Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Tech Analysis: Mass Effect 2 Demo (PS3 vs 360)

This year we have already seen a tangible improvement in PS3 games that use the Unreal Engine 3, or even the UE in general. While titles such as Bioshock 2 added fire to the flames with low resolution alpha buffers and the inclusion of blur a filter of sorts, titles such as Ninja Theory’s Enslaved and the Activision published Singularity, showed that when optimised, PS3 versions of UE3 games could look and indeed run almost identically, with performance being the main separating factor.

The engine powering Mass Effect 2 on the PS3 is basically an updated, highly customised version of the UE3, an engine which is largely tailored to the Xbox 360 and its high levels of memory bandwidth delivering usually solid performance and plenty of full resolution visual effects. It's not uncommon then, to see the PS3 often struggling to cope with displaying the same level of visual fidelity given the engine’s use of high resolution alpha, and large instances of normal mapped transparencies.

However, as we’ve seen in two titles which use the engine this year, platform parity is indeed possible with some careful optimisations, and this is exactly what Bioware have done when approaching the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2. There are of course a few mandatory cutbacks, where the PS3’s reduced memory bandwidth automatically means a small hit in certain graphical effects and shaders, but there are also a few improvements too, not least of all more natural use of lighting and better overall performance.



Starting off with a look at the framebuffer, Mass Effect 2 renders in 720p (1280x720) on both platforms with what appears to be no anti-aliasing. However, as we’ve discussed before, the way the Unreal Engine 3 works means that standard MSAA solutions are often broken, with most edges simply getting zero AA at all. And this is exactly what we find here.

ME2 does in fact feature 2xMSAA on 360 in its core rendering make-up, although, due to the differed nature of how the UE engine operates in ME2 – rendering various parts of the framebuffer in different passes – the effect is basically borked to the extent of not being there at all. Once all elements have been added in rendering the final frame, we are left with a image devoid of any kind of noticeable edge smoothing. While on the other hand, the PS3 version seems to feature no AA at all.

Aliasing and shimmering then is often noticeable in high contrast areas, although overall IQ improves a little in dark scenes whereby distinct edges are less apparent. Both PS3 and 360 builds are basically identical in this regard.





Outside of the FB, Mass Effect 2 features both some obvious, and not so obvious upgrades and downgrades to the game engine on the PS3. As expected, allowances have had to be made for the console’s reduced memory bandwidth compared to the 360. As we’ve discussed many times before, with no EDRAM there is less bandwidth for normal mapping, textures, and shader effects, all of which have an impact on how the engine must be tailored to work around these limitations.

Here, we see that the PS3 version of the game features lower resolution/less detailed texturing on characters faces, along with paired back shader effects. Notice how subtle details, such as pores, fine lines etc, appear flatter and less pronounced on the PS3, and the skin in general having a slightly less detailed look to it. This tends to be more noticeable in some scenes than others, with lighting, shadowing, and camera distance all playing a part.



Another area in which the PS3 build sees similar changes in rendering quality, is with regards to normal mapping and specular highlighting. In addition to the paired back nature of texturing and shader effects on characters, we can see what looks like lower resolution normal mapping and downgraded specular on the characters.

In terms of specular, in some scenes use of the effect is simply rendered differently – apparent on character faces - but in a similar resolution to that of the 360 game, while in others the effect actually seems to be either completely absent or rendered in a lower res.





We can also see a reduction/lack of specular reflections in some parts of the environment itself, caused by the absence of any HDR-like bloom lighting on the PS3. The metal frame around the glass has what looks like both a specular and diffuse reflection map on the 360 game, whereas on the PS3 only what looks like the diffuse effect seems to be present.

Another example can be see in the second row of screenshots above, in a scene in which the difference is more apparent in the 360 game. The scene’s lighting composition makes the effect look a tad more intense, with shiny objects providing ample reflections. By contrast, on the PS3 the level of sheen and reflective properties has been paired back in comparison.



Interestingly, Bioware have for some elements of the game seemed to have upped the texture resolution of certain details on character clothing in direct compromise to removing the use of normal mapping. Above we can see that Miranda’s hexagonal suit uses a higher res texture map on the PS3, but at the same time isn’t normal mapped at all.

