Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Playing Mass Effect 2 Today

Mass Effect is an interesting series. I dove into the first game in 2007, going as far as to back-to-back my Paragon and Renegade playthroughs and jumping into those two early books by Drew Karpyshyn (once the second arrived in 2008). The first book (Revelation) added to the impressive world-building that the series started with. Small touches like using accelerated metal slivers to provide effectively infinite ammo with overheating as the only concern really added texture to the world, a mix of Babylon 5 and Star Trek from the studio who previously had the Old Republic license from Star Wars to build their binary morality play around. Even the music, inspired by late '70s SciFi, gave a very clear direction to the action.

It also fell short in many way, from endless duplicated assets for the side missions to clunky real-time combat and a terrible inventory system on top of a very basic upgrade curve. It was a game to love despite the faults. The story arc was broad but every mission provided masses of detail and an encyclopedia of additional notes. I read every entry, treasured every encounter, and saved the galaxy from a threat that was only the first prong of something much larger. I was very much ready for more from the series.

Then the second game happened. The larger story was put on hold as the series turned into a purely character-focused affair while the mechanics were made significantly better, allowing combat to become enjoyable without being part of something larger. The logical conclusion of this progression was Mass Effect 3 and the multiplayer combat mode which works entirely on loot crates and the intrinsic reward of how combat feels. But something more than the larger progression was lost as the series moved forward, that world building fell away. Those lore notes about how ammo wasn't a thing, only heat management? ME2 added thermal clips which, effectively, shunted ammo back into the series with a wave of the hand about how throwing away hot metal blocks allowed faster firing (blocks which never cooled down and had to be replenished from fallen enemies). There's a lot to write about how the series possibly peaked in Mass Effect 2 but never managed to eclipse the charm and world presented in that first game. Luckily someone else has already written that book and I agree with enough of it to make doing a full dive superfluous.

But I recently went back to ME2 and wanted to share some of what I found there and what I got through playing the series on a modest PC. The first thing you'll notice, especially if you previously played on console, is that the PC port has absolutely no controller support. This is despite being developed for the same release as the 360 version and containing most of the assets and scripting for controller support. Luckily, modders have been bashing their heads against that problem in the intervening years and have now finished fixing that, all the way to changing the accuracy/recoil values back to their 360 equivalents. A full fix that exploits all the code for the controller UI that was left in the game but never officially accessible.

Another fix that is possible thanks to mods but this time makes sure the game works far more cleanly than the 360 (native or via XB1) or Bioware ever planned is to remove the large load videos. The way ME2 works, the loading screens have to finish playing at least one loop of the video before they can complete. Most of the loading screen videos have no information and are fifteen seconds long. On a modern PC with an SSD, the game loads in a fraction of a second. This is pointless and can be fixed by replacing the video files with much shorter ones.

Even with a low to medium end card such as the GTX 760, Mass Effect 2 is old enough to really be able to push the sliders up to 11. A native 1080p is obviously possible but so is the sparse-grid anti-aliasing that can deal with anything in the scene, thanks to a bit of driver hackery that now allows some Unreal Engine games on DX9 to enable MSAA, something that was broken at launch. There is an outstanding issue with some Z-fighting caused by this fork of UE3 being designed for Windows Vista x64 (no, really) but it's not a constant problem. Outside of that, it's a very nice look for a game that has aged reasonably well outside of the cinematic animations.

This was when Bioware started to move further into their experimentation with a cinematic cut-scene camera. Still early days and you can see a few points where the scripting completely breaks but it's more than just a fixed camera and some talking heads. One of the things I'd not remembered from my original playthrough was how backwards some of the dialogue feels. This is Bioware, of smooching and progressive causes fame. Some of the choices here certainly feel out of place. And that scene isn't made any easier by the choice to use DLC outfits, so the NPC is trying to make a barb that doesn't even work due to the character not wearing what the dialogue expects.

Speaking of DLC, this game is rotten with it. Expensive DLC that never got the price cuts that the base game got. In 2011, when I first played ME2 on console, I didn't have any premium DLC (that I have to make that differentiation is thanks to EA's plans at the time to give you a "project $10" DLC pack with new copies to limit used sales being valuable - I did buy a new copy so I did have the Cerberus Network DLC). I got Zaeed, Firewalker, & the Normandy crash site but not Kasumi, Overlord, or the Shadow Broker. I still don't have Arrival, which is more of a bridge to ME3 yet was incapable of changing the stakes as ME3 was written not assuming anyone had played it.

