Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Tech Analysis: Motorstorm: Apocalypse Demo

The Motorstorm series has been there since the inception of Sony's PlayStation 3, and should no doubt be there right at the very end of its life cycle. With each successive installment the game design has constantly evolved, the sense of scale upped, and the level of intensity taken beyond that of a traditional off-road racer. Motorstorm: Apocalypse doesn't buck this trend, instead pushing things further into the realm of fantasy.

The sedate desert canyons of the original Motorstorm, and the sprawling volcanic island of the second game have both been replaced with a cityscape in the midst's of chaos being caused by a raging natural disaster. While on the other hand, the gameplay has seen some subtle but wholly beneficial tweaks.

This change brings about a serious refinement in tech, with the game boasting larger, more destructible environments, reworked particle and physics effects, and additionally, both 3D and 1080p support.

There's no doubt that Evolution Studios have pushed the boundaries of what is possible on the PS3 even further in the context of a driving game. And although the demo is rather conservative compared to what we've seen of the finished product, it gives us an initially positive look at just what has changed.

As always a look at the framebuffer reveals that the game is rendering in 720p and uses an implementation of Sony's morphological anti-aliasing (MLAA) solution instead of the 2x multi-sampling (MSAA) technique found in past titles.

As we are finding out evermore frequently, MLAA is vast becoming a magic bullet of sorts with regards to getting a cheap, but effective way of suppressing jagged edges on most PS3 titles. According to Little Big Planet developer, Media Molecule, it can be dropped into a game engine with just a day's worth of coding.

The MLAA implementation in MS: Apocalypse looks to do a great job too. It appears to be very similar to the one used in Killzone 3 - perhaps another custom variant of it - and deals with regular aliasing artefacts extremely well. High contrast edges are handled with ease, with only some sub-pixel issues and mild instances of shader-based aliasing that go unresolved - neither of which can be dealt with by using this current implementations alone.

But on the whole its hard to believe that a regular MSAA solution under the 4x mark would fair any better.

Moving on, and Evolution Studios has dramatically upgraded the game as a whole. Lighting stands out for being high-contrasty and exaggerated as a whole, bringing depth to the scene, while the level of environmental destruction has been raised considerably, with collapsing buildings, explosions, fire, smoke and particle effects constantly bombarding the track in one way or another as you race.

The dust and dirt trails that emanate from vehicles, along with smoke effects especially, have been given a noticeable boost in particular. Some of these effects now cast shadows on the ground in certain circumstances and have a lot more depth - they look like they have more 'volume' but without actually being volumetric.

In order to achieve this, all alpha buffers are rendering in quarter resolution - like in Killzone 3 - as to prevent reaching the system's peak bandwidth limit too early on. As a result, we can see that water and fire effects look particularly soft up close, as does smoke in some situations.

Shadows too, also see some compromises for the same reasons. Dithering artefacts are noticeably present on edges, additionally affecting some parts of the environment blanketed in shade. It's likely that the use of both low quality filtering, and perhaps blending techniques, is what's causing this.

But ultimately, when concentrating on racing non of this really has any impact on the game at all. If anything, without the increased use of alpha effects, some of the immersion would have been lost. Keeping the screen busy, filled with distractions is part of what makes this series stand out from competing titles.

Seeing as the demo features so much going at various points, and that the use of alpha plays a significant part in crafting the overall experience - the feeling of immersion, you'd be forgiven from expecting the engine to have trouble with maintaining its targeted 30fps update.

But this isn't so. And as our analysis video above points out, the developers at Evolution have successfully achieved this near solidly, with only a few scant dips to be found throughout; non of which impact on the gameplay in any way.

Some screen tearing is also apparent, as true v-sync hasn't been employed. Instead, we see that soft v-sync has been used, whereby tearing is allowed to occur at the very top of the screen (in the overscan area normally cut off on most HDTVs). Looking at this area in our video reveals that the game is constantly tearing - a result of the engine attempting to deliver frames for display as quickly as possible.

With this in mind we've clipped the top fifteen lines from analysis in order to give you an idea on how often the game actually produces torn frames that you can see. And as we expected, most of the visible tearing goes largely unnoticed, bar from the odd occasion where the engine struggles to render out a near complete frame in time for the next screen refresh.

Seeing as the GPU isn't stalling when trying to keep up with the next screen refresh, the framerate is effectively smooth throughout, meaning that MS: Apocalypse has nothing in the way of impacting controller latency issues. While aside from some minor tearing, image fidelity is also preserved. And this is further backed up with a tweaked, more responsive handling mechanic.

Cars still have that 'loose' feeling that encompasses the series trademark style, although turning feels sharper and the sluggishness seems to have been toned down a notch. Personally, I think the mechanics do feel a little bit too loose on the whole. But this is a stylistically engineered choice. So in that respect, it's business as usual.

Overall, our time with the demo barely represents what the full game has in store for us. It's pretty clear that this short taster is just a very small, and pretty pedestrian sample of what is yet to come. Either way, the same technical show-points are there (just not in as greater numbers) and the improvement over and above the first two games is obviously apparent.

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