Editor's Note: A dedicated gamer from the infancy of the medium, Wayne Santos is a contributor at IGN and associate editor of Southeast Asian gaming publication GameAxis. In this new twice monthly column for High-Def Digest, Wayne will be discussing a broad range of topics related to High-Def Gaming.
By Wayne Santos
The Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 have brought HD gaming into the mainstream. After years of High-Def in the living room being a hazy concept that really only affected A/V aficionados, the more technologically inclined, and the affluent, these videogame machines have made HD Gaming as simple and affordable as “plug n’ play.” But as with any consumer device, the hardware, for all its potential, is just that — untapped potential. What really brings out the true worth of the machine is the software that goes into it, and how it utilizes the power built into its system architecture.
That’s where this article comes in. Most people who have a High-Def set-up in their homes aren’t afraid to show off what their systems can do. The same applies to HD consoles that may be integrated into these set-ups. When it comes to having the friends over, or just trying to demonstrate the virtues of HD to the uninitiated, it’s usually pretty easy to give a taste of the best HD movies have to offer. A recent special-effects laden summer blockbuster is an easy sampler of what High-Def can do, but here we’re going to look at games. Movies on Blu-Ray are almost uniformly a 1080p transfer with variances in individual quality due to the transfer of the source material to disc. Games, however, can run the gamut from “near HD” such as Halo 3’s upscaled 640p to the full 1080p of Virtua Tennis, and just because a game runs at a particular resolution does not guarantee an equivalent jump in image fidelity due to issues like frame-rates and other graphical glitches/inefficiencies based on the way the game was coded.
I will be providing you with a look at five games for the two HD consoles -- all exclusives -- that can act as demo material for your respective console. The actual quality of the game itself isn’t as relevant here as the fidelity of the graphics, though mention will be made of the title’s overall value. The main focus is on the “wow factor” that greets your friends and guests when you fire up one of these games and show them how much gaming has progressed from the days of the Super Nintendo or the original Playstation. For each console, we’ll be looking at two games that are currently available and three that are in the scheduled for future release.
Gears of War
Epic Game’s Gears of War will forever occupy a place in the history of the current generation of HD consoles as being the first undeniable “AAA” blockbuster title. Up until this point, the Xbox 360 — still the lone HD console at the time — hadn’t really produced a title that screamed “This is the next generation of gaming.” Then Gears of War came out. Running at 720p with an option to upscale to 1080i, A post-apocalyptic wasteland was rendered in stunning detail that had never been seen on a console before, and it immediately upped the ante for what gamers would expect of visuals for the rest of the generation. This was the poster-child for the Unreal III Engine, which has quickly become the graphics engine of choice for many developers in the industry today.
Of course, Gears of War isn’t perfect. Some bemoan the fact that this 3rd person science fiction shooter once again uses drab browns and grays, like many SF-themed games over the last several years. Others take issue with the number of actions tied into the “A” button. Still other criticisms could be leveled at the focused, linear level design. But one thing is undeniably clear — the game perfected the “cover and shoot” system pioneered by Kill.Switch three years earlier, and provided a polished, intense experience that finally justified moving away from an Xbox or the PS2. The game was the first of this new generation of consoles to make gamers say “Wow,” and it still holds up as a brilliant example of technology married to art design.
In August of 2007, 2K Boston (formerly Irrational Games) released a game that would pull in a string of awards for that year, even more than Halo 3, the juggernaut of the Xbox 360. That game was Bioshock, and it was both a commercial and critical success for the Xbox 360. Like Gears of War before it, this was also another result of the Unreal Engine, but now utilized for its “optimal intent,” a first person shooter. Running once again at a native 720p, Kevin Levine’s spiritual successor to his disturbing science fiction opus System Shock 2 took players into a nightmarish Objectivist experiment gone wrong. Bioshock introduced players to an undersea utopia originally built to house the great minds of the world, to create a paradise of the best and brightest… and it failed. The society had devolved into genetic cannibalism, though the remnants of the ambitious art deco architecture and brimming optimism for the future remained in the decayed environments.