I think this is one side of why I enjoyed myself more this time through the game (beyond savegame editing to remove the resource grind entirely - I'm not doing that twice): the premium DLC is generally pretty good while the Cerberus Network DLC is really not.

I don't care about or for Zaeed and never did. That mission seemed like it barely worked for playing Paragon. The Normandy crash site is a non-event they should be ashamed for if they charged for it. I guess Firewalker is meant to be the meaty one (by virtue of location count) but it also feels barren, filled with perfunctory vehicle sections, and lacking much narrative - if that was in an MMO, you'd call it lacking flavour text and that's a bad state to be in with a Bioware RPG.

Kasumi isn't that much content (especially as she lacks much additional dialogue for the main game, a single line dispenser on the Normandy rather than a character you go back to after doing the single loyalty mission) but it was pretty great content for that one loyalty mission. I wouldn't pay £5 just for that (see: this is what EA asked for on Steam in 2011 for the entire base game!) but as bundled in the PS3 GotY for £4, I can see this being a quid or two value.

Overlord seems like the weak link in the premium pack. Like, it's cool that they wanted to make a Lawnmower Man rip-off to add a horror edge to the mission and talk about tech but it's... not even a particularly good Lawnmower Man rip-off story they're telling. And that costs £5 to buy too.

Now, the Shadow Broker: going in I knew this was the award-winning one. This was also £7 to many so as much an an entire $10 indie game costs. It's up there with the quality of much of the base game, almost as if they would have, in days before DLC where you either needed to go full extra campaign with an expansion or put it all in the box, this would have gone in the box. I don't think it's the best companion mission in ME2, but it's top half and at least involves more fanservice than most of the rest of the recurring cast get from ME1. That SRP is really steep for what you're getting here.

And I've got no views on Arrival because I'm not paying £5 to play what reviewed as a very long but combat-heavy mission meant to bridge to ME3. I really don't care for ME3.

Going back to technical considerations, note how the above clip shows a pet peeve: in-engine captured footage spliced with actual in-engine shots. We all humour people who say they really can't tell 900p from 1080p and some genuinely can't (these people need glasses). Here, in a DLC mission, the captured footage used is pretty clearly taken from the 360 build, so 720p without anti-aliasing. That's a pretty chocking transition from the current real-time rendered PC version of the visuals. Even if you're watching the clip in a window or on a 720p screen, the difference in sub-pixel accuracy in motion is apparent. It's a reminder of how this game looked to most of the people who played it (as it sold best on console) and how the limitations of real-time rendering change over time, even given identical assets and the same engine. Mass Effect 2 looks quite good today, if you play it in a way that most people couldn't when it was released.

There are clear reasons why you add in video clips to avoid loading large level chunks to make cuts with an engine that can't stream in the assets fast enough (for which UE3 was famous) but, personally, I always try and find a different way round this problem (caveat: having never had to work in a large studio, I can make such a choice). Naughty Dog are well known for using this method to completely mask their load times and they also make some of the best 'game asset but tweaked engine' rendered output you'll find - even if it's not good enough for a port, as seen with the PS4 re-releases of their games requiring them to capture out whole new video files to prevent the issue above of a very visible drop in quality from the real-time rendered scenes. Finally, note that in the above clip there is a load screen at the start. The ME2 logo would normally be a 16 second long video of a wireframe ship being spun round. It's good to only have to wait for the actual asset load required on a modern system.

I'd almost forgotten how much fun Mass Effect 2 is to play. I still think ME1 is the pinnacle of the series' storytelling and world building - it's hard to beat the original, especially as the series slowly moved away from that late 70s aesthetic and soundtrack - but the sequel did enough with the characters to make up for the ultimately disappointing ending and lack of any real progress in the series' arc.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Games of the Year 2016

It's the fifth year of annual gaming celebrations on this blog. Picking up from the end of last year, Kerbal Space Program did make a big impression with me in 2016 and really soared thanks to the engine updates (especially 1.1 and the UI engine changes) and finishing touches (better fonts and communications in 1.2). An evergreen title of slowly building out your space programme, I spent well over 100 hours with the game in 2016 reaching for the stars. Also on my list of 2015 GotY contenders I predicted I'd find time for in 2016, Rise of the Tomb Raider got that PC release, even if I didn't think it was a step forward outside of the mechanical changes. Maybe 2017 will bring enough free time to actually complete The Witcher 3 and all that DLC, although I suspect I'm more likely to actually finish a commercial game project next year. But let's get on to the awards for games released in 2016...

