I thought 2015 was a good year for video games. We played some amazing titles—20 of them made VICE's best-of-the-year chart, with our top three of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Bloodborne, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt all legitimate contenders for lofty positions on any "all-time" list. That whole flare up of summer 2014 pretty much dwindled to a flickering handful of irrationally disgruntled people circle-jerking themselves dizzy. The Last Guardian, Shenmue III, and the Final Fantasy VII remake all got confirmed during a PlayStation E3 conference apparently beamed directly from our wildest dreams. But 2016 is going to be better. Here, let me explain.
Developers are getting to grips with the not-so-new consoles, finally
Remember the earliest days of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4? Knack. LocoCycle. Angry Birds Star Wars. Crimson Dragon. Contrast. Total garbage. And even when the games looked good, they weren't always all that much beneath the hood—both Killzone Shadow Fall and Ryse: Son of Rome impressed visually but fell apart under scrutiny. The same was true a console generation ago—the Xbox 360 launched in the UK with Gun and Kameo, both showing their age by the time of Gears of War, Halo 3, and Grand Theft Auto IV, which felt like truly new productions that could only be achieved on the most modern hardware.
We're seeing the same progression now—from games that straddle generations, like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts, to those that really showcase the power that the Xbox One and PS4 have beneath their black shells. Games like The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne have begun to illustrate just how developers can push these systems, but just as The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V appeared to use every grain of processing grunt the PS3 had to give, 2016 is going to present us with many more of those next-generation experiences every console upgrade promises.
Look at Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. Crackdown 3. Quantum Break. Far Cry Primal. Mass Effect: Andromeda. Horizon Zero Dawn. Mirror's Edge Catalyst. This is triple-A gaming finally catching up with the technology available to it. And indie developers are loving the current-gen consoles, too—Microsoft's ID@Xbox scheme will deliver Below, Cuphead, and Superhot in 2016, all of which are looking essential, and over on the PS4 there's this little adventure called No Man's Sky set for a summer release (he says), as well as many more intriguing console exclusives, like Eitr, The Witness, and Hellblade.
Virtual reality doesn't feel so gimmicky anymore
Rather than simply applying VR technology to existing gameplay models, developers are now actively creating products from the ground up for the platform(s) we're all going to be wearing on our faces—at least, their manufacturers hope the headsets will take off in such a way. I'm still skeptical on VR working in the home, to a widespread degree; but experienced at events, in gaming bars and expos and the like, with friends around you, these trips can be incredibly affecting.
Take Capcom's Kitchen, for example, a terrifying tech demo for Sony's Morpheus that shows off the company's new game engine in gloriously grimy 1080p at a super smooth 120fps, complemented by DTS surround sound. I squirmed through it in 2015, and just about got away without shitting myself. Close call, though. It's not a game as such, more a punishment, but just look at the reactions people have had to it.
London studio ustwo's rather friendlier-on-the-blood-pressure Land's End is the sort of tailor-made VR experience that can have the doubters double-checking their opinions. Effectively the follow-up to the studio's mobile success Monument Valley, it's a puzzle game for the Samsung Gear VR that went through a handful of revisions before it was really making the most of the platform it was destined for.
"We're at a stage now where we can be one of the first to establish a language for this new medium," ustwo's David Fernández Huerta told me in 2015, "but the medium is so immature that we've had to start over a few times, to make the most of the opportunity." Expect to see many more studios reveal their own takes on this new medium's language in 2016.
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There really is a game for everyone, on a platform that fits around you
And I mean that. Back in the summer, we copped so much flack from those aforementioned angry young men of the internet, for daring to suggest that someone who just dabbles in a few mobile games while riding the bus is a "gamer." Chucking semantics to one side, the point of that piece was far simpler that the blinkered minority made it out to be: Access to video games has never been better, and we should all enjoy them.
You don't need a console, an expensive PC or specialized handheld system to enjoy video games—if you're carrying a smartphone around with you every day, you've already got a brilliant way to experience this most fantastic of entertainment mediums. Don't let anyone tell you that the likes of 80 Days, Alto's Adventure, Hitman GO, Super Hexagon, Monument Valley, The Room series, Alphabear, or Year Walk aren't masterpieces on a level with anything "bigger" in scope, available for "proper" gaming platforms. These are all expertly made games designed specifically to get the most out of touch-screen devices. And the Wii Us, Xboxes, and PlayStations of living rooms across the world are attracting competition, with Apple TV, Steam Link, and Nvidia's SHIELD all hoping to grab a slice of television-based gaming in 2016.
Whatever you like, however your life is playing out, there's a game to fit you, that you'll completely fall in love with, I promise. If you've not found it yet, hopefully you can in 2016. We try to only cover the good stuff on VICE Gaming, if that's any help. Oh, and loads of girls play games nowadays. It's really not a guys-only sort of deal. Granted, there's lots to do in the games industry in terms of bringing more women into the picture, and that's true of the entire tech sector for the year to come (and beyond)—but if you've been put off getting yourself that new PS4 because you figured it was more of a dude's plaything, nope. Get involved. I look forward seeing you in a Rocket League arena, soon.
