Stunning Graphics Through the Ages
Graphics aren't the only thing that make a game good, but they sure can count for a lot. Video games have come far in the past 20 years, and there's a rich field of pioneering games that are artistic milestones. From technical innovators to striking stylistics, check out this list of 10 graphically stunning PC games.
In this 1993 puzzle/adventure game, players find themselves transported to a mysterious island, where they have to solve difficult riddles and uncover the island's secrets. The game's 3D graphics were so intricate that it had to come on a CD-ROM instead of a floppy disk, which was rare for the time. But "Myst" was so popular that, along with fellow video game "The 7th Guest," it's considered largely responsible for the subsequent adoption of CD-ROMs as a primary means of distributing software.
This futuristic first-person shooter by studio Crytek looked good on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but the PC version was so robust that in 2007, there were no commercially available computers that could run it at its highest setting. For years after the game came out, graphics cards were assessed by their ability to run "Crysis," and the game is still considered a benchmark for assessing PC performance.
"L.A. Noire" (2011)
Inspired by the film-noir detective movies of the 1940s and '50s, "L.A. Noire" has players take the role of the fedora-wearing police-officer-turned-private-eye Cole Phelps. As you travel through 1940s Los Angeles solving cases, Phelps often has to interrogate suspects for clues, which is where the game's stunning graphics truly shine: Characters' richly animated faces are detailed enough to betray a stray wince or nervous glance, all of which Phelps must use to determine what line of questioning to pursue and ultimately whom to accuse of the crime.
"Max Payne 3" (2012)
While the the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) that powers Max Payne 3 is nearly a decade old, it's proven to be a rock solid foundation for the company's latest games. The third installment in this iconic shooter series is a great showcase of this technology, presenting levels of tessellation, reflection, as well as shadows enhanced by ambient occlusion. But even without tech, the Max Payne games have always had style. Max Payne 3 traded the New York noir of its predecessors for the aesthetic diversity of Brazil's slums and jungles, nightclubs and offices, as well as the chromatically distorted world of Max's mind, perpetually soaked as it is by alcohol and disillusionment.
"Bioshock Infinite" (2013)
While it's set within the familiar trappings of first person shooters, Bioshock Infinite's visuals are remarkable. That's not because of the technology that powers them but the startling originality behind them. Creative director Ken Levine and art director Scott Sinclair conceptualized the floating city of Columbia, populated with beautiful monuments to American exceptionalism and plazas celebrating pseudo-Christian utopianism. It's stunning to behold this idyllic surface, even as it hides the sociopolitical tensions between the haves and the have-nots.
More often than not, much liberty needs to be taken in video games to transition from concept art to final render. That's not the case Transistor, an isometric brawler from Supergiant Games that takes the sketches of art director Jen Zee and elevates them directly into its world. Zee cites the work of Gustav Klimt and John William Waterhouse as influences in creating Cloudbank City. The result is a game that evokes the art noveau of Eastern Europe and the Art Deco influences which permeated 20th century cyberpunk. But art appreciation pedantry aside, Transistor is basically a game that revels in the less than glamorous yet asset intensive art of traditional 2D graphics with dripping style.
"Life Is Strange" (2015)
Truth be told, Life is Strange doesn't have the same kind of technical flair as some of the other entries in this list. But developer Dontnod Entertainment make smart choices to transcend the limitations of a technical budget reduced from their last project: the cyberpunk beat-em-up adventure Remember Me. They achieve a singular look by casting the entire experience under an impressionistic watercolor aesthetic. That's fitting given Life is Strange's focus on the misadventures of a time-rewinding teen, as the game's final look captures the dream-like nature of memory, and the uncertainty that hides behind nostalgia.
"The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt" (2015)
Polish developer CD Projekt RED outdoes itself in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt with a lavish attention to detail that most fantasy films and movies would envy. Every costume and every cobblestone looks uniquely handcrafted. But the game's most stunning technical achievement is its hair modeling, whether its on the various fantastical creatures that protagonist Geralt encounters or the very beard that grows on his face as the adventure progresses.
Batman: Arkham Knight (2015)
With hundreds of established versions of The Dark Knight between comics, cartoons and films, there's no shortage of looks for any Batman project to choose from. For Batman: Arkham Knight, developer Rocksteady chose a combination of Burton-esque grandiosity and Nolan-esque paramilitary fetishism. When combined with a heavily modified Unreal Engine 3, the final installment of the Arkham series pushes graphics processing to the limit. The entirety of Gotham city features complex lighting arrays, tangible weather effects, reflective surfaces and interactive smoke and fog. It's a vivid adventure for the Dark Knight, marred by a shoddy PC release.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015)
While originally developed for the less-than-bleeding-edge Xbox One, Rise of the Tomb Raider astounds with an array of technical bedazzlements. Lara Croft and other characters are animated with stunning motion capture that permits the kind of emotionally charged performances you don't often see in action adventure games. There's also the realistic hair, eyes and skin that respond visually to temperature, moisture and light. When they all come together to respond to some of the most chaotic action set pieces ever, you get the most realistic expression yet of one of gaming's most iconic action heroes.
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