Thursday, 30 September 2010

Tech Report: Updated 3DS Software Analysis

Yesterday Nintendo announced the worldwide launch details of the 3DS, revealing that the machine would be released in Japan on 26th February, and sometime in March 2011 for both North America and Europe. The system will go on sale in Japan for at 25,000 yen, roughly equating to 200 of our GBP, or 300 dollars for those folks over the pond.

But rather than repeating countless details that you can read pretty much everywhere else, instead we’ll be taking an tech-focused look at some of the direct-feed trailers released by Nintendo and select third-parties of first batch 3DS software.

Nintendo themselves displayed a multi-title show reel of games currently in development for the system, although heavy-hitters like Resident Evil Revelations and Dead Or Alive Dimensions managed to get their own individual trailers. Seeing these two titles in motion alone, along with Metal Gear Solid 3, I was left distinctly impressed with the kind of quality on offer from these early, first-gen experiences.

Clearly these titles are already beyond anything seen on the last generation of consoles. Whilst polygon counts may be lower, and in some regards noticeable so, the impressive quality and precision of the effects on offer more than make up for this. In fact, they prove that despite the low paper specs of the console, that it can still deliver some graphically accomplished titles whilst touting all the benefits of stereo 3D along with them.

Taking a look at the individual titles themselves, and we can see the various strengths and weaknesses of the system in their entirety.

Metal Gear Solid in particular seems to show a perfect balance between low geometry and use of advanced visual effects. Whilst the game’s poly counts are noticeable lower than the PS2 version, the level of detail on offer is also visibly superior. You can easily see in the trailer that most of the game is normal mapped, and not just the characters.

The environments in particular benefit hugely from this, in some cases looking smoother than in the original PS2 game. The flower scene particularly demonstrates the 3DS’s ability to throw around lots of normal-mapped geometry on screen, along with having enough power left over to handle all the physics calculations needed for so many moving objects.

MGS Trailer

Dead Or Alive seems to feature excellent use of per-pixel lighting and normal mapping, both effects looking far superior to anything seen on the original Xbox. Texture detail is reasonable, filtering is pretty good maintaining relatively moderate levels of image quality, and the characters also seem to have dynamic shadow maps applied to them, which works well with the rest of the lighting solution. One downside however, is the lack of any self-shadowing. This makes the game look slightly flat compared to SSFIV and RE Revelations. Although seeing as it should be running at 60fps, this is a worthy compromise.

DOA TrailerOur previous look

We’ve already taken a look a Resident Evil Revelations extensively here, and dare I say seeing it in motion is an incredible experience, comfortably showing off just what the 3DS can do. The quality of the normal-mapping is superb, the per-pixel, HDR infused lighting solution creates an incredible sense of depth, and texturing is quite possibly the most detailed on the platform.

Obvious issues stand out with the game running in 3D mode however. Texture shimmering and aliasing is apparent, as is edge aliasing due to the lack of any AA being present. These issues can be seen in the majority of PSP titles - a clear graphical downside of the Sony system - and in most of the 3DS games revealed so far.

RE: Revelations footage can be found this in line-up trailer

Super Street Fighter IV we’ve already covered here, so to be fair there’s very little we can add on to our original report. The game’s downgraded use of assets from the PS3/360 versions makes the title look remarkably close to the high-end console game. Self-shadowing if evident, and is backed up with a slew of impressive shader effects.

SSFIV Trailer

Perhaps one title that didn’t impress as much as the others was Capcom’s Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, a separate game from RE: Revelations. As you can see from the screenshots below, the game suffers from terrible aliasing from both a lack of AA, and from some pretty bad texture shimmering. This is made worse than in RE: Revelations due to greater amounts of small geomretry being present on screen, along with what looks like a lower level of texture filtering, and poorer mip-mapping.

Detail levels are incredibly high though, and it is clear that despite the low image quality that the game looks considerably more impressive than RE4 on the iPhone.

A general trailer showing off a wide range of 3DS games in development can be found below:

Nintendo 3DS Games Line-Up Trailer

Judging from the various videos released yesterday, it is pretty apparent that in many ways the 3DS easily outclasses every last-gen system with regards to visuals effects, and in fact pretty much everything seen on the iPhone so far. Epic citadel may have higher res texture maps and art assets, along with higher precision normal mapping, but it is also lacking some, if not most of the high-end, per-pixel effects that so many top-tier 3DS titles are showing off.

Case in point; there is nothing running in real-time on the iPhone that I’ve seen matching RE: Revelations, or MGS3 with half as many effects, whether that be an actual game, demo, or otherwise. Maybe that is simply because there is very little incentive to produce titles with such high quality visuals on the platform. And when most high-end titles sell for just £6.99, that is completely understandable, though it is precisely this difference which could make the 3DS stand out. That, and of course the fact that every game will be playable in 3D on the console with most of its visual integrity intact.

However, despite the polished visual mastery on offer with high-end 3DS titles, we can also see that the machine struggles with maintaining overall texture fidelity in some cases, with various issues from poor mip-mapping, to aliasing being present, very much like with what we are seeing on the majority of PSPgames. This is one downside that I perhaps didn’t quite expect to see so obviously given the nature of the hardware.

When you look at how even early Dreamcast titles manage to feature correct mip-mapping on textures with better filtering, and a lack of texture aliasing (even in titles which feature no AA), then we can begin to see the compromises Nintendo has had to make in order to get a reasonably powerful, albeit low spec handheld with 3D support out the door at a relatively low cost.

Saying that the 3DS isn’t the iPhone, nor is it the PSP2. Plus battery life, and a reasonable entry cost are far more important than having the absolute bleeding edge in visual fidelity at your disposal. It’s these factors, along with the desire to innovate, which usually separate Nintendo from the competition.

Even when taking into account some of the graphcal cut-backs sighted, the trailers released thus far show that for the most part, in real-world terms that the 3DS handles top end visuals extremely well for a handheld device, with a slew of shader effects balancing out the few negatives. Coupled with the fact that developers also have the option of enhancing their games with 2D only extras (AA and per-object motion blur) then what you have here is still a mightily impressive showing, just not quite as flawless as some may have hoped.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Review: Resident Evil 5 Gold Edition (Move Edition)

After a thorough playtesting of Sony’s Move controller over the launch weekend I delivered my final verdict on the device and most of its launch line-up last Monday. A few games were missing however. One of those was Capcom’s seminal survival shooter (come on now it’s hardly a horror game is it) Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition; an updated version of RE5 containing two extra single player chapters, and via a patch available from the PSN, full PlayStation Move support.

Seeing as RE4 on the GameCube still ranks up there with some of my favourite games of all time (it’s in my top ten), and that the Wii Edition remains in my opinion, the definitive version to play, I was more than a little interested to see how the Move enabled RE5 would turn out. After all, surely the precision tracking and lack of latency on Sony’s motion controller would make for an even better experience than on the Wii? Sadly, that isn’t completely the case, with the developers arguably just including Move support without really thinking too much about the end results.

Okay, perhaps that’s a slightly harsh statement, because while RE5: Gold Edition does feature a few glaring flaws with regards to its new motion control implementation, it’s also still a reasonably playable experience, just not as much so as when using the standard Dual Shock or Sixaxis controllers.

Part of the problem lies in both the button choices used for each configuration (there are two types) and how the Move’s pointer has been implemented in place of using the standard analogue sticks. Character movement is handled by the analogue stick on the Navigation Controller, whilst all aiming and menu selection is done via the Move. Holding down the T-Trigger brings up your aiming cursor, and pushing the Move button shoots you gun. A quick waggle of the Move also delivers a delayed slice of your knife.

When using the Move there is no dual control for both moving and aiming at the same time, as is possible with the standard PS3 controller. Instead, you can only choose to either move, or aim and look around when stationary. The analogue stick on the Navigation controller allows you to look around freely, whilst the Move is used to aim. This will be familiar to those who have played Resident Evil 4 on both the GameCube and the Wii, and may come as a hindrance if you are not used to such a system. Thankfully, I didn’t find it to be all that much of a problem, though the lack of a Move equivalent to the dual analogue solution is somewhat disappointing.

