It’s barely October, but 2016 is already looking like a bust for the video game faithful.
Many of the major releases so far – “No Man’s Sky,” “The Division,” “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided” – have been good but not great. Delays have me worried about “Dead Island 2,” “The Last Guardian” and “Final Fantasy XV.” “Mafia III” looks good, but publisher 2K Games has been in complete radio silence about review copies, while also plugging other upcoming games – a very bad sign.
The titles I was most looking forward to in 2016 – “South Park: The Fractured But Whole,” “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and “For Honor” – have all been pushed into 2017. And we still haven’t heard a peep about what is probably my most anticipated game: “Kingdom Hearts III.”
I loved “Overwatch,” but its competitive mode has muddied things up. Last week, I declared “FIFA 17” the game of year. It’s quite fun, but naming a soccer game as the best title of 2016 is more of a condemnation of the year’s releases than an elevation of “FIFA 17.”
A handful of good-to-great games does not make a successful gaming year. Last year, we had “The Witcher III: Wild Hunt” and “Fallout 4” – two titles that may very well be all-time greats. We had “Until Dawn,” my pick for game of the year and a breakthrough in movie-like episodic gaming. “The Order: 1886” was solid. And it isn’t my cup of tea, but everyone else seemed to love “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.”
The game I am most looking forward to in the next three months was actually the best game of 2011. The remaster of “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” is probably the only title worth getting excited about.
So how did we arrive here? Well, we let ourselves get duped.
I wrote a column in June after the Electronic Entertainment Expo about the games I was most looking forward to, mostly “South Park” and “Horizon.” I remember being shocked that both would be ready by year’s end.
The first “South Park” game took years to finish, given creators Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s busy schedules and their commitment to getting it right after being burned by previous games. So I was skeptical when they announced a new game for release later that same year, but I was optimistic. That was a mistake.
I was almost as enamored with “Horizon,” which looks unbelievable and features this intriguing story of Viking-like warrior women struggling against mechanical overlords in some sort of dystopic future. I allowed myself to get my hopes up, and I was again disappointed.
The hype machine is real.
Video game companies spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing – sometimes more than they actually spend developing the game. The buzz about a game is everything. The finished product is often secondary.
I wouldn’t quite lump “No Man’s Sky” into this category, as basically all of its budget went to the game itself, but it is a perfect example of the dark side of the hype machine.
The promises made by creator Hello Games, the extended pre-release footage it kept giving IGN and the tons of delays that built our anticipation even further created unreasonably high expectations. I liked the game, but maybe that’s because I am inside the media machine and can see through a bit of the fluff. Most people seem to have reacted violently against what they believe to be broken promises – some have even called for an official investigation into whether the game was falsely advertised.
After a few years of reviewing games, I have tried (and mostly failed) to keep an even keel when waiting for upcoming titles. Many people think you have to be or should be objective when reviewing something. That’s ridiculous. No critic is objective – not one. And even if one were, that person’s reviews would be incredibly boring.
I was burned this year. We all were. But we shouldn’t wallow in it too much. Remember that 2014 was also a lost year. The new consoles’ release pushed everything back to 2015, and a lot of what we got was clearly incomplete. But 2015 became a golden year, so there’s a lot of hope for 2017.
We shouldn’t ever stop getting excited for games. Yes, we will be let down at times. And you probably shouldn’t let the $50 million in advertising that Activision will dump into its next “Call of Duty” game affect you too much. But the youthful optimism that fills us as we count down the days is important, and we need to keep it alive – even in down years.