Why next gen video game graphics don’t impress anymore

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Horizon Forbidden West screenshot

Horizon Forbidden West – a sign of ever decreasing improvements? (pic: Sony)

A reader looks at why a game like GTA 5 being re-released three generations in a row would never have happened before now.

Way back in 1991 I heard a film critic say that the then current Terminator 2 would not hold up in several years’ time, as the special effects would look out of date. Well not only did they hold up, they still do today.

The film had groundbreaking use of CGI, which arguably has still not been surpassed, even by its own sequels. There was of course James Cameron’s previous experiment with CGI in The Abyss, yet this felt like a watershed moment. In the years since, movies and television shows’ overreliance on CGI has made us indifferent to what would have been considered spectacular or mind-blowing years before.

As the use of CGI has become cheaper and easier, there is really nothing that cannot be conceived of on screen, often at the expense of creative practical effects, and what we are left with are glossier yet forgettable visuals to cast our eyes upon.

I feel the same can be said with the graphics in modern video games, of which progression, if you can call it that, has moved along at a snail’s pace over the last 15 or so years, to the point where claims that an up-and-coming title may have the best graphics ever will raise not much more than a casual shrug or lazy lift of an eyebrow.

During the first lockdown of 2020 I purchased a Raspberry Pi to pass the time playing through some retro classics and had great fun looking at games through the 80s and 90s, amazed at how rapidly the graphics and sound improved in such a short time. I found it hard to believe, for example, that there was only five years between the 2D delights of Sonic The Hedgehog and the fully 3D realised world of Super Mario 64.

Progression in terms of graphics and sound moved at a rapid pace, where each new console released would be heralded as truly next generation gaming. Music and sound soon reached their pinnacle, helped by the use of CD formats, and so the race was on to keep delivering the best graphical experience at home.

When Namco released Ridge Racer in the arcades of 1993 I thought this was a good as it would ever get, and that these amazing ‘photorealistic’ graphics would never be able to be re-created at home. And yet only a year later it was, with the arrival of Sony’s PlayStation. Soon after the Dreamcast upped the ante again, and then swiftly the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

But then the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launched. HD consoles with huge amounts of power and a truly next generational leap in terms of graphics and game production quality. Once I had played the likes of Dead Rising, Project Gotham Racing 4, Red Dead Redemption, and, towards the end their shelf life, Grand Theft Auto 5, I didn’t think games would improve much beyond this in terms of graphics. And well, they haven’t.

The fact the Grand Theft Auto 5 is now coming onto its third generation of consoles and still looks great eight years later, albeit with a few tweaks, speaks volumes. Could you imagine games from the 80s, 90s or 00s being re-released over three generations on consoles at full price, with minor cosmetic touches?

I want the next gen consoles to awe me with amazing new graphics but the new gen look the same as the old gen. And the old gen is not a huge step up from the gen before. The original Gears Of War looks better than Gears Of War 5, for example. Up and coming PlayStation 5 games that remain cross-gen such as God Of War: Ragnarök and Horizon Forbidden West, look barley an upgrade from their last entries.

Some games that use the supposed next gen features, such as ray-tracing, make the games perform worse. And even developers have come out and said Ratchet & Crank: Rift Apart could probably have been done on the last gen. This is probably why Grand Theft Auto 6 is so delayed (or won’t happen, as a reader recently suggested.) It doesn’t really have anywhere to really go other than perhaps VR.

None of this is the fault of the console manufactures or games developers. It is, I would suggest, technology losing the war of attrition. Take a look at mobile phones and how they are struggling to come up with any meaningful new ways to entice consumers to upgrade. My current phone is the first I did not ‘upgrade’ after the contract expired, as there simply wasn’t any need to do so, and I have no interest in a phone screen that folds in half.

Will graphics have another giant leap forward? Probably not, and you only need to look at movies again to see why. If even in films they cannot yet create truly believable CGI (Fast & Furious 9 anyone?), then games will certainly not be able to surpass what they can do. So it looks like we may be playing Grand Theft Auto 5 for a few more generations yet.

By reader Relaxed Chimp (PSN ID)

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

You can submit your own 500 to 600-word reader feature at any time, which if used will be published in the next appropriate weekend slot. As always, email [email protected] and follow us on Twitter.


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