Arguably, the choice in using slightly higher resolution assets in it self would use up more memory than preserving it – which again isn’t an ideal solution when working on PS3. However, the cost of normal mapping in this case is indeed greater than that of a higher res texture, so by compromising in this way the developers still make the required savings in memory while also reducing the overall discrepancy between both builds.

In which case, Bioware has clearly made the right choice. The lack of normals doesn’t impact greatly on the scene in general, with lighting and shadowing still bringing depth to it. Occasionally, there are times whereby things do appear to look a little flatter as a result of this change, but nothing remotely impactfull. The characters still look great.



Moving on, and we can see that Bioware have made most of the downgrades on the characters themselves - with the exception of the removal of bloom and specular, the environments are largely left untouched looking exactly the same as found in the 360 version. From what I gather, it stands to reason that it was far easier for the team to make cuts on elements which are constantly present throughout the entire game – the characters - rather than having to shift through all the environment modelling downgrading parts from there.

However, beyond this there have also been a number of improvements to the engine powering Mass Effect 2 on the PS3. Being crafted from the newer, massively customised version of the UE3 – used in the upcoming ME3 - there have been a small range of upgrades and changes to both lighting and shadow composition along with performance compared to the 360 build of the game.



The first of these improvements on the PS3 version of the game comes with a differing approach to shadow filtering more suited to the Sony platform. On the 360, ME2 used jittered samples for filtering of its shadowmaps, thus leaving an unsightly dithered look to shadow edges. By contrast, on PS3 the developers have implemented the standard PCF shadowmap filtering that comes as standard – and with next to no cost –in order to improve shadow edges.

As a result we can see cleaner, sharper shadow edges on the PS3 build. The actual resolution of the shadowmaps themselves are still low resolution on both, it’s just the use of filtering that has changed. Obviously, the PCF method still results in some jittering shadows, like in Gran Turismo 5, which is unfortuniteky unavoidable, although preferable to the dithery shadows on the 360 game.





The second change is with regards to the overall lighting system implemented throughout the game. While the use of bloom has been removed from the PS3 engine code, the game features a more natural looking lighting system as a whole, with increased environmental and character shadow details, along with less harsh lighting from various specific lightsources.

Lighting appears to be more ambient in nature, and doesn’t suffer from intensely lighting up character faces like if they were to have a direct light source shining on them. Sometimes this makes it look like the characters aren’t being lit up by specific environment lights, though often it makes the scene look less contrasty and easier on the eyes.



Not all the changes in the lighting scheme work quite as well though, with various errors in lighting taking place – no doubt owing to the use of the ME3 lighting engine, and converting the ME2 lighting over to it for the PS3 build. Occasionally we see characters that aren’t lit and shaded as they as supposed to be, covered in darkness with ambient light barely having any impact.

Also, the use of self-shadowing in the PS3 build can also appear somewhat strong, sometimes looking a tad overdone in comparison to the implementation of the effect on the 360.

However, these oddities largely don’t take away anything from the modified lighting solution, with the lack of strong, often harsh source-dependant lights creating a slightly more balanced tone to things overall. Clearly, Bioware have had to make a compromise in fitting the lighting scheme from ME2 into something that would work in the new engine, and as a result some errors are inevitable, which is something that could only be sorted out with a complete re-write of the way lighting is handled as a whole in ME2. But given both time constraints and the impending release of ME3, that wasn’t at all feasible.



Lastly, in terms of performance we see that both versions have been optimised in different ways, with separate approaches to maintaining framerate and enabling v-sync. Now, while we can only compare the first part of the demo - the 360 one features a different second scenario - it is clear that performance is reasonably good on both platforms during gameplay, but on the whole seems to be better on the PS3 (both game play and cut-scenes), with less in the way of framerate drops at the expense of noticeable screen tearing.

Essentially, the 360 build is continuously v-synced, with screen tear only visible within the overscan area of the screen. As the load increases so the engine struggles to cope, and we see a drop in framerate down from the targeted 30fps down to something approaching the 20fps mark and then back up again. This is most noticeable during the cut-scenes, as during the opening gameplay section the framerate comes close to consitantly running at 30fps. Although, the framerate can drop down slightly more in some places on the PS3 compared to the 360, along with also spiking up beyond the 30fps mark.

