A comprehensive look behind the technology and graphics of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
How does one even begin to describe the visual fidelity that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End offers? It’s quite, honestly, impossible to describe it in full. Naughty Dog has filled the world of Uncharted 4 with breathtaking detail and eye popping vistas, and if we dared to go all out in describing each and every detail, it will at least take us a couple of days describing what makes Uncharted 4 a truly special game; and then too we would have only touched the surface of what is perhaps the best looking game of all time. Over the last two years, we have analyzed close to a hundred and fifty games across a number of platforms and it won’t be an exaggeration in any manner whatsoever that Uncharted 4 is the pinnacle of video game graphics and technology.
Before we delve into what makes Uncharted 4 what it’s, we must note that even though this is going to be a comprehensive look at all the mumbo jumbo that is running behind the scenes, it’s not possible to cover everything that the game offers. In fact, no one can do justice in covering the intricacies of what makes Uncharted 4 a legend among legends. Having said that, we will try and cover as much as we can but beware, this video features late in-game locations which may be considered as spoilers.
Let us begin with the jeep sequence that was shown off a month ago in a preview event. This sequence shows off the trio driving through the reddish landscapes of Madagascar. The very first thing you will notice here is the scale and the open ended nature of the level. Uncharted 4 marks the series’ first (and possibly the last) shift to an open level design and Madagascar is one of the places that best show off this transition. It must be noted that Uncharted 4 is not an open world title, so the primary agenda of going from point A to point B is still pretty much a thing in the game but this level is quite open; so it gives players the perfect opportunity to explore the surrounding environments. It’s also easy to get lost here since Naughty Dog have done an impressive job with the level design. There is obviously a way out of this location but you will find it in the least expected place.
This level is also a testament to the game engine’s texture streaming technology. Modern games such as the recently released Quantum Break and Just Cause 3 were great looking games but both of them suffered from a lot of pop-in issues, especially in those areas which had a lot of foliage. But Uncharted 4 is a different story. We saw an extremely minimal amount of pop-in issue in this level and given this is a rather open piece of land, this is a remarkable achievement.
The level set in Madagascar also has rich flora and fauna, so it’s not unusual to see flock of birds flying in the distance or pool of water getting accumulated in several places. There is a rich amount of geographical detail here and everything what you see on the screen is happening for a reason. There is some intelligent level design which considers both the verticality (which we will get to in a bit) as well as the horizontality which tightly integrates with the gameplay. One of the first things that can be clearly observed in this level is how wet and dirty the environment looks. It seems that before our heroes landed here, the place received a good amount of rainfall. This is clearly evident by the mud pools everywhere and the bright-dynamic lighting which generally happens when the rain has stopped and the sun is out.
Later on, you will witness the verticality that Madagascar offers. Now keep in mind, it rained so as the players drive above the water level and on top of the mountain, the climate will become a bit cooler, lighting will be less intense and there will be a general feel of calmness when you look from the top. And this is something that Naughty Dog have beautifully captured. The clouds move in dynamically across the entire level, creating a realistic lighting effect depending on where you are according to the sea level.
Madagascar also gave us an opportunity to get Drake all dirty and wet. As we made him rolled on the mud pool, Drake’s clothes will get dirty; fortunately, a short shower under a waterfall cleansed him of all the dirt and debris. The same effect can be witnessed on the 4 X 4 vehicle. Dirt will get accumulated as we race across the level, only to be cleansed when we came cross across a pool of water. Madagascar also features one of the highest points of the game and the view and draw distance from there will make your jaw drop.
Moving on to a different location in Madagascar and onto a beautifully realized sea level with massive islands enclosing, this level gives us a different facet of the technology running behind the game’s engine. As Drake and Sam race across the sea, players will be treated to high quality reflections of the rocks on the water along with the wind stream (you will have to observe very closely). Furthermore the amount of shadow on the nearby rocks and mountains will vary dynamically according to the angle you are travelling, the angle of the sun rays and the object properties. This on screen effect really comes alive with some fantastic use of a custom ambient occlusion solution and the material based lighting utilized by the surrounding mountains and rocks.
Furthermore, the water also utilizes a full physical based rendering pipeline wherein the reflections quality will vary depending on the intensity of the sun light. And yes, the popular sand effect from Uncharted 3 returns and is just one of the many things that adds to the overall immersion factor.
This entire level consists of several intricately designed environments and structures, and it all comes alive due to use of high quality global illumination along with the full use of dynamic lighting and physical based material shaders. You really feel that you are exploring age old locations where no man has set foot in several centuries. Credit must also be given to the artists behind the game; they really have done an immaculate job in getting their vision across.
If we have to pick one particular feature that has been quite taxing this generation, it has to be the crowd rendering tech and its associated AI. These simulations are literally taxing on the CPU and although some games like Assassin’s Creed Unity and the latest Hitman have tried to make it work, there are instances where the developer had to cut down on crowd rendering due to the lack of enough CPU cycles. Unity really pushed the crowd rendering tech but suffered from LOD and poor AI issues but much to our surprise this is one area, yet again, that Uncharted 4 shines.
