Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Under the Hood

In the relatively brief history of video games new generations of hardware have been introduced every five years or so. These cycles have persisted until now. The seventh generations of consoles (Wii, Xbox360 and PS3) are now in their sixth year of life yet successors for the latter two have yet to be announced and even the first, Wii-U, lacks a firm launch date. Sony has gone on record saying that they intend to give their PlayStation 3 a full ten years before releasing their eight generation home entertainment system. Microsoft has dropped hints that they are considering introducing a new box in 2013. Regardless, all good things come to an end and baring a global catastrophe I'm fairly sure the eighth generation of gaming systems will arrive with powerful hardware. For me though the million dollar question is what are they going to do with it?

Shiny graphics? I'm sure. Crystal clear sound? No doubt. Fully integrated motion support? Probably. Online store? They would be stupid not to. The thing is I don't really care about any of those things. If we're going to have a new generation of powerful and expensive hardware then let’s use it to deepen gaming experiences in lieu of spastic arm flaying, connectivity up the ying-yang and yet another coat of costly polish. Because this generation has gone on for so long developers definately have a good handle on how to make stuff look good in High-Def, but what is still lacking is everything beneath the sparkle.

From Dust may not have the best graphics but the water in the game moves more realistically than in any game I've ever played before. Better yet it's not just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. You can manipulate it, channel it, watch it flow and make gullies...sandbars...even river deltas. "It's a geologists dream come true, but what about gameplay?" you might ask. Well, ever played a FPS with beautiful environments which are completely unaffected by...well...anything. It's non-interactive and to me that is the antithesis of video games. Granted hardware limitations often make things like this a necessity, but with the coming of the next-gen consoles perhaps this limitation can be negated.

Artificial intelligence is another weak area in desperate need of improvement. Games like Uncharted may deliver a white knuckle experience the first time, but it's impossible to deviate from the path laid out for the player resulting in everyone having the more or less exact same experience. Part of the success of games like the Half-life, Halo and F.E.A.R. are the fact that a well-developed A.I. mixes things up. Doom 3 suffered for it but ID Software learned their lesson and Rage is significantly better.

So, what will the future bring? Will we get slightly more photo realistic graphics with gimmicky control schemes and bloated developmental budgets or will there be substance, a value to bring the players in and keep them from wandering off once the bells, whistles and fancy lights cease to impress? While I loath to compare games to cars, flashy lines and a nice paint job aren't going to win me over if there's a rusty old engine under the hood so gutless that it's not classic simply obsolete.

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