Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Review: Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

The original Super Mario Galaxy was unquestionably my 2007 game of the year. With it’s magical atmosphere, delightful art styles, stunning graphics, and exemplary level design it was one of the best games to come out of Nintendo since the N64 days, and Super Mario 64 itself. This is made even more impressive as during the GameCube generation, with the exception of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Nintendo failed to create anything quite as captivating, or as awe-inspiringly beautiful as their N64 masterpiece.

SMG displayed the kind of wondrous personality and gameplay mastery associated with the company for the last twenty years or so, providing all who ventured into its grasp with some of the most refined and downright amazing platforming on any videogame system to date. It was to many, myself included, beyond just being a sequel to one of the best games of all time, firmly stamping its own mark into a genre long since forgotten amongst today’s mainstream gaming crowd.

The use of gravity as a gameplay mechanic, throwing players around from planet to planet; and the use of switching perspectives, 3D to 2D, and back again, brought forward deviously fresh gameplay which had never been seen before. Not quite like this, and all the more refreshing as a result. Huge bosses, unique level designs and challenges, new and old characters, all contributed even more to the experience. And that’s not even mentioning the whimsical nature of the affair, steeped in a lovingly polished goodness of visual beauty and orchestrated audio delights, quite possibly the closest thing to perfection in a long while.

This sequel in many respects is more of the same, partially streamlined to be more accessible, but more hardcore at the same time, without compromising on the style and gameplay foundations which worked so well the last time around. But it’s more than just a rehash of what has gone before, and the concepts established in the first Super Mario Galaxy. It’s an attempt to bringing together something fresh and altogether familiar at the same time.

At first glance SMG2 is undeniably similar to the last game. The intro sequence in particular being a 2D homage to the opening of the original SMG, with Bowser once again invading Princess Peach’s castle and stealing her away from Mario once more, thus yet again introducing us to the use of space travel and the need to collect those delightful golden stars. From this point on, the mechanics are pretty much identical to the last game, and the use of gravity, the combination of traversing across large and tiny planets are all so familiar. The difference is, that this sequel mixes it up far more than seen in the original SMG.

It’s a testament to the minds at Nintendo’s EAD team that they’ve managed to plunge so much originality in what could be seen as a rehashed, homage title of sorts. Calling it a rehash though, simply doesn’t do SMG2 any justice, as the game is brimming with brand new ideas, excitingly tough and imaginative levels, and perhaps the best orchestral score used in a Mario game to date. It is definitely in many ways a homage title though, more so than the last game.

SMG2 also expands upon the gravitational ideas and shifting perspectives introduced to us in the first game, whilst adding practically a new gameplay mechanic almost in every level. Nintendo have taken onboard what worked, and ditched perhaps what didn’t, or rather what did, but just not as well as it could have. At the same time they have also reduced the number of stages which favour Mario 64’s brand of exploration, instead focusing on obstacle course style level layouts. These stages have a definitive beginning, but the end sometimes feels out of place and strangely positioned into what appears to be the most challenging to reach area in the stage, whether it makes sense of not.

Despite this the game still manages to be an awesome experience through and through - just not quite as amazingly perfect as I would have liked - and this is further upheld up by the inclusion of cool new power-ups, and the return of an old friend from Super Mario World. The finely crafted orchestrated sound track, and magical nature of the game also plays a large part in this too, with the usual Nintendo touch being applied without restraint.

The first thing that you’ll notice has changed in SMG2 is the use of a hub world to serve as entry to one of many galaxies to be found in the game. Instead of featuring a large and expansive hub in which to both explore and to act as a gateway to new stages, you now have Starship Mario, and the return of a traditional map system. This new map system is very much like the ones found in both New Super Mario Bros and Super Mario 3. Levels are clearly marked in order along with the amount of stars possible to collect in each one, and the amount required to unlock the next stage. There are also branching pathways which lead to bonus levels or other normal stages.

The map can also be zoomed in and out, to show either individual galaxies, or simply the stages to be found in each one. It is a far more convenient way of displaying all of the game’s levels, which are now easier to find and keep track of, than to have to hunt around for them in the old hub world. Sadly the map system lacks some of the same charm and magical quality compared to SMG1’s ‘observatory’, although Starship Mario certainly does not.

Starship Mario itself is a smaller version of the hub found in the original SMB, complete with hidden areas, and a cool reproduction of one of the last game’s observatories, which acts as a museum of sorts for displaying power-ups found and artefacts uncovered on your journey. The Starship looks like Mario’s face, and you can run all around it, venturing into unlocked rooms and talking to the inhabitants that arrive at certain points throughout the game. Jumping on the pressure pad in front of the steering wheel (yes, a wheel) takes you to the game’s map screen, in which you browse through, and select your levels.

Outside of the new hub world and map system, most of the changes and improvements are contained within the gameplay itself. The biggest addition to SMG2 is the inclusion of Yoshi, who has been missing in action for far to long in a Mario game. He hasn’t changed much from his debut in Super Mario World on the Super NES, keeping both his tongue grabbing and hovering abilities at the forefront of what he’s all about.

Yoshi is only used in certain stages, most of which have a new mechanic, which uses him in different ways from just running around and doing the usual platform jumping. For example, some stages will require you to keep Yoshi fed with fruits enabling him to walk on otherwise invisible platforms. At other times eating a blue coloured fruit will see him puff up like a balloon and enable him to float up in the air to areas out of reach using the standard Mario/Yoshi combination. Likewise, the game will also test your basic tongue-lashing capabilities by having you swing from objects suspended high up in the air before reaching a specific location.

After Yoshi comes the use of brand new power-ups, including Cloud Mario, Rock Mario, and a funky looking drill that Mario can carry above his head (Drill Mario?). These are awesome, especially Rock Mario, which sees the little fellow take the form of a rocky boulder when waggling the Wii Remote, causing him roll around on screen at speed, much like Morpthball Samus in Metroid Prime.

Cloud Mario has the ability to create a few temporary platforms in which to stand on, allowing you to reach previously out of the way areas. Simply by jumping up and then waggling the Wii Remote creates one of three clouds for Mario to stand on. These clouds can be created in jet streams allowing Mario to glide across the sky, or just to gain a little extra height. After using up all three clouds it simply a case of grabbing another power-up to refill your supply, and away you go.

Like with Yoshi levels are all specifically designed to use these abilities, and in many cases new mechanics are presented for the player to learn and master. The range on offer is pretty incredible, with an almost constant barrage of new, or quirky things coming your way, all of which are done extremely well.

If there is one complaint about an otherwise near perfect experience, it’s that a lot of the levels are very linear in nature, and with little exploration to be had. You never really get to ‘know’ the levels like in Mario 64, or even parts of the first SMG. Instead the levels feel like a design homage to the likes of Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, or Super Mario World, created more in the way of testing your hardcore platforming skills rather than delivering the most intoxicating, and expansive Mario game yet.

However, the challenges set in nearly every world are as imaginative as the last, and a lot of effort has gone into making this one of the most inspired Mario titles yet. It also works beautifully as homage to the old 2D Mario titles, with redone orchestral music, and faithfully styled level designs. Approaching the sequel in this way, rather than putting it on a ten out of ten, revolutionary, and perfectionist pedestal, is perhaps the way to go.

And this is in itself the way that Nintendo views the game – as a hardcore instalment of the series designed for the most experienced, and dedicated Mario fans. In which case the game succeeds with flying colours, earning its Koopa wings, but maybe not in making it the ‘best’ Mario game of all time. Perhaps not quite as sublime as the first SMG either, though that will be debated for years, I’m sure.

Moving forward, there is plenty to do once you’ve finished the game. After getting 120 stars you unlock another 120 green stars to collect, taking the challenge up a notch, and giving you another chance to play through every level once again. Getting stars is only one part of the challenge though. Throughout every level is a hidden comet coin, and picking this up unlocks specific challenges in addition to the main task required to getting a star. So, for example you might have to do a timed run of a specific star challenge, or a race to the end of the stage.

