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Friday, 20 February 2015

Hello and welcome back to the Hot List. So far we have previewed the essential new music, the essential new television, and the essential new movies in 2014. This week we will turn our attention to videogames, previewing for you our loyal readers the most exciting videogames set for release in 2015.

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2014 was undeniably a weak year for gaming. The major titles were disappointing, most notably Destiny, while the most promising of the new wave of crowdfunded indie developed games ended up slipping past new year. Indeed "early access" is starting to become something of a dirty word in the eyes of many gamers, as indie developers increasingly turn to early access in search of funding, only to become permanently mired in a state of "well let's just add one more feature" without the pressure to ever actually push a full release. There's a real danger here, and evidently something of a learning curve for developers in this new mode of distribution.

Elsewhere 2014 was also the first full year of the new console generation, with the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U all now available for sale in most regions. It is understandable then that these new systems would exhibit some teething problems, and the typical drought of high quality software that accompanies new console launches. Certainly this played a big part of 2014's videogame mediocrity. 2015 Will be a big year then for all the main players to push on and consolidate their market position. The big exception here is Nintendo, who in 2014 had probably the company's strongest year in a long time, with major titles like Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros releasing to critical and commercial success. Again, this is hardly surprising given that the Wii U has been around longer than its competitors.

2015 then has the potential to be very exciting indeed as the new console generation settles down further, and we finally start to enjoy the fruits of the new kickstarter wave of gaming. So behold, the top 15 key videogames to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 15:

15. Doom 4 (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)

doom 4 bethesda xbox ps4 pc macWe start with the news just in this week that Bethesda have announced their first ever press conference at the annual E3 games show in Los Angeles. This means they have something major to reveal.

The most likely subject of this conference is the latest sequel in the venerated Doom series, with Bethesda having bought the ownership of this IP in 2009, and teased at it's existence during last year's show behind closed doors.

Doom is of course one of the most famous videogames series of all time, known as the grandfather of the entire first person shooter genre, and in many ways, 3D perspective gaming as a whole.

Little is known about this game except that it will run on the new idTech6 engine, and feature many of the somewhat old fashioned gameplay features that were characteristic of the original games. This has been in development for quite a while, so if it is revealed at E3 then expect a release sometime towards the end of the year.

Release Date: TBA 2015

14. RollerCoaster Tycoon World (PC)

roller coaster tycoon world 4 pcThe return of another much celebrated franchise. RollerCoaster Tycoon World is the latest entry of one of the biggest cult hit series in the entire industry.

As with the other games in the series, players design and manage a theme park, with the ability to place shops, rides, scenery and most notably design roller coasters down to the very small details. The game will be from a 3D perspective much like RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, as opposed to the 2D isometric view of the first two games, while new features include the ability to ride your rides from a first person perspective.

Atari have somewhat dug a hole for themselves on this one, with the now infamous mobile-only version of the game, titled as RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 being announced before the full PC version. This much maligned turd of a game was rammed full of absurd microtransactions, becoming pretty much a parody of the worst examples of the cliche of manipulative mobile games that are such a blight on the platform. Such was the outcry and critical panning of this title that Atari had to announce the full PC version ahead of schedule and rebrand it as RollerCoaster Tycoon World in order to avoid association with the previous debacle.

The real concern here is that Atari have lost a lot of goodwill by abusing the franchise in this way, and that will put a lot of people off buying this game. It will be interesting to see if they can recover by the time the game launches early this year.

Release Date: Early 2015

13. No Man's Sky (PS4, PC, Mac)

no man's sky 2015 pc ps4 mac gameNo Man's Sky is one of the most astonishingly technically ambitious games ever made. It is a space exploration game which features a procedurally generated universe built around a 64bit number processor. This means 18 quintillion possible planets to explore. Each planet features animal and plant life which is also procedurally generated. Players can seamlessly fly from planet to planet, get out of their ship and walk around.

Beyond that, little is known about the actual purpose or gameplay, and frankly it doesn't matter. This is a game that will offer a fully explorable universe with far more variation than any one person could ever hope to see in their lifetime. But the really astonishing thing is that this is all being programmed by just four people.

How can such a small development team possibly realize such a staggeringly ambitious concept that far bigger and more experienced teams have never been able to achieve before? Well we will soon find out, with the game set for release sometime in 2015. For the time being all we can say is that the game looks great, definitely one to keep an eye on.

Release Date: TBA 2015

12. Cuphead (Xbox One, PC, Mac)

cuphead 2015 indie xbox live pcOne of the most unique indie games to be announced in recent years. Cuphead is an old-school 2D platform game on first glance, but the selling point is it's wonderful art style.

