I love a good trailer. There's nothing quite like that initial thrill when you see an intriguing new IP or the return of an old favourite series, revealed with a magician's sense of flair. We all know, of course, that the cinematic trailer is not representative of the final game, but it should invoke the spirit of the thing and give us a pretty good picture of what we can expect.
Still, there were a few moments in this year’s E3 when I watched a trailer and my inner sceptic, rumbling ever louder these days, told me to step away from the pre-order button. It appears that part of me has been burned one too many times by games that fell short of their awesome trailers.
The following list isn’t a list of bad games. Each has fans (including me), and many were competent, fun experiences. But in the context of their brilliant trailers and the hype avalanche that inevitably followed, some of these games were doomed to disappoint those looking forward to them the most. They stick in a little niche in my memory for their brilliance in isolation, as well as being a little warning bell for the future. Caution: minor spoilers ahead!
Honorable MentionsFable III
The Fable series holds a lot of charm and yet, for many, lacks a certain something in the execution. Fable III appeared with all of the usual charming fantasy Britishness through the lens of Albion's own industrial revolution. It certainly sounded like a fresh take on the series and seemed full of fast-paced, exciting battles. I was looking forward to seeing how the ‘Road to Rule’ would work in practice.
The final product wasn't so much a fresh take as it was two-thirds Fable-lite, and one-third... I don't even know what. The series' already extremely diluted RPG elements were watered down still further, and the revolution is a matter of running around doing favours. Wandering around in the desert mid-game was weird and not very welcome, and the ‘Road to Rule’, which I thought from the trailer would be a series of exciting battles, was literally just a road with level gates and unlockable chests on it. The revolution grinds to a close out of nowhere at the end of the second act. For the last part of the game you’re making binary decisions about nothing of much consequence, while a doomsday clock drags you unwillingly to a tepid final battle with a derivative fantasy enemy. There’s many individual moments of charm in Fable III, but the itch created by the marketing was never truly scratched.
Dragon Age II
Dragon Age: Origins was a cracking game that I really wasn't expecting to love, so I watched the trailer for the sequel with all sorts of hopeful bias in tow. Don't get me wrong, no one was expecting the game to look or even feel anything like this trailer, but it certainly hinted at an exciting continuation of the series. The narrator is the voice of Flemeth, a mercurial secondary antagonist from the first game, and she teases that the hero's actions will "change the world forever".
I ended up loving Dragon Age II... eventually. It was difficult in an initial play-through to concentrate on the game's positives because a lot of us were searching every nook and cranny of Kirkwall for this "world" we were supposed to be changing. Almost all the characters from the first game were absent or, in the case of Flemeth, appeared very little. We were stuck in a single city and a few screens' worth of exteriors that seemed to be made up of recycled assets, and the only real world-changing decision is taken by another party member in a cut-scene. It doesn't help that the trailer is pretty much a spoiler for the end of the second act, so I wasn't remotely intrigued by the political tensions of the first two thirds of the game. You can really only appreciate the subtle brilliance hidden here at some distance from initial expectations. If you abandoned it, go back and revisit it now that time has healed some wounds.
Top Five5. Assassin's Creed: Revelations
Remember when news that we were getting another Assassin's Creed game within a year was more surprising than news that we weren't? Brotherhood was a surprisingly solid addition to the series despite the quick turnaround. When Revelations was announced soon after, I was initially suspicious. The cinematic trailer quelled a lot of my fears. Here was a markedly different story – almost a ghost story, of an old man searching desperately for truth in a world that offered nothing but another senseless encounter with an eternal enemy. It promised a bitter, haunting finale on the steps of Masyaf itself. It's got a great song attached to it as well.
The disappointment started when the trailer turned out to be an introductory FMV rather than a cinematic depiction of the final fight. The dramatic hanging was resolved with no player input, the evil antagonist of the trailer little more than another lackey quickly dispatched within the first hour. The underwhelming first sequence was in keeping with the rest of the game. While some sequences delivered on the promise of a strong emotional story for old Ezio, the gameplay was more creaky than the Assassin himself, while the Altaïr sequences felt like little more than deleted scenes from the first game.
4. Assassin's Creed Unity
Alright, I should have known better by this point. In my defence: it was a new console generation, coupled with a return to the much missed urban verticality of the Ezio trilogy. The increasingly stale competitive multiplayer seemed to be evolving into a four-player co-op campaign. With proper indoor environments for fluid free-running and massive crowds to disappear into, as well as an interesting historical backdrop, the trailer for Unity very nearly compelled me to buy the Xbox One bundle for its release. My inner sceptic, grumbling ever louder as the series progressed, stayed my hand.
