Monday, 29 November 2010

BioWare Confident About PS3 Mass Effect 2 Port

There seems to be a recent trend occurring with developers commenting on the state of less than stellar PS3 conversions. First we had Ubisoft’s Phillipe Bergeron acknowledging how more would be done with the PS3 version of the latest Assassin’s Creed title to put it on a level playing field with the 360 version. And now we have BioWare doing exactly the same when talking about the upcoming Mass Effect 2 port.

In an interview with the Official PlayStation Magazine, producer Jess Huston told the publication that the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 wouldn't suffer the same fate as other high-end multi-platform titles.

"Oftentimes when you got to the PS3 you see stuff like down-resing and using a smaller than 720p resolution to try and get back some of the framerate. We haven't done that. We really wanted to try to make it as good, if not better than the Xbox version.”

In a surprising turn, Unbisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood turned out surprisingly well on the PS3, when we put it through its paces side by side with the 360 version for our own tech analysis. Hopefully BioWare manage to achieve the same level of parity between platforms when Mass Effect 2 finally hits stores next year. It will be definitely interesting to see just how well the PS3 build holds up considering the performance issues present in the 360 game.

Moving on, and it was also revealed that the Sony release of the game would benefit from having three years worth of engine updates, complete with every patch released for the title so far. $100 worth of content will be included, consisting of three full expansion packs and over a dozen smaller pieces of DLC, which altogether should total around 20 hours worth of gameplay.

Mass Effect 2 is due for release on the PS3 in January. You can expect us to be putting it through its paces in another head to head tech analysis around the same time.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Review: Crazy Taxi (XBLA)

Way back when Crazy Taxi was first released in the summer of 2000, it felt like an 8/10 game. It may have been a rather simple and particularly shallow arcade experience, one designed to quickly sap those £1 coins away from your wallet and into its cabinet’s mechanical belly, but it was an extremely fun ride while it lasted. The Dreamcast conversion was almost completely arcade perfect, but aided in increasing longevity by adding in another city in which to drive around, and a cool mode full of wacky driving mini-games in the form of the Crazy Box.

Now Crazy Taxi has returned to the scene in a supposed HD re-release over both Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. However, while everything looks almost as you remember it, the actual game as a whole has undergone a few tweaks and changes that seemingly take away from the originally inspired OTT outing.

For the most part, much is the same as I remember it. There’s two basic modes on offer here - Arcade and Original - each with their own take on things, and two separate stages in which to ferry around easily displeased passengers in. One of these comes directly from the arcade game, while the other was created specifically for the DC conversion itself. Four different cabbies are available, each with different handling characteristics and driving capabilities.

The basic blueprint of the gameplay then, has been left unchanged, except perhaps for a difference in handling. Instead you’ll find that most of the superficial stuff – the stuff that actually mattered the most – has been altered in order to save on the licensing fees Sega don’t seem to want to be paying.

Take the music for example. Part of the fun of playing CT wasn’t just rampaging across a fictionally mapped San Francisco while giving passengers the daily ride of their lives, but rampaging along whilst the philosophical lyrics of Bad Religion’s ‘Them and Us’, or the energetically youthful screams from The Offspring’s ‘All I Want’ indoctrinated your mind in a blaze of punk rock inspired mayhem.

Sadly, these are nowhere to be found. Instead, arguably the main draw of the original has been replaced with a series of bland, indie rock songs which are neither iconic, nor worthy of replacing the brilliant fusion that was once contained within. Whereas before the music helped maintain a conscious rhythm keeping you speeding along even faster as the timer briskly made its way to zero, the new songs found here simply grate. Their default volume is also too loud, thus drowning out the rest of the game.

The rest of the licences don’t fare any better. Like with the music, they’re simply not here at all. Nope, line’s such as ‘take me to Pizza Hut’ or ‘I wanna go to the KFC’ have been replaced with the likes of ‘Pizza Place’ and ‘FCS’ (Fried Chicken Shack), along with different voice actors and a tone failing to capture the spirit of the original. It’s pretty strange to see the key elements that made CT work so well torn out and replaced with poor substitutes.

The question is, why did Sega not simply extend the licences for use in this re-release? Have they become so poor that they couldn’t afford for a ten year old game to relinquish it’s aging licences, or did they simply not give two pence to make it happen? I don’t know, but something tells me it was the latter. Although, the very way the whole system works is as much to blame. Why should publishers have to pay for licences on game that they’ve already paid for before? Because, apparently, they expire after a certain time.

In my opinion, it’s an archaic and thoroughly over abused system, which can, if allowed to, regularly ruin the classic feel of older games with their modern day re-releasing. Of course that’s just how things work, and in any case the decision to extend the licenses should’ve been taken when someone though it would be a great idea to make CT available once again.

Outside of not having the music or places I remember, other areas have also been reworked for unknown reasons. The voices for all four main characters have been taken from the PS2 and GCN ports – that is to say they are different from the DC original. They’re certainly not as good. They sound nasally and distinctly off. Plus the game’s handling mechanic has been pulled right out of its sequel Crazy Taxi 2, and not from the first game of which this is supposed to be a port.