Inspired by early cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the likes of Steamboat Willie and the earliest Walt Disney cartoons, Cuphead stands out immediately when you see it. The game looks and feels just like you're watching something that's been animated and drawn by hand. It's quite stunning to see in motion, using the best in modern graphics techniques to create something that looks authentically retro.

The gameplay itself is just classic run and gun platforming. The question is will it play as good as it looks? We will have to wait and see, but it should be releasing by this summer on digital download platforms.

Release Date: TBA 2015

11. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D (3DS)

zelda majora's mask 3d 3ds nintendo 2015The Ephemeric has a policy, that we just made up, not to put re-releases and ports of old games on this list. However, when that game is one of the greatest of all time, certain exceptions can be made. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D falls into that category.

Originally released in the shadow of its landmark genre-defining cousin Ocarina of Time, many now consider Majora's Mask to be the greater of the two. Majora's Mask realized its game world in a way that few other games ever had by that point, full of living, breathing characters, every single one of whom had a purpose and a place to be depending on the passage of time. Arguably the main quest even takes backseat to the extensive and complex sidequests based around exploring and observing the world itself and its bizarre, mysterious denizens.

Majora's Mask 3D is a faithful remake of the original, with moderately updated graphics and a few gameplay tweaks to streamline some of the rougher design elements of the original. For anyone who never played the original, this presents a good opportunity to give it a go, for longtime fans a nice walk down memory lane.

Release Date: February 14th 2015

10. Hearts of Iron IV (PC, Mac)

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Paradox are on a roll right now. For years they have labored away on their absurdly complex historical strategy games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, and for years they've been largely ignored. With Crusader Kings 2 Paradox finally struck the commercial big time with a golden blend of rewarding depth and accessible gameplay, and Europa Universalis IV followed suit. Their next release aims to conjure up the same magic for another one of their franchises, with Hearts of Iron IV.

For newcomers, Paradox specialise in sandbox style grand strategy games. What makes a Paradox title stand out from say Total War is the dedication to meaningful complexity. These simulations are about more than just armies fighting one another, and fully model diplomacy, personal politics, culture, economy, and countless other variables which ensure that each game world is utterly unique to the player, and completely engrossing, while allowing a staggering array of gameplay options to pursue. The Hearts of Iron series specifically applies this ethos to a 20th Century, World War I and II setting.

If Paradox can make Hearts of Iron as accessible as they have their other series, then this will be another golden strategy title for players to sink their teeth and time into. Release date has not been confirmed but is believed to be late in the second quarter of this year.

Release Date: Summer 2015

9. Cities: Skylines (PC, Mac)

cities skylines paradox sim city 5 2015Another Paradox game, this time the developer has its sights set on the city building genre. Anyone who has ever played such a game before will be familair with Cities: Skylines. Players zone for construction, add utilities and services, set budgets, and if you do your job, the city flourishes.

But there's another aspect that makes this game worth watching. Cities: Skylines appears to be very deliberately positioning itself as the antidote to EA's now infamous Sim City 5 debacle, who's recent watered down iteration of the beloved franchise drew universal scorn and derision.

Paradox have made a point of marketing the different approaches in game design. Vast maps available for city design replace the laughably tiny hamlet-sized plots in Sim City 5, gone are the forced social features, and crucially the game will not require a pointless and frustrating always-online internet connection. In short, whereas Sim City 5 appeared to be a soulless Facebook-style version of the genre, Cities: Skylines is intended to be a serious city simulation game, just like the golden age of Sim City's gone by.

The question remains, is spite for Sim City 5 enough of a reason to buy a game? It might very well be that when all is said and done, 2003's Sim City 4 (from before EA went full moron) is still the best in genre and no upgrade is necessary. We will see in March when the game launches.

Release Date: March 10th 2015

8. Starbound (PC, Mac)

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A remnant from last year's list, Chucklefish Games' hugely ambitious crowdfunded indie title Starbound ultimately never saw release in 2014, but recent updates seem to confirm that a 2015 release is (hopefully) on the cards.

Starbound is essentially a block-building game in the mold of Minecraft or Terraria, featuring a procedurally generated universe with a near infinite number of planets, each of which is the size of Terraria's entire world. Each planet has its own environment and it's own procedurally generated plant and animal life, making each one completely unique. Players explore these planets, mine for materials, and can build whatever they can imagine. Starbound additionally adds a lot of structure and narrative that we typically haven't seen from other games in the genre. There's a quest system, and a fully crafted backstory, and every planet is full of secrets to discover and NPC characters to meet.

The scale of universe that this design creates is unparalleled in gaming, and allows players to play in pretty much any manner they choose. A player can assemble a team (either singleplayer with NPCs or multiplayer) and explore the universe hopping from planet to planet, or build huge houses, military bases, farms, shops, cities, theme parks, anything they can imagine (and the creativity seen in the work the community has produced so far during the alpha testing is remarkable), the possibilities are limited only by the player's imagination. This is something no game has ever fully achieved, and if Starbound manages to pull it of, the result will be something very memorable indeed.

Starbound is available in it's very basic alpha state on PC and Mac, but the full version is expected by the end of this year.

Release Date: TBA 2015

7. Hover: Revolt of Gamers (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, PC, Mac)

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Another crowdfunded title with a story that should be becoming familiar now. Independent developers frustrated by an industry that continually churns out the same old repetitive crap take matters into their own hands to develop something that they actually want to play.

The game in question this time is Hover: Revolt of Gamers, a title which speaks for itself in light of the previous blurb. Hover is best described as a spiritual successor to Jet Set Radio, a game series which was hailed as one of the best of its generation with its unique style and innovative gameplay, but has since been completely forgotten by studios who would rather publish a dozen Call of Duty clones.

Hover takes the eye-popping cell-shaded art style and physics of the series and puts it into a game which sees players free-running through vast futuristic cityscapes as part of an underground resistance completing tasks to help various people out. If that doesn't sound enough like Jet Set Radio already then the cherry on top is the hiring of composer/DJ Hideki Naganuma, who's unforgettable soundtracks were probably the best part of the Jet Set Radio games.

Only a limited amount of gameplay footage has been released on top of a selection of concept art, but development appears to be on track for a release in late 2015. Hover certainly has the look, sound and feel of Jet Set Radio, if it turns out to be even half as good then we're in for a special game.

Release Date: TBA 2015

6. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (Xbox One, PS4, PC, Mac)

kingdom come deliverance kickstarter 2015
One of the more notable Kickstarter success stories. Kingdom Come: Deliverance started with a simple premise. Publishers refuse to release games set in medieval times unless it features magic, dragons and silly things like this, why not make a game in a realistic medieval setting?

That's the idea behind Kingdom Come: Deliverance. A roleplaying game set in 15th Century Bohemia, with period-accurate clothing, technology, culture, and even going so far as to bring in medieval experts and historians to program realistic tactics and fighting styles. But this is not just a period combat simulator, it is a truly sandbox world in which players can pursue their goals as a warrior, a trader, or take a more diplomatic approach.

Depending on how these different gameplay elements come together this could be a very unique experience. There aren't enough games that display an interest in real history and show the kind of attention to truly bring alive such a setting. All the signs so far are that Warhorse Studios are very committed to this vision, and judging by the millions of dollars raised there are a lot of gamers who are too. The title is set for release by this winter.

Release Date: Winter 2015

5. Fire Emblem If (3DS)

fire emblem awakening if nintendo 3ds 2015Amid all the talk of Nintendo consoles and the big money franchises of Mario and Zelda, it may come as a surprise to hear that arguably the greatest game on the Nintendo 3DS system comes from the little known Fire Emblem franchise.

Indeed the franchise, while always moderately successful in Japan, had fared so badly with western audiences that Nintendo were on the verge of telling the development team to give up and put the franchise on the scrap heap. With one chance remaining, Fire Emblem Awakening blew away every expectation that Nintendo had, earning critical and commercial success in every territory, with sales outstripping those of any earlier iteration by many orders of magnitude. Awakening not only saved the franchise, but propelled it to the status of one of Nintendo's biggest properties.

Now comes the difficult follow up, Fire Emblem If. For the first time the series carries a weight of expectation. Was Awakening just lightning in a bottle, or will those new fans stick around? The game is due for release on the 3DS this fall, so we shall soon find out.

Release Date: Fall 2015

4. Star Fox Wii U (Wii U)

star fox wii u 2015 finally lylat wars falco nintendoNow here's a big event in gaming. The highly anticipated and mystifyingly delayed return of the Star Fox franchise. Even though Nintendo consider Star Fox to be one of their most prominent homegrown IPs, it has been bizarrely underutilised. Indeed aside from a few handheld games, there hasn't been a proper Star Fox game since 2005, and even then it wasn't a fully fledged, in-house version. Incredibly, Nintendo themselves haven't made a real flagship Star Fox game since the days of the Nintendo 64.

According to franchise (and indeed most other Nintendo franchise) creator Shigeru Miyamoto, the reason has been difficulty to nail down the best way to take advantage of the unique Wii hardware in the context of a Star Fox game. But now, with the Wii U's unique gamepad, inspiration has finally struck, and a new Star Fox game is on the way sometime this year.

