Monday, February 3, 2014

Next Gen Wishlist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately  about what I’d want to see sooner rather than later on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so I thought I’d just scratch it down here and get the conversation going. There’s plenty more where these came from, so I may follow this up with a few more.

So…in no particular order;

Halo

Halo

I enjoyed Halo 4 a lot. Mostly because I just really like the Halo universe and the associated lore, so I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt in that same irrational way that I give the vast majority of Star Wars stuff the benefit of the doubt. I know it had problems, but overall I enjoyed myself. For a next gen reinvigoration though, I want something we can all really sink our teeth into.

Top of my list; let’s flesh out a decent big bad of some description.

The Covenant are classic, but let’s face it; they’re played-out in their current context. Also: big daddy Covenant is dead. So we’re kinda done with them, right?

On the other hand, the Prometheans (particularly the Knights) seem pretty awesome, plus they do that great orange sparky-glowy dissolve thing when you kill them, which is particularly satisfying. My problem with them though is that their Senior Vice President of Evil, the Didact, is just a shitty bad guy. Sure, he looks like the offspring of Voldemort and Nosferatu wrapped in body armor crafted by the Reapers from Mass Effect, but whether you think he looks intimidating or credible or whatever, the bigger problem is the fact that his motivations are just silly. If you do some digging online, there’s a ton of information out there about why he’s so pissed at humanity and why he’s intent on wiping them out, but not much of it actually made it into the game. Top of the list; it’s not clear why he chose to try and digitize everyone to death, which just seems like an idea out of a crappy 80s sci-fi movie.

Maybe all he had to watch while he was stuck inside the Cryptum was a copy of Tron on VHS?

I understand that, like him or not, we’re stuck with Ur-Didact for the time being so hopefully we’ll see more of his history, and particularly his relationship with the Librarian, given some due attention. Next time I shoot a nuclear warhead at him, it’d be good to understand a bit more about him.

Also, it goes without saying that we need Halo multiplayer to go back to being more like Halo multiplay, and a lot less like Call of Duty multiplayer. And if they want to put Firefight in there too, pretty much as-is but with the new graphics engine, that certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Red Dead Revolution

Zorro 1080

Red Dead Revolver was set in the 1880s, Red Dead Redemption was set in 1911. While they share a franchise name, there was little to link the two games, and certainly no indication that there’s any kind of narrative thread running through the Red Dead timeline. For a third in the series, I think it could be interesting to push back in time again, maybe even as far as the 1840s or 1850s and tackle the transition from the California Republic to the admission of the state into the Union. This could introduce some Zorro-like shenanigans and perhaps some swordplay into the mix.

At first glance this may sound like I’m proposing that Rockstar turn Red Dead into Assassin’s Creed, but I think there’s a ton of potential for the brand to dig into American and Mexican history of the period and dabble in some creative storytelling around a Don Diego de la Vega style character, but with a grittier 21st century take on the concept. Note: I’m not saying “make a Zorro game,” just “make a game with a Zorro-style anti-hero in it.”

Hitman

Hitman Absolution Game Wallpaper HD

Absolution ended up being an essentially linear experience that was made up of small open environments. Let’s go back to the freedom of earlier games, and allow for some big, elaborate hits that are less scripted and more opportunistic. Guns are fine for some hits, but it would be good to see the world filled with objects that may (or may not) be used to carry out the hit, either in combination with other objects or on their own. Rather than giving some objects in the world a credible physical model, I’d love to see everything behave more like we’d expect - so you can set up traps by stacking objects, binding them together, or relying on their mass and weight.

In terms of story - can we please go back to 47 being an international hitman? Also, let’s bring things back on track and have him back at the ICA again.

Also, Jesper Kyd for the soundtrack again, please.

Mass Effect Trilogy “Definitive Edition

Screenshot pc mass effect 3 7 41106

It wouldn’t be called this, but I’m going to use “Definitive Edition” as shorthand for the idea of taking a previous generation game and remaking it for the new consoles. Tomb Raider set the tone for what’s possible more than adequately, but we need to be careful what we wish for. Much as I’d love to see some “definitive” adaptations of my favorite games, I’d hate for it to become a crutch. Given the costs involved with next gen development, it’s certainly a possibility that we’ll see more of this than we might hope for. Regardless, I’d love to play through the Mass Effect Trilogy again, only with everything wrapped in the highest resolution textures available, the whole thing relit, and with the combat system from Mass Effect 3 plugged into the first two games. Throw in all the DLC and I’d happily pay a princely sum for the whole thing repackaged in some kind of collectors edition thing along with books I’ll never look at and statues that my wife won’t let me put on show anywhere.

The Elder Scroll: Skyrim

Skyrim gameplay2

Same as for Mass Effect. Will never happen in a million years, but if Bethesda ever wanted to port it to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and use the PC assets, that would be just fine with me. Maybe give the lighting a once-over while you’re at it.

Deus Ex: Human Evolution

2DeusExHumanRevolution AdamJensen

I’m such a sucker for the whole cyberpunk aesthetic, and Eidos Montreal got so much right with Human Revolution that it made me happily overlook the things that they got wrong. For a sequel I’d like to see something post-2027, but pre-2050. The introduction of nano tech completely changes the dynamics of the Deus Ex universe, so witnessing the beginnings of that is something I’d like to see explored in some detail. Let’s call it “Human Evolution” to tie it in with the last game without slipping into sequel malaise. I’m happy to see Adam Jensen return, but for god’s sake can we have someone other than Elias Toufexis do his voice, please? His caricature-like Clint Eastwood sneer was almost comical in its delivery. I don’t know if he was trying to channel David Hayter and create something vaguely Snake-like, but it failed on just about every level for me. Jensen was a character with a credible backstory, clearly haunted by the position he found himself in, but in “real life” if he went around talking like that, everyone would just burst out laughing every time he opened his mouth. Let’s see an older, more experienced Jensen that delivers his lines like a human being.