Occasionally I thought that some of the challenges the game has to offer are just a little too frustrating, especially later on when the slightest mistake leads to a lost of life. In these situations it isn’t so much the level design or actual challenge itself that is the problem, but it’s these elements combined with what appears to be occasionally restrictive camera placement that impacts on the overall polished nature of the experience. It’s nothing overly bad, or even enough to tarnish the delights that Nintendo have managed to cram in here, but it does in my opinion make it less of an overall exemplary experience compared to the first game.

So, you could say that while this sequel does much to improve on the original, it doesn’t quite beat it outright, at best matching the original’s brilliance, and at worst not quite hitting the same highs. Either way, however you slice it, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is still one of the best games to be released in the last ten years or so, and well worth picking up, essentially so, even if it’s not as awe-inspiringly fantastical as SMG was.

Overall SMG2 does so much right. The inclusion of new characters and power-ups are suitably inspired as they are superb, as is the streamlined map system and the extra challenges that keep you going after finishing the game, not to mention the beautiful visuals on offer – Nintendo have really pushed the Wii in this regard, shiny and beautifully lit graphics all at a lavish 60fps. That said, this sequel isn’t quite as groundbreaking as the first game, and not quite as finely balanced either. However, you do have to appreciate the fact that Nintendo very rarely makes a Mario sequel, and in this case it’s one of the best they’ve ever made, minor issues aside.

Perhaps, at the end of the day that’s all that matters, because whilst Super Mario Galaxy 2 might not be as revolutionary as the first, it’s still full of imagination, atmosphere, and some of the most impressively creative level designs to date. Sure it can be frustrating at times, and the reduction in larger level exploration is mildly disappointing. But by the same token it is complete celebration of what gaming used to be about, not what it is about now, and with this in mind it is an undeniable success.


Monday, 28 June 2010

Tech Analysis: Crackdown 2 Demo

Most people picked up Crackdown not for the actual game itself (although there was interest in it) but for the upcoming Halo 3 beta, in which access would be granted directly from within the game's menu screen. On top of that they would find a highly enjoyable, and surprisingly different take on the free roaming, open world genre.

Crackdown wasn’t simply a ‘me too’ Grand Theft Auto type experience, but something altogether removed from Rockstar’s world of sandbox brilliance. Highly stylised, and bringing a cartoon vibe to the genre, it delivered flashy, superhero-turned-cop themed action to gamers in a way that completely embodied the spirit of GTA, but without the grime.

Crackdown 2 then has been born out of love for the original game, with the people at Ruffian Games committed to bringing gamers not only more of the same, but also a completely improved version of the game as a whole, with reworked graphics, larger, more intense gameplay segments, and expansion of the original’s much loved online multiplayer mode.

Initially, this sequel looks, and feels very much like the original. The cartoon-esque feel running throughout the game is back in full force, along with the cell shaded visuals which create that effect - those heavy black lines clearly defining characters from their environments – and a slight change to a more gritty visual style bringing about more naturality to the image, rather than the original’s full-blown, pastel-coloured and intensely lit environments.

Compared to the first game Crackdown 2 is grittier looking, with more realistic lighting which is distinctly controlled, and not simply blasted out on full like in the first game. The result, a slightly darker looking game with greater image balance making things more comfortable to look at, whilst also depicting the rundown nature of the city since events of the original Crackdown.

The framerate runs at a mostly solid 30 frames per-second, with initially very little in the way of slowdown. I was surprised at just how smooth the game was during hectic encounters with ten, even twenty enemies on screen all at once, explosions being set off and carnage ensuing in the aftermath. Slowdown it seems only occurs when there is a huge amount going on at the same time, and even then I didn’t find all that much in the way of sharp spikes in smoothness, either up or down. Instead the game manages its framerate extremely well, favouring smaller dips rather than the heavy drops of PS3 GTA IV or Red Dead.

Crackdown 2 also seems to be v-synced most of the time, although screen tearing is present and is pretty noticeable when it properly occurs, it only really happens in more intense situations when the screen is busy, and I mean really busy. For much of the time the game would show what looked like a judder enveloping the entire screen, very slight in nature and almost as if the game had caught up with any frames it was about to tear. Suffice to say, it isn’t an issue during normal play, and the game quickly regains control of the v-sync in spite of the occasional blip.

In terms of comparing these findings with that of the original Crackdown, I can’t really tell you in-depth how well it performed compared to this sequel because it’s been a while since I last played it. I can tell you however, that there seems to be less screen tear in Crackdown 2, and that the larger framerate drops only occur when the engine is put under greater pressure. In these situations there is clearly more happening on screen than in the first game, so you could say that the engine has seen increased stability to what we were seeing before.

What does appear the same as the first game is the sequel’s rendering resolution and use of anti-aliasing. Crackdown 2 renders at 1280x720 (720p) and uses 2xMSAA which comes as standard with most Xbox 360 titles.

Visually the game looks very clean and sharp, with character edges appearing rather striking due to both the cell shaded look, and highly stylised art direction. Jaggies are kept under control for both environments and characters - even with high contrasting edges which is pretty impressive - although with only 2x edge smoothing not completely eliminated. Some edges receive clear AA, and others less so. Pretty much standard fare 2xMSAA, but with what looks like a better AA sampling to coverage ratio.

The cartoon-esque look of the game also means that any jaggies present don’t always distract or intrude as much as they would in more realistic looking titles, and the game seems to apply AA more successfully here than compared to other titles using the same 2x solution.

Outside of performance and image quality crackdown 2 fares quite well, featuring some improvements and some cutbacks over the first game.

Water in this sequel look far better than before, featuring better use of shaders and texture based-effects, plus the overall lighting system has been given a few tweaks and subtle enhancements over what was present in the first game. The streetlights in particular are now rendered in a higher resolution compared to Crackdown 1, and without that strange bloom effect that seemed to afflict them.

The developers are also pushing more stuff around on screen with a greater amount of maximum enemies appearing at any one time, and environmental detail getting a noticeable increase in places. LOD has also been tweaked and is less aggressive than in the first game, showing off the extra details for further into the distance without cutting back on them too early on. This goes well with the upped levels of foliage, railings, and general details present throughout the game.

All this use of less aggressive LOD, more environment detail, and higher resolution transparency effects do come at a cost however, with the developers cutting back on both texture detail and the way the clouds are rendered compared to the first game.

There is less detail on environmental textures in Crackdown 2, which is quite noticeable in places compared to the original, although the more dense nature of the environment negates this somewhat, as does the improved lighting and increase in texture filtering.

The clouds on the other hand loose their volumetric look, and appear very flat compared to the ones displayed in the original. I can only guess that in order to increase overall performance that they had to scale back on certain things to make this happen, especially as they were building upon an engine which pre-dates the Xbox 360 in it’s development cycle. So asking for a complete re-write maybe would have been too much, and in any case hardly anyone is likely to care, or notice in the long run. Most people will just want to play more Crackdown.

Thing is, as a whole this sequel simply looks better than the first. Some flatter looking clouds and weaker texturing cannot take away from the many improvements that the engine has seen; least of all tarnish the overall graphical polish added to the experience. Granted, Crackdown 2 looks decidedly basic, and well, pretty flat, but at the same time is adhering to it’s own art style which is arguably one of the main differentiating points outside the outlandish open-world action the game provides.

Hardly impressive by today’s standards, but well suited all the same.

In conclusion then, Crackdown 2 represents a small improvement over the original game graphically, with some downgrades, but at the same time those changes were made for the benefit of the gameplay and not, as with many titles, just to visually allure the audience into more of the same.