The tighter nature of the handling is actually okay… just about. But at the same time feels more suited to the confined city streets of New York depicted in CT2 rather than here, in the more wide-open landscapes of San Francisco.

Sadly, the XBL and PSN version of CT is an uneasy mix of fragmented parts of the PC, PS2, and DC games without solidly being based on either one, lacking the polish required to be a hit, along with any sense of care or attention. This is also apparent when you hear the overly compressed voice samples, and poor quality music used in the port. At least, unlike with Sonic Adventure, we've finally got proper widescreen support. But only when you actually begin playing the game - the menus are of the stretched out 4:3 variety.

But despite all the little changes here and there which break up the solid flow of the cherished original, Crazy Taxi in its current form is still reasonably fun to play. The cool challenges of the ‘Crazy Box’ are still just as wacky and innovative as ever, and the simple nature of the gameplay is something that is missing from too many of today’s arcade driving games. However, without the licences or the handling of then original - which made it great back in the day, Crazy Taxi feels like an empty shell, a shell that’s had its soul and personality – its innards if you will – ripped out and discarded for all to see.

There is a great little arcade title locked inside this half-assed port. Sadly that game has been carved up and re-created without the same level of distinct charm and composition, which it needed in order to hold up well today. In the end, Crazy Taxi is still fairly enjoyable to play. But without a large sum of its original parts, is no longer the experience it should have been – it’s distinctly average. Any solace comes from the fact that the bulk of the main arcade game can be played through via the demo. No need to waste precious MS or PSN points then.

I loved the Dreamcast version of Crazy Taxi, but I can’t say that I’m all that enthused, or even appreciative of what we’ve been given here. Sure thing Sega, feel free to give us a port of the original game. But do just that. Do it right with everything left intact, and not with what looks like a partially emulated rush job straight out of a backyard chop-shop.


Friday, 26 November 2010

NVIDIA Shows Off New Tessellation Tech

The underlying tech behind 3D graphics rendering is constantly evolving, moving forward, whilst also delivering a better environment in which to create and realise developers artistic visions. The transition between using flat shaded geometry, to the fully programmable pixel and vertex shaded visuals of today, whilst expanding the feature-set to include texture mapping, gouraud shading, and more, illustrates this point nicely.

Tessellation then, is the next step forward. And this was exactly what NVIDIA showcased at a recent event, demoing their next flagship GPU, the GTX580, with some seriously impressive results.

Initially the presentation focuses on the benefits of tessellation when rendering a single character, showing off how a combination of the aforementioned technique, plus use of multiple displacement maps come together to create a lavishly intricate model with many layers of detail. However, the real deal demonstration comes later on, with the appearance of a fully tessellated sci-fi cityscape, pushing what is said to be close to a whopping 2 billion polygons per-second, with geometry being dynamically generated as objects get closer to the camera.

Everything is done procedurally, blending layers of tessellated geometry from one large, massively detail source mesh according to distance away from the screen. Final models for the entire scene are being generated on the fly, whereby huge levels of polygon detail replace heavy use of normal mapping. Seeing the actual geometric mesh in the video shows what looks like solid, flat shaded geometry. But look closely and you can see that we are simply seeing billions of polygons on screen at once, in wireframe mode no less.

For those who aren’t already aware, tessellation is currently being used in a small handful of console titles today. However, for the next generation it is likely to be a standard feature. Seeing as current GPU’s are increasingly no longer being held back by how many polygons they can push, then it makes sense to use more geometry, textures and shading, than resorting to large amounts of normal mapping in place of per-polygon detail.

And if this NVIDIA demo is anything to go by, then the tech in its currently advanced form is certainly going to impress as things progress.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Tech Analysis: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (PS3 vs 360)

After taking a fairly in-depth technical look at the demo for Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, we came away decidedly impressed with the superb quality of the work on offer. The use of a highly optimised multi-platform engine, whereby through parralelisation of code - in the form of scalable modules which can run on multiple cores/SPU’s – not only yielded solid results across both platforms. But also confirmed that Criterion’s approach to development was indeed the right one.

In terms of platform parity, the demo was for all accounts, identical on both platforms, with next to nothing in separating them. Texture detail, filtering, lighting, and almost every graphical effect had been careful replicated on both the PS3 and the 360, whilst performance was surprisingly rock solid - 30fps being upheld near constantly, with no screen tearing taking place.

The most interesting parts of our analysis focused us on the game’s use of anti-aliasing - what looked like an additional technique had been included over and above the standard 2xMSAA solution, and the use of an incredibly impressive dynamic lighting system. Both of which were points we wanted to investigate further outside of the night time track we had only access to in the demo. And these are exactly the things we’ll be taking another look at here today, along with another look at performance in the company of the final game.

First of all, just a quick recap. NFS:HP renders in 720p on both platforms with edge smoothing being provided by use of 2xMSAA. Extra smoothing is also present from a currently unknown, custom form of AA, which is used to help reduce sub-pixel aliasing issues on thin strips of geometry and objects that appear far off into the distance.

