Special: No, not that kind of state?
As the arrival of the Xbox 360 (and the imminent debut of the PS3) ushers in the next generation of video gaming (sorry Wii ? sub-par graphics, no high definition and a magic wand for a controller means Nintendo has officially dropped out of the race, though they will undoubtedly continue to innovate in their niche) I thought we'd have a look at some of the key areas that are changing the way games are made, and how we play them.
Some industry pundits would have you believe that games like PDZ, Kameo and Call of Duty 2 were somehow lacking, but of course this is pure idiocy on the part of gaming journalists attempting to heap some sort of credibility on themselves by denigrating high quality games and the people that create and market them. No doubt what we'll be seeing in the next few years will make these launch titles pale in comparison, but it's utter folly to deny that they look superior to original Xbox or PS2 games, hands down. One particular jackass comes to mind, and I must admit my hysteria is legendary every time I read yet another ?serious expose? from this moron. Guess what ? we're covering electronic entertainment, not the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Crying about a few poor textures or long load times, they just can't see the forest for the trees. But that's a whole other article.
Graphically, we've come a long way from Resident Evil in 1996. In fact, I believe that people tend to remember older games in ways that aren't realistic. In other words, your mind fills in the blanks, and the game becomes much better looking in your memory than it actually was. Pop in the original RE ? go ahead, I'll wait. Looks like complete ass, doesn't it? I felt the same way when I took a gander at it recently. I remembered it looking a lot better than it actually did, but at the time it was fantastic. When fanboys look at Advanced Warfighter or Oblivion and say ?Xbox 1.5?, not only is it pathetic, but it's obvious they aren't accurately remembering their past gaming experiences. Go ahead and put the older gen games side by side with the new, I guarantee you'll notice a much greater differential than you'd have previously thought.
Visually the new games just take things to a whole other level, and they're only going to get better. Far greater texture detail, more bump and normal mapping (as well as much denser texture passes) realistic faces that can emote with true expression and even details like high quality weapon models and clothing that wrinkles and moves add tremendous immersion to the experience. Additionally, the high resolution of 360 or PS3 games running in 720p or 1080i and displaying razor sharp visuals certainly creates a more vivid gaming environment. A title like Gears of War
has in-game graphics that blow away full on CGI movies from just a few years ago. It's there already ? the ability to play characters that interact with environments that are as dramatically presented as a fully rendered movie. No more going from incredible looking cut-scenes to in-game graphics that are totally inferior. Developers are either moving away from cutscenes entirely (Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter achieves this effortlessly as the entire campaign has your squad moving by APC or chopper to the next staging area, all the while allowing the player to maintain control) or creating a playable environment within them. The upcoming Splinter Cell: Double Agent is a good example of this as you'll be able to control the main character during
the cutscene and seamlessly move from cinema to in-game play without interruption. The heat wash effects of Mexico City in GR:AW, the incredible looking landscapes of Oblivion ? game developers are using the new tool sets to create visuals unlike anything the industry has seen yet. With games like Gears of War and Stranglehold on the horizon, next gen graphics are only going to continue to evolve over the next 4 or 5 years ? a very exciting prospect indeed.
Artificial Intelligence and Physics
Long gone are the days when enemies will simply stand there and be plugged in the head, or run in place, or shoot at the wall (well, maybe not long gone
but it's getting there) while the player effortlessly mows them down. As evidenced by titles like Halo and now even more so with the radiant AI in Oblivion, as well as the keen enemy rebels in Advanced Warfighter, there's much more realism to be had, in your gunfights and everywhere else.
One thing that always bothered me about games ? including some recent ones - was the way characters moved and interacted with each other. Nothing looks worse than trying to stage a cool fight with three bad guys only to have boring, canned animations ruin it as characters move out of sync or clip into each other, basically bumbling their way through the ?fight?. Well, get ready for fights and character animations that look absolutely uncanny in their realism.