What we should remember is that the engine is there to facilitate the gameplay, and not the other way around. So, in that respect Ruffian Games have achieved exactly that, delivering improvements which fit in with the style of the game, and the expanded gameplay integral to making this sequel more than just a rehash.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Tech Analysis: Killzone 3 E3 Demo - 2D VS 3D

Killzone 2 is still one of the technical benchmarks for Sony’s PS3. However you might dislike the dark and grainy art style, or the subdued colour palette on offer, the game showed developers (and gamers alike) just what was possible on the system when tightly using the CELL + RSX combo the way is was supposed to be used. And for E3 2010 Sony took Guerrilla Games’ Killzone 3 as their lead technical showcase for not only the PS3, but also for their newly affirmed focus on 3D gaming.

From all the screens and videos released there’s no doubt that Guerrilla’s latest is as visually striking as it is technically brilliant, but what about under the hood? What’s changed? And more importantly how well does the current engine hold up to rendering in 3D, especially with minimal compromises on what’s being pushed around on screen?

Well, in this feature that’s exactly what we’ll be taking a look at, analysing the E3 build of the game in both 3D and 2D, seeing exactly what improvements have been made and what has been paired back in order to get the game working (fully playable I might add) in 3D.

Anyway, before we talk about that in more detail, lets take a look at the game in 2D and see just how it fares at its current point in development.

Like with it’s predecessor Killzone 3 renders in 1280x720, but rather than use quincunx anti-aliasing again the developers have elected to use morphological anti-aliasing instead - a far superior technique for reducing jagged lines whilst maintaining overall image quality.

Looking at the screenshot below, the effect the MLAA has on image quality is obvious. The final image is much sharper and clearer, with fewer jagged lines being present than before, and without any additional blur caused by the use of QAA. The only blur you are seeing in the screens is caused by the various post process, and depth of field effects that Guerrilla are using throughout the game, all of which are artistic choices and not technical compromises. It’s all part of the dark and gritty look of the franchise.

Like with God Of War 3 some surfaces receive as much as 16xMSAA, whilst others more in the range of 4x, or occasionally less in areas with ultra small polygon edges. Ether way the use of MLAA is a marked improvement from the QAA of the first game.

However, unlike in certain games (I’m talking about you Red Dead) the use of QAA in Killzone 2 wasn’t at all detrimental to the overall image. Instead the slightly blurrier looked suited the art style the developers were aiming for, and the image still looked particularly clean and quite sharp. The same could also be said of Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall Of Man, and its sequel - both of which used the infamous QAA.

Switching to MLAA simply allows texture detail to come through unscathed (no blur) with greater levels of edge smoothing at a lower cost. You’re getting a smoother look without making any of the same compromises as before, and potentially saving on memory as well.

So like with God Of War 3 the use of MLAA does much to improve image quality whilst having less of a performance hit than you might think. Although are times in which this new form of anti-aliasing isn’t so effective at dealing with jagged lines, particularly when coming up against sub pixel aliasing - something which does crop up noticeably in parts of Killzone 3. Areas of the game which features loads of thin polygon lines; fences, railings, power cables etc, are all prone to displaying jaggies, and this is something that MLAA can’t really help with.

Below is a clear example of what I mean. In the screenshot it is evident that sub pixel (a triangle smaller in size than a pixel of the rendering resolution) edges receive no AA of any kind, something which would either require a change in how these objects were rendered or a switch to supersampling in order to resolve the problem.

Essentially MLAA works by detecting edges in a scene on a pixel level, finding them and smoothing them over resulting in a highly effective way of dealing with jaggies. This is perfect for high contrast scenes (unlike with MSAA) as edges are clearly detectable thus being easily smoothed over. The problem comes in when the edges you have to deal with are smaller than one pixel of the rendering resolution, and as MLAA works only on pixel size edges anything smaller simply gets no anti-aliasing. Or that is how I understand it. The result is some edge shimmering and noticeable aliasing on objects with lots of sub pixel edges.

Moving on to smoke and particle effects, it is obvious that they are again rendered in a lower resolution than the rest of the game.

Like in Killzone 2 all alpha effect buffers are rendered in 640 x 360 (quarter of the resolution of 720p), a common practice for most PS3 developers due to the system’s lack of available memory bandwidth compared to Microsoft’s 360 with its 10MB EDRAM.

Basically PS3’s GPU, the RSX, features a fairly low pixel fill rate, and this effects how many transparencies can be drawn on screen at any given time. 360 on the other hand through its use of EDRAM provides the GPU with a much higher fill rate enabling not only more transparent objects to be drawn at once, but also to feature transparencies at a matching screen resolution en masse.

In motion the lower resolution of the alpha buffers is hardly visible with the various post processing effects going on – such as depth of field - and they do look rather smooth and well defined. Although, as we can see below in still screens these effects still appear to look softer than the objects around them.

Impressively, it looks like the developers are using volumetric effects for all the smoke in the game (like with Killzone 2), although in reality this is somewhat misleading. Instead of actually rendering 3D volumetric particles, they are using layers of 2D sprites which have been blended together and combined with geometry using something called ‘alpha test’ in order to re-create that volumetric look without the added processing cost of doing it for real.

This blending is also one of the reasons why the smoke and particle effects all look somewhat soft and smoothened, in addition to the AA that they seem to be getting on top of that, and of course the upscaling taking place. It is also noticeable that the higher contrast nature of the stage demoed at E3 seemed to lessen the volumetric look associated with the effects, whilst also diluting the dynamic lighting being used somewhat.

Despite this Killzone 3 still looks visually stunning though, losing nothing along the way from the last game, and the developers may have also seen fit to upgrade the use of ambient occlusion for this latest instalment.

Previously for Killzone 2 Guerrilla were in the process of adding real-time SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion) to the game but didn’t have time to properly implement the effect, instead using baked AO as a substitute. Now it looks like this could have been changed, and for the first time we are seeing what appears to be proper use of SSAO for Killzone 3.

Although officially unconfirmed at this point, the screenshot below clearly shows some evidence of the effect being present. Just check out the shadows on the floor below the Helgast’s feet, in which we can see that something different is definitely going on. SSAO? Maybe. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it given the fact that it was being worked on long before development on KZ3 started.

You can also see the improvements made to texture quality compared to KZ2. Textures are clearer, crisper, and generally more detailed than before, perhaps as a result of no blurring being present from using QAA, but also because texture resolution seems to have been upped for certain objects in the game.

From what we’ve seen so far KZ3 is shaping up to be a clear visual improvement over the last game in 2D, with the MLAA being a particular standout, and the cleaner, sharper look appearing giving the game a more polished feel overall. The sense of scale has been noticeably upped, and the sheer amount of stuff going on at once is undoubtedly impressive.

But how does this compare with the game running in 3D?

Surprisingly, Guerrilla Games have also managed to achieve some of these feats when rendering the game in this mode, like keeping in all the complex smoke and particle effects without cutting back on the amount of stuff on screen at any time. However, the game’s rendering resolution in this mode leaves a lot to be desired.

When rendering in 3D you are essentially doubling up most of your graphics work rendering every frame twice, one for each eye. Now, certain things can be carried over between frames to save on performance, but many things can’t, and this why cutbacks have to be made. And for Killzone 3 there are sizable cutbacks with regards to the games rendering resolution, and the resolution of alpha channel visual effects.

Below are two screenshots showing the game in action. The top one shows the game running in 3D mode, and the bottom the same scene but running in 2D. As you can tell the difference is night and day, with the 3D version looking rather unsightly.

Killzone 3 in 3D

Killzone 3 in 2D

Looking at the above screenshots you can see that image quality has taken a massive hit as a result of the steep drop in both rendering resolution of the main framebuffer, and the alpha channel effects buffers.