Using the Move button to fire, rather than the T-Trigger also feels a little odd. When pressing down on the trigger, your thumb immediately uses the top of the Move’s surface to hold it in a steady position, maintaining a strong grip in the process. However, when you let go, and then push down again to make each shot (whilst still holding down the trigger) your initially steady grip is reduced somewhat. Surely, it would make more sense to have the Move button being held down in order to bring up the aiming cursor, and then using the T-Trigger as the fire button. That would make the whole experience feel far more natural.

Thankfully the existing set-up works rather well, and when blasting away at fifteen, twenty enemies pushing the Move button to fire whilst holding down the trigger isn’t particularly uncomfortable, just maybe not the most thought out choice.

What IS an issue, and by far the biggest oversight in implementing Move support, is how the aiming cursor constantly reconfigures itself in accordance to the Move’s position, often with unwanted results.

For example, when you push down on the T-Trigger to bring up your aiming reticule, the Move’s position is immediately determined at that point. However, after you’ve finished shooting, and thus releasing the trigger, the calibration seems to get thrown off. If you bring up your reticule with the Move positioned a little lower down than before, then it will appear higher up on screen than it should, or if you are aiming a little too far to the left or right before pushing down on the T-Trigger, the reticule also appears too far on either side of the screen.

By contrast, in Resident Evil 4 the position of the Wii Remote and pointer was always tracked from a specific point (I certainly don’t remember it being like this), so when you go to aim the reticule would automatically be positioned accordingly. Not so with Move and RE5 – the cursor on screen simply doesn’t line-up unless you position the Move at its starting position each time before hitting the T-Trigger.

At least the Move does provide noticeably greater accuracy than the Wii remote when it comes to lining up your shots, and quickly moving from target to target. Initially the default settings feel rather slow, and are in fact pretty sluggish compared to Wii Resi 4. However, you can adjust both the pointer speed and sensitivity in the options menu, which tightens up the controls considerably. Perhaps the only fault when doing this, is that when the game slows down, dropping framerate, the additional latency present is far more noticeable than if you had the cursor sensitivity, and speed set at lower levels.

Another issue is with regards to the use of the four face buttons found on the DS3 and Sixaxis controllers for performing certain moves, and to access your inventory screen. Running is done by holding down the ‘cross’ button, whilst ‘triangle’ is used to bring up the inventory screen. Now this doesn’t sound too bad, and in actual fact using ‘cross’ to run is perfectly fine. However, seeing as both ‘square’ and ‘triangle’ can be a little uncomfortable to reach it would have made more sense to make ‘cross’ or ‘circle’ the inventory and map buttons, leaving running to be done using the L2 trigger on the Navigation controller.

Playing in a dark room with the buttons obscured by the lack of visibility can be somewhat annoying, especially as the face buttons are divided by some length with regards to the Move button’s placement in between. The problem lies in being able to quickly toggle in and out of your inventory in the heat of battle, swapping weapons and items around between both characters, or just reorganising some space to equip new ones found along the way. Navigating these screens using the pointer is fine, as is using both the Move button to select items, and swap with other players. It’s just the ability to bring them up quickly that can be troublesome.

Other than that Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition does work reasonably well with the Move. Aiming in particular is faster and more accurate than when using a normal controller, and losing the ability to move whilst looking around or aiming isn’t a major loss. You can also see the reduced latency the Move provides over the Wii remote in terms of basic response time, although the game’s erratic framerate does on many occasions diminish this greatly.

Slight to heavy annoyances with the button configurations, and accentuated controller lag due to slowdown aside, it maybe isn’t quite as bad as you initially might think, once you get used to it. Sadly, it is a little behind the Wii version of Resident Evil 4 where the overall nature of fluid and intuitive controls are concerned. The Move might offer lower latency in moving the cursor around on screen, but it is also hindered by a game designed for far quicker reactions with a standard control pad.

Despite this, the actual RE5 game itself is still as fun to play as ever, though lacking any real sense of horror. Instead, most of the time you find it regularly turning into a crowded shooting gallery of sorts, with you becoming involved in a juggling act of babysitting your AI partner, and navigating menus as fast as possible. The storyline is classic b-move Capcom fodder, the character, and enemy designs are solid though sometimes uninspired. And visually. Well, it’s still one of the best looking games this generation. Resident Evil 4 may clearly be a better game all round, but there is still much to like about Capcom’s aging survival horror, turned survival shooter series.

Those after a state of the art reason to own the Move, or even just a finely tuned experience may want to look elsewhere. That said, even if you already own the Gold Edition of RE5, been playing through it to death, finishing every chapter, unlocking every little morsel of extra content, then it is more than worth another look if you so happen to own Sony’s motion control combo. However, it is also definitely not worth buying both a Move and Navigation controller specifically for. Or the other way around if you’re looking for more compatible titles.


The above score relates solely to the use of Move controls in RE5, and not as an assesment of the overall quality of the game.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: Halo: Reach

Each instalment of the Halo series has both divided and polarised the hearts and minds of gamers across the globe. It’s had many ups and downs, minor miss-steps, and incredible triumphs, but most of all, it defined a generation of console first person shooters, for better or worse, with the original Halo perhaps being the most highly regarded. So with that in mind, Halo Reach seems like a fitting end to the series by going right back to the very beginning, a conclusion that is the catalyst for all that has gone by, and all that is yet to come to past, even if it can never live up to the expectation of being called the greatest Halo ever.

Halo Reach tells the story of mankind’s first large scale conflict with the Covanent on planet Reach; the legendary training ground for the elite Spartan soliders and the iconic Master Chief himself. For those who haven’t read the books, it’s a battle which turns into a massacre, a disaster zone in which mass genocide, chaos and utter obliteration ensues. The tale of Reach is supposed to be a sombre, desperate one, connecting with the series more naturalistic, human side, whilst also setting the stage for that memorable first encounter on the original Halo ring that brought the series into the limelight.

But despite going back to the series beginnings it never feels like a homage title to the first game. Instead it crafts out its own unique feel and iconic legacy that ensures that it stands out from past instalments, whilst also bringing something new, and somewhat fresh to the table. Well, just about.

In-keeping with the game’s story and planetary settings, Halo: Reach feels far more organic than its predecessors. Both the music and the art design reflect an earthy tone underpinning the whole experience, whilst staying true to the series trademark, minimalist, almost contemporary, sci-fi roots. However the game also never quite achieves its heartfelt intentions, with both the storyline and characterisation being paper thin, and the cut-scenes simply doing very little to flesh out the apparent horrors of war being faced by the cast and planet Reach.

Touching down on the planet’s surface for the first time, shortly before engaging in your first close quarter’s encounter, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t Halo: CE. In fact Reach is actually quite different from past Halo games (being more like ODST than 2 or 3), cleverly integrating nearly a decades worth of upgrades, gameplay tweaks, and AI developments into its campaign. The familiarity of the series is there, and the overall feel rests somewhere between that of Halo 3 and ODST, but with the finer balance and finesse associated with the original game. Dual Welding is out, with the heavy firing assault rife, and the impacting pistol with the zoom sight going back in.

Throughout Reach you’ll be playing as Noble 6; a nameless, faceless new addition to the Noble Team of Spartan soldiers sent in to defined Reach against the growing alien invasion. You are in effect a clean slate, something in which to blueprint your own personality onto. At first this makes your part in the whole conflict feel a little soulless, but at the same time it is exactly the reason why Bungie decided to go with a faceless, nameless hero like Masterchief (it’s simply a military rank) in the first place. It’s your fellow comrades, which provide the game’s light semblance of humanity and character. And by that, I mean human character, and not that of the environment and enemies.

