Gavin has had a passion for writing almost as long as his passion for video games. Which came first, the controller or the pen?
Many video game franchises fall to the wayside, usually a result of flagging commercial sales, lack of creative direction, or intellectual property lockups. Many unfortunately stay dead forever, leaving hardcore fans of those series clamouring for more.
But others see a resurrection, perhaps because the original IP owners look to reignite a once-profitable cash cow, or a creative lead with a brave new imagining snaps up the IP to much success.
Not all of these video game resuscitations are a success. Just take Bionic Commando, Thief or Sim City as examples. But some breathe fresh and lasting life into a franchise and create an all new fanbase of new players and old diehards combined. This list looks to identify nine games that not only brought a dead franchise back from the dead— but also kept it there— and one game that hopes to do the same.
The original Prey was released by Human Head Studios and 2K games in 2006. It received a cult following as an innovative first-person shooter that played with new and exciting mechanics including gravity inversion, a spirit dimension and the use of portals one year before Portal. The story also focused on an unusual theme, as the lead character’s Cherokee heritage was explored during his journey through an alien space ship.
A number of failed sequel attempts followed, both before and after the IP acquisition by Skyrim developers Bethesda Softworks. Prey 2 was at one time a direct sequel featuring similar gameplay to the original, and then a reimagining as a bounty hunter game even shown off at E3 2012. In October 2014 the sequel was cancelled.
However, the IP wasn’t dropped completely, but instead development switched from Human Head Studios to the Dishonored developer, Arkane Studios. Prey was rebooted in 2017, 11 years after the original— completely reimagined as an immersive sim style action horror game set on a space station overrun by aliens. Disregarding almost everything about the original Prey, Arkane’s reimagining brought new life to a franchise once considered vapourware and received critical acclaim. It went on to receive two major expansions, Mooncrash and Typhon Hunter, the latter of which brought virtual reality to the franchise for the first time. A sequel is inevitable, with many speculating its announcement would have been likely for the now-cancelled E3 2020.
The X-COM franchise is considered a forefather of the tactics genre, and its creator Julian Gollop (MicroProse) regarded with esteem in the genre. Originally branded UFO, the franchise focussed on an alien invasion of planet Earth, with the player leading the titular X-COM defense force through grid-based tactical battles to fight back the extra-terrestrial force. Players also micromanaged their squads via an operations base hub between missions. UFO/X-COM would go on to release four core games between 1994-1997, whilst Hasbro Interactive would purchase Microprose and develop spin-offs in 1999 and 2001. Each game released saw dwindling popularity, and the first-person shooter X-COM Enforcer was critically panned. The MicroProse studio was disassembled before X-COM Genesis (the fifth core game) or X-COM Alliance (the FPS sequel) could be completed. As mainstream gaming moved away from the tactical games format altogether, it seemed like hope of an X-COM reboot was lost.
In 2012 Firaxis Games (lead by MicroProse co-founder Sid Meier) announced a reboot of the original tactics-based franchise. This came as relief to many, who had been concerned at the announcement of an XCOM shooter by 2K Marin just one year prior.
XCOM Enemy Unknown was released to critical acclaim 11 years after the final X-COM title from Hasbro, and 18 years after the game that started it all. It was a reimagining of the original UFO Enemy Unknown but with modern graphics, interfaces, and mechanics and proved that the tactics genre was alive and well. It would receive an expansion, XCOM Enemy Within in 2013. 2K Marin’s shooter The Burea: XCOM Declassified was also released in 2013 to a mixed response and was deemed a financial failure. However the sequel to Enemy Unknown, titled simply as XCOM 2 and released in 2016 would be the franchise’s biggest hit. Taking everything the studio had learned from Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 built the biggest, prettiest, most customisable version of XCOM to date. It expanded on that success with a number of DLC expansions including the excellent War For The Chosen which added more plot, special enemies, new units and weapons. In 2020, a spin-off, XCOM: Chimera Squad, continued the franchise in a new story-heavy direction, proving there is plenty of life still left in Firaxis' XCOM vision.