For its 3D mode Killzone 3 renders in 640x716 with MLAA, and the effects buffers (which were already rendering in quarter resolution) are again halved down to 320x360 creating an unsightly scene of jagged lines and upscaling artefacts.

The alpha effects in particular seem to suffer the most with this, as when they overlap with opaque geometry they cause aliasing atifacts to appear heightening the games increased jagged appearance. In addition shader and sub pixel aliasing are also magnified as a result.

Having to render twice the amount of geometry on screen at once also causes problems, and various reports of seeing the game running in 3D state that there is noticeably greater levels of pop up compared to running in 2D mode. Even though you are running at half resolution, you still have to render the geometry twice so there is still an impact with performance despite cutbacks in the number of pixels being worked on compared to rendering in full 720p for 2D.

So far it isn’t looking too good for Killzone 3 in 3D, with the current build definitely being a poor representation of how the game should look, although in that respect you simply cannot expect standard 2D levels of performance with current generation console hardware. There just isn’t enough power to handle it, and with optimisations only so much can be done. However seeing the game being displayed with all the intricate particle effects and multiple light sources in 3D is pretty impressive, even if the result isn’t as clean or as smooth as we’d like. I would say that it not only shows promise, but also is a key indication of just how much untapped potential is still left inside the PS3 hardware for games in general.

There is also the opinion that increased levels of jagged edges and upscaling artefacts are less visible when viewing them in 3D compared to seeing the same thing in 2D. How true or accurate this is I don’t know, not actually seeing Killzone 3 running in actual 3D in the flesh – only a 2D version of the game’s 3D rendering mode. But the argument for even having a cut down, lower-res 3D mode is unsurprisingly strong, especially given the marketing potential for this new format.

Either way Guerrilla Games have stated that they are targeting 720p (1280x720) for Killzone 3 in 3D, and it’s likely that they’ll do whatever it takes to reach that milestone without overly compromising the look of the game, optimising where necessary, and cutting back on post processing effects that don’t work so well in 3D (motion blur, depth of field). Full 720p looks to be pretty much out of the equation, realistically. But you know, maybe something like 852x720, which would still provide better image quality than 640x716, but without having to cutback as much on the core graphics make up of the game.

With Killzone 3’s release not until February next year the developers have plenty of time to improve and optimise their engine for both 2D and 3D, so it will be rather interesting to see just how well the game fares a few months down the line. As new videos surface, and information gets drip-fed out we shall no doubt be taking another look at the game and the tech behind it.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

BBC iPlayer 3 On The Way To PS3?

The PS3 may already have a version of the BBC iPlayer, but according to site Tech Radar, and the BBC’s web developer Simon Cross, a new version of the popular video streaming service may be making an appearance on Sony’s system sometime later this year.

BBC’s iPlayer 3 is currently doing the rounds as a beta test on PCs for various web browsers and is set to include social networking features, and possible Facebook support further on down the line. Other upgrades include a new ‘For You’ section that essentially recommends you new programmes based on what you’ve been watching.

Cross also told the site that they were in the process of working out how to allow access to the iPlayer for users without them having to sign in before be able to view content, making the new experience as user friendly as possible.

"We don't know whether to integrate it with the PSN signing in process or do something new," he said.

With regards to 360 owners however, nothing was really said about a version of the application for Microsoft's console. And seeing as there are still issues with the company wanting to make the service only available to Gold Xbox Live subscribers - which is against the BBC’s policy as everyone already pays for the service via the TV licence - it could take a while for the matter to be resolved.

"It's great what has been done with Facebook on Xbox Live, so I hope something similar can be done with the iPlayer."

At the moment there’s no date set for the PS3 version of the iPlayer 3, although it will definitely arrive at some point later in the year. While 360 owners on the other hand are obviously left completely in the dark until things are sorted out between Microsoft and the BBC.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Nintendo 3DS GPU Revealed

Yesterday Japanese firm DMP revealed the graphics processor contained within the Nintendo 3DS ending speculation as to where the GPU would come from, and how powerful it really is.

A few days ago we assessed the capabilities of Nintendo’s new handheld based on seeing a handful of high-performance games and comparing them to titles on other platforms. It was a rough guestimate on how powerful we thought the machine to be, with a potential re-assessment upon having concrete new information. That re-assessment this is not, instead what follows is a look at the actual GPU that is powering the hardware and how the specs released ties into what we’ve seen of the 3DS’s capabilities so far.

First things first. The GPU powering the 3DS is the DMP PICA200 graphics core, a 2006 chip designed solely for portable device applications – everything from mobile phones to games consoles is mentioned in the specs document – and which actually packs quite a reasonable punch for cheap and efficient graphics rendering in a handheld device. With the design of the chip being complete in 2005 and released into market the following year, it isn’t in the same league as the GPU powering the iPhone, although it does fit squarely in between the GameCube and the Xbox in terms of overall ability.

According to DMP the chip is rated at 15.3 million polygons per-second (pps), with a pixel fill-rate of 800 million pixels per-second (more than the GCN but less than XB and Wii), all running at relatively fast 200mhz. Interestingly the numbers here are actually real-world figures in terms of the chip being used as a GPU solution in custom hardware. However, the demos and games shown for the 3DS don’t add up visually with the numbers given above, with the most complex titles pushing no more than 4, maybe 5 million polygons per-second at best.

So how can this be explained? Could it simply be a case of early development hardware, or a lack of optimisation with first-generation games? Well, this is particularly unlikely seeing as some of the software shown at Nintendo’s press event was highly polished and running at a brisk 60fps – not something un-optimised titles tend to do this early on in the hardware life cycle.

You could also argue then that the use of 3D, and having to render each frame twice could be having a considerable impact on the system’s graphics performance, if only were not for the fact that the 3DS renders one 800x240 image and splits the horizontal resolution down to 400 for each eye. At this low resolution, such a heavy performance hit isn’t very plausible seeing as you are basically rendering 800x240 as a total single screen resolution with 60fps equating to 60fps, and not 30fps as it would be for rendering for display using regular stereoscopic 3D images.

This resolution is hardly GPU busting compared to what the iPhone is doing – its basically little more than a expanded version of the Saturn or PSone’s low resolution mode.

Instead all signs point to Nintendo downgrading the chip in some way. The most likely scenario is the same one Sony took when launching the PSP, downcloking the GPU in order to save on battery life at the expense on overall performance. This lowering of the clock speed would indeed have the undesired effect of lower polygon throughput, thus resulting in the lower geometry counts we are seeing in the first batch of 3DS games.

The other area is memory. Even if the chip is capable of delivering somewhere in the region of 15.3 million polys per-second, the 3DS might not have enough graphics RAM in order to hold more than 4-6 million textured, lit and fully shaded polygons on screen, in which case the full power of the GPU is largely irrelevant with the exception of the extra grunt being used to obtain a stable 60fps in ‘most case’ scenarios.

Either way, without actually seeing the entire specification set of the machine we can’t really make any more assessments on how powerful it is, or how much of the above GPU performance is obtainable in real-world scenarios in 3DS games.

More interesting though, is the GPU’s lack of any programmable pixel shaders. We estimated that the 3DS might in fact have pixel and vertex shaders in our initial assessment of its capabilities last week due to seeing what looked blatantly like shader-based effects being visible. As it turns out this is only half the story.

The 3DS is basically an Open OpenGL ES 1.1 compatible chip with some customised fixed-function effects and vertex shading capabilities, but no pixel shader support of any kind. It has the ability to perform advanced effects such as per-pixel lighting, refraction mapping, procedural texturing, soft shadows, and gaseous object rendering. All of which are carried out using fixed hardware routines, and not as hinted at by Nintendo, shaders themselves. However, like we mentioned in our original article many of the effects created through the use of shaders can also be duplicated using fixed-function hardware. And in this case DMP have bumped things up considerably, with more advanced extensions than most previous fixed-function T&L GPU’s tended to have.

