Last week at E3 2013, I sat down to play or see the latest titles in the Assassin's Creed, Infamous, and Killzone series. All four titles were being shown on next-generation consoles, or PCs done up to play like next-generation consoles. As I took in the experiences being shown to me, a wave of familiarity washed over me.
I’ve done this before. I have leaped from a high outcropping to assassinate an unsuspecting guard. I have raced at breakneck speeds against ineffective police in high-performance cars. I have beaten misguided authority with my new super-powers. I have put bullets into the bodies of an alien enemy bathed in orange light.
I’ve done these things before, but it has never looked this good.
With this generation, we’ve reached a certain level of diminishing returns on graphical power, at least when it comes to marketing games. It’s hard to show off how impressive these titles look in a screenshot or in a grainy YouTube video. There’s a level of craft being put into the next generation of titles and it comes from things you’ll only see when you’re in front of the game. Things like environment destruction, debris, smoke, real-time lighting, weather effects, and foliage.
In Killzone: Shadow Fall, the new, larger environment shown in my hands-on demo is filled with these extra additions. Trees and bushes sway in the wind, which also kicks up small clouds of dust here and there. Smoke from a crash site billows up realistically. Far in the distance, those extra polygons are put to work on a fleet in low orbit and the city far below.
In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the jungle parts around pirate assassin Edward Kenway; ferns and reeds bounce as you stalk your prey. Fog curls around a dark jungle and your enemies are gently marked in the darkness by the torches they carry. Cannonballs pound a small port town, throwing up splinters of wood as Kenway leaps through smoke and flames.
As Infamous: Second Son hero Delsin Rowe uses his powers, bright orange sparks are thrown everywhere. A rocket attack against Delsin shatters the bridge you were standing on moments before. Newspaper floats through the air as the stand you’ve hidden behind takes enemy fire. A high-flying ground stomp cracks the pavement, sending enemies, vehicles, and the rest of the environment flying.
The first efforts on these new consoles may not feature new gameplay, but the technology available is definitely changing how you interact with the environment and how that environment interacts with you. It’s clearer, brighter, and more... real.
Many of these graphical bells and whistles have been available to developers on the PC and Mac, both platforms that benefit from video cards far stronger than our current consoles. Despite their power, most of the tools available haven’t been used because of multiplatform development. Why go the extra mile on PC, if those assets and features won’t be used on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4?
“Yes, absolutely. That's the biggest problem we have today. Most games are actually still based on the same core idea that the consoles are your focus, the superior platform or something. PCs are way more powerful than the consoles today and there are actually almost zero games out there that actually use the benefits of this,” said DICE executive producer Patrick Bach just over two years ago, prior to the launch of Frostbite 2-powered Battlefield 3.
“As long as the current console generation exists and as long as we keep pushing the PC as well, the more difficult it will be to really get the benefit of both. With 360 and PS3, we believe the quality of the games beyond Crysis 2 and other CryEngine developments will be pretty much limited to what their creative expressions is, what the content is. You won’t be able to squeeze more juice from these rocks,” Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli told PCGamer almost three years ago.
Well, developers now have new rocks to squeeze. The next generation of consoles means the baseline for development has been pushed higher and that will benefit console and PC gamers alike.
Next-gen graphics are stunning. They’re more subtle than what came before. Longer draw distances, better fluid effects, procedural destruction and deformation. This means high-resolution video or actual demos will become key to showing new players what they’re missing by not upgrading to the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Better technology doesn’t always equal better games, but I prefer to give developers more tools and push them to utilize them better.
Don’t let the screenshots fool you, folks. We’re in for a wide ride come holiday 2013.