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March 2, 2015

On the Pursuit of Next Gen -- ACT II

Have I mentioned that I don’t understand the games industry anymore?  I have?  Well, have I done it recently?  I haven’t?  All right, then.

I don’t understand this industry anymore.

Well, that’s not to say that I ever really understood it in the first place.  I try to stay well-read on gaming news, but the inner workings of developers, publishers, processes, and the industry at large are still way beyond me.  So you’d be justified in calling me ignorant, or even dumping me into the “entitled” category of gamers (with every bit of the stigma that it implies).  I’d like to think that I’m slightly shifted to the right, but I’ll explain why later.  For now, there’s something that’s been on my mind.

As it turns out, The Order: 1886 is apparently not very good.  Sure, the Metacritic scores paint a semi-flattering picture in terms of sheer numbers, but reading the reviews listed shows just why you should read reviews instead of banking solely on a number.  In essence, the only major praise worth speaking of is “it looks good”.  Everything else is debatable at best.  And maybe not even that; some harsh words have been thrown around, including the one word that’s practically a death sentence for a game: it’s boring.

It’s way too early to tell how the game’s sales will ultimately pan out, and what lessons (if any) the developer Ready at Dawn, publisher Sony, or the industry at large will take from it.  I’ve heard that there’s a pretty blatant sequel hook at the end, meaning that they’re probably going to spin it into a franchise no matter what -- which I’d be okay with if the first game justified another visit to its world.  But apparently, that’s not the case.  Again, all it has going for it right now is that “it looks good” -- maybe not even that if you’re the sort who doesn’t have outright prejudice against the average color palette.

Now, let’s set aside all of the PR talk and hype (or at least as much as we can) for just a little while.  The Order represents a brand new IP, and merely by existing -- and backed by Sony -- it had the potential to be more than just the PS4’s killer app, as much as everyone would have loved that.  It could have been more than something that justified the console’s existence, let alone reason to purchase.  It could have been a game that proved that the next generation of games had arrived.  It could have bucked trends and defied expectations, and given us something great.  But it didn’t. 

Or rather, it did.  It played directly to the current standards of eighth-generation games -- by being yet another example of “the same, but less”.

Now, let me pause for a minute.  If you’re reading this post -- or this blog in general -- and expecting a 100% objective discussion of gaming trends and particulars, you’re in the wrong place.  From here on out, I have to go almost exclusively into Opinion Mode (as if I haven’t already), so you’re free to agree or disagree with me at your leisure.  Okay?  Okay.

I’ve tossed out the phrase “justifies the PS4” and variations of it for a while now.  The reason is obvious, of course; if someone’s going to plunk down some cash on one of these new boxes, then there has to be a good reason for anyone to do it.  A good enough game (killer app or otherwise) should be what makes that push -- and given that both the PS4 and Xbone are roughly a year old now, it’s safe to say that that should have happened already.  But it hasn’t.  I cannot even begin to fathom why or how 20 million PS4s have been bought when I’m convinced there isn’t a single game out there that’d even be worth playing for more than a couple of days.  If that.

Well, let me stop right there before I get too hasty.  In fact, let me rephrase “justifying the PS4” into something more all-purpose for the sake of this post.  Let’s go with “games that I would recommend to others”; my standards are notoriously high (and getting higher by the day, it seems), but if asked about what to try and what to avoid, I think I’m a little credible.  Just a little bit.  And with that in place, I can say that there are games that I’d recommend on the PS4.

Guilty Gear Xrd gets top honors, naturally.  It can’t quite justify the PS4 because it’s a niche title that not everyone can enjoy (even though the wall isn’t as high as you’d think), but it’s 100% recommended because it’s stylish, smartly put together, and all-around fun.  Believe it or not, I’d also recommend Wolfenstein: The New Order.  It’s a Nazi-shooting jamboree, yes, but its execution is way higher than it has any right to be, to the point where I was legitimately sad to have given it back to a friend.  And there are smaller releases worth your time, even if they’re not without fault; The Swapper, Transistor, and Resogun have all done their part to entertain, in their own special ways.

But that’s pretty much it.  At this stage in the console’s life, I wouldn’t recommend any other game to any other gamer, rookie or veteran.  For the sake of this blog, I’ve tried out my fair share of them -- and barring Dragon Age: Inquisition, I haven’t touched a single one of them since I finished the post on it.  But for the sake of saving you the trouble of reading thousands more words, here’s a hyper-abbreviated rundown.

