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.

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