With the Wii U scheduled to launch sometime in 2012, and increased rumors of a new Xbox and/or Playstation supposedly in the works, it seems safe to assume that the current generation of consoles might be nearing an end. At the end of the prior generation, involving the PS2, original Xbox and GameCube, most everyone felt that the next generation, featuring the 360, PS3 and Wii, would be a generation like no other, the best generation ever, the generation that would break down all the walls that had previously existed and bring gaming to even more masses than the past generation. Did it succeed? Is the current generation the best ever or did it really just continue the momentum the past generation created.
That is the focus of this blog post. There are a few things to note before getting to the meat of this. Comparing this generation (360, PS3, Wii) to the last one (Xbox, PS2, GameCube) makes sense because the past generation, and in particular the PS2, really put gaming on the map in ways never before realized. Games and gamers suddenly became cool. Stereotypes fell away like a mudslide. Nerds were no longer quite the outcasts they had always been. Games became the hot medium for media and revenues went through the roof. If not for the prior generation, the current generation would have been no big deal. But, the PS3/ 360/ Wii generation has been a huge deal. Budgets for games are now comparable to Hollywood blockbusters and a good game can easily out gross even the biggest of movies. So comparing the two generations, and noting how they each progressed gaming, seems somewhat natural and makes a lot of sense.
At the same time, there are certain aspects of the current generation that comparing it to the prior generation would make no sense at all. Take graphics for instance. Comparing a PS3 games graphics to a PS2 game is patently absurd. That is just one example of where a straight up comparison of the two generations is not perfect. Also, we won’t consider PC games in this whole comparison since the PC is a true multi-generational platform. This comparison will be limited to consoles. Also, let’s leave the online factor out of this. Obviously, again, the PS3/360/Wii generation has revolutionized the whole concept of online gaming. Yes, the original Xbox brought XBL to the world, but not like the 360 has. And the PS2 Network Adapter…yeah…well anyway. While we are on the subject of online gaming, let’s also exclude DLC from the conversation. That is something that, for better or worse, is really exclusive to this present generation.
No, there are several areas where the present generation’s impact is undeniable. Online gaming is a really, really big one. The emergence of Co-Op gaming is another one. Co-Op has gotten so popular and important that if a game does not have a strong story, deep multi-player, and some sort of Co-Op aspect to it, its review scores may very well take a hit.
Instead, this blog will focus on…get ready for it….the games themselves. A shocking concept to be sure. What I actually did was go to Metacritic and looked at the Metascores for the past two generations and I noticed some interesting things that have led me to conclude that the present generation and the prior generation are, in many ways, equal to each other, equally important to the evolving history of gaming, and provide a very solid foundation for the coming generation because of the continued excellence in the development of some beloved franchises, the introduction of some new favorites, and the solid foundation upon which future virtual worlds shall be built. For your enjoyment, here is what I noticed.
The GTA Factor
The highest rated game crossing the two generations was Grand Theft Auto IV with a 98. Only the most jaded of gamers would call GTA IV anything but tremendous. But, GTA IV would not have even been an afterthought if not for Grand Theft Auto III and GTA Vice City (or GTA 3.5 as some have called it). Grand Theft Auto III had a Metascore of 97, while Vice City scored an impressive 95. It was GTA III that put the franchise and, pretty much, Rockstar on the map. GTA also saw the blurring of the line between the Action and Adventure genres, creating a new genre known, stunningly enough, as the Action-Adventure genre. How many games now fall within that genre? More importantly, GTA enabled Rockstar to be tremendously successful, which in turn led to games like Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, and the upcoming Max Payne 3. Yes, I know GTA was not Rockstar’s first game. I know they did a lot of the heavy lifting on the original Max Payne games. But, if not for GTA’s success, Rockstar would not be where it is today. GTA I and II were OK games, but what Rockstar accomplished with GTA III is still being talked about, and felt, today.
What GTA also did was introduce many to the concept of the open world game. Most of us had never seen or played anything like GTA before. “Wait, you mean I don’t have to do this mission right now? I can come back to it later? I can do a Taxi mission and still pick up the main storyline a couple hours later?” If you only got into gaming this current generation, then you take this for granted the same way my kids take for granted that they have 150 channels to choose from (instead of the 10 we had when I was a kid 100 years ago). But, it was GTA that really revolutionized the whole open world concept and took it to a new level, so much so that linear game play is now almost frowned upon. That is what a major impact GTA has had on the industry.