Unlike ODST, the game never gets bogged down with personal stories. Here, your only concern is Reach, and defending it from a sneaky alien invasion. Sure, each member of your squad has his or hers own distinct personality, but they never take centre stage. Although at times the game takes itself far too seriously. That said it is a vastly superior take on the ideas first explored in ODST, despite the fact that they are not explored quite enough given the underpinning subject matter. Characters that you feel like you are getting to know are killed-off almost as soon as they begin to stand out, and the whole start-to-finish story of planetary annihilation is paced far to quickly for any meaningful effect.

But then again this is Halo, and with the exception of the convoluted story behind Halo 2, the series has never been one to mince words, instead simply providing the basis for more thirty-second action, with a few set-pieces in between.

Onto the actual gameplay, and Reach presents the player with the classic Assault Rife and Pistol combo. A familiar sight for anyone who’s been with the series since the begging, and a welcome return to what many fans were calling their favourite weapons combination.

However, these aren’t exactly as you remember. Anyone looking to lay waste to an Elite by emptying a whole clip from their assault rife, before smacking them in the face using the but end of the thing, be warned. The powered up Spartan favourite has been balanced out accordingly, with a stock of Covenant weapons providing much-needed grunt on occasions where the human weapons fail. Plus, those nasty Elite’s are even nastier, tougher and more relentless than ever. But it’s not just them. Hunters are equally difficult, if not more so to eradicate, so you’ll be wanting to keep some sort of Covantent weaponry handy in order to take down their shields before going in for the kill.

Saying that, both signature weapons from the first game still feel rather aggressive, and several well-aimed, well-timed, blasts in combination with a melee attack will still reward those with a quick and gracious kill. The DMR – Reach’s replacement for the battle rife – is easily one of the best, providing ample damage, and a nice short-range zoom facility. If not, then sniper rifles and grenades put up a formidable fight against the alien’s powerful oversheilds, as does your armour abilities, protecting you when all else fails, which when used correctly evens things out a little.

Armour abilities now stay with you throughout the campaign, like with normal weapons, and can be swapped out at certain points in the game. Unlike before, they are all multiple use, relying on a small gauge found to the bottom left of the screen. It only takes a few seconds to fill back up after use. Some abilities, like the jetpack, and the sprint can be used in smaller increments giving you more control over how you want to use them. They’re inclusion in Reach seems far more deliberate, largely more useful than in Halo 3, and represent another balanced improvement on the Spartan side of the arsenal.

On the other hand, some of the Covenant weapons feel a little bit more useless than before. The needler in particular has seen a subtle downgrading in power, no longer being the series alien alternative to the pistol – its still one of the best though, still fully functional in the right hands. Whilst new additions like the concussion rifle and focus rifle are largely pointless, and act as a poor alternative to their human developed counterparts, if of course they actually have one. Case in point, the somewhat disappointing needle rife, comparatively less effective than the standard sniper rifle.

However, it’s not all bad. The plasma pistol becomes a deadly weapon for taking down Brute’s shields, and the quick firing, but reasonably powerful plasma repeater can break through an Elite’s armour in just a few shots - more so than either the Spartan pistol or assault rife. These provide a far greater balance between power and firing speed, being thoroughly effective weapons for dealing with most, but not all of the Covenant threat. Also, when used in combination with the less unusual human arsenal a few key weapons really come into their own, clearly affirming the human/covanent strategy that seems built for the game.

And strategy, albeit at a break-neck, split second pace is exactly what you’ll need, seeing as Bungie have laid down the gauntlet with some initially impressive enemy AI. Before, particularly in Halo 3 and ODST, it always seemed that every enemy (minus the grunts of course) was permanently on full testosterone, aggression duty. But not anymore.

The AI is still rather aggressive, although it now shifts depending directly on how you approach the situation, and how the odds sway during battle. It’s nothing revolutionary, with the whole thing basically coming down to: retreat, flank, attack, reposition, and then repeat again. But it’s the way it is done that commands your attention. AI patterns are always varied, usually interesting, and always make for a thoroughly entertaining, if not occasionally frustrating shootout experience.

Of course, if you want to pick holes, then you could say that most of the game’s seemingly intelligent enemies are used as a smokescreen for some basic AI routines, which are pretty easily exploited. The Elite’s in particular, can be made to do what you want by firing off shots on either side, and by positioning yourself in a way that constantly makes them want to attack you directly.

Using this kind of gameplay approach evens out some of your limitations. In Reach your overshield takes a lot longer to recharge than in Halo 3 or ODST, and while it is down you are even more vulnerable to taking damage than before. A single blast from a Grunt’s plasma pistol can instantly take down your shield if impacting head-on, and a few smaller, quick blasts can sap out your health just as fast. Rushing in is now no longer an option. Instead you now have to play it safe: a cat and mouse game of strafing, backing away, before rushing in for a briefly surprising counter-attack.

The gameplay then, feels different than before, almost more like an extension of the system found in ODST than in Halo 2 or 3, and very different to the one found in the original. Despite this Halo Reach feels very much like the game Halo 2 should have been, particularly when it comes to its visual style, and the more grounded, earthly nature of the environments so beautifully depicted throughout. Reach feels like earth, and one stage later on in the game looks like a direct homage to the opening level in the unfinished, canned original build of Halo 2. A nice nod to the fans there.

Somewhat disappointing is the size and scope of some of the battles, or rather the lack of. Bungie promised us ones that were meant to be huge. Epic, in fact, perfectly setting the tone for the eventual end of Reach. However, what we have been given is largely the same size battles as in Halo 3, maybe bolstered with a few more Grunts and one or two Elites. Most of the Epic scale stuff is contained within the cut-scenes, and the on-rails portions of the game, giving you only a brief look at the wider picture of the conflict potentially on offer here.

In the end the Campaign mode of Halo: Reach sticks to exactly what the series is known for: a close 30 seconds of intense shooting fun, never deviating from that blueprint, or attempting to add anything else to the proceedings. Thankfully, the scenery in the game is beautiful, with stunning mountain ranges, large wide-open vistas, and stark industrial complexes, complemented with a lavishly implemented graphical upgrade. You can read about it in detail here, and here in our tech analysis if you really want to know the details, but suffice to say that Reach finals comes out back on top with regards to its once high-end visual status.

Despite a few issues, and some ups and downs, the campaign in Reach is perhaps the most iconic that the series has seen since the original Halo. Pretty much every stage through the game was as memorable and as pleasing to see as the last. Perhaps all except the final few stages, in which things get very dark, and very gritty. The campaign is also a lot more consistent throughout. Whereas the first half of Halo: CE was clearly the best part of the game, Reach manages to keep things moving forward for longer, even if what’s here does feel a little tired, like you’ve been treading old ground over for the umpteenth time. And in essence you have, since this is yet another Halo title.

Outside of the Campaign Mode Halo Reach’s Multiplayer is slightly less fresh, and more overly familiar. Its no less good because of that though, and basically culminates in bringing together all the upgrades and tweaks that we’ve seen over the years in one finely refined package.

I’m sure some people will complain about the various weapon changes that have taken place (the slight downgrading of the pistol for example), they always do. Although weapon balance in itself is as good as it has ever been, and the new additions – some initially bizarre and in effective, others particularly outrageous – allow for plenty of variety and intricate mastery to take place.

It is the modes and maps however, that really defines just how good the game’s multiplayer will be. And in this respect Reach perhaps is as good, but not blindingly better than past titles, although not without the feeling that a few more classic stages wouldn’t go a miss, and that there really should be more outdoors, blue skies content for your killing needs. Then again, with Bungie promising further support by the way of downloadable content, it’s not a terribly large issue. Stuff like Bloodgultch has seen another return which is nice, although not many people seem to be picking it.

Making their way back for this latest, and last instalment in the series, from Halo 3 and ODST, we have both Forge World, and Firefight. Both have seen a range of tweaks and upgrades, mainly in allowing for more customisation and control over what the player can do.