By contrast, the PS3 build runs with an uncapped framerate and intermittent use of v-sync, whereby as the framerate begins to drop below the 30fps mark the engine ditches sync in order to keep a steady update throughout. The upside: is that we see a far more consistent 30fps update in the PS3 build overall, with framerates still dropping in heavier load scenarios. The downside: is that the game suffers from noticeable screen tearing.

So, the game’s cut-scenes run much smoother on the PS3, but drop frames noticeably on the 360. Tearing however, like during actual gameplay is visible as a result. In addition, the use of an uncapped framerate sometimes creates an uneven screen refresh experience during gameplay, whereby a constant upping and dropping of frames can create a few jerky moments in areas with little detail or that don’t greatly tax the engine.

But all in all, both versions seem to be well optimised for the platforms they are running on. All things considered, Bioware have differing priorities when attempting to deliver stable performance on each console, with the 360 game favouring a lower average framerate over tearing frames, and the PS3 build benefiting by running smoother, tearing frames when the engine isn’t ready to render the next one.



In conclusion, with Mass Effect 2 Bioware definitely looks to be on track in delivering a solid conversion of the game to the PS3, boasting some subtle and noticeable engine improvements, but with a few obviously inevitable downgrades. However, the cuts made in facial texture details, specular effects, and shaders barely impact on the overall experience as a whole. The PS3 version also benefits from having a more natural lighting scheme, which is easier on the eyes in scenes with high contrast lighting, and performance is for the most part - sans tearing - better than on 360.

Some rendering errors, like the odd instances of what looks like a failure to light characters in certain scenes properly, or the reduced levels of effects, due to PS3’s memory constraints, mean that neither version comes out on top – technically speaking, it can often feel like being tit for tat. But ultimately, both fare excellently in this regard anyway, featuring plenty of detail and a mostly balanced use of shadowing, which means that some of the choices will come down to which overall look you prefer than raw technical merit.

Obviously, the demo provides us with only a sample teaser of how both versions compare. But from both the opening segment and the second section exclusive to the PS3 demo, I’d be more than happy to go with the Sony version given the choice, especially as the final game will include all of the DLC and extra content of the 360 original. But either way on the very basis of the game itself, Mass Effect 2 should be well worth picking up whichever platform you happen to own.

Thanks go out to Mazinger Dude for the screens, and of course as ever to AlStrong for counting those pixels.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Tech Report: High-Quality Sound On The Megadrive?

So much for not working on Christmas day. Here’s a small retro-themed piece I just put together a few minutes ago for today. Enjoy!

Sega’s Megadrive (Genesis for all you North American readers) usually gets a pretty bad rap when it comes to sound. It’s not uncommon to hear games with really poor, overly fuzzy voice samples and sound effects, backed up with admittedly solid music composition. But even then, some music on a wide range of titles still tends to sound tinny, like it has been compressed right down to nothing and put in a tin can.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way, and as we will show you today, the MD is actually capable of some really high-quality audio more than matching what the Super NES has to offer.

Take the examples from this video above. Clearly, the first few games showcase the MD’s impressive capabilities in processing good quality voice samples, with clarity and crispness not usually found in most games on the system. Many people tend to confuse the MD’s poor sound with the use of low-fi samples. However, most of the samples used in the video are only 4Hz, 8bit PCM, and as you can see, you can still get great, very clean sound using such low-fi samples.

Instead, it seems like the vast majority of problems stem from the developers capability in writing decent playback code which best represents the samples upon being output by the console. Better playback code will improve the accuracy of how the sample is output to the Audio/Video encoder at the end of the sound/visual output stream. The encoder is another matter for concern, but we’ll look at this later.

Of course, bad samples will sound bad regardless of how good the playback code is. For example, both the muffled voices of SF2:SCE and tinny, grainy FM music of SSF2 cannot really be made to sound any better than they already do. Better playback code may indeed clean them up a little, but the overall effects and music used aren't particularly well implemented to say the least. It also doesn’t help that in SSF2’s case, that the use of FM for music also makes matters slightly worse. The MD’s sound chip is far better suited to PCM playback, and PSG composition, than synthesised FM – although it can do a good job on that too - unlike the Super NES and to a lesser extent the PC Engine, which handle FM sounds in a smoother fashion.

