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The 2007 Preview (part two)

Stevie delivers more on the year's forthcoming titans

In last week's opening segment of play.tm's '2007 Preview' we whipped the covers of expectation from a selection of potential gaming gems inbound over the coming year, with the likes of Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, God of War, and Super Mario Galaxy all thus-far looking every bit like advance candidates for the coveted title of 'Game of the Year'. Yet, the games we've already highlighted are just half the story in terms of mouth-watering potential - there are so many more - so join us as we once again lay to rest a largely disappointing 2006 by turning this year's focus to another gathering of high-profile titles.

Title: Bioshock
Publisher: Take 2 Interactive/Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Irrational Games
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: 23 June 2007

Jump for joy, dear people, because Bioshock is just what the yawning genre doctor ordered: yet another first-person shooter to squeeze in amongst the masses of upper (and lower) tier releases that continue to recycle dull narratives and uninspiring action with a sugared glaze of fresh weaponry. However, every now and then an FPS arrives that promises to break the genre's rules, push its boundaries, and redefine its content, and Irrational Games' Bioshock with its eerie and tragic vision of a failed underwater utopia, may well be in line to join the strictly limited ranks of those first-person shooters that play long in the disc tray and live longer in the memory (read: Half-Life and Halo). The 2007 Preview (part two)

Irrational has built Bioshock on the premise of giving FPS fans a compelling gameplay mixture delivering exactly what they're expecting in the first instance, only to then juxtapose those fundamental aspects with sandbox RPG influences where the power of choice transcends the established FPS blueprint. Sound intriguing? Yes, of course it does, but can Bioshock follow through by converting considerable pre-release intrigue into a tangible genre-busting entrant to gaming's most over-populated arena?

Plot wise, Bioshock opens with the player afloat in the ocean as the sole survivor of a horrendous plane crash, which is a nice way to kick off proceedings. An unfortunately ill-timed watery grave is not the player's destiny, however, and a distant lighthouse (and a quick swim) soon provides invaluable shelter and an entrance to the mysterious submerged city of Rapture.

And here's where Bioshock promptly guides the player along familiar FPS roots before whipping the carpet of expectation out from beneath their feet. Set in the 1940s, Bioshock's Rapture is a gloriously creepy and decrepit utopian haven where the pathetic (and dangerous) remnants of the city's populace wander its many decks in search of Adam, a once easy to obtain (drug) commodity that can now only be harvested from the corpses of the dead that litter the city. More potentially disturbing is that the only inhabitants able to process said Adam are girl-like creatures called Little Sisters. From the player's point of view, the continuous acquisition of Adam is vital to upgrade specific 'Plasmid' abilities (used to aid progress in the quest to uncover Rapture's mysteries) ...and here is where gameplay choice and consequence becomes paramount to expanding the FPS experience.

For example, in any standard FPS, something as integral to progression as Adam wouldn't be difficult to obtain from a moral perspective, with some nefarious beastie willingly accepting death to give up the good stuff. However, Bioshock's Little Sisters are clearly innocent vessels frightened for their lives, and doling out violence to secure Adam suddenly becomes a crux for the player - especially as each Little Sister is accompanied by a Big Daddy, a sizable armoured sentinel that will gladly attempt to decapitate anyone foolish enough to attack their vulnerable charge. This, of course, means that players must decide whether to take on the might of the Big Daddy or exercise their grey matter to have the Little Sisters deliver Adam some other way. The 2007 Preview (part two)

Irrational Games' is pushing Bioshock on its flexibility, its familiarity, and its overt willingness to expand upon preconceived first-person rules. And if those values can be delivered come the day of its release, then Bioshock's stunning next-gen visuals, beautiful styling, and tense atmospherics should see it rise to the surface of the FPS pool of slag and flotsam.

Title: Too Human
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Silicon Knights
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: March 2007

Although the whole 'third-person sci-fi' hype machine may well be centred around BioWare's epic Mass Effect in 2007, Too Human from developer Silicon Knights (Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem) could prove a worthy dark horse alternative for your gaming pennies - well, that is, if interested consumers can look past the familiarities that Too Human bears to Mass Effect.

