[This article was first published on Hit-Reset]
This year's Eurogamer Expo is likely to be one of the final consumer events before the arrival of the next generation of consoles. I've already written about my experiences with Nintendo's Wii U, whose launch is just over a month away. The games on show for the PS3 and 360 are likely to represent the final wave of big releases before the announcement, and possible launch, of a new set of consoles next year. Tomb Raider, Call Of Duty Black Ops II, Hitman Absolution, Far Cry 3 and the recently released Dishonored suggest this generation will be getting a suitably extravagant send-off, yet also raise questions about what the next generations holds in store and how it will differentiate itself from what has gone before.
To be clear, this isn't to take issue with sequels, although there are a lot of them. This is about gameplay, pure and simple, and the concerning feeling that there has been an increasingly apparent creative stagnation in the games industry for some time. Much of my time at the Expo was spent playing games which haven't come out yet, yet my overriding feeling was that the majority of experiences were similar on various levels to ones I had played before.
One of the Expo's most popular demos was for Tomb Raider, the so-called 'gritty' (urgh) reboot of the long-running series. The demo was taken from an early stage in the single player mode, with Lara having recently been shipwrecked and searching for resources to assist her survival. Most of the original game's trademark moves - the ridiculous somersaults and flips - have been removed in favour of contextual navigation, whether edging along a narrow cliffside, climbing up the fuselage of a crashed bomber, or trying to retrieve a bow from a corpse strung up from the treetops. The demo was mostly a visual showcase, and in that respect the game is impressively detailed, but not especially distinctive. The battered and bruised Lara character model evokes her vulnerability, though isn't drastically different from controlling a wounded Drake at the beginning of Uncharted 2. Similarly, the forest environments are pretty enough, abundant with wildlife to be shot down with your newfound bow and arrow (the deer aren't the only possible targets), but essentially the default setting for this kind of adventure game.
Whatever your take on the game's representation of its main character, who seemed to spend most of the demo either moaning and gasping in a vaguely sexualised manner or subject some painful new indignity, the real savagery is the sense of cannibalisation of a game owing such a clear debt to the Uncharted series, itself beholden to the early Tomb Raider titles. This Tomb Raider differentiates itself slightly by adopting a survive-or-die attitude rather than the blockbuster flippancy of Nathan Drake's global romps, but both utilise the same formula of swapping between intensely linear navigation and action segments.
For all Tomb Raider's length queues, the most high profile game on show was Call Of Duty Black Ops II, present in multiplayer mode only. As you can imagine, Activision have little incentive to suggest Treyarch make significant alterations to a winning formula, and the changes on offer - an altered scoring system to make assists more valuable, a new method of weapon selection - were improvements, even though playing the game is exactly the same as it always has been. Many of the weapons, attachments and perks have carried over with small cosmetic alterations, the maps are still nowhere nearly as intelligently designed as the original Modern Warfare.
Turbine and Yemen were the two I played, with the former a slightly tiresome maze of tight pathways and repetitive scenery, and the latter a fairly standard small town map with plenty of winding roads and houses to duck into. There's was no great sense of focus to either: there were plenty of places for snipers to pick off unsuspecting players from afar, or SMG and shotgun carriers to catch opponents unawares, but the maps seemed to have been designed as a collage of areas designed to accommodate each type of player, rather than using the space and placing obstructions and obstacles in such a way to encourage intelligent players to adapt their playstyle to a challenging new environment. The original MW maps were pretty symmetrical, and while this made them predictable to an extent, it also allowed tactically-astute players to use that predictability to their advantage, while making the most of the small differences to spring surprises. The two BOII maps felt somewhat random in their overall layout, and while familiarity may eventually annul some of these concerns, the absence of any design philosophy underpinning them made the encounters somewhat unsatisfying.
