It’s been a great year for video games. But have we experienced anything new?
This is the third holiday period for the latest generation of consoles (or fourth, depending on how you class the Wii U). As you would expect it has taken a couple of years for the generation to kick into gear and for developers to get a handle on the capabilities of new hardware.
Many studios have also had to support the death throes of the last hardware cycle with cross-gen titles and a multitude of ports, something that has no doubt held the new generation back a little. Nonetheless, it’s at this point you would expect to see a mature range of software on the market that plays to the strengths of the new hardware.
The Class of 2007
If we go back to 2007 – and the third holiday for the last generation – there was a wonderful line-up of important titles available. They weren’t all classics, but they were all memorable and ambitious: Bioshock, Team Fortress 2, Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, Crackdown, Super Mario Galaxy, Portal, Assassin’s Creed, Rock Band, Guitar Hero III and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. And there were many more.
Some of these titles haven’t stood the test of time – and the first Assassin’s Creed wasn’t particularly well received even then, but sill proved enormously influential – but they all nudged the medium forward. Whether it was Crackdown breaking down the limits of an open world, or Super Mario Galaxy and Portal reinventing the use of 3D space, the PS3/360/Wii generation felt distinct from that which came before.
The Class of 2015
This year we have seen a huge number of excellent games, and many are better than the titles from 2007 mentioned above. Pick any from The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, Splatoon, Tomb Raider, Until Dawn, Bloodborne, Fallout 4, Halo 5, Star Wars Battlefront and you will be guaranteed a superb experience.
But have any of these moved the needle in terms of what games are capable of? In many cases these they are refinements of the design templates established in the last generation. They are all great games but I’d argue that with the exception Metal Gear Solid V they feel like incremental upgrades on what has come before.
There’s a nagging sense of familiarity which is also evident in the reception these games are getting with the wider community: Halo 5 has conspicuously failed to generate a lasting buzz; Tomb Raider was well received but appears to be following in the slow-burn footsteps of its predecessor; and Until Dawn was admired but never quite broke though. Fallout 4 received admiration, rather than universal praise from critics, although it appears – along with Metal Gear Solid V – to be the game that the community has most embraced for its scope and ambition.
There’s also the line-up of usual suspects that arrive on an annual basis; FIFA XX, Call of Duty Whatever and Assassin’s Creed Whenever. They are as popular this generation as they were last but are also another example of refinement rather than revolution.
Perhaps Destiny (and its recent reinvention) is the most successful release of the generation so far. The game has brought something new – to the console space at least – and has been successful in overcoming a lacklustre start and then gradually redefining the modern FPS. In doing so it’s making other shooters feel slightly redundant, a word you would never want associate with the likes of Halo.
It’s not just about technical improvements – though we all appreciate the higher fidelity, improved visuals and extra grunt that the new consoles bring – it’s about the lack of bravery and experimentation. With rising production costs there are fewer examples of AAA titles pushing the envelope with game design and narrative. There’s a lack of vision to create something distinct or new.
Which brings us back to Metal Gear Solid V. Never has a game and its reception been so tied to the talents and plight of its creative force. The result was a game that pushed the series and the genre in interesting and inventive new directions. It was fresh and challenging because it strove to reinvent and reinvigorate every last shred of the series mechanics that had gone before it, and – quite literally – bore the mark of its author in every corner.
What’s more amusing – when you consider that Halo 5 had to drop split-screen campaign play on Xbox One citing performance issues, and that Black Ops III can’t even run the game’s single-player campaign on the PS3 and Xbox 360 – is that Metal Gear Solid V was also released on last-gen consoles, too.
It’s a real shame that we’ve seen the most innovation and commitment to pushing the envelope of this year in what looks like being a swansong title from Konami, following the unceremonious disbanding of Kojima Productions and the company’s indication that AAA titles will be taking a back seat to mobile gaming and cookie cutter sports franchises.
Perhaps these things only become evident in hindsight, once the influence of the current crop is felt in the games that will arrive over the coming years. Maybe we’ll one day realise that Until Dawn and Halo 5 are just as much part of their own golden age as the games released in 2007.
Or maybe we are in a holding pattern, waiting for virtual reality to upend the tea table and revolutionise video games in away that the move to three-dimensions did twenty years ago.
So as I happily scamper across the rooftops of Victorian London I can’t complain about the amount of fun I am having but I can’t help think I was hoping for a little more than a glossy version of the game I played eight years ago.