Firefight in particular has seen some interesting inclusions in the way of customisable features called Files. Files can be created by both players and the developer, and basically consist of fixed, custom match set-ups. Things like enemy types, weapons, and more can all be set, mixing things up from the usual match options via the use of the series infamous Skulls. Player created files can be uploaded onto Xbox Live, and then Downloaded by other players to try out. Amongst these is one made by the developers themselves, allowing players to easily gain all the available achievements in this mode. Nice!

Forge World allows you to move around large parts of the scenery in real-time with other players, giving the option for more finite customisation of various game types whilst making traditional maps almost unrecognisable. It’s here that all new takes on classic game types can be made, and bizarre twists on initially balanced maps can be turned upside down for all to see. Far more impressive is the fact that you can work with other players in crafting the stage, thus bringing a real community feel throughout the whole process.

Classic modes like Team Slayer and King Of The Hill make their successful return, as does Capture The Flag and plain old Slayer, much to the delight of many fans, and especially myself with the inclusion of classic slayer, although its inclusion is somewhat overshadowed by endless twists on the formula. Many traditional modes have been beefed up with new twists, and a wider range of variety when in matchmaking. Sometimes it can be quite hard to just play one single style of game type over short’ish sessions, with a distinct lack of control over what you can and cannot play.

Quite why I cannot set-up a matchmaking option where I just choose one game type with no variations is, in this day and age, rather disappointing, and a somewhat major oversight to an otherwise solid matchmaking system. However, having a system like this encourages players to try out other modes, which is obviously a good thing, and prevents the online community from feeling stale from simply playing similar games.

New modes like Invasion sets up two teams against each other, one playing as the Spartans and the other as Covenant Elite’s, with each side trying to capture the other ones turf in a series of simple objectives. Whilst Stockpile sees players accumulate skulls upon each kill with their aim to deliver them to the drop off point before getting killed themselves. Invasion adds a touch of teamwork and strategy to the proceedings, while Stockpile often descends into madness, arguably being almost as fun as Team Slayer on many occasions.

In the end Halo: Reach’s multiplayer is once again the backbone of the game, not only propping up the single-player Campaign mode, but also being the needle-injection of addictiveness the series is known for. The vast range of game types and different takes on these is impressive, and the inclusion of Firefight matchmaking is a big plus. Although, the lack of being able to either, start matchmaking custom games, or simply one type of selected game (like Classic Slayer) is pretty disappointing. You can of course do this via individual player invites, but it would have been nice to be able to do this with all players as well.

Perhaps the only other issue is that the whole thing feels a little too familiar and samey overall. Halo 2 brought the series multi-player into the limelight, and it could be argued that Halo 3 ODST vastly elevated it, while Reach tries to perfect it, albeit with strong but also mixed results. Multiplayer, like with the single player Campaign can never be everything to everyone, although Reach does provide the best overall social slaughterfest the series has seen to date, regardless of whether or not the maps you so love are or aren’t included.

On the flipside Bungie have promised to update the game periodically, including tweaks and changes to modes and matchmaking options, and like always, with a string of new maps, making this a progressive experience rather than a final one.

When it comes down to the crunch, Halo Reach is still quite possibly the best game in the series, although it doesn’t always feel that way. It may not be quite as iconic as the first, and the single player campaign isn’t quite as expertly structured, but in terms of the whole package it is pretty much as good as you were ever going to get.

Bungie have brought the series back full circle, without reinventing the wheel, or even delivering some of the changes expected from a series that has been going for so long. It does however, provide another enjoyable slice of first-person shooting action, which although feels a little too samey, holds up far better up against Halo: CE than any of its past sequels has ever done, especially with regards to the Campaign. That said, I think that the series has finally run its course, and that Reach could be described as a reasonably good, often excellent, fitting finale to the series as a whole.

The real question though, is whether or not it was really worth waiting nearly a decade for. And sadly, that answer is obviously a decidedly firm no. Instead, I’d perhaps describe Halo: Reach as the game that Halo 2 should have been, but nearly ten years too late, with loads of tweaks and upgrades, a far better campaign, and more than a touch of unwanted over-familiarity.


Friday, 24 September 2010

Tech Report: Nintendo 3DS Hardware Analysis

We first took a look at how powerful we thought the 3DS might be right here, and then again here, just after we learned which GPU would be powering the system. Now it’s time to do this once again, as a few days ago IGN appeared to accurately reveal the complete 3DS spec sheet, with information encompassing everything from CPU type and final GPU clock speed, to the amount of memory on board, both for system and graphics use. In short, the complete picture has been unravelled right before our eyes.

The full specs list for the 3DS is as follows: the machine is powered by two ARM11 CPUs running at 266MHz, and a DMP PICA200 GPU clocked at 133MHz. It features 4MB of VRAM dedicated to graphics (textures, framebuffer, effects? That’s not clear yet), 64MBs of RAM, and 1.5GBs of flash memory for storage.

Looking at the above, we can see that the 3DS appears initially to be rather underpowered. The GPU speed is incredibly low for a modern handheld device, and the ARM11 CPU was last featured in the original iPhone and iPod touch, and certainly more than a fair bit weaker than the A4 Cortex powering the new iPhone 4. However, when looking closer at the hardware itself, the resolution it runs at, and just what graphical features will be running, and how they will be implemented, it is also clear that the hardware isn’t quite as stillborn as you might expect.

Current game demos like Resident Evil Revelations, and Metal Gear Solid 3 both showcase the machines strong graphical capabilities despite the on paper limitations. And it is also important to point out that Nintendo’s hardware, unlike that of the iPhone and other multimedia / general handheld devices, the 3DS isn’t likely to feature a performance sapping OS powering it, or a restrictive high-level API limiting what you can do graphically. Nope, it’s almost certain that with the 3DS it will be possible for developers to code directly to metal, thus ensuring that they get ever last drop of juice from what the hardware is capable of.

Taking into account the small screen size, and small screen resolution itself (800x240), then you find that the system’s overall performance is perfectly suited to this type of environment. There’s no point for example, in rendering dozens of millions of textured, layered, and complexly shaded polygons per-second on a small screen in which at such a low resolution - most of that will almost certainly go to waste. Instead, like we have said before Nintendo seems to have taken a balanced, economical approach to their next-gen handheld hardware. And this looks to be the right choice. Cost/performance wise, it looks set to get the job done comfortably, and when looking at the individual make up of the system’s internals we can see why.

The CPU for example, an ARM11 running at 266MHz, is unlikely to be doing any complex physics calculations, or highly advanced AI routines – these aren’t really needed for small doses of on the go gaming, so appears to be low spec, but entirely adequate for the task in hand. Of course we can expect basic physics, and the illusion of advanced AI with the chip – seeing as it is rated roughly in line with an Intel 486 CPU, then scripted AI events, and arcade-like physics are more than possible, and satisfactory.

Looking at what was achieved on the original iPhone, and the fact that developers were still hindered by Apple’s domineering software API, then you can easily expect a substantial improvement when coding direct to metal, or much closer with a less restrictive development environment. Better collision routines, AI etc. All that is possible when taking into account the chip in context of how the 3DS works in comparison.

The decision to downclock the GPU is a rather interesting factor, not least of all because the standard PICA 200 running at 200MHz is very low spec by today’s standard – trailing way behind the iPhone 4’s SGX535, but also because it’s unlikely to be that much less cost effective. Instead, like in our original assumptions, we assume that this downgrade was done in order to preserve battery life, whilst also providing a small, but altogether beneficial decrease in overall system cost.

Even with GPU’s downclocking to 133MHz, it still packs plenty of punch. The original PICA-200 running at 200MHz can push around a maximum of around 15.3 million polygons per-second in a best case scenario, although that is unlikely to be in a real-world game environment (30 or 60fps with full effects etc).

In the 3DS, where the clock speed has been lowered to 133MHz we can expect a further drop in performance. From what we can see with current game demos, is that the systems peak polygon performance (on first-gen software at least) looks to be around the 3 to 6 million mark per-second – just over that of the PSP, and equalling the mid-range table of what the PS2 can do. Of course this is assuming optimised conditions, seeing as none of the software looks like it pushing anything more than around 4, maybe five million polys per-second.