In Too Human, players assume the role of Baldur, a Cybernetic God, and are subsequently thrown headlong into a hectic war that could see the complete demise of mankind. Moreover, the deadly influence of an ancient machine presence subsequently sees Baldur responsible for the defence of mankind from the merciless attacks of terrifying war machines intent on the absolute destruction of all human life. All in all, a fairly similar premise to that offered by Mass Effect in terms of narrative structure - with the exception of the game's central Cybernetic deity.

Too Human is built on the Unreal 3 engine and Canadian developer Silicon Knights is keen to reinforce that the game's "breathtaking" next-gen visuals offer players the chance to become embroiled in non-stop third-person action that involves white-knuckle ranged and melee combat across "spectacular" battles and environments. The 2007 Preview (part two)

More pointedly, Too Human's specific features include a combined synergy of melee weapons and ranged firearms, and spectacular visual effects to accentuate the force of battles. The game also boasts an "Advanced Cinematic Presentation" which sees on-screen environments and the characters therein envisaged with stunning visual fidelity. Combat is also enhanced by dynamic cinematic presentation, while the player is able to integrate elaborate rapid-fire combo moves, which Silicon Knights describes as "easy to learn and rewarding to master."

Ultimately, Mass Effect's layered narrative, innovative character interaction, and sprawling living universe probably doesn't have anything to worry about concerning the shadowy story familiarity seemingly ingrained through Too Human. While its current trailer clips, screenshots, and related media certainly help showcase the experience as a next-gen sci-fi thrill ride, it remains to be seen if Too Human arrives as anything more substantial than a rather shallow slice of hack-and-slash style action. Still, there's certainly a market for the more undemanding action game, and if Dynasty Warriors, Enchanted Arms, and Phantasy Star Universe can find a place on the Xbox 360, then why can't Too Human?

Title: Halo 3
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Bungie
Platform: Xbox 360
Release: Q4 2007

Amazingly, the gaming world's worst kept secret is also its best, and as the speeding media train of speculation, exaggeration, hype, and hysteria continues to gather breakneck speed alongside Halo 3's steady development, there's still scant little known about Bungie's 'Finish the Fight' conclusion to its hugely successful sci-fi trilogy. The 2007 Preview (part two)

Halo 2's frankly shoehorned and groan-inducing cliff-hanger finale left the plot door well and truly open for Bungie and its iconic Master Chief to realise the grand potential that was promised for Halo 2. Amid all the fevered (and inflated) 10/10 review scores, it seems that over enthusiastic critics and Xbox owners failed to properly process the rather obvious disappointment of a poorly conceived dual character storyline that saw players sporadically leaving the satisfaction provided by Master Chief to assume the unfulfilling role of the disgraced Covenant Arbiter.

Plus - and while I'm fighting the urge to unleash a rant here - the staggering action demo footage of Halo 2 shown at E3 2004 never appeared in the final game, and nothing in the final game looked anywhere near as good as that footage suggested. Hmm, early Xbox 360 code perhaps? Was Halo 2 merely a 'filler,' a segue edition to prolong the series through to Microsoft's next-gen console and thereby boost sales potential to its maximum? Was Bungie told to stretch the series through to the emergence of the 360 while still supplying enough of a first-person roller coaster to appease ravenous Xbox owners? Surely not! Microsoft would never stoop so low.

But, stepping off the personal dissatisfaction soapbox for a moment, let's get back to business. The bare bones narrative that presently exists for Halo 3 portrays a volatile last stand agreement between the remaining forces of mankind and the Covenant hordes as they combine against the relentless Flood. However, the prospect of once again splitting game time between the mighty Master Chief and the unappealing Arbiter hangs perilously like a ruinous guillotine capable of sullying everything Bungie hopes to deliver.

