2016 is already looking like a great year for gamers, with the return of some truly blockbuster franchises complemented by a variety of smaller, weirder projects that truly showcase the unprecedented diversity of today’s gaming scene.
In the former category, the prospect of Hitman returning to its roots is hugely enticing, as no series has balanced the somewhat bizarre combination of strategic planning and graphic violence as adroitly, creating what is in many ways an ultraviolent puzzle game. Of course, the globetrotting locations and hugely responsive worlds are also key to Hitman’s appeal, both aspects that are being foregrounded in the latest entry in the series.
In a similar vein, the return of galactic space opera Mass Effect is hugely exciting, although this excitement is tempered by a), the fact that I only ever managed to get halfway through the first Mass Effect and b), the simple truth that at this stage, we know almost nothing about Mass Effect: Andromeda beyond the return of the Mako six-wheeled vehicle and the fact that it takes place in the Andromeda galaxy. If Bioware’s track record is anything to go by, this one is sure to be high up GOTY lists this time next year.
2016 also seems to herald something of a vogue for prehistoric settings, with Far Cry Primal taking us back to the Mesolithic era and Horizon Zero Dawn taking us forward to a post-apocalyptic setting that has cave-dwelling humans trying to survive in the midst of huge dinosaur-like robots that now share this newly natural land. Both entries represent studios stepping out of their comfort zones, the Far Cry team swapping machine guns and pistols for bows and arrows and former Killzone devs Guerrilla Games making a much more profound shift from a hemmed in first-person shooter to a third-person open world game that looks to be as much about exploration as combat. Both should be applauded for this willingness to stretch their creative horizons, especially in the age of quarterly conference calls, shareholder accountability and multimillion dollar budgets.
Anyone who fell in love with either the intoxicating vertical playground offered by Mirror’s Edge or its rebel hacker protagonist Faith will be hugely excited by the return of both in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. The sequel promises to transpose the original’s mix of freerunning, combat and storytelling into an open world, a tantalising prospect and one which will be a real challenge for EA Dice, the Swedish studio which has already delivered Star Wars Battlefront and the entire Battlefield series.
In terms of smaller projects, Martin Sahlin won the hearts of many at E3 with his presentation of Unravel, a multifaceted adventure game starring a creature made entirely of yarn and Gone Home is finally coming to PS4 and Xbox One, giving console owners the chance to see just why PC gamers have been raving about The Fullbright Company’s empty room exploration sim for over two years now. The Witness looks fascinating and what’s been shown of Firewatch so far looks hugely promising, the game casting you as a fire lookout in a US National Forest whose only human contact comes from his walkie-talkie and who gradually uncovers mysterious occurrences that suggest he may not be as alone as he thinks he is.
Undoubtedly next year’s most exciting prospect, No Man’s Sky neatly bridges the divide between indie and mainstream, with a Guildford team that grew from four to 13 people using procedural generation to create an entire universe of 18 quintillion planets filled with unpredictable flora and fauna. Promising a seamless mix of galactic exploration (including the ability to name solar systems, planets and alien creatures) and combat, it increasingly seems impossible for No Man’s Sky to live up to the juggernaut of hype it has quickly developed, Sony having signed the game up as a console exclusive and putting its considerable marketing might behind it. If it somehow manages to meet these expectations, it could be a wakeup call for an entire industry and even if it fails, it’s sure to be one of 2016’s most distinctive gaming experiences.
For many though, next year is the year of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, with Naughty Dog promising to bring their epic action movie saga to a close with the introduction of Nathan Drake’s long lost brother Sam, who drags the now retired Nathan into a search for the lost colony of Libertatia and its famed haul of pirate treasure. This union also represents the combination of two of gaming’s most famous voice actors, with Nolan North’s Nathan to be joined by Troy Baker as Sam, a choice sure to assuage fears of Sam being a mere bit part player included only to overcome narrative atrophy. More new blood comes in the form of Laura Bailey as antagonist Nadine Ross, while long-term love interest Elena Fisher is returning, this time as Drake’s wife.
It’s been over four years since Naughty Dog squeezed everything they could out of the PS3 to make Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, a stunning international blockbuster that impresses even now with the quality of its storytelling and masterfully orchestrated setpieces. The prospect of another 30 hours or so in the company of Drake, Sully and co. is alluring enough, but all the signs point to this being a very different Uncharted from its three predecessors with long-term Creative Director Amy Hennig having left Naughty Dog and been replaced by The Last of Us duo Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, both of whom fulfilled key roles on previous entries in the series.
It’s hard to imagine that this won’t result in greater narrative development and emotional complexity being inserted into the traditional Uncharted formula, particularly with Naughty Dog working natively on the PS4 for the first time. Indeed the introduction of Mass Effect-style branching dialogue trees indicates a welcome willingness to experiment with the tried and tested, as does the inclusion of drivable vehicles and a new focus on intelligent AI. Throughout the series so far, Naughty Dog has developed an almost unparalleled reputation for technical and storytelling excellence (something which it looks to be committed to keeping up if the two release date delays already announced are any indication) and the injection of new creative talent looks set to make A Thief’s End a truly fitting finale.