E3 2012: Have we just glimpsed the next generation?

E3 2012: Have we just glimpsed the next generation?

If there’s a story emerging from E3 2012, it’s a story about something that’s missing. With no next-gen hardware to show at their press conferences, Microsoft and Sony both dithered over a selection of (sometimes rather uninspiring) upcoming releases, and then turned their attention towards services instead. The message seemed clear: this generation is starting to grow stale, but there will be no new machines – other than the Wii U, of course – just yet. The next-gen is still back in the labs, shrouded in mystery.

Is it really, though? Over at Ubisoft’s press conference, the French publisher stole the show with its demonstration of Watch Dogs, a sandbox game about manipulating the invisible world of communications technology in order to affect the real world of modern-day Chicago – killing mobile phone signals to create distractions, organising traffic pile-ups by meddling with the little green man. It’s a current-gen idea, perhaps – you don’t have to look far these days to see an open world game built around a unique twist, especially if you’re already sitting at a Ubisoft press conference – but the visual detailing certainly smacked of the future. The leathery rustle of the protagonist’s coat, the flames pouring from a trashed car, the sheer density of details coming from passing pedestrians, along with their seemingly individualised animations and character designs: it’s hard to imagine much of that surviving the transition from high-end PC to PS3 or Xbox 360. Or Wii U, for that matter.

Square Enix, meanwhile, was getting in on the action, too, with the “Final Fantasy realtime tech demo,” Agni’s Philosophy, used to revealing its next-generation engine, Luminous Studio. Beasts, robes, mysterious ceremonies, and a glimpse of a society divided between rich and poor, there were no signs that the publisher was evolving its story-construction algorithms, perhaps, but the same old schtick was at least delivered in an antic rush of unusually lavish imagery. Feathers bobbed on ornate costumes, sparks fluttered as magical attacks erupted, and a couple of soaring passes over a shanty town revealed a city built from hundreds of separate pieces of metal – 'realtime tech demo' may be a phrase that comes nestled in carefully-arranged ambiguities, but if there was anything truly realtime about what was being shown, it won’t be running on any of the consoles that are currently sat under your TV.

The last glimpse of a potential next-gen came from Lucasarts, in the form of Star Wars 1313. With its mixture of cover-based combat and Uncharted-style scampering from one collapsing platform to the next, it’s hard to argue the game seems mechanically ambitious. Again, though, it’s all about the graphical detailing: the lighting, the textures, the flames, sparks, and billowing smoke. You’re still jumping and shooting, but check out the particle effects, eh? Epic’s now confirmed that the demo is built upon Unreal Engine 3 rather than 4, incidentally. If so, it’s a testament to the ways in which raw processing power can bring new life to ageing software.

Three demonstrations, then, all delivering familiar ideas but with an unfamiliar level of fidelity and flair. And three games all from third-party publishers, too. It’s possible, perhaps, that the demos were meant to slot in alongside hardware reveals that, for whatever reason, failed to materialise. Otherwise, it’s hard not to read their appearance as a sign that game publishers, despite professing otherwise when directly asked, are actually tiring of platform-holders’ dawdling as the current gen refuses to transition to the next. (The PC’s already there, of course: it always is.) Enthusiasm for current-gen games is falling, if the reaction to this E3 is anything to go by, and revenue is falling with it. Why not offer a glimpse of what’s around the corner?

What’s clear, at least, is that the console games clearly slated for release over the coming eighteen months or so failed to have the same impact as this mysterious trio, and that, if Watch Dogs, Star Wars 1313, and Agni’s Philosophy are anything to go by, the hardware we own at the moment is soon going to be getting a significant overhaul – even if the underlying ideas driving big budget console development aren’t.