Star Wars Battlefront Preview
Well we are edging ever closer to the big showdown at e3 again this year that will be the first true year of pretty much all games being shown being now gen and PC bound only. This means that we will start to see engines that where designed or updated to be fully aimed at the memory, processors and GPU's of these consoles and PC as a base.
And what this means is visual and audio heaven galore along with hopefully a similar push in game design. One of these multi platform games is Star Wars battlefront that has already peaked the interest of many along with the doubters everywhere (this pessimistic gamer seems to be very prevalent at present with some level of understandability there-in) asking what it will look like?, this is fake only high end PC!, you know the song. We now have a In-engine game trailer to show off just what Dice have been doing with the frostbite engine since BF4 and the results I think speak for themselves. But is it all just smoke and mirrors, with this not begin indicative at all of the actual game, well I aim to dissect the trailer and highlight where and how along with my thoughts on this.
But to do this first I need to clarify what we are seeing here and just what the whole in-engine, realtime, pre-rendered, in-game, pie in the sky and so forth all the prompts mean. As we are now closer to seeing games started when the gen kits where out in the hands of devs coming to completion I feel that certain things need to ,and hopefully have, begun changing. Long time viewers know I am not a fan of pre-rendered CGI trailers ( Deus Ex gets a pass) last years E3 certainly from Microsoft had far too many of these, Crackdown, Halo 5, Scalebound and now cancelled Phantom dust being a poignant example of just how little these trailers mean. As to gauge even the look of a game let alone the style, play mechanics or even game design is nigh on impossible from the pitch mock ups that are most likely created by an off-line CG house who have a brief and make a high quality trailer to suit the spec. This is a waste, a high quality non representative display of a game that is most likely nothing like the trailer shown and may not even exist yet as was the case for many of the list above. This form of trailer is your pre-rendered, your off-line non game machine or even game engine created trailer, think of them as a poster to a movie nothing more representative than that.
Next we move into the actual game engine trailers, these are running on the developers machines so may be a ultra high spec PC but runs under the same conditions, code and assets as the actual game engine can handle, with the limit being the maximum the game engine can handle running on very high powered machines (note here do not confuse these with consumer level hardware ) And this is what we have here with the new Star Wars trailer, it is an actual genuine showing of the improvements the engine has undertaken and is the best case scenario of it in action. But ( and this needs to be stressed ) these are cut-scenes, non interactive scripted sequences with director set cameras, post effects, and action entirely designed like a movie with everything pre-set and determined. This is not fake or a scam nothing more than putting on your Sunday best or going out gear, it shows off all the elements of your engine to the fullest with models, scenery, post processing all on the highest level. A game will not and cannot look like this as the first thing is the camera is set from the players view so will alter entirely how a scene or sequence plays out. What you see here is how realtime, in-engine cinematics or cutscenes will play out, just like the ones here in the order 1886. This is all running on the actual game engine and being generated in realtime by the machine that is simply running through the pre-calculated events as designed by the scripter, but as you can see the difference between the 2 is very minor and in some cases not existent.
But is this all genuine real footage completely untouched and as we expect? Well no not entirely as their is some small signs of alterations you will always need to take into account. First is the start of the sequence shows signs of some additional composite work with the tree trunk on the right of screen, this looks to be moving out of line with the camera usually a sign that some additional work has gone on with the actual output from the script. But this is minor and may only be a sign of a better nod to the style of the Star Wars movies that used this foreground object for scale in many shots.
But the trailer gives us many more signs that it is indeed showing a game engine off, I warn you that many things I will show here you cannot unsee if you have not noticed them.....be warned. You can see the lack of any shadows from lasers or explosions in many shots, reflection of lasers on water is absent as is any reflection of dynamic objects like the x-wings in this shot. Explosions have a simple specular texture reflection that is pinned to the centre of the explosion, rather than a distorted one you would expect. Water is very static and lacking ( at least in this trailer ) any heavy tessellation or dynamic surface reactions that BF4 had, showing that it is making comprises in areas to use elsewhere. The complete lack of any screen space tricks in the trailer shows how forked off the engine is from the one powering hardline which uses this trick.
But great texture work and tessellation is used in the scenes, best noticed here prior to vaders appearance you can see the LOD switches and adaptive tessellation happening on geometry behind the rebels as they move. This is the engine gearing up or essentially cutting back on heavy bandwidth or computational load when not needed or notices, in this case the geometry is for the heavy detailed vader model and DOF with bokeh that is very high quality.
So we can see obvious signals and give ways to a real engine working under the kind of constraints that real-time needs, pretty much most of these signs all being something that a pre-render would not need to worry about, even an in-engine one would. But the biggest issues I think many have with believing this is the sheer IQ on offer which is superb and much better than the previous game under this engine. But their are easy answers to this and also as to why, let me explain.
