Monday, 12 July 2010

Tech Analysis: Infamous 2 - Early Screens & Trailer

Infamous 2 made its debut at this year’s E3 showcasing a slight change in art style and numerous graphical upgrades. For the first time the series looked reasonably impressive, throwing around more detailed characters and environments with even greater use of the fancy lighting effects which propped up the first game.

The look was clearly refined, and the tech powering the game enhanced over and above the original. And that is exactly why we are going to be looking at Infamous 2 today, having a peek at what lies beneath the graphical upgrades you might have witnessed in the game’s E3 trailer and demonstration footage.

The original Infamous wasn’t particularly graphically impressive, with no anti-aliasing creating loads of crawling jagged lines, and the somewhat poor texturing, combined with the dark and gritty art style often counteracting the game’s technical proficiency. So it pretty surprising to see this sequel actually appearing relatively impressive this early on in the game, especially when you think about how the build shown off at E3 was pre-alpha code with many engine improvements yet to be implemented.

Sucker Punch has looked at the criticisms levelled at the first game’s visuals and has set about improving them in every way, with a more refined art style backed up with a range of noticeable technical enhancements.

Most interestingly is the announcement that the developers are targeting 60 frames per-second in time for the game’s release – that’s double the framerate of the first game, no mean feat considering the series open world nature. Coincidently, I actually stated whilst playing Infamous, that I though it looked like a 60fps game but running at 30fps, one that appeared to be held back by a lack of optimisation and certain compromises usually associated with titles striving for that rarely seen benchmark in smoothness.

Considering the size and scope of the game it is unlikely that a constant 60fps will be obtainable in this sequel. Instead I expect that Sucker Punch will be able to deliver a framerate that fluctuates between 60fps and 30fps, with the average count hitting around 40-45fps in most scenarios (much like in God Of War 3). So better than 30fps, but not quite the revelatory solid 60fps that is considered the Holy Grail then? We shall have to wait and see.

Like with the original, Infamous 2 appears to be rendering in 720p (1280x720) with no anti-aliasing of any kind, though given the compressed nature of the screenshots it can be quite hard to tell. It could well be 640p, no AA, but both the blur effect combined with the compression artefacts prevent any flawless pixel counting from taking place. Either way, from these screens the game looks closer to 720p with blur than anything else.

In terms of the no AA claim, initially I found that there could be some kind of selective edge smoothing could be going on, however this isn’t actually the case at all. What is basically happening is some reduction in jagged lines caused by the games use of blur and post process effects, which in motion do little to alleviate the overall appearance of aliasing, but in stills do help to cover up the jagged nature of the game’s visuals - although not to the extent of using a proper AA solution. Evidence of aliasing can be found in parts of the image being blurred, which again further proves the lack of any AA.

However, seeing as Infamous 2 is only at the pre-alpha stage it is possible that the developers may well include some form of AA in the game. A strong possibility is the use of morphological anti-aliasing, which is relatively easy to implement if you have a few SPU cycles spare. Although just a guess, it would make perfect sense, and it’s pretty unlikely that someone at Sucker Punch hasn’t already considered the approach for this sequel.

Outside of the resolution and lack of anti-aliasing Infamous 2 is sporting a whole host of obvious engine improvements. The characters in particular have been completely reworked, looking far more detailed than before using more geometry and greater levels of texturing. The art style, although still dark and gritty, now has strong influences from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, in particular Uncharted 2, looking smoother and more polished as a result.

Looking closer still, you’ll find that it’s not just the characters that have seen a large increase in detail. The buildings which make up the cityscape, and the cars which populate it have also seen noticeable improvements. The buildings are more detailed, and like the characters, benefit from having better use of texturing and increased levels of geometry. In particular the game’s LOD system seems to be less aggressive compared to the first Infamous with buildings retaining detail much further on in the distance compared to before.

Of course, texture detail and geometry complexity are only part of what makes up a graphically impressive game world. In order to make it truly convincing you need to have a balanced and consistent lighting system, with realistic and dynamic shadowing - something which the developers are keen to showcase with Infamous 2.