Infamous: Second Son: Has good character moments and offers some thrills, but the thin content and poorly-realized plot just help reinforce just how shallow the experience really is.
Watch Dogs: Unbearable in every way, with gameplay that threatened to be obsolete two generations ago and a narrative that a goose could outdo.
Destiny: Manages to be a slog within the first hour of gameplay, with a plot just a question away from unraveling into pieces and gunplay that’s as exciting as waiting in line.
Killzone: Shadow Fall: It has promise at the outset, but the plot is almost laughably tone-deaf and the gameplay -- while packing flourishes -- still just feels like more of the same.
MGS5: Ground Zeroes: It’s solid enough evidence that The Phantom Pain will be amazing, but being a $40 demo hurts the “game” in more ways than just birthing controversy.
Battlefield 4: A part of me used to wonder if modern military shooters get undeserved hate.  Now I don’t wonder anymore.
The Evil Within: It tries so hard to be Resident Evil that it forgets to try being good.
Dragon Age: Inquisition: This pretty much sums it up:

I’ll be the first to admit that my biases are showing because most of those games -- as per a miniseries I did a while back -- were shooters, and I’m pretty sure my distaste for them is noted at this point.  But even then, there are games that I haven’t played and/or won’t play because they’re either reportedly bad or have bathed in industrial-strength Voltech repellant.  Evolve will likely never shake the stigma of being a DLC platform.  Dying Light is just a better looking Dead Island with parkour.  Lords of the Fallen is a Dark Souls clone so forgettable I didn’t remember it until the Zero Punctuation video (and even then…).  Thief completely ignored what its predecessors did, and did better.

Far Cry 4 is Far Cry 3 with a worse story and characters and still has no idea how to keep its antagonists involved.  Shadow of Mordor’s saving grace is its Nemesis system, chained at the hip to another gory revenge fantasy.  Assassin’s Creed: Unity could run perfectly, and it would still be mediocre.  Murdered: Soul Suspect is -- as proven by the Best Friends LP -- far from ideal.  Both Call of Duty games are still Call of Duty games.  Knack exists.  Even LittleBigPlanet 3, which I would have hoped (and thought) was a sure thing came with its fair share of problems.  And bugs.

The current slate of PS4 games doesn’t paint a picture of a thriving console.  Sure, the sales and scores may play to the “greatness awaits” advertising campaign, but I wonder how many people are satisfied with their consoles and their games.  That’s what matters.  It’s what decides whether PS4s -- and Xbones, even more so -- are being used to deliver those touted “experiences”, or if they’re just makeshift doorstops.

Somewhere down the line, the PS4 is going to be a console worth owning.  The same goes for the Xbone, which is arguably in just as dire straits with “killer apps” like Ryse (the mocked-to-oblivion QTE fest), Dead Rising 3 (ported to PC), and The Master Chief Collection (with its essentially-broken multiplayer).  Someday these consoles will be good.  But today is not that day.  Maybe it’ll come sooner than we all think, what with Bloodborne on the way -- well, for PS4 owners at least.  But the problem is that it should have come sooner.  It should have happened already.  You shouldn’t be able to sell 20 million of anything and have nothing to show for it but general mediocrity.

Maybe this is all proof that video games are growing increasingly unsustainable.  I thought that the new technology was being created in such a way that it would make development easier, and therefore cheaper -- but apparently, the costs have either gone up or the demands have grown so great that it’s impossible to keep up without a complete strain on resources.  And this isn’t a new thing.  Remember, the last generation was headed this way for the better part of its cycle.  Studios closed, companies downsized, losses on even top-selling titles made the news, franchises were abandoned, whole genres were deemed unprofitable -- the list goes on.  These days, it seems like all devs can do is make their games look pretty.  And sometimes they can’t even manage that.

Sometimes it feels like too many devs -- too many good people -- are just steering into the skid.

I can’t help but wonder how things got like this.  Yeah, there’s a pretty strong argument (if it hasn’t been confirmed already, what with The Order in our midst) that the AAA model is on the way out, and indie devs are going to establish themselves as the workhorses, if not the winners.  But why does it feel like we’re at such extremes these days?  Why does it have to be either AAA or indie more often than not?  What happened to mid-tier development that could fill the gap between releases?  I’m guessing that they’re still here in some capacity, but too often it feels like finding them is harder than it needs to be. 

And if that’s the case, then what do I have to rely on?  Bloodborne, probably.  Fallout 4, maybe.  Tekken 7, probably.  Kingdom Hearts 3, maybe.  That’s not to devalue indie games and their developers, of course, but the expectation is that the guys with the big budgets can do more.  They can make whatever they want.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be about spinning a franchise out of every release; after all, if Assassin’s Creed 3 set sales records and brought Ubisoft some serious cash, then wouldn’t that give Ubisoft the funding it needs for some passion projects?  For more games like Rayman Legends or Grow Home or Child of Light, but on a larger scale?  One that can take advantage of the company’s wealth?

And that brings me to my main question: what is the point of next-gen?

Besides that.