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3. Deus Ex
Alongside Thief (which would receive its own less-successful resurrection attempt in 2014), the original Deus Ex by Ion Storm innovated the immersive sim genre when it released in 2000. Deus Ex took the first-person shooter and added RPG-like skill trees, a huge open world and multiple routes to success, granting a level of player freedom and immersion unlike anything seen before it. By allowing multiple playstyles, Ion Storm created a game where players could engage with their world in any way they chose and told a story with the depth and engagement usually reserved for the RPG genre.
Unfortunately the follow-up in 2003, Deus Ex: Invisible War, did not receive the same level of acclaim as the original. Toning down some of its key elements in order to make it more accessible, and using smaller environments to cater to console limitations, Invisible War was seen as inferior to the original game despite receiving positive reviews at the time. A number of attempts at a third game were begun by Ion Storm, before and after the departure of creative lead Warren Spector. But when Ion Storm was closed by publisher Eidos Interactive in 2005, a sequel to Deus Ex seemed like a lost hope.
That is until 2011 when Eidos parent company Square Enix announced Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Acting as both a prequel and a reboot, Human Revolution took the Deus Ex format— free movement and player choice, huge open environments, skill tree unlocks, a gritty sci-fi world of espionage and intrigue— and transplanted them into a gorgeous new engine and setting. Human Revolution was a massive success, and in the eyes of many it supplanted the first Deus Ex, now showing its age visually, as the definitive Deus Ex experience— a full 11 years since the original launched. Eidos would develop a number of DLC expansions and a full sequel in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which didn’t quite live up to the success of Human Revolution. Despite this leading to a pause in development of further Deus Ex games, Square Enix CEO Yosuke Matsuda said that it is still a “very important franchise” for them and they are “already internally discussing and exploring what we want do with the next instalment.”
It’s hard to believe now, but the first Fallout was released in 1997 as a top-down isometric turn-based RPG, inspired by 1988 game Wasteland. Developed by Black Isle Studios (the studio that would later go on to form Obsidian Entertainment), Fallout was critically acclaimed for its innovative gameplay and the way it incorporated its skills (its S.P.E.C.I.A.L system) into the way combat and dialogue played out. Drawing from tabletop experiences much like many of its contemporaries, Fallout gave the player full choice to play how they wanted to play, providing an open world that encouraged exploration and the option to go anywhere at any time (at your own peril). By eschewing the traditional fantasy setting for a mutant-infested nuclear wasteland, it also was topical and refreshing in the late 90s RPG market.
Fallout 2 quickly followed in 1998 which improved on all of the original’s best features. A spin-off game Fallout Tactics released in 2001. The future of Fallout fell into question when Interplay Studios closed down Black Isle in 2003, and a console spin-off Brotherhood of Steel produced without Black Isle was poorly received. This was the end of the line for the isometric Fallout games beloved to RPG players in the 90s, but it wasn’t the end of the Fallout franchise by a long shot.
Bethesda Softworks, looking to grow on the success of its Elder Scrolls games, picked up the rights to Fallout from a bankrupt Interplay. In 2008— ten years after the last main entry in the Fallout series— Fallout 3 was released as a first-person shooter RPG. Fallout 3 maintained the huge open wasteland, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L skill system, and much of the iconic imagery— Pip-Boy, Vault Boy, super mutants, power armor, the Brotherhood of Steel, the Enclave. Initially sceptical fans were soon won over by its charm and it was critically acclaimed, won multiple awards and was a best seller for Bethesda. The franchise would only grow from there in its new format, with some of its original creators returning as Obsidian Entertainment to produce Fallout: New Vegas. Bethesda released Fallout 4 in 2015, and a number of spin-offs including Fallout Shelter and Fallout 76 since.
At one time, DOOM ruled the gaming world. Created by id Software in 1993, the original DOOM broke down boundaries and expectations. Following the success of Wolfenstein, DOOM was a first-person shooter unlike anything seen in the genre, featuring big open maps, blisteringly fast gunplay, iconic demon enemies and innovative weapons (such as the BFG) that stood the test of time. But above all else, DOOM was violent, gory, and unapologetic, creating buzz and controversy. It was a smash hit, and was followed quickly by DOOM II in 1994 which would have even more success. A couple of spin-offs would continue the success of DOOM across consoles, and it branched out across other medium including novels, comics, board games— but after DOOM 64 in 1997, the franchise would go quiet.