In the demo we reported on the noticeable improvement in overall image quality present from the additional implementation of custom AA, although at the same time where left with only half the picture. For our demo analysis, we only had access to the night time portion of the game, which as regular readers of IQGamer should know, low contrast areas often provide a best case scenario for most anti-aliasing techniques (supersampling and MLAA aside). The real test of how well Criterion’s custom solution actually works, is in the higher contrast daytime sections of the final code.

As you can see in the screenshot above, like in the demo, power lines and small objects far off into the distance get a huge amount of edge smoothing not possible just by using 2xMSAA on its own. Edge shimmering is noticeably reduced as a result, and the scene has a more solid look to it.

Not all elements of the scene are covered however. Some objects, like the telegrapth poles and small fences at the side of the road, suffer from both high contrast aliasing and subpixel issues, where by the samples created by the MSAA are insufficient to deal with such things. These do result in some jagged and shimmering edges being present, sometimes unavoidably so. Although, overall sampling coverage, and indeed jaggies reduction is very good considering the look of the game.

Despite the high contrast nature of some of the daytime scenes, aliasing is indeed kept in check, with Criterion’s technique successfully aiding the 2xMSAA solution also apparent. As expected, jaggies aren’t completely eliminated - they can crop up frequently throughout the trackside scenery. But the overall result is more than satisfactory given the make up of the game engine – the lighting, huge draw distances etc.

Another thing that we were thoroughly impressed with in the demo, and that we wanted to check out in the finished game, in full daylight environments no less, was the title’s use of dynamic lighting. In NFS:HP the cars are lit and shaded in real time by the surrounding environment, with elements such as cloud coverage dramatically changing the lighting applied to the scene at any given time.

Image based lighting is used to do this, where the actual environment and lighting scheme are rendered first, before the cars are rendered afterwards in a separate pass. This allows the cars to be accurately lit and shaded at all times, changing constantly with regards to their position in the game world itself.

At night the range of different light sources in combination with cloud coverage gave way to an incredibly realistic look, with lighting that brought about a certain amount of naturalness to the overall look of the game. In the daytime we can see this effect being heightened even more. Various elements: such as the sun rising above hilltops as you come speeding around corners, and the constantly moving cloud dramatically impacts on lighting present in the scene, reacting instantly with the cars as they are being driven around the track.

With shadows constantly shifting, lighting is never the same across both versions at any given time. There is more range, and indeed scope on offer here too, making a noticeable difference. Although, the actual quality and implementation of the effect is the same on both PS3 and 360. This accounts for any lighting differences apparent in our comparison screens.

Interestingly, not every aspect of the game appears exactly like for like. In the demo we noticed that the specular maps on both the road and some environment surfaces seemed to be rendered in a slightly lower resolution on the PS3, and as we can see in the screenshot above, the same thing can indeed be found in the final game.

However, this oddity is only present under certain circumstances – the difference simply doesn’t exist when racing in full daylight conditions, nor does it appear above on the wall of the tunnel either (look to the left, it's the same on both). So maybe something else is interfering with it in some way. Either way, signs point to the reduced quality effect only being present when the car's headlights are directly shining on the road, in either dark parts of the track, or at night time.

In terms of performance, the final game, is as expected exactly like in the demo. NFS:HP runs at a rock solid 30fps (the game is framerate locked) at all times during gameplay on both formats, with the only slowdown occurring in takedown or car crash scenes, along with on some cinematics before and after the race. As these segments aren’t controllable by the player, the slowdown makes no real impact on the proceedings, other than visually, so there is no loss of controller responsiveness to be found during gameplay.

The use of v-sync is also fully apparent, with neither version exhibiting any screen tearing whatsoever. The high contrast nature of the daylight courses make tearing easier to see without having any equipment to measure it – that is to say that I saw none to be present at any point when playing the game.

So, performance is remarkably solid – a point we mentioned back when taking a look at the demo. But how does the game’s handling fair? Usually the lower the framerate, the greater the amount of latency has an affect on controller responsiveness, with any increase in lag being noticeable compared to games that run at 60fps. In the demo we sighted handling which felt slightly unresponsive, although actual controller feedback felt responsive.

As we first surmised, and experienced first hand in other games, the use of lower spec cars meant that fast turning or quick Burnout style drifting wasn’t really as easy as it should be. In fact, the handling model felt a little bit like Split Second – that is to say, that it felt a little unrefined. However, in the final game - with cars not a mile better than the ones given to us for use in the demo - we can see a marked improvement. The handling on the whole is far, far better, whilst maintaining that Burnout meets Split Second feel, without the compromise of feeling slightly laggy due to using those underpowered starting vehicles.

Of course, there’s no question that 60fps games, like Burnout Paradise, provide an ample improvement in controller responsiveness – lower latency means more instant feedback. Although, in this regard NFS:HP still feels incredibly responsive. More so it seems than many other 30fps racers, with the initial handling mechanic accounting for the difference.

Interestingly, it has been said that the PC version of the game can be made to run at 60fps with what looks like very little in the way of high-end hardware. Apparently, it is possible to acheive what I consider to be the benchmark framerate in which developers should strive for, with a simple mid-spec gaming rig. Unfortunately, my new PC isn’t ready yet, so I wasn’t able to test this out directly. But perhaps I might look into doing an update of sorts over the Christmas period if I have the time.

