Return to Arkham: Technical Analysis
A remaster of EPIC proportions!
Earlier this year I covered the announcement trailer of the remastered versions of Rocksteady’s first 2 entries with its own take on the Batman universe trilogy.
From such iconic games it needed to deliver something special over the originals. Relatively unknown team Virtuos had been handed the spit and polish job along with the task of porting over to the brand new Unreal Engine 4, over from previous titles vessel in UE3, something I am no longer as convinced has actually occurred for both titles, but I expand my thoughts on that in my Arkham City analysis here.
Although many may not have heard the name, chances are you have played one of the China based porting squad’s titles before, and not only in games. From Final Fantasy Remasters, Heavy Rain HD, Star Wars movies and even Nathan Drake himself have all had a helping hand from the studio. With work right back into 6th gen machines on their portfolio they certainly have experience in this realm and with such a lauded series the expectations are even higher. Dealt a huge blow of confidence when its July release was pushed back to October after a lukewarm reception was received from the trailer. Some features had certainly improved over the PS3/360 titles from higher quality textures, improved models and additional shader, lighting and effects work all demonstrated from that short release. But not all were positive with some bad choices on model changes, inconsistencies in quality in addition to a large portion of the shown footage coming from pre-rendered cinematics. Hugo Strange stood out for all the wrong reasons sporting much flatter lighting, skin shaders, hair and overall appearance than the last gen releases.
These also do not exist in a bubble with both titles having higher quality versions on PC which expand and improve on the impressive 7th Gen originals. So you may be asking why I am covering this now that I have the titles in-house, well the answer will become clear. As this is still only a 2 prong release with the prequel of Origins ignored in this new release that ships across 2 discs for PS4 and XboxOne. These 20GB installs also big patches respectively for Ayslum and Arkham City on both consoles, bringing them up to version 1.01 off the disc base 1.0 release. You can learn more on this with my 1st contact video, link below.
Starting with Asylum both consoles output a native 1080 image, but not a full 1920 width. On XboxOne the game deploys a dynamic resolution to scale the horizontal axis, with me having counts from a full 1920 right down to 1440, it may go lower and have some in between. The PS4 from various counts in multiple sections holds its 1920 width, if it does drop below this I have yet to find a count that shows it does, these are all approximate resolution give or take a few pixels. Not a good start for a 7 year old UE3 based title. On first appearance, this looks to equal the high settings on PC which includes visual effects, presenting a crisp image, largely down to a lack of PP effects work. But upon further inspection not all is as it seems on both titles or indeed consoles.
I will start by saying that the warning signs had been present from the delay and even they and my thoughts cannot match the final impression and quality of these releases. The greatest sadness is the fact these games are brilliant and from the Rocksteady legacy it is a shame that Warner Brothers have not shown the level of care, love and attention they deserve. From the Lacklustre PC release of Arkham Knight outsourced to Iron Galaxy and later repaired by Rocksteady themselves. It pails into the quality and results we have been presented with here, and to make it fair I will break these down into relevant sections.
To be clear a remaster that plays around with the visual presentation and colour tone etc will always be subjective, that said the overall delivery in play is welcome and still feels like Asylum, City has received less attention. As such I will not dwell on if they are artistically better or worse than the original title as that will be mostly subjective. I will only state that they could have been far more sympathetic whilst improving the quality, materials and presentation even if the work is predominantly artist and programming related.
The lunatics have taken over the Asylum
This has clearly had the lion’s share of work lavished on it that has involved a good portion of time, effort and I am sure budget. Models have been reworked and improved (some not) from the sombre, moodier comic book year one influence to a brighter more 60’s inspired tone. This has included re-rendering the cinematics and played back through bink video files. Although these still suffer frame pacing issues the image quality is much better and of a higher quality then previous releases.
Texture work is now much higher quality on clothing with fine grain visible on suits, stubbled faces, improved skin shaders delivering a blood filled look rather than the embalmed appearance of the originals. Sub surface scattering still seems patchy or missing entirely, with a cheap lambert diffuse across faces that reveals more than its last gen roots.
Batman himself has had the biggest upgrade and this has mixed results in which version is the more human looking. Although the model himself has not changed drastically (most likely to keep the animation rigs/routines intact and free from odd issues) asset work, extra shading has been added. Best noticed from PC highest setting the extra rain effects giving a specular water on his latex suit,skin and intense light bounce bloom as he talks. A clear divide between the 2 in the remasters favour. But aside extra screen space reflections now, more detailed foliage and specular highlights across the games vertex sections which stand out due to the lower buffer resolution of them it does not leap out has a vast upgrade from the PC or even last gen releases. Across the game in both play and pre-rendered but in-engine and game assets we see much better texture work, high filtering and improved post effects sadly let down by the dynamic resolution on X1 that leave you with a slightly blurrier image than PS4 but both have a reasonably noisy image quality, even worse than we have on the old PC and in some cases, even the 360/PS3, a shocking failure from a remastering point of view. With UE4 supporting a TAA solution it is a shame this was not included into the package. A fact made much worse by the next section of issue.
