The 10 Best Video Game Cinematic Trailers (for Terrible Games) of All Time
Let’s just get this out of the way at the top: you’re not going to agree that all of the games on this list qualify as terrible, but for my purposes, they sure as hell are. In a world where Evolve gets a 9 out of 10 from a three-letter outlet that shall go unnamed, we need to reevaluate what it means for a game to suck.
In the modern gaming age, consumers spend a lot of money on this stuff, and in the modern reviewing age, outlets want to maintain relationships with distributors; essentially, seeing anything below an 8 on a well-regarded review channel should be seen as a failure by major developers. Anything below a 7 and you’re starting to get into steaming pile territory.
The silver lining to the following particular turd-bombs (trademarked term) is that they arrived on the backs of stellar marketing campaigns, each of which were kicked off by incredible CGI cinematics that stand on their own in terms of quality despite the crappy finished product they were used to hawk. Here are the top ten…
10. Dragon Age II
The Trailer: Crafted by Digic Pictures (undoubtedly in the top 2 in terms of cinematic production companies), the trailer for Dragon Age II begins with a creepy old woman’s voiceover. While a horned demon decimates a group of overmatched soldiers and proceeds to chop up their king with a two-handed axe, she waxes poetic about the varying ways in which men choose to either flee from or rail against their destinies.
Enter Hawk, the main character of the game, who goes toe-to-toe with the demon amidst the crumbling marble columns of some sort of temple. The cinematography is fantastic, the choreography intense and easy to follow, and the clarity and detail in the mo-capped movements and expressions of the two combatants borders on crystal. When Hawk taps into his mage powers to rip his enemy in two and then paints his face with demon blood in a symbolic display of conquering destiny, you’re more than ready to dive in and see what the developers have cooked up in the latest chapter in the Dragon Age saga.
The Game: Unfortunately, Dragon Age II plays, well, just okay. It’s not bad, per se, but everything that made the original Dragon Age: Origins so great is nowhere to be found. It’s as if the developers realized they had nearly gotten it perfect the first time around, so they decided to challenge themselves by going for something completely new in the sequel. [Spoiler: It didn’t work.]
What made Origins such a fantastic game – aside from its story – was the freedom of choice it afforded players. Of course, choice is a loose term when applied to the story campaigns of most video games, but BioWare excels at making each player’s journey as unique and customizable as possible. In place of this depth and variety, Dragon Age II plops players into the role of Hawk, a boring mannequin in a boring, linear storyline so at odds with the first game that it feels like a completely different franchise.
Add that to the fact that the most championed gameplay mechanic from Origins – the paused, top-down strategic camera – was entirely absent from this game, and you’ve basically eliminated any reason for playing the sequel other than to find out what happens in the central plot, which you could get from any half-assed Wiki article. In fact, fans of Origins hated this game so much that BioWare went back to their old formula when developing the recently released Inquisition, a game that stands much taller than the forgettable second entry.
This isn’t an awful game, but it’s not a good one, and for a studio as storied as BioWare, it stands as a glaring failure in an otherwise stellar library.
9. Dante’s Inferno
The Trailer: Okay, so this one’s a bit of a cheat, since it’s not so much one trailer as it is a host of cut scenes created by Studio Blur (the other half of the top two I alluded to above). The opening scene of the game, which is loosely based on the 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, sees Beatrice, Dante’s lover, cut down in a tense scene where her father-in-law attempts to take advantage of her, only to die while defending her from an outlaw.
Dante returns home from the crusades sporting a stylish red cross stitched into his chest (penance for his many sins) only to find that his wife and father have been brutally murdered, the former of whom has lost her soul to Lucifer, who has dragged her to the pits of Hell. Dante battles his way through the nine circles of Hell to rescue his lover’s soul and hopefully earn salvation for himself in the process. The scenes are well directed, emotionally gripping and paced like a feature-film adaptation. In that sense, this is an adventure worth taking, but only in the form of compilation videos posted to YouTube.
The Game: Where to begin with this one? Unlike the aforementioned Dragon Age II, Dante’s Inferno is a bad game, plain and simple. First of all, the source material doesn’t necessarily lend itself to clever gameplay mechanics; it’s a hack-and-slash game in a market full of superior hack-and-slash games. There are even two franchises with similar narrative material that do it much better: God of War and Devil May Cry.
