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!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Site Notice

Just a brief note to say that I am in the process of transferring the domain for my blog to a new registrar, so in the coming days you may see some erroneous 404 or other messages when attempting to visit

It should only take a day or two to straighten out, if any problems happen at all, but you should still be able to reach my blog through the fallback address in the meantime.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Best Games of 2012 (Part 1)

Time for my annual run-down of the best-looking games that are expected to ship in 2012.  As always these are in no particular order, so no emails about "how could you put game X under game Y".

Getting us up and running...

Developer: 38 Studios / Big Huge Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Expected: 7th February 2012 (NA), 10th February 2012 (EU)

The first game from former pro baseball player Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, Reckoning has been getting a lot of good press recently, as well as putting out some action-packed teaser videos on their site.

Described as "a mix-up between God of War and Skyrim", Reckoning has strong graphics, as well as the involvement of two heavy-hitters in the game's development.  Noted fantasy author R.A. Salvatore is helping to craft the world's lore and story, and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane is assisting with the game's visual style and artwork.

Players are free to specialise in whatever skills they choose, and (for a fee) can have their talents reset by certain world NPCs should they wish to try out something new.  On the face of it this seems like the game that Dragon Age II promised but did not deliver, leaving Bethesda free to show BioWare how it was done with the hugely successful Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as the breakout RPG of 2011.

A couple of the best trailers for Reckoning are embedded below, and you can of course find more of them and more information on the official site, linked above.

Known initially as Project Mercury at 38 Studios, it was also announced that an MMO was under development which would be set in the same universe as the single-player game that eventually became Reckoning.  For now, this MMO is still known as Project Copernicus and there is next-to-no information about it publicly available.  If Reckoning is a success then no doubt further details about Copernicus will be forthcoming.

Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 2H 2012

The sequel to 2009's superb Borderlands, Borderlands 2 seeks to amp up the action with four new playable characters (but don't worry if you liked the four from the original game, they will still be appearing in the sequel as NPCs) as well as new locations, better enemy AI and more loot.

So far the two announced playable characters are Salvador "the Gunzerker", a man able to dual-wield any two guns in the game.  Dual rocket launchers?  Dual SMGs?  This is the guy for you.

The second announced character is Maya the Siren.  Her abilities are not yet known, although in the first game Lilith said that she was "one of six" Sirens in the galaxy, and Maya appears to likewise be another of those six.

The final two characters will likely be announced by Gearbox in early 2012, ramping-up to an anticipated release date of mid-to-late 2012.

I was a big fan of the first game and am glad to see Gearbox stepping up and making improvements for the second.  Other details are quite thin on the ground so we'll have to wait until the trade shows start up again in early 2012 for more information, but Borderlands 2 promises to be a game worth watching for in the coming year.

Guild Wars 2

Developer: ArenaNet
Publisher: NCsoft
Expected: "2012"

Promising to be one of, if not the biggest MMORPG launch of 2012, Guild Wars 2 is a sequel to the original Guild Wars released back in 2005.  Whereas the original was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else, in that it had limited appeal but excelled in certain specific areas (namely from a technological standpoint of having only one heavily-instanced server, and no monthly fee), the second game seems to be more traditional MMORPG fare, along with less instancing and still no monthly fee.

Hot off the presses yesterday was the announcement of the eighth and final class, the Mesmer, so hopefully the beta is right around the corner (we may learn more on Wednesday when the Mesmer is "officially" announced).

The fact that Guild Wars 2, like Star Wars: The Old Republic before it, is focusing so much on story, is one of the unique elements to this MMO.  Typically story falls by the wayside when you venture into MMO territory, and you have to go back to single-player games to get storylines of any worth (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Skyrim, Fallout, etc.).  If TOR and then GW2 can turn this around then perhaps an interesting and well-written story can return to the MMO scene once more.