The fact that many, myself included, saw evidence of pixel shaders at work proves that using a cheaper, older fixed-function design was the correct way to go. Many of the custom extensions are much more powerful than the ones available on either the Wii or the GCN, and in most cases perfectly replicate the look of programmable pixel effects.

For such a low-resolution screen, and the kind of handheld Nintendo makes, the above solution seems like a good fit. For one we can expect the 3DS to be much cheaper than competing platforms with similar 3D LCD screen technology, and at the same time still have some pretty impressive visuals for the price.

Once again it has to be said that Nintendo definitely have been very thoughtful, and indeed economical in its part selection for the 3DS, using old and outdated hardware to good effect. It’s something that seems to have worked for them in the past with both the NDS and the Wii, and will no doubt work for them again with the 3DS as well.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Tech Report: Inside The Xbox 360 Slim

Earlier on in the week at E3 in Los Angeles Microsoft unveiled the brand new slim version of the Xbox 360, finally ending rumours of a new outer casing design and internal component revisions. We first reported on the 360 slim way back in march when photos of its motherboard were leaked onto the internet, showcasing what looked like a combined CPU/GPU on a single chip or die, and boasting a more efficient single fan cooling system. Now, with the console starting to filter into homes and into the hands of various tech-savvy enthusiasts, we can finally take a look under the hood of the machine and its internals.

Those of you expecting any last minute revelations are likely to be disappointed, as much of what we said back in our original 360 slim report was pretty much 100% correct. The use of a combined CPU/GPU and EDRAM, internal fitting hard drive, optical output, and external power supply are all correct and present, as is too the lack of any memory card slots or ability to use the old 360 hard drives on the new unit.

Looking at the final retail console’s motherboard (pics of which are quickly circulating around online) we can see that this latest revision of the 360 console uses the long-time rumoured Valhalla chipset, which consists of a CPU, GPU, and EDRAM all on one package. I say package as each of the chips are single entities housed all on one die, with the CPU and GPU produced on a 45nm process node.

As for the EDRAM, well it looks like that might also be produced at 45nm like the other two chips, although this isn’t confirmed. Last we heard TSMC were having trouble shrinking down the EDRAM on a 45nm process so we surmised that it might have to be done on something like 55nm. This now doesn’t seem to be the case, with sources pointing to the chip being finally fabbed at 45nm, which also goes hand in hand with reports that the Valhalla chipset as a whole is being manufactured at the Global Foundries owned Chartered Semiconductor.

Anyhow, the brand new single die design means that the chip runs a lot cooler than previous versions, which are larger and more power hungry. The advantage is that the new slim can be cooled with just one fan, and an efficient heat dissipation system build around that design. To that end the fan covering the CPU/GPU/EDRAM package is housed directly below the vents situated on the top of the outer casing, along with the actual chip package itself. The fan draws in cool air from the top of the console and then blows out heated air through the sides, dissipating the heat far more efficiently than previous models were able to do.

Other than the brand new combo chip package, the motherboard has also seen a complete re-design looking a lot more streamlined than before. Much of the excess fat has been cut, and components that were no longer needed have been cut away leaving a less cluttered design behind. Again, less stuff needed to be powered equals less overall heat, so there are less likely to be any issues of additional components creating heating issues in such an enclosed pace.

One thing that does appear to be the same as in the previous Jasper model 360, is the use of those 1 Gbit Samsung DDR3 RAM chips for the system’s unified memory. With a complete revision to the CPU and GPU, along with a streamlined motherboard, one might have also expected some kind of revised memory system as well. That doesn’t appear to be the case, and although two GDDR5 sticks would be preferable, Microsoft would then have needed to replace the existing memory controller as well. Plus at this point the use of GDDR5 isn’t at all feasible with low production numbers, and the actual cost saving using the new chips might not actually be that much cheaper, if at all at present.

Perhaps just a little too much work for minimal results, especially when it really isn’t needed as the new unit already draws far less power than before. Plus, it’s likely that MS will be making a large cost saving once these fabs ramp up production of the new components found inside the console.

Moving on, unlike previously speculated the 360 slim doesn’t have a built-in internal hard drive. Instead the HDD whilst technically being internal, is also completely removable and is housed inside a custom casing created by MS, which then lives inside the back of the machine. The new HDD being used is a Hitachi HTS545025B9SA00 1.5Gbps SATA hard drive, running at a speed of 5400RPM with an 8MB buffer.

Seeing as the new HDD connects via a standard SATA port it might be possible to hook up larger capacity drives to the console, either by swapping out the hard drive from inside the MS casing, or by simply connecting one externally via the SATA port. So far no one has tried this just yet, but the modding potential is definitely there for those of you out there who are skilled enough to do so.

Once again the system’s power supply is external. As we found no evidence of it being internal in our report on the motherboard back in march, that isn’t really so surprising, and given the cooling problems of previous units probably for the best. Thankfully though the PSU is much smaller than before, and is more stylish looking too – smooth curves and all. Well, it is as stylish as a PSU can be.

Lastly, and we though this was worth a recap over our initial reveal of the unit, is the inclusion of an input for connectivity with Kinect situated above the Ethernet port. This port both powers the Kinect device along with interfacing it with the 360 console for data transfer, and processing on the 360’s end. Users of any older model 360 will have run two separate cables in order to use the Kinect; One which plugs into a USB port on the 360 to interface with the unit, and another from the Kinect going into the plug socket in order to power the device.

Clear signs point to a 360 + Kinect bundle at some point, and the motherboard and overall design for the slim console shows that this was factored into it.

Overall, Microsoft has done well in creating a streamlined and power efficient revision of the 360 console. What we have here is a rather good combination of chip/die shrinks with improved cooling and heat dissipation, meaning we should see far less in the way of hardware failures, and of course high-levels of operating noise. It’s a nicely engineered piece of kit, both internally and externally, that finally presents the format as a premium product very much in same vein as the PS3.

The brand new 360 Slim hits retailers on July 16th in the UK, with most retailers now taking preorders for the console. It is priced at £199.99, the same as the current Elite model it replaces, which along with the Arcade SKU will see a price drop the same day the slim is released.

IQGamer will of course be bringing you our hands-on with the new unit as soon as possible, hopefully right around the time of launch, or very soon after.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Tech Report: How Powerful Is The 3DS?

So, the 3DS is finally out of the bag and the first screens and videos of some visually impressive titles are making their way across the interweb. Tuesday’s unveiling of Nintendo’s latest hardware entry couldn’t have gone better, with a crowd-pleasing assault of titles aimed squarely at the ‘core’ gaming market, and some solid tech backing it up.

This tech is what we’re going to be looking at here today at IQGamer, uncovering the details behind the visual mastery in the various screenshots doing the rounds, and assessing just how powerful the 3DS really is. Of course, without actual hardware specs there isn’t much to go on outside some released screens, and poorly captured internet video. However pictures do tell a tale, and in the 3DS’s case, a significant amount about the underlying hardware. Definitive conclusions you won’t find – this isn’t really possible at the moment – but an insight into just what we can expect from Nintendo’s latest is something we can clearly provide.

Many people were quick to point out in their initial impressions that the 3DS appeared to have PS2 or GameCube quality graphics. A bold statement indeed, as that would make the hardware incredibly powerful, matching the iPhone in pure polygon capability whilst lacking some of the mobile device’s advanced shader effects. In reality that doesn’t seem to be the case, with the system’s current performance looking to be in between the Dreamcast and the PS2, but with liberal use of bump-mapping and specular effects. Better than the PSP? Yes, but maybe not in terms of raw geometry pushing power.

Another thing to consider is the fact that the machine is rendering everything on screen in 3D, and this means rendering each frame twice. This takes up far more potential processing power than just rendering a single frame for 2D display, and more than likely impacts on the level of polygon performance the 3DS is capable of.