This isn’t a question I’m just asking AAA developers (though they definitely apply).  I have to wonder what the end goal here is.  Ubisoft pretty much won with Assassin’s Creed; they got the money to do whatever, even if it meant taking the earnings and pushing them towards a handful of smaller projects instead of one big one.  Same goes for Activision and Call of Duty.  Same goes with EA and, well, take your pick.  I’m no business guru, but I would have figured that putting out a big hit would give them freedom -- not chain them to paying for big hits by making big hits, just to pay for more big hits. 

So I have to wonder what the end goal here is.  We’ve reached a point where graphics aren’t enough anymore; the PS4 and Xbone haven’t been fully tapped, sure, but one release after another over the past few years have proven that graphics aren’t everything.  Exciting gameplay matters.  Innovation matters.  Style matters.  Challenge matters.  And yes, on some level, even a good story matters.  But when we can’t even reliably count on games to deliver good gameplay -- when we have to suspect either a glitchy mess at the outset, or shady business practices weeks in advance -- then it’s a signal that something has gone wrong.

So again, what is the point of next-gen?  I mean sure, we’ve seen some new IPs this early in the cycle (Destiny, Watch Dogs, The Evil Within), but those are less like bold steps forward and more like placeholders -- attempts to restock the war chest while ignoring the progress made up to that point.  Innovation isn’t the goal here.  Evolution isn’t the goal either, considering the steps back on so many fronts, which in turn means that execution isn’t a high priority.  Beyond that, the path forward has already been set; the Xbone’s betting on a new Halo.  The PS4’s betting on a new Uncharted.  We’re getting a new Mirror’s Edge.  We’re getting a new Mass Effect.  Naughty Dog is threatening teasing a sequel to The Last of Us, and I would be surprised if Microsoft didn’t start a new Gears of War trilogy.

I’m at a point where I have trouble believing that -- unless it’s on the Wii U -- any game coming out is going to be good.  I’m the sort to wait for reviews and official word, and I’ll accept when things go well for whatever game gets top honors (see: Alien Isolation).  But the way things are looking, I wouldn’t be surprised if others felt as burnt-out and let-down as I do right now.  Or even more.  Are there going to be good games?  Of course.  But right now, it feels like we gamers have to endure games rather than look forward to them -- because as far as I can tell, the point of next-gen right now isn’t to deliver new experiences, advance the medium, or even entertain buyers. 

It’s to survive.

Remember at the start when I said that I’d like to think I’m slightly shifted to the right?  Well, there’s a reason I said that.  See, I know how easy it is to heap hate on big, faceless organizations that are “ruining video games”.  And I have to admit that I’ve taken shots at people whose products have…well, let’s go with “slighted me” and leave it at that.  But it’s worth remembering that even if Activision and EA and Ubisoft and all the rest are the heads of the hydra screwing everything up, they aren’t just single entities.  They’re made up of good people.  Hundreds, if not thousands of employees hoping to put out a good game.  Are their efforts misguided?  Yes, and frequently.  But they’re not heartless monsters.

There’s a certain level of satisfaction to be had in knowing that The Order isn’t the best that it could be; plenty of people are probably chanting “I told you so!” while doing their little jigs.  But it’s not just a cynical mishmash of parts and tropes; it’s the product of months, if not years of an army of workers slaving away at a project.  If the game fails, then I can’t help but worry that the cogs in the machine will be the ones to face the consequences -- by no fault of their own, maybe.

They deserve better.  We deserve better.  Games deserve better.  There’s so much improvement and untapped potential to be had on all fronts -- and even if we haven’t reached the summit yet, we should have at least gotten a lot closer than we are now.  Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for the game that justifies the PS4, or next-gen, or any of that.  I don’t want to look forward to one game that doesn’t even have a release date on the distant horizon.  I want to be able to walk between shelves of awesome titles, each one as enticing at the last because of the top-notch design and execution put forth.

I know that’s not going to happen.  But if we can at least get close to it -- if games can give us a reason to get excited on average, instead of once in a while -- then that’s fine.  That’s all I could ever ask out of them.  And it’s the one thing that I know that next-gen games can do, if only they’re willing to break through their chains and see the possibilities.

We’ll get there someday.  I know it.  Games aren’t the only ones pursuing the next generation.


  1. As Jim Sterling (loosely) said in his review, The Order: 1886 is a teaser trailer for an amazing game. After watching a 5 and a half hour LP, I agree completely. The game does play at consistent frame rate from what I've seen, there's hardly any uncanny valley-ness to the character animations and expressions, and the graphics look more polished here than in most AAA games I've seen being farted out triannually. (Heck, the fact the cut-scenes are in-game from the engine is pretty nice for the sake of visual consistency and fluidity.) It's just a damn shame they didn't put that energy into the amazing setting, lore, and characters that are screaming for a twenty-hour experience! The Order made me cry that it decided to be a prequel-esque first entry rather than a rich, holistic game. It deserved better development treatment than this. *shakes fists angrily* D:<

    And to stand on a wonderfully controversial podium for a moment, The Order has two or three badass female characters who *gasp* have a sense of agency in the plot and competence as knights and/or fighters. It's a shame that I have to say that, but in this day and age when we have to fight about a type of media fucks up when writing a female character someone has to pass out cookies to games that are on the right track. If a sequel - and fully fleshed game - will ever happen, I'd love to see Isabeau, Devi, and Lakshmi have more character moments and development.