Gaming is growing up, and playing better for it
With the average age of someone who regularly plays video games somewhere around the early 30s, depending on what information you look at, it's clear that this is not a kid's pursuit nowadays. But the medium's early adopters, those who played when they were in their 20s, in the 1970s and 80s, are now nearing retirement age and not giving up their hobby. I'm hoping that this means greater depth and detail in gaming narratives to come, as we're all tired of rescue missions and massacre simulations without any tangible meaning.
You can see that the leading men and women of gaming have grown up, too—where once we had Alex Kidd and Wonder Boy, anthropomorphic mammals and tubby Italian plumbers, our heroes of today are a whole lot more realistic and relatable. Joel in The Last of Us. The rebooted Lara Croft. Hell, it's not too hard to see something of yourself in the monster-slaying Geralt of The Witcher 3.
Sure, Geralt's an awesome swordsman, something of a fantasy-world stud, loved and loathed in equal measure by villagers across the Northern Kingdoms. But he's also a father figure rendered distraught by family ties doing their utmost to come undone, an outsider who's forced to lead a largely isolated existence, someone who most common folk wouldn't piss on if he was set ablaze by a dragon. He's complicated in a way that video game protagonists weren't five years ago—and 2016 is going to show us all-new nuances to familiar faces like Uncharted's Nathan Drake, Deus Ex's Adam Jensen, and, um, Link?
Competitive gaming is going to grow bigger than ever before
Revenues for professional competitive gaming, eSports, shot past $250 million in 2015, and may break $465 million come 2017, which makes 2016 another year of incredible growth for this explosive sector of the wider video game industry.
Streaming numbers on services like Twitch and YouTube continue to rise—Twitch's summer 2015 "By the Numbers" report showed concurrent viewers peaking at 840,000, up from around 400,000 the year before, and you can bet that'll beat a million in 2016. And with (old-term) mainstream media players like the BBC in Britain and Turner Broadcasting in the States turning their attention to eSports in 2015, it's clear that watching people play video games isn't a hobby to take the piss out of. Well, maybe it is, just a bit. But not when the gameplay's as awesome as this.
"People watching other people play video games professionally has no ceiling in sight," is what eSports expert Rod Breslau told me at the end of 2015. "With folks like EA, Microsoft and Activision finally stepping up their worldwide efforts to support competitive gaming, and heavyweights like Riot, Valve, Blizzard, and HiRez continuing to raise their game, things look good for 2016."
Street Fighter V is imminent, too, which is going to give the global fighting game community one hell of a Gohadoken up the ass.
Nintendo is back in the black, and back in the game
After a few years of swimming around the red, 2015 saw Nintendo turn a profit again. Okay, so that result had at least something to do with the Japanese yen depreciating against the US dollar, but still: nice one, Mario and company.
It's easy to point and laugh at the Wii U for being the weakest of the main three consoles available to consumers right now. But while it's fair enough to criticize Nintendo's twin-screen system for its lesser processing power versus the PS4 and Xbox One, and desperate shortage of third-party-developed titles, how's this for a not-quite-hot take on the state of contemporary console libraries: the Wii U has by far the best exclusive games of the three. Super Mario 3D World. Mario Kart 8. Splatoon. Bayonetta 2. The Wonderful 101. Super Mario Maker. Pikmin 3. Super Smash Bros. FAST Racing Neo. I'll count ZombiU as an exclusive, too. I'd take any one of these over 90 percent of the exclusive output on Sony and Microsoft machines.
Now you've picked yourself up from the floor after a bout of guffawing so raw you almost coughed up your Christmas spouts, what's no laughing matter at all is the sales for Nintendo's 3DS. Sony's flatlining PlayStation Vita hasn't simply been beaten by its only real handheld rival, it's been obliterated. Over 53 million 3DS consoles have been sold since early 2011, against something like 13 million Vitas (although it launched several months later). And in new business, Nintendo has now sold over 21 million amiibo figures, showing that they've been able to break into the "toys to life" market once dominated by Skylanders without breaking a sweat.
And next up is the NX, the ninth-generation Nintendo console that may or may not come out in 2016. The company is promising a completely new gaming experience, a machine that operates both as an in-home system and portable device. Recent reports on what could be a leaked patent for the NX suggest the controller will feature both a touch screen and twin analogue sticks, but do away with the familiar foursome of face buttons. "We're not building the next Wii, or Wii U," is what company president Tatsumi Kimishima told Time in early December 2015, and that gets me excited. Nintendo has always led the games industry in terms of innovation, and I can't wait to see where they go next.
One inevitable step, regardless of the NX's arrival, is a price drop for the Wii U. Nudge it down from around £200 in the UK, or $250 in the US, and it immediately becomes everybody's "second system" of choice. Speak to many PC gamers and they'll tell you that it's a perfect complement to their mainline setup, and the same should become the case amongst PlayStation and Xbox aficionados.
The initially Xbox-only 'Rise of the Tomb Raider' goes multi-platform
Seriously, it's great, one of the ten percent, and the sooner that PC and PS4 users get their hands on it, in Q1 and Q4 of 2016 respectively, the better.