As for as a direct comparison between GTA III, Vice City and GTA IV, that is a difficult question because the sprawling beauty of GTA IV seems to cast a very large shadow over GTA III and Vice City. GTA III’s lack of real voice acting also hurt it here. Vice City, while perhaps not being as rich a game as GTA III, did have Ray Liotta doing the voice for Tommy Vercetti so that counts for a lot. With the present generation, voice over has become so big that game awards are handed out to real life actors for their virtual performances. From a story standpoint, I think you have to give GTA IV the nod here. And, one also has to acknowledge that GTA IV’s control scheme just made it seem more polished and focused than GTA III or Vice City. But, whether you prefer GTA III, Vice City or GTA IV, the impact of all three games on the entire industry is probably unmatched by any other game series released in the past decade.
Tony Hawk and the Alternative Sport Genre
One genre, or perhaps sub-genre, that really exploded during the prior generation, but has really been a bust during the present generation, is the Alternative Sport genre and, in particular, skateboarding games. Yes, true, there is nothing at all wrong with the Skate games. In fact, they were quite good. But, let’s be honest here…when you think of the word “skateboarding” and combine that with video games, you have to think of the Tony Hawk series. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 had a Metascore of 97 and is pretty much acknowledged as the apex of skateboarding games. Anyone who played that game has to admit that we had not really seen anything quite like THPS3 before. Perhaps more telling though as to the true impact of THPS3 is the door it opened to other very popular franchises on the prior generation and to the whole Alternative Sport genre. Think about this for a moment. The entire SSX series might not have ever mattered without THPS3’s success. Developers started to get very creative and began to look at the entire sports game genre in a different light. Look at the NBA Street series, all very good games that took the sim out of the sport and inserted over the top, arcade based action. It got so big that EA Sports created a spinoff of themselves, EA Sports Big. Those guys got, shall we say, creative with games like Sled Storm or Freekstyle. But, the legacy of THPS3, in my opinion, is how they gave developers the idea as to how to make certain sports based titles more approachable to the masses, which has led to games such as the Burnout series, or Motorsport, or something like Hot Shots Golf, or even something like WWE All-Stars, a much less sim based version of professional wrestling (an oxymoron unto itself, I know). Has this always worked well this generation? Certainly not. This generations Tony Hawk games have not been good and the Ride peripheral was very disappointing. Backbreaker is another example of a decent idea going sideways. As for the Alternative Sport Genre, the PS2/Xbox/ GameCube generation was the clear winner. The present generation has the potential to make this genre great again. Perhaps the upcoming SSX game will revitalize the genre. Thus far, though, this potential has not been realized.
Mario Finds His Groove
While the prior generation may have put skateboarding games on the map, it is the present generation that saw one of gaming’s most beloved icons return to his rightful spot atop gaming’s pedestal. I am speaking of the most famous Italian Plumber ever, Mario. The GameCube was an unmitigated disappointment as far as Mario was concerned. All we really got was Super Mario Sunshine. You can’t really count something like Paper Mario as a pure Mario game because, for most of us, Mario means platforming. While Sunshine was a good game, it was not a great game. Fast forward to the Wii and we got treated to Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy II. Both of these games had a Metascore of 97 and these scores were well deserved. Whatever Sunshine might have lacked in that intangible quality that games like Mario 64 or Super Mario Brothers 3 had, Super Mario Galaxy I & II had it in droves. What is really impressive about this is how Nintendo managed to pull this off with a primarily motion based control scheme. Exploring small planets and using a Star Pointer was, for some reason, just much more satisfying than anything that happened in Sunshine. From the standpoint of Mario, the Wii was a lifesaver and made the Mario character relevant, and vibrant, again to a whole new generation of gamers.
The Rise of the Shooter
If there is one genre that rose to prominence in the prior generation, and has continued its meteoric rise in the present generation, it is the Shooter. First Person or Third Person…it does not really matter. Shooters might be the most popular games out there and they certainly form the cornerstone for most competitive e-sports type of games. From a pure score standpoint, two Shooters from the prior generation, Metroid Prime and Halo Combat Evolved both check in with a 97, while one Shooter from the present generation, Bioshock, scored a 96. Metroid has been around for many years, but it would be very difficult for anyone to deny the massive impact the Halo franchise has had on the Shooter genre. Halo defined the original Xbox and put it on the map; Halo 2 made sure it was not going anywhere. Halo was not the first shooter and we all know that. But, it was the first shooter to appear on consoles that really kicked the door in, made shooters accessible to a whole new demographic, and resulted in all sorts of sub-genres. For instance, the prior generation was notorious for tons and tons of WWII based Shooters, such as Medal of Honor. The Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon series emerged around the same time. Without question, the PC versions of these great series were superior. It didn’t matter. What did matter was developers knew that once they could put a similar product on consoles, it was off to the races.
