Once Seen, Never Unseen

With Wii U on the horizon, it’s pretty clear that we’re closing in on the end of this console generation. We’ve covered Nintendo’s new machine on Splitkick already, raising concerns about its ability to stand side-by-side with the coming competition, at least in terms of power. Some people claim that the visual quality offered by this generation can’t be improved on. They claim we are reaching the peak of how good real-time experiences can look. They claim Nintendo doesn’t need to worry about keeping up.

They are wrong.

Some people claim that the visual quality offered by this generation can’t be improved on.The visual jump between the original PlayStation and its successor was huge. Looking back on the first game I ever played on a Sony platform, Die Hard Trilogy, it was was hardly a looker. For my PlayStation 2′s inaugural power-on though, it was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, a game which still looks great. The difference was astounding and, as that generation went on – the Xbox was introduced and the GameCube faltered – I gradually started to believe that things just couldn’t get any better. I got used to how things were, but in turn less impressed with what I saw.

Then came the next generation. I wasn’t overly impressed by the likes of Perfect Dark Zero initially. Sure, it looked a little smoother but the models weren’t much more believable and neither were the effects. Rare’s title was just a starter though, and main course titles like Gears of War, Killzone 2, and Forza 3 proved how wrong I was and forced me to leap into the next-gen.

The advent of bump and normal mapping, mip mapping, field of view, dynamic lighting, dynamic soft shadows, self shadowing, has all contributed to a higher level of visual quality than we’ve ever seen on home consoles. While releases still range between eye-candy and eye-rot, effects like these have become ubiquitous.

So ubiquitous, in fact, that I hardly notice them any more. I fire up games like Batman: Arkham City and I shrug my shoulders. Apathy, I think you would call it, and it’s the same feeling I encountered at the end of the PlayStation 2 era. Fortunately, developers are preparing to blow my mind all over again.

Epic recently unveiled a new video demo for Unreal Engine 4 that highlighted outstanding new technology. Coloured light now plays with particle smoke, surfaces dynamically reflect the world around them rather than just preset textures, and objects can display the luminance and transparency qualities of the materials they are supposed to be made of. The video has set my expectations momentarily high.

There are a few titles which have started to sneak some of the next generation’s technology in, and in playing them I’m already starting to see “next” as “the norm”. Max Payne 3, played on PC with the settings cranked all the way up, looks so wonderful that a console release for a game like Modern Warfare 3 is instantly underwhelming. My eyes and mind are already used to amazing reflections and newly, incrementally perfected lighting. That guy’s sweat doesn’t reflect light? Pfft!

In three, four and five years time you will be struggling to believe your eyes all over again.Which starts the cycle all over again. I watch the Unreal Engine 4 demo, then some Spec Ops: The Line gameplay, and I think – “No, UE4 is as good as it gets. I can’t imagine what more they would add.”

And I’m wrong again. I know I am, but I’m falling into the lull of seeing the new range of shiny effects and believing – like I did with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 or Gears of War – that there’s nowhere else to go. The dynamically lit smoke? Alright. The luminescent materials? Whatever.

However, I’ve seen the error of my ways this time around. I know that the Unreal Engine 4 demo isn’t the be all and end all. We’re only just seeing what new software can do, and that’s on current lines of PC and late-cycle console hardware. With new machines and cards, alongside continual improvement from middleware providers and in-house engineers, developers are going to keep pushing. Knowing this, I refuse to feel apathetic towards the future, because I’ve been shown time and time again that it is never as plain, never as normal, as I think it will be when I first see it and the wonder wears off.

Look at Die Hard Trilogy, look at Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, look at Gears of War, then the Unreal Engine 4 demo. When that’s all done, imagine how good things are yet to be and feel yourself get excited. In three, four and five years time you will be struggling to believe your eyes all over again. Keep it coming developers and hardware makers, you’ve finally got me psyched.

Personally, I predict even sparklier smoke.

About Martin Perry

Martin Perry is Reviews Editor for Splitkick.
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