Reflections on E3 2015: Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

Reflections on E3 2015: Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

This year's E3 was a great one for games - even if there wasn't much on display in terms of new concepts and ideas.

The week before last, I said I was going to E3 2015 in search of truly new generation software. I was hoping that this year, with developers having had a couple of years to get to grips with the current generation of technology, that we'd see a few games that offered something wholly new and different. Games that felt like they were taking advantage of this generation's technology to push ideas and concepts into new realms.

Unfortunately, this wasn't quite the case, and, as I feared, the technology gap between the last generation of consoles and this just doesn't seem to be able to take gaming a significant step forward. Instead, E3 2015 felt more like an evolution of the gaming species: it was a show of refinement.

Perhaps this is to be expected, and I'm sure more than a few of you are saying, "Well, duh! What did you expect?" But I was hoping that there might be a few surprises on display. There wasn't. Mainstream gaming continues to recycle safe and largely predictable ideas, matched with cutting edge programming and technology to produce entertainment for the masses, leaving indie gaming to be the bastion of wacky and interesting ideas. And even then, I didn't see much at the IndieCade in terms of novel ideas. Plenty of interesting and unusual executions of existing concepts, but nothing that really challenged or wowed me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not exactly complaining. Indeed, I think this E3 was one of the most interesting I’ve been to in years. There were plenty of phenomenal games on display that I can’t wait to play. Products that clearly look like new generation games, which deliver new vistas and detail of the like that we've never seen before. My only complaint is that they’re all based on existing genres and concepts. Here are some of the highlights of games I think are pushing current generation technology to new heights, even if they’re not presenting anything particularly new conceptually. Oh, and if there seem to be omissions from this list, please note that these are all games I demoed personally – I didn’t get to see everything that was present at the show.

Although it's somewhat ironic citing a game that looks like a 1930's cartoon as one of the pinnacles of graphics technology, I am doing just that with Cuphead. What makes the game look so astonishing is the authenticity of its visual style: as you watch the game, it really looks just like a piece of old animation. From scratches and weathering that makes it look like it's being projected from a piece of film to the frame-by-frame animation of the characters, the game is to all intents and purposes an old cartoon brought to life. Sure, we've seen animated games before, but this one is so intricately detailed, it pushes the envelope in a way we've not seen before.

Horizon Zero Dawn is another upcoming release that looks phenomenal. While it’s ultimately an amalgamation of existing ideas taken from open-world games, elements of Monster Hunter, and some trappings of a third-person shooter, it presents them in a way that feels new and exciting. Its stunning open vistas and the detailing of things like ground objects really brings the game to life. That the mecha-dinosaurs look and move in a highly convincing way also helps make Horizon Zero Dawn look every inch a cutting-edge current-generation game.

Need for Speed is a very good-looking game. The demo I played was set at night, and I raced on slick surface streets that reflected light beautifully. If I squinted, it looked pretty much like real life: the detailing is photo-realistic. What makes this game feel like a step forward is its size: it’s twice as large as last year’s Need for Speed: Rivals and its cityscaping feels far more detailed than Rivals' more open environments. Its gameplay offers little that’s new – it’s a Need for Speed game after all – but it’s clearly benefitted from having a year off, and the end result was one of the more impressive demos at the show.

The slasher movie-turned-game Until Dawn also offers little in the way of new ideas, but it looks absolutely brilliant thanks to its high-end motion capture, very realistic digital actors and fantastic lighting effects. It's fun too, in a gory, make-your-choices-or-die QTE kind of way, and offers more than its fair share of scares. Even though it started life as a prior-generation game, it looks current gen thanks to its terrific graphics.

Shifting from blood and gore to the depths of space, Elite: Dangerous might have already been out on PC since the end of last year, but its debut on Xbox One is really quite stunning. While it has by far the most complex controls I've ever seen in a console game - which means it's not for everyone - it does look incredible: a vast and open space trading game that packs a view of deep space unlike anything seen before (on consoles).

Beyond Eyes is a beautiful-looking game that really stood out for me at the show. Somewhat experimental in nature, the game is a gentle adventure featuring a blind 10-year-old girl who's exploring the environment around her through sound and smell. Presented almost like a living watercolor painting that comes to life as the protagonist travels slowly through her surroundings, it was perhaps the most unusual and interesting game on display at E3. Like Elite: Dangerous, it's certainly not for everyone, but for those who want to try something completely different, it's highly recommended.

Both Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are walking adventures that are taking environmental realism to new heights. Both are essentially pieces of interactive fiction, and both feature absolutely astounding digital landscaping that feels exceptionally convincing and immersive. I'm looking forward to playing them both.

While some have criticized the game as a little unimaginative and formulaic, I think Star Wars: Battlefront also takes digital landscaping a leap forward. What stood out for me was its incredibly realistic Hoth battle environment - which is beautifully rendered. From the snow-covered rocky terrain and the cut-into-the-ice trenches to the inside of the Rebel base, the detailing of the landscaping is second-to-none. I haven't yet played the Endor level, but judging by the video I saw, that also looks incredibly faithful to the movie.

Another game I was impressed with graphically was Ratchet and Clank. It offers bright and colorful backdrops that feel really fresh and vibrant. Sure, the gameplay will be very familiar to fans of the series - it's a pseudo-remake after all - but its environments really are very pretty, and packed with detail. It's not really my kind of game, but I was impressed with how it's using PS4 technology to evolve the series' looks a big step forward.

While this selection of games is rather eclectic, they're united in their use of graphics to push gaming forward. It seems that - at least for now - we've reached some kind of game design plateau, where revolutionary new ideas are simply too risky as a business proposition for anything other than small developers willing to take the plunge with their own time and money. Then again, it's been like this for some years now. And just to be clear, I'm not really complaining - simply pointing out what's going on since I went to E3 specifically to report on the state of new generation games and where they are at right now in terms of new ideas and concepts.

Where I do think we'll see innovation is with VR and AR technology. While VR has yet to feature a truly killer app, and the HoloLens, while very impressive, is still a few years away from being a legitimate gaming device, I do believe that both will be central in pushing gaming forward with new experiences of the like that we've never seen before.

Whether it’s deeply immersive VR software that tricks your brain into feeling that you’re really inside a game, or AR games that turn flat surfaces into projected screens or arenas for all sorts of entertainment, I think both will be at the forefront of pushing video games into new territory. Judging by what I saw at E3 this year, gaming clearly needs new tech to push its boundaries forward, and when it does so, it'll bring something exciting and fresh to the table. Like I just said, we’re a year or two away from that beginning to truly happen, but in the meantime we've still got lots of amazing new games to play - even if most of them will have a familiar feel about them.

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