Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Tech Analysis: Sonic Adventure (PS3 & 360)

I have many fond memories of the original Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, so much so that I thought I’d invest in a copy of the recent PSN and XBL HD re-release of this Sega classic. Mainly for fun at first. Although that fun quickly turned into investigating just how well this HD revision holds up for the latest IQGamer Tech Analysis.

On first impressions it looks like Sega has taken the liberty of porting and sprucing up the original DC version of the game. However, on closer inspection it is clear that this re-release is a bizarre combination of the GCN version of the game (Sonic Adventure DX), minus the extra content, with the DC original’s title screen tagged onto the end of it.

For those of you who don’t know, Sonic Adventure DX featured a few graphical upgrades over the DC game, including specular highlighting on Sonic and the other main characters, reworked texturing, and a boost in overall framerate. And this is exactly what we get here, but with some additional tweaks and changes. Unfortunately, the DX version also features far more in the way of potentially game-breaking collision glitches, and sloppy control issues, neither of which felt quite as bad in the standard DC game.


The first thing you’ll notice, is that Sonic Adventure comes in a bordered 4:3 aspect ratio, with thick stripy bars on each side of the screen, and thin ones at the top and bottom. While the overall output resolution of the framebuffer is in fact 720p (1280x720) the gameplay segment itself is presented in 920x690, being 1:1 mapped to ensure that the image isn’t being cut off.

Interestingly, the final output looks somewhat blurrier than what a 690p image would look like when occupying its space in a native 720p framebuffer. Instead we can see that the game is actually rendering in 480p, and then being upscaled to 690p to form the final displayed frame. It’s not rendering in bordered HD that’s for sure.

The difference between what the game looks like when running in native 720p can be found below. The top screen shows the PC version running in true HD resolution, while the bottom shows the PSN and XBLA version upscaled to 690p.


PC


PS3 & 360

Without doubt this has to be one of the most disappointing aspects of the port, rendering in SD, and is an indication of just how much of a rush job to market it initially appears to be. When you consider that both the 360 and PS3 could easily handle the PC version of Sonic Adventure DX running in 720p, and at 60fps, then it is a mildly bitter pill to swallow, and a worrying sign for future DC conversions.

Saying that the upscaling method itself is very good - better than we've seen on some full price titles - and although this PSN and XBLA re-release doesn’t use any form of anti-aliasing, the game looks reasonably smooth, being free of most harsh jagged lines and polygon edges.

So, with no AA being present the smooth look can instead be attributed to the game’s poor use of bilinear texture filtering, and blurred nature due to the framebuffer being upscaled, both of which affect final image quality heavily. In still screens the lack of AA is more easily noticeable, though that doesn’t always appear to be the case in motion.

Thankfully, resolution isn’t everything, and most of the enhanced visual effects introduced in the GCN version of the game have been included here; additional specular highlighting, greater use of defuse mapping, and texturing changes are all brought to the table.


PC


DC

Above you can see the changes between the DC and PC versions of the game. These also apply to the PSN and XBLA releases too, and give you an idea of the differences between SA DX and vanilla SA.

However, both the PSN and XBLA builds of the game also feature improved shadowing on the characters as well. This can be seen on Sonic’s mouth and belly in the screenshot below, and looks pretty odd in motion, seeming a little overblown and unnatural.


Unusually, this version of Sonic Adventure lacks the inclusion of the reflective water found in the GCN build, but still features the same updated texturing. Oddly, this is also apparent in the PC game, a telltale sign that highlights which code was used for the PS3 and 360 ports.

Outside of these slight differences, nothing else appears to have changed. The art assets used are definitely the updated GCN ones, and in some cases look a tad blurrier, or less detailed than some of the ones used in the original DC game. The sheen on Sonic in particular is unnecessary, and some of the texturing now looks murky and undefined. However, many textures actually benefit from being replaced with higher-res versions, and look much better than the ones used in the original DC game. Though these improvements are largely under-represented due to the upscaled nature of the final image distorting things somewhat.


