New-gen consoles have barely been out for a year, but there's already a familiar story: a game launches and runs great on the PS4 and Xbox One, much less so on the PS3 and 360. Shadow of Mordor was an egregious example of this performance gap, but it's not the only one. Is there any hope for last-gen gamers?
It's hard to say with any certainty. Top developers have handled this year's games with dramatically different levels of tact and grace when their work spans generations. But I still find it hard to remain optimistic about the future of last-gen games. I mean, just consider the bumbling construction at the end of that last sentence.
The tech pros at Eurogamer's Digital Foundry took a deep dive into the old and new-gen versions of Shadow of Mordor, and their findings reaffirmed my doubts. Granted, the "absolutely colossal [...] gulf in quality" that they saw between the two versions of the game doesn't necessarily say speak to any technological deficiencies in their respective hardware. Digital Foundry acknowledges, for instance, that Mordor's failings on last-gen might be partly the result of a lack of substantive quality assurance testing.
But even if that is the case, a question remains: is creating and supporting games on two distinct generations a prohibitively expensive indulgence? Digital Foundry observes that the last-gen consoles have been struggling with big open-world games for a while now:
But can Shadow of Mordor's open-world design excuse this to any extent? After all, ambitious sandbox games have rarely proven a strong suit for the PS3 or 360. Even as a jewel in the generation's crown, the incredible Grand Theft Auto 5 still has trouble rendering complex inner-city areas, plagued as it is with pop-in and frame-rate lulls on last-gen.
Another case in point is the Assassin's Creed series. After seven releases in as many years, each one improving upon its core AnvilNext tech, the series is still resigned to sub-30fps frame-rates as the generation draws to a close. By comparison, Shadow of Mordor's engine has no existing template on last-gen from which it can quickly develop an open-world design. Sadly, the end result here reminds us of the early, ramshackle efforts at this gameplay form on PS3 and 360.
Returning to Mordor specifically, the Digital Foundry authors ultimately conclude that while "Shadow of Mordor's core game design may well be too much for the Xbox 360 and PS3," it's the apparent lack of care and attention" to the port that led to its biggest problems. But they still make this unsettling note:
It's a worrying sign for PS3 and 360 owners keen to stave off a console upgrade for as long as possible. Inevitably, it falls on each developer to make the best call when weighing the viability of these last-gen versions. The increasing need to be technically progressive on PS4 and Xbox One - to truly show off their mettle going forward - also stands to make each port to last-gen a greater challenge. We hope to see this fantastic era in gaming wind down with grace, but with more 'me too' releases in this mould, the aftertaste isn't set to always be so sweet.
As Digital Foundry notes, the quality of last-gen games is a matter for the developer in question to address. And many are already finding creative solutions to work around the generational tech barrier. Bungie figured out how to make both of its versions of Destiny work pretty well. Ubisoft made two separate Assassin's Creed games this year, and the last-gen one was a lot more fun in spite of its comparatively outdated appearance. Rockstar put its last-gen foot forward with GTA V, but then it made a new-gen version so spectacular that it convinced many gamers (myself included) to buy and play the thing all over again.
Studios looking beyond 2014, meanwhile, have chosen to abandon the last-gen entirely, like Techland did when it announced it was scrapping the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of its upcoming zombie game Dying Light.
Will other developers follow suit? The way I see it, the issue is that most (if not all) major game-makers feel like they're caught in a bind at present. Yes, it would be easier to only acknowledge the newest generation of tech. But at least for this holiday season, as Digital Foundry puts it, "the massive install bases on PS3 and 360 can't be ignored."
"Basic economics dictates that last-gen versions must exist to check these boxes," the authors conclude, "and in Shadow of Mordor's case, we're left with fundamentally disappointing ports."
Not all all ports need to be that shoddy, of course. But at the end of the day, there's only one way to get past the dilemma of a generational divide: by moving ever further into the new one. Unless developers want to renew their focus on old consoles, but I have a hard time seeing how anyone would make a strong case to do that.