This present generation has seen Shooters explode to new levels. Three excellent Halo games have been released and we saw the emergence of terrific new franchises such as Bioshock and Gears of War, as well as the evolution of the Call of Duty franchise into the most popular franchise on the planet this side of Azeroth. But the way multi-player has evolved with Shooters in this generation is phenomenal. So many people are playing and competing online all the time, each trying to level up, or get the next perk, or whatever. Campaigns have gotten more dramatic and there is better story development throughout the single player experience. But, multi-player is as addicting as anything once you really get into it. So, while the prior generation had games with higher scores, it is the present generation that clearly took Shooters to the next level. With the recent release of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3, it does not appear that will be slowing down anytime soon.
A Snake In The Grass
While the Metal Gear franchise has been around, albeit in somewhat altered fashion, since the days of the NES, it was the release of MGS 2: Son’s of Liberty on the PS2 that introduced many of us to Raiden, Solid Snake, and other memorable characters. It also truly helped to define and refine the whole stealth, action-adventure game. Unlike Shooters, where the goal is to usually go in guns blazing, grab the biggest weapon you can find, and just blast the hell out of everything in sight, MGS2 presented an alternative; sneak around your enemies so they never even really know what happened. MGS 2 received a Metascore of 96 and it was a revolutionary game across the board. Out of the games mentioned thus far, MGS2 had probably the best story of any of them. The impact of MGS2 was felt by other stealth based games such as the Splinter Cell series of games, or some of the Hitman games. Other games use stealth for certain missions to excellent effect, such as the Assassin’s Creed series.
The current generation has seen only one true MGS game and that was Metal Gear Solid 4. MGS 4 was another solid title. It answered many of the questions that needed to be answered after the first three MGS games. Most of us who were fans of the series felt like MGS IV wrapped up the series as well as we could have hoped, even though most of us also have our suspicions as to whether we have truly seen the last of Snake. For better or worse, however, MGS IV evolved games to the point that the line between game and movie got blurred considerably. The cut scenes in MGS IV, all together, come out to nearly 90 minutes of cinematics. That is the average length of many movies! Longer and more involved cut-scenes are becoming more and more common and are being used to advance story in games more and more frequently. Is this a good thing? So long as the player is given the option to skip through these scenes, I personally think it is a great thing, adding depth and scope to games as never before. What MGS 2 started, MGS 4 has taken to another level. Games have become more than just games thanks to the Metal Gear Solid series. They are now cinematic events and there is no reason to think the next generation of consoles won’t take this to the next level.
The Zombie Apocalypse
You cannot really talk about video games anymore without addressing the proliferation of zombies and zombie related aspects to games. Dead Rising, the Left 4 Dead series, or the recently released Dead Island are just a few examples of full fledged zombie themed games. It goes farther than that though. Zombies dominate DLC and additional game modes. Zombies have appeared in the most unlikely of places, such as on the battlefield in Call of Duty, the old west in Red Dead Redemption, or in your backyard in Plants v. Zombies. Zombies are all over mobile devices such as the iPhone or Android. Zombies have become so big I actually watched a documentary the other day that spent a good two hours researching whether zombies in Haiti were real. How did we come to this? When did the T-Virus actually hit?
Ironically, it was the series that introduced us to the T-Virus that seemed to usher in the Age of Zombies. Resident Evil 4 is another game with a Metascore of 96 and the game that reinvigorated the RE series. Perhaps more so than any other game in recent memory, RE4 seemed to create the current mania over zombies so prevalent to the current generation. Originally released on the GameCube and then ported over to the PS2, refined and ported again to the Wii, and then scaled down and ported again to all sorts of other devices, RE4 was an unmitigated success. Adding something as obvious as laser sighting on weapons seems like a no-brainer by current standards but was oddly missing from earlier RE games. The introduction of dynamic cut scenes was something somewhat new at the time, but it is everywhere now. But, the game appealed to so many, on so many levels, that a whole new crowd of gamers got into the survival horror genre. Now those same people have all discovered how much fun it is to plow through fields of zombies and other ghoulish creatures. The impact of RE4 is still felt today and while market saturation of zombie games seem destined to create zombie burnout, RE4, and it’s progeny, have radically changed the gaming landscape for all of us.