Either way, while it is obvious that NFS:HP would indeed benefit greatly from running at a higher framerate – sometimes the game is so fast that the 30fps update seems to lose its fluidity, even if it hasn’t actually changed – the experience is still a highly enjoyable one at that. Maybe the game isn’t quite as silky smooth as I would have liked – not at the super high speeds present. But of all the choices made, the compromise of having a rendering engine which draws massive vistas way into the distance, along impressive use of advanced dynamic lighting to boot, is a worthy one at that.

If its any consolation, the game’s use of motion blur often helps in making the game feel a tad smoother than it is. This is a common side effect of motion blur in general, in which the distorted nature of images in the scene can help to blend the separately rendered frames together, much like the way shutter speed affects the viewing of individual frames in film projection.

Given the insanely high speeds you are often driving at, the effect is a subtle one at best, felt more in the daytime races than at night. And sometimes, even it cannot make the game feel any smoother than it actually is. Thankfully, the constant 30fps update with no screen tearing keeps things nice and fluid. Although, that’s not to say a 60fps experience, with certain cut-backs made to the game’s advanced lighting system, wouldn’t be preferable.

In conclusion, the finished version of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit is indeed as solid and technically accomplished as the demo - on both platforms no less, with only one slight difference doing absolutely nothing to tip the scales of balance in either way. Both versions come highly recommended, and although the lack of 60fps may come as a disappointment to ardent fans of Criterion’s past racers, that shouldn’t be enough to prevent you from screeching off that starting line in their company once again. Well… not if you want the best Need For Speed game in years that is.

Once again thanks go out to AlStrong for pixel counting and for their screens. The full gallery of higher quality shots can be found here.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Tech Analysis: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (PS3 vs 360)

There has always been quite a considerable gap in between the PS3 and 360 versions of previous Assassin’s Creed titles. Whilst most of the core make-up of each game was in fact pretty much identical, sans occasional differences, both performance and image quality lagged behind on the PS3. So much so that Ubisoft themselves ublicly recognised this, with Level Design Content Director, Phillipe Bergeron, acknowledging that more could be done in a recent interview with IGN.

"At the end of ACII we realised that the PS3 was sort of an afterthought – or, not that it was an afterthought, but we hadn't fully debugged it until the very end, and we had a bunch of frame rate issues and quality issues. This time around we knew that, because we went through it once, so we decided to attack it from the beginning and I think the final product is much more on the level, and even on some parts, the frame rate is probably sometimes better on the PS3 than it is on 360."

The question is though. Did Ubisoft Montreal actually follow through, or are we left with another disappointing PS3 port, complete with noticeably worse performance and a smeary Vaseline-styled look? The answer in fact, may just surprise you. As although Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood shares much with its predecessors, it is certainly a more polished affair in which the PS3 version stands up remarkably well with its 360 counterpart. It is for the most part, bar some texture blurring and a contrast/gamma difference, identical.



As expected Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is rendered in 720p (1280x720) on both formats, with 360 getting the standard issue 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) as usually seen in titles on the platform, and the PS3 once again receiving the alternative quincunx (QAA) solution.

As we’ve mentioned before in previous tech analyses, the very nature of how QAA works in smoothening jagged lines means that the entire image, including textures, gets blurred to some extend. Unlike with MSAA, QAA works on applying the smoothening algorithm to every pixel and not just specific edges.

Essentially edge-based pixels are still sampled in a similar way, however QAA uses a five-point sampling pattern which inconveniently works on all areas of the image regardless of whether an edge is present or not – pixels in both low and high contrast areas are equally affected, which is the main cause of textures becoming blurred as a result.

The choice of using QAA over traditional MSAA then, is rather strange to say the least, considering the technique comes with roughly the same processing and memory cost as 2xMSAA. But the advantage it seems, is with it being able to deliver ample edge smoothing closer to that of 4xMSA, though at the expense of overall scene clarity.

The most obvious reason for its use probably stems from an artistic decision rather than a purely technical one – there’s no reason why MSAA couldn’t have been implemented, so it’s likely that the developers actually wanted to have 4xMSAA type levels of edge smoothing on both platforms, but without any easy way to do so on 360 (you would have to use tiling). The PS3, naturally, has QAA as a standard form of anti-aliasing not included in the 360’s GPU feature-set (it’s an NVIDIA thing), so represents an obvious compromise.

However, compared to some games that use the technique, the QAA in ACB has less of an initial impact in overall image quality than you might expect. Especially seeing as the PS3 build’s 720p output remains fairly sharp and continuously crisp despite additional texture blurring.

Unfortunately, most of our comparison screens for ACB are rather compressed whilst suffering from obvious lack of proper gamma adjustment on the console end, which makes showing the clean appearance of the PS3 build and the extra sharpness of the 360 game rather difficult. As a result we’ve left all the screens untouched - free from additional compression induced labelling, whilst also bringing you two much higher quality PS3 screens in which to demonstrate out findings.