Adult game of the year:

    Ladykiller in a Bind

This game, full title My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind, really takes it up a notch from the dev's previous work (Analogue & Hate Plus). In the very first scene (after the tutorial introduction) of this visual novel, I was the titular crossdressing character as she fumbled through an encounter with a cute boy in a dress. He fell apart under my stern questioning and we ended up making out; all the while my character explained to her twin brother how this was only happening because she was being forced to act like him for reasons not yet explained. Clearly, I needed to know more.

As the full title implies, this adult game in a somewhat fantastical setting works around issues of consent and power dynamics in relationships that contain (often explicitly negotiated) dominant and submissive roles. The dialogue is often smart, regularly funny, and very thirsty. Each scene feels both open and uncertain due to the option to pick an interjection or just allow the conversation to continue. Sometimes new responses will appear and old ones drop out as the scene progresses, or refusing to jump in will itself be considered unusually suspicious. Add in the game layer that's woven into the story of trading votes, managing suspicion, quickly building rapport... and you've got a lot more choices than many visual novels offer. Combined with the writing, this keeps everything moving along and reinforces the themes of the story. Clever and hot, even when playing with Christmas jumpers to hide the nudity, this game is for mature audiences only.

Soundtrack of the year:

    Mafia III

This game is an open world that's not about the open world. A few dozen hours of game that could have really been under fifteen without losing anything. A painful look at an era that's hard to look away from given the backdrop of White supremacy and racism driving currently rising political movements. What this game has that makes it essential is a revenge story that's incredibly acted and which drives you through a period setting without ever feeling like a reskined modern setting. Every piece of incidental dialogue, every shop you're not allowed in - these build onto the main story and show that this setting wasn't just some selling point or a "cool look" for a GTA-a-like, this game was built from the ground up to write about the era and race in America.

The game also manages to look great in places, with maybe a few rougher edges showing from the attempt to build out an open world. Sometimes the physics doesn't quite work, sometimes the textures look like they didn't quite have the time to give everything a detail pass, but sometimes the oppressive sky frames an incredible scene as you drive or walk through an area on your way to make the mob pay for what they've done. While many of the missions are mechanically repetitive, the story keeps you going; the atmosphere of the place keeps you locked in. You want to know everything about Lincoln Clay's story and the characters around him. Smartly framed, well written, great acting - from the very first hour, it's gripping.

Virtual city of the year:

    Tom Clancy's The Division

And coming at the experience of an open space from completely the opposite direction to Mafia III, this is all about the city and the stories that the spaces tell. Midtown Manhattan is rendered here with the only concession to making it a game world being the selective indoor sections and half the streets being cut out. But we're talking about something along the lines of half of the space it claims to represent actually being in here. This isn't a highly compressed map meant to invoke real spaces, this has been slightly cut down but is where it claims to be. Only this is weeks after the world ended. This is every piece of the end of society buried under inches of snow. This is the ultimate environmental storytelling setting rendered with incredible detail and that story hasn't even finished yet. When I play The Division, I feel like I'm waking into the period in The Last of Us after the intro but well before the main story. The post-apocalypse hasn't had time to settle yet, just the snow. The bodies are still very much on the ground, bagged and being taken to mass graves. From a distance they just look like piles of snow. And this isn't a playground to zoom around in, you're stuck on foot. It's not just that this small slice of NYC is rendered far closer to scale than has ever been attempted before, it's that the setting forces you to traverse it all on foot. Just as in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, here the game makes clear this is a space you have to inhabit as you slowly make progress. The only concession to avoiding grinding traversal once you've already explored an area being the fast-travel system to base camps.

We're moving through Stuyvesant Town, a second wave of reservists who just got activated and are ordered to crack down on factions fighting for control of the region and work out why the first wave vanished. This is about half way through the campaign story. We're looking at looters who have no options left, a faction of workers who have a religious fervour for fire and wiping out the plague that's caused this disaster, and ex convicts looking to pay back some of what was done to them. These are the civilians flagged as enemies up to this point, but they're not the big bad. We're slowly learning about the enemies we'll face at the story concludes, the PMCs that helped orchestrate the attack and stayed around to profit from the disaster. But this game doesn't just provide an easy out (as many games do) for the true enemy: private military.