The second demonstration is a little different, and comes from a game called Tempo. Another reason why many sight the MD has having – and wrongfully so - poor sound is down to the actual A/V encoder used in various revisions of the console itself. For example, the earlier systems – we’re talking launch and early model 1 units here – have a far better A/V encoders than later models. The diverse range – and indeed sound quality – from differing encoders varies greatly, with some responsible for outputting incredibly poor sound compared to what the internal sound chipset is actual producing.

Many later Model 1 units have poorer encoders, and the vast majority of Model 2’s suffer from really bad sound in comparison to those, lacking warmth on low level frequencies and delivering tinny higher level stuff in general. Music and sound effects can often sound harsher and fuzzier than they are originally meant to be. There is at least one Model 2 unit that has very good sound – not as good as the best, or a very good Model 1 MD – but one that produces the kind of sound which at least comes fairly close up to what the developers intended us to hear in the first place.

The above video shows just what happens when you run the soundtrack from a 32X game on a Model 1 MD. Tempo uses just the MD sound chip and non of the PWM capabilities of the 32X, so forms the basis for a very good comparison to test this observation. There is also a demonstration in general of the audio capabilities of the console, although the small nature of cart sizes back in the day would prevent such high quality content being available for use in-game as it were.

What we find here, is that like with sound being output via the Model 2 MD, quality is sorely lacking through the 32X’s A/V encoder. Instead, when played back through a stock MD1, the sound takes on a new lease of life, not only sounding cleaner, but also adding depth and scale to the proceedings as well. You can hear the various instrumentals much more clearly, with individual elements being directly discernable whist being tightly intergrated together as a whole.

So, from the videos it is evident that Sega’s Megadrive can indeed produce some great sound which compares directly to some of the best on the Super NES in terms of raw quality. In fact, when using the MD1’s superior output, we can see that the MD can actually handle certain samples with much greater clarity than the Super NES – as can both the NES and PCE, but that’s another avenue entirely.

Essentially, the Super NES distorts all sound produced by its internal hardware via the use of some often unwanted filtering. By contrast, the MD’s sound output is much clearer as a result of both this, and the Yamaha YM2612’s, plus the Texas Instruments SN76489 PSG’s capabilities in combination with the Model 1 MD A/V encoder. Unfiltered Super NES samples sound incredibly clean too, though that isn't possible on a stock console.

In the end, we can see that the MD’s bad rap with regards to sound is perhaps a little more than undeserved – on a sheer technical level at least. On the other hand, it can be argued that Sega should have taken much greater care with its hardware revisions in general using higher quality components which accurately present the capabilities of the underlying hardware. That said, it is possible to perform various audio mods to every revision of the MD, thus getting the same high-quality audio output on any system as you would on and original ‘high-definition graphics’ branded Model 1 console. And that’s just to hear the true output of the internal sound chip, not to improve on it in any way.

Thanks go out to both TmEE and Joe Redifier, who performed the tests and created the videos used as reference in our report.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Updates At IQGamer

Well, it’s that time of year again and Christmas is finally upon us, for better or worse. Here at IQGamer however, we won’t intentionally be taking time off (at least except for the big day itself) instead working on our upcoming tech analysis of the PS3 Mass Effect demo – which I might add, the game is looking like an incredibly good port. Sadly, there may be a few delays as my proper job demands that I work more hours over the Christmas and New Year period, so you can expect the ME2 piece in the next couple of days.

In addition, if all goes to plan I’ve also got a cool retro tech analysis of sorts planned for late next week. To give you a clue, it’s one of the first home console 3D racing games, which premiered in arcades in 1993, and was ported over onto two different – but directly linked – formats in 1994. No prizes for guess which game, but it should hopefully make for an interesting read. Should have both screens and video, plus maybe an arcade comparison if I can get that version to work.

So, for now at least from everyone here at IQGamer, we wish you all a Very Happy Christmas! I hope you’ve enjoyed the site over the past year, and that you’ll continue to join us along for the ride throughout 2011.

All the best…

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Tech Analysis: Uncharted 3: Gameplay Demo

Just as we were finishing up on our tech analysis of the Uncharted 3 teaser trailer, Naughty Dog unveiled the first live gameplay demo on the Jimmy Fallon show, thus revealing more juicy technical insights into the engine upgrade contained within, along with direct-feed gameplay footage of the title

We lightly touched upon some of the things contained in the gameplay trailer in our last report – the possible use of MLAA, composition of the fire effects, character modelling, and rendering resolution – but due to the compressed nature of the initial teaser trailer, and the late arrival of the gameplay footage, were unable to take a detailed look.