Bioshock was one of the most highly rated games of 2007, pulling in a string of awards for everything from best game to best art direction from various media outlets. It balanced a stunning use of light, art and level design with some of the most intelligent writing and strategic gameplay seen in an FPS. A tour of Rapture, the undersea city, reveals sights both astonishing and repulsive depending on where you go, or what happens. From a pure art design perspective, it’s one of the most impressive looking FPS games of this generation and easily makes an impact on viewers when shown on an HDTV.
Upcoming 360 Exclusives:
New intellectual properties are always a risky gamble in any medium, but in gaming, with such a dedicated and incredibly vocal, critical and internet savvy audience, the double edged blade of risk and reward becomes that much sharper. Already games that have been heavily hyped such as Assassin’s Creed, Lair and Blue Dragon have fallen short of the lofty expectations set for them before their release. But for every failed new IP, there is also a Shadow of the Colossus, Halo, or Jet Set Grind Radio that drips quality from the get-go and lives up to its promise. Alan Wake is striving to fall into the latter category. A combination of Grand Theft Auto in terms of open world gameplay, and Silent Hill for surreal horror, the title promises to place gamers in the shoes of a struggling novelist who finds a therapeutic break in the wilds of Washington turning into a nightmare as his latest horror novel in progress plays out in the real world.
Already, one of the most notable things about Alan Wake is the visual ambition of the game. Simulating a fictional 36 square miles of the state of Washington, day and night cycles, weather and full volumetric shadows are just some of the tools Remedy Games is using to immerse players in their Twin Peaks-inspired horror game, all in 720p. As with a few other titles, Remedy is also following the trend of using a real actor as the model for the in-game character, much like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed will be using Battlestar Galactica’s Sam “Crashdown” Witwer, Alan Wake himself is modeled on Finnish writer/actor Ilkka Villi. The result — at least in these early preview stages - is an authentic looking world and main character that are achieving impressive levels of verisimilitude. This one may be a serious contender for showing off the 360’s visual power in 2008.
For many gamers, this title is an almost mythical curiosity. Too Human started its long road to release back in 1999, originally envisioned as a 5 CD experience on the original Playstation. It then migrated — mid-development — to the GameCube in 2000 when Silicon Knights, the developer, began an exclusive partnership with Nintendo. Then in 2005, the game, still not complete, migrated once more to the Xbox 360, and now, 9 years later, it is slated for release later in 2008. Already confirmed to be 720p, the game, formerly being developed using the now ubiquitous Unreal III graphics engine, is being created with a proprietary engine developed by Silicon Knights in the wake of their infamous condemnation of the Unreal III Engine and its creators, which is even now in the first steps to litigation.
Touted as a mix of adventure and Diablo-style fast, easy combat and loot-based gameplay, Too Human is another title that has earned cautious optimism from the industry. While no one doubts the pedigree of Silicon Knights the lengthy development time has still shown some minor hiccups, such as choppy frame rates and bad camera control, that have blemished otherwise promising previews. However one thing that most who’ve previewed the game agree on, is that actual gameplay and technical merits aside, the art team has done an astounding job of creating a fictional, science-fiction coated treatment of Norse mythology. The cutscenes show a subtle range of facial emotions, and the story seems to be living up to Silicon Knight’s reputation for creating one of the most memorable games of the GameCube. Denis Dyak, head of Silicon Knights is claiming that Too Human is a trilogy that he is determined to see to completion on the Xbox 360, promising that the remaining two titles will be released much faster than the first.
Tales of Vesperia
This is the only game on the list that attempts to make a break away from a more photo-realistic look. Tales of Vesperia, the latest iteration of Namco-Bandai’s “Tales of” series of Japanese role-playing games, is set to bring another taste of anime-inspired art design to the Xbox 360, in the wake of earlier titles like Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey. The story centers on the adventures of Yuri and Estelle, two young adventurers thrust together on a quest when Yuri is imprisoned, meets Estelle, and takes her out of her world of castles and formality to see the world of Vesperia. The most surprising thing about this title is that so far, previous versions of the “Tales of” series have only appeared on Japanese machines such as the PS2 and Nintendo DS. Tales of Vesperia marks the first time this beloved Japanese series will appear on an American console.