As we get into a scene of a last stand, the near-future tech we carry recreates the scene. Unlike previous scenes of the first wave controlling the civilians and slowly cracking down on factions, this was where the first wave finally lost. Desperate voices short on all supplies scream out, a reservist military force who had just found out central command was pulling back support but not pulling anyone out. They're left sheltering civilians as molotovs smashed through the windows. This was the humanisation of what had seemed like a force descending into the authoritarian role then taken over by the PMCs. This, it turned out, recorded the defection of the first wave. Sold out by command, left to die, even those who fought for what they thought were positive ideals needed to survive. These are the ultimate enemies: not an evil PMC; this was us, us in two months. A game about the cost of survival pointed to the enemy and showed how we would become them without flinching. Cowardliness from US military command leading to US troops becoming the US civilian murderers we were sent in to stop. Along with the "bad" US civilians (as our future tech clearly announces before we even have a gun drawn on us) flagged by faction affiliation and who we are told must also be stopped. Where other games tread lightly, making the enemies into foreigners or everything sci-fi, this doesn't look away. It's not coherent in that anti-military message, this is a Tom Clancy game based on that "Ooh Rah" framing, but it does a lot more to unsettle the notion than most other games do.

There is a dissonant reading to all this. The Division repeatedly pushes the dual messages of a clear good/evil while also subverting it with scenes that point to moral gray and survival coming before morality. It can be read as garbled, several different writers who didn't read each other's scripts. I take it as a unified whole, the protagonist is never directly questioned (your actions are always "necessary" and you are always in the right to deploy your might) but everything about being a division agent ends up being touched by those conflicting messages and fragments of how other reservists act (in the found narratives)... and then it becomes the self, the other side of a message saying you're losing connection to the eye in the sky central command, as you enter the DZ.

The seamless player-vs-player mode in this game is a region in the heart of Manhattan that's been walled up and cut off from real-time communications. Here, all players you meet can be enemies. In the other areas the only players you meet are those you invite to play with you - you're safe and the main story continues to say you're a hero for saving good civilians from the bad factions. The player could always pretend they were right and ignore the echoes of what's really going on, as long as they keep shooting and ignoring the things they find, until they meet more current reservists away from prying eyes of command in the DZ. Then it's all up for friend or foe; the narrative and mechanics make this explicit - if you want that loot, you may shoot another second wave reservist as long as the eye in the sky is off. There's more than a GotY summary to this strand of thinking about the stories presented in this 60-hour RPG and that's sitting in my drafts pile.

I don't think I've played a game in a long time that has been as pulse-raising as the DZ solo mulitplayer experience here. The visuals are remarkable work, even for these AAA teams used to building virtual cities. I'd thought the era of actual-RPG shooters, where Deus Ex provides you with a gun but if you don't skill up then you can't hit the broad side of a barn, was over but here they are in a game with a clearly huge budget. Mechanics, visuals, range, scale - this was not a perfect game but enough of what it does is special. Don't miss out now it's on sale and the DLC/updates are continuing to expand what's here.

Best new spin on a classic 2016:

    Rez Infinite

Rez is back with another remaster. Since the 720p and 5.1 of the HD re-release, it seemed like Rez was already ok for modern systems. A simple style that held up well even on the Dreamcast, who needed yet another port?

Luckily, this is anything but a port. As a base, the 4K Rez offered here is faithful to the original game. Even though the textures are as low res as they've ever been, this presentation is still lovely due to the heavy reliance on flat-shaded primitives. But then you put on the VR headset and can actually jump into Rez. Not only is that almost as magical as first reaching Area 5, it also turns out to be the best way to play the game. Looking to focus the lock-on cursor is absolutely something that reinforces what makes Rez so great - the visuals pulse and react to movement so nodding along to the beat reads as yet another step into synaesthesia. Playing the classic mode in VR is everything you imagined it might be 15 years ago when playing this on the Dreamcast and thinking about clubbing at the weekend.

But, just as Rez only reveals itself in Area 5, so this version of the game also comes with a major unlock once you've travelled the base game. Area X is a wholly new game built with a new visual style, new track, and removes the strict rails from the experience. In Area X, you can boost and even stop your movement; by looking around you can change your direction of travel. It's not the perfect culmination that Area 5 was, but it's a great new direction with a good track behind it and some visuals that you'll be amazed by. If you've ever wanted to go swimming in a pool of light particles, this is as close as you can currently get to that. Now when can we expect to see Rez 2 bringing this new style to a full game built around several new tracks?

Level design of the year:

    Dishonored 2

When they released Dishonored in 2012, it combined a great art style and a new take on the stealth gameplay of an immersive sim. The range of abilities really offered the extra mechanical depth to play through without ever killing or being seen (the classic "hard mode" for the genre where fans count mandatory kills in each level). The spaces explored were incredibly memorable and detailed, even the DLC levels that included some they'd dropped during development of the main game.

This game refines the world and visual language, bringing in an entirely new style for the new location of Karnaca. The mechanics are extended and offered in two flavours for the base game (previously you needed the DLC to switch things up) and the levels are taken to a whole new tier. Tightly designed, filled with detail, and with enough totally unique hooks that it's a master-class in level design. As a massive fan of the subgenre and specifically the previous game, I didn't need much for this to make my list. But they really managed to make this far more than just more Dunwall-inspired stealth.

Blue skies of the year:

    Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

It's the best Uncharted game. I mean, there's a lot you can write about it but really that's what you need to know. The story is stepping up, even if it recons its way to get there (not the first time the series has decided to expand the cast/scope by doing so). The settings continue to expand both technically and artistically on what started out on the PS3 nine years ago. Set pieces that go even further; mechanics that continue to develop what is asked of the player (now with functional stealth systems); a control system that's not a weird step back from Among Thieves that took them a dozen patches to fully fix/revert.

This is Uncharted, but more so. As a series that continues to be a better classic Tomb Raider than any of the non-open world games in that series, that's a great achievement. Naughty Dog are still at the top of their game despite the development hell that was pretty apparent from the talent that left this project (and what was said about those high-profile departures and the leads from the other ND team coming in to take over the project, along with their different vision for the story/cast).

Please come fuck me up 2016:


The great thing about VR is that everything is optimised for minimising the movement to photon delay - the time it takes between an input (like head movement) and the new output on the screen that creates photons for your eyes. Rhythm games, which have for years had to account for the latency of flatscreen technologies, are now able to go back to offering games with a consistent input. The only difference now in the reaction window is in visual processing times for players. But no longer is there up to 150ms of TV delay just to see the new rendered frame.

Thumper is a percussion-driven rhythm game that just bleeds onto the screen, ideally in VR. A slow building series of long levels (each with dozens of individual stages including some shorter or longer blocks), this game takes the front cover of an abstract metal album and animates it to a soundtrack that plays back and forth. First the audio gives you a quick treble of the arrangement you're about to encounter, then you need to read the various inputs on the track and kick them back with the full bass joining in. Many of the inputs can be missed but some will take one of your two lives if you get it wrong, with that second life recoverable at the end of each stage. Some of the arrangements require you to master the pattern and failure without dying will organically loop you round to the start of the pattern for another shot.

The levels slowly build in complexity, teaching each new input with a corresponding visual style and increasing the demands of the patterns to the point where you'll sometimes have to go through a pattern a few times to understand it before perfecting it. A scoring system promotes going back and really mastering each level. But the core here is this impressive oppressive style of music and visuals coming together so amazingly as you fly down the metal and red tunnels, desperately trying to keep up. Playing in VR jut makes it feel all the more aggressive.

Stylish gameplay loop of the year:


In medias res, I enter the scene as the person to my rear left is shattering into pieces from the discharged gun of the person in front of me. Everything is creeping forward as if through treacle - time crawls. The person in front of me is reloading and pointing straight at my head. I grab an ashtray from the table and use it to hit a guy on my right, reaching out to lift his gun out of the air as he releases it. I spin it round to shoot the guy on my left and he shatters into a thousand pieces. I narrowly dodge the bullet from the guy in front of me, who finished reloading. I finally reach the point where the next bullet has loaded into the chamber on my pistol and headshot the guy in front of me. I break for cover and the entire world speeds up to normal as I sprint in a hail of bullets.

The initial pitch demo for this game always showed there was a spark here. What the full game and VR sequel does is show how that short gameplay loop can extend out to fill a few hours of game perfectly. The narrative hooks and interstitials are few but sturdy and allow the fiction to be supported without draining the game of that speed that can only come from giving the power to manipulate time to the player. It's not a long ride and it's not going to be something you keep coming back to, and there certainly are a few rough edges showing the indie budget, but there is nothing quite like this and every moment bleeds style. You can't do better in 2016.

The games that didn't quite make the cut:
Forza Horizon 3 - A return to form for the Horizon series that was dragged down by a terrible PC port at launch and the lack of signage on the store; this game phones home every boot so if you're not online it won't even start on Windows 10. That unmarked DRM alone prevents it making the list this year and an £80 premium package that doesn't even include all the DLC doesn't help the value of what is effectively a rental. Wait for some deep discounts in a sale and then enjoy Australia.

