Read below for insight and details on eight games that will rock your 360, starting next year...
Gears of War 2
We loved Epic's system seller as much as the next gamer. Probably EVEN MORE. But, come on, after the neverending hype it had... it patently wasn't finished, was it? The whole 'leaping into a jeep and roaring off just as the long-awaited Brumak tottered into view' reeked of a stitch-up, and when it was announced at E3 that PC owners would be getting a shedload of extra content... that was a ripe fart in the face for 360 owners.
Except, if you really believe those naysayers then you're missing the bigger picture. As critically acclaimed as it was, Gears ended up being a sacrificial lamb to some extent. Why? So that the true blockbuster - Gears 2 - a bigger, better, ballsier and markedly more ambitious outing could shine even brighter. Epic are already well into development with their Halo 3 killer; in fact, by the time it's announced to widespread gasps and hollers at the climax of the Microsoft presentation at E3 '08 in the summer, Gears 2 may even be at a stage where it's on course for a 'shock' Christmas 2008 release.
Don't believe it's possible given Epic's tradition of not releasing games until they're done? How about this: the hard work has been done already in Gears 1; the world, the characters, the engine, animations, multiplayer, it's all already in place. Gears 2 is all about refinement and spectacle. Certainly, the additional content in the PC version of Gears 1 is going to be highly symp-tomatic of what we can expect in Gears 2. You can bet too that Epic'll be gauging its critical and commercial reception as a dry run for their sequel.
At this moment, the Unreal Engine 3 is being tweaked so that monstrosities like the Brumak can now be brought to life and battlefields are far more expansive - more bosses, tides of larger enemies and a nippier frame rate.
If Epic are confident enough to give their Unreal editor toolset to Joe Public, just imagine what kind of wonderlands their designers are whipping up. The five fresh chapters exclusive to the PC version, all featuring large-scale out-door 'trench warfare' style mash-ups, are a taste of what we'll be playing in the sequel. Put your mortgage on tidied up vehicle sections (the Krill escape was clever, but fatally flawed), and - whisper it! - taking to the skies for an on-rails airborne encounter as Epic attempt to mix gameplay up a bit.
Interestingly, President of Epic Games Mike Capps mentioned in an interview this month that Gears' super-popular multiplayer mode was almost given the chop because he "thought it wasn't coming together fast enough". Yet now that CoD4 has come along with its near-flawless matchmaking and multilayered levels of customisation, Epic are going have to raise their game to compete.
Again, while the PC version boasts a new multiplayer mode and refined lobby system, the coding team will be looking demonstrate more ingenuity in multiplayer Gears 2. Like, one player becoming a Berserker and chasing down rival humans or Locusts; and a survival face-off to see who can stay alive as wave after wave of Krill bear down on you. Other things on Epic's 'To Do' List: a longer, deeper Campaign; new weapons, including a flamethrower; four player co-op; a class system; new executions; more choice in the branching level design; true destructible cover; enhanced squad AI and - finally! - a half-decent grenade tossing system. Oh, and a story which kicks things on - but also looks back. That means a playable prologue mission detailing exactly what Fenix did to wind up in the slammer. Exciting stuff.
Read more for the full list of games that computerandvideogames.com is claiming to know will hit the shelfs.
Tomb Raider 8
As much as Xbox World dug Legend (especially Lara's new yummy mummy guise), it was always an uncomfortable halfway house between old gen and next gen - both in graphical and gameplay terms. Still, execrable bike riding sections aside, at least new developers Crystal Dynamics managed to thoroughly nail those platforming mechanics which, let's be honest, were slowly driving a stake between Lara's heaving, voluptuous... Well, yes. But what's the next step?
Truthfully, most Raider fans would be chuffed to bits if this eagerly-awaited eighth instalment simply melded the perfectly poised, cerebral genius that comprised Anniversary's level design with - say - the state-of-the-art animation flaunted by Altair in Assassin's Creed. The reality? Legend's idea of a more high octane Lara, who dived with relish into large-scale pitched firefights, bounded around like an adrenaline-junkie during chase sections and went in big-style into the occasional skyscraper-sized boss ruck, will be continued in the next game. But, puzzles will also play a bigger part, in a nod to the classic Lara games of yore.
The first game was slick, but lacked the epic feel of the previous games in the series, so Crystal Dynamics will be looking to God of War and Prince of Persia for inspiration. Rumour is, there may even be some faffing about with gravity when Lara makes her inevitable journey to the dreamy Isle of Avalon in her search for her missing mater. Oh, and proper next gen sweat. Mmm...
Developers IO have only twice strayed from the series that made their name. Once for Xbox squad shooter Freedom Fighters, and now with this month's Kane & Lynch - and both times the reception has been a little... disappointing.
Freedom Fighters scored well, but failed to sell; and Kane & Lynch... well, check out the score on page 67 - and we'll have to see how it sells. Certainly, neither have met, or are likely to meet, with the critical and commercial success of Hitman, a multi-million-shifting franchise that's so big it's even sprouted wings and headed for Hollywood.