Now, rather than expand our original report, we’ve instead taken the time to asses in greater detail the direct-feed gameplay trailer, looking at more of the game’s in-engine enhancements and referencing it with the original teaser footage from before. Here, you’ll hopefully find a nice companion piece to our previous analysis.

Let’s get on with it then.

In terms of framebuffer resolution, Uncharted 3 appears to be rendering once again in full 720p (1280x720) just like the last two games in the series. However, unlike both of those titles, this time around Naughty Dog seems to have used a different anti-aliasing solution for UC3.

Previously we saw the use of standard 2xMSAA (multi-sampling anti-aliasing) in order to mitigate jagged edges and shimmering artefacts, which actually worked very well all things considering – increased use of shaders, particle/alpha effects etc. But from the gameplay footage shown of Uncharted 3, we can see what looks like evidence of Sony’s custom MLAA solution replacing the more limiting MSAA.

Originally, we thought that those rather smooth looking 720p framebuffer grabs were simply supersampled promo shots, lacking any edge artefacts and appearing all too clean to be in-game. And while we’re still not convinced that they aren’t downsampled bullshots, the direct-feed gameplay footage itself not only shows off a similar smoothing effect, but also shows clear evidence of edge shimmering in areas where supersampling would have effectively dealt with that particular issue. Shader aliasing is also present, another thing which MLAA isn't capable of dealing with in its current implementation.

Take a look at the screenshots above of the window frame and the dislodged wooden beam to the right of it. Ignore for a second the compressed, blurry nature of screenshot and focus on those edges. Clearly, there is a reduced amount of edge smoothing going on here. We can easily see some sub-pixel edge artefacts that would have blended away via supersampling – like in the desert scene from the teaser trailer – but are obviously visible for all to see despite the lack of clarity.

There are also some polygon edges directly situated next to the low res fire effects that suffer from the same problems, though not all. Most likely, this is due to the low resolution alpha buffers interfering with the higher res geometry, and the MLAA being unable to smooth over the affected area. Again, such issues wouldn’t be present to such a degree in a downsampled image and would almost certainly be noticeably worse with 2xMSAA. You can see this below.

The rest of the scene however, benefits from large levels of decent edge smoothing. It's incredibly hard to tell by the compressed nature of the video creating additional artefacts, but we can see many areas getting what appears to be as much as 8xMSAA - some surfaces 16xMSAA, with others having around 4x, which comes as standard when using the technique.

Another benefit of MLAA comes in the form of excellent high contrast edge anti-aliasing, whereby distinct edges - usually too distinct for MSAA to generate good enough samples for - are handled with reletive ease. Although the trailer doesn’t demonstrate this, due to being set in a dark, low contrast environment, I can’t imagine UC3 being any different.

In order to accurately see just how well MLAA is implemented in Uncharted 3, I suggest you download a high bitrate HD 720p video instead of watching the awfully compressed YouTube one we have here. It suffers from shimmering and other artefacting not present in the actual game.

Moving on, and the fire effects have also been expanded over what was present in Uncharted 2. Here we see multiple layers of blended 2D sprites rendered in 1/4 the frambuffer resolution. Obvious artefacts such as pixelation aren’t visible due to the effect being smoothed over via both blending and filtering techniques. However, we can see evidence of jittering and some shimmering, much like with what is happening with shadows in the game. This is most noticeable at the base of the flames.

Whilst being technically quite simple in comparison to various fire effects we’ve seen in the past, the look is still very convincing with the various layers present on screen creating an impressive show via the use of sheer amounts, rather than advanced technical trickery. Also, the increased use of 2D sprite layers allows for a more organic look to be created. The fire in Uncharted 3 is both more animated and has a greater level of depth than in the second game. This is also helped by the scope the effect finds itself in – fire is everywhere, with varying layers spread all across the environment.

Granted Uncharted 3’s use of fire isn’t technically that impressive when compared to the multi-particle, and multi-layered smoke and fire present in the likes of Lost Planet. Although, Naughty Dog’s solution instead fits in with the PS3’s tight bandwidth requirements and the overall engine make-up far more comfortably than Capcom’s alpha-hevy solution ever would. Like in Killzone 2 and 3, the low res nature of alpha is carefully reduced via good use of filtering and layer blending.