From the screenshots used in this feature, and from the E3 live demo, and recent trailers it is clear that Infamous 2’s light sources have a greater range compared to the ones used in the first game. Notice not only how the light travels further away from its point of origin, but also how it affects objects all around it, lighting up surrounding shadowed areas and casting some new shadows in others. Unfortunately, at this point none of the dynamic lighting given off by the games visual effects actually casts a shadow of itself anywhere on the environment. Instead it simply creates new or extended shadows for environmental objects.

Enemies do however cast shadows this time around - the fact that they didn’t before is something that looked a little odd, and there appears to some evidence of screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO) going on in the environment. Just focus your eyes on the signpost to the right-hand side of the street, looking at the shadowing behind it. There are clear signs here that SSAO has been included in this sequel, and the result is a greater amount of natural depth to the overall image. This was something that the original Infamous sorely lacked, and is something which clearly benefits this sequel.

Moving on, the particle system featured in the first Infamous was quite impressive at times, especially when the screen became filled with lightning and sparks began to fly off surrounding metal objects and vehicles. So for Infamous 2 Sucker Punch have also upgraded this part of the engine. Particles are larger and the lightning effects themselves seem to have more of an effect on the surrounding environment than with the first game.

Most of these visual effects all appear to be running at the same resolution as the rest of the game, although compression once again prevents us from accurately gauging this one hundred percent. We can also see that some are clearly rendered using a lower resolution alpha buffer, though the difference is very slight indeed. Sadly the same cannot be said of the smoke particles to be found in the game, which are not only low res, but are also flat 2D sprites which occasionally stand out when combined with the other 3D effects. Still, this issue is only apparent in certain situations, and is unlikely to be noticeable during gameplay as it is in still video captures.

On top of all the improvements that Infamous 2 is delivering we can also glimpse from the E3 live demo, and recent trailers that there is far more in the way of destructible scenery compared to the last game. The sheer amount of things that can be blown up, and that can catch on fire is noticeably greater, as is the level of detail in these objects, which have all benefited from improved texturing and better modelling.

From what we’ve seen so far Sucker Punch has upped the ante for this sequel, refining and building upon an already solid game engine with an even better one. The improvements to character and environmental modelling are obvious, as is the improved lighting and larger special effects, all of which help to create a better sense of depth to the image and generally gel together in creating a more polished look in accordance with the adapted art style.

Surprisingly, the developer also hope to have the game up and running at 60fps by the time of release sometime next year. Surprising, because Infamous 2, like its predecessor, is an open world game, one which features sprawling environments, and at times, densely populated areas which will no doubt compromise the engine’s ability to maintain the targeted 60fps.

However, if this sequel sticks to the level design blue print of the first game then there shouldn’t be so much of a problem. The original Infamous made use of having various tall buildings obscuring distant streets, and denser parts of the environment in order to maintain framerate, so it’s highly likely that the developers will do the same thing here in this sequel. This controlled use of your viewpoint in a game in which the player controls the camera, and in which the engine cannot predict the load, is particularly important in maintaining a smooth framerate - let alone 60fps, especially when optimisations in other areas may not be so convenient when you’re pushing around more onscreen at any given time.

Either way, Infamous 2 is shaping up rather well. Graphically, at this early stage (its pre-alpha) it already looks noticeably superior to the last game and still has ways to go until it’s finished. Nailing down that now seemingly mythical 60fps is going to be the toughest challenge the developer faces, along with maintaining resolution and overall environmental detail at the same time. But so far it all looks to be going smoothly, with controlled use of lower-res transparencies, and only minor such cutbacks in image quality in order to sustain the various improvements we are seeing.

As more developments surface we shall be taking another look at the technology behind Infamous 2 in the future. Hopefully some uncompressed framebuffer grabs come our way finally allowing us to properly determine rendering resolution and clear up any inconsistencies we might be finding.

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