With the PS4 and Xbox One launching over the next couple of weeks, I've been asking my fellow editors whether they're getting one, and if so, which one? Many currently have a PS3 or Xbox 360 -- or both -- so they're in the game, so to speak, and would be candidates for a new system. However, the answer I'm getting more often than not is "neither." Most seem to have have adopted a fairly cynical attitude toward next-gen consoles and as such, are taking a wait-and-see approach and won't be hopping on the early-adopter bandwagon.
I'm a bit more sanguine. While I've gotten some hands-on previews of next-gen games that haven't wowed me -- the games look prettier but they don't necessarily play any better -- I have a thing for sports games and I like what I've seen so far on the next-gen front.
I recently played a near-finished version of EA Sports' FIFA 14 on an Xbox One and also got a look at Madden NFL 25 on the Xbox One. It's hard to put a percentage on just how much better each game is because it's hard to separate gameplay enhancements from graphical enhancements.
FIFA already plays great on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Not surprisingly, my immediate reaction in playing the Xbox One version was that everything looked more detailed. Players looked more like their flesh counterparts, the field looked more like real grass, and the stadium (Barcelona's Camp Nou in my match) felt more alive with 3D spectators, some of whom waved flags in the stands (the same is true of Madden).
As I said, nothing is wrong with the physics engine of the existing game -- players already move pretty realistically on the pitch -- but the next-gen version (powered by EA Sports' new Ignite engine) looks and feels that much more realistic. It's one of those things where you say to yourself, "Yeah, this is better. Not night-and-day better. But definitely better."
Some of the changes are more subtle. For instance, the designers were able to add many more animations (little movements players make when dribbling, passing, shooting, or receiving the ball), so you don't end up seeing the same ones over and over. Also, they've added more commentary, so you don't hear the same phrases repeated multiple times in a game.
When a ball goes out of of bounds, in the earlier editions of FIFA the screen went black for a moment and then cut to the player on the sideline, waiting for you to make him throw the ball in. Now you watch as a ball boy retrieves the ball and throws it back to the player on the sideline. On top of that, the player's uniform moves according to his movements (shorts spring up and down when a player jumps, for instance). And when a player shoots the ball, you'll sometimes see a bit of grass fly up in the air as his cleats touch the turf under the ball.
It's the little things. On their own, they're not such a big deal. But put together they add up and turn into meaningful enhancements. Ultimately, the grail for sports games is to look and play like the real thing, and the new consoles increased processing power and additional memory allows developers to add layers that take the realism up a notch. As my colleague Dan Ackerman likes to point out, the Xbox One and PS4 don't measure up to high-end gaming rigs -- and they'll only fall further behind as the years pass (I can't wait for the slim editions of the Xbox One and PS4), but they're way more powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360.
One interesting thing Santiago Jaramillo, the producer for FIFA 14, told me was that the FIFA team had to spend less time figuring out how to program for the new systems than with previous transitions.
"With the Xbox 360 and PS3 we spent about 80 percent of our time trying to figure out how to program for the new systems and 20 percent went into improving the game itself," Jaramillo said. But for the Xbox One and PS4, he explained, they were able to put more time into improving the game (around 60 percent instead of 20 percent). He claims the next-gen version is a huge leap over the existing PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.
"Yes, the game plays well already. But there's so much more we've been able to do with the greater processing power. The AI is much more advanced."
Other developers are making similar statements. A producer for Madden 25 was talking up the pumped-up AI, more nuanced line play (interactions between linemen), "living sidelines," along with how players looked and played even more like they're real-life counterparts. I'm not sure how much better Madden will play -- in the next-gen version, the players still don't seem to move as fluidly as they do in FIFA or NHL -- but there's certainly a whole lot more detail.
In teasing EA Sports' next-gen UFC, due out this May, the producer compared the old version of the game to the new one, showing off the new facial animations and full body deformations. I didn't see much of the game, but the little I saw made the existing UFC game look lame.
Another game I'm looking forward to is the next-gen version of 2K Games' NBA 2K14. While I haven't gotten any hands-on time with it yet, it, too, appears to be a big step forward. It's always hard to tell how good a game will be from a trailer, but like EA Sports, Visual Concepts, the game's developer, is building its next-gen games on a new game engine -- it's called Eco-Motion -- which is all about making players look and play more realistically.
Ronnie Singh, Sr. Community Manager, 2K Games, recently wrote about how the new engine rendered player animations much more fluidly in a blog post:
Gone are the days of pre-canned animations that must play out exactly as they were mocapped. Now, players adjust their movements based on the environment around them. Jumpshots will change midair, dribble moves will alter in between dribbles, and players will land in a unique way following every thunderous dunk or block. No two animations will ever appear exactly the same.
Sounds good -- and looks good, too (see video above).
Of course, with an additional year of polishing under their belts, next year's versions of these games should get that much better. But they seem good enough now to be one of the few reasons to go next-gen. At least that's how I'm rationalizing my purchase on November 15.