DOOM 3 was launched in 2000, and took a wholly different approach to its predecessors. Eschewing the speed and colour of the early games, DOOM 3 changed the focus to a darker, grimmer horror game with stronger storytelling. It was set in more realistic settings and disregarding the canon of the earlier games. DOOM 3 divided fans but received critical and commercial success, and received an expansion, Resurrection of Evil. In 2005, a very poorly received DOOM film was made by Universal Pictures, but even five years later, no game follow-up was in sight. As the games industry moved towards cover-shooters like Gears Of War and Uncharted, DOOM’s place was in question and it looked like the franchise might be dead for the second time.
All that changed in 2016, when the simply titled DOOM was released. A complete reboot, this DOOM recaptured everything that was beloved about the original – fast pace, big guns, bigger demons, heavy metal and great, gorgeous level design. A new “glory kill” mechanic only served to speed up the action, making it a fast adrenalin-pumping ride. At a time when shooters were becoming slow and grey, “new DOOM” stood out. The success was more than id Software and new publisher Bethesda Softworks could have hoped, gaining critical and commercial acclaim. A VR game followed in 2017 and in 2020, DOOM Eternal was released as a follow-up to DOOM 2016, continuing and growing the successful rebooted franchise.
6. Star Wars: Battlefront
The Star Wars franchise has a storied history of video games— some good, some bad, many ugly. Star Wars was a large enough gaming property for film studio Lucasarts to create its own development studio, and one its most beloved products was Star Wars: Battlefront. Releasing in 2004, Battlefront allowed fans to relive the fantasy of participating in the huge battles that make up Star Wars canon. Played from the third-person perspective, players could take on the role of regular grunts like Storm Troopers or droideka. The sequel, Star Wars: Battlefront II released the following year, introducing huge space battles, the ability to play as hero characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and online multiplayer for up to 64 players. Seen as a huge improvement on the original game, Battlefront II garnered critical praise and sold over six million copies.
Developer of the two Battlefront games, Pandemic Studios, lost the rights to the Star Wars license following the completion of Battlefront II, raising doubts about the possibility of a third game. In 2006, Free Radical announced work on Battlefront III but production was plagued with problems and Lucasarts would not commit to its completion, eventually canning two years’ worth of development. The future of Star Wars: Battlefront seemed doomed, until an unlikely acquisition in 2012.
In 2013, new Star Wars IP owner Disney signed a multi-game deal with Electronic Arts. The first game to come out of that partnership was a reboot of Star Wars: Battlefront. Created by Battlefield developer DICE, the new Star Wars: Battlefront was released in 2015 to a mixed reaction. Whilst beautifully capturing the aesthetic and sound of the beloved franchise, the gameplay did not resemble the original games, choosing first-person perspective over third, and removing space battles from the games entirely. Despite the mediocre reception, a sequel Star Wars: Battlefront II was released by DICE in 2017. Returning space combat to the games and an optional third-person perspective, Battlefront II recaptured a lot of what was missing from the previous entry. However, it was mired in controversy for its loot boxes and monetization and it would take over a year for DICE to correct their missteps. By 2020, the game was a commercial success and had addressed many of the early wrongs, including a slew of free updates and modes featuring content from the rich history of Star Wars and the ongoing release of Disney produced sequels.
7. Tomb Raider
At one time, Tomb Raider was one of the most iconic video game franchises in the world, and Lara Croft a household name. The first game released by Core Design in 1996, and was a breakout hit— in particular for Sony’s new Playstation console. A forerunner in the rise of three-dimensional polygonal gaming, Tomb Raider perfectly blended vast puzzle environments and third-person shooter mechanics and created the template that future 3D action games would follow. Its commercial success lead to six core entries and three handheld spin-offs between 1996-2003. In 2001, box office megastar Angelina Jolie portrayed Lara in a Hollywood adaptation that was successful enough to spawn a sequel in 2003. The lacklustre reception to Core Design's final entry The Angel of Darkness, and the poor critical response to the second Jolie film The Cradle of Life, lead to problems for the franchise. Publisher Eidos Interactive removed Core Design from development of the Tomb Raider franchise in 2003.
