Let’s face it, we’re all just a tiny bit bored with this generation.
Sure, there’re some interesting titles still to come on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but we’re now at the stage were publishers are taking fewer risks than normal, preferring to play it safe with masses of homogenised shooters and rehashes of old ‘classics’ designed to entertain late buyers rather than those who have stuck it out for the last seven years.
Even titles like Overstrike, which at least threatened to try something a little bit different with its visual style, have been boiled down and reprocessed into fitting into categories and pigeon holes that represent a much lesser chance of failing. Good business sense? Sure. Boring as hell and hardly going to make a dent on this year’s Call of Battlefield: Super Soldier Ops? Quite probably, sadly.[drop]And yet, as delicate glimpses of next-generation tease with their fluid animation and rich landscapes (I’m looking at you two, Watch Dogs and Ground Zeroes) it’s almost certain that we’ve reached the zenith of what these current machines can do with just the ubiquitous Halo 4 left to really test Microsoft’s machine and a handful of sequels for PS3.
But in amongst all the fluffy subtitles and Zerox-style wholesale duplication of themes and ideas, is The Last Of Us, SCEA’s final champion, its segue into PlayStation 4. Naughty Dog’s second team, able to keep development quiet for far too long, have managed to wow and surpass expectations at every showing, the game constantly looking better.
Why? Well, technically it looks incredible – the animation is ridiculously slick and tactile, more so than stablemate Drake’s last outing and up there with the very best; the textures sharp, the framerate solid. But it’s in the enemy AI (and that of your partner, of course) that seems to shine above everything else: it’s reactive, complex, believable.
I don’t have a problem with dumb enemies, as long as they’re not dressed as anything but. A blast through Doom, setting Cacodemons off against an arch-vile is simplistic fun, but since Halo I’ve craved games that challenge the player not through ridiculous difficulty spikes or covering the bad guys in bullet sponges, but through intelligence.
Make the foe play like a human, and the game’s instantly better to play.
Bungie’s ability to stack a hierarchy with grunts and elites was (and still is) a joy to play with, a deadly sandbox of needler spikes and plasma balls that dissipate and reform depending on your actions and targets. They didn’t really push beyond the basics (and there’s little need to) but since then most first person shooters have just felt rather basic, unless heavy scripting covered up the holes.
The best games allow you to tackle challenges in any way you saw fit. That’s what I’m liking the most about The Last Of us – a sense of freeform, tactical choice is present in everything we’ve seen so far, even if the outcomes and certain segments will play out the same each run. Facing off against humans with a handful of bullets and a child to protect is one thing, but make the enemy smart and it’s a whole new ball game.[drop2]And of course Ellie, Joel’s companion, reacts intelligently, communicating in response to what’s happening and what’s around her. It’s often surprisingly well done.
Next generation is certain to bring vastly improved visuals (where budgets allow) but the area that excites me the most is AI – increased RAM and quicker processors are likely to allow developers the chance to really demonstrate what videogames can do in an area that previously many have simple ticked the most basic checkboxes rather than really pushing the envelope any further.
In a shooter, a bad guy ducking behind a box isn’t smart AI. Co-ordinating with fellow teammates to create covering fire, find space and then devise a fresh approach to attack the player safely is. It’s this that The Last Of Us is striving to at least portray, even if there’s a hint that there are elements of smoke and mirrors at work.
I’ve got huge amounts of faith in Naughty Dog, and currently their latest is the game I’m most looking forward to before the inevitable rollover to PS4 and 720 starts to grind into life.