The tagline to the above title being when does next gen become this gen? Yes, already there are rumours abound of what the next generation of consoles might bring to the table, even though for many veterans is still feels like the current generation barely got started. For those of you who remember the last brave days of the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, it was with bated breath that the new generation was unveiled before our own eyes. And what of it? A number of years down the line (and with a few false starts) how has console gaming really changed and what can we anticipate the next generation will bring? Here’s the topic dealt with in the time-honoured list format.
Crates and/or barrels.
It was our personal hope that we would see the last of the crate and of the barrel, which were ubiquitously used to build generic levels, block pathways and for the henchmen to crouch behind (although to be fair this use was only really for the red barrels). Did next gen do away with the lazy level designers staple furniture? Did it heck. Poster child for the 360, Kameo featured barrels within the first seven seconds of gameplay and the habit has carried on ever since. Crates and barrels came back in force. Even the AAA Resident Evil 5 featured a whole level made up of freight crates. It still seems that if you need somewhere to store your ammo and your medikits then the crate is the obvious choice for it. Sad really.
Immersion breaking staple of many FPS, the respawning enemy. In the good old days it was the only way to keep the battle going without a game grinding to single-figure frames per second. Surely next gen could come up with a better mechanism for respawning hordes or at least try to mask it all a bit better. But no, the enemies keep a coming from just out of camera shot or the other side of that impassable scenery until you kill a sufficient number of them or until you reach a specific location. Key offenders are Gears of War 2 (kill 25 locust, move to the next cutscene, kill 25 more, ad nauseum). Again, Resident Evil 5 takes home the special mention for using enemies that spawned from inside crates. Were they there all along? How many hours were they there for? Is hiding your troops in crates and instructing them to wait until the hero chances upon them an efficient use of time, not to mention resources? Still galling are the instances where dozens of enemies respawn from a tiny Mary Poppins hut.
The numbers game.
Zombie infested streets with literally half a dozen walking undead? Epic battles where 98% of the opposing force remain hidden slightly behind that all encompassing cloud cover permanently 2m away? Older games had to come up with a fair few work-arounds when depicting epic battles by capping the number of enemies visible on screen. Did next generation allow the hordes to be realised? By and large, yes. The excellent Dead Rising, the new Command and Conquer and Heavenly Sword did let us see the masses in all their glory. Sure, in some cases this meant that there were just more goons who stood around waiting to take their turn to have a go at you and in other cases armies were composed of thousands of clones, but crowd surfing in Dead Rising was truly an experience that was new to most gamers. A dishonorable mention goes to mass murdering Dynasty Warriors which for reasons not entirely understood seems to be much much worse for all the extra enemies.
A.I. and Buddies.
With processing power to spare being a new tool in the belt of 66.6666% of the current generation of consoles did A.I come leaps and bounds? Would it be the end to goons taking cover on the wrong side of barricades or running around in circles? Would fellow drivers occasionally falter or fail to drive the perfect racing line lap after lap? Would buddies be a help in a firefight or would they continue to get in the way, waste ammo and gobble up health packs like there was no tomorrow? Again. There seems to be little improvement in this area. Guys running in circles and buddies stuck on walls are still common place. Sheva seemed to take a particular liking to collecting the wrong ammunition. Who knows, perhaps she was a spy all along?
With a host of new tricks and resources did next gen expand each and every genre in a number of directions, and even create new genres? Well FPSs are up (in number, not ideas). Sports games carry on in time-honoured fashion. Platformers (excluding rereleases) were down and the RTS carried on. Puzzle games got an injection of love and mini games simply got rebranded as waggle games or rhythm action games. Henry Hatsworth and Braid did some genre melding and RPGs made incremental improvements, with FFXII being a highlight, in that you no longer had to play the game. PSN and Indie games almost pretensed their way into being novel but most were either retextured classics (flower starring as Space Harrier, Echochrome starring a Kula World etc) or interactive screensavers. Even wankers’ favourites Katamari and LocoRoco had their souls increasingly destroyed with further unintended sequels or bareface copying for the iPhone. Which brings us nicely to…..
A good idea to heighten the sense of action when technology would struggle to present it unscripted in real time. Lazy and annoying when there is no real excuse for relying on them so heavily. At least wiimote waggling kind of makes sense. When it is implemented well.
The latter days of the last gen suffered from a bout of severe sequlitis (in between a spell of Vietnam knee and bullet timers cramp). Did next gen have the same genetic weaknesses? Well. Yes and then some, although for some franchises there seems to be some remission. Metal Gear Solid, Metroid, Zelda, Burnout, Halo, GTA, Devil May Cry, DoA, Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Street Fighter, Wipeout and Command and Conquer, to mention a few, received a lick of new paint. Even lesser games like Killzone got a sequel and some games have had a chance to get a sequel within this gen – Motor Storm and Resistance being but two. Some franchises got their crazy on and went in new directions, including Halo Wars and Banjo Kazooie. And some reinvented themselves by going back to their roots on the handhelds: Sonic Rush and GTA Chinatown Wars taking two steps back and four steps forward. But spare a thought for those franchises who lost their way and for those still in the ether: Duke Nukem, Timesplitters, Freedom Fighters, Theme Hospital, Colony Wars, G-Police. But being generous there was a nice injection of new IP and some of that even had some new ideas. Sadly though, tarting up and adding a number on the end still seems to be common behavior.
