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The Wow Factor

The Witcher 2 - widely acclaimed as one of the most graphically advanced games of the current generation

The Witcher 2 seems to be everywhere at the moment. It sounds like a hell of a game, and I wish I had the hardware to play it. But alongside how great everyone is saying the game is to play, I keep hearing also how good it looks. And that makes me at once strangely wistful and nostalgic, and yet filled with excitement and anticipation. Because I remember that feeling, way back down in the dim, distant, murky parts of my gaming history, that feeling of being blown away by the visual impact of a game. And I really thought it had gone forever.

I was never a console boy. My first encounters with video games was on the 8-bit computing platforms of the ’80s, from the awful graphics of the ZX Spectrum with its eight shade palette and colour bleed to the much more advanced Commodore 64, the graphical powerhouse of its day. The games were new, thrilling, breathlessly exciting things to my virgin generation, unused to technological toys, and for the most part they looked like shit. But we didn’t care: this was the birth of the home gaming movement, and we were too busy being joyously carried along on the crest of a new wave to think about the future.

But the future came, nevertheless. It came in the form of 16-bit computing. I can remember still, with extraordinary vividness for a day more than 20 years ago, coming home from school and having my parents ask me to quickly run an important errand in a forced manner that seemed odd and noticing behind them on the kitchen table a large box swathed with towels in a futile attempt at disguise and knowing, knowing for certain that my Amiga had arrived. I ran my errand as quickly as I could and spent the rest of the day totally absorbed in video games, barely pausing even to eat, as they knew I would. It was on the Amiga that I first discovered the extraordinary potential shock value of updated graphics and sound, the day I shoved Shadow of the Beast into the hungry maw of my machine’s disc drive.

Shadow of the Beast on the Commodore Amiga

By most objective standards Shadow of the Beast was an awful game. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up/platformer hybrid it was tediously derivative, stupidly difficult, repetitive and driven by an incomprehensible, meaningless plot. But in spite of this, and an eye-wateringly high price tag for the time of £35, the game received critical acclaim and sold by the bucket load. It managed this feat purely because of its graphics and sound. With an enormous colour palette, crisp, fluid sprites and an unheard of 12levels of parallax scrolling powering a stunning piece of visual and audio design Shadow of the Beast looked better than anything else in home computing, like something that should be running on a Cray supercomputer and not the little gray box in your living room. Like almost every other gamer I broke my teeth on its difficulty level and resorted to cheat codes, enduring the dull gameplay for hour after hour just to feast my eyes and ears on the smorgasbord of delights that the game offered. It was wonderful, the attainment of a nirvana that my fifteen-year old self had never dreamed existed.

I can also vividly remember, for entirely different reasons, a conversation I had with some friends around this time about the quality of graphics in video games. We discussed, and agreed, that further advancement in graphical technology would be nice, but was hardly necessary, because 16-bit games looked so good and that it wouldn’t be much longer before we had video quality graphics beyond which any improvement was impossible. I remember that because of the way that later years demonstrated it was a grandiose, naive, ignorant and stupidly arrogant and statement to make. But if you can’t make statements like that when you’re 15, when else can you do it?

And over the coming years, as hardware was upgraded and replaced, it was proved hollow time and time again. On my first PC the game that floored me with its visual was Ultima Underworld. On the next rig, a 486, it was Doom. On my first Pentium machine it was Quake. But each time there was something of a law of diminishing returns. Each time the impact was a little bit less, my reaction a little bit more jaded with experience and weighted with the cynicism of the passing years.

All that changed with the next upgrade though. When Quake II came out I bought myself a brand new PC with a hot graphics card just so I could play that particular game. The guy that built it for me slung a copy of a game I’d never heard of, Unreal, into the box for me to boot up when I’d got the machine installed. And this I duly did, and such was my astonishment that I called my non-gaming wife in from the living room to share the moment with me and she, normally totally disinterested in my hobby, sat in open-mouthed wonder, desultorily poking at the mouse from time to time just to make the viewpoint change. I was so overawed by this, my first ever experience of a game properly rendered in 3D polygons with full lighting effects, that I spent that whole first evening just wandering in circles round the lake in the opening scene of the game, looking at the crystals on the ground, the water in the pool, the stars in the sky, discharging my weapon into the distance just to watch the bolts fade into obscurity.

Of course, I eventually got round to doing the proper thing and venturing deeper into the environs of the game to kick some scaly alien buttock, but there were repeated occasions when I’d be absorbed so totally by the visual design that some enemy or other would walk right up and blow me away without my noticing until it was too late. It was wonderful to have that feeling again, dragging me right back to those first moments in front of Shadow of the Beast, the ultimate digital nostalgia trip.

Unreal - the most graphically impressive game of its generation

But that was the last time.