However, such low geometry counts seldom makes a big difference these days, especially where advanced shaders, and multiple texture layers are concerned. And this is where the 3DS shows us its trump card. With the addition of advanced fixed-function effects which simulate the use of programmable shaders, along with actual vertex shader capabilities, Nintendo’s handheld can do a lot more with less, polygon wise, thus negating what can be seen as a lack of overall polygon pushing power. Also on such a small screen, huge amounts of geometry is always going to be less beneficial than a string of useful visual effects.

In terms of memory, the system is pretty much on par with the PSP. The 3DS has 64MB of main memory, and 4MB of video RAM - basically the same as the PSP Slim & Lite (bar VRAM in which the PSP S&L has 8MB). Initially, the inclusion of only 64MB of memory for the overall system to use may seem limiting. However, when you consider that the 3DS is a cart-based system, and that large amounts of data can be streamed in real-time from the format, then 64MB appears to be a suitable amount given what’s expected of it.

The same could also be said of the system’s 4MB of video RAM. Although it does seem rather limiting at first - it’s not yet known whether it is simply being used as framebuffer memory, or to hold the entire rendered scene, complete with textures and fixed-function texture layers - it should be enough for most games given the overall make up of the system's architecture. Determining its impact on performance though, is somewhat guesswork at this point.

Saying that, assuming Nintendo has included an efficient texture compression system then 4MB should be more than enough to fit in both the framebuffer and graphics data as an all-in-one solution. At the 800x240 resolution games are rendering at, you’re not really going to need that much more space for decent image quality anyways.

Obviously we don’t know the bandwidth numbers for the system’s graphics memory, although current game demos clearly demonstrate performance beyond that of the PSP, and the PS2 with regards to visual effects. And that’s with pushing around a lot more through the graphics pipeline. The standard PICA-200 GPU running at 200MHz has a pixel fill-rate of around 800 million pixels per-second (more than the GCN but less than XB and Wii), so we can comfortably say that the downclocked 3DS revision features noticeably less that. Although by how much, we can’t really say.

Surprisingly, when looking at the raw numbers of the 3DS’s specifications, you can actually see that the machine isn’t all that much more powerful that Sony’s PSP, with the amount of memory being the same, and geometry counts being very similar, albeit a little closer to the low end, mid-range of the PS2. What gives the 3DS its visual edge it seems, is simply down to its GPU’s capacity for rendering loads of advanced fixed-function effects on screen in lieu of having proper pixel shaders. Per-pixel lighting is supported, as is bump-mapping, specular and diffuse reflections, refraction mapping, procedural texturing and soft shadowing.

All of these add serious clout to the final images the 3DS produces in its games, and is exactly why the likes of Resident Evil Revelations and Metal Gear Solid 3 looks so good. The former looking closer to current 360 and PS3 games than most titles on the original Xbox.

Lastly, the system also features 1.5GBs of flash memory, used primarily for user-based storage. We can expect this space to be occupied by downloadable content, and various music and media files the user has transferred onto the console. Interestingly, it appears that the system actually features a 2GB flash memory chip inside, leaving 512MB solely in the hands of the OS. It is likely that this will be used to upgrade the machine’s firmware further on down the line, adding new functionality to the unit and who knows what else.

With the final specifications of the 3DS revealed (minus the odd bit of info here and there) it is clear that the system is, at first glance, not blinding more powerful than the PSP as it originally appeared. Much of what makes the 3DS games graphically so impressive comes from cleaver implementation of layered texture effects, and some impressive texture compression. Obviously, stuff like total system bandwidth is still up in the air. Although we can see that Nintendo's machine is working smarter, rather than harder.

However, this just might be enough. From what we’ve seen of the software, the machine has no problems in overshadowing DC and PS2 games, even bettering some Wii and Xbox 1 titles, so the lacking nature of the machine’s raw specifications are certainly not the be all and end all of the story.

Like with the N64, GCN, NDS, Wii, and pretty much every games console they’ve ever done, Nintendo have always been clever in selecting cost-effective, but capable performing parts, ones which get the job done without needing as much raw grunt as its competitors. And this is exactly the case here with the 3DS. They could have gone with NVIDA’s Tegra 2 solution (and evidence points to the fact that they originally were going to), however, for what is likely to be either cost or power efficiency issues, decidedly to switch to the DMP PICA-200 chip instead.

The decision, however silly it might seem in the face of vastly superior smartphone tech, and the rumoured PSP2, makes sense when you consider that the main draw of their system is it’s ability of deliver a solid 3D experience without the need for the user to wear glasses, and at what is likely to be at a reasonable price. The fact that games for the system currently impress, despite paper limitations, is just another sign that the company has done the right thing, especially given the circumstances of the ever-increasing cost of having cutting edge hardware in the home.

Balancing impressive graphics hardware and a low entry price with mass-market adoption is usually not an easy task. But Nintendo has shown time and time again that it definitely knows what its doing in this sector. And the 3DS looks like being another shining example of just that.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

3D Blu-Ray Support And More in Firmware 3.50

You can already play 3D games on your PS3 assuming you have a 3D ready TV: an update released a few months ago made this possible, although the playback of 3D Blu-Ray movies was strictly out of the question. Until now.

Earlier today Sony released firmware update 3.50 across the globe. This latest update now allows users to be able to watch compatible Blu-Ray films in stereoscopic 3D for the first time. Sony originally enabled the PS3 to play games in 3D way back in the summer, and at the time mentioned that movie playback in the format would arrive shortly after.

The company commented on the update by saying:

"In 2010, only Sony can deliver a full "lens to lounge room" 3D experience from content capture, content creation such as films to games, to device delivery that provides the ultimate 3D enjoyment in the home."

Of course this was only in regards to the 3D portion of the update. However, the firmware adds much more than that to your PS3.

Here is a full list of features that the 3.50 upgrade will provide:

- 3D BluRay support
- Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity - adds a new icon to the Music category, linking to the new service that should become available in this quarter.
- Browser update with Playstation Move 'direct pointer' support
- Improvements to the Playstation Plus user interface in the Playstation Store
- A 3D logo for 3D enabled content
- The Move (re)calibration screen in the XMB is available from within games
- You can report people from the friends menu
- 14 of the most common errors have received better descriptions
- Access your Facebook profile from within Account Management on XMB

The most significant changes, other than 3D Blu-Ray support, appear to be a proper integration of Facebook with the XMB (or at least accessing your main profile), and the ability to use the Move’s pointer ability to navigate the XMB menu screens. Sadly there is no sign of the rumoured, brand new web browser, or the option to have cross-game chat – a feature that is constantly at the top of most users most requested lists.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Feature: PlayStation Move: The Verdict

There is no doubting the Wii’s initial success; it was the right time, and the right place for motion controls to really start to take off. Promises of life-like, eventual 1:1 motion, combined with that feel-good, family fun factor when people come together to play were all jostled about like F1 cars battling for that coveted no.1 spot. However, amongst all the hype, the potential to change the face of traditional gaming forever, was the hard reality that, for all Nintendo’s promises the Wii had largely failed to deliver on them as a whole.

The lack of true 1:1 motion control led to what is known as the ‘waggle’ factor being included in games; a series of predefined moves in the game where by the data from the Wii remote and sensors would be processed and interpreted by the Wii console into these actions. The result: a mere illusion of proper motion control, in which you were simply waving your arms around (or the flick of a wrist) in order to do what seemed like a number of overly flashy button presses.

Nintendo finally brought in the Motion Plus upgrade to alleviate the problem, finally delivering on that original 1:1 promise. And although it did, by and large succeed, it was far too late, and the end results were less than impressive. There was still some form of waggle being present, and the lag in titles which actually used full 1:1 tracking was noticeably high. Suffice to say the Motion Plus was too little, too late, and by that time both Sony and Microsoft were eying up the market for them selves.