This first title targets a more consistent frame-rate than the packages other entry in city. But even though it hands in a much closer effort of that target than the other, it still does not achieve what we should expect of it. 30Hz is the aim and even though over the course of a second on both X1 and PS4 it does, it can still fail at times hitting that. More so on the X1 where it can dip to lows of 20 with prolonged 50hz runs giving us short lived but long felt sections. Adding to this is that fact that the engine seems to keep time like a cheap watch and lerps between the ideal 33.3ms delivery constantly leaving you with unwanted judder, control and general bad taste. The overriding feeling that this should have targeted the High setting PC mode and a 60Hz rate with some tweaks to effects, textures would have been much less work, better performing with a stronger reception. This feeling never left me the entire time playing.
What we have is a game that can and does perform worse at points than its last gen releases and aside the obvious asset improvements and work elsewhere it can even run at similar resolutions due to the dynamic solution in use. To cap it off the actual game, dialogue and animations are the same using the original UE3 scripted sections and AI routines lift and shift means that the whole experience is unchanged throughout. Sound mixing issues also occur at points, huge day 1 patches that improve texture streaming issues and other bugs but do not resolve the obvious pacing issues both versions suffer from. I can only assume that the project to move over from UE3 to UE4, which this title looks to have done, is a proof of concept so to speak that should have been given a bigger budget, team, time or all 3 for what purpose though? I am still wondering.
In the end, what we get is a game that feels far less than the sum of its parts and on top of all the issues described could even alienate a bigger fraction of fans due to some extreme stylistic shifts. Regrettably the entire package cannot be recommended by myself even as a diehard fan which saddens me to say, with it only muddying the history of the greatest Batman titles we have yet played a crime, that ironically, maybe only Mr Wayne himself should avenge and punish for us all.
This City has gone to the dogs
The basics we already know, the game targets 1920x1080 resolutions on both platforms and both games having a dynamic scaling option on the horizontal plain meaning that we see lows of 1052 on XboxOne and around 1600 on PS4, the height remains 1080 on both.
It then only seems fitting to accompany this with a dynamic framerate with both consoles running unlocked and Virtuos have done just that as we see frametimes jump between 16ms right up to and beyond 50ms. Giving us times of anything from 52fps at its highest point on PS4 and sub 20 at its lowest on XboxOne, neither machine hand in a solid delivery and both can fall nearly as low as each other. The PS4 does at least have sections that feel smooth with prolonged 45+ runs indoors but taken as a whole across play and mixture of real-time, pre-rendered sections they both should have just capped at 30 as it never helps a games delivery with 35 being a common high point on X1 and the average of the PS4. Fixing the dips and capping to 30 would have resolved the games single biggest issue, the engine delivery is never up to the job of the target rate at the best of times, they should have cut their losses and capped on both. Even more worryingly is that fact the games visual presentation is not a leap over the last gen titles and this at times even includes the resolution.
Now to be clear I am a big fan of Dynamic resolution as I think it is both an intelligent use of resource that is hard to spot for the majority of players in addition to it maximising the hardware and as such performance of titles. I am also a fan of unlocked framerates that help a game feel smoother than a capped 30 with crisper feeling and display. But both come with certain base rules and caveats.
Dynamic resolution should not be used for 6 year old last gen ports on new hardware, a full blown remake like Gears of War for example would have been fine as this is, in all intents and purposes, a new title or build, Arkham City is not so refreshed. Accompanying that, unlocked framerates only work when the title in question can hold around the mid to high 40’s for the majority of play. Think Second Son, God of War titles for examples of this but when a game struggles to break out of the 30’s and more so dips as often as these do under that then the writing is on the wall, floor and eyelids by this point. A frame cap is the preferred option and reduces the see-saw delivery that we see in this game, even more so with the PS4’s higher ceiling.
What about the games benefits then? Changes have again been made and they are not always for the better but they are far less drastic or far reaching as what we saw with Asylum. Models have changed far, far less and really have only received texture, shader improvements over any real significant model changes or additions.
Suit modelling is the same, hair styles, topology, animation etc etc are all identical to the first title by and large. Small exceptions do arise, Penguin’s bottle end, sorry monocle shoved into his eye that is largely the same but now benefits from better translucency and distortion shader passes. Fur now has more depth and layers, sadly no more movement.Harlequin now adorns a similar looking corset texture improvements from Asylum. Batman himself, his face, suit and gear are all near carbon copies from the last gen and PC versions, aside some co-ordinate issues.
Background detail on posters, scenery has received some updates and the 2 versions do have other changes across them that stand out in play aside the aforementioned framerate and resolution. As I covered in my first contact bloom effects are heavily paired back on X1 along with particle effects looking slightly less with an AO pass that is much better than what we had even in the PC release more inline but stronger than the Nvidia HBAO solution. Again the X1 does either have some small errors or suitably paired back coverage that although nice to see benefits it is hard to spot in action.
