A spectral presence threatened to loom over this year’s E3: Microsoft and Sony are both preparing consoles to replace the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but held off unveiling them since their existing consoles have both reached the most profitable phase of their life-cycles.
However, much to the surprise of everyone at the LA Convention Centre, next-gen gaming turned out to be on display, in thoroughly corporeal form – namely, Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and LucasArts/Activision’s Star Wars 1313.
Not that either party, of course, was prepared to admit that Watch Dogs and Star Wars 1313 are next-gen games: they couldn’t, given that neither Microsoft nor Sony has even admitted that its future consoles are waiting in the wings.
Instead, we were asked to accept that they were operating on "PCs" – undoubtedly fantastically high-end rigs crammed with currently experimental components that will power the unacknowledged consoles of the future (and in the case of Star Wars 1313, made by graphics-processing specialist nVidia, which may well supply chips for either or both of the Xbox 360 and PS3 replacements).
Such niceties were irrelevant in our opinion – all will become clear in due course, when both companies are ready – which, in the case of Microsoft at least, almost certainly means E3 2013. But the important aspect of the exercise was to glean an unprecedented insight into what the next generation of console gaming will bring.
And that’s certainly what we got from the hugely impressive Watch Dogs – for many people, it was a candidate for game of the show.
Set in a meticulously reconstructed Chicago, it casts you as a sort of uber-hacker, able to mine crucial information from the mobile phones of any character he comes across, hack into and manipulate traffic lights and CCTV cameras, create diversions by jamming mobile phones and so on.
Ubisoft’s tagline for the game was presented as: "The city is your weapon," and the fact that the game derives its gameplay from the excessive information overload which is becoming a growing societal concern is simply delicious.
From what we saw of Watch Dogs, the next generation of consoles will allow developers to create strikingly realistic cities, populated by a plausible number of AI-controlled characters with which you can interact, and the gameplay possibilities that alone throws up are boundless.
Star Wars 1313
LucasArts’ demo of Star Wars 1313 showed a game which is clearly at a much earlier stage of development than Watch Dogs, but it did highlight some vital elements of both the process of making next-gen games and their execution.
One daunting aspect of developing games for a new crop of consoles is that with greater number-crunching power and better graphics come increased risks – bigger, more expensive teams are required.
LucasArts, part of George Lucas’ legendary creative empire, emphasised how, for Star Wars 1313, it has drawn on the expertise of CG pioneers Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound and LucasFilm Animation.
Before they got stuck into a live demo of the game, LucasArts showed a couple of videos, the first consisting of talking heads from all those Lucas-owned companies, and the second drilling further down into the incredibly detailed performance-capture that will drive the game’s characters.
LucasArts and their affiliates had developed a rather uncomfortable-looking item of headgear, including two video cameras pointing back at each actor’s face.
The result was to massively up the level of motion-capture detail from what we are currently accustomed to – with random, tiny eye-movements and even, it was explained, an accurate depiction of the way the skin in the eye-socket deforms with different facial expressions.
As a result, the computer-generated characters into whom the resulting data had been plugged looked and felt far more human than they do in even the best current games. The next generation of platforms should banish that wooden, robotic, dead-eyed ambience that games characters routinely possess at the moment.
The demo itself placed two characters in a spaceship at what will apparently be the beginning of Star Wars 1313 – descending to level 1313, below the surface of the planet Coruscant, and a notable den of lawlessness and criminality.
You’ll play a bounty hunter, no doubt drawn from Star Wars’ huge and familiar pool of characters – LucasArts explained that the characters shown were place-holders. In terms of gameplay, Uncharted was clearly the reference point, as both third-person combat and clambering around were on display.
After some gloriously convincing dialogue between you and the ship’s pilot, things didn’t go as planned during the descent: a nearby ship grappled onto yours, various unsavoury characters boarded and a big fight broke out, eventually leading you to grapple across to the other ship and clamber from its precarious extremities to a safer point.
A few aspects were very striking: the presence of virtual fire while looked vastly more convincing than anything we’ve seen in a game before, an incredibly high level of detail in the environment (as well as on the characters) and a general crispness to the graphics.
Frankly, Star Wars 1313 looked much more convincing and compelling (not to mention better written and acted) than anything George Lucas has added to the Star Wars canon since the 1980s.
When the next generation of consoles appear, from the evidence of Watch Dogs and Star Wars 1313 alone it seems the very least we can expect is for games to compete with films on a level aesthetic playing field, while letting you control their protagonists.
You could argue that the likes of Mass Effect 3 have already achieved that. But be prepared for it to become the norm rather than the exception.
• Steve Boxer travelled to E3 2012 with Activision
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