Everybody loves games for one reason or another, but there’s no denying what moves the most copies: eye candy. Just like the boobs on the front of People or the marketing strategy for Playboy over the last hundred years, sex sells and gaming’s version of sex is graphics. This week, we look at five of the best looking games of their generation.
1Battlezone (Atari, 1980)
Going four decades back means you have to make some trade-offs with the visuals. That’s generally what happens when you’re working with 16kb of RAM and CPUs about as powerful as a fart in the wind.
What set Battlezone apart was its use of vector graphics; not the vector graphics itself, but how Atari used them. Rather than deploying the top-down viewpoint common among many arcade games, Atari created an entire wireframe world out of black and green.
Black and green is a fantastic motif for aliens (see the original Alienware logos), and being able to visualise an entire world from the first-person perspective — as primitive as it was — made Battlezone a fan favourite for years to come.
2Riven (Cyan, 1997)
Never played Riven before? Your sanity will thank you — it’s one of the more frustrating point-and-click adventures ever made. But even for those who risked their well-being to venture through the linking book to Riven discovered one of the most gorgeous games ever made, thanks to the combination of pre-rendered CG backgrounds.
Hilariously, the developers still had trouble building the footage in a timely manner despite having access to 18 graphics workstations. A solitary island model? Up to two hours to load. Bugger that.
Riven still to this day is an absolute treat to look at, but obviously there were some limitations. The game’s biggest problem was an almost overwhelming sense of emptiness: as exquisite as the world of Riven was, it was populated by about three people. You were alone for the majority of the time.
Looking at it another way, it imbued the game with a serene, almost zen-like feel, and fans absolutely loved Riven for it. There was nothing else that even came close to Riven’s visuals at the time, even though it was essentially a series of interactive HD wallpapers.
But by god, those wallpapers were gorgeous.
3Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2008)
Ahh, DICE. Is there anything those funky Swedes can’t do? Well, anything that’s not Battlefield.
That used to be the accepted wisdom of the Stockholm studio until people started hearing about the parkour-platformer Mirror’s Edge. Until Mirror’s Edge release in 2008, the last game DICE with DICE’s name on it that wasn’t a Battlefield title was Rallisport Challenge 2 in 2004 and that was back-ended by Battlefield Vietnam and Battlefield 2. You have to go all the way back to 2002 for a year where DICE released more than two non-Battlefield titles.
What’s important to recognise is that Mirror’s Edge wasn’t released on a cutting-edge engine or made with state-of-the-art coding tricks. What DICE did, what made Mirror’s Edge so spectacular to look at, was nothing more than smart, intelligent design, paired off with a game engine that was perfectly suited for the job.
I’ve never liked the Unreal Engine 3 when it comes to minutia. The way it renders small, tiny details have always ticked me off. Characters with facial hair crack me up, because their beards and moustaches look like that fake plastic crap you’d buy from a costume store.
But it’s always been bloody superb when it comes to rendering landscapes. It’s fantastic when it comes to the big, broad strokes. Bulletstorm, the completely over-the-top psycho simulator in 2011, was a great example, as is the recent reboot of Devil May Cry (evidenced by the techno-laden nightclub level towards the end).
Most of Mirror’s Edge relied on massive visual clashes of primary colours, such as red on white, and it had a crisp, striking effect as a result. Coupled with the unusual sense of movement (for the time), it made for a game that, even for the detractors, was difficult to forget.
4Crysis (Crytek, 2007)
Every five years a Crysis comes along: the PC killer, the game you’ll still be struggling to run on the highest settings two or three years after it’s released. Consider yourselves lucky though. There were a disturbing amount of games back in the day that were unintentionally PC killers, and they scaled really badly: if you couldn’t afford a top-of-the-line rig, you were pretty much screwed until the next generation of CPUs or 3D accelerators launched. (Yeah, I remember a time before the 3Dfx Voodoo.)
It almost seems appropriate that just as the world started to collectively shit themselves over the global financial crisis, Crytek came along with Crysis just to remind gamers that they were just as poor as everyone else.
Crysis wasn’t a game you played for fun: it was the game you played to show off. It was the measurement of one geek’s e-cred against another. Publications started rating PCs against their ability to run Crysis, and the game was a staple in benchmarking tests for years until the sequel rolled around.
That’s how you know a game looks good: when your PC’s fans start pre-emptively dying at the thought of loading the menu screen. Crysis was a bastard to run. But PC gaming wouldn’t be the same without one developer going all-out, and that’s what Crysis did.
5Freelancer (Digital Anvil, 2003)
If you’re going to talk about good looking games, you can’t have a top 5 without mentioning
Final Fantasy the final frontier: space. For a long time, space combat was the way to show off your hardware. The hyper-realistic military simulators were still reliving the glory days of World War 2. Engines and the existing consumer hardware didn’t have the capacity to make up for the monotony that is real-life by rendering it perfectly, so they relied on the supernatural and the imagination.
You can use a lot more bright lights and funky effects when you make them up in your head. But the cosmos? They’re actually a real thing. Space is full of the shit, and it’s gorgeous.
What made Freelancer so special though wasn’t its technical prowess. The textures weren’t actually that spectacular when you stopped and looked at them individually. But when you combined them in a vibrant universe, full of debris, planets everywhere, asteroids headed right for your face and enemy pilots weaving in and out of combat — all at an astonishingly smooth frame rate, even for PCs of the era — the game became something else.
Freelancer isn’t even the best example of beauty in space: the X3 series, or even Freespace 2 with the fan-made HD texture packs, is probably more appropriate. There’s always Chris Roberts’ upcoming Star Citizen, which is the spiritual successor to Freelancer in a lot of ways (Roberts was the lead designer on Freelancer until Microsoft bought out the project as part of a package from Ubisoft).
But it’s a lesson that graphics isn’t always entirely about how many textures you have or how hard your frame-rate tanks. It’s how everything meshes together, becomes more than the sum of its parts. And if you’re unsure about just how important Freelancer was as a game, look at how much money Star Citizen raised. Roberts got a lot of street cred for Wing Commander, but it was Freelancer that found a new generation of fans after the FMV-era and it was Freelancer that kept the flame alive.