We also see changes over the PC release, light sources now have more accurate coverage with extra shader specular across edges of vertices that sadly also suffers from its sub native resolution highlighting shimmer at times even more than the PS360 releases. As I predicted with my preview PhysX is not present in the titles aside the cape effects of batman himself and soft body of fallen foes. These did require decent level Nvidia hardware mind and only my GTX970 can run them with my fellow Maxwell architected GTX750Ti struggling to keep the game moving once these are turned on, so the omission here is not a shock or huge loss. The features had better implementation in Origins on PC than the small additions in segments here with debris and carpet, pussycat related antics. But the PhysX carpet is at least now present on both so maybe the plan was to include?.
Ommisions also arise from even the last gen releases, screen-space light rays are gone in the new title from many but not all areas leaving an oddly flatter and older look. Other solutions do appear pointing to quick wins on the port, performance gains or simply lack of time to implement. Other alpha effects are now awol from smoke seeping through pipes, fog in areas not improving the visual presentation even if Texture work, normals and more are improved over the base game, none stand out as much as the cutbacks. It could also be simply due to the mismatch of a port this title seems to be, and of the 2 titles City feels very underdone and missing large stages of inclusion work. This even extends to missing or reduced volumetric effects on XboxOne which actually look more in line with the Direct X based PC release than the improved PS4 version but again there are less of them in total. Water effects have been enhanced with a vertex based rotation giving us an undulating shore-line rather than the flat looking older title.
As per my Asylum analysis both games had been planned as a UE4 port over from 3. After playing and checking the game I am not convinced this has happened in the final shipped version or at the least this port has gone bad. My reasons for this are, and I stress I have no developer info or access to code etc to know so this is my thoughts, educated guesses or speculation as best you deem. But if I do find out either way I will update here and in the article so if you are watching this a few weeks or more later just check the video info below or the site.
We see changes to cubemaps from the base game now using a screen space reflection solution, something we have in Asylum a game I feel made the leap to 4 as it had the longest gestation with the temporal artifacts I have noticed before in UE4 titles. Instead we have the far more standard UE3 look to the method here and even a higher resolution than in Asylum, which is an odd occurrence for a higher throughout title on the same engine.
Additionally the changes to the texture work, clarity loose some of the crispness we have in Asylum and look far more typical of the filtering methods than 3 uses and is infamous for, although not all as other sections do see much higher quality work but again the entire game looks to be lacking many post or even alpha effects at times, assisting its flat look. Performance is vastly different and superior in some ways to Asylum, even though the title is newer and more demanding. Further showing almost identical issues and core scripting/branching context hangs that we see in the core console release and even more so the PC release. No TAA that UE4 has which in itself does not mean they did not use it but with the dynamic resolution and shader additions it would have really benefited the title. The Performance issues being near identical to the PC release and asset streaming causing the worse this seems to match the low threaded nature of the core title as the PC release only uses around 2,3 cores and in no way extensively. Again the streaming issues are a common issues with the Unreal 3 Engine and titles.
Like Asylum Motion Blur is missing from both versions and even less than we saw in the first titles. In Asylum you had points with camera blur these are now missing with per object only present in the Pre-rendered sections. City is the same and if they added this and capped at 30 it would have made such a difference. It COULD be from the teams knowledge of the original code base or lack thereof and its ported state. Depth Of Field is used far less in gameplay and is of a much simpler Gaussian blur rather than the higher quality Bokeh shapes that even the PS360 had. It also is not at the level we have in Asylum when performing a take down, from a weaker pass or not compensating for the higher resolutions?.
Holy dynamic disaster batman!
Ultimately the results from City are even worse than Asylum and point to the games being attacked in launch order and it received the browner end of the stick. IF the titles did indeed both move to UE4 then it was a largely unfruitful process for them and the project.Game credits and box work only elude to Unreal Engine and not a version with my thoughts being a partial code merge and use from the 2 engines almost along the UE3.5 that Knight was created from. Gaining nothing of any real benefit over the previous releases that could not have been fulfilled within UE3. Loosing effects, reducing performance and delivering resolution levels that can be as low as the last gen version and far lower than the old PC titles is simply a tragedy of epic proportions, adding salt to the wound of never gaining from the UE4 toolset benefits which could have been due to the developers biting off more than they could chew possibly. Even more so than Asylum, City ported from PC High level with some tweaks and changes with a 60Hz rate would have not been a quality deal but still far better than what we have been left with. An assortment of changes few for the better and a performance graph that looks more like a GPS of Batman’s route across the Gotham Skyline than a representation of a job well done. It is unlikely we will know what and just where the issues reside on this remastered collection but was is clear is that the games, Rocksteady, Batman and both consoles are all worthy and capable of much, much more than what has been achieved. And even before Knight fell in Gotham, it was the best time to play the starting points of Rocksteady’s tale of the bat as fun and enjoyable as these new versions are they do not exceed or even equal how they could have been played before this wasted opportunity.