At this stage, the only things known about this 720p game can be gleaned from the single trailer that has been released, and the announcement that famed production house Studio I.G. would be involved in the opening anime introduction. No story elements have been released, but even from the brief teases in the trailer, one thing makes itself abundantly clear — this is a game that manages to immerse gamers in their own 3D, interactive anime world. The fantasy settings and unique anime character designs all give the impression of finally allowing gamers to inhabit a world out of a Studio Ghibli feature, with clean, colorful art design in contrast to that stark, grim science fiction aesthetic that dominates the majority of art design sensibilities in western game development. The game is scheduled for a Japanese release in 2008 with a Western announcement still in the offing.
While it wasn’t a critical or commercial hit as widely hoped by the PS3 fanbase, Heavenly Sword was the first real showpiece for what the Playstation 3 was capable of graphically. Created by Ninja Theory, Heavenly Sword was an early entry into the 3rd person action genre whose shoes had been filled in very large capacity by the PS2 hit God of War. The game centered on Nariko, an alienated chieftain’s daughter who took up the forbidden Heavenly Sword her clan guarded to fight against the despot king annihilating her people to possess the blade. The game was heavily hyped as one of the big contenders for a hit title before the PS3 had even been released, and much was made of the exquisite graphics and wide array of combat animations given to Nariko. It was also heavily touted for its cinematic production values, with Ninja Theory even going so far as hiring Andy “Gollum” Sirkis as a consultant to help direct the motion captured performances for the cutscenes, as well as voice the villain of the game.
While reviews were generally kind, the game wasn't a complete success, with most critics agreeing that it fell far short of the bar established for playability by God of War. However, the 720p action game was almost universally praised for the high quality of its environments, characters, animation, and cutscenes. The acting, dialog and writing of the game lived up to the cinematic promise and threatened to overwhelm the underutilized combat mechanics, somewhat limited level construction and incredibly short length of the game. But as a demonstration of the PS3’s potential, it definitely had the visual “wow factor” to impress viewers, even if it failed to engage them completely as gamers. It’s still one of the best showcases for the PS3 graphically, though it failed to achieve AAA blockbuster status as a game itself.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
After string of misses and near misses for the PS3, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune became the first legitimate blockbuster for the console. Hailed for its tight gameplay, beautiful graphics, and enjoyable story, it managed to push all the right buttons with a user-base that wanted some quality gaming to go with their HD visuals. The story, ripped straight from the script of an Indiana Jones movie ,was about Nathan Drake, a direct descendant of privateer Sir Francis Drake. His adventure took him to exotic jungle locales where he would find some answers to the disappearance of his ancestor and stumble on an ancient curse that threatened to unleash itself on civilization once more.
Uncharted did everything right, with its gameplay borrowing heavily from the Gears of War school of shoot-and-cover, to a smattering of Tomb Raider style environmental and archaeological puzzle solving. But one of the big stand outs was the lush jungle environments, rife with movement and detail all rendered in a native 720p resolution with — surprisingly — an option to output in 1080i for those with older HDTVs with no 1080p mode. The cutscenes themselves were also highly cinematic and a joy to watch, full of quality acting, dialog and an old fashioned contemporary adventure plot that most fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark could jump into. There were also little details, such as the fluid transitional animation, the fact that Drake’s shirt got wet when he swam, and the little flinches visible as bullets chipped away at his hiding place that all added up to a game that didn’t just look beautiful, it moved and immersed beautifully as well. Uncharted assured itself a position as one of the first must-have titles for the PS3 when it finally hit stores in November of 2007.
Upcoming PS3 Exclusives:
In the same way that Gears of War became an immediate sensation with the gamers and the press even before it had been released, the same magic anticipation is bubbling around LittleBigPlanet, a creation of Media Molecule, which itself consists of refugees from Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios (Fable, Black & White). Slated for a September 2008 release, the game has been making waves ever since the first trailers hit, and as the press has gotten more and more hands-on time, the reception has continued to be favorable. Like Gears of War, this is one title where the odds seem good that the game will live up to the hype.