Tomb Raider was too crucial a property to stay dead for long. Just three years later in 2006 the first reboot attempt occurred with Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider: Legend. Legend reimaginated Lara’s origins, and was regarded as a return to form for the franchise. Two sequels would follow quickly, with the release of Tomb Raider: Underworld in 2008. Despite positive reviews and commercial success, the future of Lara was uncertain. Crystal Dynamics had completed their planned trilogy, and rather than continue with a fourth addition, they instead branched out to do an isometric puzzle game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
For five years, the Tomb Raider property seemed lost. However, it was the unlikely inspiration of Batman Begins and Casino Royale that led to its second rebirth. “Bond and Batman faced the same challenges as us,” said Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher at a Bafta event in 2013. “They were iconic characters who had to be refreshed and modernised for a new generation. These stories were a reaffirmation to us, that we could do this.” The reboot, simply titled Tomb Raider, launched in 2013 to critical and commercial success. Taking hints from the Uncharted series of games, Lara’s new origins removed the familiar notions of fame and mansions, instead making her adventure plucky and brutal. Shooting and stealth became key mechanics, as did crafting and environmental climbing. The reimagining spawned two equally successful sequels, the most recent Shadow of the Tomb Raider releasing in 2018, and a new Hollywood blockbuster also in 2018. Whether Crystal Dynamics can break a habit and release a fourth game is yet to be seen, but the stars are aligned to keep this version of Lara Croft going for the foreseeable future.
One year before DOOM would burst onto the scene to reinvent first-person shooters in 1993, id Software was already innovating the three-dimensional shooter space with Wolfenstein 3D. A reinvention itself of the Wolfenstein games from the early 80s, Wolfenstein 3D brought the series’ iconic Nazi-hunting to the first-person shooter. It also introduced the world to protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, the gruff tough American/Polish jewish Nazi-killer. The game sold above and beyond id Software’s expectations and would go on to create one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. However, a true sequel to Wolfenstein 3D wouldn’t surface until 2001 with Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The FPS genre had changed immensely since 1992 thanks to the likes of DOOM, Quake, and Unreal. With Return to Castle Wolfenstein, id Software created a worthy successor and a contemporary amongst its competitors. It was especially praised for its excellent multiplayer component.
Wolfenstein would again take another break between mainline releases, this time for seven years. Those were a crucial seven years for the FPS genre, including the rise of the realistic shooter in Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield. Wolfenstein felt lost in this shuffle, and this was no more apparent than with the release of a supernatural-focused reboot in 2009. Simply titled Wolfenstein and developed by Raven Software, the reboot was critically and commercially slammed for having a mindless story and a vanilla multiplayer offering. Wolfenstein would be left cold after this misstep, and after an already seven year break, it would take a further five years for another game to resurface in a wholly different way.
The acquisition of id Software by Bethesda Softworks led to a rethinking of the future of the franchise (a running theme for game resurrections). The development was handed to MachineGames who released Wolfenstein: The New Order in 2014. New Order brought a previously unseen level of narrative to the franchise, adding depth to Blazkowicz’s character and a cast of characters to join him on his crusade. It also took Wolfenstein into uncharted territory with an alternate history of World War II, where the Axis were victorious. Crisp combat and interesting level design made it a pleasure to play and won critical and commercial success. MachineGames weren’t done with just one success; just one year later they released prequel expansion The Old Blood and in 2017 a full sequel, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. New Colossus took the alternate history further by bringing it to American soil and won awards for its storytelling. Two spin-offs continued the new franchise, bringing co-op and VR respectively, and MachineGames have already made clear their intention for a third game to round out their reboot trilogy.
For a long time, this entry on this list would have been a joke. But in 2020, one of the most high-profile dead franchises made its long awaited comeback.