Whereas MS are clearly aiming themselves at the casual gaming market with their completely controllerless solution in Kinect, Sony, with PlayStation Move, are in fact attempting to cross over into the best of both worlds; luring gamers with the incredibly high-precision of their device, whilst also catering for the mainstream via a selection of highly accurate mii-too sports and entertainment titles.

Unlike Nintendo, who in the beginning promised accurate 1:1 motion tracking and a fast, responsive solution, Sony have actually delivered on just that. The sheer accuracy and precision of the Move is simply incredible. Not only is true 1:1 tracking fully available, along with advanced depth perception, it is also able to operate with in just 1 or 2 frames of latency (that’s between 66ms and 132ms of lag), with just an additional 22ms stemming from the Move device relaying data to the PS3 itself.

If those numbers at first seem a little high, remember that most 60fps titles operate with 66ms latency at standard, with 30fps titles hitting around the 100ms mark. Interestingly, both Halo 3 and the forthcoming NFS Hot Pursuit operate at 100ms, whilst Killzone 2 is around 150ms. Incredibly, that puts the Move right up there with standard controller response times in an average to best scenario. This completely overshadows Microsoft’s Kinect, which on average operates at around 200ms latency when using full body tracking.

Indeed, a few of the Move’s launch titles show off the device’s unflinching precision when it comes to movement tracking. Pin-point accuracy is commonplace in the best titles, whilst latency is noticeably well below levels found on all the best Wii games. What this means is that the most accomplished launch titles for the Move don’t suffer from having that bolted on, or artificial ‘waggle’ feeling to them.

Case in point: Sports Champions demonstrates uncannily realistic 1:1 motion tracking in it’s Table Tennis game, carefully replicating nearly every subtle movement of the player onscreen. Granted, the demo does seem to feature some kind of additional assist function auto-enabled, though this can be turned off in the final game for exact precision tracking.

All this is only made possible because of the unique make up of the Move hardware itself, and it’s relationship with Sony’s own PlayStation Eye camera. Whereas Nintendo went for a combination of infrared tracking, and built-in accelerometers to detect motion and positioning, Sony on the other hand have used a whole array of extra sensors, including LED marker tracking (by far the most important) in order to replicate true 1:1 mapping in a 3D space, whilst also using the PS Eye camera for a simpler form of full body tracking like seen in MS’s Kinect.

The combination of Move’s motion sensors, LED light, and PS Eye camera is just what gives its incredible accuracy. The glowing orb on the end of the controller is tracked by the PS Eye camera, which in turn uses both the data from the internal Move sensors, and the LED light on the front, to intricately track the position of the controller in full 3D. Effectively, it uses the size of the orb within its viewpoint as a guide to determining the distance of the Move, and thus tracking it accordingly.

It’s only when the Move is obscured behind various objects (people, furniture, etc) does the precise nature of the tracking go off-kilter, instead briefly, for a moment reverting back to Wii methods of determining position and movement. When this happens the precision is temporarily lost, resulting in less accurate tracking and an increase in controller latency. However, the Move quickly corrects this as the LED orb on the front of the controller comes back into view.

From a technical standpoint then, the Move offers not only the best of both worlds; precision 1:1 motion control, and full body tracking as well, but also manages to clearly be the most responsive and overly accurate of all three current motion solutions.

Onto the actual hardware itself, and you can see that both the Move and the Navigation Controller (Nav Con) have been lavished by Sony’s high-end design expertise. Both are very comfortable to hold, and benefit from their ergonomically crafted, curved and rounded shape. Compared to the blocky Wii Remote, the Move remains comfortably in your hand for far longer, weighing less, whilst providing better grip and control. The same principles apply to the Nav Con, which feels weighty, but light at the same time.

The fact that both controllers effectively almost weigh the same, and pretty much feel the same, is a big plus. Where as Nintendo went for the most iconic handheld device in the home (the TV remote control) as the base of it’s Wii motion controller design, complementing it with a more traditional feeling Nunchuck, Sony have instead unified their design in a more succinct, albeit stylish manner.

Both the Move and the Nav Con are wireless, working off bluetooth like with the Dual Shock 3 controller, and feature rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Charging is done via the same USB cable that the Sixaxis and DS3 use to connect up to the PS3, and you can expect each full charge to last between seven and eight hours; which isn’t at all bad considering what the Move has to do, although far less than a regular Sixaxis pad.

Seeing as Sony doesn’t provide any additional USB cables with either the Move or the Nav Con, you might want to invest in one of the few double charging stations that are available. The Sony one in particular features a similar high build quality to that of the Move itself, although more expensive than the lesser third-party solutions available.

In terms of button placement and functionality, both Move and the Nav Con provide ample options as a replacement to the standard Dual Shock controller. The Nav Con features an analogue stick closely matching that of Sony’s DS3 and Sixaxis pads, whilst also having both an L2 analogue trigger and the L1 button (feeling much like the ones on a DS3) slightly beneath the front of it. The Move itself features a new custom T-Trigger on its underside (more like a trigger from a gun than the one from the DS3 pad, it has a softer resistance to it compared to the L2 trigger on the Nav Con) whilst also having the standard four face buttons situated around the brand new Move button, which serves as the units main action/start button.

Furthermore, the PS home button is featured on both the Move and the Nav Con; indented into the controllers to prevent accidental presses from occurring, and on the Move, the Start and Select buttons from the DS have also been lowered into the plastic casing for the same reason.

Annoyingly, the main face buttons feel rather small, and have a cheap, but strong resistance to them. Pushing down on these feels like it requires more effort than it should, as it also does with both Start and Select buttons, making using them slightly uncomfortable. It would have been better to not only make these buttons (the main four face ones) bigger, but also giving them a softer click when pressed.

Thankfully, the rest of the controller is a complete joy to use with no more such mishaps; a quick pull on the T-Trigger, a move using the Nav Con’s analogue stick, or a push of the Move button is quite satisfying, reiterating the high build quality of both devices.

Perhaps the only real downside is that the Nav Con is lacking any kind of motion tracking at all in its innards, making its use somewhat limited compared to the Wii’s Nunchunk. Instead, games that may well work best with two motion controllers require the user to have two Move’s, thus limiting the experience in other areas as the Move doesn’t feature either a d-pad or an analogue stick.

Another, is that the PS Eye is maybe a little too basic in its spec for advanced full body tracking without lag, and that its relatively low resolution display (640 x 480) sometimes makes tracking the LED sphere on the Move difficult in brightly lit areas. I personally found the bright morning sun shining through a window behind me, to the side, mildly affecting its overall performance.

The onscreen image produced from the camera is also very grainy. It’s not so bad in daytime conditions, but in low light situations clarity is replaced with plenty of grain and some digital noise. Having the camera’s lower resolution feed upscaled to match the output resolution of the software using it doesn’t help much either, and the difference in sharpness between the two images (game and camera feed) only provide a disconnect from the experience. Having a HD camera would have been far more beneficial, giving not only better image quality, but also more accurate bright light and body tracking as well.

Saying that, outside of these issues there’s very little, if anything to complain about, and Sony have clearly produced something that is as functional as it is stylish. The accuracy and lack of any heavy latency in accomplished games is obviously the Move’s main talking point, secondary to it treading old ground where early ideas are concerned.

However, all this is in vein if the software doesn’t accurately represent what the tech is actually capable of, and this is one area where the Move is distinctly let down. Out of the Move specific launch titles there is only maybe one of two games worthy of your attention, with some of the best ones being PSN-based download titles.

For this reason alone, I decided not to purchase any games off-hand for review purposes, instead opting to playtest the various demos available via both the Starter Disc that comes packaged with the Move and the PS Eye, and from the PSN.

Sports Champions is clearly the main draw out of all the games and demos available. It is the game which really showcases the Move’s potential over and above that of both the Wii and Microsoft’s forthcoming Kinect. On the Starter Disc two separate games from this title are available for demonstration: Table Tennis, and Disc Golf. Both are incredibly accurate in terms of the way they play, the kind of 1:1 tracking expected, and with regards to their extremely low latency.

