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The Graphical Arms Race: Pushing Hardware to Its Limits

The Graphical Arms Race: Pushing Hardware to Its Limits

Nov 4, 2013

Although we look forward to the step up and graphical improvement that the next generation of consoles promise, it is important to keep in mind that pushing the hardware post-launch to make continuous improvements is just as key.For a console to be on the shelves for such a lengthy period of time and not show improvements, games would start to feel rather stagnant. Franchises in particular might suffer should the graphics or game-play not evolve as the console aged.

The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 have been in our lives for six and seven years respectively, but throughout their life-span, we have seen slow and steady improvements to the in game graphics produced on the same hardware that was released at launch. In comparison to previous console generations, their life-spans were much longer, so progression and graphical improvement were important to keeping gamers interested and titles looking fresh. This was of particular importance for the PS3 and Xbox 360, as they continually tried to produce games that looked better than their competitors. For the industry, this sort of competition is great – they both try to one up the other, and this in turn keeps both parties continually looking for new ways to push the hardware to its absolute limits and amaze its audience.

At the Xbox 360 launch, we had titles such as Call of Duty 2, Perfect Dark Zero, and Quake 4. At the time of release, these were some of the sharpest looking games around. However, when you compare them to  the games that have been released in the last year or so, a few of them they look as though they belong to a different console altogether.

Early example of the Xbox 360's hardware potential

At the time of release, Perfect Dark Zero looked amazing. However, looking back, it has somewhat of a glossy, plastic feel to the game.

For instance, Halo 3 was released in September 2007, 10 months after the Xbox 360 launched. At the time, the graphics were some of the best released to date. However, when we compare them to Halo 4, released ­­five years later, there is certainly a noticeable difference. These changes consisted of the sharpness of the shapes, and small, specific details of the armour, but also in the lighting and shadows from different light source, and how they interacted with the environment. On top of this, the detail of terrain, both up close and in the distance, were dramatically improved . It really was quite remarkable what improvements were made from the same hardware after several years of hard work.

The same differences can easily be noticed in other franchises too, such as Call of Duty and The Elder Scrolls. The graphical improvements help to keep a particular franchise fresh and exciting. It is obviously important for game mechanics to be upgraded and evolve with the console, but it is impossible to undermine how key aesthetics are to first impressions of a new game. Graphics are one of the first major components potential buyers will notice from game-play footage, so if there is a groundbreaking, noticeable improvement, it will surely catch people’s attention.

Xbox 360's hardware pushed to its limits

The graphical improvements made in the Halo franchise demonstrate how much extra the Xbox 360 hardware can work to produce sharper graphics and detail.

Going forward into the next gen, it is key that developers continue to push the hardware in attempts to produce better gaming visuals. However, with this generation, it is slightly different to before. Developers will be pushing for their games to achieve a consistent 60 frames per second, while still trying to push the boundaries for its visuals. Higher FPS will make the game feel more fluid, with less screen-lag, but the visuals may need to be downgraded to compensate.  It’ll be exciting to see how the developers balance better graphics with a consistent increased frame rate, but that will surely come into light as the Playstation 4 and Xbox One age.

We must not forget the Wii U in this regard, however. Although the hardware is inferior to its competitors, Nintendo often stylise their graphics in such a way that it makes the game’s graphics and detail far greater than what it should be capable of. For example, both Super Mario Galaxy games looked incredibly sharp for a Wii title (especially if you use a HDMI cable to upscale the Wii). Hopefully we can expect similar things from the Wii U.

Wii's hardware could still produce great looking titles

Nintendo’s stylised graphics make many of their titles look far greater than their hardware can manage. Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, to name a few.

It’s key to remember that consoles will also need to keep pushing its hardware to its limits or they may start to lose out on software sales to PC gamers. PCs are much easier (albeit more expensive) to upgrade, as the hardware can simply be replaced. Many gamers would be willing to invest in a new CPU, graphics card or additional RAM over purchasing a new console, so it is up to the consoles to prove that they are more than capable of keeping up in the graphical arms race throughout the next few years.

It’s hard to envisage how the graphics will dramatically improve over the next generation’s life-span as they already look pretty impressive. However, I vaguely remember a saying similar thing when the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 launched, and looking back, it is easy to see what improvements were made. Although, there must be a point somewhere down the line where games start to look a bit too real… and the thought of that is a little bit creepy.

Sam Barwick is a writer at GamingIQ, follow him on Twitter to earn bonus points, and make sure to read his other articles here.
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