First of all there's the new, as yet untitled adventure game for the PS3 from developer Naughty Dog that must be seen in motion to truly appreciate how far we've come. The main character looks amazing, fully realized and bristling with detail, while also appearing incredibly realistic. The environments are just as impressive, as our hero is stalked through a vast jungle by heavily armed mercenaries. It's a third person adventure so the camera tracks behind the character as usual, but the developers appear to be employing some nifty little tricks that help the sense of immersion and create a more cinematic experience. For example, when the hero jumps from a window the camera deftly moves into a cinematic mode that drops down and follows the action as a real-time tracking shot as opposed to something more linear, then instantly and seamlessly returns to player control. This has the advantage of giving everything a natural, fluid feel instead of the stiff vibe of a static, fixed plane camera, while not interfering with gameplay. As well when he leaps across a chasm and barely manages to hold on to the opposing cliff face, his body swings and sways, his arms flail as he reaches for a grip, and stones and foliage from the rock wall cascade down around him. Melee combat is totally realistic, and when he swings or kicks an opponent all the moves have real weight behind them and look dramatically superior to anything from the last generation. Gun battles look amazing and the RE4 style of aiming is augmented by context sensitive actions like landing from a jump and immediately going into combat, kicking over tables, ducking, taking cover and even something as simple as an occasional stumble adds realism and removes the canned animation feel from the game entirely. Enemies react intelligently to your decisions in combat and act accordingly, taking cover or flanking you and calling for backup, as well as blocking and countering properly. No more flailing buffoons this gen ? well, for the most part anyway. Stranglehold for the 360 and PS3 uses similar cinematic techniques combined with new and more realistic physics and ultra high quality motion capture to achieve similar results.
Speaking of physics, LucasArts (some small startup group I think) has partnered with Pixelux Entertainment and Natural Motion to create new and realistic next generation physics and AI technology. Pixelux's Digital Molecular Matter (DMM) is used to simulate real world reactions in-game, meaning that instead of the old school swapping of art assets - an unbroken version of a door or window, a cracked one and finally a fully shattered one ? to display damage, it all happens in real time as objects hitting the door will bend and splinter it, stress and finally break it. Or in the case of a window, crack and eventually shatter it. Everything happens realistically and is based on hardcore scientific data, so every time you strike any given object it will react uniquely depending on the trajectory, speed and weight of the opposing force. What does all this really mean when you're playing a game? It means that everything that happens will be a true, real-time reaction instead of a pre-scripted animation. Because of this, the outcome of any encounter between objects in the world is different every time, and will of course lead to unique and interesting gameplay scenarios. Combined with what we're going to talk about next, gaming looks to be going to a whole new level.
Natural Motion has developed a system called Dynamic Motion Synthesis (DMS) that uses something called bio-mechanical AI. Basically, it's a simulation of the central nervous system that causes computer controlled characters to behave realistically and perform unscripted actions like trying to grab a handhold if they're falling or protecting themselves from blows or flying debris by shielding their eyes and faces ? just like you would in real life - all on the fly, all in real time. The upcoming Indiana Jones game displays a taste of what's to come with this technology as Indy battles Asian thugs atop a speeding trolley car in 1930s San Francisco. The fight looks great, and all the characters involved really look like they're fully integrated into the action. Indy punches one, who rolls to the side of the trolley and grabs the edge, at which point Indy kicks him right off into the street at 60 miles an hour. The enemies give chase in speeding trucks, and they break windows and cause all sorts of real time damage as the climb onto the trolley. Another stage shows Indy squaring off outside a fireworks factory. Flinging enemies into explosive barrels is a literal blast as they fly into the air and grab for stuff to help break the fall. A huge neon sign collapses (again, unscripted ? it's a direct result of the action) and takes out half the fire escape on an opposing building, and several goons grab the edges and dangle, holding on for dear life. One even grabs the leg of another, pulling them both down to land on yet another brick of fireworks with spectacular results. We can definitely look forward to new processes like these to take gaming into a realm of increased realism and immersion. Combine this type of technology with the visuals of the Unreal 3 engine and we can certainly see that the future looks bright for players everywhere.
So there you have it ? a glimpse into the vast new avenues afforded game developers by combining the power of the next gen hardware with technologically innovative software applications. Look for more articles on the evolving face of gaming here at GT in the near future. Next time we'll cover new sound innovations, as well as the evolution of story telling and narrative devices. Until then, stay tuned as these incredible new games make their way to your local shop over the next 18 months.