Uncharted 4: Attention 2 Detail In-Depth Technical Analysis
It has been a long and hard journey for our intrepid hero, one Nathan Drake. Many a path since trodden, explored, wandered, chased, shot, blown up in fact you name it he has been through it and back. He has grown as we the audience have with him and his incredible adventures over 3.5 games thus far complete and after the events of 3 it seemed he settled down with Elena, become a family man and gave up his treasure hunting days…but oh no.
Inverse Kinematics is not a new process in uncharted games or games in general but the integration of it here is at the forefront of that. Simply this is the method or more accurately equation of how limbs or joints operate and move to perform physical actions within a physical world such as how limbs react to floors or ledges, the fingers of Nate gripping, bending and levering around the object he clings to with incredibly accuracy. Hands roll and judder around bars as you swing, you can fine control the reach and location of your next grabbing point with use of the analogue sticks. Within the games dramatic and fluid combat system you can see the slips, shimmies and slides have both fluidity and weight that has been lacking in the past. When grabbed arms contact and struggle in movement, actions all happen based on the motion, scenario, weapons and more at the time.
Double teaming up when in combat you can see the high key frames used for each action, the almost seamless blending between sets and the multiple pivot points on all characters. The engine now has a full physics system throughout pretty much all rendered objects that I cover later, but it is within its animation that you can see and feel this the most. Punches connect with a velocity not unlike TLOU but here are less brutal but far more movie like with momentum in each action. Smashing through walls, kicking, strangling even hanging onto feet to save themselves from a fatal fall. The sheer quantity of animations sets that the game has in memory and how seamlessly and dynamically they all flow is truly a defining feature of the game. As you explore, shoot, fight or climb every movement and combat looks motion captured and staged as nothing that looks this good, moves so fluidly, connects so inherently and feels so epic could ever be calculated on the fly…could it.
Moving from animation we already touched on the games physics system animation that allows momentum to effect actions. From falling and fighting to shooting and explosions as you have just seen every encounter feels like a well rehearsed action sequence from a summer blockbuster. And a HUGE portion of that is the games physics system that I have talked about much before. Like other areas of the game in AI, Lighting, geometry drawing and culling the GPU of the PS4 is heavily leveraged to deliver the calculations per frame. And Physics is yet another area to add to that, as confirmed by Lead programmer Jason Gregory last year. What we have here is something rarely seen before at this level and complexity within a game of this sheer size, scale and scope.
Best demonstrated in the E3 shown shootout(although there are more) the density of objects within the world is vast from pots, pans, bottles even fresh chicken and processed meat is not spared the ordeal of a potential circumcision within the uncharted whirlwind. Bullets leave a trail in their wake and can break down or move objects as they impact. Cover points or Walls procedurally decay from gunshots or even being slammed into, vehicles crumple on impact, buildings collapse, pillars are pulled down, rope bridges swing, sag and crumble all within the on-screen action or triggered sections and more but now is not the time for that. And the connection is they all look realistic and natural when they do. But all this is again a by product of ND style for attention to detail, diversion of the eye. Again using the memory now available many of these techniques are not the result of a high calibre real-time calculation but a mixture of real-time and baked solutions. Damage on vehicles for example is based on Vertex and skinning blends within the raw mesh, building this into the object and using the games particle system to read from the buffer and blend between the 2 as each collision is recorded.
Wind and force in the game handled in a similar universal fashion from trees, leaves, Nate’s hair including chest and clothing allowing water to droop hair and the wind to push objects, with such a high foliage count this is most welcome. But it is not only wind that can affect these as explosions also do the same, flattening vines, pushing objects over or breaking down materials all within play. Following on from this floor boards or bridges dip and move under foot, water and mud reacts to your passing all using this mixture of blending and memory to deliver what is possibly the most organic and physical sets of locations I have ever enjoyed. In action everything appears to react to you, enemies, NPC’s and all the ensuing action it creates, Vines are pushed aside or struck with bullets, objects collapse all with real world physics that really sell the set-up. This carries over to vehicles that sag and bob from the natural and unnatural forces in play, combined with the animation system as you can see impacts, g-force pushing turns and more all carry the movement within.
This leaves such a lasting and convincing feeling that aside some obvious ignorance to the games physics at times for plot use you are simply convinced by the organic nature of the game. And this is not only a great showpiece and technical marvel but it also helps improve the game-play and set-pieces.
