Ah, Kratos. Say what you will about his treatment with enemies, or one-dimensional characterization. Sometimes, it’s just lovely to beat the crap out of things, standing on the (literal) shoulders of enemies. It’s cathartic, and it’s just awesome, okay? That being said, the CoD-ization of the games industry has created this sad need to wedge a lot of fan-fic quality schlock, in between the shoot-smashy bits of most AAA franchises. Sometimes, it works, kinda. And sometimes, it really doesn’t.
Regardless of that, for better or for worse, Santa Monica have decided to soft reboot the series on the PlayStation 4 with a much more contemplative and narrative-driven experience. You’ve got a son to take care of. Rather than speculating on said story, we thought it’d you’d be more interested in a technical analysis, of what Santa Monica have managed to accomplish with the series’ first eighth-gen foray. Parenting/responsibility/commitment issues aside, we have to say we are pretty impressed with what we’re seeing here: Santa Monica’s always been able to make underpowered hardware positively sing, wringing out the best visuals. The PlayStation 4, now, is a much more accomplished piece of hardware than the PlayStation 3, and the generational leap is evident in the game’s E3 trailer. Let’s break down the trailer’s visuals.
The game features a full-HD framebuffer; no 900p shenanigans here. This is backed by a fairly comprehensive post-AA solution. Interestingly, the E3 demo ran with an uncapped framerate. We’re betting that Santa Monica will lock down on a V-Synced 30 FPS update. This would not only offer a more consistent experience, but it’d free up some additional headroom for visual effects. It’s surprising to note that, despite the impending launch of the PS4 Neo, all E3 showcases ran on standard PS4 hardware. The game’s visuals are eye-opening as-is. In terms of what’s possible for the game’s Neo version, a 60 FPS is likely going to be the most tangible improvement. With its relatively linear environments, CPU-bottlenecking isn’t a likely issue here and the Neo’s beefed-up GPU can readily clear 60 FPS, making for a much more tangible, responsive experience. The biggest change to the core visual experience is more a consequence of design choice: Unlike in previous games, the reboot features a fully free third-person camera, making it a lot more convenient to gawp at scenery.
The reboot features a quality per-object motion blur implementation, as seen in Ascension. Observe Krato’s son’s hand as he plays with a wooden toy. Per-object motion blur lends a sense of groundedness to the animation work. It certainly isn’t cheap in terms of rendering time, and few multiplats (with the notable exception of Dark Souls) utilised the effect last-gen. Camera blur is also in place. Cinematic Depth of Field is present during the cutscene and finisher sequences, but it is relatively subtle. As mentioned earlier, the game appears to make use of a very efficient post-process AA solution. Alpha textures show little aliasing, and together with the depth of field, grass in the background has a soft, clean look here. Traditional hardware MSAA is notoriously intensive. While 1080p with FXAA is the usual for multiplats on PlayStation 4, developers have been experimenting with a variety of post-process techniques, with varying results. Doom’s TSSAA (Temporal Supersampling Anti-Aliasing) is one of the best post-process AA implementations til date, smoothing out geometry and transparencies, as well as tackling temporal aliasing–the annoying shimmer when you move around in-game. It’s possible that Santa Monica may have whipped up an efficient bespoke anti-aliasing solution for the game.
The series has always pushed massive polycounts onscreen. In the third game, Kratos’ highly detailed model was made up of over 20,000 polygons, and featured 2048×2048 textures, capturing fine details like wrinkles and veins. The high-res textures were a luxury considering that the PlayStation 3 had a paltry 256 MB of dedicated VRAM. The game’s relatively static, set-piece environments allowed Santa Monica to drastically scale up visual detail up close, without having to worry about accommodating a wider open world.
The reboot takes this obsession with fine detail to the next level: On PlayStation 4, plentiful VRAM allows Santa Monica to feature wonderfully crisp textures. Just have a look at the ground in the cutscenes. Texture detail is complemented by an increase in mesh quality, across the board. Everything, from Kratos’ mesh to incidental assets like those wooden toys, receives the high-poly treatment. It’s much harder to render rounded and irregular shapes, but the monster closeup here again is wonderfully curved and organic. (And gruesome.) This along with geometric deformation (the real-time footprints in the snow) lead us to think that the game makes use of hardware tessellation. Tessellation is a DirecX 11 feature that dynamically scales the poly-count on objects. It’s a feature the eighth-gen consoles both support, but which hasn’t cropped up in a lot of games. The last time we saw tessellated snow was in Assassin’s Creed 3 on PC. Trudging through the New England snow was almost the only fun thing about that game.
The game takes another definite step forward when it comes to lighting. The E3 demo makes heavy use of volumetric lighting effects. The light-shafts, dust, and haze do a lot for the game’s atmosphere. Dense, volumetric smoke obscures the fire. The game appears to use a physically-based rendering pipeline. Materials react appropriately to light: The snow is dull without being pasty a la Skyrim. Other materials, including metal, ice, and rock, react appropriately as well, without being overly glossy. Subsurface scattering appears to be used here for skin rendering.
Note how Kratos’ back responds to sunlight. He no longer looks like he’s been slicked with Vaseline. Screen-space reflections make the cut as well, with the fire effects accurately reflected on the water. As for the lighting model, the large number of dynamic light sources are made possible by the new deferred renderer. Light sources are now fully dynamic, and particle effects, from dust to monster gibs are used liberally here.
All in all, Santa Monica’s left us very impressed with the game’s E3 outing. A strong platform in the hands of a capable first or second party dev can work wonders. Just ask Naughty Dog. While we’re not sure about the implications of the game’s new narrative, we’re pretty happy with how it looks and performs on PlayStation 4. With early code running so well, we wouldn’t be surprised at all if the retail game wound up looking better. PS4 Neo’s the elephant in the room here, though. With games looking this pretty on the standard PlayStation 4, we wonder what direction first party devs will take with the Neo. Do they just up the resolution and framerate, then call it a day? Or do they take in-game visuals to the next level? We’ll see.