PC game graphics through the years
From Ultima Underworld to Doom, Far Cry and Metro: Last Light, the PC has led the gaming world in graphics since the 1980s, when the last Silicon Graphics workstations were hunted to extinction by the wild-eyed tribe of Carmack. Since then some PC games have pushed boundaries like no others, requiring all-new graphics hardware; others have made cunning use of existing tech to create stunning experiences.
But there's always been a relentless chasing of that cutting edge in PC games, due to the endless growth of the hardware. Before the indie revolution, every AAA developer would look at the latest graphics card, or in some cases at the putative graphics cards of three years in the future, and make plans to max it out.
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1991: Hovertank 3D
Though Hovertank 3D wasn't the first 3D game, being preceded by Microsoft Flight Simulator and the wire frames of Elite amongst others, it's significant because of the games it led into; Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. After all, this was id Software's first pseudo-3D game engine, combining flat coloured walls that were projected by John Carmack's revolutionary 3D engine, and hand-drawn sprites. Raycasting meant that the game only drew the elements the player could see, saving on processing power tremendously.
The game is simplistic, to say the least. Players take the part of mercenary Brick Sledge, rescuing humans from cities threatened by nuclear attack. Presumably because those cities are full of mutants, monsters and enemy hovertanks hunting down the human populace. You've got to grab any remaining humans before the enemies do, and get to a teleporter exit.
The more-important game that followed on from it was the similar, but much more successful Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1992, which introduced textures to the engine.
1992: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
Interestingly, John Carmack told CVG that his engine for Wolfenstein 3D was based on seeing a tech demo for Ultima Underworld (presumably at CES in 1990 or 1991), which released two months earlier than idv Software's game. The reason for how close they were was the crazily-ambitious engine behind Underworld, which had first started development in early 1990.
The game was inspired by dungeon crawling games like Wizardry and Dungeon Master (which shared the first person perspective) and rejigged to fit into the existing Ultima fantasy universe. Unlike the quick-and-dirty Wolfenstein 3D, which had been designed to run on low-spec machines, Underworld is a true 3D environment, with varied ceiling and floor heights, sloped floors, true lighting, transparent surfaces, and the ability to look up and down. It had 3D objects alongside 2D sprites, and it was also the first 3D game to let you jump.
The game is survived by spiritual successors such as Arkane's Arx Fatalis and the forthcoming Underworld Ascendant, by the original design team.
1992: Alone in the Dark
Frédérick Raynal's masterpiece came out the same year as Ultima Underworld and was similarly ambitious - though it took just a year in development, aided mainly by a serious lack of sleep on the development team's part. It featured true 3D characters in a hand-drawn 2D environment (to save on power), with the engine and tools built entirely by Raynal himself.
Players take on the roles of either Edward Carnaby or Emily Hartwood, both investigating the mysterious death of the owner of Derceto mansion. The game swiftly turns into a tough adventure, as the protagonist battles H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monsters in the then-stunning surroundings of the manor. The environment was extremely hostile - so much so that walking down a corridor or reading a book could kill the protagonist - which, combined with effect sound effects and music, gave the game a truly-terrifying feel.
Myst was a curious game and much-hated by the hardcore gaming community, presumably because it was neither dynamic nor violent. Despite that, the advent of CD-ROM allowed its use of high-quality assets, rooms that were fully-rendered in 3D. However, unlike Underworld, they weren't dynamically generated but pre-built, so individual scenes looked amazing but were mostly static, and the game played like a mildly-interactive slideshow.
Despite that, the depth of the puzzles, the complex, dark world, the unparalleled use of in-game video, the rich ambient soundscape, and the careful maintenance of immersion meant that Myst was immediately popular and became a flagship game that sold CD-ROM drives. The game went on to sell more than six million units, the top-selling PC game of all time, until The Sims in 2002.
Even though in retrospect it seems a small step on from Wolfenstein 3D, Doom was a revolutionary game at release, as much for its ultraviolence as for its looks. The new generation of fast processors meant that reaction-focused games like this exploded, running at the then knock-out VGA resolution of 640 x 480. Moreover, Doom introduced variable lighting and different elevations, following on from Ultima Underworld.
But the real area of Doom's excellence was in starting the concept of engine licensing. Several other games were built on what's now called the id Tech 1 - the Doom engine - by other developers. These included Heretic, Hexen, Strife, Freedoom and more. None of these were particularly innovative or interesting, but the concept of licensing itself makes the game significant.
1996: Tomb Raider
Underworld was also an inspiration for Toby Gard's ground-breaking dungeon-exploring game, which entered development in 1993, as he told the BBC. "I was a big fan of an old first person game called Ultima Underworld and I wanted to mix that type of game with the sort of polygon characters that were just being showcased in Virtua Fighter. I thought by mixing that up we could make it a sort of real-time interactive movie and that was basically the concept for Tomb Raider."
