It's such a crude yardstick, yet it's the one most people use when trying to gauge the leap between console generations. Graphics. How a game looks. It's great for sizzle reels and screenshot comparisons, but at the end of the day, it's not where the real leaps in video games are made.
Those are made under the surface. With each progression in hardware the horsier horsepower can make things prettier, sure, but they also make things bigger, faster, more complex. Seeing Zelda make the jump from 2D to 3D was amazing, but when people get misty-eyed about Ocarina of Time, they don't sit there for hours talking about the graphics. They talk about the massive and living world Nintendo was able to build underneath them.
What's funny about the difference between those two reactions is the timing involved. You're usually only impressed with a game's visuals when you first see them. It's only later, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years down the track that you can appreciate the other advances a hardware generation has made for games.
So with the PS4 only having just been announced, and the next Xbox yet to come, we've only got the visuals to be impressed by. Only our most immediate and superficial impressions. And the graphics haven't been that impressive. Sure, they're better than what you'd see on a PS3, but as most people are probably aware, we're in the field of diminishing returns with each leap in hardware since the dawn of the 3D age in the mid-1990s. We'll likely never be as floored as we were when the PlayStation, N64 and Saturn rolled around, because we'll likely never experience such a sharp shift in the way our games can be played. Mehs are to be expected.
Killzone's PS4 gameplay looked fantastic, then, but as many PC gamers currently playing through Crysis 3 — or even modded versions of older games — could tell you, it wasn't that great. It doesn't take a visit to too many forums, or comments sections, or Twitter feeds to pick up on the fact that many gamers just aren't that excited about the graphics of the games shown so far for the PS4. The next Xbox likely won't be much different.
Despite the incremental advance in visuals though, these new machines are still a lot more powerful than their predecessors. So remember: that power is going to be put to use on more — and dare I say more important — things than just how pretty things look.
It'll mean bigger worlds. More believable AI. More realistic physics. More characters on screen, more things to kill/solve/race, more realistic handling, just generally more.
As an example, let's look back to the earliest years of the current generation, at the two games I think best exemplify what a real advance in hardware is capable of. The first is Dead Rising. It looked... OK, but the way it managed to include so many damn zombies on the screen at once created a unique and brand new experience the likes we'd never seen before. Mostly because older hardware simply couldn't do it. The second is Grand Theft Auto IV for similar reasons; sure, there had been GTA games on older consoles, but the level of fidelity and life Rockstar built into Liberty City made full use of the hardware for more than just prettier cars.
Those are the kind of games to look forward to. Not the initial batch of generational cross-overs, those sexy cinematic trailers shown at press conferences which are basically prettier editions of things you can already play. If you want to get excited about something in the future, get excited about the games we see in a year or two that use the new console's power to the full extent.
Just think: if the epic Skyrim could run on hardware released in 2005, imagine how big the world could will be, and believable the characters feel, in an Elder Scrolls game running on hardware released in 2013.