More Bang For The Buck
Another game with a Metascore of 96 is the fantastic Orange Box. Calling the Orange Box simply a game, however, does not do it justice. What made The Orange Box so amazing was the value it delivered to gamers on so many levels. The guys at Valve are no dummies and they realized that wrapping a compilation of games around the amazing Half-Life 2 series would be a stroke of genius. Not only did gamers get all of Half-Life 2, including Episode 1 and 2 (which would have made the game a must buy on its own merits) but it added on the multi-player hit Team Fortress 2 and the different, but innovative game Portal. Now, the Orange Box was not the first such compilation we had ever seen. But, it might have been the best compilation we had seen up to that time and it is rather difficult to point to any compilation that has come out since then that has been better. What the Orange Box also did better than probably any other compilation was the diversity that the compilation provided to the gamer. Unlike prior compilations such as Command & Conquer: The First Decade, or Diablo Battle Chest, or something along those lines, the Orange Box was not just a repackaging of a series of games and sequels. It provided that with Half-Life 2 and Episode 1 and 2. But by finally releasing a sequel to the original Team Fortress and developing a fantastic new IP in Portal, Valve blended new and old, single player and multi-player, packaged it all together and gave it to the customer at the same price that new games currently sell at ($60 for the PS3 or 360; $50 for the PC). Never before had five games of such quality been packaged together and released for such a price. IGN called the Orange Box “the best deal in video game history.”
Equally impressive is the impact the Orange Box has had upon gaming ever since. While we have not seen a release similar to Orange Box yet, and while there is little question that gamers are probably getting ripped off with DLC and micro-transactions being so prevalent, there are also many examples of the industry trying to give gamers more value for their gaming dollar. Practically every AAA release now ends up having a Game Of The Year edition that includes all DLC previously released, along with some exclusive skin, or weapon, or character, etc. Compilations are becoming more frequent, such as the Gears of War Triple Pack, or the Resistance Dual Pack, or the Guild Wars Trilogy, and so forth. HD remake compilations have been getting increasingly common over the past couple of years, such as the God of War Collection, or the God of War Origins Collection, or the Ico/ Shadow of the Colossus Collection. More games like this are on the way, such as the the Jax and Daxter Trilogy. Publishers seem to believe that some of the most popular games from the past generation will be well received by the current generation of gamers, and they are probably right. The point is that the Orange Box showed developers that if you give, you shall receive. Gamers, perhaps unconsciously, realize that games offer a great return on investment from a time to money spent ratio. While there is no question publishers are out to maximize their profits, they are very much aware that giving the most value they can, for the cheapest development costs possible, is a sure way to maximize profits. It is only a matter of time before we see all of the Modern Warfare games packaged and re-released, or the entire Halo series, or the entire Legend of Zelda series, at a reduced price. Personally, that does not sound like too bad of a deal to me.
A Crisis of Conscience
Another game with a Metascore of 96 is the magnificent Mass Effect 2. The Mass Effect series set a new standard for games by seamlessly blending the action, RPG, and third-person shooter genres and making it all work splendidly. But, the original Mass Effect, and then its sequel, also perfected something that was really popularized with Knights of the Old Republic: The power of choice and the moral consequences of those decisions. The original KOTOR did this in a very clever way as it utilized the light side and dark side of the Force to hammer this home. To the somewhat limited extent that the prior generation pressed the morality hot button, it did it in a rather clearly defined way, such as choosing whether one was a Jedi or a Sith. This generation, however, has cleverly disguised this whole concept. The Mass Effect series really stresses the importance of the choices we make as we progress through a game. And the power of the current consoles enables the choices we make to be carried on from one game to the next, which is what we saw in Mass Effect 2.
But, with this present generation, good and evil are not black and white. There are many instances of shades of gray. There are numerous examples of this: Nathan Hale, the hero of Resistance: Fall of Man and for much of Resistance 2 eventually becoming that which he was trying to destroy; Kratos’s path of destruction in the God of War series; Much of Heavy Rain deals with very deep issues; Cole Mcrath’s odyssey in inFamous; the choice in Bioshock whether to kill or spare the Little Sisters. These are just a few examples. Then there has been the rise of the anti-hero in many games. In many respects, this is akin to when Stone Cold Steve Austin became the most popular pro wrestler in the world. He was certainly not like Hulk Hogan. Instead of taking his vitamins, he was chugging beer. He was a true anti-hero that appealed to the masses. We have seen a sharp increase in that sort of character with this generation of consoles. Darth Vader’s Apprentice from The Force Unleashed, Nikko Bellic from GTA IV, John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, Marcus Phoenix from Gears of War, Travis Touchdown from No More Heroes, Altair and Ezio from Assassin’s Creed, Alex Mercer from Prototype, etc.
