In Defence of Next-Gen Graphics

Quite a lot of people are attacking the next-gen gaming consoles because ‘the only tangible improvements that they will make to games is to the graphics’. I have said before that the launch of these new consoles is badly timed and I do not own either because I don’t feel it is a justified expense, but I also think that people are being a bit harsh about how little improvements in graphics (and processing power) will matter…

Next-Gen Graphics

I am sceptical myself, I have to admit. I realise that many big-name games will continue to focus on graphical power over actual gameplay and content. Look at Forza 5 on the XBox One, which has around half the number of cars and tracks that were present in Forza 4 on the Xbox 360. But it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.

Take a look at the video below. It’s a comparison video between the Tomb Raider prequel/reboot/origin story thing that was released last year on the PS3 and Xbox 360 and the new ‘Definitive Edition’, which is being launched later this year on the PS4 and X-bone.

via IGN.co.uk

This video, for me, shows some of the tangible benefit of improved graphics and shows just what the next-gen consoles are capable of. I really liked Tomb Raider (as I said in my review) and it was already a beautiful game, but the Definitive Edition does look really impressive.

It just looks prettier!

You might argue that it just LOOKS prettier, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Lets start with some of the side features. The draw distance is higher, so you can see further into the world ahead of you. This is cool, but what does it add? In a game like Tomb Raider it adds to the feeling of isolation and helps emphasise that there is a huge island to explore and conquer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that might not have much tangible impact on the game. The explosions are pretty cool. They seem a lot more realistic and yet more subtle than their last gen counterparts… This is just prettiness really, I can’t argue with that, but we all know explosions are cool! Then there’s the denser foliage that reacts more naturally as Lara moves through it; also cool but not strictly necessary. On the other hand you could argue that such features will also improve your immersion into the game world!

Then there’s the lighting: with more processing power, the game can have a more advanced a realistic lighting model. Again, so what? Well, again, it’s about immersion. Tomb Raider has a lot of atmospheric moments; moments where you are supposed to feel scared and lost and claustrophobic. Games like Half Life and Bioshock are also dripping with atmosphere and one way that they create that atmosphere is through the clever use of lighting.

Finally we get to the big one: Lara herself. She has been improved a lot, looking a lot more realistic and this is because, if the video is to be believed, she has been rebuilt from the ground up. Things like the advanced hair and sub-surface scattering on the skin are great for improving the realism of the character, but they have also been able to put more polygons into her face. This not only looks better, but allows them to use more of the data captured from the actor’s performance and improves Lara’s ability to emote. In a story like this, where the character’s emotional journey is very important, I think that having more realistic, subtle and detailed facial expressions has the potential to add a lot. We’ve already seen other games like LA Noire that have the ability to read other people’s expressions and tell if they are lying as a core part of the game mechanic and such features will only improve this.

Final Thoughts

Don’t get me wrong, I have my doubts about the quality of the ‘triple-A’ games that we will see on Next Gen.¬† I don’t expect games like Call of Duty that have no story or character to them to benefit in the ways I describe above (but I admit that in a game that’s all about spectacle and being forced through over-the-top set-pieces, these aspects might benefit from graphical improvements). I’m also sure we’ll see more poor decisions (like the lack of content in Forza), plus more studios being put in danger by the increased cost involved in actually making the games.

However, there is the potential that some games might actually be able to make good use of the additional processing power and might even go on to justify buying one of those big, black monoliths. (Alternatively, you could buy it on PC and get an even better experience, but lets pretend I didn’t say that!).