Forget Next Gen, Things Are Getting Good - E3 2012
There's always been a problem with the console arms race – graphics.
New consoles means new and better tech, which is great, but all too often these new powerhouses amounts to little more than 'we can make better looking games'. The problem with this it that it all becomes awfully superficial.
You can make better looking games, yes, but most modern launch games are simple filler that's surpassed in a year of release. Time spent adding polygons to your enemy models is time taken away from fine tuning the level designs. Time spent coming up with new animation scripts is only skirting around the fact that your game is a bit of a mindless arcade shooter. Like dressing an Essex tart in a lab coat and spectacles what you have amounts to little more than a super pretty Space Invaders. And this is fine, people like Space Invaders because it's easy to play. Ahem.
Get into a consoles lifecycle and sure, we still have those games; God of War Ascention, Gears of War Judgement, Splinter Cell Blacklist and the interchangeable twins Call of Duty and Medal of Honour all scratch this itch, and have all summoned groans of contempt this week as a result. But E3 2012 has definitely delivered some truly inspiring announcements and demo’s, particularly in UbiSoft's Watch Dogs and Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, that show a level of creativity that you only find when developers know what they're working with. I would factor in David Cage's Beyond here as well but, y'know, its 'game' qualifications are still up for consideration.
Oh sure, they're both games that inevitably involve shooting lots of men, but they do it with a sense of place, style, and gravity that you only truly get when developers start to understand what they want to make and aren't pre-occupied with 'I wonder how round we can mould this guy's arse'.
They feel 'Kojima-ish' in their attention to detail. In the way they ask the player to be someone in a fiction instead of pandering to the mainstream player's thirst for absolute control and empowerment. So many people own these consoles now that bigger developers feel brave enough to deliver smarter games, the market is so broad that they feel fine answering the call for that something more interesting.
Watch Dogs casts you as a hacker in an open world, but it manages to feel unique. Most open world games view their sandbox as frivolous framing for basic missions but Watch Dogs seems to embrace its world and your position in it. Driving looks like standard fare but when you're a pedestrian and the camera is Resident Evil 4 style close it gives the street a more intimate feel. You see the citizens in a whole new perspective when they pass at this eye to eye level. Crowds become claustrophobic as they close in around you. You notice details you'd otherwise miss. You feel more like a part of the world and less a spectator, and the world feels bigger and more interesting because of it. Imagine if Assassin's Creed had this kind of camera – the feel of the game would be massively different.
Next up is The Last of Us. Or 'Grizzly Uncharted', as some have dubbed it. I've recently lamented the growing simplicity of controls. I don't think developers should go back to Resident Evil fixed cameras and tank controls per sae, I just feel that the standardisation of shooter controls is disheartening and shows developers that are afraid to displease the modern 'point and shoot and kill' mentality of the mass market gamer. Call of Duty's auto-aim rail-guns are the ultimate distillation of modern finger snap satisfaction design.
The Last of Us has inaccurate wobbly gunplay and slow melee takedowns, and that is the best thing about it. I'm playing Joel, some shmuk who's trying to survive in a hellish, dog eat dog apocalypse and shoves revolvers down the back of his jeans, I'm no firearms expert with a war to wage. When I play The Last of Us it'll be because I want to try my wits at surviving in this world and as this character, not because I want overgrown set dressing on my Uncharted Indiana Jones power fantasy. Every other game lets me be an expert marksman, a John McClane, a Rambo, and I love that The Last of Us offers something genuinely different.
So if you ask me, screw next gen. Well, screw the graphics race anyway. Games are just getting back into that wonderful, experimental place where developers are the ones in control instead of the gamers. Developers are following new ideas built around gameplay concepts they want us to experience, not hashing out quick ideas in powerful engines to entice consumers onto expensive, shinier hardware. They know what they can do and they work around it, producing more creative, more interesting titles as a result.
Look at Dishonoured. Look at Far Cry 3. Look at Persona 4 Arena. Look at Assassin's Creed 3. Forward thinking games in their respective genre's made by people who know the technology they're working with.
In fact, look at some of the Wii U's first wave of games; Project P-100, Rayman Legends, Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U are all games that have a real sense of style to their aesthetics that, in all honesty, I doubt could look much better - working with established or incrementally improving hardware gives developers time to get creative in the other, more important departments. Like how your game actually plays. I fear that waving that power carrot in front of publishers noses now will only cause this wonderful phase to be put on hold once again.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: @Dalagonash)