Doom - This is one of the best game engines around. A lovely piece of work that's perfect for ensuring 60fps at all times with amazing sub-pixel stability and plenty of effects. It brings back Doom as the classic experience rather than leaning on the dark suspense horror of Doom 3 and it's exactly what you want. But it's also only that, a success built on low expectations coming from development hell and a multiplayer beta no one enjoyed. Don't believe the hype and you'll have a much better time but it's not a GotY contender in such a strong year.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak - I love the Homeworld games. I liked this. But the campaign story seemed a bit limp compared to other RTS, the sides too similar, the package a bit too budget. and the 2D space a step back from fighting in actual space. There is no one major flaw that prevents a recommendation but with some extra budget the vision here could have been done justice and another classic RTS birthed.

Bound - Another game that's really good but just doesn't quite make it to the big header above. Dancing through a stylish platformer and enjoying every polygonal backdrop, this had some great visuals that went for showing off the polygons as they all flowed around you. It feels almost demoscene inspired. Add in atmosphere over explicit narrative and this wasn't quite on my list but deserves a nod. The VR support wasn't quite there but maybe another patch can fix that.

The 2016 games that I really need to find more time for in 2017:
Watch Dogs 2, Shenzhen I/O, The Witness, Gears of War 4, Hitman, The Last Guardian, Inside, Atelier Sophie, Titanfall 2, Zero Time Dilemma.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

A Period of Absence

So... long time, no posts.

The why is pretty simple: I've been finishing off a PhD, which I just successfully defended. Along with doing enough work to pay the bills, I've basically been left out of energy for writing here.

Anyway, the drafts folder has been slowly filling up with notes and half-written posts about games from Mass Effect 2 to The Division. Expect to see at least the monthly cadence of this blog return in the new year. I have managed to play enough games to continue the GotY list tradition - it's been a good year for games (quite a different selection vs last year but still a great time to be playing games).

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Dissection of a Rendering Choice in No Man's Sky

Update: please note that this is now a historical post provided for educational value alone. The patch on 18/8 for PC removed the strong blur pass and fixed the AA settings.

So there has been lots of talk about internal render resolutions and game output this console generation. Is this game a 900p one, does the XB1 get forced down to 720p and then upscales it? It's a good topic for people who care about technical quality (say, all us render engineers who write the often boring code to throw polygons at screens via GPUs) and an endless swamp of people intent on having "heated debates" about their favourite consoles and which is best.

Anyway, No Man's Sky has come out and lots of people have mentioned that it looks muddy or low res, even on PC. Some people are speculating on it being rendered at a lower internal res and upscaled to explain what they are seeing. From everything I can see, this isn't correct but it's an amazing opportunity to dissect what is really going on and why it looks like that might be the case.

Straight off, how the game is running for me just in case this isn't true for you. SSAAx4 (rendering at 4x res and downsampling from inside the game) in the settings straight isn't working at all. No effect. I'm not the only one who has noted this so I'll call it either widespread or a feature that's not actually implemented yet. The other two options are FXAA or no AA. My experience is that FXAA, if it does anything when turned on, isn't the implementation you should have built into this game to make it actually fix aliasing issues. I also assert that anyone using SweetFX or drivers to inject SMAA/MLAA/FXAA into their game at the end of the render chain is also doing next to nothing for their game in the same way that doesn't work when you upscale a game and then apply it. (FXAA looks for the typical shapes [eg L shapes] of aliasing in high-contrast areas and selectively blurs them, but this only works when you've got those shapes as pixel-wide features to find.)

The reason why and the reason why lots of people seem to think this game is rendering at a lower res than stated or is just "really muddy" (as the pros have called it): because there's a 1px Gaussian blur being applied to this game before output. I would explain this is part of a HDR/bloom solution; only it isn't, it eagerly blurs everything, not just highlights. It's a blur on everything that weights significantly from the non-central pixel in the neighbourhood; a strong blur compared to what you normally see in real-time graphics.

And here's the major issue with that: it blurs the scene without any anti-aliasing being done first. This gives a bloom (light for highlights, dark for low features) to every bit of severe aliasing including the thin line geometry and shader aliasing going on. It does soften the aliasing, but this means FXAA can't find it and clean it up because it's no longer a hard line but a blurred one.

"But doesn't the blur fix everything wrong so what's the issue?"

Glad you asked - this is where slicing up what we see in screen captures of NMS really pays off. We do complex anti-aliasing (when rendering, even though it's often pretty expensive and comes with technical limitations that tie our hands) and not a blur because a blur doesn't work right.

