graphics and employs hardware physics acceleration through Nvidia's Physx to deliver what seems to be a truly next-gen gaming experience.  Some of the screenshots I have seen of PS2 have been breathtaking, since even at its height I doubt anyone ever described the original PlanetSide as "beautiful", unless blocky textures and rock-like grass were your thing, proving that (at the high end at least) gameplay trumps visuals every time.

The three factions from the first game return in the second, namely the Vanu Sovereignty, Terran Republic and New Conglomerate (in order of most to least skillful - hyperbole alert).  Each faction receives two empire-specific vehicles, the Scythe and Magrider for VS, Prowler and Mosquito for TR and the Vanguard and Reaver for the NC.  Vehicles will be sideways customisable (for example you'll be able to make your vehicle have faster acceleration but a lower maximum speed as a tradeoff) as well as aesthetically customisable, and since Sony have already stated that PS2 is going to be free-to-play then you can bet that a lot of these sidegrades will be available for purchase in the in-game shop (but will probably be available through gameplay as well).

I've been waiting for a sequel to PlanetSide for years now, and I can only hope that Sony are going to do it right.  The development team have been actively engaging the community on fansites such as PlanetSide Universe, and I have a measure of confidence that this will actually come out right.  Yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it doesn't look as though we have much longer to wait.  Beta is imminent and my guesstimate at release would be around the summer of 2012.

Still waiting on my beta invite.

BioShock Infinite

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: "2012"

Rounding out my list is perhaps the best-looking single-player shooter I have seen in some time, BioShock Infinite.  From the brain of Ken Levine and Irrational Games, who mainlined the first (and best?) BioShock but had little more than superficial input into BioShock 2, Infinite is not a direct sequel to the other games (it is set in an earlier time period, 1912) but instead shares their themes of open world gameplay and user choice as to how to solve the problems presented.

Infinite is set aboard the sky-city of Columbia, which was created over a decade earlier by the United States government to be a "floating showcase" that would promote America around the globe.  Instead, the occupants quickly grew to infighting, leading to a war between what became the Founders (pro-American and anti-immigrant) and the Vox Populi (freedom for all).  The US government disowned Columbia and it faded from memory, until persons unknown hire the main protagonist of the game, Booker DeWitt (i.e. you) to infiltrate Columbia and rescue a woman named Elizabeth who, according to them, has been held hostage there for more than a decade.

So you're in Columbia, have found Elizabeth, the rest should be easy, right?  Wrong.  Her "jailer", a mechanical construct known as Songbird wants her back, and will tear the city (and you) apart in order to do so.  Elizabeth also manifests the power to rip apart the walls of reality and import "things" from adjacent realities, so you may be in a situation where you are stuck between two large groups of mobs, and Elizabeth will offer you several choices as to what she can "pull in" from other realities.  It may be a choice between a train, a gun and a bomb, and the player has to decide what to have her summon and how to use it.  This gameplay aspect alone has me very interested in this game, because that promises to be a mechanic that will not get old.

You have your standard BioShock tonics and abilities you can find in a bottle (in Infinite they are called vigors) as well as nostrums which are passive effects that can be "slotted in" to your character, making you deal more damage or be able to jump higher, for example.

Along with Mass Effect 3 I think BioShock Infinite is shaping up to be the single-player experience of 2012 (although Irrational won't confirm the lack of any multi-player modes, it seems unlikely at this point and even if featured will probably just be a tacked-on forgettable portion, similar to BioShock 2's).  I have high hopes of this one.

And that's all she wrote, folks.  I hope you've seen details on something you like.  It certainly looks like 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for PC gaming, with several AAA-quality titles due to hit our platform.

Roll on January!

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