In addition the 3DS also allows you to adjust how much of the 3D effects is displayed in real-time using a slider next to the screen. The reduction or increase in the effect appears to be calculated on the fly by the processors inside the system, so clearly for it to do this eats up whatever power could have been used for something else.

Maybe if the 3DS didn’t have to render every game in 3D, then it would more than likely exceed the PS2 in terms of graphics overall, matching it with regards to real-world polygon performance, but completely topping it in the visual effects stakes. As it is, not so much so.

Using screens for comparison we can see just how the 3DS holds up against other formats, and whether or not claims of the machine being close in power to a PS2 or like an enhanced Dreamcast are really true.

It’s pretty clear from the offset that the 3DS’s polygon pushing power is nowhere near that of the PS2 or the GameCube in mid or high level scenarios, instead it does resemble some low end, low key GCN and PS2 style graphics but with a greater amount of visual effects.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a good example of this. Here we have a title that is perhaps pushing around more on screen that of a Dreamcast – with lots of bump-mapping, specular highlighting, reasonable texturing, and some nice lighting – but that clearly falls short of a high-profile PS2 game, geometry wise at least. Instead polygon counts look very similar to top end Dreamcast games, but with a far more liberal use of special effects. Use of programmable shaders are also very apparent, clearly putting the hardware ahead of the PSP, PS2 and GCN in the effects department.

The same thing can be found with Resident Evil: Revelations, a game which initially looks strikingly next-generation but hides its low poly make-up under a veil of bump-mapping and shading. You can see that the character models are in fact a little blocky, lacking the kind of intricate geometry detail to be found in most PS2 and GCN games. Instead the game manages to fool you into thinking it is more high-end than it actually is by cleverly using a healthy amount of bump-mapping, and good use of texturing and lighting, which allows smoother edges and more detail with less geometry being needed.

To emphasize just how important bump-mapping can be to creating a smooth image, lets talk about Activision’s Call Of Duty for a second. In an interview with developers Infinity Ward it was said that the characters in Call Of Duty 4 were made up of less polygons than in COD2, but that they actually looked noticeably more detailed as a result of improved use of certain effects. The developers pointed out that by using improved normal mapping (a more advanced technique with similar results to bump-mapping) and better texturing, that they were able to create more detailed characters with less geometry cost. It’s this very same thing that is happening here with Nintendo’s 3DS.

Compared to Sony’s PSP, the 3DS does appear to be approaching it for the most part with regards to real-world polygon counts in games, with the exception of top-tier titles such as GTA and OutRun 2 which seem to be pushing closer to the PSP’s technical maximum of around 6 million polygons per-second. Other than that, the 3DS competes remarkably well but demonstrates a clear effects advantage over Sony’s machine.

It’s these effects that make some of the 3DS titles look so much better than what is available on the PSP. Strangely, it appears that it is mainly third-party titles that are pushing the hardware using a wide range of effects the new machine seems to offer. Nintendo’s own games instead, seem far more basic in comparison using the standard textured and shaded approach to graphics rendering. Of course it doesn’t help that most of their titles shown were either N64 ports or what looked to be enhanced DS games.

Capcom’s Super Street Fighter IV is a good example of this. The game appears to have polygon counts approaching PSP levels, but with much more detailed texturing, and more advanced use of lighting/shadowing, plus some evidence of advanced shader effects too. It’s noticeably better than anything on either the PSP or the Dreamcast, and like with Resident Evil shows signs of visual effects normally found on the original Xbox.

Particularly impressive is the use of self-shadowing, an effect absent from the original PS3 version of SFIV, but later included in the ‘Super’ version. This is not something you’d expect to see on a handheld title, that’s for sure.

As you can see in many of the screens, it looks like the 3DS clearly has programmable pixel/vertex shaders, like with the original Xbox, or the PS3 and 360. Initially some people pointed out that Nintendo’s machine could simply be using older fixed-function type effects, ones that aren’t programmable in any way but give off a similar look. There are many fixed variants of common shader effects, and it could be that is just what 3DS games are using. However it has since been confirmed in an interview with Miyamoto that the hardware is fully capable of using shaders, thus putting an end to such speculation.

What this means, is that although it is pretty obvious that the 3DS is similar in power to Sega’s Dreamcast in terms of polygon rendering capabilities, and pretty close to the PSP, it is substantially more powerful than either of those two machines, or even the PS2, GCN and the Wii with regards to effects. Supporting shaders, the 3DS goes beyond what any of those machines can do in this regard, but how about against the iPhone?

Comparing it to the iPhone is perhaps a little more difficult, not least of all because few developers have actually tried to push the hardware, but also because there is a heavy software layer hiding direct access to the machine’s graphics hardware preventing devs from fully exploiting it. However, we do know that the SGX535 GPU inside the iPhone 3GS is clearly capable of better visuals than the 3DS regardless of the software restrictions. Developers using the Open GL development environment have access to the full range of shader effects the SGX535 Shader Model 4.0 core provides, whilst also being able to push similar levels of geometry to lead PS2 games around on screen.

The question with the iPhone, is whether or not developers have enough incentive to do this. After all, the iPhone is hardly a hotbed for bleeding edge games development, and there’s also the case of making games look good with the limited resources you have on offer, neither of which seem to be happening on Apple’s platform. In this case it really is an example of one platform being vastly superior (iPhone), but in which there is little software to showcase this fact. So with this, it’s safe to assume that most third party 3DS titles will look better than some of the best iPhone games, but not because the actual hardware is more capable, but because it is in the developers best interests to do so.

At the end of the day it looks like we can expect graphics quality in between Dreamcast and the GCN, but with the added use of shader effects seen on the original Xbox and beyond. Is it possible for the 3DS to do more? Maybe, but without seeing the specs sheet we simply don’t know, and it would be foolish to try and make such assumptions so early on.

In terms of what hardware lies inside the 3DS, we don’t really know for sure as nothing has been confirmed. But we do know that there must be some kind of ARM-based CPU inside the machine to maintain compatibility with the old NDS - enhanced and clocked at a faster speed to also handle the new stuff too – And, that the GPU is looking likely to be one provided by Japanese firm DMP, seeing as the company already has a chip powering another portable 3D display.

All things considered, the 3DS is a pretty powerful piece of kit sitting somewhere in between the Dreamcast and the original Xbox in terms of overall graphical performance. It might not be able to push polygons around on screen like there’s no tomorrow (less than PS2, GCN and XB), but with a range of impressive visuals effects made possible through the use of shaders, it doesn’t need to. In that respect, Nintendo’s latest handheld appears economical in its hardware design, yet perfectly capable for the task at hand. And for a successful handheld that really is all you need.

As more information surfaces, and developments occur we shall endeavour to revisit our look at the hardware inside the 3DS, updating you with what we hope will be the most informative and accurate report of its technical capabilities around. For now, this little insight into what is possible will have to do.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

PlayStation Move Launch Details Surface

Sony’s eagerly awaited Playstation Move is heading to retailers on the 15thSeptember 2010 as confirmed at E3 last night.

For anyone unaware of previous product details from Sony, the Playstation Move is a motion-sensing controller system that uses the Playstation eye camera (already available) that tracks a glowing light bulb on the end of a remote to apply the gamer’s actions precisely. The controller consists of one long rectangular shaped controller or ‘stick’, designed to record movement and a second sub controller, named the navigation controller.

Several games were also announced alongside the Move that have been specifically designed for use with the system. Firstly an action game called Heroes of the Move that includes some old favourite characters from PS2 and PS3 platform games. Daxter, Jak, Sly raccoon, Ratchet and Clank all feature. Secondly a fantasy game called Sorcery where you cast spells with your wand, is particularly appealing to me as a Harry Potter fan!! Tiger Woods 2011, Singstar: Dance, Time Crisis: Razing Storm, SOCOM 4 and the promising Killzone 3 are also confirmed as compatible with the Playstation Move.