Putting aside the horrendous day one bugs which I luckily missed out on (except the choppy framerate around those crowds, something I still experience today), underneath all the controversy is an average, by-the-numbers experience at best, and noticeably at odds with the marketing. As we pointed out in our site review, the fluid, immersive co-op teased in the trailer is reduced to an easily-ignored handful of side missions with no integration or context. Indoor-outdoor traversal was sticky, the story was tepid, and the historical story playing out in the background felt under-utilised in favour of more nonsensical Assassin-Templar squabbling. While not the worst game in the world, Unity failed to deliver the revolution implied by the marketing campaign and only solidified my mounting concern about the series' monotonous release calendar. I hope the year's break will give the publisher time to review their marketing strategy as well as the series itself.
Watch_Dogs took me by surprise at E3 2012 with a sinister, paranoia-baiting teaser, and then returned with a full trailer in 2013 to wow me even more. Tapping into surveillance culture fears and showcasing seamless hacking opportunities in an open-world city, it looked a little GTA, a little Assassin's Creed... but mainly it looked new. I was excited.
I genuinely enjoyed Watch_Dogs, despite the horrendous drinking game achievement. However, I was initially disappointed by the final product and I definitely wasn't alone. The hype machine placed far too much pressure on an untested IP, particularly one tasked with straddling two console generations. The hacking was kind of cool, but repetitive in its utilisation. The story was interesting, but the characters lacked any shine. The downgrade from trailer to game via optimistic early footage was considerable even by the company’s own patchy track record. In short, nothing in the final game quite lived up to the intrigue of the teaser or the fluidity of the cinematic trailer. This game is high on the list mainly because of the consequences of the marketing are still being felt now. Disgruntled early adopters of the first title still resist any attempts to get them excited for Watch_Dogs 2. I'm stubbornly trying to keep my hopes up.
2. Aliens: Colonial Marines
What a cool trailer Colonial Marines had. It stoked the fires under everyone who had been waiting so long for a decent Alien game, giving particular prominence to the Gearbox logo, who had impressed many with the Borderlands series. As we descend into the ship we see the situation fall apart with a slow, horrible inevitability as everyone's worst nightmare unfolds. On top of all that, they used the soundtrack to Moon! I love that movie!
Oh dear, Gearbox. As pointed out in our site review at the time, we could have forgiven the wholesale ret-conning of the beloved franchise canon, if the replacement had been up to scratch and had retained any semblance of the tension and doomed inevitability of the trailer. What we got was a completely derivative story on top of a completely derivative shooter. I'm personally terrified of the Xenomorph, but even I wasn't scared of them here, killing several outright with a couple of shotgun blasts mere minutes into the first level. Ultimately the game feels unfinished, and with such a polished trailer and six years of development time, it left a lot of series fans particularly irritated. Poor old Alien: Isolation had a mountain to climb just to be listened to by the discontented fan base.
1. Dead Island (Xbox 360)
When I put forward this idea for a Top Five, several people (including Rich) suggested that Dead Island should win hands down. It’s hard to fault that claim. This is a trailer so effective and memorable that it even got a mention in our TA Top Five Trailers, despite the game that followed. It’s a genuinely harrowing and upsetting sequence that impressed even those of us with zombie game fatigue, to the point where many decided to give just this one game a chance on day one.
What we got instead was a masterclass in mismatched marketing. Lots of people loved Dead Island, and lots of people really didn't. The dividing line in most cases is between those who were expecting what the trailer suggested and those that didn't, which is why this game deserves top spot. Just like Colonial Marines, the trailer offered up more than the game was ever intended to deliver tonally. It's actually quite fun to play – if you read the title on the front of the box and the description on the back, you get pretty much exactly what you would expect. This poignant piece of marketing hamstringed the game's reputation straight out of the gate, bringing all the wrong players and reviewers to the table and giving them a good reason to be negative. At least the developers appear to have learned the important lesson here. The trailer for the sequel seems a lot closer to the series' aesthetic and tone, and so only the intended gamers should be coming to the party.
Although there's a lot of pain and disappointment in the paragraphs above, we can at least appreciate some of these great trailers in their own right. Did your "favourites", for want of a better term, make the list?
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