With the two shots above you can clearly see just how sharp the PS3 version really is, with the use of QAA providing a decent level of jaggies reduction without compromising the clarity of polygon edges. Some texture blurring is apparent, which is perhaps the biggest bugbear I have about the technique. But as you can see its affects aren’t especially displeasing - not in every instance - and as a result ACB still looks incredibly good on the PS3.



Despite all our images showcasing what looks like reduced quality texturing in the PS3 build ACB, you can see that the main reason for this is a combination of both the additional blur provided by the use of QAA and the drastic difference in gamma curves for both versions.

This gamma difference is half of what makes the PS3 game look less detailed on first impressions, with textures that could be misconstrued as being in a lower resolution to those not aware of how QAA imapcts on the final image. However, the actual assets used in the game are actually like-for-like, and you can see this when both versions closely scrutinised.

Instead, it is the initially higher contrast and washed out nature of the PS3 game, in combination with the QAA which helps in hiding texture details, and making the filtering come across as looking worse, which in fact, is actually identical (same levels of AF present on both). Calibrating both the brightness through the game’s own menu, and gamma on the HDTV itself practically solves the problem, with the PS3 version looking clean and sharp with more visible detail being present after this is done.





You can clearly see this above: the in-game brightness setting has been adjusted in order to provide a more uniform look across both consoles. HDTV settings haven’t been touched in these two phone captures, instead showing that a similar level of brightness can be obtain by simply changing an option in the game’s menu.

For the most part, like with Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and indeed past Assassin’s Creed titles, both versions of Brotherhood look pretty much alike in the vast majority of areas, with any differences coming across more as mere quirks and rendering oddities than anything else. Other than the use of QAA and varying gamma curves, only performance really separates them in any meaningful way. And even in this regard, ACB has seen some noticeable improvements on the PS3 side.



In terms of performance past Assassin’s Creed titles have always been behind on the PS3, with more instances of slowdown and much greater amounts of screen tearing. Although in Brotherhood the gap has indeed been closed significantly, with less in the way of either taking place. Naturally, it is the 360 build which still commands an advantage, but both at times, feel and look very similar in this regard.

When looking at both 360 and PS3 versions of most games, it is clear that developers usually try to balance out the use of v-sync with trying to maintain a smooth framerate. Normally, PS3 owners are privy to a near solidly v-synced experience at the expense of a large increase in slowdown. Whilst on the 360, developers usually choose the opposite: ditching v-sync in order to allow for a smoother experience, but with noticeable amounts of screen tearing.

For ACB, like with past AC titles, Ubisoft Montreal have favoured the latter, in which case it is apparent that neither version employs v-sync but both can run relatively smoothly on many occasions. ACB targets a 30fps update, and the framerate is capped at that level – it never goes higher than this, but it does drop below.

However, both versions actually maintain a reasonably solid 30fps most of the time when load isn't being pushed – noticeable drops only really occur in situations where long draw distances are visible, or in areas in the city where crowds converse together. In these sections the 360 version does run smoother, featuring less prolonged dips in framerate (sometimes only by a few seconds or so) and less screen tearing. Although, on most occasions the two games operate near identically, with both dropping frames and tearing terribly at similar points. Bar perhaps the odd point in which the PS3 version felt a little smoother for a brief moment in time.

One thing that is apparent, is that the game on both platforms can suffer from regular, and continuous bouts of screen tearing even when the framerate appears to be mostly solid during the experience. In that respect, it is all too obvious that this concern from the first two AC titles hasn’t been fixed at all. The PS3 version tears more often than the 360 one, and both tear regularly in heavy load situations. Though perhaps this is something that we simply have to accept in order to gain better performance via a smoother overall framerate.

In the end ACB does display an improvement in this area on the PS3, although not quite to the extent we expected given Ubisoft publically released statement. Tearing is still an issue – more torn frames on the PS3 – and the framerate at times still struggles in a scenes with high detail and many characters on screen – on both formats no less. In which case it is obvious that despite some upgrades and optimisations, the PS3 version is still a little behind in terms of overall performance.

Saying that, there are often times where both versions are basically close to being like-for-like, and the differences during gameplay can be so subtle that they can regularly go unnoticed (between both formats). Screen tearing aside, both versions are reasonable performers, with the engine obviously struggling in situations where the overall load exceeds the capacity for it to be resolved.



Moving on, and we can see that the engine powering ACB on both platforms has seen a few steady improvements in the lighting and shadowing departments, along with other additional effects – the water for example, in some places, now looks to be made up of more than just a few texture changes.

Dynamic lighting and shadowing has been expanded upon, and the game features noticeable cloud coverage providing moving shadows which seem to affect the lighting and shadowing on the ground. All of this is done in real time, and actually accounts for some of the shadowing differences you can see in some of the screens.



The most obvious improvement comes with the inclusion of screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO), which adds an extra level of depth to the scene. Use of SSAO clearly expands the shadowing properties used throughout most of the game, and can be found noticeably on characters, and some parts of the environment. Along with the use of both dynamic and static shadowing, the use of SSAO helps to bring a more defining, realistic quality to the entire scene, with ample balance between areas of the environment with and without the effect.