Lighting is an area that has always been a big part of ND aims for each of its games this comes from direct, indirect lighting, ambient occlusion or contact with objects and characters within the ambient world. But in this latest title the engine has received a huge update and its lighting model is not only a generation leap over any of its previous games but now is leading edge in many ways.
This come in various areas that I will cover and the first like most area of their games is the progression and refinement of previous ones. Ambient Occlusion is the self shadowing or contact sections within objects that may and may not come from direct light sources meaning that areas being occluded or blocking the light source cast a shadow. The contact system covers all characters in the game using a Low level LOD and shader process to build the Proxy Capsules covering limbs, head and torso. These are then used for the shadow system in addition to the standard shadow maps to emerge against scenery as they draw near. It is again used to reflect the characters in the world from puddles, metal pipes and more as I covered in the MP beta. A resounding success that helps ground all characters within the world.
But the lighting overall is rich, diverse and dynamic using the deferred engine base to handle huge amounts of light sources and a range of light methods from area lights, point light, directional and obviously the en-vogue Global Illumination but this is where it really shines (groan). As I covered in the Madagascar footage sun light throughout the game is handled with direct and in-direct light bouncing and reflecting off of floors and the accompanying radiosity that this incurs. IBL is the most likely candidate to handle much of this and light maps to create the bounced source. This gives grass edges a red hue from the sand, or characters a green tint as required. In conjunction with the pixel precision that saturates areas with light further enhanced by bloom and tone mapping with its HDR corrected pipeline to emulate the eyes correction from intense light sources. Its quality and coverage is both high and accurate as you see soft ambient light seep into caves, or torch lights bounce around cavernous spaces. As I have already covered the lighting model like some of the shadows in the game do seem to use a reconstruction technique that improves the quality over multiple frames. Shadows in the game can vary with this method not used throughout as in many areas techniques are balanced with shadows cast through materials, bokeh light and in others can be under sampled with self shadowing on faces the most obvious signs when this occurs. This can be hard to spot and the stippled mosaic look that occasionally occurs is a fair trade and like I say many will not even notice.
Itself now giving off at least one but possibly multiple light bounces and attenuation relevant to distance and source. As you can see from the video and picture examples the torch light bounces off the cave wall and brightens the floor as I walk towards it and fades as I walk away. Light bounce fades away as you enter tunnels, leaving the softer natural light behind. It not only creating this bounce but also bringing with it the reflected source colour when visible i.e. in Screen Space. You can see the specular highlights on the basalt columns from the bounced torch light, but against the gold plate/wood of the chest the floor receives the soft golden glow from its bounce. Again the green chest leaves a faint green hue as the global illumination samples the colour and light direction. All these areas combine creating possibly the most impressive lighting element in any game as very quickly you are convinced of the light in the game. Walking into any natural lit area your torch light is overpowered and fades. Shadows are of the stencil variety in sections giving penumbra edges and scaling from the light source, with a flame source light casting shadows in all directions. And not just indoors as later sections ramp this up as weather conditions change you get cloud shadows, blazing sun and more. A shining beacon in the future of games lighting and this game better than many shows how important lighting is to improve and create the visual punch and the real-time cut scenes ramp this up further still.
Combining the Disney, DreamWorks animation mentioned earlier with a new facial capture system that uses cameras, its new PBR pipeline and the aforementioned lighting system you have a recipe for some truly bar raising sections and it was never in question that ND would not achieve that goal. I do not exaggerate when I say the game has some sections that could and will be confused with Pre-rendered CGi as the mixture of high bone rigs, vast polygon topology, realistic lighting and near Pixar level shaders from actual Disney talent Yibing Jiang topped off with the animation Nate has never looked so mean, moody and sexy and all the cast are treated to the same high level. Over and over again you will sit and watch these sequences in sheer amazement, then only to realise you have been handed back the controls. And from the opening section that will leave your jaw on the floor it keeps on delivering and as expected the teaser section is not in the final game, but what takes its place is so much better and more fitting but you can judge it for yourself. Skin and muscle deformation can be clearly seen in necks, wrists even rubbing faces it looks incredible. But all the touches in these scenes add up, specular in eyes, mobile phone lighting up parts of faces, water running and off objects the intricate detail they delve into is truly incredible.
