It’s been a great-but-interesting year for video games. We have seen new intellectual properties in the form of Bulletstorm and LA Noire along with a boat load of sequels and three-quels. As the sun begins to set on 2011, it is obvious that new game engines were the real stars year. Some of the best titles this year featured some form of new software-based technology. As rumors of new consoles looms over 2012, I think we should just step back and realize that what we need is more new engines, not new consoles.
The newer the better
Recently (like most people) I’ve been spending a lot of time traversing the Skyrim countryside. Skyrim is a beautiful, but cold, land populated by many different creatures, people and cultures. The world beams with amazing beauty (and dragons!) The most visually stimulating moment I have had so far is admiring the Aurora Borealis while a dragon patrols the skies. This is all done with the help of Bethesda’s new Creation Engine. The engine allows the environments to feel more alive – trees are given weight so they properly move in the windand snowfall actually lands on the ground without clipping. On top of that, the sheer amount of content in Skyrim along with the rumors that 75 hours is not enough time to scratch the surface represents not only an epic achievement by Bethesda, but a ground breaking advance video game design. The technology is a major upgrade from the Gamebryo Engine used in Oblivion and Fallout 3. Fallout and Oblivion felt stiff at times, despite the sense that the worlds were “alive.” The difference between Skryim and Oblivion is culture – the residents of Cyrodiil seemed to be roaming the world with little purpose and conversations with NPCs were as vanilla as could be. Overhearing conversations typically went like this:
- “Hello there!”
- “How do you do?”
- “I’m through talking to you …”
- “Goodbye ..”
While the Oblivion NPCs had the appearance that they had lives, friends and things to do, they still acted more like robotic simulacra than anything else, making the world itself come across as very stiff. In contrast, the rugged world of Skyrim has very specific culture identities attached to it. The native Nords feel like they are from Scandinavia and the Redguards come across as being strangers in the arctic land. This living culture has been absent from previous Elder Scrolls games as well as the new Fallout titles. With its new engine powering the Skyrim experience, Bethesda has reset the bar for not only RPGs, but what we should be expecting from this console generation.
Frostbite 2 from DICE and EA was another newbie in the engine world this year, created with flexibility in mind and focused on textures, lighting, and enhancing the realism within Battlefield 3‘s set pieces. Frostbite 2 was developed with the intention to allow the game designers more freedom as they design the game. With BF3 as the flagship game for the new engine, large set pieces in the single player and multiplayer game modes are prominent. The visual abilities of Frostbite 2 allow a for very cinematic feel. Sure, there are a few short falls, but you simply cannot deny how incredible BF3 looks. EA has announced that they used Frostbite 2 for development of Need For Speed: The Run and expect to employ it for Mirror’s Edge 2. The technical qualities of EA’s Frostbite 2 games should increase as developers and designers spend more time with the engine. I am sure that the visuals of Mirror’s Edge 2 and physics will be outstanding thanks to Frostbite 2.
I Recommend Engine Augmentation
Many developers would benefit from the use of a new engine and Rockstar is high on the list. We all know that Grand Theft Auto is undergoing its fifth iteration in the series and it may be safe to assume that this will be the sixth game from Rockstar using the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE), including the scheduled 2012 release of Max Payne 3. GTA could be taken to a new level with a new engine. There are many benefits and upgrades that a shiny new engine would bring to Rockstar; not only would a new engine make GTA look better, I think the structure of the game could be enhanced as well. The current GTA model is an open world game with a specific story line accompanied by side missions and mini games. The story formula can be very linear and somewhat shallow. A new engine that allowed for more opportunities to give the protagonist more depth would only help with the next game. Further, GTA would also benefit from a radiant storytelling system like that seen in Skyrim. I would love to see the next protagonist have a reputation that would increase, giving you access to more sophisticated ‘jobs.’ Introducing that kind of model could do a lot to help freshen up the franchise.
Depth should be the focus for developers going forward this generation. The new engines have shown that there is still life within this console generation, and should be exploited. Period. We would get better games visually and contextually and it could be great for everyone.
The Writing Is On The Wall
Unfortunately, we face the stark reality that new consoles are coming. Rumor has it that the next generation will debut in 2012. Epic has also made very clear that Unreal Engine 4 will not make an appearance until the next console generation, but I’m not actually sure if Epic is working on anything concrete at the moment using Unreal 4, particularly when Square announced that they signed a contract to use Unreal Engine 3 for multiple games just last week. If we don’t see the next generation arrive in 2012, I expect them to rear their ugly heads no later than 2013. I don’t like this news at all. Sure, Frostbite 2 and Creation should look outstanding on the next console, but they already look great on this generation.
I am skeptical with the idea that we need new consoles. I’m sure that new consoles are never ‘needed’, but the hardware makers have to stay ahead of the competition and keep the bottom line black. The way that Microsoft, in particular, has supported and evolved the 360 makes a new console seem unnecessary. To be honest, I’m not ready to purchase a new console. Towards the end of a console life cycle, a new engine shows up to dazzle and impress all of us. Then, shortly thereafter, it seems that the brand new console arrives and steals the new engine’s thunder. A few years into the new generation, the engine looks tired and worn down.
Now, I know the PC crowd will respond by telling me just to build a PC. We have to remember that the majority of people playing video games are using consoles as their device of choice. We can debate the differences between consoles and the PC all day. Even engines created specifically for a PC ended up looking great on consoles and the Crytek Engine is no exception – Crysis 2 looked outstanding on consoles! My point is that the console development cycle seems to start right after the previous console iteration has finally hit its stride. We, the consumers, are always the losers here. I would love to see what Creation and Frostbite can do within this generation, but I doubt there is enough time left in the life cycle to see what these engines can really accomplish before developers have to start learning how to program for an entirely new generation of systems.
My hope is that the Sony and Microsoft are announcing Xbox 360.5 and Playstation 3.5 instead of the Xbox 720 or PS4 just to stretch out the current life-cycles. It will be very interesting to see what happens knowing that Wii U is also looming in the next year. We also know (for now) that Wii U is a step ahead of Wii, but only a baby step ahead of Xbox and Sony. There will be plenty of time in the slower months to speculate about the potential new consoles. For right now, let’s enjoy ourselves and focus on the upcoming holiday and game of the year celebrations. Let’s be thankful that 2011 has been a great year for games with some of the most impressive game technology yet.
Giant Bomb (images)