In Table Tennis pretty much all of my movements were accurately mapped using the Move, from the angle of my shots, to the speed in which I was moving. The amount of lag that was detectable was minuscule, practically absent, and better than most normal games in framerate dropping situations. To word it better: it WAS like using your arm as an instant controller. The only downside with the demo, is that it had some kind of assist function activated so that hitting the ball was made easier, though its reactions weren’t always as realistic as they could be. Apparently this doesn’t happen in the higher difficulty modes (demo is on easy) as no assist takes place.

Disc Golf was also very accurate and responsive. I could make both drastic and subtle changes to how I wanted to throw the disc by naturally throwing it differently each time, and the Move would pick up on this. The delay was slightly higher than in Table Tennis, with you needing to let go of the T-Trigger just a tad earlier to get the desired effect. Even then adjusting to this took only moments, and the result was still far in advance of anything comparable on the Wii.

Tiger Woods was a huge let down. Although the quality of the actual motion tracking seemed pretty good, there was still a noticeable amount of lag going on – not as much as say Motion Plus Tiger on the Wii, but still more than expected.

Thankfully putting fared much better than on the Wii title. Unlike with Motion Plus Tiger 10, the delay in my movements to the actions on screens was relatively small, and I could see my character’s club moving almost as the Move controller was. On the Wii I had to swing harder than I needed to for the game to respond to my movements, but not so here with the PS3 Move version. This meant that I could accurately gauge both my position and power of my shots quite easily in comparison.

Sadly, the controls are let down by having to hold down one of the face buttons in order to put spin on the ball, and that you need to use a Dual Shock in order to start the game and navigate the menus.

Start The Party was pretty much an enhanced Eye Toy affair, with the player using a virtual fly swatter to hit various insects that appeared on the screen. Video feed of the player is projected on screen, along with the image of the swatter you are holding in place of the Move itself. Control was really poor, lag was instantly apparent, and on many occasions it felt like the game wasn’t registering all of my hits. It was also difficult for me to determine distance in a 3D space on screen when 3D graphics are laid over a video feed, leading to missed shots and bouts of frustration. Despite the novelty of seeing you hold a virtual racket on screen, Eye Toy Play’s Kung Fu was a far better game.

EyePet: Move Edition seemed a little pointless. Although it uses the Move quite well, it’s also made redundant by the fact that the game is far more fun by simply using your hands to interact with your creature. Having Move support didn’t add anything to the overall experience, not when you can already touch and play with your virtual pal without it. The new stuff is a nice diversion for a short gaming (if you can call it that) session or so , but that’s about it.

Interestingly, my favourite game out of the bunch of demos that I played, was the PSN game, Tumble. The concept is very simple: the idea is that you have a certain number of blocks that you have to stack up onscreen, each having different properties such as size, shape and weight. The starting block at the bottom has to be touching the pressure pad on the floor, and you can only build on top of this. Obsticales are also presented to the player, such as avoiding moving objects, and another challenge sees you blowing up an existing tower seeing how far away you can blast the blocks.

The control seemed to me to be pretty accurate, although the cursor speed didn’t react quite as fast a my movements. This can be remedied by upping the Move’s sensitivity in the XMB menu however, so not really an issue. You can turn and flip blocks using a quick flick of the Move in any of the four main directions (left, right, up and down), and navigate the onscreen pointer around the on screen environment by literally Moving the Move controller around the room. The best part however, was both the simplicity and fun of the whole concept; the demo had me glued for about an hour repeatedly trying out new things. It’s hardly revolutionary, but lots of fun.

Other than the Move specific game demos found on the Starter Disc and PSN, there are a few other titles with added Move functionality worth considering. Ruse looks especially suited to the device, and the new Move controls in Heavy Rain are quite well thought out, definitely bringing the player even closer to the game than before. There’s also Resident Evil 5 Gold Edition, which has Move support enabled in the latest download patch, although its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. But more on that in another report if I get the time.

Overall, the range of software for the Move is decidedly a mixed bag of sorts. On one hand, you’ve got the likes of Sports Champions clearly showcasing just what Sony’s motion controller can do, Ruse and Heavy Rain showing genuine improvements over the standard DS3 controller. On the other, there’s shovelware type rubbish as seen with Start The Party, and missed opportunities with the latest Tiger Woods, neither of which really make you feel that the Move was a worthy investment. Even the impressive Sports Champions suffers from a total lack of personality. It feels bland and completely soulless like many of the other Move-specific offerings. At least the art style doesn’t try and patronise you like say Start The Party or anything.

So software-wise the Move doesn’t quite deliver on all accounts. Despite some genuinely impressive flashes of brilliance, there’s a lot that needs serious improving. Nothing out of the current line-up of titles screams of being an essential purchase, a real reason to own the Move. Hardcore gamers are likely to enjoy downloading and trying out the various game demos that are available on PSN, especially Heavy Rain and Tumble, whilst casual gamers may well wonder just what all the fuss is about.

Going back to the hardware though, and it is apparent that Sony have absolutely succeeded in delivering something that not only works as promised, but also something manages to offer a level of precision and accuracy not found in other motion control solutions. Sure, the full body tracking capabilities of the Move + PS Eye camera may not be able to match the Kinect in this area, but the tracking of the Move itself and the upper body is easily as good, with overall accuracy being to a far higher standard with vastly lower latency.

Certainly, the experience of proper 1:1 tracking with precise depth perception is undeniably impressive, and seeing it implemented here with minimal latency – were talking about 1 to 2 frames as standard (66ms to 132ms) - is arguably Sony’s coup d'├ętat against both Nintendo and Microsoft. But it remains to be seen if that’s really enough.

There’s no question that for a variety of experiences, from family party games, to high-end hardcore FPS’s that the Move unquestionably provides the strongest baseline to work from; you’re going to need an additional control device for some types of game to work on kinect, but not with Move. However, the issue is whether or not Sony can convince developers to spend the extra time in crafting advanced AAA Move experiences. Unlike Kinect, there doesn’t appear to be the same amount of processing overhead when using the device so I don’t see why not. But time, and consumer spending will dictate whether or not that uptake will happen.

For the time being then, PlayStation Move is definitely worth a look. The technology is clearly up to scratch, and there is a fair amount of free content to try out if the likes of Sports Champions isn’t quite your thing. It’s just a shame that some of the software fails to live up to the Move’s potential, failing to expand outside of the mii-too clone market and into something a little more polished and unique.

So, at this very moment the Move represents an impressive technological demonstration, but lacks any true must have titles to really back it up. The promise of what it was supposed to be able to do has been fulfilled. All that’s left is for more games to do the same thing.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Tech Analysis: Halo Reach - Final Game Update

Up until now, the Halo series on the Xbox 360 has always been somewhat lacking in the graphics department. Halo 3 ruthlessly cut back on the high levels of image quality and texture detail expected from a title this generation in order to include what was, and is still, arguably the most advanced HDR lighting solution we’ve seen in any game so far. Whilst ODST merely added a brief lick of paint to the proceedings, upping the quality of the texture filtering slightly, and bringing in a post process blur effect to smooth out the upscaled framebuffer.

For Halo: Reach Bungie have completely gone back to the drawing board, stripping out, and rewriting most of the engine with alarming success. So much so, that the game now ranks as one of the prettiest on the 360 – no meant feat when considering the series dwindling reputation for graphical prowess.

We first took a look at the tech behind Reach in our analysis of the Beta way back in May. But now, as we blast our way through the final game, we take an updated look at the title, now focussing on the Campaign and the drastic graphical upgrades that are apparent over the ones originally seen in the game’s impressive range of multiplayer modes.

