Quantum Break: Technical Preview
2016 is shaping up to be the most rammed years yet with a smorgasbord of gaming delicacies to chose from, in part thanks to some slipped titles from 2015 but it's loss is our gain. One such game that will be flaunting its wears to attract our custom is Quantum Break. One of many exclusives landing this year but brings with it some some changes in just how exclusive these really are.
As longer viewers of my channel know I talked about and predicted this push from Microsoft last year in my Direct X 12 article and its journey into a larger and unified ecosystem model with all devices being a Windows device and not just a PC, Phone or Xbox and the Apple model is their target. With each app running under the central kernel means that one size fits all and like DirectX 12 all being exclusive to Windows 10 as it needs to entice people into this model with Quantum Break from Remedy, it will be the first Day 1 dual XboxOne and PC release In addition to being a cross buy so you really buy one get the other free, digitally only mind. This is an article for another time and the aggressive push on such a title shows how committed the big M is with this vision.
All that said all the footage you see and I am talking about is on the XboxOne with no PC footage shown yet but the changes will mostly sit around IMHOP framerate and resolution so long as you have the machine to muster it, but both will look equally mesmerising as we can see already. The game has taken a very large change in direction since its initial showing and plan, from its planned TV show being uncast or indeed written when the mock up pilot was shown. This continued with the lead casting change for Jack Joyce now with the X-men's iceman taking the lead honours along with some other well known faces to present a star studded cast in both realtime game renders and the shows live action episodes that play out as you work through its story of your time tormented tirade. This is not a huge surprise from the team that pretty much invented the concept in games, Max Payne is and has been a hugely popular series and Remedy have never really left its bullet time concept behind. Alan wake (now playable as BC title if you pre-order this on XboxOne with American Knightmare) was another Xbox exclusive and the same engine is being used that powered that games impressive volumetric lighting, highly detailed character models and seamless cinematics for Quantum Break just very heavily modified. This is not the only thing that appears to be present from Alan Wake as that game also ran with V-sync off and could happily tear across the vertical axis at will, mostly when volumetric light filled the screen and we can see the same symptoms in the much upgraded and enhanced lighting system here. But this is a preview build and I am sure this and some of the other signs I will talk about will be improved and or resolved come launch.
Remedy's engine Northlight supports volumetric light in abundance along with Voxel use that covers both audio and visual elements. Sound is a key portion of the teams work pushing this as hard as the pixels and this is often an ignored aspect of a games presentation and resource use, all these sound channels, samples and post processing does not come for free even if both consoles have some dedicated sound processing, CPU's are still used for varying levels of this. As the games nucleas is time and it's distortion then skewing, altering this involves sound as much as objects and as such the team have delved deep into this. As the engine is heavily proportioned with middleware solutions (pretty much a standard across software development as a whole these days) from Wwise sound processing and Umbra culling this covered much in the teams GDC talk last year. Umbra is used for both geometric culling of objects within the camera frustum and shadow maps etc, this is the same solution used in many games like The Witcher 3. But it also supports audio processing along with its voxelization process it can easily and cheaply calculate audio culling from within the world easily stopping sound from bleeding through walls using multiple raycasts within the scene at runtime giving approximately 100-200 per frame, again intelligently staggers across frames to allow a balance of what is calculated within frustum distance to lower the computation based on distance. Propagation is managed through umbra sound gates that allow simple markers on areas within he he scene marked as gated so that sound can be muffled and given a 3D source and then dynamically change within the scene based on action like a door opening or a window breaking, these all fall within the Umbra plugin and demonstrates how advanced middleware solutions have become. And as you can hear from the teams demo's and the games audio is a real treat to your drums and only adds to a games Emersion.
