Few would argue that the business of commercials is anything less than a specialist art form these days, and any who bear doubts about that ought to watch some of the astonishingly powerful video game trailers to have been released over the last two decades and beyond.
Historical highlights include Dead Island, Gears of War, World of Warcraft, and Bioshock, but how about trailers released this side of the PS4 and Xbox One? That’s where the selection pool gets a little narrower but, look closely, and you can spot plenty of astounding ads and cool commercials for games released on the ongoing generation of console hardware. Here’s our pickings of the best ones seen so far.
Fallout 4 Live Action Trailer (2015)
Live action trailers for video games tend to be hit or miss. There’s the standard fare Call of Duty TV spots, the half decent Halo trailers from when Bungie was still at the wheel, and that time Strafe made everybody queasy with its deliberately provocative homage to the 1990’s. Bethesda is one of the few publishers who consistently get live action right, though, as evidenced by that Skyrim trailer you’ve seen a hundred times and, more recently, this short but sweet ode to Fallout 4.
Everything works here; the catchy, tonally befitting jingle, the transition from American dream to nuclear wasteland within the space of a few seconds, and some of the finest canine acting you’ll see this side of the Mississippi. Yes, the CGI power armour at the end looks at a bit naff, but it’s the only sore point in an otherwise electrifying 30 seconds of Fallout goodness, so you can hardly complain...
Dead Island 2 Reveal Trailer (2014)
Last generation, there was the original Dead Island trailer; widely considered to be one of, if not the best video game trailer of all time, even if it’s poetic register was a far cry from the tongue in cheek tone of the game itself. When Deep Silver had the job of announcing Dead Island 2, then, there were big boots to fill. Thankfully, the reveal teaser for the sequel nails the black humoured attitude of the series, even if it doesn’t quite reach the same dramatic heights as that original Dead Island trailer.
The concept is relatively simple - as the camera follows an alpha Los Angelite running through the onset of a zombie apocalypse that he’s blissfully unaware of - but it’s executed with such panache and verve that the whole thing plays out like a raving comedy sketch. It’s black humour at its finest, and it’s a shame that Dead Island 2 still remains MIA all these years later.
Assassin's Creed Unity Cinematic Trailer (2014)
Assassin’s Creed may have had its ups and downs when it comes to the quality of each individual game, but Ubisoft’s trailers have always been consistently impressive, visually admirable and creatively inspired in equal measure. For most, it’s the Assassin’s Creed Revelations CGI trailer that still represents the cream of the crop but, this side of the generation, Unity’s trailer remains firmly at the top of the list, despite being an ad for one of the worst titles in the franchise to date.
Music choice, as always, is everything, and Lorde’s haunting rendition of Everybody Wants to Rule the World is both thematically significant and atmospherically resonant, as the song’s slow build to its final chorus is synchronised perfectly with the escalation of events that unfold on screen. Sure, the trailer shows off the kind of co-op play that was never, ever possible in the actual game but, damn it, I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t want to make me give Unity another shot every time I watch it.
Dead Rising 3 CG Trailer (2013)
One from the very early days of the Xbox One/PS4 era, Dead Rising 3’s CGI launch trailer is a smart subversion of the kind of sombre zombie stories we’ve been subjected to across popular culture for years. I won’t spoil the opening moments if you haven’t seen it, but it’s exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from a Dead Rising trailer, with a crass and comical approach to the end of the world that isn’t afraid to wring laughs from typically disturbing scenarios.
Beyond the giggles, the trailer also provides a fair demonstration of what can be expected from Dead Rising 3 itself, from ridiculously large zombie hordes to crafting on the go. Protagonist Nick’s exasperated response to everything going on is also a treat, as he’s as shocked by the absurdity of it all as the audience.
Uncharted 4 TV Spot (2016)
It’s only 25 seconds long, but Uncharted 4’s TV spot tugs at the emotional strings better than numerous other, much longer trailers ever could. Set to an almost unidentifiable piano cover of The Pixies’ ‘Where is my Mind?’, the camera circles around a collapsing tomb in slow-motion, with Nolan North’s impeccable narration running on in the background as clever angling is used to explore Nathan Drake’s diverging loyalties between family and fortune hunting.
It’s a piece that rightly evokes how Uncharted 4 is a darker tale for the PlayStation icon, but it’s one that ultimately ends on a message of hope for the character’s future. Oh, and it all looks as gorgeous as you’d expect a Naughty Dog trailer to be.
Overwatch Cinematic Trailer (2014)
Opening with an easter egg for a character that wouldn’t be revealed for another three years, and singing out its crescendo with that theme music and title roll we’re now all so familiar with, Overwatch’s reveal trailer once again cements Blizzard as the master of the craft. It’s a historically significant trailer, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive today.
