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Opinion: The New-Gen Promise Fulfilled

by Matt Miller on Oct 03, 2014 at 11:35 AM

Gamers who have followed the hobby for many years are familiar with the strange phenomenon that comes with a new generation of consoles and games. First we get the big promises from console makers and publishers about all the ways in which this new generation is going to change everything. Next comes the reality of games as they release, as they often fail to match the soaring hype connected to them. And later, perhaps a couple of years into a generation’s life cycle, the reality catches up to the promised potential, and a number of games begin to tap the full power of the new systems.

So where are we now? Somewhere right in the middle. Several recently released games offer a glimpse of the fun on the way in the coming years, but still struggle with the scope and ambition afforded by new console and PC power, as well as the mammoth team sizes used to create such games. Even so, these titles have lots to enjoy in their own right, and they get me excited about what’s to come.

In the past month, I had the good fortune to review two games that hammer home this point. Destiny and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor are compelling games in their own right, and each help to illustrate features that I think are going to be central to gaming in the next few years. But in both cases, that potential is obscured behind the development struggles of pulling together a game larger and more complicated than almost anything that has come before. 

Much has been said about Destiny’s missteps in storytelling and progression. Seemingly absent plot points don’t do much to sell the promised science-fiction fantasy, and odd choices in everything from mission rewards to competitive play options have left many players annoyed. However, even with those frustrations, millions of players continue to flock to the game nightly, and I believe that’s in part thanks to Destiny’s innovations. By pulling together the classic shooting experience Bungie games are known for with the addictive cooperative and leveling features of an MMO, Destiny is the first of many similar games I think we can expect in the coming years. In the near term, games like Assassin’s Creed Unity and The Division seem to explore similar approaches to player investment, and it’s not hard to imagine a wealth of titles that could be announced in the coming months with similar mechanics.

Shadow of Mordor innovates in different but similarly important ways. During my time with the game, I was sometimes put off by the overwhelming nature of the dynamic A.I. system, in which enemies grow over time, remember previous battles, and cooperate/compete amongst themselves. At times, the system seems to get carried away, leaving the player outmatched.  But even when I was frustrated, I marveled at the system’s potential, both for future installments of the franchise, and other series that seek to emulate and iterate on these new AI options. 

I choose to talk about these two games not because they are the exclusive examples, but because they are ideal illustrations of the trend. Developers are trying new things in the triple-A space, but the weight of large teams, tight schedules, and huge production challenges are undoubtedly a struggle. Both Destiny and Shadow of Mordor were games I enjoyed, but both also felt like games in which the developer was forced to make hard decisions about features to cut and stories to shorten. 

The tension between big ambition and the reality of completing a game isn’t solely the province of giant, heavily marketed games. The ever-growing indie scene faces similar challenges. Consider the highly anticipated No Man’s Sky, a game with towering ambition but with only the small team at Hello Games to complete the work. Or think about the number of recent Kickstarter projects that are promising big things on a new-gen system, but struggling to hit the release time frames originally proposed. 

The fact of the matter is that the newest consoles and PCs offer enormous flexibility and opportunities to developers, but new technology brings new challenges. I’m not a game developer, so I wouldn’t hazard to guess the specifics of those challenges. However, I’ve gone through enough console generations to recognize that the first year of new games in any given generation isn’t going to make for universally acclaimed games. If you look past some of the stumbles and mistakes that some recent games display, there are some thrilling ideas being introduced. Things only get better from here.