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You May Need to Lower Your Expectations For Next-Gen Graphics

Next-gen game reveals may look familiar, but they'll still be exciting.

Today’s Xbox Series X third-party gameplay showcase has come and gone, and the public reaction seems to generally be one of… disappointment. That’s less because the games themselves didn’t seem cool – they did, especially reveals like The Medium or The Ascent for me – and more because this display that was hyped as the world’s first proper glimpse at next-gen gameplay was, well, a little anticlimactic.

But I’ve got some unfortunate news for you if you were hoping to see a graphical leap on par with past console generation jumps today: lower your expectations.

Games running on the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will definitely be prettier than games running on this gen, and I’m sure whatever first-party games Microsoft and Sony are cooking up will be tailored toward knocking people’s socks off in that regard. But people should also be prepared for the fact that the majority of the next-gen games revealed over the next few months will likely look like they could be current-gen games – at least on the surface.

Graphics have currently plateaued somewhat when it comes to immediately obvious improvements – especially when shown off in an E3-style reveal trailer where players are used to seeing the most polished, unrealistically dolled-up version of a game anyway. As our own Bo Moore broke down last month, the Series X’s 12 teraflops of GPU power isn’t just about better graphics, it’s about better simulations.

Improved lighting, hair effects, water simulation, and dozens of other little things working in realtime. It’s going to be gorgeous, but in a more subtle way than we’ve come to expect. The extra polygons and higher resolution textures that came with previous generational leaps make for a more noticeable “next-gen” jump – especially when games can already do pretty impressive things with lighting right now.

Additionally, since the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X have enabled the use of 4K mid-generation, the PS5 and Series X don’t have a resolution bar above that to blow you away with at the moment (8K is little more than a marketing buzzword at this point), leaving less room to really flex in terms of fidelity growth.

Similarly, the extra power of these new consoles will mean framerates get significantly faster – which is a big deal! – but that’s something that won’t easily be conveyed in a trailer. There are undoubtedly graphical improvements happening, but they are somewhat invisible ones.

This generation still looks incredible, so the bar has been set high.

But it’s not just that those upgrades will be harder to notice: it’s also that the current bar is set incredibly high. This generation still looks incredible. PCs with RTX graphics cards have given us a glimpse of what the next-gen could look like for over a year now, but even those aside, this is surely the most graphically impressive final year of a console cycle ever. If last year’s E3 demo is to be believed, Cyberpunk 2077 is going to be jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and even in 2018 Red Dead Redemption 2 was making landscapes with lighting that I genuinely didn’t think was possible on current tech.

With that in mind, it’s going to be a tricky task for next-gen games currently being shown off to top the graphical prowess of the ones we still know are coming in 2020, especially since next-gen launch titles will often have to run on current generation systems as well and third-party studios haven’t had years to work with this new tech. And I’m sure they’ll only get better – if this generation has proved anything, it’s that developers certainly know how to make the most of their hardware over time. For the first time in potentially the history of video games (excluding Nintendo, who stopped prioritizing raw graphical power years ago), better graphics isn’t the biggest hype-worthy angle of a new console launch. What we should be most excited for instead are internal upgrades like the lightning-fast load times built-in SSDs will provide. It’s harder to hype up something like that in a trailer, but will improve next-gen games far more than better hair physics ever could. (I can’t tell you how excited I am that we’ve probably seen the last of those silly loading screens disguised as shimmying through a small gap or slowly opening a door, even if that door doesn’t look any prettier.)

There are tons of reasons to be excited about next-gen that aren't raw graphics.

There are tons of reasons to be excited about the improvements the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will bring, but “OMG this looks unbelievable” probably won’t be the prevailing one at launch. Again, Microsoft and Sony will almost certainly prove me wrong in that regard once first-party games are revealed, but those insanely refined, built-solely-for-this-system examples will be the exception rather than the rule.

So for now, don’t expect “next-gen gameplay” to mean some mind blowing thing you’ve never seen before. Odds are it will be something very similar to what you’ve seen (one game from today’s show was even first shown off three years ago) but with tons of subtle improvements that are hard to truly appreciate until you’re sitting down and experiencing them for yourself. This holiday season will look very familiar, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be extremely exciting.



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