Fractured plotlines, unbalanced characterisation, and confusing Covenant-versus-Covenant gameplay aside, there's only one true outcome on the cards for Halo 3, and quite simply, that's nothing short of absolute unmitigated success. The phrase 'license to print money' doesn't apply to a great many videogame products these days (read: Half-Life, the Nintendo DS, World of WarCraft), but Halo 3 is a cast-iron guarantee for Game of the Year nominations galore, belated 'killer app' status, and for completely rewriting the record books both critically and commercially. Anyone backing against it would either be a fool, or a dedicated PlayStation 3 fanboi. The 2007 Preview (part two)

The Halo series has grown exponentially in the time since the original game first arrived, and it has thus far gathered more than 14.5 million units sales globally, logged in excess of 650 million hours of socially interactive, and largely idiot-infested, session play through Xbox Live (Halo 2 held top spot on the Xbox Live chart ever since its release in November of 2004, until the recent Gears of War finally knocked it off). And it's also spawned action figures, books, graphic novels, clothing, and even a - currently stalled - Hollywood movie adaptation under the watchful gaze of one Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings).

It's a given that Xbox 360 owners and Halo fans are all-but assured Halo 3 will arrive with sumptuous high-definition graphics, improved A.I., real-time lighting effects, sprawling levels, brand new weapons, new vehicles, new this, and new that, etc, etc, etc. And those gamers currently drooling copiously while knowing they still have to wait until the close of 2007 before getting their clammy mittens on Halo 3 can always buy Crackdown instead. And why? Well, because, for a limited time only, Real Time Worlds' third-person sandbox action title comes bundled with an official invitation to Bungie's upcoming (spring 2007) multiplayer public beta. What was that about Microsoft stooping to underhanded marketing and sales tactics to fully squeeze every cent and penny from a product?

Title: Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Kojima Productions
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release: October 2007 The 2007 Preview (part two)

Anything that Halo 3 can do...

Yes, while it's more than likely Halo 3 will indeed hog the gaming limelight and receive the vast majority of the plaudits (through sheer blind hysteria) it's not the only platform-exclusive title on offer in 2007 that can consider itself deserving. Moreover, for every Xbox 360 owner counting the days until the Master Chief makes his reappearance, there's a PlayStation 3 owner marking crosses on their 2007 calendar until the legendary Solid Snake steps from the development shadows in the eagerly awaited Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots.

Published by Konami and developed by long-standing Metal Gear creators Kojima Productions (Hideo Kojima and Shuyo Murata directing), Guns of the Patriots is looking mighty fine based on current trailer and rendered demo footage - all of which is apparently rendered fully with the in-game engine, and promises to deliver the best looking Metal Gear series edition ever. Yet, beyond established series gameplay components such as heaps of prerequisite heart-stopping tension, deadly shadow play, stealthy infiltration, and thrilling set pieces, how exactly will Guns of the Patriots fair in terms of true next-gen qualities?

From a narrative standpoint Guns of the Patriots takes place a number of years after the infamous Manhattan incident, and it's set to deliver a game world where mercenaries engage in international warfare for the highest bidder, prompting the call for private military contracting and automated mechanoid weaponry. It soon becomes clear that the largest contractors are all linked to a single parent company known as Outer Heaven - which is governed by Liquid Ocelot. Series fans may recognise Outer Heaven as the name of Big Boss's mercenary organisation from the very first Metal Gear title. Ultimately, the pivot point for Guns of the Patriots balances on the fact that Outer Heaven has gathered enough military might to challenge the USA and is engineering an all-out attack against the world's leading super power. Only one man can stop the mounting insurrection, etc, etc, etc.

Fans of the series can look forward to the gameplay they know and love returning in spades, but it will also be expanding to the point where predetermined routes and point-A to point-B shadow hugging is abandoned in favour of a more open ended choice-based mechanic that sees variable approaches available. The next-gen power on offer to Guns of the Patriots through Sony's powerhouse PlayStation 3 is also likely to showcase gameplay elements never before seen. Director Hideo Kojima has stated that the game's environments will not exist as merely static representations and pretty window dressing but will react according to game world influences. For example, shockwaves from nearby explosions can affect damaged structures to the point where they might, you know, actually collapse!

Further to that creativity, and Kojima's reliance on instilling the effects of 'emotion' and 'senses' throughout Guns of the Patriots, the enemies that Snake encounters during the game will apparently react to the player's actions towards them. An Edge magazine interview also revealed that players will actually have the opportunity to influence the enemy beyond merely pumping them full of lead. More specifically, Kojima intonated that Snake will be able to build constructive alliances or mount violent acts of aggression, which can swing and alter across the game's battlefields. Interesting stuff from a tactical point of view rather than just exercising the usual two-dimensional 'hide' or 'kill' gameplay options.

