Back in the '90s when people were still playing the first PlayStation, the promise of a PS2 held the potential that games could look so good they might resemble the movie "Toy Story." But the graphical breakthrough that proved to matter most to gamers was something entirely different and more subtle: Rockstar Games' decision to use the graphical power of the PS2 to render a massive city in three fully explorable "Grand Theft Auto" dimensions.
Just last year, back when people were still playing the PS2 and the first Xbox, the promise of the Xbox 360 was that it would usher in what Microsoft executives frequently called the "high-definition era of gaming." Game graphics would look crisper than ever — maybe even like "Toy Story" finally — and those with expensive new HDTV sets would be able to appreciate them best.
But just as gamers were bowled over by Rockstar last time around, many might be better served to look for another breakthrough of graphical subtlety. An early candidate, according to the fans rabidly proclaiming on message boards that it is the most promising 360 title yet, is this week's "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" from Ubisoft.
From the game's development headquarters in France earlier this week, Production Manager Adrian Lacey, 30, explained how "Ghost Recon" may provide the graphical subtleties key to expressing the real potential of this new generation of gaming machines and do it in a way that can be appreciated even on a standard TV.
"Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter," or "GRAW," is a Tom Clancy-branded tactical military shooter that sends the player and a squad of elite troops into Mexico City on a mission that involves fighting an insurgency that threatens the stability of North America. Lacey helped coordinate a 260-person development effort that spread from France to the birthplace of Clancy games in North Carolina. A chance session in the studio's imaging booth has immortalized Lacey with a bit part as the in-game tank trooper John Hume. And, since he grew up in Mexico, his house made it in as well.
"We felt we had a lot of power to play with, with next-generation consoles," said Lacey, recalling the early brainstorming sessions that helped shape the game. "But we were like, 'We don't just want to make a port [of a current-generation game]. We don't want to just make it elegant looking,' which we knew we could do." Other publishers have been criticized for simply polishing the graphics of PS2 and Xbox games and putting them out on the 360. Even Ubisoft's "King Kong" game for the 360 was designed for the PS2 first and simply polished for Microsoft's next-gen machine.
About two years ago, as they sought an idea that would stand out as truly next-generation, Lacey and the rest of the team toyed with a notion beloved by channel surfers for years: picture-in-picture display. Lacey calls it multi-windowing, and at its most basic it means that gamers would be able to see gaming action depicted in multiple views on one screen. It wasn't necessarily a new idea, but it hadn't been done well before.
"We could always do it in the past, but there was always a tradeoff," said Lacey. "On current-gen consoles you could do it but you sacrificed something else. You may sacrifice graphic quality or movement of frame-rate or whatever." In other words, showing multiple views would make the game slow down or force the graphics to be simplified. Not so for "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter," which would benefit from the power of the 360.
The team first toyed with the idea of letting players switch control back and forth from a character featured in the main portion of the screen to one featured in a window on the side.
That idea didn't seem big enough. Lacey said the team started asking new questions: "What if you could control a tank or what if you could control an Apache [helicopter] air strike and see what it's seeing in real time?" The finished product is a game that shows the player-controlled character, Captain Scott Mitchell, in the main portion of the screen, and also — in the upper left — cycles through the first-person views of support troops or vehicles.
Players can now see their in-game surroundings from multiple views at once, which means they can conquer the game's tactical warfare problems in three dimensions. "You're not using a horizontal world," said Lacey. "You're not just on one level. You're then using this vertical gameplay."
During the development of "GRAW" it turned out that one extra window wasn't enough. Another one was added to the screen's upper right corner to provide talking-head mission briefings. Like a computer desktop running a couple of programs and an IM window in the corner, the game supplies a lot to keep track of.
The multi-windowing doesn't sap the 360's strength, and Lacey pointed to other graphical achievements that were pulled off in the main window. Each character onscreen is rendered by 15,000 polygons, the same number of polygons used to render an entire level of 2002's PS2 "Ghost Recon." Other eye-candy effects have also been applied with ease.
"If you're playing the game and you look up at the sun and then you turn around into a dark corner you have the same effect as when your eye contracts when you look at a bright light and then down again," said Lacey, who also highlighted in-game color palette changes that are triggered in dire firefights and are inspired by scenes from the movie "Traffic." Said Lacey, "It's the subtleties that make the difference."
Lacey pointed out that game designers typically get more clever at squeezing a better performance out of a game console in year three or five than they do in year one. Still, he said, internal calculations show that the "GRAW" team tapped the 360 well. "At the moment I think we are pushing 85 percent of the box's power," he said.
So are "GRAW"'s windows and visual tricks the truest hint yet of the Xbox 360's potential? Do they mean more than the hi-def hype of the 360's launch titles? The "GTA III" moment hasn't happened yet for the 360, but history shows that it will come, sooner or later.
For more on "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter," check out "Peep Show Presents: Fight the Future."