Where’s Next-Gen Gameplay?

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We’re a month away from a new video game hardware generation and I’ve heard a few people ask “where’s the next-gen gameplay?” I’m starting to wonder if hardware alone will ever again bring drastic changes to gameplay.

First let’s state the obvious: we’re probably never gonna have another leap forward like the jump from 2D to 3D until we reach holodecks or something. Still, how much has game design really changed since the mid 90’s when 3D got introduced? For the most part all I’ve seen is better graphics and bigger worlds (sometimes in the case of the latter). People like to put up AI as a reason for more powerful hardware other than graphics, but can you even say that AI has gotten better since the late 90’s?

For a quick example look at some of Namco’s main franchises through the last three console generations: Ace Combat, Tekken, Tales, Soul Blade/Calibur, etc. Those games really haven’t changed fundamentally from the PS1 to the PS3. They just got prettier and switched up some mechanics. I would say most modern 3D game genres we play today are genres that arose on the PS1, N64, and contemporary PCs.

I would say that between the PS1 and PS2 era, control schemes and game design certainly got more refined as developers figured out how to design 3D worlds. That’s pretty much what the PS2 era was — a generation of refinement for 3D gaming. It’s questionable how much of that however was a result of better hardware and how much simply came about over time.

That refinement is also probably what has led to new genres and trends. The character-action hack n’ slash formed out of the ether at the beginning of the PS2 era. Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War wrote the blueprint for third person shooters in 2005 and 2006 respectively. Western-style RPGs made their big entrance onto consoles on the PS3 and 360. By the same token (and due to market forces), I think free-to-play is gonna become a thing on the PS4 and Xbox One. But still, that’s really more about developers just not deciding to do those things until a certain time.

Of course the influence of today’s online infrastructure and control interfaces can’t be ignored. Wii Sports was probably one of the most significant innovations throughout this console generation. Xbox Live has been a game changer for consoles, and the nature of content distribution has changed fundamentally on today’s machines. In my opinion the way you interact with your console’s operating system has been the biggest change of this past console generation, not graphics or gameplay, and that’s part of the point.

That point is I feel like a significant chunk of today’s games were possible on older hardware, just with massively reduced graphical fidelity. These last several years I’ve seen very few games that I would say have technically ambitious gameplay made possible by modern hardware.

The recent games I would say are technically ambitions usually are because of larger and more complex worlds. Grand Theft Auto III was probably the transformative moment for the PS2 era in terms of “next-gen gameplay.” I’ll admit that Assassin’s Creed, despite its flawed execution, has done things with AI in open worlds that probably wasn’t possible before. I haven’t had the chance to play GTAV yet, but people tell me it’s clearly a leap forward in terms of open world gameplay.

The game I keep thinking about however when it comes to recent technical ambition is the original Crysis. It’s the one first person shooter I’ve seen this generation try to push forward every aspect of design for that genre. Its levels are some of the most massive in any FPS, yet its environments, physics, and AI are as deep as that of any corridor shooter. It’s the only FPS I’ve played where I can literally look at a whole village from the side of a mountain, and then proceed to cross a river and infiltrate each building of that village while battling tanks. It’s sad that neither of the game’s sequels, or any other FPS for that matter, replicated this kind of gameplay.

Looking forward to next-gen, the most hopeful prospect for hardware-based gameplay advancement I’ve seen pop up is the possibility of truly open-world first person shooters. Battlefield 4’s 64 players on the next-gen version seems like it’ll strike a clear difference from current-gen. One game I hope makes a big impression on PS4 owners is PlanetSide 2 — a shooter that on PC allows for thousands of players in the same area.

From most of what I’ve seen over the last few months however, I think next-gen is really just gonna bring about changes in distribution and social interaction with prettier graphics. It’s definitely possible, maybe even likely, that some idea no one has bothered to popularize yet will surface and get big on consoles, but it’s questionable if that will come about due to the existence of new hardware.

BULLETS:

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One thought on “Where’s Next-Gen Gameplay?

  1. One more month to go. Can’t wait to get my hands on Killer Instinct and Forza 5. I’m not worried about next-gen gameplay now, par se. I think we’re going to see some innovation before 2014 is out.

    Hey, did you hear about the new Aliens game from Sega? It might be going a survival horror route.

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