In terms of character modelling, details, and shader effects, we can see that the renderings use for gameplay come remarkably close to matching the pre-rendered desert scene footage we covered here, in our first tech analysis of the game. Drake himself, geometry wise looks to be very close with only slightly paired back use of shaders and texturing. His facial features and animations look almost the same, lacking just a little precision in comparison.

Compared to Uncharted 2, and Drake looks to have gained slightly more in the way of detail. Facial details in particular look better – improved texturing and shaders – and his overall facial design has been artistically changed somewhat. He appears to be a bit chubbier this time around, looking older, more rugged. No doubt as a result of his haphazard worldly adventures, and from the development team adapting his polygonal mesh structure.

As to be expected, when up against the desert scene in the original trailer footage skin shaders have also been mildly reduced, as have small texture details and texture resolution. We can also see the usual shadow and self-shadow artefacts on Drake – jittering, some shimmering etc – that was present throughout Uncharted 2 but absent from the pre-rendered parts of the teaser trailer. This can be found on both characters and the environment. The grasses on the floor in particular are noticeably affected.

Whilst there are obvious differences between the teaser trailer’s pre-rendered in-engine footage and the actual real-time gameplay video, there is nothing that drastically separates them as a whole. Sure, the desert scene exposes a polish not possible in a real-time rendered envronment on the PS3 – with better use of shaders, perfect shadowing and polygon clipping. Although, most effects have at least been translated over to the in-game engine instead of being cut.

Performance wise, the short gameplay clip shows off Uncharted 3's solid state at this point. The demo doesn't appear to drop below 30fps - despite plenty of performance sapping alpha effects - and there is no sign of any screen tearing. It's likely that UC3, as with its predecessor is triple buffered: rendering three frames for every one displayed, simply discarding each torn frame until a clean one is found. Tearing should only occur when all three frames are being torn, a scenario only likely to happen in the most heavy load situations.

That said, the demo dosen't feature any extraordinarily large set-pieces like the train crash and helicopter battle from UC2, which would be a real performance indicator. Instead, what we have here is a somewhat more pedestrain scene designed to show off some of the game's additional graphical polish, along with a few new moves for Drake.

All in all, from what we can see Uncharted 3 boats improvements in lighting, texturing, and shaders over Uncharted 2, with more detail being present, smoother animations, and even better use of anti-aliasing. Some of these improvements are mere subtlties, while others are far more noticeable (like the inclusion of MLAA - UC3’s big leap forward, like with SSAO in UC2). And, with just under a year to go Naughty Dog have plenty of time for optimisations, to get those little details that make all the difference down to a fine art.

The first part of our Uncharted 3 trailer analysis can be found here, which focuses on the teaser trailer and also forms a complete look at the tech behind the game so far.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Tech Analysis: Uncharted 3: Teaser Trailer

So, Uncharted 3 has finally been unveiled. And for those who didn’t think this generation of consoles had much more to offer graphically… well, Naughty Dog’s latest – still just under a year a way from completion – definitely looks to silence the critics. Arguably, given the quality of the real-time and in-engine rendering on offer in Uncharted 3, there’s no need to hurry along to meet that five-year hardware lifecycle.

At the recent VGA awards Naughty Dog finally blew the lid off the next title in the globe-hopping, bandit-shooting Uncharted series, with Drake once again looking rather worse for ware, but this time stranded in the desolate Arabian desert.

The trailer showcases a variety of engine improvements, from shadows and lighting, to texturing and skins shaders. All have seen a noticeable upgrade. Some of these look to be suspiciously from in-engine - but not in-game - footage, whereas others look to have taken the actual in-game tech another leap forward (just look at those water effects). Either way, Uncharted 3 at this early stage looks absolutely incredible.

The trailer can be divided up into three distinct parts; the desert scene in which we see Drake walking slowly across some sand dunes, stranded after being involved in a plane crash; a scene in which him and sully are in a darkened room in what looks like a flashback of sorts; and the ending post title footage, which clearly shows off a few short seconds of actual ganeplay.

All three can be seen below for comparison purposes, and it’s here that we can see exactly which parts of the trailer are being rendered in-engine, in real-time, and actual gameplay.

