In a year or so, I'm sure some critics will reappraise Cyberpunk 2077, highlighting its strengths without years of pent-up hype coloring their perspective—it'll get the Mass Effect Andromeda treatment, in other words. But I doubt that Cyberpunk 2077 will ever be looked at as a landmark open world RPG in the way The Witcher 3 is. It's just a decent sci-fi RPG that had a buggy launch.
That's alright—an ambitious open world game didn't need to be a masterpiece to succeed in certain respects—but the muted response is remarkable when compared to the level of excitement that followed Cyberpunk 2077 from announcement to release. Many expected it to be groundbreaking, but just two months later we're more interested in talking about an Early Access Viking survival game.
Meanwhile, one of the games that was supposed to be a huge deal in 2020, Halo Infinite, didn't even make it to release. It was jeered so thoroughly after its big gameplay reveal that it was delayed a year. For contrast, there's recently been some nostalgic conversation about the 2004 reveal of Halo 2, where a simple demonstration of dual wielding elicited "oohs" and whistles from an audience. How times have changed!
Joe Staten showing off duel wielding for the first time at E3 2004. #Halo2 pic.twitter.com/GAgpsbPqCXFebruary 9, 2021
As we look ahead to the other 'big' singleplayer-focused games on the way—that is, games from established studios that fans expect to be transformative—it feels clearer than ever that nothing is a given. Ambition alone gets no applause, and neither does the ability to hold two guns at the same time (although dual wielding is still cool). It feels likelier than ever that a surprise hit such as Disco Elysium, our 2019 Game of the Year, will overshadow any of these big studio productions, at least from a critical perspective.
But let's have a look at some of them, and see what they might have to offer in the years ahead. Excluding Halo Infinite, which I'll leave be for now, here are some of the most anticipated upcoming games, and what they may have to overcome to meet expectations—if it's even possible to do so.
When will it be out? Sometime before The Elder Scrolls 6. Within the next few years, we assume.
What do we know about it? It's a singleplayer sci-fi game that Todd Howard says we'll recognize as a Bethesda game, but that will be different in unknown ways, with "new systems." Regarding the setting, we know that it'll take place far enough in the future that space travel is fairly common, but not so far that it isn't dangerous. Otherwise, it's a mystery.
Why are people excited about it? For two decades, Bethesda Game Studios has stuck to the Elder Scrolls and Fallout, and there's a sense that its venture into the unknown could lead to a surprising, maybe delightful result—like a classical musician trying their hand at playing a modern genre. Otherwise, Bethesda's past reputation for ambition is driving the anticipation. Any attempt to make a vast open world RPG like Skyrim or Fallout 3, if that is what Starfield turns out to be, is interesting, even if it doesn't work. (Maybe especially if it doesn't work!)
What could go wrong? Since we know so little about it, a risk right now is simply that the imaginations of fans will grow bigger than the game, or that little remarks about its ambition will lead to unfulfilled expectations (see: No Man's Sky). Even the hope that Starfield will be a Fallout or Skyrim-like RPG could be dashed if it turns out Bethesda is doing something unexpected—recall how the online nature of Fallout 76 wasn't officially confirmed until the full reveal. (In the case of Starfield, though, Howard has said that it's a singleplayer game.)
In general, it's become clear just how hard it is to capture imaginations with new settings and stories, which is a compliment to the games that have. Obsidian's The Outer Worlds comes to mind as an example of a recent singleplayer RPG that, while not bad, didn't come close to generating the attachment that some of the studio's previous RPGs have, namely Fallout: New Vegas. And while it has its defenders, BioWare's Mass Effect Andromeda didn't have anything like the effect of the original Mass Effect games. When it comes to RPGs, past performance is no guarantee of future results, as the investing aphorism goes.
It may also be the case that Bethesda's reputation for bugginess won't continue to be as endearing as it has been in the past. Ubisoft has released its share of jank, but its recent, more RPG-like Assassin's Creeds, especially Assassin's Creed Valhalla, have set a high bar for open world roleplaying. Howard says that Starfield involves a "major engine rewrite"—we'll just have to wait and see what that means for its technical sturdiness, and on a related note, its moddability, which has been so important to the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series on PC.
When will it be out? Sometime in the 2020s, maybe.
What do we know about it? Nothing so far. It's been nearly eight years since Grand Theft Auto 5 released, but GTA 6 hasn't been announced yet. It's a safe assumption that Rockstar is working on it, though.
