The PS4 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 entries, but not 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 optimization 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 skeptical about the future of console games, just take a look at the brief history of platform evolution. When you do a head-to-head comparison, it’s quite clear that console releases get drastically better over time.
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 games 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 features 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 a amazing swan song for the PS2.
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