Above is an example I generated to show anti-aliasing. It's zoomed up somewhat to make the pixels clearer but that was a clean zoom so each pixel edge is preserved (unlike how you'd normally blow up an image that also blurs it - the same is true of the zoomed in bits of the top image below). Take an aliased line (1) and blur it (2) and you get a bloom around an aliased line. This is a very clear visual and you'll be spotting it in No Man's Sky all over the place. But if you run anti-aliasing on that first line (3) and then blur that (4) we can see how that line looks good under the simple Gaussian 1px blur.

This is why you can't just use a blur: it leads to something that's still very much a stair-stepped but not with clean edges you can fix (it's a right pain to make line 2 into line 4 and AFAIK totally impossible to do that fast enough for real-time rendering; however making line 1 into something very much like line 3 is much cheaper/easier). If you want to run a blur for artistic reasons on your scene then anti-aliasing first will give the blurred line a really great and clean profile. The blur works with the anti-aliasing to give a result that's hard to deny.

A really weird thing I noted when finding this: the blur is always a 1px blur; same when running at 1080p and 4K. But there are twice as many pixels per inch of screen with a 4K render (outputting to the same display) and the scene being rendered is the same for both. The game-distance from any point to any other is the same but the pixel count to get there has doubled.

Why does that matter? It means the higher the resolution you set NMS to, the smaller (in scene size) the blur radius used and so the less annoying (for me*) it is. This i not how you should do a blur if you want it for an artistic effect and means anyone playing at 720p is being coated in a much larger radius blur than high-res players. I find that really helps to recover the "sharpness" of the scene so rendering at 4K and downsampling to 1080p leads to a much nicer scene than using 1080p native, just because there is less blur to muddy the scene.

* And I like soft rendering - if it was a good blur that improved the scene not drew glows around every bit of aliasing, I'd be all for it and the artistic justification behind wanting a blurry final scene for the visuals of this game). I'm one of the few people who thinks TXAA was actually an ok AA solution despite it being very soft. I will take soft and stable (my eyes really don't like visual instability) over sharp and flickering every time.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Forza Motorsport 6: Apex (Beta)

This is part two of a series about my personal history with the Forza series. This should be a quick review of F6: Apex and speculation about what it may mean for the next numbered Forza game. As you may have gathered from that earlier post, Forza was the series that got me to care about the more simulational aspects of driving and racing games.

And this does need to be made distinct. When I'm playing DiRT Rally, it is an off-road driving game. When I am joining some friends to bash round a track in PGR then it is a racing game. My preference is for the former but I also like a touch of the latter (with AIs or humans - as long as they're not playing bumper-cars, doing anything crazy that can't help anyone in a sim-style game) to spice things up at times. And Forza, Forza gives me both.

By the time I'd stopped throwing dozens of hours into each game in the series, I was driving an automatic with no vehicle assists and the braking line to jog my memory of each track and provide per-car guidance, cockpit view with each speaker talking to me about each wheel I needed to keep on top of. The AIs in Forza 4 and Horizon were pushed up to the top tier but my main interest was in finally breaking past the front AI and getting some clean air to compete with my Car Club for the leaderboard of clean laps in the car class. Earlier events in the career provided more time to get precise with the controls and demands of the tyres, later events generally provided longer races and so the same opportunity to get some clean laps before the end, even with more challenge handling the cars and getting out in front.

Being a cut-down version of the main Forza 6 title, this is about testing the engine for Windows 10 as part of Microsoft's realisation that the vast majority of gaming people they sell something to are buying Windows, not Xbox. So it's not got the progression curve that allows you to get familiar with a vehicle on a selection of tracks before deciding to try another car as you slowly ramp up the speeds and so difficulty. The lack of many tracks is less of an issue because the price tag is free [you can pay cash for unlock credits for the cars - this is a lot less gross in a free product than a $60 game and is also entirely superfluous here as you will unlock every single vehicle]. Rather than unlocking cars with currency, you complete three objectives per event which gives you points and those points in an event unlock up to three medals - your medal total defines which cars you have access to. No purchasing is certainly a very different feel but that plus the lack of customisation (beyond paintwork there is nothing, no custom decals or performance parts for changing vehicle class or even moving inside the classes) left me far more detached from my cars. So the progression curve has been obliterated from every angle - hopefully just an experiment for this free cut-down edition and not a serious consideration for the next retail game. Considering the damage done to the series pushing F2P micro-transactions with a broken curve in Forza 5, hopefully they will keep looking to refine the series to mix progression with constant novelty.