In fact, this game is so similar in tone and subject matter to God of War, it’s sort of a marvel that the developers actually decided to go three for three and ape the entire combat system from that game series as well, rage meter and all. As Dante, you’ll string together combos by merging light and heavy attacks, easily cutting through swaths of underpowered enemies before engaging in uninspired quick-time battles with oversized bosses.
Finally, the game undergoes a startling transformation from a laughably easy action title to a borderline-impossible mission-based campaign, in which the final few boss fights and levels carry absurdly specific methods of victory that will have you feeling like you’re actually trapped in Hell right along with Dante.
Stay away from this one, but do watch those nifty cut scenes.
8. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
The Trailer: I’m not here to make accusations (okay, maybe a little), but it looks to me like the makers of last year’s Dracula: Untold may have put the cinematic trailer to Lords of Shadow 2 on loop during production. Just saying.
Anyway, as for the trailer itself, we’re treated to a slow, atmospheric shot of Gabriel Belmont – Dracula to his friends – as he moves through his gothic castle. The lighting effects of the candles on the blue-black stones look great, as does the pale complexion of our central antihero as he moves to the balcony overlooking his lands – only to see a massive army massing on his doorstep.
Using a loosely defined, but utterly devastating power set, Dracula proceeds to take out the entire army below, giant medieval war machines and all, with barely any effort. This is another masterpiece by Digic Pictures. Unfortunately, Konami didn’t quite follow their lead.
The Game: Just as Dragon Age II attempted to disappointing results with that storied franchise, Lords of Shadow 2 tries to reinvent the wheel with this sequel, ruining much of what made the previous entries so original. Of course, you still have the iconic red whip, the gravity-defying combos and an admittedly stellar art design, but in place of the fixed camera and well-balanced progression of the other games, Lords of Shadow 2 opens the world up and exposes some ugly weaknesses in the process.
An open world sounds great, when that world is well realized. Unfortunately, opening Lords of Shadow 2 up forced the developers to cram more missions into an otherwise well-balanced story mode, resulting in some of the most boring and forced stealth missions I’ve ever seen in a game.
Additionally, the addition of truly terrible characters, uninteresting enemies and a bizarre story that references corrupt pharmaceutical companies as one of its chief components really drags this one down.
Frankly, there’s no reason for this game to exist. It’s a failed experiment. Go play the originals, and marvel over that beautifully gothic cinematic.
7. The Elder Scrolls Online
The Trailer(s): The Elder Scrolls Online has not one, but four incredible cinematic trailers, released between 2013 and 2015 and produced by Studio Blur. In order, they include “The Alliances,” “The Arrival,” “The Siege,” and “The Confrontation.” There is no dialogue to speak of, but you get the gist of the story. Competing factions are vying for control when a foreign, dark and demonic force interjects, forcing the unlikely allies to band together against a common threat.
The art design and fight choreography of these trailers, as well as the scope of the siege in part 3, is among the best I’ve ever seen rendered, and a hooded assassin with black and gold armor steals every scene he’s in. Aside from him, there’s a redheaded Elven Sorceress who wreaks havoc in the second trailer and a brutish northern warrior who fights like a panzer tank en route to the final clash that sets up the game to follow.
The Game: The Elder Scrolls is a storied game saga, but it didn’t truly hit its stride until the fourth chapter, Oblivion, hit next-gen consoles in 2006 and quickly became one of the best-reviewed and best-selling games of the year. Following that up was the similar, but much-improved Skyrim, which landed in 2011 to similar praise.
Both of the crown jewels of the Elder Scrolls saga are known for their expansive, beautiful environments, which make use of every gig of processing power in whatever rig you’re running, as well as an intriguing story, fleshed-out characters and thousands upon thousands of hours worth of fresh gameplay.
Porting that over into a WOW-style MMORPG was a recipe for a new benchmark in gaming, right?
The Elder Scrolls Online has dumbed-down graphics, wooden dialogue, boring quests and loads of inconsistencies that make playing it more of a chore than a fun escape. That is not to mention the ridiculous number of broken quests, connectivity issues and severe lack of grouping options that plagued the game upon launch. The upcoming console release of Tamriel Unlimited might fix some of this game’s shortcomings, but if Oblivion and Skyrim hit a home run and a grand slam, respectively, this one was a lazy walk to first.
