Games of 2016: Competitive

I

n 2016, there's going to be a giant fight for the hearts, minds and cash of competitive shooter fans who want to play in arenas, fight other people and create the most brutal versions of themselves that they can.

You might call it the "Destiny effect," except many of these games are also going after the likes of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Smite in an attempt to capture a slice of the competitive pro-gaming market.

It's no accident that Blizzard, creator of the most successful video game of the last decade, is making a big play in this field with its ...

Overwatch

... which is surely the benchmark for all multiplayer games in 2016. As with World of Warcraft, it will likely slay many of its lesser-funded and less slick competitors.

Overwatch is a six-vs-six squad-based game in which players take on the roles of fairly standard first-person shooter archetypes, such as tanks, support and high-speed offense.

Currently in closed beta and due to arrive on consoles and Windows PC in the spring, Overwatch is an attractive game with a nice roster of characters encompassing a diverse section of humanity and a sprinkling of fantasy regulars, like robots and quasi-angels.

"We want to build a universe and a world that is inviting to players, that they want to live in and be a hero in," said Game Director Jeff Kaplan last year. "We want people to think, 'That's a cool universe. I like being in there and want more of it'."

Slightly more cartoonish and visually lurid, with a trademark Gearbox tinge of wit is ...

Battleborn

... in which players do battle to control the universe's last living star. Due to be released for consoles and Windows PC on May 3, it's a first-person shooter that takes a cue from MOBAs, in which players level up during the game, only to reset at the end.

As you might expect from Gearbox — the team behind the tongue-in-cheek Borderlands series — there's a lot of self-mocking playfulness in this game's characters, in the sidekick robots encountered along the way and in the absurdly over-the-top super-villains, hooting and cackling from their fastnesses.

Gearbox President Randy Pitchford has described it as "a genre-fused, hobby-grade, cooperative and competitive FPS exploding with eye-popping style and an imaginative universe."

It will cost actual money to buy, though, so it faces competition from games that are free, which is always a decent selling point. One such is Bethesda's ...

BattleCry

... which carries a similarly videogamey name to Gearbox's effort but offers marked differences. Bethesda established BattleCry Studios in 2012 to develop the game. BattleCry is set in an alternative early 20th century period, around the time of the First World War, in which gunpowder is banned by treaty and soldiers must fight using melee and other non-firearm weapons.

It's an online multiplayer action game for PC in which up to 32 players battle in team-based combat. It's heavily stylized, class-based and full of colorful characters. Think Team Fortress 2, but instead of rifles, rocket launchers and miniguns, players battle each other with swords, crossbows and beefy metal fists.

Five classes are available including a melee tank, a dual-wielding swordsman and an archer/dagger thrower.

"We've created a strong, distinct multiplayer experience, a new type of action game," said Design Director Lucas Davis in 2014. "We really wanted to contrast the brutality of our combat with the beauty of this gorgeous world."

Elsewhere in the PC free-to-play universe, there's a more standard sci-fi shooter in the form of Nexon's ...

LawBreakers

... from developer Boss Key, the company formed by Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski. Announced in August, it's a five-vs-five shooter set in a futuristic world where people have near super-human abilities thanks to low-gravity zones. This means plenty of long leaps and anti-gravity tricks.

Each character has a throwable, a grenade-type item, as well as a superpower and a movement ability that's unique to them, such as a double jump or a dodge. They have two weapons, each with a primary and an alt fire, so there's going to be plenty of combat complexity and variety on offer.

"LawBreakers is a character-based FPS with insane gravity that is super-fast and extremely agile with Quentin Tarantino’s sensibilities," says Bleszinski. "In a world where all shooters are slowly morphing into MOBAs that look like Dreamworks animated films, LawBreakers is the game the world needs."

Speaking of Gears of War and MOBAs, Epic officially announced ...

Paragon

... last month, following a long teaser campaign. It's a third-person five-vs-five arena battle game. Trailers so far released offer up a standard concoction of warrior characters, from flying range angel to brutish tank to dude-with-guns, all wielding names like Twinblast, Steel, Sparrow, Dekker and Grux.

Epic says the game, which is coming out on PC and PS4, puts you in the fight with "explosive action, direct third-person control, and deep strategic choice" and offers an "ever-expanding roster of unique heroes." Players can earn cards to customize their abilities.

Verticality is also going to be a significant factor. The game's website notes that players can "dive into the depths of the jungle to flank your enemy, or scale the heights to strike from above. Real elevation on an open map means you’ll have to rethink the way you approach the fight."

If these vaguely samey sci-fi combat constructs leave you cold, you can always take a wander over to the goofy world of ...

Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2

... which is making some marked improvements on the original game's competitive model. It's set to arrive on consoles and PC on Feb. 23.