Hitman Absolution was similarly indebted to the past, with its brief demo proving little more than the classic Hitman experience with a graphical overhaul. This time, Agent 47 was charged with assassinating a local mobster, conveniently standing beneath an pagoda in the middle of a Chinatown market square. The area was bustling with detailed NPCs, with a select handful standing out as people of interest (a chef, a security guard, you know the drill) offering potential starting points for a sequence of events leading to one perfectly executed hit.
There's no doubt that the Hitman experience is enormous fun, and anyone who has missed it over the intervening years should pick up the new title when it hits in November. Exploration yielded plenty of opportunities just waiting for some bald-headed psychopath to take advantage of, whether a drug dealer's flat with a sniper rifle on the desk and an open window with an only-too perfect sightline to your target, or a parked car with an alarm loud enough to provide a crucial distraction. Even blowfish poison makes its customary appearance as well. Working out the routes planned for each method of murder, or trying to concoct a working strategy using elements of each, has the old-school appeal of a point-and-click game, trying to work out how using certain objects, environmental hazards or people can move you a step closer to your goal. Naturally, you can ditch the carefully laid strategies and resort to mindless shooting, but that misses the point now as much now as ever.
The game I played which should have felt most distinctive was Dishonored, released yesterday in the US and in two days' time in Europe. It only took a few steps through the Victorian-inspired city of Dunwall to realise that this game was no more of its own inspiration than the myriad sequels on show elsewhere. The game's non-linear level design is straight from the Deus Ex and Thief handbooks, while the powers at your character's command are of clear BioShock origin. Those aren't bad games to be drawing from, and Dishonored was certainly among the most enjoyable and gratifying demos at the Expo. The short-range teleportation ability is well-handled, with environments rarely seeming designed to encourage or obstruct its use in noticeable fashion. Use it intelligently and you can get just about anywhere, but don't expect the game to lay out a path for you. The other powers, including a limited possession ability, can make stealth a little too easy, but not to the extent of unbalancing the game. Summoning rats to attack enemies is fun, although mostly serves as an elaborate distraction technique to weaken foes as you approach to finish them off.
The demo's main mission involved drugging and kidnapping a scientist from an ornate mansion in the centre of town. Thanks to some careful exploration and judicious use of the teleport, I reached his office fairly quickly and without being seen. My attempt to take him back to the safety of my boat, however, showed that the developers were not quite so willing to allow players the full range of freedom suggested: diving off a high ledge into the sea below - very near to where the boat was located - immediately failed the mission for no apparent reason other than the game forcing players to take the long way back. I'm all in favour of more stealth-oriented games like Dishonored, although it's a shame that the demo suggested some contrived limitations to its non-linear ethos. For all its aesthetic quirkiness - though I'd still say the art style bears a strong similarity to BioShock - it's a shame the game seemed content to offer more of the same in what is admittedly an under-represented and hugely entertaining genre, rather than mixing up the formula a little.
This brings me back to the point I brought up at the beginning of this article: at a time when gaming is preparing to take the leap to its next set of consoles, should we be concerned that so many of its big games are content to offer only slightly tweaked versions of past experiences? Even playing the Wii U feels immediately familiar, which is perhaps what Nintendo were aiming for in their bid to strengthen their foothold in the traditional gamer market, but lacks the thrill of the new which accompanied that first game of Wii Sports. This article has focused on short demos at a gaming expo, yet few could deny that it has been a very long time since a game has revolutionised the rules of its genre, or invented a whole new one. Even Nintendo, past masters of the art, have settled into a groove of churning out near-identical New Super Mario Bros games and incrementally updated sequels, which seems to be the case with Pikmin 3.
High development costs are already forcing the big developers to focus on safe-bet blockbusters, and a new round of super-powered hardware seems only likely to exacerbate that problem. Surely gamers will eventually tire of playing the same game, only with slightly better graphics, over and over again - at that point, the industry will be in serious trouble if current trends are anything to go by. Perhaps it's time to stop thinking about when the next generation of consoles will arrive, and instead question when we'll see the next generation of games.
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