Also in terms of shadowing, one thing we did notice was that certain shadows feature a slightly dithered look to them, much like what we were seeing in Mafia II. The effect stands out a little more on the 360, along with the shadowmaps themselves, which look sharper as a result of no QAA blurring. However, it also appears that the PS3’s use of QAA actually provides better blending with regards to the dithering effect - it becomes less obvious as a result.



In motion it is also possible to see some LOD issues with regards to the game’s use of shadowmaps - whereby shadowmaps feature a transitional change from lower to higher quality as you get closer to them - along with LOD issues on both platforms in general. Parts of the environment (textures, geometry, and shadows) in both the far distance and from a few feet away, tend to pop up noticeably on occasion as the engine struggles to load them in time. Though given the large draw distances it has to handle, this is understandable.

There are a few other differences to be found, but nothing major, or even anything that would really account for a clear rendering choice difference. Some shadowing and lighting oddities occasionally pop up – such as missing baked lighting on the PS3, or shadows appearing and popping in and out where they shouldn’t be. But this stuff isn’t noticeable whilst simply playing the game.



In the end Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is pretty solid on both platforms with the 360 version maintaining that technical edge in certain areas. On the other hand, with the exception of more screen tearing and the inclusion of the texture blurring QAA, the PS3 build is almost a good, having the same baseline assets and tech powering the game.

Even the use of QAA is no real blemish on the experience – calibrating both the game’s brightness level and the gamma on the HDTV makes overall image sharpness fairly close to that of the 360 game in this regard. The extra edge smoothing that quincunx provides can also create a more organic look to the overall visual make up of the game as a whole, with only some scenes looking noticeably worse off than others in terms of texture blur. In any case the PS3 version can be almost equally attractive if set up properly, even if the 360 game's additional sharpness is preferable.

Pretty much every aspect of the game in other areas is a like-for-like match, with only the odd rendering bug to separate them, and of course the 360 version’s lead in overall performance. But even that isn’t quite as commanding as with previous instalments – despite the PS3 build suffering from more noticeable bouts of screen tearing, the general framerate is pretty much in the same ballpark for both versions, with the 360 only fairing a little better in most cases from what we’ve played.

As to whether Ubisoft have delivered on their promise to provide a thoroughly more optimised, de-bugged PS3 experience. I think that as a whole they have. While perhaps not eradicating all of the problems found in previous titles, the overall result is far, far closer than before, with the 360 code no longer having a significant advantage. In short, there could be more work done to improve performance, but otherwise what we have here is a clear step forward in the right direction - a solid result in delivering a decent multi-platform outcome.

Ultimately, ACB can be comfortably recommended across both formats with your purchasing decision more likely coming down to which controller you prefer to use, or which format your friends play online with. The added inclusion of exclusive DLC for PS3 owners is yet another thing to consider, if a choice is indeed available to you. Either way, I’m sure most users will be happy whichever version they opt to go for.

As always, many thanks go out to AlStrong for the pixel counting, and to for most of the screens. The full gallery can be found here.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Tech Report: Irrational Talks Bioshock Infinite PS3

It’s no surprise to often hear about paired back PS3 ports of the latest new releases. In fact, although the gap has now closed somewhat, it was once a commonplace occurance.

Take the first two Bioshock games for example, rendered in a lower resolution complete with a blur filter and further reduced resolution effects, they where hardly the best advert for Sony’s regularly misunderstood console - our own tech analysis of Bioshock 2 strongly supports this. However, this has not gone un-noticed with series creator, and developer of the upcoming Bioshock Infinite, in which the company’s technical director, Chris Klein helped put forum users at ease.

"we're serious about making sure the PS3 version is great."

"We have no plans to hand off the PS3 version of BioShock Infinite to another studio. In fact, it's not a 'port' at all. We have a much larger team than we did on the original BioShock, so we're doing simultaneous in-house development on the PS3, 360, and PC versions of the game.”

Part of achieving this newfound focus on cross-platform parity comes from using a brand new engine, which has been customised in such a way that allows programmers to approach work on both versions similarly as you would when simply coding for the PS3. It has been said many times before that this approach would see tangible benefits for both platforms, and this certainly seems to be the case.

"We all know that the PS3 is powerful but unique console with its own strengths and challenges. But compared to the PC, the Xbox 360 is challenging too. So instead of declaring a 'lead platform' and porting the game to the others, we've instead changed the game engine so that all platforms look (to a programmer) more like a PS3. This means implementing a task-oriented task processor that assumes a NUMA (non-uniform memory access) design that mimics the PPU/SPU split of the PS3. Writing code this way is more difficult for us, but has a key advantage: it's both optimal for the PS3 *and* gives speed improvements on other platforms due to increased cache coherence and more efficient use of multiple processing units."

“We've built a whole new parallel processing framework (a "job architecture", in programmer lingo) that lets the engine take advantage of as many cores as you can throw at it. This will let us eke out all the power of the PS3 and 360, and also give hardcore PC gamers something to show off their rigs with.”

Chris also talks about how moving to a deferred lighting system was done to help reduce overall CPU overhead, particularly on the PS3’s rather limiting PPU, whilst also shifting certain tasks off of the RSX GPU and to the SPU’s further optimising the engine for increased efficiency.