Why are people excited about it? Rockstar is known for pushing the boundaries of open world game design and storytelling, and its games are among the most popular ever made, so there are obvious reasons to be excited.
What could go wrong? A lot! There's a tough balancing act here. Fans are expecting the careful attention to craft Rockstar is known for, which might be challenging to keep up if the studio goes all-in on a bigger city and a more complex simulation. And yet, it does feel like the next GTA has to be enormously ambitious. After all this time, just another take on Liberty City won't validate Rockstar's reputation as the open world standard-setter.
How to go about that doesn't feel obvious to me. A higher-fidelity city might be cool, but only under caution that the cartoonishness of GTA's violence feels essential to its working—an ultra-realistic, gritty GTA sounds unenjoyable. It'll also release into a cultural context that has changed a lot since 2013. As we pointed out last year, much of what GTA used to parody has more or less come to pass. An updated sense of humor and worldview feels essential.
Leaving the singleplayer realm, there's also the big question of what Rockstar will do to improve upon or transform GTA Online. The studio has the opportunity to take inspiration from the modders and streamers who've popularized GTA roleplay (which has been a great source of fun for us), building something that adds to the possibilities. At the same time, a reduction in cheaters and griefers feels necessary, but it's unclear how possible it is to do that without shutting out modders, which might be worse. Red Dead Online hasn't seen nearly the same success as GTA Online, and it doesn't feel like a sure thing that Rockstar's next attempt at open world multiplayer will steal the show.
When will it be out? No date has been announced, and it could be quite a while. In 2020, we learned that the game was in pre-production.
What do we know about it? We expect it to be an open world RPG that's something like Dragon Age Inquisition. Otherwise, we just have little story teases.
Why are people excited about it? After BioWare's recent struggles, it's tempting to want the studio to take a back-to-basics approach. That does seem to be its trajectory: It's releasing remasters of the Mass Effect trilogy games, and has the opportunity ahead to release a good old-fashioned fantasy RPG with Dragon Age 4 (or whatever it ends up being called). Series fans are of course excited to spend more time in its world and with returning characters.
What could go wrong? One big question is how much EA's push to make everything a live service game—which didn't exactly result in a win for Anthem—will influence Dragon Age 4. We currently expect there to be some kind of online element to the game, but former BioWare GM Casey Hudson said in 2018 that Dragon Age 4 will be "story and character focused," so we shouldn't worry about it losing its identity as a singleplayer RPG.
Hudson no longer works at BioWare, though: He and Dragon Age executive producer Mark Darrah both left the company at the same time last year. That obviously raises more questions. Reports about the development of Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem haven't been too kind to BioWare management, and it was even claimed that Anthem's turbulent development negatively affected progress on Dragon Age 4 several years ago.
If a back-to-basics approach is the right one (no guarantee there), then I'm mainly concerned with how engrossing Dragon Age 4's characters and their stories are. I'm not looking for a technological marvel, a perception which arguably hurt Cyberpunk 2077. BioWare wins with worlds and stories more than it does fantastic combat design or graphics tech, so it's the art and narrative and acting direction that I'm most tuned into for now.
When will it be out? Unknown. Don't expect it anytime soon.
What do we know about it? Mostly just that it's happening, and that it might tie into the original Mass Effect trilogy more than Andromeda did—Liara is present and accounted for.
Why are people excited about it? Like Dragon Age 4, the prospect of another Mass Effect feels like a chance for fans to rekindle the relationship they had with BioWare games through the 2000s and early 2010s. For some, but not all, that means a different route than Mass Effect Andromeda, though we really don't know what the next Mass Effect will be like.
What could go wrong? Like with Dragon Age 4, I think the characters and the world they live in are key here. Mass Effect games can get away with mildly sloppy or unexciting combat so long as its missions feel important, and that'll only be true if players are invested in the fates of their away teams. BioWare has pointed out that several veterans of the original trilogy, including Mass Effect's original art director, are returning for this game. We'll see if they can make a hit game for the 2020s.
When will it be out? If only we knew, the subreddit could finally rest.
What do we know about it? It's the next game from Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro director Hidetaka Miyazaki, with Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin assisting on the lore. It'll be an open world game, and the 2019 reveal trailer is very cool. That's about it! We know far more about fan-made Elden Ring lore than we do actual Elden Ring lore.
Why are people excited about it? Excitement around the game is based entirely on the names attached to it and the cinematic trailer.
