Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is an incredibly powerful gaming system. While it’s widely accepted that, on paper, the PlayStation 3 features much greater technical specifications, there has been little produced for the system thus far that stretches beyond the capabilities of the Xbox 360. For every Uncharted 2: Among Thieves there’s a Mass Effect 2, every Heavy Rain is met by a Gears of War 2, and even the visual splendour of God of War III does little to damage the reputation of the forthcoming Alan Wake. However, this doesn’t mean that, another year down-the-line, we won’t see the PlayStation 3 pulling significantly ahead in the deliverance of visual quality.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues principal to the comparison, or perhaps lack of comparable productions, is that of the underlying technology used to create each title. Mass Effect 2, originally launched in January 2010 on Xbox 360 and PC, is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of the Xbox 360’s graphical capabilities yet seen. However, the game itself was developed utilising Epic Games’ popular Unreal Engine 3 – the leading game engine for developing multiplatform current-generation titles – which may well be one of the most powerful and well rounded game engines currently available to developers, but certainly isn’t catered specifically for maximising the Xbox 360’s potential. In fact, many of the Xbox 360’s biggest titles, including the likes of Epic Games’ own Gears of War series, have been developed using the multiplatform engine as opposed to something more tailored to the console’s unique strengths.
While Unreal Engine 3 can of course deliver some fantastic results, drawing a fantastic visual quality from a single platform title is more down to the talents of the team behind the game than utilising the advantages of the host format’s capabilities. With more attention having been paid to the art direction and optimisation cycles during development, a game can appear noticeably better even when running on the same engine, as is the case with the top tier of big budget development for the Xbox 360.
Later this year, the Xbox 360 will be pushed even further than anything we have yet witnessed. The forthcoming releases of Alan Wake and Halo: Reach are promising to deliver an unprecedented aesthetic quality, both having been developed on proprietary engines. Though Mass Effect 2 remains visually astounding throughout, these upcoming titles promise to make BioWare’s latest pale in comparison. And this in itself may be proof of the bane that is multiplatform development: just how many games have failed to reach their full potential not due to the various hardware configurations running them, but the ambiguity of the engine upon which they have been developed.