Bigger PCs with beefier graphics cards didn’t reproduce it, nor did the first console I ever owned, the Xbox. Halo and Half-Life 2 are probably the most graphically advanced games I’ve played extensively and even though I took the time to sit back and note the resolution and the detail in those games and nod in satisfaction, appreciating the effort that went into the design and development, that wow factor seemed to have gone forever. Why? Partly, and in danger of replicating my teenage hubris, I feel that while photorealistic graphics are still a ways away in video games, once you’ve got to the point of realistic physics and lighting effects, all there is to do is to increase the resolution and add detail. And while that helps things look pretty, it’s not the sort of earth-shattering advance in visuals that we’ve seen in older iterations of hardware development.

I suspect this may also be part of the reason why Sony got trumped in the current generation by the Xbox 360. The previous console generation may well have been the last one where there was a genuine quantum leap in terms of graphical processing power, and because of that gamers were still drawn towards the superior hardware of the original Xbox and some people bought one over the PS2 on that, and that alone. Sony must have known this, so for the next generation they pulled out all the stops to deliver the beast of a machine that is the PS3, not realising that in this generation, graphical power was no longer going to be the hot selling point it had been in the past, because we’re in a place now where all designers and developers can do is tweak the resolution and the details that’s on offer.

Another culprit in decreasing appreciation for video game graphics might have been the advent of genuine photorealistic computer graphics in films. We’re still a step away from genuine lifelike movement and expressions, but it’s hard to admire the visuals of a computer game when computer effects in Hollywood products you can see every day on your TV have become so common and so detailed that you barely notice them anymore.

It made me sad to think that those moments, those few precious moments of wonder that I’d shared with my computer games as we’d grown up together, were something that nascent gamers, born into a world where visualising dreams had become commonplace, might never experience with their own PCs and consoles. And now we have The Witcher 2, and that’s the first time in a long, long time that I’ve really noticed games journalists writing about the graphics in a game with anything like that childish tinge of astonishment and appreciation. It’ll be awhile before I get the chance to play Witcher 2, and then there’s a new hardware generation to think about, but it seems as though there’s a little spark of hope that I, and millions of others, might not have seen our last “wow” moments after all.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #118

No High Scores Podcast Logo

With Bill and Brandon off traveling the world (sort of), their seats on this week’s Jumping the Shark are ably filled by fellow No High Scores comrades, Brian Rowe and Matt Thrower, who join Todd this week to talk about the challenge developers face in giving gamers the information they need to overcome challenges without letting it get too easy or frustratingly difficult. After that, the discussion turns towards topic of locking games to specific user accounts and what makes Steam different from the prospect of retail games being locked to a console or user for next-gen consoles. All that and more awaits you in episode 118!

iTunes Link
Past Episodes

Through These Fields of Destruction

Brothers In Arms: Earned in Blood Firefight

I am the veteran of a thousand battlefields across all of time and space. From the Halo ring to the remnants of Silverspring my guns have sung their dirges of destruction and my swords and axes have bathed in gore. I have seen wonders beyond belief: the jeweled skies of Na Pali reflected in the shimmering surface of Tarydium crystals, spectral monks flitting through snow shrouded ruins on the coast of Ireland, blossoming fire from an interstellar bombardment enveloping the Strogg citadel. Across the dimensions I have endured horrors unimaginable and left unnumbered dead in my wake.

And yet, as I brood now in the gathering gloom of my obsolesce, there is nothing I can recall quite so clearly as Normandy, Earth in 1944.

I, who stood before the cyber-satan of Mars and laughed my mocking laugh, lay prostrate with terror behind a pile of logs as the combined fire of a German platoon tore up the wood behind my back and span through the air so close above my head that I could feel the heat of the tracers. Smoke and cordite hung in the air, mixing with churned earth and chipped sawdust that stuck in the nose and choked the throat. There was no way I could even raise my head above cover to shoot back without taking a bullet in the brain.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Trying to compose my fraught nerves and to make myself heard above the griding din of mechanised warfare, I started to bark out instructions to the two squads under my command. One work to the left, lay down some suppressing fire to give squad two the chance to dash a little nearer. Then vice-versa so that they slowly began to inch their way toward the enemy positions where one, I hoped, could outflank a squad or a machine-gun emplacement, and destroy it.

Those were my instructions. But once those boys had gone, I couldn’t see them any more. I had to hang tight and pray that they could follow my instructions and manage not to get themselves killed in the process. It was a nerve-racking few minutes crouched behind my flimsy cover and listening to them shout and yell to one another whilst rapid crack of their semi automatic M1 rifles mixed with the lower rumbles of the bolt-action German models. But eventually the volume of fire on my position began to lessen. After a couple more minutes I was able to risk a look to try and ascertain where the remnants of the enemy were, then to dash out myself and sneak round behind where my troopers had pinned the last few stragglers and finish them off myself.