What's left to cover? Well, bags of stuff actually, but the short and curlies of the matter decree that Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots will rank as the biggest critical and commercial success attributed to the PlayStation 3 across the coming year. Or at least it might, if this next game doesn't eclipse it...

Title: Grand Theft Auto IV
Publisher: Take 2 Interactive
Developer: Rockstar Games
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Release: 16 October 2007

...and surely there's very little to say regarding the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. Much like Halo 3 and Guns of the Patriots, it'll be huge. No question. Such ridiculously fervent fan support fair demands that GTA IV will be crowned a glowing success before it even hits retail shelves, but would it be unfair to use this preview feature to probe the viability of yet another by-the-numbers dollop of free-roaming Rockstar action? No, of course not, so let's do just that.

There's no denying the pulling power, the historic significance, and the intangible industry influence of the Grand Theft Auto series, but how many times can Rockstar and Take 2 justify recycling the same gameplay experience over and over and over again? Well, at least once more it would seem, which will mark the eleventh (11th) series iteration pumped out to the absolute delight of dedicated fans tirelessly fond of stealing cars, getting into gang-fuelled gunfights, probing and murdering prostitutes, beating up innocent bystanders, and engaging in a spot of harmless vigilante taxi service.

Apparently lovingly crafted by some 150 artists on the new Rage engine, GTA IV will make its simultaneous next-gen debut on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with related episodic content said to be following down the development pipeline for Xbox 360 owners (though why that can't also happen through the PlayStation Network has not yet been detailed). Microsoft's Peter Moore (head of the company's Interactive Entertainment Business division) has outlined that the downloadable extra content will arrive as "epic episode packs" expanding the experience with a much more definite edge designed to provide "hours of entirely new gameplay" rather than merely offering up fluff like new cars, weapons, and characters - which is the usual stock standard download fare.

Of course, no Rockstar and Take 2 videogame release would be complete without a healthy dose of accompanying furore, and it's been reported that a certain Miami-based lawyer and videogames activist is rallying the call directly to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates to prohibit the sale of GTA IV to minors - which, based on the history of the series' content, is perfectly acceptable in the US where age restrictions are but a contentious point of retail fantasy in the face of compromised profits. And said lawyer's pull isn't to be sniffed at either, especially as he claims responsibility for Microsoft's recent abandonment of Rockstar's Bully (a.k.a. Canis Canem Edit) on the Xbox. So what will happen to GTA IV as Gates is hounded about Rockstar once again? Time will tell.

But, regardless of the inherent controversy that follows the GTA series, the expansive episodic content, and the next-gen platform leap, one irksome hurdle remains, and that's the creeping lack of gameplay originality that threatens to make a mockery of a once groundbreaking franchise. There's virtually nothing known about the plot, gameplay features, and game world of Grand Theft Auto IV, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's a significant departure from prior offerings on the cards. It'd be great if it turned out to be true, but a long-running (and hugely profitable) franchise built on foundations deeply rooted in underworld crime, no-good anti-heroes, a sway of Hollywood-voiced reprehensible characters, and wanton acts of despicable violence perhaps dictates that GTA IV will only be different in the aesthetics department. Radical departure or next-gen rehash, Grand Theft Auto IV won't want for success.

So, that's your lot. There are some truly standout releases inbound to a videogames console near you over the coming months; there are some that will rake in masses of cash without truly earning the right; and there are some that will deserve the spotlight and the commercial adoration only to receive neither. The gaming winners and losers - regardless of this writer's personal (and often inflammatory) preferences - will be decided by you, the game-buying public. Should you choose to embrace originality, innovation, and impeccable quality and thus move the videogames industry forward into uncharted territory? Or should you settle for continual series expansion, genre saturation, and the warm and fuzzy feeling of gameplay safety? Or perhaps you'd prefer to publicly embrace the games of tomorrow with one hand, while hiding a copy of your favourite franchise behind your back with the other to avoid being labelled as a stinking hypocrite? Works for me.

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