Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tech Report: A Look At The L.A Noire Trailer

Originally intended as simply a PS3 exclusive release, L.A Noire is now heading to both PS3 and Xbox 360 later next year. With Red Read Dedemption slowly fading out of gamers minds, and with another GTA not on the cards for over a year, attention has begun to turn to Rockstar’s barely talked about crime thriller, L.A Noire.

A few days ago a brand new trailer was released for the game. It appeared to be put together from in-game engine cut-scenes, running in real-time and presenting audiences with a firm impression of what’s to come. Well, it terms of the characters and atmosphere at least – the gameplay at this point, lurks away somewhere in Rockstar’s gritty 1930’s and 40’s inspired world, yet to be privy to a public spectacle.

Check out the HD trailer here

While the trailer hardly looks visually outstanding on first impressions – or on repeat viewing for that matter – one element does stand out above the rest: the game’s incredible facial animation system and use of some stellar motion capture work - the very reason for us taking the time out to deliver this short technical look.

Having convincing lip-syncing, backed up by decent voice acting are two such requirements for any title whose focus is on providing an intriguing and potentially gripping narrative tale. Though without adequate motion capturing, and considerably polished facial responses, all this goes to waste. Just look at the likes of Alan Wake, or Heavy Rain, both are titles that loose some of their emotional impact due to either poor voice acting, bad lip-syncing, or buggy motion capture work.

One or two of these elements may make for a compelling enough experience, but not an exceptional one. And it is exactly this which L.A Noire hops to rectify.

Looking at the trailer, and we can see that Rockstar have indeed taken the time in not only providing some rather excellent voice work, but also in meticulously crafting some of the most sophisticated facial animation tech we’ve seen in any game so far. The way facial muscles move as characters are speaking, and the subtle changes in normal mapping as muscles expand and then contract (around lips and mouth), at the most basic level, all go along way to adding a sense of believability to the proceedings, that you are in fact watching actual characters coming alive on screen, and not simply polygon models.

From a technical point of view, this singular element is by far the most advanced, though is the only one to really impress as a whole. The superb blend in normal mapping offsets the sometimes potentially stiff looking nature of pure geometry movement, thus allowing smoother animation as a result. More detail in the way in which individual elements of the face reacts are clearly shown, along with an impressive use of normal maps working in tandem with the motion capture animation.

Outside of the solid motion capture work and stand-out facial animation system, the rest of the tech powering the game appears to be far less impressive. Although, the washed out and reduced-contrast nature of the art direction seems to be the main cause of this. The style presented here in L.A Noire is faithful to the unique look of similarly themed movies of the 1930’s and 40’s; that is to say that contrast has been intentionally adjusted resulting in a slightly washed out look to the game in general.

However, we can also see that skin shaders and layered shader effects in general, aren’t terribly impressive. In fact they seem to be quite basic compared to more advanced implementations as seen in the recent Call Of Duty Black Ops. L.A Noire appears to be using only basic texturing, plus a normal map and colour map for its character faces, with noticeable levels of specular highlighting being distinctly absent - the matt, almost shiny look is being caused by the normal mapping in reaction with the game's lighting model.

Oddly, there is evidence of screen-space ambient occlusion in these screens, though the effect does little to bring a large amount of additional depth to the scene compared to most titles that use it. Usually SSAO is implemented in order to expand the impact shadowing has throughout a game, bringing more depth, and indeed detail to the scene. However, in L.A Noire it looks like the level of contrast defeats that slightly. Like in the 360 version of Kane & Lynch 2, its effects go partially un-noticed, other than some artefacting revealing its presence.

Perhaps implementation of SSAO is being used to balance out the low contrasted nature of the game as a whole, delivering more shadowing depth where there would otherwise be even less. This would certainly explain why we aren’t seeing more three-dimensionality in overall image composition. Or maybe, it’s that the effect is only being used subtly to complement the look the artists are going for.

Moving on, and the actual framebuffer itself looks to be native 720p, but contained in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio (1280x540), with black boarders at the top and bottom of the screen. It is these boarders which account for the 540 horizontal res that you are seeing – actual gameplay will of course be presented in full screen, so we expect that a full 1280x720 image will be available for the duration.

There’s no scaling of any kind going on, despite the blurry nature of the screens on this page. Instead, the loss in IQ is caused by video compression artefacts, which not only affect edges but pixels across the entire scene.

Outside of the obvious technical murmurings, there’s no indication of platform the montage from the trailer is comprised from. Originally L.A Noire was conceived as a PS3 exclusive, with a 360 release announced only months ago, so it is pretty likely that the footage is indeed taken from the Sony version.

Depending on when development shifted from being solely a single platform affair to becoming a full multi-platform project, we could be looking at a game potentially leading on the PS3. This would mean that parity between both formats should, in theory be reasonably close, without noticeable cuts being made to the PS3 version in terms of resolution or even alpha buffers - which are likely to be used more sparingly in any case of PS3 leading. Uncharted 2 for example, displays relatively few heavy alpha-based scenarios in comparison to COD: Black Ops, and Killzone 2 and 3 both use lower res buffers with additional blending for better integration.

Again, this is pure speculation at this point - the trailer could well be using the 360 build for all we know. And in terms of leading on PS3, that sometimes can be used to boost performance of the 360 version as well, with a greater emphasis on optimising code and an increased use of parallelisation delivering a visually better looking game as a result.

Overall, L.A Noire is looking pretty interesting as a cinematic title, if not as a technical showcase for high-levels of decent motion-capture work, and impressive facial animation. While the rest of the graphical make up, from the very little we’ve seen, looks at this point to be distinctly under whelming, one can’t help but feel this was a stylistic choice more than anything else, in-keeping with the world and imagery the developers are trying to create.

And in that respect L.A Noire looks to be quite intriguing. We’ve seen many games that try, and indeed fail to pull off real cinematic brilliance – Alan Wake and Heavy Rain to name but two – although Rockstar’s track record remain distinctly un-blemished in this regard. Both Red Dead Redemption, and especially GTA IV previously showcased the skill and command the company has over delivering such experiences (different team, but still), and with L.A Noire they certainly look like they could be doing the same again.

Time will tell however, but we’ll definitely be keeping our eye on this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment