This week, we got a surprising reminder that even though the most exciting time for gamers is when a new console debuts, that’s not necessarily the best time. Watch_Dogs, one of the few games for both the Xbox One and PS4 that many people were looking forward to as a launch title, just got pushed back to a spring release next year. The reason? Officially, it’s because Ubisoft felt the game needed more time in order to be as polished as possible for its next-gen debut. There’s probably also a little matter of it being a new IP having to go toe-to-toe with both Call of Duty and its sibling franchise Assassin’s Creed, but that’s another story entirely.
What it does mean, at least for next-gen console owners, is that options suddenly dried up a little. The launch exclusives that both Microsoft and Sony are putting out are not bad, but they’re not shaping up to be as iconic as Mario 64 or Halo. Games like Forza 5 and Killzone: Shadowfall are “safe” games to launch with; they’re from established IPs, and the only real mandate is to make sure the games look “shinier” than their predecessors do. Mario 64, on the other hand, showed how platformers could properly be done in 3D, polygonal environments, abandoning the familiar, 2D “left to right” scrolling mechanics of the past. Halo, of course, proved to everyone that an FPS could be played on a console with a controller, not just on a PC with keyboard and mouse.
The launch of the PS4 and Xbox One are now looking nothing like that. Both companies are trying to play it safe, with familiar franchises that have instant marketing credibility with audiences. There are a few new titles here and there, such as Knack, which is filling the Sonic/Mario/Crash void of a cartoony, platforming mascot, and there’s Ryse, which seems to filling Kratos’ shoes on the Xbox One as a period action game. But even these games are working in established genres, with familiar mechanics.
That’s not to say that these games won’t be good. After all, the reason to get Killer Instinct on the Xbox One is because you know EXACTLY what you’re getting into with the game. But a game like Watch_Dogs truly is a next-gen title because it is offering some surprises to the player. The ability to “hack the city,” and interact with the world on such a massive, unpredictable scale feels more truly next-gen than simply the same old games with a better coat of paint. I’m not saying we should ignore classic genres or mechanics, but part of the fun of the next generation is playing games in new ways. Watch_Dogs was one of the few games slated for November that felt like it was going to do things a little differently. Assassin’s Creed IV doesn’t have the same mystique about it because—as an annual release—there’s little in the way of major surprises. The AC series can’t wildly veer off track at this point because expectations have set in over the years about what makes an AC game an AC game. Even less prolific franchises like Dead Rising 3 and Crimson Dragon still have to follow expectations set by their predecessors in order to appease fans who are buying the game based on familiarity. It’s pretty well documented that when Dead Rising 3 was doing the rounds, showing off more serious gameplay, Capcom Vancouver had to do a little PR correction to assure fans that the comedy element the series is known for was still in there somewhere. Franchise games simply cannot stray too far from their roots.
Now, with the most intriguing title off the table until next year, it’s down to Knack, Ryse and maybe Fighter Within (if you’re into Kinect fighting games) to try and offer gamers a fresh, exciting new slate to start the next generation with. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still looking forward to unboxing my PS4 on launch day (and promptly swapping out the hard drive for something bigger and faster), but it feels like the next generation is going to start the way the last generation did. There will be a big bang of sold out consoles that quickly turns into a whimper as people run out of games to play and start waiting for the anticipated titles to finally drop a few months later.