E3 – My hopes for the next generation

E3 is big. Like, really really big. Staggeringly big. Douglas Adams big.

That size has meant that writing a post containing all of my first impressions from E3 has been a toughie. So many great games and new hardware was on show that talking about it all would be nigh-on impossible. My initial idea was to focus purely on the games that I liked. Being a gamer, this seemed like the logical conclusion. But unlike the past few E3 events, games companies actually remembered to bring some damn games with them this year. Hell, even Microsoft brought some games this time, and Microsoft are apparently convinced that all gamers want is a magical box that controls their entire house. Even when cutting myself down to only the games that caught my eye, for good or ill, I’m still left with twenty-two games.

Um, yeah. So it’s time to write a lot, I guess.

Those twenty-two range from the massive, AAA titles that headlined E3 – Titanfall, Destiny, Ryse: Son of Rome – to the smaller projects that might not have been the focus of the main presentations, but nevertheless caught my eye – Doki Doki Universe, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot – and the announcements that were annoyingly brief, but somehow the most exciting parts of the event – Battlefront 3, Kingdom Hearts 3 and Mirror’s Edge 2. And there are thirteen more, somehow. God damn it, E3. You used to be so predictably boring. Why did you have to actually show off games this time?

So, I’ve tried to pare them down to just a few and I’ve failed. But I’ve managed to squeeze two of them into this post, in order to help me make a point about the new hardware and what that means for the gaming industry.

It’s almost as if I’m organised.

With the introduction of a new console generation comes the promise of a new step upwards in hardware across the board. You see, the limitations of consoles tend to hold PC hardware back – there’s no point stepping video cards too far ahead of the current console generation. Game developers won’t use the additional oomph delivered by the card because it’ll involve much more work on their part to scale the action down to the consoles (and will prompt much disillusionment from the console gamers, who’ll see the PC nerds getting such better graphics) and it’ll only mean that the cards themselves will depreciate in value whilst staying essentially worthless.

This isn’t to say that PC gaming is inherently better than console gaming – it’s not. The consoles enjoy their time as the ‘most powerful’ right at the start of their life cycle, where the PC hardware either hasn’t come down in price enough to compete, or simply hasn’t managed to match a system geared up primarily for gaming. What I’m saying is that the PC isn’t restricted by the limitations of the console – PCs can be upgraded more often than once every six years (the average time in the life of a console where the successor is released) and this flexibility means that the hardware for the PC begins to lag behind its actual capabilities. The release of a new console generation means the raising of that invisible barrier and means that PC architecture can again rise.

But this generation may highlight a growing problem within the industry. The Law of Diminishing Returns is starting to drastically take a hold.

Whilst the hardware has taken a step upwards, it’s harder than ever before to make the large steps in graphical fidelity that we’ve seen happen in previous generations. Graphics haven’t reached their physical zenith – I’m not so arrogant as to suggest that – instead, it’s both intellectually harder and more expensive to progress towards the ultimate. It’s more expensive, and it’s much more demanding. But the question is, do we really need it? Computer graphics today are utterly stunning and whilst we may be able to push past them, should we bother? Should we focus more time and effort into making more visually stunning games, or should the gaming industry start to focus elsewhere?

It’s an old argument, and one that I’m not looking to rehash. Gameplay versus visuals is an age-old battle in the gaming industry and we’ve seen the sides clash many times over the years. Games such as Minecraft have only served to fuel the argument, making it’s creator Notch a multi-millionaire, despite the crude, blocky graphics. And again, at this E3, much was made of an increase in graphics. The Xbox One announcement ended with a look at Call of Duty: Ghosts, a look that focused primarily on the increased graphical clout.

But there was something else. An element that was ever-so-tantalisingly revealed through E3’s many games. I’m not even sure if the developers themselves ever saw it as a big thing. It’s not specific to any one game. Rather, it’s something that can be tied into every game. And that’s polish. The details. The smallest parts of every game.

Now, I’m not necessarily talking abut graphical details either. During the Sony conference, for ever so brief a minute, we saw Kingdom Hearts 3. What we actually saw was very little; Sora, on the Destiny Islands, picking up a Keyblade. Stop the presses, Sora has a Keyblade.

Then BAM! Shitload of Heartless, tidal-waving towards Sora. Sora evades the Heartless wave effortlessly; running up a wall before vaulting onto the Heartless themselves, riding them like the perfect surfing wave before jumping off again. The video closes with a gorgeous, fliudly executed attack onto the front of the wave itself.

Fluid little details. That’s what I want from the new generation. A fluidity of movement that we’ve never seen before and those little details around that just make you believe. If graphics won’t go much higher without significant work, then why not focus that time and money into making everything else so much more believable and so much more fluid? Nothing in gaming feels better then when an independent stream of attacks look so perfect and so connected. Fighting games have known this for years. Stringing attacks together into combos just solicits that perfect feeling and fighting games live and die on their combos. Devil May Cry also knew how to make a gamer feel special – everything you did in that game made you feel like the coolest motherfucker who ever lived. It’s high time that the game industry started really getting behind that feeling.

Another game that showcased beautiful and fluid movement was Titanfall. Jetpacks are cool. The jetpacks in Battlefront 2 and Ace of Spades were great fun, but highlighted a pretty huge flaw in rising above cover in a world where everyone has a gun. Jetpacks just aren’t a huge amount of fun when sniper rifles are able to keep a watch on the skyline.

Jetpacks in Titanfall are about maneuverability and speed, not vertical jumps. The first time I saw the jetpack in Titanfall used, I knew this was something special. The jetpack was a part of the overall movement package, and not a seperate movement entirely, the thrust being used to push the player over a gap, maintained over a wallrun, and then back into a thrust that carried them onto the next rooftop. Jetpack thrusts were chained in with acrobatic parkour moves, almost as if the thrust alone isn’t enough to support the player, but can be used to make larger jumps, support the player through insane acrobatics, or dodge inhumanely fast. In a world where every player can call upon a ten foot tall mech, the ground-pounding player needs a pretty bog advantage to stay alive, and Titanfall’s jetpack movement could give that advantage.

This generation will doubtless play host to the glut of unimaginative first-person shooters that we’ve seen dominate the previous generation (with the exception of the Wii), but perhaps there’s hope for it to become something more. Perhaps the difficulties of increasing past the current graphics will cause developers to start to really polish their gameplay, smooth it out and add all those little details that we love.

And then, can we have a Star Wars game with decent lightsaber combat please?