Respect your elders.
All three consoles promised backwards compatability at one point. The Wii is keeping good on it’s promise, the Xbox 360 is putting in a sterling effort and the PS3 is crouching in the corner trying to do a wee wee. Despite the fact that the Wii is completely backwards compatible (providing you have a Gamecube pad and memory card) it has been the only platform to wii-release games even though the original versions work fine on the console. The Xbox 360 is almost 90% compatible, if you have an internet connection and aren’t signed into Games for Windows, with a few gems like the Otogis and Dino Crisis 3 left in the lurch. The PS3 has a fair number of titles that ‘work with no problems’ but also a fair number that just don’t work at all, which considering the rich pool of PSX and PS2 games is stupidity. The Wii also stands out with respect to yesteryear by keeping the heritage alive through the Virtual Console. All three absolutely fail at retail in that you’d be hard pressed to find a single Gamecube, Xbox or PS2 classic offline. Even online, classics are either ridiculously priced or unavailable. Here’s an idea guys: just bundle the twenty best games from last gen in a reasonably priced package and people might pick it up whilst waiting for the next Mario/Tekken/Halo to drop.
Create Your Own.
Lots of promises were made to allow coders and smaller developers to do it themselves, hoping to identify the next generation of game makers as well as inject some much needed creativity into games at a time when the wider industry is driven by audit culture and copycatting big sellers, perhaps breathing some of the long lost bedroom coder ingenuity back. Unfortunately, the success has been mixed. Problems being that most users remain blissfully unaware of WiiWare or XNA, the whole money for points thing dissuades many from bothering, the lack of quality control means that there are more clones and shite than gold and some companies make the process of publishing games so expensive and drawn out that only the most committed get their stuff approved to a less than interested potential audience. If games like Zack and Wiki and Okami struggle to sell well of the back of widespread praise in the gaming media, then XBLA, WiiWare, XNA and PSN were always going to struggle. If anything, the PSN did well because there isn’t much else to do with the PS3. Games that allow players to create their own in-game stuff have significantly improved the basic level and avatar editor options available previously. Developers then had to curtail the creative freedom by banning levels and characters a la Sporn and Little Big Gradius.
The consoles used to lurk in the shadow of PC gaming when it came to online gaming, with the consoles being stronger in offline multiplayer. The Gamecube didn’t even try, the Xbox made some bold moves and the PS2 was famously laughable ‘online’ according to the four people who once played Medal of Honour: Rising Sun online. How things have changed though, and often we take for granted that online play has only really been properly integrated with the current peck of consoles. The Wii trails in last place but a handful of games offer a solid online experience and the friend code system is a double edged sword in that it’s harder to just pick up and play some games but on the upside you don’t have to endure the torrent of abuse that other systems struggle to prevent. Even though the Wii may trail in online it is the console to play multiplayer offline, the others forgetting the ridiculous time when maximum number of controller ports seemed to be a key 360 vs PS3 battle ground (at one point one of them boasting up to 13 controller ports). The 360 has been almost consistent in making online play both seamless and fun with the occasional blip. Community-wise all three have made great pains to allow sharing, gloating and communication easy and the much delayed Home has started to do some very interesting things, despite early derision. For reasons not understood MMORPGs have yet to make the same impact on a console that Phantasy Star Online did on the Dreamcast (and that was when we had to use dial up).
So although not a comprehensive round up, it seems that this generation hasn’t so much broken the mould as slightly tweaked all the details. Sculpting a bit here, refashioning another bit there. A few instances of outstanding breakthroughs can be found, but it could be argued that the PSP and DS (Lite/i) have done more for moving gaming into interesting new directions without the benefits enjoyed by the sessile consoles. As next next gen starts to creep up on us it may be prudent to look at the 11th hour last gen releases. God of War II, Resident Evil 4, Shadow of the Colossus. All great games squeezing the most from a console, and all released whilst other developers were looking forward or jumping ship.
I feel that this gen has yet to really capitalise on the current technology despite the fact that the technology leap has been arguably greater this last time around than previous generation transitions, Wii excluded. But perhaps tellingly, you rarely see or read from gamers and game critics reflecting on what we expect from this gen and how it has largely failed to deliver (have a search through the pre-Wii, 360 and PS3 release hype and then compare that with the top ten games for each platform). Where’s the sandbox MMO? Why is proper professional competitive gaming still a niche activity? Why was Left 4 Dead so well received for implementing relatively straightforward, albeit polished, ‘innovations’? Where are all the offline multiplayer games? Why hasn’t anybody capitalised on the ideas from one hit wonders Mashed, Freedom Fighters, Project Eden? And where is the Phantom?
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