Rather than have the new game hop from location to location, I’d like to see the new one have a single city that’s designed in a way that allows more of an open world RPG-like approach to the gameplay. Human Revolution did a pretty good job of presenting an illusion of freedom at times, but ultimately it was more of an elaborate shooter than a role playing game. Let’s fill the city with NPCs that behave in a “next gen” way… have them react to action as it unfolds around them. Also, let’s develop some multi-dimensional adversaries that are less comic-book “big bads” and build on some credible motivation for their actions. If Deus Ex was the James Bond franchise, we’re still in the silly years when it comes to the bad guys. It needs its Casino Royale moment.

One thing I wouldn’t change; the score. Bring back Michael McCann for the new game, and let him riff on Icarus as much as he damn well likes.

 

Next Gen Games Need to Feel More Alive

If all we get from next gen consoles is prettier graphics and better digital distribution, then the experiences aren’t going to be noticeably different from what we had before. What we need is a focus on other technologies.

Johnny 5 Still Alive by the ovin

I’m wowed by the visuals already. Assassin’s Creed IV is superb, but it’s basically just a very pretty current-gen game. Killzone: Shadowfall is beautiful but really, really badly designed. Ryse is stunning but hopelessly vapid. Battlefield 4 has moments of grandeur and majesty that are utterly ruined by whatever the fuck it is that DICE did to screw up on the server side during development. I appreciate that it’s hard to pass that much information around a network - but it’s not like they’ve not done it before. Knack is cute, but is held back by a design doc from 1998 that Mark Cerny clearly fished out from behind his sofa. Of all the next gen launch titles, the one that really stands out for me is Forza 5. Not because it looks that much better than Forza 4 (it doesn’t) but because the ludicrously-named “Drivatars” exhibit believable on-track behavior that I can accredit to my friends, who I can then berate on Twitter for driving like arseholes.

For me, this is the key to the experiential “wow” that we need to see in the coming years. Graphics will obviously get better and better, and that’s lovely - but things need to take a step in a completely new direction.

From talking to game development people that are far cleverer than I about such things, it seems that the very best of what’s to come will actually be the stuff that’s much harder to demonstrate in a big glitzy graphical showcase. Any post-launch game reveal can bedazzle us all with a graphical orgasm that stirs up a ton of Twitter noise, but anyone with a tricked-out PC and a worldwide media event can do that. I saw the Star Wars 1313 demo running on a big, throbbing multi-GPU PC in real-time a couple of years ago, so I’m already au fait with graphical trouser tingle. It’s going to take a lot more than pretty pictures to justify the “next generation.”

So...here’s what I hope we’re all going to be talking about six months from now - not graphics (OK, maybe a little,) not digital distribution or streaming content, but two things specifically  physics and AI. The things that will make our games feel more alive.

I want to see environments that aren’t completely static, or that only react in predictably scripted ways. When you’re running around in Black Ops 2 or Ghosts, the fact that structures don’t get completely obliterated and fall over when you hit them repeatedly with a War Machine makes the whole thing feel contrived. Some games have been playing with this for a while, but we’re still not seeing the idea implemented very often because it requires the whole project to be built around the idea. Criterion’s criminally-underrated Black did it to startling effect on PS2 back in 2006. Battlefield 3 took a step in the right direction by crumpling things in a more believable fashion, and Battlefield 4 has some moments of absolute jaw-dropping magnificence. Breach played around with it somewhat, but I want to see physics models consistently applied with as much care and attention as the pretty textures. This is insanely complicated and difficult to do, I’m told, but as an audience we’re certainly ready. We can’t keep running around static sets forever. When game worlds are modeled physically as well as aesthetically, we’re going to see levels designed in a very different way and we’ll see more emergent experiences based on our interactions with environments.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m also pretty sick of NPC’s behaving like morons. If Sony is going to insist on making yet another Killzone despite no one asking for it, let’s at least make it more than a graphical showpiece. Let’s have some of that epic computing power devoted to the Helghast actually behaving the way we’d expect them to. Let’s have them show some awareness of their environment and what’s actually happening around them. Yes, I know they duck into cover in Shadowfall, but I want to believe that a group of soldiers standing within a few hundred feet of each other aren’t utterly oblivious to one another. I want to be able to accept that these guys might possibly know each other - so if I shoot one of them, the others actually react. More than just scattering for cover, I want to see them responding in a way that shows they’re operating as a cohesive unit, and are relying on one another.

In previous generations, as players we all got very used to name-checking graphics engines like Unreal and Frostbite as a shorthand barometer for visual expectations. The challenge of implementing artificial intelligence systems is that the needs are much more specialized, but I would anticipate that in the coming years we’ll start name-checking brand-name engines that control pathfinding and behavior with similar enthusiasm. What will they be? Honestly, I really don’t know, but my hope is that we’ll take comfort from seeing certain A.I. engines flagged in startup sequences just as we do now for graphics engines. Perhaps dudebro’s the world over will eventually be heard uttering, “Hey bra, this thing uses Aggrobrain 2.0 combat A.I., it’s amaze-balls,” while Icing each other. Or something.

Probably not, but the discussion I want to kick off here is that there are more important things than graphics with these new consoles. Let’s hope studios try and do something brave with the next gen, rather than just give us prettier and prettier versions of experiences we’ve already had.