For a long time we looked at game engines as just a tool used to make the game. We know that one's involved in every game made, and that different engines allow developers to accomplish various tasks. How pretty a game looks, how detailed it is, and whether or not killing a guy will send him flailing into some kind of ragdoll are all signatures what engine a team used and for the longest time the big name in development tools was Unreal.
But if Unreal is the quintessential hammer in the developer toolbox then perhaps it's a sign of things to come that so many next gen titles are working hard not only on mechanics that will draw players in, but on building engines that will really let their game sign in dramatic and iconic ways. There are literally dozens of engines out there used for all kinds of games, from browser to big budget, but even amongst those there are a few players that manage to stand apart from the rest of the crowd.
Here are a few that are staying ahead of the pack, those crafty engines that capture our attention to the finer parts of a game that often go unappreciated.
Some games are all about explosions, debris, and dust particles while others require a more delicate touch. Snowdrop hasn't officially hit store shelves yet but from what we've seen so far this engine has been all about environment. More specifically, creating an impactful mood through weather.
Stable weather environment is generally used in storytelling that's designed to have a player feel as though they're passing through a series of events, working like a setpiece the same way buildings or some NPCs do. What Snowdrop does, and seems to do very well, is constantly shift the world that players work in to provide a far more unique gameplay experience. A shift in weather makes everything feel more alive or natural, and where Snowdrop really has an opportunity to shine is in making tools and weapons more reliable by adjusting the conditions that players work encounters in.
From a rainstorm cutting visibility to a beautiful sunny day shining down from above Snowdrop literally shines where other game engines can only maintain a cloudy overhead.
When it comes to action no engine comes close to delivering an experience like Frostbite; a tool designed to handle an unprecedented 64 players while simultaneously managing the physics behind vehicles, firing arcs, and building destruction. Recent years have seen DICE push Frostbite to some impressive lengths by playing with terrain and level design. Skyscrapers, naval battleships, aerial bombardments and a general increase in particle effects have all made the Battlefield franchise synonymous with realism and a staggering attention to detail. That is, when its players aren't pushing Battlefield's physics to the limit for the sake of comedy and amusement.
But crashing jeeps loaded with C4 into tanks or bringing down an F-16 with a rocket launcher isn't all Frostbite can handle, and the upcoming Dragon Age Inquisition has already started to show a far more wondrous side of the FPS engine by extending its creative limits to the realm of fantasy. Towering pillars of magic, unexplored wilderness and the refined glorious kingdoms of men have all been built using Frostbite, and that's just the tip of the iceberg we've been allowed to see.
From a distance the Fox Engine doesn't seem like it does all that much aside from building upon what previous Metal Gear games were already good at. Graphically it looks phenomenal, handling lighting and weather effects with the gritty realism of big cinema; and if you've ever longed to see a man's firm buttocks crawl its way through military bases with a glistening sheen of rainwater to accent every curve then your wait is finally over.
Everything about the Fox Engine screams next gen in the way that Blueray has come hand in hand with high definition. It's a tool of cinema more than one of gameplay, although it tries hard not to sacrifice one for the other. Facial effects are impressive, and though Metal Gear will always have its somewhat witless guards will always diminish how effective the time-of-day features are on immersion Kojima's new toy is already making this new generation of consoles feel better than ever.
Few games inspire more debate over graphical detail, quality, and the rig you'll need to have it all than a CryEngine title. Urban sprawl, dense jungle, the grand backdrop of ancient Roman warfare, there's really little that the toolkit cannot handle and handle well; a feat even more impressive when you consider how many CryEngine games toss players in open environments with some pretty reasonable freedom.
It's also fair to point out that compared to the other engines listed CryEngine is far more widespread; currently making a decent string of appearances in upcoming titles like Evolve, Homefront 2, and looking further ahead into 2015 Human Element and Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It's a lot of ground covered for a single engine, but it's hard to complain when the titles look so good. With any luck they'll play just as well.