    I'll keep defending for having a solid premise and promising characters, but I don't blame anyone who refuses to pay $60 for The Order. It's a hell of a lot more going for it than most AAA games out nowadays... but not by much thanks to the developers caving under peer pressure.

  2. I guess if nothing else, credit DOES have to be given to the game for trying to do something different. It could've been just another brown and gray shooter (well, more of one), or it could've just been another zombie fest, but it wasn't. it went with a new setting with lore and junk, and that's pretty cool.

    Here's what tears me up, though: should a game that bungles the first outing so badly have the privilege -- not the right -- for a sequel? Sure, these guys put in a lot of work to make the game, and that's respectable. But look where most of it went: to the graphics. Now there's a shell of a game on store shelves, and if people want to see a better version of that, they have to buy that shell to fund The Apology Edition. Or, alternatively: sure, maybe Watch Dogs 2 will be good, but in order to get it, people had to suffer through Watch Dogs 1, and now have to wait years for anything even remotely substantial.

    That doesn't sound like a very good situation to be in. But that's just my opinion, of course.

    In any case, I'm glad you actually found something to like about the game. I haven't watched an LP yet (I'm hoping the Best Friends Zaibatsu gets to it at some point), but merely the fact that there ARE female characters is a point in its favor. I wouldn't mind watching just to see them in action for myself...which just goes to show how starved everyone is for some competent ladies in gaming, but whatever. I'll take what I can get. Also:

    "...that are screaming for a twenty-hour experience!"

    That's working under the assumption that a hypothetical version of The Order has gameplay that isn't run-of-the-mill cover shooting, I hope. And since everybody else is talking about game length: Metal Gear Rising is my go-to on the subject, because even if it's five or so hours, those are five AMAZING hours with plenty of replay value, even without the DLC. The Order as-is sounds like it can barely manage to beat out Gears of War...the first one.

    Nothing would make me happier than seeing AAA gaming lay off the gunplay for a good, long while -- because if they're not going to do anything interesting with it (and they aren't), then it's time to go back to step one.

  3. There's actually an easily-understandable reason why big budget games are falling flat a lot lately.

    The larger the budget you have, the more people you involve, the more middle-management you need, and the more investors you have that are too scared of dumping a lot of money on a gamble.

    This is why you see a lot of "the same, but less". It doesn't help that a lot of the people involved in the creation process face constant layoffs and crunch time, which, from what I've read, is a fairly soulsucking process.

    Oh, and the developers are pretty adamant in believing that the internet is wrong and that their game is the best thing since sliced bread. If it gets a sequel, expect more of the same.

  4. "If it gets a sequel, expect more of the same."


    Yeah, I guess the team size -- and the problems that follow -- is a real issue. I mean, I heard that Resident Evil 6 had somewhere around six hundred people working on it...and considering how "cohesive" that was, it shows every step of the way. Plus, there are multiple Ubisoft teams working on Assassin's Creed, yes? So not only do you have one communication nightmare, but you have TWO of them at once.

    I get it. I know these guys are just trying to survive, and do what they think is right, but...come on. The big guys are showing the survival instincts of drunken lemmings. At this stage I'm wondering just what the hell it's going to take for those big guys -- publishers, investors, shareholders, whatever -- to realize that something is amiss. Something needs to happen soon, and decisively. But until then...

    *desperately cradles copy of Devil Survivor 2 for solace*

  5. Next gen, to me, is defined as an excuse to make short shitty games for two years while expecting your customer base to be unpaid beta testers. (Or worse, charging people for the honor of testing)

    i'm perfectly fine with nintendo sticking to last gen mentality.

  6. I don't want to admit you're right, but -- yeah, you're right.

    There's no denying that Nintendo's not in the best place right now, and that its latest console's not going to get the traction it deserves -- because apparently, it has "no games". Here's the thing, though: at this stage, the other two eighth-gen consoles have proven that even if they have more games (and even that's debatable, considering the huge gaps between releases there have been), they don't have more good games. With a couple of exceptions, it feels like they don't have ANY good games.

    I'd ask who the real loser in this situation is right now, but it's pretty much as you said: right now, it's us. We're pretty much just beta testers paving the way for devs' future, and borderline undeserved, success. (You don't even KNOW how many issues I had with the latest Dragon Age.) It's wrong, it's unfair, and it's seriously pissing me off.

    Fortunately, there are respites.