The current generation of gaming consoles launched last fall, but its first wave of games had the disadvantage of being the first set of boats in unmapped waters. It has taken a year for us to finally get a glimpse of what the next decade of games will look like.
The early games on both Sony and Microsoft's video game console had to meet the holiday season deadline, they competently achieved the minimal promise of new hardware: they looked better. These showpieces — Ryse on Xbox One and Killzone: Shadow Fall on PlayStation 4 — looked like beautified versions of their ancestors on the past decade's gaming hardware. Here is something you've already seen, just a little clearer and smoother than before.
What elevates a handful of games to be released this fall, beginning with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor this week and Alien: Isolation next week, is creative efforts to create systems beneath the beautiful graphics. You can't always see what makes these games so complex, though you can feel it. Both Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation convince the player that, in the moment, enemies are thinking through their actions, that the code is behaving like a human. They may still be following some invisible, handcrafted line through portions of the game, but it's concealed to point of irrelevancy for the player.
Polygon critic Phil Kollar opens his review of Shadow of Mordor by claiming "[the game] provides a clearer road map for the next generation of AAA games than anything that has come previously." Kollar underlines Mordor's nemesis system, which manages a small culture of enemies that have unique strengths, weaknesses, and fears. The nemeses compete with one another for rank, with or without the player's involvement. In February, the game's design director said the nemesis system had to be scaled back for the last generation version of the game.
The best new games of this season convince you that code is behaving like a human
To bluntly over-simplify, Shadow of Mordor uses systems, possible because of improved hardware, to make its worlds more believable. I believe this is the ambition behind many of this season's most interesting new games. I predict the current generation of big-budget games will largely explore how we engage with virtual worlds and their inhabitants in more believable ways, and also how these worlds exist without us.
Or, to capture this premise in one brief video, here's a Mordor player taking advantage of the nemesis system, killing over 20 bosses with a lot of preparation and a single move.
This direction is a reaction to the previous generation of games, which many fans and critics derided for being too "on-rails," a bit of jargon that describes when a game plays as if it's operating on the rails of a roller coaster. It pulls you through the thrill ride without offering much choice on where it goes and how it gets there. Games like Call of Duty and Uncharted received this criticism, and so too did traditionally more open-ended games like Final Fantasy 13. With a heavy hand guiding the player through each game, developers crafted spectacular experiences that looked like movies — and played like them too. At the lowest point, the previous generation of video games felt like a stroll down a hallway while playing a game of Simon.
Shadow of Mordor, while morally sticky, is a brilliantly designed set of systems, and playing it is like sipping mineral water after years spent drinking Mountain Dew. The game uses the extra power of the new hardware to populate its world with dozens of enemies and chaotic beasts, giving each of them lifelike traits. In its best moments, there's no script. You simply set a scene in motion, perhaps taking advantage of a chaotic scrimmage between the game's villains to sneak into camp, release a hungry creature, and watch it feast from a safe distance.
Instead of crafting a community of baddies, Alien: Isolation hones in on the believability of one. The titular alien stalks the player throughout its protracted campaign. Here's my colleague Andrew Webster describing the game's take on the xenomorph:
The xenomorph is really the core of Alien: Isolation. There's only one in the game, and the developers spent a lot of time ensuring it was as authentic as possible. The work paid off: the xenomorph is the most terrifying enemy I've ever come across in a game. It's not just that it seems so formidable - early on you have no real defense against it, though that changes a bit once you get a flamethrower - but it's cunning in a way that gaming villains typically aren't. Those rare times when you get a good look at it, you can see it methodically investigating, using its eyes and ears to find anything that might be hiding. If there's a sound it will immediately head over to check it out, and when it sees you it leaps with terrifying precision. It genuinely feels like it's thinking. And it always seems to be thinking about killing you.
In last year's Aliens: Colonial Marines, the player follows a strict trail through the universe, shooting at xenomorphs that pop out from the same holes. Because the game was a buggy mess, the monsters would occasionally get stuck in an animation, repeating the same action, like a broken George Washington-bot in the Hall of Presidents. But this year, we have an alien game that scales down the number of beasts, as if syphoning all the intelligence of the mindless creatures of the previous first-person shooter to create something with a capacity for thought and strategy. You believe the alien is real when you feel, in the most terrifying moments, like you're actually being hunted.
These games are a reaction to the limited, cinematic blockbusters of the last generation
I predict this idea of a believable, tangible world that could seemingly exist without the player will become a more prominent feature of the next decade of large-budget games. Even traditionally "on-rails" games will begin to open up, allowing players more choice and involvement and effect on the digital worlds. We're already seeing hints of other ways this may appear in Forza Horizon 2, in which the cars populating by open-world, car-friendly version of Europe are driven by artificial intelligence meant to replicate the driving style of my closest friends who've also played the game. This beautiful system, dopily named Drivatar, appeared in last year's Forza game, Forza Motorsport 5, but feels much more human, a weird thing to say about cars. In the open-world setting the artificially intelligent version of The Verge's Chris Ziegler can force a race off-road and through what looks like the Italian countryside. And then there are games in the distance like No Man's Sky, a game developed by a small team of independent designers that intends to let its players explore an entire universe — to scale — with the help of crafty art design and algorithms that take a human prompt and create entire worlds.
Of course we're not at the point where the majority of current-generation games aspire to be more than the prettiest iteration in a popular franchise from the last generation. This year, we'll still have plenty of games that rely on scripted events and cinematic spectacle. We'll see games that must be possible on both current and previous hardware, hamstrung by their popularity. And we'll see a handful of games that are high-definition updates of older games.
The majority of current generation games are still like the previous generation, but prettier. Last year, that wasn't so bad. But waiting for games that truly take advantage of the new hardware is more difficult now that we can come into contact with a small part of the future.