Gears Of War 3 - Backwards Compatibility Technical Analysis
Microsoft delivered some of the finest and successful franchises last generation, from Fable, Forza, Dead Rising, Crackdown, Project Gotham Racing, Halo and of course one of the biggest in Gears of War early into the cycle.
This monstrous tale of humanities fight against the locust was in many ways the game that started the generation. When it appeared for the first time it set the benchmark for that generation and thrust both Epic themselves headlong into console AAA developers after such a long and successful PC portfolio, whilst also advertising their very own Unreal engine in the shop window. A resounding success as it went on to be one of the most widely used engines of the generation. An historic situation likely to repeat itself again this gen with the latest release 4 of their engine.
With the original Gears they created a bleak tale of humanity’s struggle being almost a Band of brothers type War movie as much about the characters as the conflict. The vulnerability lost a little in the Quarter Back sized cast being a typical Epic design style. But it was a real suspense filled action game mixing horror well with its action narrative. The de saturated colour palette and futility continued with the bigger and more Epic (Pun fully intended) sequel that gave even more backstory to the band as they explore further into this decadent and destroyed world.
But this whole premise, tone and especially the spectrum took a titanic shift with the third chapter within the series. The engine had matured now, the programmer’s use of the hardware more refined and they still had some tricks up their sleeve to ring as much from the now aging 360 as they could. This was 5 years after the first game landed and only 2 years before this generation started (although that still gave them enough time to squeeze out yet another prequel) and it delivered a dramatic change in the game. Both its story, tone and atmosphere took on a more positive slant, hope was restored, the world was rebuilding. And this change made its most obvious and striking impact with the visuals, now with its bright tropical tone replacing the old greys, browns from the previous games. Instead we had scorching sunsets bathing our base and aging cast within its yellow hue. Instead of working within the dark and limited range of earlier entries this allowed the artists to stretch their legs with lush green grass, willowing palm trees, scorched sand and more. This delivered some of the best and intelligently used textures of the engine and certainly the series at this point along with a much more accomplished suite of post effects. Now the game is lavished with strong lighting thanks to its use of the, as then, new Lightmass system within the latest Unreal engine. Delivering huge strides including multi bounce global Illumination now running in the game, area lights, penumbra shadows, it also made great use of bloom, volumetric lights from the sun, heavy particle and alpha effects from sand, smoke and fire. In addition it ramped up the mesh quality and quantity along with early PBR work using a diffuse and Fresnel specular model enhanced with its precomputed light bounce with indirect shadows among other benefits from Tone mapping, colour correction and bleeding. And this was not the only level they improved with DoF used heavily along with one of the best velocity based Per Object Motion blurs of the generation covering character meshes down to each limb making both the action and real-time cinematic sections both smoother and more impressive in addition to camera motion blur to sweeten the deal. It left little doubt as to it being one of the single most impressive games on the platform both in technique and delivery. But this change also affected the mood of the game and the Locust changed from being a shadow dwelling terror making you uncomfortable in battle to little more than “The Other Side” in a war. The foreboding terror had been lost but this was not a fault of the visuals albeit helping this along. But the game delivered great action and views across its long campaign nearly as much as you heard this...
Sadly the story and design was not pushed as much as the production values with these easy moments appearing time and time again throughout the campaign as the story was in desperate need of tying up its own loose ends. But it still had some great acts and gave a satisfying close to the Marquez Fenix chapter that was both fitting of such a gruff voiced hero and heroically cliché in its delivery.
And all this is delivered in carbon form under the new XboxOne emulator allowing an expanding list of Xbox360 games to be played on your new console, with the original disc or store purchases enabling the download of the relevant image file with which to play it, learn more if needed from the links in the video or our article on the solution in play and why it is not as simple as you may think. What we have is the same decoration, greatly improved animation rigs, larger cast, long life particle and alpha effect right down to its varied texture filtering and near total lack of any anti-aliasing solution both within its rendering pipeline or post produced within its final 1280 x 720 native geometry output buffer. And as you would expect this means that from thin areas, long edges, trees the game can shimmer with interference and noise which can reduce the impact slightly from what is still a cracking looking game that demonstrated the huge shift that Lightmass brought to both the game and engine. Now having a more accurate lighting model means that faces, building, materials all portray a more approximate light consumption and reflectance action than before with colour bleeding, shadows even dynamic bounce light reacting with characters. Although early and greatly iterated on in later games including its remastered original on XboxOne which also sported the Lightmass plugin to deliver its impressively revamped aesthetic and demonstrates the strides it made which have all benefited Unreal Engine 4 which the version that games uses.
So with its staggering visuals, sound design and even fun online play all playable from this BC title we are only left with the performance of native VS emulated to compare or split them and it is a tale of 2 halves and leaves me sounding a little like a stuck record.