It's little wonder, then, that after dishing out a couple of dreary Dead Men, IO are heading back to the security of Codename 47's Silver Ballers for their next party trick. Already in development for a year and a half, Hitman 5 is exciting for two reasons: one, it'll be the first time the squeaky-headed murder-maker has been developed specifically for next gen; and two, the switch of generations marks a real opportunity for IO to advance a blueprint that, while still beautifully structured and remarkably clever, is undeniably starting to show its age.
So: new things. Improved AI is definitely 'on'. There will be a genuine unpredictability to your actions this time around - enemies surprise you, additional problems arise on the back of decisions you make, and when things go all-out shit-shaped, you have to call on improvised methods to get you the hell out. In Blood Money, while the levels' multiple routes were well done, AI reacted to you in pretty much the same way it had done four years earlier in Silent Assassin: they only ever come at you. This time round they'll be far more devious, and with less of a death wish, ducking, hiding and running away for back-up. Hitman 5's watchwords: you'll be up against it, all the time.
Also: you'll be getting a more easily accessible inventory - it would be nice to select weaponry while still moving around the levels, rather than having to enter a pause screen, which disrupts your flow. Oh, and the return of the gun shed from Silent Assassin is a FREAKING MUST. We had a taster of it in Blood Money with 47's cellar - but the original gun shed, set against the idyllic surroundings of a monastery was still the best place for ammo storage.
The Elder Scrolls MMO
After Oblivion dragged RPGs kicking and screaming back from the realm of dark, moist, D&D-obsessed teenage bedrooms and into the gaming mainstream, it was only a matter of time before the 'monthly subscription fee' dollar signs pinged into the eyes of execs at Bethesda. And sure enough, their parent company ploughs a wad of cash into creating ZeniMax Online Studios... and then a website called - wait for it - elderscrollsonline.com pings into life on the web. Coincidence? Not on your dwarf.
So, what can you expect? Well, personally we'd be well chuffed if somebody simply used the existing Oblivion tech and transformed one of the greatest single player experiences ever into a persistent online world - though on the condition that they ironed out a sluggish engine that could hardly support five elves on screen at one time.
What'll really happen though is that Bethesda's core team will crack on with developing classic single-player fare like 2008's eagerly awaited Fallout 3, and cede development of any online titles to a fresh outfit lead by recently-hired MMO legend Matt Firor - who'll probably poach a bunch of his old team who are currently toiling away on beardy nerd fave Dark Age of Camelot. In other words, it'll be Dark Age of Camelot 2 masquerading under the Elder Scrolls moniker - and you read it here first.
Star Wars FPS
Free Radical announced that they were teaming up with LucasArts aaaages ago. What's not quite so well known is that what Free Rad are developing is a first-person shooter. We know this because they told us (er, probably off the record) when we went up to visit them recently to talk about 'Splitters 4.
So, what could it be? Could it be an update of legendary Star Wars FPS, Dark Forces? Could it? Eh? EH? Certainly, while there have been a lot of shat Star Wars games over the years, Dark Forces, and its superior sequel Jedi Knight, were two of the best. Although criticised at the time for lacking any multiplayer options, Dark Forces was lean and efficent, taking the oft-imidated Doom template and introducing innovations - for the time, at least - such as liquid surfaces (ie rivers and lava pits), as well as standout moments set inside Jabba's Palace and onboard the Star Destroyer. Jedi Knight streamlined everything: it had a multiplayer, bigger set pieces, a better story, and - interestingly - was also the first Star Wars game to introduce the concept of Light and Dark Sides, and how your ingame actions dictated which side you ended up on.
After so many mis-steps with dump like Masters of Teras Kasi, Rage of the Wookies and Bounty Hunter, could Free Radical join the likes of Bioware, Obsidian and Travellers Tales in creating an actual Star Wars game that pushes the franchise forward in some way? Expect a Dark Forces-shaped announcement early '08.
Death, destruction and huge guns will NEVER go out of fashion. Dear old Uncle Tom Clancy knows that, and with the Clancy universe of stars-and-stripes gaming proving a licence to print money for Ubisoft, it doesn't take an evil genius-level IQ to predict that GRAW3 was all-but guaranteed the moment '2 shipped. The first few months of next year will mark its unveiling, with January and February traditionally being the time when the French publishing monsters start talking about their year ahead.
So... here's what we're hearing will get addressed. Number one: a whole new engine for both single-player and multiplayer. Hardened GRAW players will know that the biggest problem with the first two games' multiplayer was that it wasn't similar enough to the main Campaign mode; the fact that single-player and multiplayer were developed by two separate teams was glaringly obvious, and many of the things you could do in single-player (locking to cover, for example), you couldn't do in multiplayer. And vice versa: where was the co-op in Campaign? Sheer madness.
Next up: the story. With the end of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 suggesting that Mitchell is alive and well, it's not a surprise to see the most personality-free gaming hero in recent memory back in the saddle for a threequel. Likely to be the last part in the Mexican trilogy, GRAW3 will continue the struggle with the south-of-the-border nutbags. We expect the game to be set in 2014 too.
