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Mon, 03 Dec 2007

Games at Christmas

Six of One...

Retailers across Britain have been piling up tinsel, trees and selection boxes in their stores since late September - earlier, I'm told by complaining Scrooges, than any other year before, and certainly early enough that many of us have tried stoically to ignore them for over a month now. However, we've reached the point where even the most festive-averse among us can't deny it. Christmas is, indubitably, coming.

Oxford Street and Regent Street, the prime shopping streets of London and hence of the British Isles, told the tale last weekend. Not yet December, and already the streets were packed like sardines on a Sunday afternoon, as hapless consumers ventured out in the mistaken belief that they'd be early enough to avoid the crowds. Christmas is coming - and while I can only take the word of the old nursery rhyme that the geese are getting fat, the loud ringing of tills up and down the country provides assurance that the pockets of retailers, distributors and publishers alike are certainly piling on the pounds.

In the last half-decade, there has been a welcome rebalancing of the games industry's financial years, which have finally stopped being quite so ludicrously heavily focused on the October to December quarter at the expense of long, barren months around summer time. Despite this, the Christmas season is still a vitally important time. The incredible pace of weekly releases since late September is evidence of this; the long waiting lists for Wii hardware, and dwindling stocks of other consoles such as the PSP, are further proof.

Therefore this is a timely moment to look through the releases of the present quarter and consider just what impact they're going to have on the marketplace - be that on the success of retail sales in the coming weeks, or simply on the bottom lines of their publishers.

As such, has created a shortlist of the most important titles on retail shelves in Britain this holiday season. Over the space of two columns, I'll be talking through a dozen of those titles - starting today with the first six, the more hardcore titles which will be pulling in the key gaming demographic between now and Christmas Eve.

Crossing the Divide

It won't come as a surprise to anyone that this shortlist is dominated by cross-platform titles. While the last generation was a clear victory for Sony's PlayStation 2, the emergence of cross-platform releases as the industry's default was one of the most important trends to come out of that era. It was always certain that this would be the case in the present generation as well; it's only Sony's laggardly movement out of the starting blocks which has slightly delayed the re-establishment of cross-platform releases.

As such, there are only two platform exclusives in the six core audience titles identified for this Christmas. Crysis, of course, is a PC exclusive - and while its high system requirements will certainly damage the overall sales potential of the game, that's not the whole story here. Many PC gamers will see Crysis as a reason to upgrade their hardware, and the amount of revenue it generates for specialist retailers will be enormous as a result - with graphics cards, memory, and even processors and full systems being sold off the back of the title. After Vista's lacklustre showing on the gaming front, this will be a welcome boost for retailers who stock hardware components alongside software.

The other exclusive on the schedule is the Xbox 360 title Mass Effect, which has had a positive critical reception and looks set to be the 360's last huge title of the year. It ends a stunning run of software for Microsoft's machine which has cemented its place as the console of choice for the core gaming audience. Carrying that reputation into a second Christmas will be a major boon for Microsoft, and Mass Effect's sales certainly won't suffer from coming in the wake of huge titles such as Bioshock and Halo 3 which have helped to drive adoption of, and interest in, the 360 platform.

Actually, there is a third exclusive on our list, albeit not one which is exclusive out of choice. Epic's Unreal Tournament 3 will not be launching on the PS3 in Europe this side of Christmas, leaving it to be released only on the PC in that timeframe. Like Crysis, it may well help to drive adoption of PC hardware upgrades; however, it is not as high profile as Crysis in the PC market, not least because it has been so heavily promoted as a PS3 title. Its delay is disappointing; however, its appearance on Sony's console next year will probably be popular with those who have picked up a PS3 over the Christmas season and are keen for new games.

That leaves three huge, third-party, cross-platform titles which will appeal to the core gaming audience - each of which seems set to be a major hit in the extremely tough, but vastly rewarding, pre-Christmas market. Activision's Call of Duty 4 has attracted rave reviews, and is picking up extremely good word of mouth recommendations - the only concern over its performance being the possibility of "first person shooter fatigue" in the market after Bioshock, Halo 3 and Valve's Half Life 2: Orange Box.

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, however, hasn't fared quite so well critically. There have been mixed responses to the game among reviewers - and its major audience, core gamers in their twenties, is the audience arguably most likely to pay attention to specialist press coverage. However, it's tough to see Assassin's Creed suffering terribly from reviewing poorly in the coming weeks - not least because Ubisoft's extremely high profile advertising campaign for the title is certain to drive high sales.

Finally, it's perhaps the dark horse of this list - but Eidos' Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, which arrives this week alongside Mass Effect, could be the other core gamer title that really flies off the shelves in the next four weeks. Developers IO have shown their ability to create enduring franchises in the past, and Kane and Lynch's mature, cinematic style - backed up, undoubtedly, with a strong marketing campaign - could press all the right buttons. It will help, of course, that this Christmas is unexpectedly lacking Grand Theft Auto IV - a title which should have appeared last month, and whose pent-up demand Kane and Lynch is perfectly positioned to tap into.


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