Supermassive is well-known for Until Dawn, a cooperative horror romp that had you coming to grips with multiple narrative threads, trying to keep everyone alive (or the opposite). Until Dawn was a PS4 exclusive title but it was one of the finest graphical showcases on the platform, Uncharted 4 included.
It ran on Decima, the same engine that underpins Death Stranding, Killzone Shadowfall, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Decima has a range of features that allowed Decima-powered games to stand head and shoulders above the competition on the PS4. We looked at both Horizon Zero Dawn and Death Stranding in separate analyses.
Man of Medan is not built on the Decima platform. It’s built on the Unreal 4 engine. However, Supermassive’s considerable experience with Decima mean that there are a lot of parallels between what they’ve accomplished in Until Dawn and what’s going on in Man of Medan at technical level.
Performance and Scaling across PC And console Versions:
How does the game perform and look across platforms? On our PC rig with a Ryzen 5 1600 at 3.6 GHz, an RTX 2070 Super, and 16 GB of RAM, Man of Medan positively zipped along. At 1440p, we were looking at a framerate that remained consistently above 100 FPS, though with occasional dips below. This is a very GPU-bound game. With the framerate unlocked, we were hitting GPU utilization upwards of 94 percent.
Performance on the consoles is obviously not in the same class, but the game is very playable nonetheless. Before we proceed ahead we wanted to make a note. On the console front, we analyzed the game’s performance by taking some sample scenes from the game and running it through trdrop, an open source software. Note that this tool gives us a mere demonstration of the game’s performance, because an exact 1:1 representation of performance can only be provided by the developers themselves since they have access to vast of array of tools and profilers.
Both consoles run at very steady 30 FPS, but use dynamic resolution scaling to get there. The Xbox One X wins hands down in terms of image quality: in best-case situations One X output is nearly indistinguishable from native 4K. The PS4 Pro delivers a notably softer presentation. Nevertheless, the consistent framerate on both consoles mean that the game feels just as good to play, whichever one you’re on.
In-depth Engine Analysis:
Unreal 4 has had something of a rocky history. Epic’s Unreal 3 engine dominated the seventh-gen. Epic made a lot of money simply by licensing out the Unreal 3 platform to other third-party developers. The end result is that the engine was made use of in a wide range of seventh-gen titles: Everything from Infinity Blade on iOS to Borderlands to Arkham Knight leveraged Epic’s supremely adaptable toolset. The engine played a big role in shaping the AAA seventh-gen look with techniques like HDR lighting, normal-mapping, and soft-shadows.
Early tech demos circa-2013, such as Infiltrator and Elemental made it seem for while like Unreal 4 would carry the baton into the eighth-gen. However, the engine has had a rocky history. Far fewer AAA studios licensed Unreal 4 from Epic. Many of them, as a matter of fact, opted instead to design their own tools in-house. Unreal 4 had a friendlier business model than Unreal 3 and this ironically led to it becoming an engine of choice for AA and indie efforts. This is almost the polar opposite of Epic’s intentions with the engine. Nevertheless, it’s consumers who benefited in the end: Unreal 4’s allowed smaller studios to bring out visually stunning titles that look and perform just as well as AAA titles, without the limitations of an engine like Unity.
While Supermassive aren’t exactly small fish anymore, they’re still an indie studio, so they don’t necessarily have the resources to build their own engine from scratch. The move from Decima to Unreal 4 was likely triggered by licensing issues. Decima was built by Guerilla Games, a first-party Sony studio. While Sony has something of a gentleman’s agreement with Kojima Productions about its use of Decima in Death Stranding (and the possibility of that game arriving on PC), it’s unlikely that any other studio would get a free pass, especially to bring Decima to the Xbox One, a platform Man of Medan runs on. But Unreal 4 is no graphical slouch and we’ve found that Supermassive were able to bring over all the visual highlights of their work on Until Dawn to the new engine and then leverage Unreal 4’s strengths to build on top of that. Man of Medan is a very technically accomplished title and a great showcase for any platform. What exactly does it bring to the Unreal 4 table? Let’s find out.