One area in which the PS3 and 360 versions of Sonic Adventure have seen the biggest gains, is with regards to performance. It’s nice to finally see a version of the game running largely as originally intended with only a few dips in fluidity intruding on the action.

Sonic Adventure runs at a near constant 60fps for 99.9 percent of the time, and the difference is instantly noticeable. I only encountered the odd drop down to 30fps, which lasted only for a brief second or so, maybe less. Apparently, in the 360 version these little dips happen slightly more frequently. However, I can’t confirm this for sure as I only own the full PS3 game, and the 360 demo, but not the full retail release.

For those of you who don’t know, early demos and pre-release builds of SA on the Dreamcast ran at 60fps with frequent drops in framerate, often down to 30fps. However, the final game runs at 30fps, with heavy bouts of slowdown to 20fps in the most detailed areas. Many parts of the Lost World stage saw the game holding a near constant 20fps, before narrowly getting back up to the 30 mark.

By contrast the GCN DX port managed to hit 60fps pretty much all the way through the entire game, with regular and sometimes random drops to 30, sometimes even 20fps, regardless of whether or not detail levels were significantly higher. In particular, the game often juddered between fluctuating framerates, sometimes hitting the target 60fps for extended periods of time, sometimes not.

Going back to the PS3 and 360 ports, and rather bizarrely, SA’s cut-scenes completely side step the upgrade to 60fps altogether, and are delivered with a fifty percent cut in smoothness compared to the standard during gameplay. The in-engine cinematics are all locked at 30fps, with no real reasoning as to why this was done. It’s not as if these parts of the game would prove more difficult to optimise, since the rendering load does not change at the drop of a hat like in gameplay (it can be controlled and is utterly predictable), then if anything, guaranteed performance at 60fps should be easier to obtain.

Like with the upscaled nature of the game’s framebuffer resolution, it appears that the developers have simply been rather lazy, performing optimisations on the most obvious parts of the game, whilst leaving others almost completely untouched. What is stranger still, is that the addition of improveved shadowing can be seen in both the cut-scenes and the gameplay, meaning that some tweaks were in fact made to both the engine, and entire game as a whole.

As expected, SA is fully v-synced on both platforms and never so much as tears a single frame. Of course this was the case on both the DC and GCN, but is an increasing rarity with titles this generation. Either way it’s nice to see a title not only hitting its target framerate but also doing that without tearing frames. Although, for an even year-old game running on a current gen platform, in 640x480 no less, you should expect nothing less, especially in lieu of any major (or barely even minor) graphical upgrades.


All things considered, whilst the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Sonic Adventure aren’t exactly great ports overall, they are redeemable in some respects, and the upgrade to 60fps is both pleasing on the eye and beneficial to the controls. Sonic himself is far more responsive, and the flow of the action is better represented than ever before.

However, the conversion also reeks of laziness through and through. The lack of any kind of widescreen support, or even the option to change the colour of the border surrounding the gameplay is unacceptable in this day and age. And the absence of a true 720p HD presentation is baffling to say the least.

Outside of that, the use of the DX code means that there are more gameplay glitches than in the Dreamcast original, with characters getting stuck in scenery, and odd collision detection errors being quite commonplace - things that arguably should have been sorted out given the high-profile nature of the release.

In conclusion then, the PS3 and 360 release of Sonic Adventure is still perhaps one of the best versions of the game we’ve seen so far, even if it doesn’t quite play as well as the DC original. Seeing, and ‘feeling’ it running in 60fps makes it well worth a look despite the obvious criticisms. Although, at the same time one can’t help but feel somewhat cheated considering both consoles could quite easily handle a full 1080p60 port without breaking sweat.

Thanks to sonicretro.org for the additional screens used in this feature.

1 comment:

  1. great article. Dreamcast version through and through. I bought this game on PS3 and couldn't believe how heartbreakingly frustrating it was with controls cause I remember loving this game so much. Fortunately playing the dreamcast version again, it plays a hell lot better. You can actually control sonic. Dont get how they goofed it up. It's like no one play tested it.

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