What could go wrong? There's always the chance of a misfire, but if I had to guess which of these games will live up to expectations, this is the one I'd pick. For those whose tastes align with his game design ethos, Miyazaki hasn't missed yet. That said, Elden Ring is said to be the director's most ambitious game yet, and it's uncertain how successfully open world exploration will mesh with Souls-style design ideas. It's also the most fervently anticipated Miyazaki game to date—seriously, they've gone rabid in the subreddit—and that could make the expectations hard to meet.
Ubisoft's Star Wars game
When will it be out? Probably not for a few years. It's in early development.
What do we know about it? It's being made by Massive Entertainment, creator of The Division 2. That led us to speculate that it might be a shared-world online game in the style of The Division 2 and Destiny 2, but we don't know anything for sure right now. It could have a singleplayer focus, too.
Why are people excited about it? EA's had the exclusive Star Wars license for a while now, and while games like Jedi: Fallen Order and Squadrons haven't been bad, they haven't been radical successes, either. They're also compared, perhaps unfairly, to the snippets of information we have about alluring Star Wars games that never came to be. There was Project 1313, a Boba Fett game that was in development by LucasArts until 2013, and then Project Ragtag, an ambitious action game that EA set in motion at Visceral before cancelling it and closing the studio. Hope for a bigger, more elaborate Star Wars game, a story-driven game players can sink into for months or years, remains unfulfilled.
What could go wrong? Anthem makes it clear that Destiny-like games are hard to get right. Massive has some experience and success in that respect, so that's a positive—although we don't actually know whether this Star Wars game will be a shared world of combat missions like those games. That said, if Ubisoft were planning a more Assassin's Creed-like singleplayer treatment, it wouldn't make much sense to give the project to Massive and not one of the studios known for those games, such as Ubisoft Montreal or Ubisoft Québec.
Assuming a Division 2-like setup, there'll be a balance to strike between players who want to be engrossed in a singleplayer story and players who want to team up with others. To me, Star Wars doesn't lend itself to loot hunting, either, but I'm sure it could be twisted into that shape (Tim disagrees, for the record). Whatever form it takes, Marvel's Avengers feels like clear evidence that just having a big license doesn't guarantee a warm reception—as of last November, Square Enix was struggling to make back its investment on that flop.
Other 'next big thing' candidates
New World: It's not a singleplayer game, but Amazon's upcoming MMO will be playable solo, if you want. The prospect of getting in on the early days of a big new MMO is appealing—I just can't bring myself to get interested in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy 14 this late in the game—but Amazon still hasn't proven that it can release much of anything, never mind a complex, shared experience with PvP and PvE wars. It's one to keep an eye on.
Final Fantasy 16: New Final Fantasy games always bring the hope that they'll be the new best Final Fantasy, and excitement for FF16 is helped by the track records of producer Naoki Yoshida and director Hiroshi Takai, who together helped save Final Fantasy 14 with the relaunch that upgraded it from disaster to one of today's top MMOs.
Diablo 4: Blizzard's next click-'em-up is exciting to those of us with fond memories of Diablo and Diablo 2, but we've yet to see anything that clearly elevates it over its competition, which most directly is Path of Exile, but also includes popular looter-shooters. It may just be a nice, demonic action-RPG in a well-tread genre. Then again, Diablo is responsible for inventing big parts of that genre, and Blizzard is often hard to match in execution—it'd be a mistake to count it out too easily.
The Elder Scrolls 6: I didn't include the next Elder Scrolls above only because it seems so far away—Bethesda said that it's focused on releasing Starfield first, so we could be talking about 2025 or 2026 or even later for TES6. Of course, once it starts becoming more real, the hype will reach enormous levels—perhaps with an upper limit set by the reception to Starfield.
Fable: I have very little idea of what to expect from new Fable. It's being made by Playground Games, maker of Forza games, and I'm very curious to see how a racing game studio picks up the RPG baton left behind by Lionhead Studios.
The next Assassin's Creed: I left out games from series with regular enough release schedules that we have a good idea of what to expect already. That said, Valhalla was very good by many accounts (a 92% in our review), and if games like Cyberpunk 2077 can disappoint to some degree, it follows that series like Assassin's Creed can surprise. Maybe there is something transformative ahead for the series?
Hideo Kojima's next game: Before it released, I was very skeptical about Death Stranding and the unshakable faith some have in Kojima, but then it went on to be named our 2020 Game of the Year, a decision we came to while fully aware that it's a console game that released nearly a year late on our platform—that's just how passionate the arguments for it were. We don't know anything about what's next from Kojima Productions, except that the studio is working on something.