Nowadays video game sequels are more common place than they have ever been. Some are released on a yearly basis, and others take their sweet old time. However, more development time isn't always a good thing (Yes, I'm looking at you Duke Nukem). It's almost guaranteed these days that if a game sells well, then a franchise it will be. (Sorry Duke Nukem). There are several who snub at the notion of yearly releases, while others thrive in the predictability as if it's video game Metamucil. Personally, I have mixed feelings on the topic, and for some reason felt the need to rant about the subject for a while.
Activision is by far the most notorious culprit when it comes to releasing their games annually. It's pretty commonly agreed they can milk a franchise until the teat is left with nothing but dust. This is by far most prevalent with Guitar Hero. Despite the increasingly high quality of their plastic instruments, the software in each latest iteration grows exceptionally lackluster. Call of Duty (CoD) on the other hand, habitually tops the sales charts. How can it be that CoD remains strong sales each year, despite all the games being so undifferentiated? Well, it all comes down to quality and gradual innovations.
With the release of a new CoD each year the quality of the experience both online and offline remains strong. There are no drastic changes to the formula, but small improvements and tweaks, similar to what EA does each year when they release yet another Madden football. With each release Madden updates its player rosters, uses player feedback to adjust mechanics, and never do they attempt to reinvent the wheel. EA gives fans just enough to warrant a new purchase each year. Not everyone agrees with this strategy, some even call it lazy, but purely from a business perspective it's safe.
Now, you may argue that using a rhythm based game as an example is unfair, and that those games were simply a passing craze. Some will also disagree with my use an annually released sports game as well. Those points may be valid, but I'm not just looking at meta critic scores. I take largely into account the public reception of the games, reviews, and sales.
Speaking of reviews, how should a sequel be reviewed? Should a video game sequel always be far improved over the game that came before it? Is there something wrong with consistency? Can a game not be reviewed solely on it's own merit, separate from it's older sibling(s)? Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic game on it's own, but should it's review score take into account all the improvements it made over the original? When a developer can improve upon a past game it certainly deserves recognition, but I wouldn't let it influence a review. I like to think that movies and videogames share many similarities when it comes to sequels. Ghostbusters II is considered a poor sequel in all regards when weighted against the first movie, but when it stands alone the film isn't all that bad.
Fable II is personally one of my favorite Xbox 360 games to date. The game is truly a unique experience, and one of the few games I've played until 100% completion. Fable III on the other hand, I did not enjoy quite so much. Several features were streamline or removed in the sequel and the overall plot was much weaker than it's predecessor. My strong ties to the Fable II made it hard for me to look at the follow-up as a standalone game. However, if one had played only Fable III their experience would be fantastic, expectations exceeded, and they may recommend the game to all their peers.
In some cases tweaking the game too little can displease critics and players alike. However, changing a game's mechanics too much, even if for the better can just as easily turn away fans. Personally, I love sequels, and despite trying to judge them as a single experience separate from the games which came before them, it can be very difficult. There is a lot to say about a sequel that does everything right, and even more to say about one that falls short of our expectations. Monotony aside, there is comfort in concurrency and if there wasn't, then two thirds of my gaming library wouldn't be sequels.