“This decision (switching to a deferred lighting scheme) was made for many reasons but one important one is that, compared with a Unreal's traditional forward rendering scheme, deferred lighting reduces the amount of work we need to do on the slowest part of the PS3 (the PPU). It also allows us to move work from the GPU to the SPUs, which gives us many options for speeding up rendering on that platform.”

Furthermore, all programmers also have access to both 360 and PS3 dev kits, thus allowing them to test and optimise code as new features are implemented. This means that various graphical and performance issues can be worked on simultainiously throughout development, rather than porting to PS3 and then working out the kinks. Devs can see how things are progressing on a side-by-side basis.

"In terms of production, we're constantly testing our code on the PS3, as it is part of our QA team's daily test plan. All of our programmers have PS3 and 360 dev kits on their desks, and can test on the PS3 just as easily as on the 360. To make sure we find and fix problems as quickly as possible, we have a ‘continuous integration automated build system’ that rebuilds the PS3 version and runs basic tests on it every time a programmer or artist makes a change to the game. It even emails them right away if they break something. In addition, we've also built tools that allow artists and designers to instantly check whether or not their levels will fit in memory on all three platforms, without ever leaving the editor."

With this thoroughly insightful and incredibly revealing post, we can see that Irrational are not only taking the PS3 version of Bioshock Infinite seriously, but like with Criterion games and other such developers, understand that the key to delivering top performance one platform is often to optimise the core engine in a way that benefits all platforms. And by working around parallelising their code, they are doing exactly that.

Previous titles, such as Burnout Paradise, and most recently NFS: Hot Pursuit have shown that this way of approaching multiplatform development actually works, and very well too. So in that respect the next instalment in the Bioshock series looks to be in good hands.

Without a doubt we’ll definitely be keeping you updated on this one. The highly modified tech – based around UE3 – is both interesting as it is visually alluring, and should provide us with another captivating report as more details surface. Hopefully, we'll be able to declare both versions as being basically identical in an eventual, and extremely far off tech analysis of the game. That's certainly what Irrational hope to see.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Review: Call Of Duty: Black Ops (360)

Ignoring reality, Black Ops firmly has its feet solidly in the realms of fantasy: Busting through a set of doors before busting a cap in the head of Fidel Castro is clearly a world away from such endeavours black ops units actually get up to. But then again, we never know. Certainly not with a team designated to perform operations that no upstanding military commander would authorise - at least not officially, and that is what makes Treyarch’s latest an interesting tale.

So this instalment in the award-winning Call Of Duty series once again further allows itself to be larger than life, with intense set pieces and non-stop gunfights for terrain supremacy, funnelling you along corridors in what looks like an FPS gallery shooter with firm homage’s to yet more Hollywood movies. Then again, this is exactly what Modern Warfare turned the series into. But even before, it was heavily branching down the path of arcade realism. Black Ops simply lives up to this premise. It’s here to please those grown accustom to the series trademark style, and unrelenting ballet of bullets.

It’s not that I particularly mind this forte of action. In fact I rather like it. The balance of near constant shooting, with brief pauses in between to regenerate health, commandeer a fixed-turret machine gun, or in order to quickly take a breather and assess the situation is exactly what makes this series tick. However, Black Ops also shows that the now well-worn formula works even better when combined with a more coherent storyline, and a focus on individual characters, however small, rather than being an all out mish-mash of convoluted James Bond-esque set pieces and mindless exposition.

Here, you spend most of your time in the shoes of John Mason, a Black Ops team member that now finds himself captured and being interrogated about events from past missions. Hidden behind a smoky glass window, an un-named spook attempts to extract vital parts of your service history, which are presented through various flashbacks as you succumb to the pain inflicted. These flashbacks comprise the game’s long sea of missions, taking you through Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, and back again in a heightened Cold War era tale of misinformation and distrust.

Essentially, through these flashbacks Black Ops tracks your progress taking part in everything from the apparent assassination of Castro, and discovery of a chemical weapon – the potent never gas, Nova 6 – right the way through to hunting down the Russia generals and Ex Nazi commander responsible for the new terrorist threat.

At first the story seems somewhat disjointed, almost feeling dazed and confused like John Mason in the chair he finds himself strapped down to. However, as more of Mason’s memories come flooding back to the surface, and as the elaborate tale unfolds as a whole, everything becomes clear as day, with Black Ops keeping you gripped with its focus on giving away brief snippets of information via short and snappy cut-scenes.

To that end the single player campaign is a more tightly reigned in affair compared to MW2, with emphasis on big budget Michael Bay style set pieces, and a near constant barrage of action. It is never quite as overdone as some of the things found in Infinity Ward’s last COD title, with the larger events feeling more realistic in a warped sense of the word. Plus, the game tries to keep a balance between the large explosive encounters and quieter missions that are based around stealth or a brief moment of tactical combat.

Outside of these ebb and flow elements to the action, the straight forward shooting is broken up even more with several vehicle sections whereby you take control of helicopters, boats, and a tank in bringing about some stylised destruction. What’s cool about these, is that some have been deliberately influenced, and dare I say, going as far as ripping off various Vietnam flicks of the past thirty years of so with the use of licensed soundtracks and iconic confrontations – it all makes the fictional story, and the combat more natural when compared to some of things the series has thrown at you before (the nuke in COD4 anyone?).

