Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Tech Anaysis: Splinter Cell Conviction Demo (360)

For a generation of consoles geared towards high definition content there has been many games which fail to hit this target, instead being rendered in sub-HD resolutions, or worse, in progressive scan standard definition.

Tekken 6, on both platforms, Halo 3 and Final Fantasy XIII on 360, are all recent examples of high profile titles which for whatever reason are given the decision to forgo a true 720p framebuffer, thus not being able to meet the basic HD requirements advertised for two of the three competing consoles. Today, IQGamer can add Sam Fisher’s latest exploits to the list, as Splinter Cell: Conviction becomes the latest casualty in the sub-HD generation.

Splinter Cell: Conviction, exclusive to Microsoft’s Xbox 360, is rendered in 1024x576 with 2xMSAA (multisample anti-aliasing), and marks the first time the franchise on 360 has rendered in anything but a true HD resolution. Double Agent, for those of you who must know, was 720p with no AA, instead using an edge blur technique to recreate the effect.

However, this not so shocking revelation isn’t actually as bad at it seems, though still not particularly great. In fact Ubisoft Montreal has made a number of cleaver technical choices, which help negate the slightly burry, and rough around the edges look the upscaled 576p buffer usually results in.

For one, the game has very few high contrasting edges, being set mainly in the dark or at night time. This means that most of the noticeable upscaling artefacts aren’t really as visible as they could be, and the ones that are, can mostly be clearly seen in brighter areas of the game not completely covered in darkness. Although, in the night time sections outside, there is a slight pixelation effect to most of the sprite and polygon edges in the game, along with plenty of texture shimmering, which disappointingly shows off the upsacled nature without restraint. These parts make the game look far worse than FFXIII or Tekken 6 with regards to the upscale and 576p rendering resolution.

Conviction’s tightly controlled use of specular effects however, prevents any unwanted shader aliasing, as does the inclusion of good texture filtering, which means that there are no shimmering textures to be found, inside at least - another cause of bad aliasing in games. The game uses a combination of anisoptropic/trilinear filtering for it’s textures, resulting in this cleaner look, along with having high quality shadowmaps, which are soft looking rather than the basic hard edge type more commonly used.

In addition, the game features an nice depth of field effect, which blurs objects in close range of the camera, helping reduce any poorly upscaled edges from becoming too noticeable, though you can still see them. This smoothing effect works reasonably well with the 2xMSAA, hiding away some of the jaggies and other upscaling artefacts. However, in various scenes where objects are not shrouded in the darkness of the game’s shadows, and in the night time out side sections, the soft looking nature of the upscaled framebuffer is all too obvious, and reveals its 576p origins.

Despite this, Splinter Cell: Conviction deserves some technical merit. The game features a completely dynamic shadows and lighting system. Every light source in the game is fully reactive with the environment and all objects, including characters, and can be disabled or enabled by the player in various ways. In terms of shadows, all shadows change and react to the player, guards and light sources on screen. So when lights are shot out shadows become wider and less directed, or move when characters do so around the environment.

Backing up this shadows system is a fully custom, completely dynamic ambient occlusion solution, developed in house at Ubisoft Montreal. Whilst we don’t know the exact details on how it works, or the advantages over using traditional SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion), we do know that according to Ubisoft, their system gives artists greater control and flexibility, whilst maintaining competitive performance wise.

Lastly, we can confirm that Conviction runs at 30fps with very little in the way of slow down. Instead, the game prefers to screen-tear whenever the engine comes under any kind of load. This happens fairly regularly, however it isn’t as bad as you might think, with much of the screen-tearing simply appearing for a brief split-second, and is very slight at best. At its worst, with lines splitting across the screen, it’s pretty harsh and a little distracting.

I’m not too sure that having a mostly solid 30fps is a good trade off for constant, subtle screen-tearing, although saying that, a drop in framerate is more detrimental to image quality than some slight lines appearing over the screen.

Overall, Splinter Cell: Conviction compares with most other upscaled 576p games in the image quality stakes, and exceeds them in certain scenarios. The use of dark environments and minimal contrasting edges helps hide the more obvious of artefacts when indoors, whilst the depth of field effects and MSAA smooth over others still noticeable in the shadows. The use of dynamic lighting and AO is pretty impressive, and combined with the soft shadowmapping, takes your vision away from the upscaled nature of the edges. However, despite this, there are times in which the game just can’t hide its sub-HD resolution, and it never looks particularly sharp as a result. Certainly, compared with true 720p titles, and the 600p Call Of Duty games, it looks somewhat poor in comparison, although it is one of the better upscaled 576p framebuffer games so far.

Ubisoft Montreal has shown, that with the right art design and technical choices, how 576p is not necessarily a no go area for developers, much like with Namco and their home conversions of Tekken 6. However, they still have a lot of work to do before we can say their 576p achievement matches PS3 Tekken 6 (with motion blur turned off) for clarity and sharpness. Saying that, Conviction looks better than Double Agent, a title which rendered in 720p, but used a heavy edge blur effect for an anti aliasing, and in turn better than a lot of other sub-HD games in general. Sadly, the game also has moments in which it looks truly awful, and it’s in these sections, mostly set outside during the night, which bring the whole image quality right down.

For a flagship AAA title, Splinter Cell: Conviction is rather disappointing in the IQ department, with the mixed success of having an upscaled 576p framebuffer combined with some well thought out graphical effects. Had the outdoor areas of the game fared better then it would have made a tangible difference, putting the title visually above most other 576p releases.

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