It’s nearly Christmas again, which is possibly some kind of mistake, because I’m pretty sure the last one was only a few days ago, but, more to the point, it’s now a year since Microsoft and Sony triumphantly thrust their next-gen consoles onto the market, and gaming (ostensibly) took a fairly significant leap forward.
Indeed, this time last year, like all the other really cool kids, I was busy scouring the internet, comparing specs, performance, reviews etc, and making spreadsheets of the Pros and Cons of the respective machines in an attempt to decide which one I’d be opting for. The more stuff I looked at, the more excited I got, until sometime around early December, I was a ball of pent-up excitement and anticipation. Sleep became something I didn’t get much of, and I’d frequently wake in the early hours doing calculations of how many minutes there were until Christmas morning. I’m rubbish at maths though, so invariably I’d arrive at the answer of “quite a lot“, and toss and turn until dawn, muttering stuff like “a lot minus 15 now” until I got up and checked my spreadsheet again.
As a 30+ year old man, that was obviously a bit weird, but it does highlight how exciting the time was for anybody with even a remote interest in gaming. When I (eventually) got my brand new PS4, I genuinely felt like I was a part of history, and, not for nothing, a pioneer at the forefront of gaming evolution. Having been around for many of the previous evolutions, it felt like the next step in a journey I’d been making for a long time, but had loved every minute of (with the exception of a few really frustrating end of level baddies and suchlike, obviously).
A year later, I still feel like that to a point, and (on the whole) I don’t regret having made the leap so early, but I think we’re now in a slightly better position to objectively, soberly, assess the impact of next-gen: Has it lived up to the hype? Was it such a monumental leap, or more of a dainty skip? Are we even able to genuinely decide one way or another, given that we might not have even seen a true next-gen game changer just yet anyway? Indeed, can we stop calling it next-gen now, and just all agree that after a year of being around, it’s pretty much current-gen instead?
Performance and Software
When I first got my PS4, I was so sleep deprived that had it just played a slower, shittier version of pong I’d have still sworn, under oath, that it was the most realistic sports simulation ever devised (and that the rectangular bar on the left-hand side of the screen looked *exactly* like Roger Federer), but now, having spent a year with it (minus hallucinations), I feel I’m in a better place to assess the performance of the machine.
On paper at least, both Microsoft and Sony’s next gen capabilities are kicking the bejaysus out of their previous consoles, but, in terms of how they’re actually performing, I’d argue it’s a slightly less obvious (or at least consistent) ass-whooping. Over the past year, I’ve seen some genuinely awesome graphics, scenery, and blisteringly fast processing on my PS4, but I’ve also seen some pretty shocking glitches, errors and stuttering too. I’ve seen facial animations that have successfully crossed the “uncanny valley”, but I’ve also seen some God-awful lip-syncing, in-game teeth that have scared the freaking shit out of me, and a lot of stuff in between.
Interestingly, comparisons between last-gen and next-gen have, to some degree, been made easier thanks to two things: firstly, most next-gen new releases have also been released on the last-gen machines, and secondly, a few last-gen releases have been through the remastering treatment specifically for new-gen machines.
That said, though, comparison is still something of a mixed bag: The Metro Redux, for example, definitely looks better than it did on the PS3/360, but I’m not sure it’s a huge, always-entirely-obvious leap. Likewise, Destiny was arguably this year’s biggest release (at least in terms of what it cost to make), but was the next-gen offering significantly better than the last-gen version? Would a gamer immersed in the action, or even an observer watching it, be able to definitely and consistently point out obvious differences? And if they could, would those differences be as pronounced as those between, say, the PlayStation and the PlayStation 2, or between the XBox and the 360?
If we’re to assess the performance of these newer machines, or even the extent of the generational leap, these are the type of questions we need to be asking, even if we don’t necessarily like the answers. Personally, I think the answer is mostly positive – although perhaps not mind-blowingly so.
Take the comparison between GTA 5 on the PS3 and PS4, handily provided in the below video:
Obviously it’s different, and objectively better, but would that difference be enough to make somebody who already played the game on last-gen buy it again on next-gen, and would that difference be enough to make somebody buy next-gen, full-stop?? Is somebody watching that comparison going to be so blown-away as to think they’re missing out considerably by not making the leap to next-gen, like, right now?
This is the crux of the issue, but, to some extent, it’s also important to remember that at this stage in the game we’re perhaps not exactly comparing apples with oranges, but maybe, say, oranges with satsumas, or clementines. Why? Well, because, as with any new technology, developers are still working their shit out, finding out what it’s capable of, and what it’s not!
What this means in practice, is that a recently released last-gen game is the pinnacle of 10 years worth of accumulated professional knowledge and experience, whereas a next-gen game is, essentially, the result of people still playing with new technology, sometimes just throwing stuff at it, and hoping some of it sticks. As time goes on, some stuff might stick more, some new stuff might be thrown at it and found to stick quite well, and indeed any other combination of throwing/sticking type scenarios that move the whole thing forward.