Dota 2

Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Valve Software
Expected: "2012"

Dota 2 is a tricky one.  Technically not a direct sequel to DotA (Defense of the Ancients), since that was a player-made mod for Blizzard's Warcraft III, Valve turned around and hired Icefrog, one of the developers who had been working on DotA with updates and bugfixes, and tasked him to make a spiritual successor to the original mod, this time using Valve's Source engine.

The result seems to be an almost total conversion of the original, with added Valve secret sauce like voice communications and enhanced network support thrown into the mix.  DotA has a very enthusiastic fanbase who seem to mostly be on-board with Valve's plans.  Other games which draw heavily from the original DotA, such as Riot's League of Legends and S2's Heroes of Newerth, have seen critical and commercial success (especially the former, with HoN trailing LoL somewhat), so clearly what has now been termed the MOBA genre (multiplayer online battle arena) has potential for growth.

More interesting is the fact that both LoL and HoN are free to play; LoL by design and HoN as a later conversion.  Valve have said previously that they have a free-to-play game in development, so will that turn out to actually be Dota 2?  If not it seems they will have a tough sell to current HoN and LoL players who are already getting a MOBA game for free, although the Valve brand name carries considerable weight still these days, so perhaps it's something they could pull off.

The beta is currently well underway and Valve will likely announce a release date early in the new year.

Diablo III

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: Q1 2012

Originally planned for 2011's holiday season but pushed back by Blizzard a couple of months ago to early next year, Diablo III has seemingly ascended from being a simple game to an experience.  You either played Diablo and Diablo II / let them rule your life or you didn't, and those were apparently the only two choices.

Freshly revamped for today's top-end graphics cards, Diablo III will be the first game in the series in over ten years (the Diablo II expansion pack Lords of Destruction was released in 2001) and the masses have clearly been waiting with some anticipation, as D3 chatter reaches fever pitch around certain Internet message boards and websites.

Unfortunately, the one thing people recall most often of the original games, alongside their popularity, is the amount of hacks and cheats that were available.  Map hacks, item cloning, duping, as well as a myriad of other exploits, were frequently employed since security in the former games was close to non-existent.  Blizzard's bold yet controversial decision on how to counter that in Diablo III is to require a permanent connection to Blizzard's matchmaking service in the background of the game.  This will allow Blizzard to see exactly what you are doing at all times and where and how you are doing it.  In short, cheating will be virtually eliminated overnight.

The downside of this system is requiring you to be online at all times when you may only be playing a single-player game.  Various DRM systems (such as the one used by Ubisoft in Assassin's Creed 2 that I have previously mentioned) have started to require this, but my anger for it is somewhat abated by the fact that you will, of course, require an Internet connection in order to play the game online in the first place.  In fact, the amount of time you actually play Diablo III by yourself will likely be minimal or non-existent, so for me this is a minor issue.  The only big ding that Blizzard have set themselves up for with Diablo III is the fact that there will be an in-game auction house that you will be able to buy items at with real money.  This goes directly to the heart of the "pay-to-win" issue and is the biggest problem that I and many others have with the game.  Whether it will be enough to stop me buying I'm not sure, but I think it represents the first step down a path that I am not sure will be good for gamers, and certainly not good for games.

Either way, there is no denying that the hype for D3 is off the charts, and the game itself is probably only a couple of months away.

That's all for part one of my roundup; stay tuned in the coming days for part two.

Monday, December 12, 2011

BREAKING: Final Guild Wars 2 Class Announced

ArenaNet and NCsoft eliminated the 1% of doubt today, confirming that the Mesmer would be GW2's final class.

The reveal was originally slated for Wednesday, but was leaked early by Danish site GameReactor.  This led to confirmation by the team on Twitter, with the full announcement still set for Wednesday.

GameReactor also leaked a video detailing some Mesmer skills.  This has been taken down, but thanks the magic of the Internet is back up on Youtube, and embedded below:

I doubt this video will last long before the takedown notices start flying around, so check it out while you can.