Do not attempt to adjust your television set
This is the sort of rant you’d normally expect to find on my brother’s site, and indeed he made a post similar to this one a little over a year ago, but I always say that if a point is worth making once, it’s worth making twice.
Lyris has been complaining for some time about the lack of colour in modern computer and video games, pointing out that developers seem to have latched on to an unsettling trend of equating desaturated visuals with grittiness and intensity, and therefore dialling the colours of their games down to ridiculously low levels. Now, I count myself fortunate in that most of the games I play are developed by Blizzard Entertainment, a company who, for all the faults that they might have, understand the importance of vivid, striking graphical design that “reads” well and allows you to easily identify individual units and structures in the heat of battle. Blizzard’s worlds are always rich and colourful (examples here and here), and their character designs are exaggerated and filled with personality. Even though their graphics are often technically somewhat dated, the design is always expressive, which is why, twelve years after its release, Warcraft II remains more visually appealing than most games released in 2007.
One non-Blizzard franchise to which I happen to be partial, however, is Epic Games’ Unreal series, which also demonstrated exemplary use of colour, rich and eye-catching without being over the top. Back when the original Unreal was first released in 1998, it was considered groundbreaking in its use of coloured lighting, making its nearest rival, Id Software’s Quake series, seem positively drab in comparison. Through two Unreals and three Unreal Tournaments (as well as two Unreal Championships on console systems), the series never lost sight of its high quality art direction… until recently.
Yesterday, I downloaded a demo of the upcoming Unreal Tournament III (called this despite it actually being the fourth Unreal Tournament game), and, moments after firing it up, my heart sank. The rich greens and purples of Unreal Tournament 2004 were gone, replaced with a swathe of grey and brown, each shade barely distinguishable from the next and the character models so drab that merely differentiating them from the background art actually requires effort. Gears of War, Epic’s previous game and another drabfest featuring brown and grey muscle men clearly suffering from steroid abuse, has clearly had a major influence on the look and feel of this new title, and the results are not pretty.
Compare the two images below. The top one shows Unreal Tournament 2004, with the player (moi) firing the Link Gun at an enemy. The bottom one shows exactly the same situation in Unreal Tournament III. Which one do you prefer? One is vivid and appealing, and clearly shows what is going on. The other is drab and ugly, with all the hues so similar that it’s actually difficult to see what’s meant to be happening.
Hard as it may be to believe, these shots are not doctored.
Note to game designers: black, white, grey and brown are not the only colours at your disposal, as hard as that might be to believe. Below are more screenshots of Unreal Tournament III, showing off the glory of its 16.7 million shades of dirt.
Whoa, watch out, Epic! The monochrome police might see some of the reds peeking out in that last shot!
What makes all this doubly disappointing is that the level design of the three maps included in this demo is absolutely stellar, with superb attention to detail and a focus on large-scale, realistic environments without sacrificing any playability. The texture artists and level designers have clearly put a lot of work into these environments, but a lot of their good work is obscured by the muddy colour palette. The game is also technically very nice, and runs considerably better on my system at a resolution of 1680x1050 with the detail sliders at full than I had any reason to expect. Will I be picking up a copy of this game when it is released? Maybe, if I see some sign that some of the other levels are not such drabathons.