2013 was a fascinating year in gaming, but in some ways it felt like merely a warm up for 2014. 2013 saw the release of two major new consoles, but no particularly outstanding games for them. Meanwhile, the Kickstarter craze that began in 2012 has been in full swing for the last twelve months, but mostly it was about games being made rather than released. 2013 was about new hardware and new ideas. 2014 is all about games.
Originally we planned to bring you some kind of list of the ten most exciting games of next year. But that was A) severely limiting, and B) extremely boring, so instead we've traced together five major themes that will dominate the next twelve months of gaming, and combined them here for your ocular pleasure.
THE YEAR WE RETURN TO SPACE
If anything is going to mark out 2014 over and above other years in gaming, it's that it sees the return of the space-sim, which has been lost in the inky vastness for over a decade. In that time there has only really been one space game to capture the imaginations of gamers and that is EVE Online. The X Series has proved an occasional distraction, and Albion Prelude is a quality title, but more recently the series has been somewhat soured by the utterly dreadful X-Rebirth.
In 2014 all that will change (well, not X-Rebirth, unless Egosoft rebuild the game from the ground up). To begin with, there are two enormous projects in development courtesy of the biggest names in space-gaming history; Frontier Development's Elite Dangerous, headed by David Braben, and Chris Roberts' .
Watching these projects come together over the last year has been fascinating. Initially it was Star Citizen that grabbed the headlines. Currently it's the most successful crowd-funded game ever, earning over EUR30 million in Kickstarter backing and other investments. Roberts plans for the game to ship with both a Wing Commander esque single-player campaign named Squadron 42, while Star Citizen itself is a persistent online world shared by virtual spacefarers. Elite Dangerous had a rockier start with a Kickstarter that initially appeared to trade on Elite's legacy and little else, but recently Frontier released a space-combat Alpha featuring eight showcase missions of varying difficulty, and by all accounts these are excellent, so it sounds like Dangerous is very much on the right track.
Alongside these two interstellar behemoths are an array of smaller indie projects offering their own twists on space-exploration, trading and combat. There's Starbound, currently available in Early Access beta, a procedural game that involves exploring a colourful 2D universe, colonising planets, and discovering all manner of weird items and wonderful creatures. Alongside that is Josh Parnell's Limit Theory, which plans to procedurally generate everything in its universe, not just planets, asteroids and the like, but NPCs, economies and factions that you can interact with who will live and die, come and go as the Universe evolves around you.
2014 will also see the full release of Kerbal Space Program, Space Engineers, and Starmade, each of which enables you to explore a the great black beyond in its own unique way.
THE YEAR OF THE RPG
One thing 2013 lacked was a big, absorbing RPG to play. This may not have been a bad thing, as it gave many of us the opportunity to finish the massive RPGs from the last couple of years like Skyrim and Mass Effect. But it's about time we had some more dice to roll, choices to make, and levels to up. Luckily 2014's got that well and truly covered.
The Witcher 3
To start with there's the Witcher 3, which promises to take all the world-shaping choices, morally ambiguous characters and politically involved storylines from the first two games and spread them out in a world CD Projekt's claims to be bigger than Skyrim. The Polish developer's plan is to ensure that this world's content is entirely hand crafted, so that there'll be no boring fetch quests repackaged in seventeen different ways. It will also finally let you partake in Geralt's monster hunting profession properly, as you track, fight and slay beasts beyond nature through the game's open wilderness in order to protect its populace (and earn yourself a fat sack of coins in the process).
Also due for release next year is , which has quite a lot to prove after Dragon Age II turned out to be a rushed and repetitive mess. BioWare assure us they've learned from their mistakes, and intend for Inquisition to be a much larger, deeper and more tactical experience entirely devoid of waves of randomly spawning spiders. There's a lot about Inquisition that's still shrouded in mystery, but given the general quality of BioWare's releases, this has got our attention despite the Dragon Age II hiccup.
And if that isn't enough roles for you to play, there's also the sequel to Dark Souls, the fabulous looking Divinity: Original Sin, Brian Mitsoda's Zombie-survival RPG Dead State, Pillars of Eternity, the spiritual successor to the late 90s isometric RPGs Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, and Wasteland 2, the sequel to the 20 year old post-apocalypse RPG, which is currently in Early Access beta and by all accounts is looking very promising indeed.
In short, it's probably a good idea to book the second half of 2014 off.
THE YEAR OF VIRTUAL REALITY
Playing Half Life 2 on the Oculus Rift was our highlight of 2013, but there are a few problems with the virtual reality headset at the moment. Its resolution is currently far too low, there aren't that many games to play it with, and, well, strictly speaking it's not out yet. Thankfully, all of that is set to change next year, with a high-res, commercial version of the Rift scheduled for release in late 2014.
