What is a next-gen game?
This November, the Xbox 360 will be eight years old. The PlayStation 3 will be seven. At the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo, we finally got acquainted with their successors. The new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 represent a new generation of consoles, the fabled “next generation,” and with them comes the tantalizing possibility of “next-gen” games.
What does a next-gen game look like, though? What does “next-gen” even mean?
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It’s kind of a given: if you give game developers faster hardware, they’ll build more graphically impressive games. With great horsepower comes great responsibility to make a great first impression, and practically every next-gen game we saw had more compelling visuals than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 equivalent. Mind you, we’re not necessarily talking about better art — though that’s sometimes true — but often simply the resolution and smoothness.
Battlefield 4 publisher Electronic Arts is making a big deal of how its game can run at 60 frames per second on console, and Quantum Break looked unbelievably silky in a quick demonstration. Textures, models, and lighting also looked fantastic, and the insanely detailed virtual automobiles of Forza Motorsport 5 did perhaps the best job of showing that off. The way light and shadow play across the finely textured carbon fiber and glossy painted surfaces of a McLaren P1 is incredible. The new consoles’ power also allows for many more objects and characters on screen at the same time, and the ability to see more of the world at once.
One of the major reasons the graphics seem so great has little to do with graphics at all. We’re seeing next-gen game developers embrace physics and other advanced computer simulations of reality in ways that create a feeling of immersion and let you actively influence the world around you. Next-gen sports games in particular look fantastic, now that players can have up to 1,000 animations just for their basic movements, and now that the game recalculates how they should react to other players with every step they take.
The open world
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Many new dynamic environments aren’t designed to traverse just once. An incredible number of games, including Destiny, Watch Dogs, Dead Rising 3, Mad Max, Need for Speed: Rivals, and even Metal Gear Solid 5, all take place in vast open worlds. Ubisoft claims Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is three times the size of the previous game. The Witcher 3 is thirty-five times bigger, says developer CD Projekt Red. The idea is to inspire a sense of discovery, of adventure, as you navigate seas, explore islands, traverse wastelands, and hack your way (with smartphones, not cleavers) through a presumably dystopian metropolis.
Single player = multiplayer
Drop-in, drop-out multiplayer games have been with us since the days of the arcade, but today’s games are taking multiplayer one step further and integrating it into the single-player experience. We’ve seen what games like Journey and Dark Souls can be like when players can become spirits that invade your world, but now games like Watch Dogs and Need for Speed: Rivals are taking the idea corporeal. Need for Speed: Rivals applies a similar idea to cop vs. street racer chases: if you’re playing a racer and another player is playing a cop, each of you in a single-player game, the network can seamlessly merge the two sessions to give each of you a human opponent.
Meanwhile, Forza 5 and the epic shooter Titanfall are taking a different tack, subbing in artificial intelligence for real players.
The second screen
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Last but not least, we saw constant examples of how developers intend to embrace tablets and smartphones in their latest games. Project Spark lets you build entire worlds with the tablet, using your fingers to carve and craft. In Watch Dogs, Need for Speed: Rivals, and The Division, you can use your mobile device to monitor and assist your friends, while Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag uses the device as a sort of GPS for your ship, providing a map with your current position, allowing you to place markers and send your assassin recruits on missions.
Battlefield 4‘s tablet integration might be the most ambitious, though. With an iPad or Android tablet, you’ll command an entire 32-player army, issuing orders, scanning the map for threats, dropping supplies and even launching cruise missile strikes.
We’re just scratching the surfaces of what the next generation has to offer, assuming we’re even seeing true next-gen games at all. As some developers from EA and Ubisoft admitted, we’re really still in a transitional period between the console generations. Many of the games we’re seeing here at E3 2013 were conceived before PS4 and Xbox One specs were even finalized, to say nothing of working with the actual controllers and development kits. Many of the games we did manage to see are far from complete, and most developers guided us through carefully scripted demos rather than allowing us to play.
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