Were there next-gen consoles at E3?

Watch Dogs stole the show at E3. The surprise announcement from Ubisoft had jaws dropping at the sight of some of the prettiest-looking graphics ever seen. In fact, the graphics have been so good that some believe the demo could only be running on a next generation console.

So, are the PS4 and Xbox 720 hardwares sitting in secret parts of the show floor pulling the strings? When the question was put to Ubisoft's Yves Guillemot, his reply was that Watch Dogs would be available on “PS3, Xbox 360, PC and...we'll see.”

Whether he was referring to the Wii U or indeed another of the next generation is unclear but his game wasn't the only one to have raised eyebrows in the graphics department at E3 2012. So, with Star Wars 1313 and others knocking socks off whenever they're demoed, what really is going on in LA this year?

Let’s first take a look at Watch Dogs, Ubisoft’s graphical stunner. Chances are the game will be running on the latest iteration of CryEngine, which was used to put together Crysis 2 and Crysis 3. This is important because both of those games were beautiful on consoles and squeezed every last drop of performance out of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. On PC running in Direct X 11, Crysis 2 was a step above, however.

That might suggest that the Watch Dogs demo at E3 is the game running on PC but, given the powers of the CryEngine, the graphics of the current-gen console version still impress. If we want to get really geeky, things like the depth of field effects and the super-high-resolution textures would only really be possible on a PC graphics card with lots of video memory. Similarly all the goings on on-screen might struggle under a console’s processor, but then this is something that top developers might be able to work around.

You would be amazed at what magic developers can work with limited resources. A recent visit to the studio of Playground Games - developer of Forza Horizon - had us flabbergasted at what sort of tricks they were pulling with the Xbox. Even then, we were told, they thought they could get still more out of the console.

So, what about Guillemot’s “we’ll see” line? We would like to think this was a remark based around the likes of the PS4 and Xbox 720 but it’s just as likely aimed at the Wii U. Why? Well, it’s very possible that Ubisoft declined to talk about Watch Dogs in relation to Nintendo’s console because it already had an exclusive on which to concentrate, in the shape of ZombiU and didn’t want to distract from that.

When talking about next-gen, most already seem to be disregarding the Wii U. The excitement of games and graphics is all geared towards the new Sony and Microsoft offerings. But it’s important to remember that the Wii U is the beginning of the new console generation. EA Label’s President Frank Gibeau has been quoted by CVG as saying: “Wii U is really just the first opening act of the next-gen cycle shift. It's fairly natural, like with the PS2 to PS3 transition, and PSOne to PS2 - that year before the big change.”

Indeed the E3 years before the likes of the PS3 and PS2 announcements, the odd title turned up which would eventually emerge on the new consoles. F.E.A.R appeared at E3 2004 and games for the PS3 were running at E3 2005 but in pre-rendered form. It wasn’t until 2006 that the consoles themselves turned up at the show in playable form.

To us, Watch Dogs and, more importantly, Star Wars 1313 have most definitely not been pre-rendered. They’re running in real time. That means that there has to be hardware present which is capable of putting out that kind of graphical fidelity. Now for the disappointing part. LucasArts reps were all pointing to Nvidia PC rigs running Star Wars 1313 at the E3 playtest of the game. So was the demo of 1313 on a new console?

Most likely not. The game has been confirmed to run on Unreal Engine 3 which is more than happy on the current console generation as we know from Gears Of War. The new Star Wars title has also been listed on Xbox 360 and PS3 by game, so that’s pretty much the end of all speculation that it will be a title debuting on next-gen consoles.

So how did Watch Dogs and 1313 look so good? In all likelihood because they were running on top-spec Nvidia PC graphics cards. Things like the GTX 690 are capable of an incredible amount of graphical processing and would be more than happy running games looking that good at that frame rate.

There is one E3 announcement, however, which, by its own admission, gives us an idea of next-gen. Square Enix’s next-gen engine tech video, Agni’s Philosophy, features absolutely incredible levels of detail. Described as for “next-generation quality games”, this is what we can look forward to on the likes of the PS4 and Xbox 720.

Was there any new hardware running secretly behind the scenes at E3 this year? In reality, probably not. Instead we got a window into the level of graphical fidelity now possible on PC and a possible taster of the sort of video effects we might come to expect from games machines of our very near future. Exciting times.

Update: Epic has also released an Unreal Engine 4 tech demo displaying its hopes for next-gen consoles. The developer has already called on Sony and Microsoft to put out the most powerful possible games machines in order to future proof against tablets and smartphones. It looks like they mean business. Just watch the five minute tech demo and have your mind blown.

 - Watch dogs preview

 - Star Wars 1313 preview



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