Visually the team have really taken strides to push the XboxOne as hard as possible, with the engine being a deferred render it allows a huge qty of lights and effects to build the final scene. Lighting has always been important in the teams work and with Quantum Break they have only gone further with this as it now supports both physically based materials and real-time dynamic Global Illumination. This allows light to bounce around a scene or environment far more realistically than prior games with it taking into account both the source and reflecting body. Sadly I have no high quality footage to work with aside what you can see here but I will use what I can. With such a vast array of objects within a scene (the engine is deigned around steaming assets within a 2D spatial grid) all having physical properties from both collision and destruction it presented a big challenge for the team and its solution to an indirect lighting model as it not only had to work with these player driven changes but also the puzzle element and volumetric light can and are all effected by this. To achieve this they merged a pre-computed solution with a real-time screen space one. Using light probes based on irradiance volumes that allow them to interpolate the information between points to reconstruct the irradiance within a scene along with a pre-computed offline map that is merged to create the final light that calculates direct and indirect light across the scene.
Backing this up is a screen-space technique that allows higher and more accurate specular choices. These are mixed with the image probes when screen space information is available I.e. What we can see within the camera frustum then it is used to build the reflectance which includes standard specular reflections and full reflections. When this is not possible then it reverts back to the probe for its information. We can see this in play in the game with the engines abundant screen space techniques evident throughout action. You can see hands highlighting a white bounce specular onto metal objects, characters reflect on ceilings, walls and floors and these cast on dynamic objects just las static ones. But the merging of information points can show signs of errors as data is wiped away quite clearly at points when not in view. And along with some strong frequency noise around characters and objects I feel these are the areas the team are working to improve for launch along with the tearing sections already mentioned. But the sheer amount of reflections in the game, volumetric light, physical interaction and destruction is very impressive making it clear the engine is both very well threaded and GPU resource is well leveraged here. The team did not use a GPU based hardware solution to calculate the runtime data for all this irradiance and reflection information though , instead they used an adaptive or cascaded Voxel tree solution (see how popular voxels are now) that runs within a 4x4 grid, when a bounding box returns true on a triangle, this is then broken down further into another 4x4 grid which continues until the lowest limit/budget allowed. From here an array of information is stored and used as a lookup reference for the voxel points and thus what data to sample and return for each pixel.
Further adding to the visual quality is ambient occlusion adding self shadows and depth to edges, contact parts of a scene. The team use a screen space solution here Line Sweep Ambient Occlusion which works from the depth buffer and looks to be a pretty good solution with again some signs of it screen space process when occluded but this is true of pretty much all ambient occlusion methods but it looks good here. Geometry is handled separately and more inline with HBAO techniques with it all calculated at 720p (as many portions of a games render are made up of various resolutions) to help reduce its cost down to less than 1.4ms on the XboxOne GPU, this is also where some got confused with the game rendering at 720p which it does not, at this point 1080p is the games target output.The list of effects is not done here with such a chaotic and action oriented world we see motion blur used at a per object level adding to the games presentation and smooth flow in combat. Looking velocity based and of a reasonable sample quality it is both welcome and fitting in play. The Anti-aliasing solution looks to be of he temporal variety and has multiple samples of frames to below remove pixel movement within the scene at high frequencies which is achieves well. But the ghosting signs are quite strong and leave heavy trails on brighter backgrounds so this may be an area they look to increase the sample rate to help reduce this, but it is hardly a show stopper just noted as some may have picked up on it from the games showing thus far. It does only present itself clearly in the slower movement sections and maybe they will incorporate velocity vector information into the algorithm as they use for the motion blur, but with all temporal solution like this and others such as SMAA it is a balance of the benefits and trade offs but it all helps deliver what is shaping up to be a stunning looking game for XboxOne and PC gamer's.
I am very much looking forward to getting my copy so I can cover the game in depth with a spoiler free review and analysis and even more to dive into the games mixture of time shifting puzzles, dual story control and chaotic action. No this is not me playing on screen and I can only say that for b-roll footage Microsoft would do no harm in getting someone more dexterous to show of the games power skills and 3rd person cover action.
Come April it will have a quieter month as the time gods have worked in its favour and mine giving us more time to enjoy the scope of the teams vision in what looks to be an impressive action adventure for team Xbox and Windows 10.