Starting off with the desert scene, and we can see most obviously some of the changes Naughty Dog have implemented in their engine for Uncharted 3. Drake himself has been remodelled, his facial features adjusted to represent an older, rustier, heavily warn adventurer. He looks almost slightly chubby in appearance. But look at his arms and legs through his clothes, and we can see that it’s just his underlying bone structure that has been updated.

Texture detail has been noticeably upped. Even from the highly compressed video footage we can see additional subtleties in the form of wrinkles, stubble, and pores on the skin. Skin shaders too have also seen similar increases in quality, with all those little facial features reacting far more realistically with the game’s environmental lighting.

You could say that it looks almost too good to be in-game… and indeed it is. This second opening scene looks like it has been created using in-engine assets, though not rendered in real time. A few things other than the shaders hint at this. Most notable the composition of lighting and shadowing in the scene as a whole… they’re largely flawless in their execution.

The shadowing model in particular is completely artefact free whilst maintaining an incredibly level of precision and accuracy. Notice how both the environment and Drake’s own self-shadows lack any kind of jittering or mostly any edge shimmering, both of which are present in later parts of the trailer and in Uncharted 2. All shadows, both up close and far away, are perfectly cast without error, carefully adding a great deal of depth to the final image.

The lighting also complements this, with dynamic shadows reacting and changing according to the environment conditions. Shadows are cast where expected, and the shader model delivers reflections and subtle changes usually too computationally heavy to be replicated with such precision either in-game, or in real-time in-engine cut-scenes.

Although saying that, the art assets used in the trailer are all ones that will be used during gameplay according to Naughty Dog; they’ve simply upgraded some of the effects to complement the offline nature of rendering the scene for the trailer. It’s purely an artistic style choice, great for PR screenshots and posters, but not all that far off from what is present in game as it were.

There are other things that also point to this fact, the detailed nature of Drake’s attire for example. Everything from his belt, the bullets situated upon it, his shirt, and his scarf are beautifully rendered. In particular, Drake’s scarf seems to have a soft-cloth simulation of sorts integrated into its animation system, with no polygon clipping or edge and shadow artefacts. It’s like a CGI rendering but using in-engine artwork.

In terms of the actual trailer resolution, it appears that different scenes are rendered in varying original framebuffer sizes before being either upscaled or downscaled to form the final 720p image. Take the opening desert scene for example. Here we have what looks like a 1980x1080 original FB which has been downsampled in a process known as supersampling to deliver large amounts of full-scene anti-aliasing, resulting in very little in the way of jagged lines.

In fact, the aliasing that is present in this scene – shadows and subtle edge aliasing from certain angles, along with texture aliasing – is perhaps more down to shader aliasing and in particular, the lightsoures being used in combination with the resolution of the shadowmaps themselves. Also, there is barely any evidence of subpixel aliasing issues - we can see that thin lines and small pieces of geometry are highly smoothed over – a key component of using supersampling. But there is nothing more than a few edges with ‘soft jaggies’ standing out from the rest of the scene.

On the whole, this centrepiece scene from the trailer comfortably represents the kind of graphical upgrades to be expected throughout the actual game on a baseline level, although shader effects and texturing has obviously been increases slightly beyond levels possible in-game in real-time no less, with additional precision along with more detailed character modelling.

Moving on to the second key scene, and we can see similar engine upgrades taking place, but without the same level of perfection as in the desert portion we’ve discussed above. Both Drake and Sully feature improvements in texturing, normal mapping and shaders, but not to the extent as seen in the ‘in-engine, pre-rendered’ part of the trailer. This scene appears to be rendered not only with in-game assets but also being done in real-time without any of the ultra precise shadowing and lighting.

Obviously like for like comparisons aren’t completely possible – different lighting conditions and the fact that Drake himself looks to be younger, slimmer than in the earlier part of the trailer – although we can still see evidence of visual tweaks and changes while also spotting a few rendering artefacts that reveal the scene’s real-time presence.

Take a close look at the shadowing on Drake for example. Some of the self-shadows evident around his neck clearly show evidence of jittering and some edge shimmering – something larger absent from the desert part of the trailer. In addition Drake’s character model is slightly less detailed, with reduced shader effects and subtle texture details.

