The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have some sharp-looking games, but those launch titles aren’t setting the world on fire. Sure, the new Killzone and Dead Rising look better than previous incarnations, but not by enough to justify the price of a new console for many gamers. Thankfully, better looking games are just over the horizon.
One of the benefits of having a relatively static platform is that software developers can get to know the intricacies of the hardware and eventually squeeze out some amazing results. The Xbox One has some quirky ESRAM in the mix, and the PS4 has the benefit of unified GDDR5 memory.
While both machines use relatively standard parts, the different paths Sony and Microsoft have each taken with their respective consoles means that software optimisation is going to play a big part in pushing the medium forward. Developers are still getting their feet wet with the new platforms, so it’ll take a few waves of mediocre looking games before we see someone completely knock it out of the park.
When you look back at previous generations, it’s easy to see the stark contrast between early releases and late releases.
Often, games released early in the generation look relatively stripped down and minimalistic. As time goes on, games become more graphically elaborate, and the amount of polish skyrockets. Even better, new features and techniques proliferate over the lifespan of a generation, and lead to better games on the whole.
If you’re sceptical about the future of console games, just take a look at the brief history of platform evolution. When you go through a head-to-head comparison, it’s quite clear that console releases get drastically better over time.
We’ll start with Ridge Racer…
Over the lifetime of the PlayStation, the Ridge Racer series saw substantial visual upgrades. As you can see in the top screenshot, the first Ridge Racer title features sparse lighting effects and very blocky textures. Six years later, the release of R4 was an outstanding example of what time and familiarity can provide to game developers. The cars and environments are far from perfect, but the devs made huge strides towards photorealism in a relatively short period of time.
Super Mario 64 launched alongside the Nintendo 64 in 1996, and helped define what a 3D platformer should be. The outstanding art design went a long way to make Super Mario 64 stand out, but later N64 games ended up looking noticeably better. Three years later, Donkey Kong 64 took advantage of the extra 4MB of RAM in the N64′s Expansion Pak accessory to display textures at a higher resolution.
Similarly, the jump from Ocarina of Time to Majora’s Mask was just as impressive. Despite using many of the same assets, Majora’s Mask’s increased draw distance and high-res textures gives it a much sharper look than its more notable predecessor. Again, the N64′s Expansion Pak is partially to thank for the visual improvements.
In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III was an astounding step forward for the series. It dropped the top-down perspective of earlier titles, and brought Liberty City to life. Even so, GTA III looks primitive compared to San Andreas. In a short three-year time frame, the developers were able to give the character models, the environment, and the whole game engine some much needed refinements.
Not every improvement comes strictly down to visuals, though. Halo 2 introduced the multiplayer and matchmaking services of Xbox Live that are now expected features of modern consoles. While the first Halo game only featured local multiplayer, the sequel helped usher in an era of connected gaming.
While the original God of War on the PS2 was a beautiful game in 2005, its sequel really pushed the hardware to its limits. With incredible use of lighting effects, God of War II was a masterpiece of its time. Considering that the PS3 had launched months before the release of GoW II, this title proved to be an amazing swan song for the PS2.
Sports games are always a solid way to judge the progress of a console. We see a new Madden hit the shelves every year, and with that comes a clear indicator of how far the visuals have progressed on a given platform. If you compare early Madden titles on the last-gen platforms to recent releases, you’ll notice a huge difference. Facial modelling and motion capture have drastically improved, and we can see a solid trend towards more realistic depictions of human beings.
The visual difference between Halo 3 and Halo 4 is enormous. After Bungie left the Halo franchise, 343 Industries took over, and effectively modernised the engine from top to bottom. Not only did the controls and mechanics get retooled in Halo 4, but the whole engine got a fresh coat of paint as well. The textures were sharper, the game finally rendered at 720p, and the multiplayer mode actually required that the game be installed to the console’s hard drive.
Gears of War helped usher in an era of cover-based shooters on the Xbox 360. It’s an important series, and you can clearly see how the quality improved with every release from the folks at Unreal. In the first screenshot, you can tell that fine details like hair and cloth are woefully clunky in 2006. By the time Gears of War 3 came out in 2011, the hair and cloth on Marcus Fenix’s head looks markedly more realistic.
The first Mass Effect in 2007 was incredibly ambitious, but the visuals fell flat. The harsh film grain, lacklustre geometry, and over-reliance on repetitive scenery all dragged down an otherwise impressive aesthetic. Thankfully, BioWare corrected these issues in the sequels, and ended up realising the potential of the first game. By the time Mass Effect 3 released in 2012, it was one of the best looking games on Unreal Engine 3.
Call of Duty 2 was a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005, and it shows. Frankly, it looks more like an upscaled original Xbox game, but that level of detail was seen as acceptable at the time. When you compare that game with Black Ops II, they look like they’re from different generations. In later CoD releases, the lighting is superb, the textures pop, and the humans look less like creepy robot men.
Grand Theft Auto IV was absolutely stunning when it launched in 2008, but it just can’t compare to the technical chops of last year’s Grand Theft Auto V. The environment is vast and varied, the frame rate is mostly rock solid, and the highly detailed character models really help sell some of the more dramatic moments. Rockstar takes its sweet time between releases, and the company’s attention to detail really pays off in the visual department.
The team at Naughty Dog is well-known for its technical prowess on the PS3. Uncharted released in 2007 to a huge fanfare, but little did we know how much better games can look on that hardware. The Uncharted sequels continually improved on the aesthetics, but Naughty Dog blew the doors off with the release of last year’s The Last of Us. Everything about the visuals is astounding, and it’s clear that Naughty Dog was able to wring every ounce of performance from the aging platform.
Aging like a fine wine
It’s too early to tell how much more performance the Xbox One and PS4 have to give. Even so, we can rest assured that quality will continue to ratchet upwards. From Ridge Racer to The Last of Us, games have consistently improved technically, and there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t expect the same results this time round. After all, the hardware specs have only been locked down for a few months now. There’s no telling what studios like Naughty Dog have up their sleeves.
For more on the new consoles and their games, check out our roundup of the best Xbox One launch games, and the top PlayStation 4 launch titles. We’ve also got a piece on the best Xbox One games coming in 2014.
Image Credit: Giant Bomb