LittleBigPlanet is, on the surface, a simple concept. It’s a 2 dimensional “platformer,” in the same vein as “run and jump” games like the Super Mario Bros. series, but with 3 dimensional graphics. You and your friends control a character known as “SackBoy” who can be customized to your liking as you attempt to reach the end of the level. However the game really stands apart from its predecessors in three fundamental ways. It’s cooperative multi-player, allowing for both offline and online play, it’s built with a “construction kit” allowing users to create their own levels and share them online with others to download, and finally there are the graphics. Of all the titles released thus far, LBP is the one that comes closest to finally making good on the phrase, “It’s like being in a Pixar movie.” The amazing environments — no doubt helped by limiting the camera to 2D movement — have created a world that looks like something straight out of Toy Story and the game is practically guaranteed to make jaws drop from people unaware of how far graphics have advanced in the last several years. For sheer visual fidelity and charm, LittleBigPlanet seems destined to be a game talked about in the years to come.
Of all the titles listed thus far, Killzone 2 is perhaps the most controversial. Like Heavenly Sword and Lair, Killzone 2 was touted by Sony itself as a “killer app” - a game so incredible it would become a new, iconic franchise, similar to what Halo did for the original Xbox. To prove their point, they ran a trailer showing what was supposed to be footage of the game in action, and any and all who viewed it were blown away by the level of realism shown on the screen. In later months, it was disclosed that the footage shown was what Sony referred to as a “target render” in that it was actually pre-rendered CG footage meant to show what the game “should look like when it’s done.” Fans on both sides of the console war went into a frenzy of attack and defense over the revelation, but in 2007, new footage — this time confirmed as being actual, in-game graphics — was finally shown… and it came pretty damn close to that earlier “target render.”
There’s still a lot of speculation — and outright doubt — about the eventual quality of the game itself. Guerilla Gomes’s previous title, the original Killzone on the Playstation 2 was heavily criticized for poor artificial intelligence and choppy framerates, though the game received high marks for audio and visuals. There is a lingering curiosity within the industry about whether Guerilla Games is set to repeat the mistakes of the past. Early trailers of the game once again show a title that is a powerhouse of visuals — cables strung across poles actually wave in the wind, columns riddled with gunfire break into particles and the detail on every character and environment is stunning. Whether the game is actually going to be any fun is still something of a mystery. But one thing is certain. Even if Killzone 2 fails to live up to expectations as quality gaming experience, it’ll definitely be the kind of game you’d want to show off to friends to demonstrate the visual fidelity of the Playstation 3.
This is probably one of the most unconventional choices made for this list. With a working title known only as Aqua, the industry still isn’t even sure exactly what kind of game it is, if, indeed, it could be considered a game at all. There’s one hint, however — the company developing the game, a Japanese studio known as ArtDink - was responsible for a title on the original Playstation called Aquanaut’s Holiday which simply involved SCUBA exploration of the ocean environment, building a reef and trying to attract all variety of marine life to it. Aquanaut’s Holiday was praised for the bold, non-violent originality of its concept, as well as groundbreaking 3D graphics early in the Playstation era. In fact, it already has a spiritual successor on the Wii in the form of the virtual diving game Endless Ocean.
What makes Aqua distinctive is the move to a High-Def console. If the game is in fact a diving simulation meant to convey the wonders of marine life, then the burden of the task rests largely on the visuals, and from early images of gameplay, on that level, Aqua so far delivers. In the same way that some retailers prefer to have scenes of tropical fish swimming about to convey the color and clarity of HDTVs, Aqua is an interactive example of the same, showing an incredible use of light, depth, and color to bring the ocean and its depths to gamers in a way they’ve never experienced before. For fans of the BBC’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet documentaries, Aqua offers gamers a chance to actually explore the depths themselves, get up close to whales, sharks and other mammoth specimens of marine biology and explore the dense labyrinth of life in the reef. Whether this kind of relaxed, non-violent, exploratory gameplay will be hit is a whole different matter, but as a demonstration of range and versatility of HD consoles, it’s shaping up to be a breathtaking example. There is still no concrete date of release for this title.
There are, of course, many other titles that could be considered here. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is another upcoming PS3 title with a lot of expectations, and Mass Effect for the Xbox 360 has already garnered notice for the strength of its graphics. But the titles listed here give a good, broad range of games that will make a strong, first visual impression on both gamers and non-gamers alike. They run the gamut from the enormously popular science-fiction aesthetic to more colorful anime and Pixar-style visuals. But this is just a start. HD console gaming is still very young and if it follows the history of past generations, then these earlier titles are just a taste of some the visual splendor that awaits gamers in the next three years.
Wayne Santos's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.