Black Ops also takes the time to stretch out the battlefield even further than before, providing players with larger, more open spaces in which to take part in elaborate battles that have to be handled a little differently. Like with the rest of the game, there are always a few carefully orchestrated set pieces to be found amongst the endless amounts of enemies to kill.

However polished most of the action is throughout – and it is a superb, well-constructed affair - Treyarch don’t always seem to get it right all the time. And in too many of these open battlefield sections the old case of respawning enemies rears its ugly head once again. Ultimately, there’s little you can do other than to shoot down a few them before making a run for it to the next checkpoint, thus stopping the endless flow of potential cannon fodder.

The first Vietnam stage is home to the most obvious, and easily the worse implementation of this in the entire game, whereby, as you are making your way down an embankment to the trenches below over the horizon literally dozens of enemies continuously head your way. Sure, you can push over a few barraels and set them alight to keep odds stacked in your favour. But if you don’t… its run and gun until you reach the next section.

This is perhaps the main difference between Black Ops and Modern Warefare 2 – other than having a more succinct and character driven narrative – in which the game feels like its relying on an old, thoroughly worn out tactic to deliver a challenge that could’ve been handled far more intelligently. It’s no deal breaker. And other than a few short spells of frustration here and there, the campaign is handled with a lot more reserve and direction than expected.

Black Ops’ single player expedition through the cold war era is firmly solid and handled with minute precision. Cool touches like licensed music and the inclusion of real life figures such as president John F Kennedy add weight to the proceedings, whilst the gameplay is cut from the same cloth as previous Call Of Duty’s, almost feeling a little too comfortable in its own skin.

As you’ve probably guessed, progression isn’t a word Black Ops understands, nor heeds to at this point. But then again it doesn’t really need to, not when the overall game is as polished as it is. The gameplay, although tried and tested, perhaps even a little stale, is still as involving as ever, and the more focused nature of the campaign helps it shine through any excursions of monotony. As Modern Warfare 2 demonstrated: being bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. And this is one cliché that Black Ops thankfully manages to avoid.

Like with all Call Of Duty titles though, the campaign is just for starters. It could be argued that the multiplayer – especially online – is firmly on the charge, delivering an automatic spray of replay value well after the cold war conflict of the single player outing has happily exhausted its supply of conscripts. Black Ops then, doesn’t disappoint. With a range of inspired new game modes, and a return of World At War’s fanatically popular ‘Zombies’ Treyarch again have shown command of a franchise they originally were criticised for taking the reins of.

It’s no surprise then to learn that online and multiplayer is exactly where the franchise has taken its biggest steps forward. New modes, and a currency system of sorts expands and complements COD’s trademark use of perks and the established procedure of ranking up as you play, with the ability for greater levels of customisation amongst players whilst adding variety in an increasingly familiar environment.

The use of the new COD points for one, allows you to purchase weapons, clothes, and abilities in the form of perks instead of simply ranking up to get such items. Interestingly this adds a lot more variety to the proceedings without the expense of making the experience feel un-balanced. It’s pretty coo to gain new things more quickly, rather than having to battle it out in endless online matches in order to rank up to do so.

You can even gamble away these points in a series of free-for-all modes called Wager Matches, in which a variety of game types are available. Highlights include One in the Chamber, whereby each player is only given a pistol with one bullet, a knife, and three lives, and Gun Game, in which players start off with a pistol and are given a new weapon with each kill. Getting knifed gives you back the previous weapon, while getting a new one means that you’ll have to quickly adapt to using weapons you may not be very adept at using.

Also as mentioned earlier the Zombies mode from COD: World At War makes its riumpant return, but this time is expanded upom with several maps, and the ability to play as either of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, and Fidel Castro while battling Zombies in The Pentagon, which is pretty cool to say the least. Four players can play online in co-op, whilst there is the legacy two-player split screen option for those who want to be in a room with ‘real’ people.

If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that the game’s matchmaking service is a little slow, and the online co-op campaign of WAW is strangely absent. Besides that Black Ops takes some large strides forward in delivering the deepest, most satisfying range of multiplayer modes to date. The combination of perks, rankings, with COD points and a range of excitingly geniuos new modes helps keep it right up there along with the awesomeness that was the original Modern Warfare online.

Unusual as it first may seem, it appears that Call Of Duty Black Ops well and truly does deliver. There is always a risk of creating an instalment that fails to differentiate itself enough from past games, or one which strays a little two far from the crows nest. However, Black Ops does neither. Instead, it balances a fine line with a single-player campaign that simply treads old ground in a more coherent manner, and a multiplayer in which it mixes up the familiar helping to keep it exciting.

And overall, as complete package there’s simply no doubt that Treyarch have done a reasonably stellar job here. The level of polish, and expertly crafted, fast-paced, visceral action takes a page right out of the Infinity Ward rulebook, but doing it better than MW2, and with even more style. It can be said with confidence that the studio should no longer be looked at under the cloud of IW’s past successes, but instead as a solid team on their own, with their own take of what Call Of Duty should be.


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.