Lighting and materials have always been Unreal’s strong suit. Unreal 3 was one of the early pioneers of deferred rendering. This is an approach to lighting that allowed for far more dynamic light sources onscreen at one time than conventional forward rendering allows for. Deferred rendering plays a big role in Man of Medan’s aesthetic. The interplay of light and shadow are a key way in which horror games convey immediate jump scares and general feelings of unease. The huge number of light sources deferred rendering enables are in full effect right from Man of Medan’s intro. In the China market area, you see numerous Chinese lanterns, each of which is an individual light-casting source. When the camera pans to the inside of the ship, (we’re not going to spoil any more), the harsh, high-contrast light of a single fluorescent lightsource makes for a very unsettling moment.
Materials are a bit of a mixed bag in Man of Medan, at least when compared to the great results we see with the lighting. Physically-based material rendering is in use here, but surfaces aren’t quite as convincing as we’ve seen in other titles that use PBR. One of the reasons behind this is something that’s not related to the materials per se. Unreal 4 has a very robust temporal anti-aliasing solution. Temporal AA in Unreal 4 goes a long way towards eliminating jaggies. At 1440p with temporal AA turned off on our desktop, we saw very little in the way of aliasing. However, the trade-off is a significant amount of “vaseline blur.” This doesn’t just impact high frequency detail. On certain surfaces like polished wood–which are supposed to have a certain amount (but not more) glossiness, the TAA implementation results in the material itself looking a bit off. The impact is less pronounced on high-gloss and reflective surfaces. Turning off AA does help a little in this respect, but that just goes to show how many jaggies TAA is eliminating. And of course, this isn’t an option on console.
Where material quality shines is with respect to characters. Character rendering in this game is, simply put, phenomenal. A big part of this is down to how Man of Medan handles skin. Subsurface scattering is used in combination with very high resolution, normal-mapped skin textures to create skin surfaces that simply look alive. This, together with the high quality of the animation work results in characters that act and talk very realistically. A high quality shader and texture work also result in Man of Medan having some of the most convincing eye rendering we’ve seen in a while. Much was made of an enhanced eye shader in Gears 5–another Unreal 4 title. Man of Medan bring similar results to the table. Eyes play a huge role in non-verbal communication and it can be very difficult to nail down the look of a human eye, without it appearing either lifeless or cartoony. Man of Medan strikes a fine balance here with great results.
Model quality is excellent. Because Man of Medan is tightly scripted, Supermassive can afford to budget more polygons towards higher-fidelity models, as opposed to rendering wider spaces. This means that both characters and objects in the game have a very high degree of geometric complexity. Character models look to have poly counts in the high five figures. Heads and fingers are rounded with blockiness almost unnoticeable. Incidental features like rumples on a character’s shirt are also made up of polygons as opposed to being textured on. Object quality is excellent, too. Incidental details are lavished with a care and attention that are rare in other titles.
Man of Medan features great post-process work, making full use of Unreal 4’s extensive post-process capabilities. Cutscenes make good use of bokeh depth of field. The effect is accurate, with a high sample count–again something that the limited scale of the game makes possible. A high quality per-object motion blur implementation is also used. Motion blur in this game in imparting life to jump scares and action sequences. Bloom is toned down but visible, particularly with high-intensity light sources and specular reflections: the cold glint of the moonlight off the ship in the opening section makes great use of the effect.
All in all, man of Man of Medan is a great showcase for the Unreal 4 engine. Supermassive took expertise in creating tightly-bound narrative experiences like Until Dawn, and transferred it to an entirely new engine, creating a title that looks and plays better than their earlier work. That’s no mean feat. While we’re still on the fence about the Dark Picture Anthology model (you might want to wait a while til all the titles come out), Man of Medan is an excellent–and visually compelling–slice of high seas horror.