Making comparisons between Blizzard and Pixar is basically a cliche at this point, but it’s in this whimsical CGI explosion of colour and life where the analogy couldn’t be more apt. In essence, the kid with the broken arm is us, the audience, whooping and cheering while our new favourite heroes battle it out before our very eyes. Three years later, and that same level of wide eyed enthusiasm continues to run through the very lifeblood of Overwatch’s community. Blizzard clearly knew it was onto something special even then.
Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser Trailer (2016)
You know all of those fan-made Lego recreations of famous trailers and movie scenes that always tend to go viral on YouTube? Well TT Games knows about them too, and smartly followed suit to announce Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with its very own brick-based tribute to the famous first trailer of the movie its based upon.
The authenticity of the replication is unmatched, but every dramatic beat is punctuated by a cheeky slapstick gag; a perfect summation of how the Lego games have always paid respects to their inspired source material while simultaneously riffing on them in their own unique way. The best bit? That Stormtrooper flicking the lights on and off for dramatic effect, obviously.
Death Stranding Reveal Trailer (2016)
The pressure was on for Hideo Kojima. Having just come out of a messy break up with Konami, all eyes were on what he would do next with his newly founded studio for PlayStation, especially now that he’d been give carte blanche to push the creative boat out as far as possible. Even with those expectations, though, no one could have expected what came next.
The Death Stranding reveal trailer is about as Kojima-esque as you can get, with cryptic puzzles, off-kilter surprises, and a choice music track that reveals as much about the game’s conceptual identity as what’s actually one screen. The shot of a naked Norman Reedus staring out at a coastline of beached whales would go on to become synonymous with Death Stranding’s ambitious vision, which speaks to the trailer’s symbolic power as an memorable audio-visual experience in and of itself.
Destiny 2 Live Action Trailer (2017)
Remember the first live-action trailer for the original Destiny? No? That’s because it was a bit rubbish. Thankfully, the same can’t be said for the sequel. With outspoken video game fan Jordan Vogt-Roberts (of Kong: Skull Island fame) on directorial duties, Destiny 2’s live action trailer treats the material with an understanding and respect for what makes the game great; namely the camaraderie of co-operative combat, the prospect of a galactic expanse at your fingertips, and Cayde-6. Lots and lots of Cayde-6.
Speaking of which, the humorous tone actually works well here, which is impressive considering Bungie hasn’t always been adept at bringing the laughs. That opening montage of random explosions, Nathan Fillion’s quickfire delivery, and the puppy-obsessed Guardian; it all adds up to a celebration of Destiny 2 that made you hopeful for what Bungie has cooked up for its latest sci-fi adventure.
Super Mario Odyssey E3 Trailer (2017)
If you needed any more proof that Nintendo is back on form with the release of the Switch, look no further than it’s E3 2017 trailer for Super Mario Odyssey. It’s two and a half minutes of rhapsodic madness, jumping between snippets of gameplay so fast that you can’t keep up with all the merry mania unfolding on screen. Wait, Mario’s a T-Rex? Now he’s riding a moped?! Never mind that, he’s just turned into a frog!!
Looking back on it now, the trailer makes much more sense within the context of the game itself but, even then, you can’t help but appreciate the sheer amount of joy projected by Nintendo here. And, of course, Mayor Pauline’s jazzy hit “Jump Up, Super Star!” is keeping rhythm the entire time, a song which would go on to be the backing track to one of Super Mario Odyssey’s shining moments. God bless you, Nintendo.
Beyond Good and Evil 2 Announcement Trailer (2017)
Less of a trailer and more like the opening to an R-rated animation you never knew Pixar was capable of, the Beyond Good and Evil 2 reveal is nothing less than a delirious delight. A combination of sharply detailed and culturally rich visuals, crackling dialogue, uncanny voice acting, and incredible music… it’s impossible to look away.
The frequency of expletives probably reaches a new record for the amount of swear words in a video game trailer, but that adult tone only indicates that creator Michel Ancel is properly committed to his lofty, purist vision for this long awaited sequel. For the Beyond Good & Evil diehards, it’s a dream of a trailer, but even as a creative work in and of itself, it leaves you excited for Beyond Good & Evil 2 even if you’ve never heard of the franchise before.
The Witcher 3 Cinematic Trailer (2015)
All of the Witcher 3’s trailers are about as exceptional as you’d expect from the studio that made, well, The Witcher 3, but it’s this cinematic trailer which really lives up to its name as an remarkable paean to CD Projekt Red’s RPG masterpiece. Essentially dramatising one of the game’s many side-quests, Geralt finds himself facing off against a wiley vampire and, suffice to say, it doesn’t end well for one of them.
All of the best elements from the game are translated beautifully into this short vignette; the grisly, heavy atmosphere, the subversive fable-like storytelling, CD’s incredible creature design and, of course, Geralt’s rugged good looks. It’s a massively depressing watch, but CD Projekt Red has always excelled at dealing in the darker shades of high fantasy horror, so you can hardly blame them when the results are this stunning.