I've said a couple of times this year already that you could be forgiven for forgetting that we'd even had not one, but two next-gen consoles release at the end of 2013, such is the dearth of activity that we've seen in the early part of 2014. That's changed a little in recent weeks as the Titanfall hype train has begun to gather steam and bundles have started appearing for Respawn's shooter on Xbox One and Sucker Punch's latest inFamous title on the PS4.
But for me at least, there's still a sense that although I've bought the ticket and am standing, waiting for the arrival of this heralded new generation, not much has changed as yet, and that aside from some shinier graphics here and there, the new box is pretty much the same as the old box -- at least in terms of what's on offer.
Dead Rising 3 stood out for its scale, allowing for zombie-mashing on a previously unimagined level. It's an enormously important thing -- an expansive feature only made possible thanks to increased power, that fundamentally ties into the central core of the gameplay. It's brilliant, though somewhat marred by the inescapable torrent of insulting tripe that's forming the game's DLC menu -- the less said about that, the better.
We should note too the shining, shimmering splendour of Killzone: Shadow Fall. It's still the only next-gen title to really drop my jaw in terms of visuals, and it did a fine job of selling the power of the PS4. Sadly, though, that's about the only thing it did a fine job of, trading the potential and promise of its first level for something wholly generic, unimaginative, and laborious.
Those two highlights aside, and it should be noted that both games were franchise sequels, there's not really been much in gaming terms to shout about in terms of adding words like "new" and "next" and "fresh" in front of the word "generation". As the excitement of the launch window faded along with our Christmas turkey stupors, a question of what's next? has arisen; and for those looking for some kind of advancement beyond a lick of paint, there have been precious few answers.
We've returned to the importance of third-party developers many a time when discussing the Wii U, and the same is true with these (relatively) new consoles. As much as Sony and Microsoft will be looking to release first-party material, it's the third-parties who fill in the gaps much of the time, and the fact is that few third-party titles, if any, have given gamers truly compelling reasons to make the jump to next-gen.
Assassin's Creed IV, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Thief, FIFA 14, Injustice, Need For Speed: Rivals -- none of these feel particularly essential on the newer consoles over their older counterparts. "Feature complete" is a phrase that has been bandied around a lot when describing games that span the generation jump, and it's admirable -- making all versions of the game identical in terms of core features -- but it's also holding developers back. An overlap period is great from one perspective -- it means you can wait a little longer until you find yourself a deal that you like for a new console; for thrifty folk and bargain hunters, "feature complete" as a philosophy is great. We still get to enjoy these new experiences without forking out several hundred quid for a new console.
But that overlap is affecting progression.
Of all of the third-party titles on the horizon this year, only The Witcher III stands out as a game refusing to compromise. CD Projekt are making the biggest game they've ever attempted to make, and the sheer level of detail, the breadth of narrative scope, and the enormous world they're creating is worthy of a little whistle of disbelief. We said it back at Gamescom last year -- if they can pull this off, they're likely to set an absurdly high benchmark for excellence in the RPG genre. But where are the other games looking to raise the bar?
Respawn, EA, and Microsoft have done a fine job of presenting Titanfall as the game to do just that, but as we said in our podcast, Titanfall doesn't reinvent the wheel in revolutionary fashion or present us with anything particularly groundbreaking as such. But it's a new IP, packaging existing elements together in a manner we haven't really seen before, and refusing to settle for simply measuring up to what's already out there. It might not be "technically next-gen" in terms of power and visuals and player count in the way that Battlefield 4 on the new consoles is, but as a game, it's easy to consider it a next-gen title because of the ambition behind it -- the desire to try and do something new within a rather restrictive genre.
Again, though, Titanfall is an exclusive IP being developed by Respawn for the Xbox One. They don't have to compromise on development because they're focused on that version, with Bluepoint playing catch-up with the Xbox 360 version. Most of the third-party studios out there don't have the luxury of palming the lesser console versions off onto someone else from the beginning, meaning that the developmental mindset is looking back rather than necessarily looking forwards.
This is a new generation and a chance to refresh and reboot and realise things we didn't before. New games on these systems will attract attention by virtue of being new -- we're still in the honeymoon period, and there's space to try new things. That goes for first-party titles and other exclusives too. My heart sank when I got my first hands-on with inFamous: Second Son recently and it played just like a shinier version of the older games. For some people that will be fine, but I'm looking for more for my £400. To be fair to that game, we've no idea how large the city is, and the scope and scale of what we'll get to do within that neon-soaked Seattle sandbox. Nothing would please me more than for Sucker Punch to absolutely knock it out of the park and prove my first impressions wrong. Similarly, I'm actually a little worried about The Order: 1886. We know so little about it, and to be honest that's actually helped excitement build, with only this intriguing steampunk, Victoriana setting and a few interview quotes here and there to go on. But I find myself crossing all of my appendages and feverishly praying, Please don't just be a run-of-the-mill shooter!
It doesn't help that the Xbox 360 and PS3 remain brilliant consoles, with libraries showcasing developers at the heights of their powers. But the bar has been raised, it's time we all grew as an industry to meet it.