Game makers (and some players) are still recovering from one of the busiest years the game industry has ever seen, but they won't have much time to rest. A quick glance at a release schedule is all it takes to realize that 2011 is going to be just as crammed full of interactive entertainment as 2010.
Come this time next year, there's a good chance we'll be looking back on 2011 as the year of the role-playing game. EA-owned, Edmonton-based BioWare is set to release three of the year's most anticipated games. Dragon Age 2 (PC, 360, PS3), the second entry in a relatively new but highly acclaimed traditional fantasy franchise, is slated for release this March. Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC), perhaps the most hyped massively multiplayer online role-playing game since World of Warcraft, should follow in the summer, and Mass Effect 3 (PC, 360, PS3), the final instalment in the studio's sublimely satisfying, far-future space opera, will come during the holidays. These games alone will provide hundreds of hours of fun for avid RPG fans.
Of course, BioWare isn't the only studio invested in the RPG genre. Bethesda Softworks has pledged to deliver Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, 360, PS3), the fifth entry in its series of open world classical fantasy games, in November. Meanwhile, Eidos Montreal is hard at work putting the finishing touches on Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, 360, PS3), the next game in the beloved sci-fi action RPG franchise originated by Warren Spector. Plus, Blizzard may finally roll out Diablo 3 (PC), the third entry in what is perhaps the most beloved dungeon crawler franchise of all time, in the year's fourth quarter.
But there's more to gaming in 2011 than just role-playing. Shooter fans also have much to look forward to, beginning with the February release of Bulletstorm (PC, 360, PS3), an over-the-top bang-bang developed by Epic Games that rewards players for imaginative mayhem. Then, in March, expect Crysis 2 (PC, 360, PS3), a near-future sci-fi epic set in New York City and widely predicted to be the most graphically rich shooter ever made.
Moving to the fall, id Software will lead the way with Rage (PC, 360, PS3), a post-apocalyptic sandbox shooter that began receiving hype at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. And, assuming Activision keeps its promise of releasing a new Call of Duty game every fall-and that the legal and staffing issues that afflicted CoD developer Infinity Ward in 2010 haven't gotten in the way of production-we can expect the eighth entry in the world's most popular shooter franchise-purportedly dubbed Modern Warfare 3 (PC, 360, PS3, Wii)-to pop up around November.
Then there are the story-driven adventure games. Like this month's Dead Space 2 (PC, 360, PS3), sequel to 2008's breakout sci-fi horror hit about an engineer beset by physical and psychological terrors. The new game looks to offer great puzzles, strong third-person shooting mechanics, a twisty plot, and robust multiplayer.
Rockstar, master of sandbox sagas, will roll out a pair of story-driven actioners this year as well: the dark and mysterious L.A. Noire (360, PS3) will come this spring, followed in the fall by-what one assumes will be-a more linear story in Max Payne 3 (PC, 360, PS3), the latest chapter in the graphic novel-style cop story begun by Remedy Entertainment and now in the care of Rockstar Vancouver. Also coming this fall is Rocksteady Studio's Batman: Arkham City (PC, 360, PS3), the follow-up to Batman: Arkham Asylum, which many people believe to be the best superhero game ever made.
And in the category of games that are difficult to categorize there are at least two that will stand out in 2011: Portal 2 (PC, 360) and Child of Eden (360, PS3). Due this spring from Valve, Portal 2 is a 3-D puzzler that will once again pit portal-popping players against a nefarious, homicidal, science-loving computer. Child of Eden, meanwhile, is an odd new rhythm game from Q Entertainment (the folks that made cult hit Rez) that has players using their hands to shoot objects that generate musical effects.
Hard to believe, but so far I've only discussed third-party games slated for release on multiple platforms. Some of the biggest games of the year will be restricted to a single system.
Sony currently looks to have the most promising line-up of exclusive wares in 2011, beginning with the next iteration of Media Molecule's build-your-own-game game LittleBigPlanet 2, which is set for release in just a couple of weeks. Guerrilla Games' Killzone 3, a spectacular looking shooter that sees the franchise's heroes trying to escape the Helghast home world, comes next in mid-February. Infamous 2, sequel to 2009's open-world superhero/villain actioner, will likely arrive during the summer, and then the really heavy hitters step up to the plate in the fall: Resistance 3 in September and Uncharted 3 in November. The former is a shooter that will continue the alternate history narrative of a mid-20th century alien invasion while the latter is the follow-up to Among Thieves, the game I and many other critics considered the very best of 2009.
Also of note on Sony's console this year is Journey, a beautiful indie coming to the PlayStation Network that I spent a bit of time with in December, and The Last Guardian, the latest effort from Team Ico, the Japanese studio behind alternative hits Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Not much is known about this one, but it looks just as sombre and poetic as its forerunners.
Microsoft and Nintendo, meanwhile, need to begin making some announcements to pad out their 2011 line-ups of console exclusives, lest Sony leave them behind.
The only two exclusives currently on my radar for Xbox 360 in 2011 are Forza MotorSport 4 and Gears of War 3. There are rumours of other high profile releases-including 2K's reboot of XCOM, which looks to change the classic strategy franchise into a modern shooter-but no confirmations for the 2011 window.
Of course, there's also Kinect. Microsoft's innovative controller-less platform sold well over the holidays, which ought to pique developer interest. Certainly Kinect Star Wars, tentatively slated for release this summer, is capturing the imagination of Lucasfilm fans. Still, I'm currently unaware of any truly tantalizing killer Kinect apps in the pipe.
Nintendo's Wii, too, is playing host to only two exclusive games that I'm really excited about this year: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (I've yet to encounter a game starring the green-clad adventurer that I didn't like) and Mario Sports Mix (the sports-basketball, volleyball, dodgeball, and hockey-don't interest me much, but Nintendo's developers have a way of making their sports games appeal to just about everyone).
A few other Wii-only games show promise, including the inventive platformer/puzzler de Blob 2 from THQ and High Voltage Software's Conduit 2, a sequel to one of the better shooters available for Nintendo's console.
The DS, meanwhile, has a couple of heavyweights, including Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded (coming next week) and Pokemon Black and White versions-both likely to be a hit with kids-which are due out this spring, but unless the next Professor Layton game ends up arriving this summer I don't know if I'll be spending much time on my DS in 2011.
That said, Nintendo has what might turn out to be the biggest gaming story of the year in the form of its new stereoscopic handheld, the 3DS. Set for release in Japan this spring (no release dates yet for the West), users need no special glasses to see depth in images presented on its top screen.
What's more, Nintendo looks to have secured an impressive array of software for its 3-D machine. First-party titles include Kid Icarus: Uprising, Mario Kart 3D, Star Fox 64 3D, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. Meanwhile, third-party developers have committed to releasing everything from Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil to DJ Hero and Madden NFL games in 3-D.
Of course, questions about 3-D gaming persist. Will it truly enhance the gaming experience? Will it lead to eye strain? Perhaps most importantly-especially given Nintendo's recent warning on the subject-will it damage children's vision? Some doctors seem to think it might. Answers will come only with time.
For now, though, it's safe to say 2011 will be a blockbuster year for interactive entertainment.