With all the myriad of memories that I have of gunfights in the far-flung reaches of space, why do I remember this so clearly? I remember it because it was a moment which was utterly unique. I’d commanded soldiers before but they were just mindless cannon-fodder that charged into the fray at my back, to be mown down like dry grass in the wind. Here, they were my salvation, and I needed to flex some proper tactical muscles instead of just physical ones to triumph over my enemies. There is nothing – nothing – in all my long years of warfare that can compare.

I remember more, too. I remember the cold terror of charging into a bank of mist and engaging German paratroopers in blind, desperate hand-to-hand fighting. I remember directing my men to defend the bombed out shell of a Cathedral as I sat in the spire, sniping at the enemy soldiers through a scope, worrying about their safety and consumed with the creeping fear that armour might show up and blow us out of our fortified positions with heavy weapons. I remember the awe of inching across the desolate landscapes of ruined St. Sauveur under a storm-laden sky, filled with foreboding in case the artillery that caused such destruction was still zeroed in and primed to fire. I remember all this because there was genuine fear in knowing that a single bullet would mean the end and having to start over. I remember it because it was so terrifyingly real, to the point that I could recognise portions of the landscape from photos I’d seen in history books. I remember it because, unlike all the other fantastic places I’d wielded a weapon and killed my enemies, it actually happened.

I have these memories thanks to the Brothers in Arms games Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood, about my favourite video games ever. They were hardly flawless. Tactical shooters such as these, especially ones that put such a weight on the behaviour of friendly units, live and die on the strength of their AI and that of the BIA games weren’t quite up to the enormous load that the game model put on them, although I’m not sure even modern hardware and software could quite measure up to that challenge, so what we got back then was truly outstanding by the standards of the time. But ultimately I can’t really disagree with the critical consensus that weaknesses in the AI made the game occasionally frustrating in the extreme. It’s pretty hard to watch as you order a fire team into cover, observe two of your men follow your orders to the letter showing that your command has been understood, while the third stands bolt upright in the open and promptly gets his head blown off. It’s harder still to watch this performance repeated over and over again as you try and replay that section of the game.

But in the end the game was easily – easily – absorbing and original enough to compensate. Nearly every other game in the “tactical shooter” genre with which BIA got lumped involves creeping through unlit, unpopulated corridors for ten minutes and then waiting behind a pillar for a further ten minutes to try and understand the movement patterns of the guards before someone spots you and cuts you down in a hail of gunfire. Not entirely my idea of fun. But in BIA you got a seamless blend of furious FPS action with a real-time tactics game that simultaneously challenged you to twitch like a demon and think like a general.

Brothers in arms Sherman firefightThat would have been enough to make it a brilliant game, but what lifted it into the realms of the extraordinary was the attention that developers Gearbox gave to authenticity. Many of the missions from the game were lifted direct from history, and many of the environments painstakingly re-created from actual historical photographs. If you know any world war 2 history, hell, if you’ve ever watched Band of Brothers (which the developers clearly did and had) you’ll feel an ominous sense of dread and recognition as you approach the town of Carentan or the Battle of Bloody Gulch. The game exudes detail and atmosphere from every pore: artillery pieces you’ll plant charges on and tanks you’ll ride on are perfect replicas of the real thing, and they even remembered to include the characteristic “ping” noise that M1 rifles gave off when their clips were empty, to let the user know it was time to reload. It was built into the mechanics too: you couldn’t aim accurately unless you stood still, and under fire your gun would wobble precariously to simulate the stress, so you absolutely had to leverage the tactical element of the game in order to succeed. Most brutal of all was the injury model where even a couple of wounds could kill you, and a sparse save-point pattern which discouraged risk-taking and came the closest that a game perhaps ever could to making the player genuinely fearful about the prospect of being killed. The combination of intense, challenging game-play and authentic atmosphere lead, for me, to a truly unequalled sense of immersion in the game world.

Of the two games, I think I loved Earned in Blood the most, even though it got lower critical scores. People rubbished it a little because game-play wise it was identical to it’s predecessor and they felt it should have been released as an expansion rather than a stand-alone game. But I didn’t care: it had better AI, a more compelling story, a free-play sandbox mode for multi-player or bots and more historical weapons and missions, more of all the stuff that made the franchise so engrossing in the first place. Sadly I don’t own a current generation console (shock! horror!) so I’ve not managed to play the sequel Hell’s Highway which looks excellent but abandons a little of the realism of the earlier games in favour of a more casual and exciting model which probably has slightly wider appeal for the majority of gamers: still, it’d certainly be the very first game I purchased for a new console should I acquire one. I’m still hoping there might be another sequel set in the Battle of the Bulge, although there the series will have to reach its conclusion in terms of story arc, since that was the last major action the 101st airborne fought. But it was also, arguably, the most difficult, the most heroic and the most likely to make for an astonishing story and experience. If they do choose to do it, I hope to God that they get it right.