The franchise that shot developer Valve and its Source engine to fame, the first Half-Life launched in 1998 to immediate success. Taking the newly popular 3D shooter, Valve imbued into this action-focused genre a sense of story and environment. The Black Mesa complex was a compelling playground not just for shooting, but for puzzle-based physics platforming and problem solving. The success of Half-Life and its expansions was dwarfed by Half-Life 2 in 2004. The sequel added gorgeous vistas, big outdoor areas, a cast of new characters and the introduction of the genre-breaking gravity gun. Half-Life 2 was successful enough to launch Valve’s own storefront, Steam, and change the face of PC gaming forever. Two follow-ups released in 2006-2007 in episodic format, with the promise of Episode 3 soon to come. It wasn’t.
For 13 years, the Half-Life franchise stayed untouched. Fan games such as the Black Mesa remake filled the void, and in 2017 the entire script for the cancelled Episode 3 leaked online. But Valve kept their silence, never outright denying the existence of a Half-Life follow-up but never confirming one either. It became the longest running joke in the video game industry, and “Half-Life 3 Confirmed” became a tag line for any remote mention of Half-Life, or even the number three, in Valve statements or code. Further fuelled by the apparent disappearance of the Portal and Left 4 Dead franchises after their second entry, for over a decade it seemed that Valve had no interest in releasing third entries for their franchises.
In 2019 Valve broke its silence and announced Half-Life: Alyx. Whilst not quite the follow-on that many fans hoped for, Alyx resurrected the dead franchise as a virtual reality game aimed at igniting sales in Valve’s new Index headset. Acting as a prequel, rather than the conclusion of the episodic story, Half Life: Alyx nonetheless filled in some gaps for fans of the series and once again innovated a genre by helping to kickstart an interest in the fledgling VR technology. Critically and commercially Half-Life: Alyx was a success, and in a statement shortly after its release in 2020 Valve developer David Speyrer gave fans hope that Half-Life is back to stay: “In the process of creating Half-Life: Alyx, we’ve had to explore new ways to tell stories with these characters and this world, and we’ve discovered a lot of new gameplay experiences that go beyond what we’ve been able to do before. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see how people react to Half-Life: Alyx once it’s out, but we’d love to continue pushing forward.”
10. Baldur’s Gate?
Mention classic RPGs and the name Baldur’s Gate will come up. In 1998 BioWare made their name when they released Baldur’s Gate, the most loyal video game translation of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop experience to date. Baldur’s Gate created a large vibrant open world for players to explore, moving their party of adventurers around the popular Faerûn setting in the now famous Infinity game engine. The depth was unprecedented, with a host of classes, races, spells, feats, and a roster of interesting playable characters with their own personalities and backstories. Combat took place in real time but with pausing, allowing players to position their characters and select from abilities, spells and inventory items just as they would in AD&D. The game met wide acclaim, and BioWare followed up with a sequel, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, just two years later in 2000. The sequel was a direct follow-on, allowing players to control more powerful characters including porting over their end-game characters from the original game. Where Baldur’s Gate focused on exploration, with the main story taking place almost in the background, Shadows of Amn put the story front and centre and the game was bigger and better in every way than its predecessor. An expansion, Throne of Bhaal, followed shortly. Baldur’s Gate II would meet critical and commercial success and win multiple awards, propelling BioWare into the upper echelons of RPG studios and paving the way for their two biggest hits— Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
Baldur’s Gate would be remastered and rereleased on a number of platforms, and a prequel DLC was picked up by port studio Beamdog in 2016 to mediocre reviews. But with BioWare moving on to its own IPs and then being bought out by EA, it seemed unlikely that a true follow-on to Baldur’s Gate would ever see the light of day.
The unthinkable happened in 2019 when Larian Studios, creators of the wildly popular Divinity: Original Sin games, announced that they had secured the license to develop Baldur’s Gate III. With the Original Sin games themselves being spiritual successors to Baldur’s Gate and its Infinity Engine ilk, there is no better studio positioned to bring this long-dead franchise back from the dead a full 20 years after the last numbered release. It’s yet to be seen if this resurrection will stick, but fans of the franchise and of isometric RPGs in general are on tenterhooks to find out.