Like with the earlier scene, this part of the trailer also appears to be rendered in 1920x1080 before being supersampled down to 720p, which would explain the lack of any noticeable edge shimmering on the geometry. Although, in dark low contrast environments such things rarely manifest themselves.

Onto the actual gameplay portion of the trailer, and this is where things get difficult. The short and chopped up, cropped, and constantly resizing nature of the clips, along with compression induced motion artefacts make it difficult to assertain how close the game holds up to the graphical quality of the cut-scenes in any meaningful way.

However, we can at least see that the quality looks about on par, or close to the scenes in question. Much like in Uncharted 2, the cut scenes do appear to be higher quality renderings, though using in-game assets and running in real-time (assuming the same system from Uncharted 2 is in place, whereby all cut-scenes are real-time and not video recordings of the renderings). I imagine that gameplay will look basically the same to the untrained eye, featuring similar rendering bugs, but with a touch more detail and precision.

This part of the trailer also looks to be rendered in native 720p (1280x720) like with previous Uncharted titles, while anti-aliasing is yet to be determined. Some have said that MLAA looks to have been implemented, though with compression artefacts masking any potential aliasing issues and the clips so short/poor in quality, this may just be wishful thinking at this point. However, we shall be taking a look at the more recently released direct-feed gameplay video to investigate this further.

One thing that does stand out with the gameplay footage, is the noticeable upgrade in the engine’s ability to render water and fire effects. The water in particular looks incredible. It almost looks like a simulation if you don’t pay attention to how it flows and changes in motion.

The main body of the water appears to be more volume-based than particle-based - modelled with large mesh of animated geometry and normal maps - thus avoiding the PS3’s limited available memory bandwidth for alpha effects, although this is indeed backed up with some particles at the front as the water expands and spreads across the environment.

The fire effects also feature more animation than those found in uncharted 2. From the brief few seconds of footage, we can see an increse in the layers of 2D sprites used to form this effect, with greater levels of blending. Although, again… it’s pretty hard to tell, given the quality and duration of the footage.

Instead, a far better example of how Uncharted 3’s gameplay will hold up against both the in-engine pre-rendered parts of the trailer, and with the real-time in-engine cut-scenes can be found here, in the first direct-feed gameplay trailer.

As you can see, there is a noticeable difference between both the character and environment modelling, shader effects, shadows and lighting compared with the trailer. Against the standard cut-scenes too, we can see a slight downgrading - small, but perhaps greater than the differences in Uncharted 2.



We’ll be taking a look at the gameplay trailer in the next day or two at IQGamer in a shorter tech analysis, mainly focusing on the upgraded fire effects and comparison details between pre-rendered in-engine footage and gameplay. Interestingly, these gameplay shots feature very little in the way of aliasing, shimmering edges etc, which could lead to either an MLAA solution being implemented, or perhaps more supersampling - used in creating print and promotional quality bullshots. But we shall see.

In the meantime we can at least see that regardless of how the footage – and indeed the screens – have been enhanced, modified, or created from an offline render, that Uncharted 3 is already delivering a tangible improvement in rendering quality over and above Uncharted 2 and in some respects Killzone 3, while the game still has just under a year to go before it goes gold.

We also haven’t even mentioned that 3D support is also in the pipeline for day one. How this will be implemented – what method: side by line, top to bottom, half res, full res, etc hasn’t been confirmed – but Naughty Dog have stated that the engine is constantly in a state of flux, with new tech and changes being implemented right up until a month before the final crunch to completion. With that said, we won’t likely find out anything concrete for at least a few months. Although details on the 2D rendering engine will certainly surface long before that.

So… Uncharted 3 then, from what little we’ve seen of it, is looking mightily impressive at this point. It’s very early days in the game yet, with many questions still going unanswered, and a few in which the answers are obviously identifiable. The leap between the second and third Uncharted titles doesn’t appear to be as gigantic as the jump from UC1 to UC2 (SSAO was by far the most noticeable upgrade), although there’s plenty of subtle elements that provide additional flair to the engine, along with increased levels of realism to help engross the player further into Drake’s world.

As we’ve already mentioned, a direct-feed gameplay trailer has since been released to complement the highly directed teaser trailer, showing off two minutes of continuous gameplay in which to present the various in-game engine improvements. You can expect another analysis, albeit much shorter based on this in the next few days.

Thanks go out to Nebula for the framebuffer analysis/pixel counting.