Without a doubt the biggest step that gaming has taken graphically happened almost a decade ago, when those familiar characters that we know and love first stepped out into the third dimension. Now that we’ve done that and we’ve seen at E3 what’s in store for us for the best part of the next decade, what’s apparent is that graphics have nowhere to go beyond what we’ve seen before, but bigger and better – more characters on screen, more detail, better textures, faster framerates, etc. Surely it’s a matter of time before true photorealism is achieved, and then all that’s left is to try to give it more and more raw power until there is no real limit on the sheer amount of stuff on screen.
That’s all in the future, but it must be of real concern for the industry bigwigs to wonder how they can sell consoles when the graphics aren’t going to get shiny and new every few years. This upcoming generation is geared towards nothing but more polygon-pushing power, but what is there left when graphics have nowhere to go?
Realistic in-game physics were brought to the forefront last year thanks to Half-Life 2’s tight integration of the Havok physics engine with the gameplay, and the underrated Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (pick up a cheap copy if you can) showed other ways to use it. There are rumblings of dedicated PPUs (physics processing units) being added to future hardware in the same way that dedicated GPUs came about as 3D graphics began to pick up momentum. Valve showed us how physics could not only provide some interesting puzzles but also create a fantastic form of “sandbox” to play in – who didn’t spend at least some of their time with the game destroying furniture or finding creative ways to fling projectiles at enemies?
Looking at the original Doom and the original Halo, it’s easy to see how far artificial intelligence has come and how much more fun it can make those ubiquitous gunfights. Enemies coming at you in a straight line with no regard for their health just won’t fly anymore, and now it’s almost a requirement that your enemies run and hide when you’re kicking their ass, flank you, and take cover. Now we’re starting to see squad tactics and chains of command in enemies (kill an Elite in Halo and watch his Grunt underlings run away in terror), and the sheer number-crunching power of the latest consoles should see some pretty clever stuff. I can’t wait for Halo 3 just so I can see what Bungie manage to pull off.
This speculation is all well and good and I’m sure that any hardcore gamer can see the possibilities, but the trouble is always going to be getting the casual gamer to buy into it. Selling them lifelike graphics and shiny eye candy is one thing but most of them couldn’t or wouldn’t care less about whether or not you can knock over the scenery or the enemies can react to you. They just want to shoot shit up and get a quick shot of adrenaline, and the closest most will get to a cerebral game that requires any time investment is GTA, and so if a console is capable of photorealistic graphics they’re not going to see any reason to buy a new one.
Of course this could all be moot since arguably any console that is capable of true photorealism will be perfectly capable of running a great physics engine and human-like AI, but as phenomenally powerful hardware begins to give diminishing returns it won’t be long before they really are going to have to find another way to get an apathetic casual fanbase to part with £300 every few years.