As it stands, in comparing last-gen and next-gen, it’s probably slightly more accurate to say we’re comparing last-gen+, with next-gen open beta. That’s obviously bad because we’ve already paid for next-gen and should reasonably expect to get it, but, in a rare “the glass is half-full” moment for me, I’d also argue that it’s great because games will, undoubtedly, consistently get better – and that’s a genuinely fascinating prospect!!
Other capabilities, gimmicks and features
Of course, pure power and gaming performance are just a part of what makes the next-gen stuff different, and there are a whole raft of things that are either entirely new on the newer consoles, or have been greatly expanded upon from the last generation of them.
There’s more functionality in the controllers, greater integration of social media, sharing capabilities, how we use the console in relation to other media and hardware – essentially, the consoles have gone from being a game-playing whatsit hooked up to our entertainment system – to the hub of the system itself.
In some respects, Microsoft took a bit of a hit because they leapt a bit too far with some of this stuff, which was perhaps ironic with the benefit of hindsight, but after a year of next-gen being around, and several software updates, we’re already starting to see significant movement in the general direction they clearly foresaw. Share play on the PS4 is genuinely revolutionary (or at least it will be if developers/publishers stop being dicks and don’t keep blocking it), as is a lot of the advanced multi-tasking, cross platform/media stuff on the Xbox One.
Similarly, whilst the Share factory and Upload features are things that I’m personally not overly fussed about (mainly because I’m shite, and nobody wants to watch me), I can see how lots of people love it, and with twitch and eSports’ popularity increasing almost exponentially, it’s definitely a big part of gaming’s future.
And on that subject (and combining it with what we’ve already looked at in Performance and Software), the online multiplayer aspects of gaming have evolved, and continue to evolve, on the next-gen machines – making them a more realistic and rewarding experience.
This is important, because there are considerably fewer places to hide (metaphorically speaking) in a frantic, reaction-orientated multiplayer smack down. When you’re working your way through a single-player campaign, your brain’s usually reasonably happy to “fill out” shonky graphics on your behalf, or work around glitches without missing much of a beat, but in multiplayer, this isn’t always an option. In my case at least, my brain’s usually too busy screaming at me, panicking, and sending out conflicting messages to my fingers to be bothering with fleshing out poorly rendered or glitchy gameplay stuff. And even if your brain’s better under pressure than mine is, there’s absolutely no doubting that faster, less glitchy multiplayer games are going to make them a much, much better experience for everyone involved – and that this is a really, really good thing.
In general, Future-proofing is a key word here. In many ways, people who’ve adopted next-gen have, either wittingly or unwittingly, done so for what it will be able to do as much as for what it can do; i.e. the future potential of these little black boxes of ours.
Not only will games improve as developers get to grips with the next-gen consoles and their capabilities, but developers themselves well be able to improve as new technology appears in various fields to assist them. We really do live in interesting times (especially if you’re an A/V geek), and we’re on the cusp of some genuinely exciting possibilities. Cloud processing, 4K Ultra HD, HDMI 2.0, Super-duper-fast broadband, and Virtual Reality (to name but a few) are all poised to change many things, including the world of games and gaming.
Oftentimes, unlocking one little cog in the “potential-future-machine” has a cascading impact on the rest of it. So, for example, super-fast broadband opens up better cloud processing possibilities, which makes genuine 4k gaming a real possibility – either on TVs or nifty little VR headsets (*crosses fingers*). As it happens, I recently upgraded to a 4k TV, and even though games themselves aren’t made for 4K at the moment, the inbuilt upscaler in my TV has made a pleasant, and noticeable difference to my gaming experience.
Also, in a feakin’ awesome bit of accidental discovery, I loaded up Trine 2 to test whether the PS4 was connected up properly, and a little thing popped up telling me I was playing on a 3D capable TV, and that I should *totes* turn that shit on (I’m paraphrasing, obviously)! Anyways, long story short, I did, and it was jaw-droppingly stunning. I’d not been overly impressed by 3D before, but the arrival of 4k (which has, essentially, doubled the resolution of 3D-type shenanigans) is opening up a whole new avenue of 3D gaming excellence, which I most definitely am impressed with.
If you’re still reading at this point (yeah, it was a long one, sorry ’bout that!), I suspect you won’t be surprised that my conclusion, in true report card fashion is: Pretty good – but could do better!
There have been times when, as an early adopter, I’ve felt fairly underwhelmed, but also others where I’ve been genuinely excited by my PS4. What’s more, the tantalising glimpses of the not-too-distant future have only served to whet my appetite further. In a way, this is key – all this future potential needs to hit sooner rather than later – be it actual tech, gimmicks, or outstanding games that showcase the true power and abilities of next-gen gaming (I’m mostly looking at you Tom Clancy’s The Division). My first year of next-gen gaming has been an enjoyable one, but the next year needs to build upon it, and consistently, so that we’re left in absolutely no doubt that next-gen is here, and that it is a generational leap worthy of the name. As more people are likely to be joining the ranks come this Christmas, it’s even more imperative that Sony and Microsoft knock it out of the proverbial park in the coming year.
We’ve already given them our money, free-time, and a considerable amount of the benefit of the doubt, so it’s time for them to pay that back with several bajillion degrees of next-gen gaming goodness.
Oh, and we should definitely start calling it current-gen – right!?