Now while multiplayer in Reach looks pretty much identical to the Beta version – still representing a true current-generation look over Halo 3 and ODST- it’s absolutely nothing compared to the visual majesty of the Campaign mode. Here the game ramps up its graphical polish considerably; textures are noticeably more detailed, bump-mapping has been expanded and hugely refined in the process, the full range of Bungie’s trademark HDR solution is not only evident, but also combined successfully with a new, real-time, dynamic lighting system, complete with baked shadow maps and much improved use of local lights (like in the beta each projectile has its own light source).

Furthermore, you’ve also got improved smoke and particle effects, which don’t appear to be rendered using vastly lower res alpha buffers. In fact both of these effects have been expanded with far more in the way of alpha transparencies than before. Plus, adding to this is a range of impressive post process effects; including object-based motion blur, and different screen distorting filters, used in varying scenarios throughout the game.

Most of these have been seen before in the multiplayer beta, just not quite to the level on offer in the Campaign mode – and that includes the online co-op campaign as well.

The title’s use of SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion) – previously only used for indoor areas of the beta – can now seen in both inside and outside spaces accordingly, adding an extra layer of depth to the scene and its already high-end approach to lighting.

Evidence of this is very subtle however, although you can definitely tell that its there when seeing the game running in real-time. The most obvious places where it appears are near buildings and bespoke areas of scenery. The look that the effect provides is reasonably recognisable, if not also a little inconspicuous at times in Reach.

Amongst all the accomplishments, there is one compromise. In order to conserve on bandwidth the game does use an A2C blend on foliage. As you may be aware this is a process of rendering certain alpha effects in an interlaced-style, half-res manner, but without simply downing the overall resolution of the buffer.

The effects can be seen in the screenshot below. Just about. For most of Reach the usual side effect of using A2C (dithering and a screen door look) is largely inconspicuous unless you actually go look out for it. And when you do, you’ll se that the effect is far better implemented than in most other games that use it.

Thankfully, you’ll find that it is only the foliage that suffers from this; other key visual elements like water and fire are rendered in full resolution using proper alpha blending – none of that low res stuff there.

Outside of the additional polish applied to the game’s use of visual effects and advanced rendering make up, the basic framebuffer and method of anti-aliasing remains the same as the Beta.

Halo Reach renders in in 1152x720 for both single and multiplayer modes, and uses a custom form of temporal anti-aliasing, though the effect is most visible on static objects. The reduced horizontal resolution, and use of a non-standard form of anti-aliasing is required for the game’s framebuffer to fit into the 360’s 10MB of EDRAM without the need for titling.

Effectively, using regular 2xMSAA would mean that parts of the frame would have to be broken up and rendered using tiles, which results in an additional geometry processing cost due to the large amount of triangles needing to be rendered multiple times across different tiles – not helpful in maintaining performance, whilst also taking up more in the way of overall memory outside the FB.

Instead Bungie’s custom solution works extremely well, and just about fits into the tight memory constraints given to the framebuffer by the machine.

However the use of the temporal AA solution does have some drawbacks. For one, only objects that are static get the majority of AA. And this mostly disappears immediately when you start moving – some AA is still present, just not as effective. Plus none of the 2D, sprite-based foliage gets any edge smoothing either, making some jaggies apparent regardless of whether the AA is working or not. In reality however, this seldom makes a large difference at all, with the game’s use of post processing effects (like motion blur) keeping the overall image clean and smooth.

The temporal AA also has some odd, but extremely subtle side effects. For example, there are times when only parts of the screen receive any AA. Though this is only visible on a frame-by-frame basis (not during actual gameplay), and doesn’t happen all the time. Well-trained eyes can see the bizarre occurrence in the screenshot below.

Another is a blurring, or rather what looks like ghosting of the image while fast sideways movements or sharp turns occur. In still frames you can notice what looks like a double image, but with no AA. This is basically caused by the way Bungie’s AA solution actually works. Two separate frames are combined to form the anti-aliased image, although a successful blend only happens in still scenes due to a time delay between both frames being blended. The result: the aforementioned double image ghosting that manifests itself in these situations.

However this particular issue now only seems to affect the surrounding environment, and not the weapon you are holding. Other than that it is exactly the same as in the beta, and can be found in both multiplayer and the campaign mode of Reach.

Performance wise, Halo Reach is pretty impressive, enabling an almost constant use of v-sync and hardly ever deviating from its targeted 30fps update. However, there are times when the game does drop frames quite badly, and this is perhaps the biggest discrepancy between both the Campaign mode and the multiplayer.

In multiplayer, like the beta, reach holds to an almost constant 30fps with only very minor, small deviations in performance. Screen tearing is also kept to a bare minimum, practically never occurring at all. Campaign mode however, is a largely different story.

Interestingly, this mode is also v-synced, pretty much solidly so. And this can, and will on occasion severely impact on performance. Like with the multiplayer, and the beta, Campaign mode runs at 30fps for most of the time, only dropping frames in the most strenuous of situations. Small dips happen here and there, but nothing but the slightest blip. Until, that is, all hell breaks loose.

In the first encounter you have in the game, the framerate drops below the 20fps mark, becoming a temporary slideshow. While this is all going on your sense of control is adversely affected; latency spirals, and all attempts at getting a steady aim go out the window. It’s hardly the best of starts, and would be a rather constant annoyance if it wasn’t for the fact that examples like these are few and far in between.

Quite why these occasional, heavy dips in performance weren’t optimised out is unknown to me – when they happen they’re worse than anything Halo 3 had to offer in this regard. Perhaps Bungie thought it best to try and maintain v-sync as best they could in these types of situations. Although in practice, having a little screen tearing is better than a large increase in latency in the middle of battle, and that’s without the intrusive eradication of a smooth framerate.

Despite this Halo: Reach performs incredibly well, with very little in the way of large overall framerate drops, and almost no screen tearing in either the campaign or multiplayer modes.

Cut-scenes fair a little differently though, with Bungie freely upping the level of detail on characters and objects safe in the knowledge that performance can be more tightly controlled. And in that respect, with the additional load that it is pushing, does so quite admirably, though not without faltering slightly.

In many of the game’s real-time cinematics tearing was clearly visible across the entire screen, with different tears appearing on screen for different lengths, and the frame rate also took quite a few steady dips below the 30fps mark. On some occasions the framerate drops I witnessed were almost as bad as those in the minus 20fps sections of the single-player campaign. However, as the action isn’t controllable the effect it has on the game is far less important.

Ultimately, what IS important, is that the game performs smoothly for the majority of the time with only minor dips here and there. And in that sense Bungie have succeeded with Halo: Reach. What’s even more impressive is that the developers have been able to do this whilst upping the game’s framebuffer resolution, along with stringing out more intensive graphical effects, all the while still including their trademark HDR lighting system without compromising it.

On top of that you’ve got the inclusion of SSAO, a mix of dozens of dynamic light sources perfectly complementing the use of plain old, baked light and shadow maps, and a mildly tweaked version of their custom temporal AA solution. All of this manages to not only be rendered in a final framebuffer image which fits into the 360’s EDRAM, but also a game that from both a visual, and a tech perspective, is right up there with the best titles on the system.

The debate on whether Reach is the best Halo game yet is still ongoing – I myself still prefer Halo: CE’s campaign to this one’s so far – although the undeniable fact that it is by far the best looking is not.

For the first time in nearly ten years Bungie have produced a game that once again can be used to show off the graphical capabilities of a flagship console, devoid of the restraints of the past, and the rushed development cycles that once impacted on past performances. Sure, the slightly plain, angular, and almost barren style of the series’ architecture may look tired or stylistically unimpressive, although in a raw technical sense, without fail, it commands your complete attention.

For those of you who either don’t like Halo, or have grown tired of the series many attempts to match the raw brilliance of the original, there may not be much to tempt you back into Bungie’s world of Spartan soldiers and religious alien zealots. But at least now the franchise truly looks great again, and that definitely counts for something. At the same time that classic Halo gameplay seems to have been refined down to a fine art, and a few campaign issues aside, Reach as a whole may well be the best game in the series since the original.

Thanks go out to Mr Deap for the screenshots, while AlStrong once again counts the pixels.