It’s the end of the year again, and time to gaze back over the past twelve months again. However, rather than a large, longform article trying to find meaning from it all, let’s try something new. A report card, rating the major players in the industry over the past year. This was a somewhat uneventful year. With a console cycle in full swing, the cards are mostly on the table and the major game-shakers (VR, the Nintendo NX) are still some way off prime time. Everyone is settling into a groove, even if it’s not necessarily what they had in mind.
This tranquillity probably won’t last, but enjoy these moments — generation-defining games tend to come from relative stability.
Is it too early to say that Sony has won the console war (assuming that means absolutely anything these days)? At this stage last time round, the Xbox 360 had an apparently unassailable lead over the PS3 but was overhauled in long-term sales, but it’s difficult to see that happening again. The PlayStation 4 has been a rousing success, with canny marketing backed up by a strategy that has more games coming from more avenues than the Xbox One, its only immediate rival. In that sense, the success is well deserved, but complacency has been Sony’s downfall before and care will be needed to prevent a repeat. Notably, the PS4 has remarkably few true exclusives after two full years (though those true exclusives are well pitched) and Sony’s world view is squared solely on beating Microsoft. The immediate threat is neutered, but this is an industry where insular thinking is folly. A-
Objectives for 2016: More of the same. Sony is in an enviable position in the console market and in no immediate danger.
If Microsoft started this generation in damage limitation mode, 2015 marked a return of the confidence that propelled Xbox to the highs of the 360, but is that really a good thing? For all the bluster, there remains a distinct lack of substance to the Xbox One’s library beyond the usual crowd pleasers. From Tomb Raider to the Elite controller, it’s an appeal to an audience of risk-averse wannabe pro gamers without much thought as to whether that market really exists any more. Okay, that’s probably being extremely harsh, and with Windows 10 compatibility, Oculus Rift support and the far-off HoloLens, there’s a breadth to Microsoft’s strategy that should give Xbox a distinct voice in the fullness of time, but whether the departments will talk to each other is another matter entirely. The catastrophically timed exclusive launch of Rise of the Tomb Raider showed that Microsoft aren’t on top of the world any more — will you tell them, or shall I? B-
Objectives for 2016: Xbox needs diversity. The core audience will be happy with what they see, but Microsoft surely have grander visions.
The untimely death of well-liked president Satoru Iwata will have done nothing to help what was always going to be a trying year for Nintendo. With one failed console and another approaching the end of its natural life, this year was always going to be a holding pattern in preparation for bigger things. However, this is no time for Nintendo to be looking back — the Wii U has been a high profile failure at a time failing is not safe, and a repeat will put the entire company strategy in serious jeopardy. The success of the Amiibo figurines has been a welcome success, even if Nintendo still haven’t worked out how to integrate them into their games, though the serious shortages of them are symbolic of a company deeply out of touch with the world. C-
Objectives for 2016: 2016 is a huge year for Nintendo. The NX, in whatever form it takes, need to hit the ground running and establish Nintendo’s place in modern gaming. If they can do that, writing off this year will have been worth the sacrifice, because failure probably won’t be an option.
It could hardly have been much worse than 2014 for Ubisoft, and indeed it hasn’t been. There was a notable absence of Assassin’s Creed: Unity-style horror stories this year, and fewer over-hyped duds (critically, if not commercially) like Watch Dogs, but there relatively fewer positives either. For all the hype, Raibow Six: Siege was a tepid success at best, while Far Cry continued its progress towards money printing cash cow. Even Assassin’s Creed was notably low-key, though the yearly franchise is by now so exhausted that it’s difficult to elicit any strong emotion at all assuming it’s all built properly. C+
Objectives for 2016: Gamers have notoriously short memories, so Far Cry: Primal and The Divison will doubtless be bought en mass at day one. Whether they’ll actually work come then is anyone’s guess.
FIFA, Madden, Battlefield (Star Wars Edition). There’s a tedious repetition in EA’s games again, the three reliable and safe money-makers representing an EA that’s a world away from the purple patch that feels much longer than a few years ago, even if one of the most interesting efforts of that period, Mirror’s Edge, is being revived in the near future. We can only hope for the best, but EA has gone back to its old status as the go-to example of games as a business. Unravel, for all its charm, isn’t fooling anyone. C-
Objectives for 2016: Barring an unprecedented market shift, EA will keep making FIFA and keep making money. If it keeps the shareholders happy…
In publishing Life is Strange, Square-Enix took a gamble that handsomely paid off. Square’s international focus, bought by taking over Eidos a few years ago, has seen them become one of the elite few major publishing houses. It allows them to cover up the lack of activity in their native market — Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III are still some way off — by turning their attention to games like Just Cause 3 and Hitman. On the whole, Square had a good year without making major waves, though the “Mechanical Apartheid” campaign that accompanied the launch of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a naive gaffe to be learned from. B
Objectives for 2016: While Final Fantasy will be the big hitter, more of the same elsewhere will suffice. Square, for their flaws, are one of gaming’s reliables.
Activision was once the pantomime villain of this industry, but if you don’t pay attention to Call of Duty it’s sometimes easy to forget that they still exist. Only an odd Guitar Hero revival (a status check to see if the brand is dormant rather than dead) and an execrable Tony Hawk revival (shoved out the door for profit before the licence expired) bolstered their line up. Their current Games page is just endless grey shapes, some of which are positively ancient. It’s difficult to care any more. D
Outlook for 2016: Let’s face it, there will be another Call of Duty.
(Dis)Honourable mention: Konami
Even an old and famous company like Konami could have exited mainstream game development relatively quietly. Instead, Konami recreated The Towering Inferno, pouring petrol on the bridge and then pissing on the embers. That Hideo Kojima managed to release Metal Gear Solid V at all is nothing short of a miracle in the circumstances, but the company’s treatment of their star player and his team was so shameful on all fronts that it provoked the biggest, fastest, most vicious backlash in recent memory. Now that Kojima has freed himself and gone under Sony’s wing, the whole sorry saga should be over, but the damage was done long ago. If Konami want mobile games and pachinko parlours, they’re welcome to them.
Game of the Year: Life Is Strange (Dotnot Entertainment/Square-Enix, Multi)
With Telltale’s games being met with a relatively muted reception, episodic adventures threatened to fall by the wayside, but Life Is Strange viewed the format through fresh eyes and made something delightfully worthwhile. So the animation was shoddy and the finale was a hot mess, none of it overshadowed the humanity on show, with Max and Chloe grappling with the supernatural in a wonderfully relatable and human way. The best media dominates the mind long after it ends, and Life Is Strange achieved that, and episodic gaming grew up with its mainstream success.
Most Anticipated: Persona 5 (Atlus, PS3/PS4)
Pushed into next year, Persona 5 will always be a niche game from a niche developer. However, talk to anyone who’s played Persona 4, or even 2011 gem Catherine, and you’ll understand why that niche is excited. Atlus know how to write stories about people, real people, with real personality. In that sense, it’s not dissimilar to this year’s standout above, just with an anime-themed bent, but that’s hardly a criticism. In a year where Final Fantasy XV will steal the spotlight, Atlus have all the pedigree necessary to steal the crown.