By James Hawkins in Lists!
Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 11:00 am
2011 seems to be particularly exciting year for video game development. There are monstrous franchises placing another heavy, venerable foot forward, and smaller original titles pioneering the construction of games and how we play them. And that inspires excitement within us. So we've decided to rank the development teams that we think have the most potential to expand the gaming world, as well as wholesale blow our minds. Not the Microsofts, Nintendos, and Sonys, mind you. We're talking teams who primarily make the games and build them from the ground up. Enjoy.
10. Quantic Dream
Upcoming: Horizon/Fiv5 (tentative)
David Cage and Quantic Dream have wedged "literary video game" straight into the voice-boxes of the gaming world. With the critically lauded mystery drama Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream managed to make everyone stop for a moment and reconsider the narrative structure of video games, as well as the realistic intensity of the characterizations.
Not much is known about the developer's next title, tentatively named Fiv5, but it will most certainly be an emotionally draining, heady venture into the lives of complicated people. Not what the video game world is used to, definitely, but that freshness and fidelity is what keeps the medium as a whole slowly evolving, pushing forward.
9. Ubisoft Montreal
Upcoming: Assassin's Creed 3
Ubisoft Montreal is a monolithic development team, employing nearly 2,000 programmers, engineers, writers, designers, and producers. But being the size of a glacier hasn't made them move like one -- the dev teams are producing high level, impressive video games at a very steady pace. And most recently, their Assassin's Creed series has risen up to the very top.
With franchises like Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, Far Cry, and Assassin's Creed, it seems that Ubisoft Montreal is the hot developer for first-rate, blockbuster action titles. Luckily, those games come along with strong, full content that wins over critics and consumers alike. We always anticipate a new game from Ubisoft Montreal, and conveniently, it seems like there's always one just around the corner.
8. Epic Games
Upcoming: Gears of War 3
To be honest, Epic's Bulletstorm was a bit of an underwhelming experience. But Epic is not riding on that new piece of intellectual property. Oh no. Gears of War is Epic's hottest commodity, and the games that we're all getting tired of waiting for. They make us wait by pushing the release over and over. But that just adds to the excitement, right?
With the way that the Gears of War franchise has grown, it is hard to be apprehensive about the third entry. The second game was far more fluid than the first, with a better story, fuller characters, and some actual heart. If Gears of War 3 can replicate that quality-jump, we can all be assured it was worth the wait. And with Epic experimenting with new franchises and branching out to mobile development, there's clearly more exciting stuff coming after Marcus Fenix's tale is done.
Upcoming: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda is among the best developers around when it comes to RPGs. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series each rest on opposite sides of the historical spectrum -- The Elder Scrolls is period, while Fallout is an alternate future. And that toying with time and circumstance is what makes them great.
Bethesda doesn't always produce the most polished games, but it certainly drops some of the greatest gaming experiences available. Thousands upon thousands of hours can go into each game, with always more to delve into. And few can make that claim. With Skyrim coming later this year, it looks like Bethesda has another massive, ambitious time-sink for gamers.
6. Naughty Dog
Upcoming: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Naughty Dog totally redefined themselves with the Uncharted series -- a franchise patterned on Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. But while the inspirations are obvious, the level of quality and storytelling far exceed any other franchise we've ever seen that is motivated by treasure-spelunking. Which is considerable, since that is actually a pretty compelling vehicle for telling a story.
Helmed by the brilliance of Amy Hennig and her deft writing hand, Uncharted has become a landmark adventure series, blending beautiful characters, lush landscapes, with thrills and cutting edge gameplay. This series has reinvigorated the sense of adventure in video games, and we eagerly await the next in line.
5. Team Ico
Upcoming: The Last Guardian
Despite having only two titles to their name, Team Ico has become synonymous with powerhouse artistic expression. Ico and Shadows of the Colossus are two peerless video games -- examples of superb direction and execution -- that have given the gaming world a high level of faith in all Team Ico's endeavors.
Which is why the long-awaited The Last Guardian has fans ready. Ready to experience the beauty of the mystical world on their PlayStation 3s. Ready to labor on escort missions, met by sweet and horrible things, while waiting to see their own morality unveiled. Ready to reach that bright sublimity that can only be achieved when experiencing Team Ico's patented formula.
Upcoming: Mass Effect 3
BioWare does epic RPGs better than anyone else in the game, and with games like Baldur's Gate, Jade Empire, and NeverWinter Nights. Their Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are among the heartiest and most accoladed games in the business, with their Star Wars takes being probably the most loved of them all. We're talking about the serious manufacturing of incredible story, versatility, and customization.
With each successive title, BioWare manages to up the ante by furthering a grander narrative in a way that really doesn't have a peer in the gaming community. Mass Effect, in particular, has become a spectacle of narrative development, and "choose your own destiny" plotting. With that, each game spills into the next, making our excitement peak just before we have to wait another few years for some resolution.
Upcoming: Portal 2
Valve is the rare development team that puts out only high-profile titles to extreme critical success. They've got the Left 4 Dead series, which has pioneered cooperative play, as well as pushed the function of downloadable content to a whole new level. They've got Portal (soon to be the Portal series), which has got to be the most intriguing and robust puzzle-based sci-fi adventure games of all time. And they've got Half-Life -- which seems all but fucking dead.
Except that there's really no worry in the gaming community that Valve has forgotten about Half-Life 2: Episode 3 and beyond. The team owe their rise through the echelons to their Half-Life franchise. And the plot has too much in need of resolving -- it is too perfectly set up for a sequel that will undoubtedly be the biggest Valve title to date. It is that waiting, though, that makes these story engineers and game designers so damn exciting.
2. Irrational Games
Upcoming: BioShock Infinite
Ken Levine's crew doesn't have a giant roster of games on their collective resume, but there are two in particular that exceed nearly every other game out there, in terms of production, vision, and narration: System Shock 2 and BioShock. Irrational Games pioneered the "Shock" series, and they're going to be expanding that with a new iteration: BioShock Infinite -- a title that's announcement alone set the entertainment world ablaze.
There's no guarantee that any unreleased game will be good, but based on Irrational's track record, we anticipate playing another high style, high content, high impact title that will contend for best game of, not only the year, but likely of the entire generation. And really no other developers can quite inspire that kind of anticipation, or that level of confidence.
1. Rockstar North
Upcoming: Grand Theft Auto 5
Rockstar North has its fingers in all the great pies of Rockstar publishing. They have built the Grand Theft Auto franchise to what it is today -- one of the very most lauded and most commercially successful franchises of all time. And they helped out with Red Dead Redemption, a title that may have outdone even Grand Theft Auto 4. When it comes to open-world crime stories, Rockstar North is like early Coppola.
We know that we're going to get arguably the best bang for our buck title imaginable when we pick up a game by these folks. But we don't always know what is next. Grand Theft Auto 5 has been intensely hinted at, but with no absolute confirmation. That doesn't matter, though. It will come soon enough, and when it does, we expect the video game world to tremble months after its release.
Honorable Mentions: Rockstar San Diego, Ignition Studios, Respawn, Harmonix, Number None, Ninja Theory