A UK price point has not been confirmed, but prices and a bundle have been confirmed for North America. The bundle confirmed by Sony features the Move controller, PlayStation Eye camera and the specially developed Sports Champions, as a part of a bundle for $99.99. This has not been confirmed for the UK as yet, although retailers here are taking preorders for the Playstation Move remote with the Eye Camera included. The suggested price on several websites for this set is between £50-£60 with the individual controllers priced at around £40, and the navigation controller at roughly £30 if you wished to buy extra sets or already have the Playstation Eye camera.

This certainly could be a revolution for current PS3 gamers in how they play their games, and I predict it will be successful as long as there is a continued focus on new and innovative game design that is suitable to the PS3 audience, rather than a trend towards cheaply made clones of previous successes on the Wii. The Playstation 3 has advantages in areas that the Wii does not, such as high-end graphical capabilities and much more processing power, which in turn should allow for games that produce a good combination of playability and design.

Against the new Xbox product, Kinnect, graphical differences and processing power are not as important, but in my opinion, a lack of controller will mean a more confusing experience for the lay consumer. However time will tell!!

We look forward to posting up more information about both Move and its compatible games as it feeds through to us, and hope that Sony will bring us a product that becomes more than a lost remote under the sofa.

Mary Antieul, Contributor

You can read our original in-depth, tech-focused piece about the hardware here.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Nintendo Unveils 3DS, Full Software Line-Up

Just a few hours ago Nintendo unveiled the hotly anticipated 3DS to the world at its E3 press conference. The machine, looking strikingly like an enhanced version of the current DSi and XL machines, is a vastly more powerful beast equipped with both motion sensors and an adjustable 3D widescreen display.

Those of you expecting an Xbox 1 matching visual experience will be disappointed. However from what we’ve seen the 3DS seems to rival the PS2 and GCN on a lower level, and exceed them in certain areas (possible shader effects, bump mapping etc). It's not so surprising then, that the brand new handheld was being aimed squarely at core gamers at the event, with a barrage of classic and updated franchises.

Lets take it away!

On first inspection the 3DS looks remarkably similar to the existing DSi and Light models available on stores shelves. Looking closely however, reveals some major improvements, and a doggedly stubborn approach to change. The standard d-pad plus four face buttons remain, as does the two shoulder buttons and bottom touch screen. The d-pad now appears lower down, and in its old position sits a flat analogue nub of sorts, much like the one found on the PSP, but situated slightly inside the unit’s shell.

The bottom screen is the same touch screen as present in the DSi, however the top screen is where all the special stuff occurs. As you may have read before in this very blog, the top screen is a sharp manufactured, auto-stereoscopic widescreen display which displays 3D images without any need for the user to wear polarised or shuter glasses. It measures 3.53 inches across, and has a pixel resolution of 800x240 (400 pixels are allocated for each eye to enable 3D viewing).

A slider on the unit controls the strength of the 3D effect, which will be adjustable for every game, but also allows you to turn it off completely if you want a crisp and clear 2D image instead.

Backing up the use of 3D and the existing touch screen, comes the rumoured inclusion of motion controls and tilt functionality. To that end the unit features a gyro sensor inside, along with other motion sensing equipment. Apparently both 3D and motion sensing can be used at the same time, although reports state that the image can become split in two, and suffer from ghosting if viewed off-axis, meaning that in order to get the best image, you will have to be looking straight on at the screen.

It is likely that most games will either choose to use subtle motion sensing and 3D combined, or 3D and greater motion sensing separately. Certainly, from early hands-on impressions this would seem like the best course of action for developers. But we will see.

Moving on, the two cameras present in both the DSi and the DSi XL remain, although the outer camera now consists of two camera lenses enabling it to take photos for display in 3D on the top screen. Both have a 640x480 in 0.3 megapixel resolution, same as in the DSi, and still present the user with grainy, low-res looking pictures as before.

Wi-Fi is of course present – the same 802.11 band as found in existing models, along with WPA/WPA2 security support, and a stereo headphone jack is present at the bottom of the unit.

In terms of software, Nintendo announced a slew of impressive titles. Some were merely remakes of old N64 and PS2 games, whilst others were a combination of brand new releases and ported PS3 and 360 games.

The most impressive ones were:

- A port of the PS2 smash hit, Metal Gear Solid 3, which featured some lavishly bump-mapped visuals, great lighting, and solid texturing.

- A new iteration of Mario Kart:

- StarFox 64:

- Resident Evil: Revelations:

The full list of games can be found below:

- Activision - DJ Hero 3D

- AQ Interactive - cubic ninja

- Atlus - Etrian Odyssey, Shin Megami Tensei, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor

- Capcom - Resident Evil Revelations, Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition (working title)

- Electronic Arts - FIFA Soccer, Madden NFL, The Sims 3

- Gameloft - Asphalt GT

- Harmonix - Music game

- Hudson Soft - Bomberman, Deca Sports, Kororinpa

- Konami - Baseball, Contra, Frogger, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D "The Naked Sample", Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven

- Level-5 - Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle (working title)

- Majesco - BloodRayne: The Shroud, A Boy and His Blob, Face Racers: Photo Finish, Lion's Pride: Adventures on the Serengetti, Martha Stewart, WonderWorld Amusement Park

- Marvelous - Bokujyoumonogatari 3D (working title)

- Namco Bandai - Dragon Ball, Gundam, Pac-Man & Galaga, Ridge Racer, Super Robot (all working titles)

- Nintendo - Animal Crossing, Kid Icarus Uprising, Mario Kart, nintendogs+cats, Paper Mario, PilotWings Resort, Star Fox 64 3D, Steel Driver

- Rocket - Crash-City GP, VS-robo

- SEGA - Sonic, Super Monkey Ball (working titles)

- Square Enix - Codename: Chocobo Racing 3D, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts

- Take-Two - Carnival Games

- Tecmo Koei - Dead or Alive 3D, Dynasty Warriors, Ninja Gaiden, Samurai Warriors 3D (all working titles)

- Tomy - Lovely Lisa 3D, Naruto Shippuden Action

- THQ - de Blob 2, Kung Fu Panda Kaboom of Doom, Marvel Super Hero Squad Infinity Gauntlet, The Penguins of Madagascar, Puss N Boots, Saints Row: Drive-By

- Ubisoft - Assassin's Creed: Lost Legacy, Battle of Giants: Dinosaur Strike, Driver Renegade, Hollywood 61 (working title), Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

- Warner Bros. - Batman, LEGO

Along with a long list of games Nintendo also mentioned that the 3DS will be able to display 3D movies. Disney, Warner Bros, and Dreamworks were all said to be involved, though no further information was forthcoming.

Overall, the 3DS definitely feels like a turbo-charged upgrade to the current DS than an all out revolution. Certainly, in terms of design and aesthetics, it looks that way. However the machine appears to be more powerful than most handhelds on the market, packing more usable grunt than the PSP or maybe even the iPhone in real-world terms, and has 3D support to back it up.

What remains to be seen is whether that particular effect is enough to keep people interested in what could initially appear to be one DS model too many. Thankfully, from what we’ve seen at E3, that doesn’t appear to be the case, plus with the extra horsepower under the hood – and the use of analogue controls – the 3DS could well usurp the PSP as the core gamers mobile platform of choice.

IQGamer will be investigating the hardware and graphics potential in the 3DS shortly.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Microsoft Announces 360 Slim

Earlier today at their pre-E3 press conference in LA Microsoft officially unveiled a brand new version of the 360 console, marking an end to leaked motherboard photos and numerous unconfirmed reports of its existence.