One interesting rumour we've caught wind of is that the story may possibly link in closer to the over-arching plot of companion piece Tom Clancy's Endwar, especially as the events at the end of GRAW2 prove to be the catalyst for the hopefully pretty explosive beginning of Endwar. Plus, in another neat twist, in Endwar, you can send Ghost Recon units (and, we're telling you now, Splinter Cell units) into battle, which further proves Ubi's desire to link its main franchises together in one Clancy's paycheque-sized monster universe.
It's been twenty five years since the first Alien game. An Atari 2600 shatastrophe, it was less like a terrifying journey through the bowels of the Nostromo, and more like a jaunt through a bunch of discarded Pac-Man levels. Sadly, the intervening period hasn't been kind to one of the greatest licences ever.
But Sega, new owners of the Aliens licence, are determined to change that - and not once, but twice. Briefly, and quietly, unveiling a double-barelled take on the universe late last year, the company confirmed that both Brothers in Arms coders Gearbox and Knights of the Old Republic 2 developers Obsidian were hard at work on different games, one a first-person shooter, the other an RPG. Both would build upon "the distinctive look and feel of the original films", and both are still some way off surfacing yet, with 2009 being pencilled in for release.
With as much as a couple of years still to go, then, details are scarce - but forums created for fans to send in suggestions to the development teams show that there's a real desire for the iconic weaponry and machines from the movies. Sentry guns, exosuit powerloaders, pulse rifles, dropships, APC's, they've all got to be on the list. Many people requested actual characters from the films too, especially Ripley, and Hicks, Bishop, Vasquez and Hudson from Aliens, and although we doubt any of the movie quadrilogy's major players will appear in anything more than cameos, it raises some interesting questions about timelines.
The RPG will span a more ambitious period of time than the FPS, possibly the entirety of the series - about 260-odd years - and the fact that Obsidian refer to the look and feel of the original films means that key forces and allegiances from them will be included or referenced: the crew, or people associated with the crew, of the original's Nostromo; Aliens' marine force and the shady figures behind The Company; Alien 3's prison population; and the Winona Ryder-led band of mercenaries from Resurrection. If you look at the timeline for the film, there's a 200 year gap between Alien 3 and Resurrection; could the game fill that?
Gearbox's FPS will be more tightly focused. Given that it's a shooter, they need look no further than a take on Aliens (perhaps a separate team on a separate mission?), especially as they've got a fantastic squad system to port across from BIA. In fact, this blueprint would be such an easy fit, given both games are about war, we'll punch ourselves SQUARE IN THE FACE if there's not an evolved version of the team dynamics that make Brothers in Arms a cut above the rest.
Two Grade-A developers combined with one of cinema's best beasts, all in next gen spank-o-vision? Just wait.
After tasting glorious success with the original KOTOR, it could be argued that Bioware had dropped the Ewok when they decided to offload development of the sequel to RPG pals Obsidian (Neverwinter Nights 2). Yet while Obsidian cynically decided to reuse, quite literally, half of the locations in the original without even being arsed to change a single texture, they also concocted a humdinger of a plot that truly forged new gaming ground when it came to issues of muddy morality - even if the ending was a convoluted mess. (Interestingly, fans digging into the code have since discovered arguably more satisfying alternative, prolonged endings - presumably left out owing to time constraints...)
But what about KOTOR 3? Well, the excellently-named Feargus Urquhart has confirmed his team at Obsidian certainly want to make it, but much obviously depends upon whether Bioware decide to wrestle back the license or continue to forge ahead with their brand-creating forays such as Mass Effect and Jade Empire. Whichever of the two developers is eventually confirmed as KOTOR3's daddies, what is almost certain is a variation on Effect's innovative GRAW-like combat system rather than the dated D&D d20 rule set combat that seemed archaic even back in the day.
Imagine it: drawing your lightsaber and hacking some limbs off in real time - it'd be like Force Unleashed, but with added tactical acumen... plus it'd all play out on an enhanced version of Mass Effect's Unreal 3-based engine. Expect KOTOR's surprisingly excellent minigames to get a spangly overhaul too, with swoop bike racing, gambling, firing gun turrets, and guiding the Ebon Hawk through an asteroid field.
One thing: regular readers might have noticed that gaming behemoth EA have recently snapped up Bioware, which complicates things in terms of the Star Wars licence, in the UK at least, because all 'Wars games are published by EA rivals Activision. That said, LucasArts say they've struck a deal with Bioware in the last month, for the Canadian outfit to develop something for them, so whether LucasArts publish Bioware's Star Wars game via EA or Activision in the UK, Bioware are definitely doing a Star Wars game... and we reckon that's the long-awaited Star Wars MMO. Which means what for KOTOR 3? Which means it's pencilled in for 2009 and it'll be developed by Obsidian - with Bioware's totally online world rolling out around the same time. Believe it, young Padawan!