Taking the games mixture of Real-time and movie file delivered cut scenes but all rendered in engine using Matinee. The relatively low quality of these videos files (In part due to the tight space constraints of the machines DVD format) stands out like a towel on a nudist beach. The real time sections are much cleaner with the low bitrate making these much easier to spot and normally are used to mask the larger loads needed as the game shifts locations. And in comparison to the 360 release unsurprisingly and as I have covered in other videos the superior GPU in the XboxOne rarely struggles to deliver the computation needed per frame within its smaller render window. As these are MOSTLY GPU bound sections of the game we can see up to 33% performance improvement on the XboxOne over the original with that having moments of high geometry load as an example causing sustained runs into the 50ms frame-time, meaning we get a flat 20fps output. In fact in general the new BC version of its real time cinematic's run close or at the 33ms target with the 360 version regularly seeing dips below this for prolonged points or the aforementioned 50ms runs. This is not a surprise as the new engine pushed the machine hard and with the much denser bone rigs and animation these cut scenes allow both the engine and art, animation team to show off.
But games are for playing and this is where the now far more typical split occurs with most of my tested BC titles thus far. In addition to the visual improvements the game also has a good level of CPU load some coming from its much denser draw limit per frame, more characters on screen this includes both physics and AI. Now with the emulator having to compile the code from the native image in real time into the X86-64 instruction set means that the APU of the XboxOne has to do more work in the same time which of course is all dependant on how each game used its resource and tricks within both the API and hardware. This is one of the reasons each game needs a level of work to be up and running and it must be stressed the emulator is very impressive but in the end it has to emulate a 3-core 3.2Ghz CPU at run-time using 6.something cores @1.75Ghz and this is using the assumption that all code can be evenly split in parallel efficiently which is not likely at all. What this means is that with the original game YET again being one that allows its frame to tear when it run over in all areas of the game the limit of the emulator currently has a hard coded V-sync in place and I am sure you can see where this is going.
With the 360 release tearing across the screen it can flip its buffer part way through the render to be mixed with the previous frame. This means that for long sections in battle the screen can tear, a lot but it keep update and response faster and more importantly even. Even though we can still get full missed frames in conjunction with this it holds much nearer its 30Fps target than the new BC version and reverses the situation we saw in the cut scenes and previous games. Logically this is because the FAR more powerful GPU here can still achieve the same work in the reduced time it is being given the same cannot be said for the CPU. Which has more to do (In total) per frame than the GPU in addition to creating the commands that feed it and with it being such a drastic change and design this means it can struggle in parts. In the smaller firefights this means that with the 360 tearing across the section we see around 29fps running with the tears, this translates to some 3 or more fps lower and thus more see saw delivery of its frames. But this is the best of it as the game can really create some big shootouts or Ambushes and this can cause dips on both machines but the XboxOne can really suffer.
One of the biggest in the game is this firefight in a ticker factory that involves large quantities of onscreen enemies and friendly’s which means large portions of AI scripting it also has physics from the swinging chains, falling tickers. This means that with the 360 hitting a low of 25 with full screen shredding the X1 can dip a further 11fps lower to a rare low of 14fps. But it is the response and random update that can makes these sections near impossible to play as the consistency is needed with any game that requires precision like a shooter and sadly means that even though the game can hit a low in my tests of 14fps on the XboxOne and only slighter higher of 16fps on the Xbox360 these happen in gameplay and cut scenes respectively meaning that the XboxOne is the most effected. It also means that even though the XboxOne has less duplicate frames over its target it stays lower/longer and as gameplay is far more than cinematics its average is much lower with longer hang times happening as you can see here with both versions having longer stalls from I/O or context switching for example these are always longer on the X1 version. If the CPU was a much faster clocked single core it would most likely help this scenario out and bring this down to possibly faster than the 360. But yet again I still think that if the team can implement an option to enable or disable the V-sync option it would help reduce these issues and would still allow you to choose what option suited you best. This is best demonstrated with 95th/99th percentile times for each this is the worst case scenario at the higher region of each and the nearer this is the target Ftime the most consistent the experience.
In the end the BC work from Microsoft is both very welcome, impressive and I am sure helpful in selling more units. But with some of the later games that used much more experimental techniques and bespoke solutions within the constraints and task in hand this can have an impact on the final product, possibly improved by an adaptive V-sync option being added. It is a benefit to allow this kind of emulation and it must be stressed that the current BC solution that the PS4 has is only for PS2 games and thus is not as performant demanding on the system as what is happening here, but I will be covering some of those games very soon.
For now I will leave you with a few more minutes to get a further look at the game and hope that you enjoyed this, if so please hit the Like and why not also tap the subscribe button also and really push the boat out..go on you know you want to..I want you too, it will be fun I promise lol. Leave all your thoughts and feedback below along with other games you want me to look at both from the 360 catalogue or the current PS2 choices that are now cropping up on the PSN store.
It was good to revisit this game and even though I think it lost its original horror and suspense vibe from its original 2 games, I am very happy that the upcoming Gears 4 from The Coalition this year looks to have addressed this and taken the series back into the darker tone and more tension filled style with a brand new cast of both friend and Foe. See ya soon on the next one.