The 360 Slim is a smaller, shorter, and quieter redesign of the current Super Elite model, boasting a 250gb hard drive, built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi adaptor, extra USB ports, a separate optical output for surround sound users, and a port for hooking up the Kinect motion sensor.

Compared to current models of 360 the slim features a shiny gloss black finish with chrome highlights, and also has touch sensitive buttons much like the original chunky PS3’s. Internal revisions to the hardware are obviously present, with a shrunk down CPU/GPU combo and one single fan responsible for cooling the unit, resulting in the console being "whisper quiet" according to Microsoft.

Retailers in the US are expecting to receive stock of the new console later on this week for immediate sale, whilst Europe is said to be getting the machine on 16th July.

We shall be providing a more comprehensive look at the hardware later on this week after the mayhem of E3 has subsided.

'Project Natal' Evolves Into Kinect

At last year’s E3, Microsoft gave us a tantalising glimpse at their entry into the world of motion control gaming with ‘Project Natal’, a control system which foregoes the actual use of a physical controller and instead places you, the user, as way of directly manipulating the action on-screen. The demos for the unit showed members of the associated press and readers alike just how much further the concept of motion could be pushed, taking the game literally into the living room. Finally that concept has been given a name.

Last night at their Cirque-du-Soleil event in Los Angeles Microsoft pulled back the curtain on ‘Project Natal’, revealing the final name for the device as the ‘Kinect’ referencing both motion and the idea of bringing people together for new gameplay experiences. They also showed off the final ‘Kenect’ hardware, which looked smaller, and slightly sleeker than the early prototypes demonstrated at previous events.

A list of titles for the ‘Kinect’ was announced, with games varying from family sports titles, a multi-game action title, a racing game, and a virtual pet simulator of sorts.

First was Kinect Sports, in which MS showed off bowling, tack and field, soccer, and volleyball. It appears to be direct competitor to Nintendo’s Wii Sports, but somewhat more advanced, although not always completely accurate with some journos sighting a lack of 1:1 movement and lag as the main cause.

Next up Kinect Adventures. This looks to be a compilation of on-rails action mini-games, and both a rafting game and mine-cart ride were shown. The aim of the title appears to be collecting various goodies by reaching out to grab them whilst maintaining the speed of the raft or cart. Jumping speeds up the raft, and at certain points in either game players have to strike a pose for the camera adding to the fun.

Kinectimals is the resident virtual pet game for the device, featuring an array of big cats instead of cute little pooches and bizarre fictional critters. Users were able to pet and play with the on-screen cats, along with trying to teach them tricks and throwing them a ball. It looks like a glorified Nintendogs-meets-Invisimals from what I can see, definitely something that could catch on with younger gamers.

Kinect Yoga & Tai Chi was Microsoft’s answer to Nintendo’s Wii fit. The demo shown saw an avatar guiding you through how to do certain moves, and an outline of yourself next to it demonstrated how well you were doing. From what we’ve heard, the Kinect’s full body tracking will allow far more precision in the game’s monitoring of your movements compared what is available with the Wii fit and balance board, although only a sample of stuff was shown.

Joy Ride was the obligatory racing game, though apparently one of the least impressive of all the titles showcased. A simple arcade racer, you hold your hands out like you would when holding and real steering wheel and turn them to move left and right. Leaning in either direction pulls off a powerslide of sorts, and waving your arms around makes you do tricks.

Dance Central: Self-explanatory really. The game uses the camera to track your moves as you attempt to follow the prompts on-screen.

By far the most interesting title revealed though (and the one likely to be most wanted by hardcore gamers at the event) was non-other than a compatible Star Wars game.

Kinect: Star Wars visually looks much like the Clone Wars CG series aired on Sky, and is an on-rails light sabre battling experience. The player looks to be moved around on-screen automatically whilst they wave their arms around to perform Light Sabre slashes, (blaster shots can be repelled like in the films) and can use force powers by thrusting their hands back and forth. The demo ends in a cool duel against lead villain Darth Vader.

Outside of compatible games, Microsoft also revealed a brand new Dashboard interface that used the ‘Kinect’. Various applications such as Facebook, Twitter and a program that allowed both photo sharing and video chat with friends were shown. Icons on-screen showing the different programs could be selected by simply pointing at them, and control once in the selected program was handled using motion and gestures with the ‘Kinect’

Lastly, Microsoft’s Kudo Tsunoda announced that the ‘Kinect’, along with six separate software titles would see a release on 4th November in the US with a worldwide launch thereafter. No indications of pricing structure or a hardware and software pack were revealed, with such information likely to be forthcoming closer to launch.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

3D Stardust Sees 2D Performance Increase

Earlier this week Sony released a patch for Super Stardust HD finally enabling 3D support to coincide with the launch of their flagship 46” Bravia 3D LCD HDTV. Not long after the patch was released came reports that the update not only allowed the game to be played in 3D, but that it also added some graphical enhancements to the title as well.

Users reported a smoother image and cleaner look to the game when running the game in 1080p mode, and some have also stated what looks like additional anti-aliasing in when running in 720p. Yesterday on Sony’s official UK blog at this was indeed confirmed to be the case.

Super Stardust HD originally ran in 1280x720 with 2xMSAA and at 60 fames per-second for 720p, and in 1280x1080 with no AA for 1080p, also I might add at the prerequisite 60fps. That in itself is pretty impressive given the amount of particle effects and transparencies on screen at any given time, especially when you consider the game managed to maintain a smooth 60fps update throughout.

For 3D developers essentially have to render each frame twice, one for each eye, meaning that you’d either have to be doing 720p at 120fps to maintain the same resolution in 3D at 60fps, or halve the rendering resolution to keep up the framerate if this isn’t possible. With the upgrade Stardust manages to not only keep up performance in 3D, but the developers have furthermore optimised the title to enhance image quality overall for the game running in 2D.

Housemarque CEO and co-founder Ilari Kuittinen confirmed via the official blog that Stardust did indeed receive a noticeable performance boost in 2D owing to the resulting work carried out in order to get the title running suitable in 3D. Surprisingly most of the work done in getting the game running in 3D was done without an actual 3D HDTV.

“We had the first 3D version of SSHD running in autumn 2009. We didn’t have a proper 3D television at that time and we had to use paper anaglyph red-and-green (or cyan to be exact) glasses to see the 3D image on our monitors. The images we could produce didn’t even have proper color in them, but it was still really impressive.”

For 2D the developers have upper the level of anti-aliasing from 2x to 4xMSAA in 720p, and for 1080p now have the game rendering in full 1920x1080 and at 60fps with no AA. Previously the game rendered at 1280x1080 for 1080p mode, with the PS3 then performing a horizontal upscale to 1920 resulting in some loss of sharpness and some minor upscalng atifacts.

The difference is easily noticeable with 720p looking cleaner and more jaggie free than before, and 1080p now looks mind-blowingly sharp. Both at 60fps too, which makes this upgrade all the more impressive.

Similar improvements can be found in the game’s split-screen mode as well. Before Stardust would only run at 30fps in this mode, but after the upgrade it is running in 60fps matching the single player game.

Both Housemarque Ilari Kuittinen certainly seemed impressed with what they have achieved, and so they should be as nobody really expected full resolution 720p and 60fps for the game running in 3D.

“3D certainly has a bright future ahead and we are happy that we had a chance to develop the first 3D PS3 game that runs 720p resolution in 60fps for both eyes, meaning that we are actually having 3D SSHD running in 120fps!”

A recap of the updates listed below as on the official PlayStation blog:

- 3D mode of the game running 720p at 120fps (60fps per eye)
- 2D mode of split screen co-op mode updated from 30fps to 60fps
- 4x antialiasing support in 720p and native 1920×1080p support in 2D mode

You should also check out the blog entry too, as it has a few insightful details on how the upgrade was achieved.