Incredibly, we’re now just a few weeks away from the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2. As someone that games on PC, not being able to play the first game in the series was a downer. However, though there’s no official confirmation yet about a PC version, we’re almost sure at this point that at some point of time, Red Dead Redemption 2 will indeed grace PC gaming. While just about anything Rockstar makes is cause for celebration, we’re particularly interested here in the massive overhaul to the technical aspects. The world’s come a long way since 2010—one and a half console generations, in fact. And Rockstar’s own RAGE engine—with its humble origins in Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis—came into its own as one of the most technically accomplished open world game engines, reaching for the stratosphere with GTA V.
With a 7th gen well behind us, Rockstar is longer constrained in its vision by 2005-era hardware. If the trailers we’ve seen are anything to go by, the outcome is astonishing in Red Dead Redemption 2. There’s a massive leap in fidelity and world simulation, across the board, well beyond anything we saw in GTA V and, arguably in any open world title of this scale til date. In this first part of a three part series, we’ll have a look at key changes to the engine since GTA 5.
Lighting and Materials
Lighting and material design are key areas in which Rockstar has made progress, and boy does it show. Volumetric lighting played a big role in GTA V’s visual package and these effects are abundant in all of Red Dead Redemption 2’s trailers to even greater effect—a great example is seen in the sunlit haze at 0:31 seconds in the the first trailer. This greatly helps in adding to the atmosphere, whether it’s beams of sunlight struggling through billowing clouds of dust or volumes of light cast by lanterns.
Another area of progress is in material rendering. Physically-based rendering makes its debut in the RAGE engine. As PBR is intrinsically tied to the art workflow—materials have to have light reflectance set per material while they are being created—it never made the cut in GTA V, owing to that title’s last-gen roots. However, as Red Dead Redemption 2 has been built from the ground up for eighth-gen, PBR-based materials are an important aspect of the game’s visual makeup. The closeup shot at 2:46 seconds in the second gameplay trailer amply demonstrates Rockstar’s excellent implementation of physically-based materials: the dull trouser material contrasts sharply with the sheen of the leather holster and bullets.
Key upgrades from GTA V
GTA V is a game with seventh-gen roots. While it pushed beyond the limits of what most would expect from either the Xbox 360 or PS3, certain fundamental limitations do show through, even in the next-gen reworkings of the game. For starters, polygon counts and mesh complexity are decidedly last-gen. This is most evident in character models: while certainly detailed if you go by seventh-gen standards, most eighth-gen titles including other open world games have character models that are far more complex than those of Michael, Trevor, or Franklin. Red Dead Redemption 2’s trailers showcase far more detailed character models than seen in any previous Rockstar titles. A closeup shot at 3:50 seconds in the first trailer demonstrates the vastly increased model complexity, while also showing off Red Dead Redemption 2’s use of subsurface scattering on skin. Incidental details like the folds in the character’s bowtie are fully modelled here. And, unlike in L.A. Noire—where Rockstar utilized photorealistic facial scanning tech—the highly detailed face models here are complimented by equally detailed bodies.
Another key improvement over GTA V is in antialiasing. GTA V made use of FXAA on console, with PC gamers getting the option of MSAA, TXAA (only for Nvidia users), or a combination. Resolution scaling was also on the cards. Apart from the latter, none of these options was particularly effective at combatting aliasing, and resolution scaling is just not practical. With Red Dead Redemption 2, a further issue crops up: The outdoor setting means a lot of transparencies to be rendered—applying anti-aliasing to grass and leaves is always challenging. Going by the trailers, however, temporal AA—now a near-standard for console releases is in effect. There’s little hint of jaggies in towns or in grassy areas. However, stippling artefacts are evident in hair: a relatively cheap temporal solution is key to getting the game to look and run well on console hardware and this does have its limits.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes the setting away from the dense, urban locales of GTA V, replacing them with vast, outdoor environs. Nevertheless, character-laden scenes are quite common, especially in towns. In the first trailer, at 0:44 seconds, nearly 20 NPCs are seen onscreen at a single time. When it comes to the outdoors, however, there is a clear evolution on display compared to earlier outings. Rockstar experimented with forested areas and greenery in GTA 5’s well-realised Blaine county. Red Dead Redemption 2’s environs are significantly more diverse, if the trailers are anything to go by: Everything from snowy mountains to deserts to swamps. The volumetric lighting we’d mentioned earlier plays a big role in evoking a sense of place in each location. Moreover, grass and tree density have been increased in comparison to GTA V, resulting in lusher, denser exteriors. The use of physically-based materials contributes a lot to environmental design. Trees—of which there are many—just look right due to the use of physically accurate bark textures. PBR is showcased in other, more subtle ways as well: the sheen of moonlight on swamp mud at 4:51 seconds in the first trailer is a good example of this.
Lastly, there is an exceptional degree of focus on incidental detail that really brings atmosphere front and centre: For instance, brushing down your horse yields tiny puffs of dust along animations for individual strands of horsehair. In snowy areas, one particular highlight is the way that snow is displaced in real-time as you trudge through it: a trick first seen in Assassin’s Creed 3, and then later in current gen games. A degree of environmental destructibility is also on offer, with the wooden carriage splintering realistically at 2:22 seconds in the first trailer. To an extent, the increase in detail is driven by necessity: GTA V on PS4, Xbox One, and PC introduced us to the first person perspective. Many assets had to be redesigned from scratch to pass muster visually from up close. Red Dead Redemption 2 brings back the first person perspective. As a result, all the action, from gunslinging to hunting to drinking in the saloon has to pass close scrutiny. The limited first-person segments showcased towards the end of the first trailer indicate that quite a bit of attention has been lavished on getting first person animations done right so that the game is every bit as immersive, whichever perspective you play from.
Watch this space! We’ll soon update you with the second part where we focus on in-game physics, animation, wildlife, and more.