As I’ve noted several times before--and predicted even before that--this new console generation is, alas, currently most notable for being the next-gen that started not with a bang, but with a long, largely unimpressive seeping sound, like a balloon slowly being sapped of air rather than popped with a pin. Where every previous incoming hardware generation has arrived amid a sparkling cloud of futuristic wonderment, and rapidly cranked things up during the months following its launch, this new generation feels like it’s just sort of turned up unannounced, and is waiting for people to start paying attention. And in turn, the people are waiting for it to give them a reason to.
That doesn’t mean that the Xbox One and PS4 are tanking. Far from it, their combined sales thus far are higher than those of their predecessors from the equivalent post-launch period. That’s great, great news for the industry. But I still feel like we’re waiting for them to really do something spectacular. I’m still missing that “Holy crap, next-gen!” feeling. I’m still waiting for a game to instill the disbelief that Gears of War and Super Mario 64 did. It’s doubtless coming, but we certainly haven’t seen it yet.
Blame under-prepared launch line-ups. Blame last-gen’s artificially amplified visual boost by way of HD. Blame the impressive graphical progress made during the long tail-end of the outgoing hardware. Halo 4 and The Last of Us almost certainly eroded the usual cross-generational upgrade. And speaking of that, the huge number of cross-gen game releases since November hasn’t helped next-gen stand out either.
But enough of the problems. What about the solution? When can we expect to finally find our mouths dropping open in that delightful, slack-jawed way we love so dear? All eyes are of course on next month’s E3. Six months after launch, surely we’re about to see real next-gen start to solidify, oozing free from the cracks of the past and taking its true shape, like a shiny, reforming T-1000? Well…
Yes, I think we are. Though I don’t think we’re exactly going to be staring starry-eyed into a sparkling, luminescent near-future, like kids in some heavily CGed spring-season trailer for Disney World (but with more brutal melee takedowns). You see, this E3 will undoubtedly be the first big ‘statement of intent’ year for Microsoft and Sony. With the initial tussle out of the gates now complete, it’s time for both consoles to lay down a compelling roadmap for the future. Early adoption sales are done, and the hardcore loyalists now have their new boxes under their TVs. It’s time to start grabbing the interest of the less obsessive gamer, and to snag those guys, you need to bring the pretty. They need tangible, eye-popping games, not talk of services, architecture and potential.
And they’re going to see them at E3 2014. Batman: Arkham Knight will be there, and trust me when I tell you that it's already dazzling. Having just been re-announced (if not fully unveiled) Halo 5: Guardians is bound to turn up at well, at least in the form of an early trailer sporting 343 Industries’ brand new next-gen engine. And speaking of Halo, we’ll also see more of Destiny, Bungie’s MMO FPS, which should impress in terms of both visuals and next-gen scope.
With Epic using the announcement of a new Unreal Tournament game to ramp up hype (and licensing deals) for its Unreal Engine 4, I can almost guarantee that we’ll see one or two impressive showcases for the successor to last-gen’s most prolific game engine. Indeed, rumours already abound that Epic is in bed with Microsoft for a big, AAA showcase of the tech’s capabilities. And then there’s the less definite stuff.
BioWare might well drop Mass Effect 4 at either EA’s conference or that of one of the platform holders (and let’s not forget that Dragon Age: Inquisition is already looking rather lovely). If Naughty Dog brings some footage of Uncharted 4, then the chances of it not melting faces are about a trillion to one, given the studio’s graphical track record. Ditto any teaser visuals from Black Tusk Studios’ new Gears of War. The game is still a long way off, having only started production recently, but you can bet that with Epic’s ex-Director of Production Rod Fergusson on board, the franchise that started last-gen’s graphics race isn’t going to be slacking. And the newly announced Far Cry 4 is bound to be a stunner.
But there’s a common theme amongst all the games listed above. There’s a good chance that few of them are going to be appearing in your disc tray or download queue straight away. We already know that Halo 5 has been bumped to 2015, with a so-far-off-it’s-imaginary release window of autumn. Batman is still coming in October, rumours be damned, but I’d guess that we’re unlikely to get hold of any of the rest until next year’s spring/summer release schedule ramps up.
Of course, if there are going to be any big surprises, E3 will be the place they happen. And with both console’s first big Christmas coming up, surely both platform holders will want to drop at least one or two big, first-party hitters late this year. Microsoft can’t be pinning its holiday hopes on a rumoured Halo HD collection, and however impressive the results of its relationship with smaller developers, Sony won’t want to fill a Christmas schedule with indie games alone.
But E3 isn’t about getting concrete products directly into your hands (Sega tried that once, and look what happened there). It’s about the excitable spirit of gaming. It’s not about sticking games straight into your machine, rather it’s about infusing the whole essence of current gaming with the spirit and personality of what it’s to become. It’s about paving out the path to the future and getting everyone giddily running along it. And E3 2014 is going to do that, I reckon. It’s been a while coming, and we’re probably going to have to wait a little longer to get the fruits of the show in our homes, but however long the wait, gaming will feel different after E3. And that’s what matters. Next-gen will get real, and you’ll start look upon your console in a whole new way. Who’s excited?