All of these very complex characters have dark and light within them and that is what makes them so compelling. Morality has become integral to many games’ story lines. It is a sign as to how story in a game is no longer an afterthought. Story is as essential to a game as the engine on which it is based and great stories need grand, deep, and, sometimes, tormented souls who struggle with their own morality. This generation has put us in touch with those characters, and the choices they face, in a way no other medium before has accomplished: By turning us into the characters themselves. It is a brilliant aspect of many modern games that can sometimes go unnoticed.
Bold New Worlds
The last area I want to explore is with respect to the massive worlds we have seen created by modern video games. There are four more games with scores of 96, two of them released in the past couple of months, Batman: Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The other two games are Uncharted 2 and the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Now, Wind Waker was not the only game from the prior generation that introduced a truly massive world to gamers. GTA III and Vice City did an excellent job of that, as did RPGs such as Final Fantasy X or Suikoden III. Wind Waker did utilize the use of water to extremes we had not seen before, and probably too much so. Still, games such as Wind Waker or GTA III began to really show just how open “open world” could be.
But, with the present generation, game worlds have become truly massive. It does not matter if the game is largely linear, like Uncharted 2, or immensely open, like Skyrim. The worlds in which we play can truly be classified as “worlds”. This results in many games eclipsing the 50 hour mark in terms of game play. And some of these game worlds are unforgettable. The Wastelands of Fallout 3, Albion from Fable II, the planet Pandora from Borderlands, Rapture from Bioshock, Liberty City in GTA IV, the Wild West as depicted in Red Dead Redemption, the post apocalyptic world of Rage, and so forth. This development of game worlds has also enabled developers to do something they were unable to do previously: Make a great super hero game (or two). Most of us felt that such a thing was not possible after experiences with games like Superman 64 or Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis, or so many other crappy Batman games. Then along came Arkham Asylum and massively exceeded everyone’s expectations. I remember playing Arkham Asylum at E3 and immediately feeling that it was different. Here was a game that really captured what Batman was all about, gave you all of his tools, skills, and gadgets, and then dropped you into the heart of darkness known as Arkham Asylum. Here was an immense world all contained within the confines of a mental institution. As good as Arkham Asylum was though, Arkham City upped the ante, doing everything Arkham Asylum did so well and then improving on almost every bit of it. On top of that, gone was the Asylum and in its place was a whole city of anarchy upon which Batman could dispel justice. Arkham City may very well win Game of the Year for 2011…and a pretty good Captain America game came out this year too. My, how we have gotten spoiled this year.
So what have we learned? The past two generations of consoles and games have introduced gamers to vast, expansive worlds, filled with memorable characters, challenging opponents, immersive stories, difficult decisions, epic conflicts, and more than a fair share of zombies. We have seen many classic games re-done, re-tooled and re-sold. We have seen games like Little Big Planet or Mod Nation Racers give normal people the tools they need to make their own levels, or even entire games. Indie games are getting better and better all the time. Though budgets for games have dramatically increased, games have remained at the $60 price point for a long while now and quite often we see Game of The Year Editions of games that include the main game, all the DLC, and other bonuses at a reduced price. These past two generations have been a quantum leap for gaming and there is no telling where this next generation will take us, whenever that next generation gets going. While the Wii U will have many features that are unique, in many ways it will just bring Nintendo even with Microsoft and Sony from a hardware standpoint. Still, once Wii U drops, many questions will start to be asked: What else will Wii U be able to do? What sorts of integration will the next Xbox have with Kinnect? How will the PS4 use the Move to better effect? Is there something even more innovative than motion control waiting out there? Will games achieve photo-realism? Will the line between games and movies diminish even further? What sorts of advances in AI will we see that will make everything more realistic? Will digital distribution moot all of this and become the dominant means by which games reach customers? And, lastly, will a harder game than Dark Souls be released?
Despite the economic problems many people face, the gaming industry continues to do quite well for itself. If the past two generations have taught us anything, it is that gaming is here to stay. With so many people now able to access gaming on so many different levels, the coming generation has all the foundation and potential to be the best one ever. Where we go from here should be an exciting journey.