The game is a true 3D game, with true 3D character models, viewed in a third-person perspective, something that we'd only seen in absurdly-powerful arcade machines at that point. Players control English explorer Lara Croft, as she scours the world for ancient artefacts, jumps between platforms, fights wildlife and monsters, and falls to her death repeatedly.
Other titles that stunned at the time were the amazing 3D world of Descent and Bullfrog's beautiful but incomprehensible Magic Carpet.
id's engine licensing may have started with Doom but it peaked with the Quake series, with the important first three games coming out between 1996 and 1999, and providing the foundation for the Half-Life Source engine. The first game was an almost-plotless shooter, with then-astounding true 3D environments inhabited by polygonal monsters that could attack from any direction. The follow-ups took on a more science-fiction theme, culminating in the outsourced and mediocre Quake IV in 2005, which almost killed the series.
But the engines of the Quake games were spectacularly popular; now called id Tech 2 and id Tech 3, most of the 3D shooters of the era were built on them, including Half-Life, Daikatana, Anachronox, Soldier of Fortune, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Enemy Territory, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II, Star Trek: Elite Force, American McGee's Alice, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, and Call of Duty. By contrast, id Tech 4 and 5 had a handful of games between them.
The reason that id Tech declined was down to Epic Megagames. Their new games Unreal and Unreal Tournament broke id's monopoly over game engines. By the time of Doom 3 (AKA id Tech 4) - the Unreal engine proved to be useful for games other than just shooters. Their 'Make Something Unreal' contest encourage modders to be original and creative in the hope of a life-changing prize - and many of the contest's mod teams are still developing games today, such as Red Orchestra.
Unreal itself was very much a Quake clone, albeit an impressively attractive one. It had coloured lighting, huge environments, and detailed textures - but it was one of the first games to really need a graphics card. Unreal Tournament's fixes to its netcode meant that it rapidly became an attractive engine to use. By the time Doom 3 emerged belatedly in 2004, Unreal had already taken its crown.
There are literally hundreds of games made on the various Unreal engines, including Deus Ex, Bioshock, Duke Nukem Forever, Brothers in Arms, Star Wars: Republic Commando, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and almost every Asian MMOs that ever existed.
Valve's Half-Life needs no introduction. Combining complex agile combat with superb in-engine story telling, Half-Life has you controlling scientist and cart-pusher Gordon Freeman defeating an alien invasion of a hidden research lab. Alongside its successor games like 2004's Half-Life 2, 2007's Team Fortress 2 and 2007's Portal, is perhaps the most famous, most-respected game series around.
The Source engine that powers Half-Life was originally built on the Quake engine, but Valve has heavily modified it over the years. Indeed, though they recently announced Source 2, the aim of the engine was to avoid those compatibility-breaking version jumps of its competitors - theoretically, developers never need upgrade as the Steam engine distributes updates automatically.
Despite its obvious power, the engine has met with limited success, and only a few developers have recently used it - though the few who have, have made stunning games like The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther or TitanFall.
2004: Far Cry
New developer Crytek really wanted to make game engines for licensing, so it made Far Cry as a showcase of its tech. It was immediately impressive for the time, letting players explore a mostly-open tropical island, complete with smart enemies and vehicles you could drive. It was only marred by a poor plot and some dreadful super-mutant enemies that emerged towards the middle of the game.
More impressive was its drop-in editor; players could literally create a map in an editor, drop the assets in, then drop straight into it to test it, with almost no loading time. It was a truly beautiful game and was a great sales pitch for the new engine.
Crytek has followed up Far Cry with their Crysis series, which has produced some of the most testing graphics for PCs, even if the game has, again, been rather dull. All of the resulting CryEngines have been heavily licensed, for everything from MMOs like Aion to third-person action games like State of Decay.
An independent cross-platform development suite, Unity has successfully challenged Unreal's effective monopoly of 3D game development. That's mainly it's genuinely free, but also because you can get beyond its distinctive look, unlike Unreal. You can always tell when a mediocre game has been built in Unity - but great games, like Kentucky: Route Zero, Endless Space, Cities: Skylines, and Pillars of Eternity show that it doesn't have a dominant style.
The much-anticipated Unity 5 was released in March, 2015, and does an awful lot of the work for a developer. A huge array of complex graphical techniques are included, like real-time global illumination, bump mapping, reflection mapping, SSAO, dynamic textures and full-screen post-processing effects. It also allows developers to export to almost any system, from Adobe Flash to the iPhone to the PS4 - and of course the PC.
2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls games have been astounding benchmarks for what games are capable of, far exceeding games that are more testing for PC systems, such as Metro: Last Light. With a huge open world waiting for you to explore, the games since Morrowind let you go anywhere and kill almost anyone and anything.
Unusually, they're not built on a standard engine. Though Bethesda's earlier games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas) were built partly on outsourced components like Gamebryo and SpeedTree, Skyrim was built on an entirely in-house new system called the Creation Engine, allowing for a much larger draw distance and better graphical detail.