As with the classic entries in the series the game will be focused on aerial combat, using the new gamepad's gyroscopic controls and second-screen functionality to shake up the way players target enemies. Word on the street is the basic structure of the game will be radically different from the archetype, featuring an episodic structure likened to a TV show, and side quests which are in some way linked to as yet mysterious projects known as Project Giant Robot and Project Guard.

It will be interesting to see how this all comes together when the game releases, rumoured to be sometime this fall.

Release Date: Fall 2015

3. The Legend of Zelda Wii U (Wii U)

zelda wii u skyrim nintendo 2015Nintendo are really cleaning up this year, but by far the most hyped of their many mega-franchises has got to be The Legend of Zelda, and a new one, the first original entry to the series on the Wii U, is set for release in 2015.

Little is known about the game so far, except that it will be the first original Zelda to be designed in HD, and that it will take heavy inspiration from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, specifically with regards to adopting a grand, open, freely explorable sandbox overworld.

The new Zelda is being designed with the idea to allow players real freedom in how they explore and complete quests. Just how that translates into the Zelda format is anyone's guess at the moment, but Nintendo's demo footage makes a point of showing us a vast, rolling mountainscape and telling us that any point we can see, we can visit. Zelda is truly one of the grandest of classic games franchises, and if they can combine the magic of older games with the technical marvels of open-world games like Skyrim, then the result could be something special.

No release date set in stone, except that it will be in 2015, and will be after Star Fox, so probably a winter/Xmas release.

Release Date: Winter 2015

2. Kerbal Space Program (PC, Mac)

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Another on the list of recent indie hits from a game that studios wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Kerbal Space Program is not only one of the most unique games in years, but one of the most addictive.

It started out more as a tech demo than an actual game from developers Squad; players design spaceships modeled on quasi-realistic NASA style components, roughly comparable in technology and aesthetic to what we have today, and take them on missions. Layered over this is a remarkably accurate model of interplanetary physics; you won't just point your rocket and fire engines, you have to take into account gravity, orbit, exit and entry, proapsis and apoapsis. The final version adds a full campaign mode, a scientific technology tree, and much more.

For non rocket scientist gamers it may seem a bit daunting at first, but the open-ended, experimental nature of the game, married with the cartoony and lovable artistic style and adventurous sense of scale make for one of the most rewarding experiences in gaming today. You'll marvel and feel a real sense of accomplishment as you achieve stable orbit for the first time, as you complete your first moon landing, and as you experiment with space stations, land rovers and many other possibilities.

That we have sunk so many hours into a game that's not even really a game yet, but rather a giant sandbox illustrates just how remarkable this project is. Currently at version 0.9 of beta, the final game should be ready to play on PC and Mac OS X by Spring 2015.

Release Date: Spring 2015

1. Fallout 4 (Xbox One, PS4, PC)

fallout 4 game of the year 2015 E3 bethesdaWe started with Bethesda, and we're finishing with Bethesda. No one really believes that they would announce their first ever E3 conference just to announce a single game, one that had already been announced and talked about at length previously. No, Bethesda are going to announce something new, something big that will make headlines. With an Elder Scrolls game still fresh in people's memories there's only one big franchise on their roster that's about due for a sequel. Fallout 4.

The Fallout series started life as a top-down RPG in the 90s, a darkly comedic twist on post-war American 1950s pop-culture/propaganda and its optimistic view of the "wonders of the atomic age". Fallout ironically imagines a world where all the atomic powered flying cars, robot butlers, and other promises came true, but so did the less tantalizing aspects of atomic power, nuclear war. The Fallout series invariably then sees players exploring a crumbling nuclear wasteland, full of camp sci-fi/retro aesthetic and dark humour. It makes for one of the most unique and brilliantly fun gameworlds ever designed.

When Bethesda took over they transitioned to a first person RPG in the same style as their Elder Scrolls games, but it has now been a good five years since the most recent entry in the series, Fallout: New Vegas. Something has been cooking all this time. Exactly what that is is a complete guess at this point, although rumours suggest the setting this time to be the Boston/Massachusetts area.

Quite when we'll see Fallout 4, if it's even released in 2015, is a mystery, but following the precedent from previous Bethesda releases, as well as the relatively long incubation period the game as thus far seen, we could be seeing this one in time for Xmas.

Release Date: TBA 2015

So there you have it folks: 2015 in videogames. Tune in next week for the final edition of the 2015 Hot List, covering the essential theatrical productions set for release this year!

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