At this point it would be enough for most games to call it a day but it just keeps on giving from its improved Decal system allowing shaders to add or reveal dirt, water, and damage procedurally as you play and even dry or be washed off. Sub surface scattering is used in both cut scenes and gameplay penetrating hands, ears, leaves and as the models are the same you get to view the details like this from game to cut scene as you play. The only change being additional shaders, lighting and obvious animations. This is all rendered in a native 1920*1080 display and backed up with another high point of the teams own Temporal AA solution that works incredibly well. Smoothing out the motion but not blurring the screen or textures to a degree that will offend anyone. It does remove many of the signs this is a real-time game as shimmer, pixel pop and such are mostly removed in action unless you hunt at the distance objects. The coverage manages to clean up most frequency issues unless you whip the camera around like a roundabout and when it comes to the real-time cinematics it really impresses as many of them do actually look like CGi, and the opening section is a superb example of that and when it rains..it pours. Image quality is yet another high point and like most aspects of the game all works towards the same goal of its eye watering presentation.
Within the expansive levels and hugely enjoyable action the balance of techniques is impressively managed as dust clouds sample both light and shadow maps no matter how small the plume. POM is sparingly used in sections to add extra depth to cavernous areas with it supporting self shadowing to assist its impact. Screen space reflections are also used in the game with a decent resolution and in some of the bigger areas leaving just the Proxy capsules and Cube maps when out of view or inactive. Depth of field is used in gameplay and cut scenes with bokeh, motion blur is the best the team have yet created. Handing velocity and per object it improves speed in the vehicle sections or fast camera movement. Smoothing out limbs in action as you decimate the shoreline enemies and it cannot be under egged how much it helps make this not only the best looking Uncharted or Naughty dog game ever but the smoothest. Yes even coming off the recent remasters for PS4 the comparison does not flatter them and when you add in control and combat it is a whitewash for UC4 and a resounding success for the team.
It does have some small niggles that I should cover in these analysis, Alpha effects on water splashes can look weak and even misplaced at times also polygon counts within the levels are managed at various degrees and in some locations the lack of vertices can lower the quality of these but like most things it is a compromise with characters, vehicles and such sporting the lions share. AI is one of the games strongest points and is thankfully affected by the difficulty being more aggressive, visible and accurate the higher up you go. It is not aiming for the same level of TLOU and the encounters are of a different variety so you cannot throw objects to distract here and they never seem to work in such a coordinated way as that game, but I am sure most of that is by design. As this is aiming for a blockbuster action delivery it cannot centre on stealth that said they are impressive as they can take the same paths as you, flank you, grab you and have the same level of passive conversation to back up their characters just like the system employed within Joel’s adventure. It makes the encounters the most fun in the game as they react to your actions, investigate noise, run for cover when shot at, team up and throw in the sheer scale of the action and interaction as bullets start flying from both sides leaving physics and procedural destruction in its wake you never feel anything but impressed. The buddy system is equally as impressive with many great conversations happening throughout play and resuming very naturally when rudely interrupted, the combat side is a mixture though with it being both helpful and hindrance at times but overall another benefit.
Water and light continues its impressive engine demo I am sure not a million miles away from Driveclub that handles light reflecting and refracting through and over its surfaces. Ice sculptures distort and bend light as it passes through, water has multiple levels of shaders handling surface tension, reflection but once you go under it's tessellated surface then the results speak for themselves. Allowing portions of light to seep through and refract whilst reflecting the objects and light underneath. Caustics bounce up onto cave walls, light reflects onto other objects from its surface. With the volumetric lighting used well across the game seeping in from caves, search lights it also handles volumetric shadows in the water from the boats and mixed with the multiple shader passes, reflections and refraction system it is such inviting looking water you will want to dive in and you can.
I have missed much more in the game and that is as much by design as time as you need to enjoy it all as this really, truly is a new benchmark in what has been delivered here combining the balance of technique, art, style and function into what is a defining game for the PS4 and possibly the generation. It is still an Uncharted game at its heart but slower and faster, older and wiser, larger and more diverse than ever before. With no stone unturned Naughty Dog have delivered a poetic and fitting end for Drake’s adventures in a world far, far bigger, even more beautiful, striking, dynamic and on such a vast scale than many would or could have ever hoped for, it takes time to fathom. This is not only the best looking Naughty Dog game so far it is possibly the best looking game this generation, and you just wait till that last chapter.