6. Assassin’s Creed: Unity
The Trailer: If there is a game series with more consistently beautiful trailers than Assassin’s Creed, I haven’t seen it and I refuse to acknowledge it. The premise of these games was made for cinematic appeal, and the jaw-dropping trailer for last year’s Unity is no exception.
Digic Pictures takes you on a short, but poignant journey through the streets of Paris from the POV of a bald eagle as you observe four master assassins guiding an angry mob to attack the fat, greedy nobles who have oppressed them for decades. The facial animations, smoke effects and acrobatics displayed by the fleeting assassins are all highlights, but the final fight between the four killers and a squad of colonial riflemen is short, tense and brutal.
The Game: The Assassin’s Creed series hit its high mark with the second chapter way back in 2009, and it’s been up and down ever since. The reviews for Unity are all over the place; I’ve seen it rated as highly as a perfect 10 out of 10, and, just between you and me, that’s complete and utter BS.
It’s a sad day in modern gaming where performance issues are almost guaranteed upon launch, but the Ubisoft team behind Unity apparently tried to set a new record for glitches, broken quests and frame rate drops, making the finished product nearly unplayable. Virtually every single review for this game cites the same issues, and for a high-budget game with a history that speaks of sameness, if little else, that’s simply unacceptable.
Take a screen cap of Unity and you’d be excused for thinking you were looking at an actual restored photograph of colonial Paris. See it in action, quivering polygons and all, and you’ll be lucky not to have a seizure. It’s no wonder the price has dropped to half the original just about six months after release.
5. Transformers: War for Cybertron
The Trailer: In a word, the cinematic trailer for Transformers: War for Cybertron is refreshing. Simply-put, it contains a better and more coherent action sequence than we saw in any of the four Bayformer films, and it did so while featuring the classic, old-school ’80s designs of our original favorite mechanical warriors.
Add in the fact that this trailer deals with the impending doom of the Autobots in the final war for Cybertron, and it’s a veritable wet dream of badass nostalgia in the vein of the beloved 1986 Transformers animated movie.
The Game: The reviews for this game aren’t necessarily bad, but some of them are so warped by the aforementioned nostalgia (it’s a powerful drug) that they fail to see a chaotic, button-mashy adventure when they see one.
The story mode is rote and straightforward, and the gameplay sections basically serve as barely acceptable distractions that tide you over until the next decent cut scene. Even the transforming aspect of the game serves no real purpose. The developers didn’t bother to put together any missions where the player is required to utilize all of his forms, making it a useless, albeit required mechanic in terms of subject matter.
In a word, this game is basic; if you’re a gaming studio releasing a title in 2010, that’s just not enough.
4. Fable III
The Trailer: In terms of originality, it doesn’t get much better than what Studio Blur thought up for the cinematic trailer for the third entry in the popular Fable series. Distilling the concept of brewing discord and the seeds of rebellion in the microcosm of a chicken refusing to be offered up to the butcher’s knife was a brilliant move, offering an extended chase scene that is darkly comic even if it ends in tragedy.
For a video game trailer based on a somewhat cartoony world, this one was unexpectedly mature and represents the sort of outside-the-box thinking Lionhead Studios is – or was – known for when the original Fable launched back in 2004.
The Game: Simply put, the 2004 Fable was one of the most enjoyable games of that console generation, combining an attractive art design with an addictive central premise. Players embarked on a traditional Fantasy adventure in which choices made gradually lead you down the path of the angelic or the demonic. Everything from your appearance to your fighting style shifts as the story evolves to reflect your choices, and in terms of fun, it just doesn’t get much better.
Fable II represented a slight step down in quality for Lionhead, and the third entry in the series ground it to a skidding halt. Sacrificing the addictive sense of adventure of the first game for boring and needless exercises in urban planning and leadership was a head-scratching decision, and one that drags the finished product down considerably.
Additionally, technical flaws and astoundingly awful AI muck up an otherwise average gaming experience. In some games, shoddy AI can be overlooked, but in a series where influencing villagers and leading enemies into well-placed traps is encouraged, the bumbling idiots that populate this game world are irritating at best.
I think it’s safe to say we’re not getting a Fable IV anytime soon.
3. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
The Trailer: As a premise, 2012’s Operation Raccoon City is brilliant, and nothing illustrates that as well as the incredible opening cinematic. In the trailer, we follow two unique groups of heavily-armed soldiers: the first is a diverse and struggling band of STARS commandos, while the second is an elite assassination squad trained and employed by the sinister Umbrella Corporation.
What follows is a tense, action-packed and frequently frightening extended action sequence in which the Umbrella assassins attempt to track down and kill the commandos in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Of course, the STARS aren’t going to go down without a fight, and the endless hordes of undead don’t really care who’s shooting at whom, as long as they have someone to kill.
The Game: A great premise does not make a great game, and while the relative merit of the previous entries on this list are up for debate in terms of quality, Operation Raccoon City is truly a terrible gaming experience. (Hell, even IGN gave it a 4 out of 10.)
Everything the trailer does well, from well though-out action and scene framing to horror elements, the game mimics to laughable results. The characters have no personality, there are no frights to be found and the environments are bland and uninspired.
Of course, that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as the enemy AI, shooting mechanics and movement controls are broken, plain and simple. This game essentially looks like it never left the testing phase. The only frightening thing about this game is the fact that this abomination ever made it to market.
2. DC Universe Online
The Trailer: You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in any realm of the nerd kingdom who hasn’t seen the fantastic cinematic launch trailer for DC Universe Online.
This lengthy scene plays out like a What If? Comic, in which Lex Luthor tells the story of how he led a dastardly group of villains to victory against the Justice League. And when I say victory, I mean in every sense of the word. This isn’t your typical comic book or comic book movie battle, in which the heroes triumph and the bad guy dies off-screen or ends up in a holding cell; no, this fight features sobering violence and high drama.
Among the highlights are Wonder Woman decapitating Metallo, the Joker blowing away Batman with a missile, Green Lantern and The Flash dying in a nuclear explosion created by Black Adam and Lex Luthor impaling Superman on a kryptonite-tipped spear.
The Game: If you want a game that encompasses everything you saw in that trailer, you’d be better off mashing buttons in the Mortal Kombat-inspired Injustice: Gods Among Us than taking to the streets of Metropolis in the cartoony, shallow and relatively empty MMORPG that is DC Universe Online.
If the trailer is intense and adrenaline-filled, the game is monotonous and sleep-inducing. The combat system seems fine on paper, but the lag is so bad it seems as if it was built into the game, taking all of the flow and impact out of the fights. As far as the story is concerned, that cinematic provides the setup that doesn’t really seep into the game in any meaningful way other than providing an excuse to fill the virtual DC Universe with a limitless array of super-powered beings.
Quests – when they don’t break – rarely consist of anything more complicated than going to a predetermined area and taking down a select number of easily dispatched enemies. And, while I can’t entirely hold it against the game, making every player a superhero or villain sort of takes the fun out of being one, and leaves you feeling like just another weirdly dressed grunt in a sea of them.
1. Dead Island
The Trailer: If ever there were a video game trailer that could double as an award-winning short film, it would be 2011’s Dead Island. In fact, this one did win several niche awards and earned recognition by the L.A. Times as one of the best video game trailers of all time.
In the spot, we’re shown a devastating and heart-breaking instance of family tragedy in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. While that in and of itself isn’t game-changing, the way in which Audiomotion Studios shows us the scene in reverse order makes it all the more chilling. By the middle of the trailer, in which a young girl’s father struggles to save her, we’re hoping against hope for them to triumph, even though we were shown the end result in the opening reel.
Feels, guys. Feels.
The Game: Now, if you thought the trailer was heart breaking, the disappointment represented by the finished product comes pretty close to duplicating the effect.
Early into the Dead Island experience, it becomes pretty clear that the marketing department and writers had a different game in mind than the developers, as the goofy clashes gaudily with the morbidly tragic to mixed (re: awful) results.
As for the gameplay, it’s basically a lame version of Dead Rising (FWIW, I already think that game’s lame), with the look of the much more enjoyable Left 4 Dead. Sure, you can hit zombies with inanimate objects and fix windows for your neighbors, but there’s not a central mission to speak of and every game mechanic has been done much better in competing titles.
Perhaps the biggest sin of Dead Island is the fact that the endless hordes of zombies you encounter provide no challenge whatsoever. In fact, they basically act like moving furniture in the bland environments, making you feel truly alone and without tension in your gaming experience.
I guess there is some tragedy in that.