Many upcoming games are ensuring Rift compatibility will be a feature on release. These include several of the titles we've already mentioned. Elite Dangerous already has Rift capabilities built in, while the likes of DayZ Standalone, Everquest Next, The Forest, Titanfall and Star Citizen are also planning to embrace the virtual reality headset in a warm compatibility hug. Other interesting games looking to use the hardware in some fashion are the free-running zombie RPG Dying Light, which sounds like an ideal match for the Rift, and EVE Valkyrie, a space-combat spinoff from CCP and one of the few games currently being developed entirely with the Rift in mind, by using the head-tracking capability to enable players to target enemy ships using their eyes.
For me personally, the changed how I view forever, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it did the same for gaming as whole at some point in the next twelve months.
THE YEAR WE SURVIVE
It says quite a lot about how the games industry is changing that Epic's first game to be released on Unreal Engine 4 is not a realistic-looking-as-possible FPS, which is how almost every major graphics engine ever has chosen to show off its new Screen Space Ambient Occlusion effects or whatever. Rather, it's a Minecraft-esque survival game called Fortnite, where players team up with a bunch of friends to build shelters and explore the world during the day, and fend off waves of cartoony monsters at night.
And it's not the only game of 2014 to put its own spin on the resource-gathering, base-building, and hopefully not-dying formula which has proved itself so popular in the wake of Mojang's indie sensation. 2014 will be the year survival games switch from being an intriguing novelty to becoming a genre in their own right. Joining Fortnite in the Bear Grylls fan club is The Forest, a remarkable looking indie game that casts you as a survivor of a plane crash lost in a beautiful woodland, which unfortunately happens to be populated by an extremely hostile indigenous tribe. In addition to that is the Long Dark, the recently Kickstarted survive-em-up aiming to be the most immersive survival game of them all, with no menus or HUD, and only your body's own physical responses to go on.
There's survival beneath the waves with Under The Ocean, survival with dinosaurs in The Stomping Land, survival against aristocratic tea-drinking robots in Sir, You Are Being Hunted!, and of course the full release of , the most detailed and unforgiving survival game of them all. But perhaps the most interesting new entry for next year is Tom Clancy's , a multiplayer survival game that sees players teaming up in small groups of tactical squads, scouring the ruins of New York for food, weapons and equipment, while battling against other groups of player survivors. The Division's novel take on multiplayer also, handily, brings us onto our next overarching theme of 2014.
THE YEAR MULTIPLAYER EVOLVES
Two genres which have been stagnant for a while now are the multiplayer shooter and the MMORPG. The multiplayer FPS has been based around the Call of Duty/Battlefield template for years, while the MMO has summarily failed to move on from the World of Warcraft model despite a few valiant attempts at change such as Guild Wars 2. But next year will see a slew of games designed to shake up how you play with your friends.
The first is , which has taken a look at the Call of Duty-style multiplayer FPS and gone "You know what would make that better? Giant robots that you can call down from the sky, climb inside and then storm around like a walking apocalypse. Oh, and jetpacks that give you a whole other dimension to play with, hopping onto rooftops and along walls like a giant weaponised flea. And how about a narrative framework that contextualises why you're shooting your best friend in the chops and adds a little bit of Unreal Tournament's Assault mode to the proceedings? I think that covers ev oh no wait, what if every game ended with a frantic extraction period that saw the losing team trying to escape the map in a dropship, and the winning team trying to hunt them down. Yes, that all sounds like fun. Let's do all of those things."
As you can probably tell, we're pretty excited to see if Titanfall can live up to the impressive looking demo we played back in September. But it's not the only multiplayer game landing next year that has got us intrigued. Also looking nifty is Destiny, the "definitely not Halo Online honest" game being created by Bungie. Destiny attempts to meld single-player, multiplayer and a sprinkling of MMO as teams of players join together to compete against other players in a persistent online game with its own factions, races and classes.
While Respawn and Bungie are busy trying to revitalise how we happily shoot at the people we love most dearly in the world, SOE are working on , the MMO that finally looks to bring something genuinely different to MMOs. It comes in two forms, the first of which is Landmark, which is both the tool SOE are using to build Everquest Next, and also a game in its own right, a game about crafting and re-shaping the world with thousands of other players.
As for Everquest Next itself, it combines a hand-crafted Overworld which is a reimagined version of Everquest's fictional continent Norrath, with a procedurally generated underworld which you can break into at any time, and explore dungeons with your party on the fly. What's more, the most interesting player creations of Landmark will be incorporated into Everquest Next. It's a fascinating experiment in MMO design.
Be prepared. It's going to be quite a year.