In one sequence, Sully and Drake make their way through a crowded market and it’s really easy to ignore what these NPCs are up to and focus on the task at hand. They are not your typical and dumb NPCs, with an even dumber AI. They are highly detailed; fantastically animated NPCs and all of them have their own set of AI and simulation. And just like Assassin’s Creed when something goes wrong, they will run for their life. However unlike Assassin’s Creed Unity, the game’s frame rate does not struggle and their animations are much more authentic. Further in the level, when Nate and Sully are escaping in the jeep, you will see them engaged in different activities and when all hell breaks loose, they run for their life, escaping death by a whisker! All of this is extremely taxing on the CPU and we are blown away by how well these sections perform.
A particular chase sequence is also a testament to the game’s physics framework and GPGPU methodologies. One can witness various objects getting blown to bits, tires coming off, tons of destruction happening (although it’s scripted), several explosions happening at once, all while Drake is being a bad ass, standing and shooting on top of a vehicle. We did not witnessed a single pop-in issue during this sequence, which goes to show how well optimized the stream-able assets are. In an age where developers will settle for low quality assets so that they can be streamed quickly on the screen, Naughty Dog’s compression technique is something that deserves to be praised. Texture quality for the most part is very high and even in fast paced sequences such as this, where the engine is doing all the hard work of pushing and changing the assets on the screen, there is literally next to no hit to performance.
Ever since Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog have focused on making certain aspects of the game better. In Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog strived to surpass what they did in Uncharted 1 by adding over the top moments. In Uncharted 3, they updated their engine to include realistic fire, sand and water simulation effects. But in Uncharted 4, mud pool seems to be a focus; and what better way to represent it by making Drake drive a 4X4 with Elena by your side?
Later on in the game you will come across a level which is similar to the reddish landscape that we discussed earlier but things are made daunting since the area is by all means flooded. There are a lot of impressive volumetric and water effects to be seen with regards to the water’s flow direction. Players won’t be able to simply drive the car anywhere they want, especially in those areas where the current is strong. Once again, kudos to the level designers for making the level feel open ended despite being linear at its core. The playable area is big and as usual you will have to find your way across using your rope and what not.
Rain….when it rains in Uncharted 4…it literally falls down. Uncharted 4 by far features the best rain effect in all of gaming history. In one sequence, poor Nathan is struggling to make his way across as the rain splashes against him and the environment. Not only that, the waves will splash and dash against the mountains. All of this is quite standard fare but what really intrigued us is the accompanying wind effect and how it affects the angle at which the rain is falling down. Furthermore, platforming is affected too as Drake has to take it slow and easy, and put in more effort in making those climbs, something that he is able to easily accomplish when it’s dry.
Even in the prologue sequence, we witnessed some really complex water simulation mixed with the rain effect and on screen explosions, physics and a ton of shooting. And once again, performance is pretty much consistent at 30 fps.
Naughty Dog weren’t fooling around when they said that the open ended nature of their levels is going to impact gameplay in a big way. And one particular level which is set at the very end of the game showcases its biggest visual finesse. This level does not have much action but the amazing draw distance and the general calmness and coolness really sets it apart from any other level in the game.
Moving on to our final parts of our analysis, we wanted to confirm that the game runs at a full 1080p resolution and a nearly locked 30 fps. The game uses temporal aliasing which does a remarkable job in maintaining the image quality with next to no jaggies. However, ghosting effects are observed when the camera pans quickly, similar to what we saw in Quantum Break but it’s extremely rare. Shadow quality for the most part is medium. It’s a trade-off that most games do these days to achieve better fidelity in other graphical assets and it’s no different in Uncharted 4. To be honest, you won’t even care about the shadow quality given the other visual finesse.
Character animation is yet another aspect that Naughty Dog have delivered big time. Drake moves are now believable, his jumps feel more genuine and somehow he feels eerily close to being real. Cutscene quality is remarkably similar to gameplay sections; character models are consistent across both modes and there is very little compromise when the game transitions from cutscene to gameplay. Facial animations is yet another highlight of the game…let me just put it this way. You won’t find a realistic looking character than Nathan Drake in terms of expressing emotions. All of this is helped further by skin shaders and a big bump in the number of possible animations compared to the previous entries. Audio also deserves a special mention specially the way different guns sound in different environments.
And it does not stop here, there are plenty of modifiers that enable you to apply various visual filters that help you change the way the game looks. There is also slow motion mode which will help you to take a closer look at how the physics work in case of explosions.
As mentioned right at the beginning, we don’t think anyone can do justice in describing the technology behind the game. Uncharted 4 is truly a next-gen game with next-gen technology developed by some of the brightest minds in the games industry. Just think about it…who cares about adding dust on the top off a three hundred year old object and have Drake walk on it and leave shoe marks behind? Who cares to add hair simulation when Drake is under a waterfall? Who cares to add subtle effect such as Drake shoving his hand on nearby walls so that he can balance his run?
Naughty Dog cares and this is why they have taken video games to a place where no developer would even care or even dream to go.
Well done, Naughty Dog! Next-gen indeed begins when you say so.