All previous games on this engine have still ran with the constraints of last gen and shared assets, their is only so much any team can do when something has to scale across such vast hardware specs that entail a less than 500mb console with much, much weaker GPU and even CPU along with coding changes and instructions sets that I mention more in my Console article. Once you have simply to aim at X86 CPU's and the relevant set of SIMD, Other benefits of the design just as a start then so much more is possible as your base is much, much higher along with the benefits they all offer up.
Again GPU instructions let alone Power alone is vastly improved for developers now with these constrains removed and then the vast potential of options with game engine can really begin as the programmers get clever with what is on offer. And this applies just as much to ram which helps both texture quality and Anti Aliasing options in conjunction with the vast hardware improvements. And here we are seeing what 2k or greater photo realistic texture quality brings to the immersion in the game, improved greater still by the physicaly based shader work and high quality normal maps align with the shown tessellation and I am sure parallax occlusion mapping. All these combine with much greater mesh quality on objects and characters that raise the visual bar much higher than we are used to outside of some glimpses all ready in games like DriveClub, The Order or AC:Unity and much, Much more we will see this year at E3.
Not only this but the scope of what is now possible with the lighting allows a more realistic use of this in dynamic light sources like here with the small flash from large explosions but also in global illumination, this is how light is absorbed ( diffused ) or reflective by objects thus "bounces" around a scene and cross illuminates other areas even bring the colour of the reflective source as seen in Driveclub and alien isolation and this is as I have said one of the biggest areas visuals will change this gen, all tied in with the PBR shader work. Like many areas not only vastly improves the visual quality but also reduces artists work loads and thus development schedules and budgets or most likely just used elsewhere.
Now the other area that will be experimented with is anti aliasing as I said, with both consoles running GCN derived GPU's that both support many more features at a hardware level including MSAA/EQAA As we have seen from Michael Drobolt and Ubisoft in FarCry4 and the superb and experimental HRAA solution (Hybrid Reconstruction) that uses much lower level GPU access to reuse calculated data again to improve the temporal image quality. Again modern warfare saw a new slant on smaa being demoed, again the The Order used not only 4xmsaa but also additional work within the texture composites to deliver the cleanest image this gen outside of super sampling.
Now that Dx12 has hit PC along with Vulcan (as I predicted) taking over from mantle now as the 2 lower level but more specificity less constrained by legacy practises, this will allow developers ( of which Dice are at the forefront of this in both the console and PC space as far as multi plat goes ) to try much better and more efficient methods and we are already seeing that happening and we will, this on its own is more important than just the simple resolution number itself ( all though this does still matter ) and as we move into this generation not only will these newer tennis use make pixel counting harder but they will also offer up a leap on image quality over what we are used too. And here I believe we are seeing this with the latest trailer, with the frostbite engine being a tiled deferred renderer this means that as a scene is drawn the screen is broken down into smaller sections in grids, these are then calculated for depth, culling etc ( so that hidden pixels are not sampled for texture lookups and wasting bandwidth) but also that it can be run and calculated in tandem across the GPU cores.
All this allows it not only to scale well across hardware ( the XboxOne's esram will be heavily used here for these tiles ) and offers up the use of MSAA along with MLAA and temporal work which as I say will be big part of graphics programmers work at present. Expect this to be a moving feast for a while as different solutions and trials are made and attempted, like the very clever temporal re-projection solution used in Guerrilla games technical tour de force killzone shadow fall made even more impressive by being a launch title. This used 2 frames merged to create a full 1920 wide screen from 2 960 native renders for the multi player portion of the game, so good in fact no one actually picked up on it until they themselves mentioned it, the re projected solution will be used more and more as we already have MRT's that combine various resolution within the final composite image.
And this along with other games we have seen glimpses off highlights the push into much more impressive and photo realistic visuals, I jest not when I say that this sequence would not look out of place in Return Of The Jedi as the team should be highly applauded in not only capturing the feel, aesthetic and lighting of the famous endor battle but also surpassing the films then groundbreaking visual effects in a real-time cinematic from a game. I myself cannot wait to see how this games looks when shown in a few months and more so how well it scales across hardware. Expect a slightly softer image then here with the game still being 60fps on all formats I expect both machines to run around or just below the full 1080 with some minor cutbacks and if you want the 60 target that to also be a sacrifice on map great many PC's as well.
Dice have used the last 2 years well in getting the Star Wars licence and EA are all set to have a huge hit on their hands come Xmas with this release, and from the looks of this showing I fully expect them to put the memory of BF4 aside and set a new level for multi-platform Games even more so at the so highly desired framerate of 60.