Unlike in the first game, every mode can now be played solo with split-screen multiplayer finally available as well as private servers. For a multiplayer game that's been a big hit with kids, these are necessary and welcome changes.

There are also some zany zombie and plant characters to choose from. "This is the funniest, craziest, most over-the-top shooter you've ever played," said EA's Peter Moore last year.

Also on the wackier side of the aisle is ...

Orcs Must Die: Unchained

... the third game in developer Robot's cartoon violence series, which this time takes a sharp turn from its tower defense base, adding MOBA elements.

But to call it a MOBA would be doing the game and its predecessors a disservice, as it incorporates many different ideas and elements. Its developers are calling it a "fortress siege" game.

It's a free-to-play game that pits two teams of five against one another, with each unit attempting to erect defenses for its own stronghold while leading bands of minions into their opponent's home base.

This is the first time in the series that players will be able to attack as well as defend. They'll also have the option to play alone against bots, and in smaller games such as two-on-two and three-on-three matches.

"We want to give players an experience they cannot get anywhere else," says Design Director Ian Fischer. "Experimenting with all of our different traps and trying to build an effective mousetrap, leading an army of minions on an assault of an enemy fortress, hearing the War Mage wisecracking as he dispatches enemy orcs. These are all things that you’re only getting with OMD."

Strangest of all in this section is the new game from God of War and Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe, whose ...

Drawn to Death

... is a multiplayer arena shooter that takes place in the pages of a high school student's notebook.

The setting lends itself to a sketchy, pencil and ink aesthetic; players will fight in worlds that look like they're drawn on ruled notebook paper. The game's characters are fantastical humans and otherworldly creatures fueled by a teenager's imagination.

"We want Drawn To Death to play like the offspring of an old school arena shooter and a hardcore fighting game," said Jaffe in 2014, adding that the game will be "action-packed while also giving players the need and ability to master advanced environment movement, learn and exploit enemy tells, and form clever strategies that pay off in big victories."

Drawn to Death is a PlayStation 4 exclusive, as is ...

Kill Strain

... from Sony San Diego. It's a free-to-play action game with an unusual five-against-two-against-five competitive structure. It plays like a blend of a MOBA like League of Legends and a twin-stick arcade shooter. Two teams of five humans compete to gather resources — and rack up kills — while a third team of mutants battles both teams in an attempt to spread their infection and add humans to their mutant ranks.

Human teams can lose their players to the mutant side. When that happens, it's permanent. What starts as a 5v2v5 competition changes to a 4v3v5 or 3v5v4 structure.

"I believe MOBA is a genre that's really helped a lot of people to get new perspectives of gameplay and depth, but it doesn't really exist on console," said director of product development Pierre Hintze in 2014. "We knew when we started on the game we wanted to use all the good parts that MOBA provides: direction, depth of gameplay and engagement. But we are creating a console title, so it has to be way more accessible."

Wisely, developers like Jaffe and Sony San Diego are seeking to add some differential to the well-trod online combat genres, which are extremely difficult to break into. This is also the case with ...

Atlas Reactor

... from Trion Worlds, a company best known for massively multiplayer games such as Rift. Atlas Reactor is turn-based, free-to-play and best described as DOTA meets XCOM. Teams of between two and five take their turn at the same time, and then watch as the results play out through different phases, using buffs and extra moves to augment strategies. Polygon previewed the game last year, and enjoyed it a great deal.

"The best experience I have when playing a PVP game is when I make a smart decision," says Executive Producer Peter Ju. "Atlas Reactor is a game designed around giving you tons of opportunities to make smart decisions. Every turn you will feel smart because you made the right play or know exactly why you made the wrong one."

One genre that isn't really designed to make you feel smart, and yet takes smarts to play well, is the good old first-person shooter, and while you can read about many of those later in this feature, we thought it appropriate to include ...

Doom

... here, mainly because its multiplayer component is such a huge emphasis for Bethesda, now that it's taken the grand old franchise over. Obviously, Doom's franchise history is steeped in classic single player campaigns, but the multiplayer maps shown at QuakeCon last year marked this one out as one to watch.

As well as loading the player out with impressively Doom-like weapons such as the super shotgun and BFG 9000, this is a game that demands constant movement. It's designed to discourage cover-based shooting. Soldiers on Doom's battlefield move faster than the soldiers on other shooters' battlefields because they can't afford not to.

"For a player who's only played Call of Duty, I hope they pick it up, and have a fresh, exhilarating experience that maybe they haven't had before," said Executive Producer Marty Stratton last year. "If it's someone who's only played Doom and Quake, I think they'll also feel like this is something familiar, but there's a lot of stuff there that makes it even more addictive, or has new components they haven't seen in a game from us before."

Next up: Creepy games, including Friday the 13th, We Happy Few, P.a.me.l.a. and Allison Road