Along with the three optional objectives, which are a nice way of encouraging removal of assists or certain feats while racing, there is a main objective that gates "completion" of the event. Then your completion time and multipliers from the AI difficulty and assists settings adds up for a final event score. There is also a 4th, top score reward which turns the medals into a platinum - it would be nice if this had been set slightly higher as if you're playing without assists then your multiplier will quickly make it trivial to get this once you've grabbed the three challenges. The completion time or a fastest lap time should weigh more significantly on this total score calculation to provide real differentiation as if you've not got a challenge to hit a certain time then it almost seems as if lap times don't matter at all.

This also infects the leaderboards for each event which are now all about your score and not about your lap time. Not only does this replicate the issues noted above about removing the focus on a single clear fast lap from the earlier implementations but it also doesn't even track clean vs dirty. It's just a single event and in that event you'll surely have drafted or done something to dirty some of it so everyone is unclean and it is entirely absent from the tracking. As I noted when recounting my history with the series, this goes completely against my impression of what was the core of the series. The ranking that put even the slowest clean lap above the fastest dirty one.

Not only are Car Clubs missing, hopefully an oversight from the cut-down nature of this game, but the leaderboards that do exist are ranking us on chasing challenges and abusing turns while minimising our assists. Those are still tracked by the leaderboards but as they act as multipliers for the score then they also push the rankings. As I got into Forza 6: Apex then I moved to manual transmission with clutch to enjoy a new challenge and assist both braking and acceleration but the score multiplier is now such that I have to really mess up to do badly on the leaderboards. This seems wrong; I no longer have an incentive to play through the campaign (what of it there is here) with a focus on clean fast lap times or even with the option of seeing those ranked once I finish an event.

I do appreciate that since Forza 4 they have added a new top tier of AIs, pushing me away from "Pro" to challenge myself to be able to cut through the pack and get past an "Unbeatable" leader (who seems to be driving an automatic from what I can tell, which does mean they're not impossible to catch). The Drivatars seem totally unremarkable when you turn off the "aggressive" mode that ruins them but that's a big step up from Forza 5 - although you do have to wonder how a series spent so long working on a system that ultimately basically replicates the AIs before they started tuning profiles to try and match humans. One area where progress is desperately required is the weather and time of day.

The problem with playing games in a post-DriveClub world is we know what fully dynamic time of day and weather provides to keep a track exciting, lap after lap. Now DriveClub was divisive, enough to break some reviewers into fabricating justifications for why they just didn't enjoy it, and wasn't aiming for the same level of sim as Forza. But every time I went to a night track or had to adapt to the deep water on a rainy tract in F6: Apex, I wished for the more dynamic way that DriveClub handled it. "You can lock it down to give you something to learn precisely but the game excels at making sure every lap can feel a bit different to keep you on your toes." This needs to be part of the next Forza. We deserve to be able to learn that a couple of laps into a 4pm race on this track then corners 4 and 6 will involve being blinded by a low Sun and for that to be a dynamic feature, not a static constant. The deep water here is great but how much better would it be if it came or went depending on conditions as you took a 10 lap event on the track. Bright day turning into pitch black with track-side lights to help guide your progress as your headlights fought against snow or fog that has just rolled in: this is something we can have with modern engines with no pre-baked lighting.

There is great potential for the series here. A full game that steps away from some of these issues noted (some of which will almost certainly be rectified by a retail release with enough content to justify the price) could not only recapture any lost fans but also grab at all the PC fans of driving games or people who had a PC and a 360 but now only have a PC and PS4. The visuals are slick (perfectly fine on a GTX760) and the dynamic settings keep the main game's frame-rate up, even if it sometimes has to make the rear-view mirror into a slideshow to maintain it.

As to the base game: make the challenges and event points about buying car unlocks, not leaderboards; bring back Car Clubs and a focus on clean laps; add a fully dynamic system for track conditions; push in the expected features (multiplayer, visual and parts customisation, cars and tracks, a full career progression) and Forza Motorsport 7 for Windows 10 could be something to get very excited about. As a free preview, this does more than enough to justify anyone downloading it to take a look. Those with a racing wheel should keep an eye on the development blog for when that support gets added into the beta.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

My History with Forza

[Getting to] Forza Motorsport (xbox, 2005)

I initially played a bit of everything: from Destruction Derby to Carmageddon's focus on more combat than racing, from the more pure experiences of the endless Need for Speed titles to Screamer. If it arrived on PC, I probably had a go on at least the demo. On the MegaDrive it had been the likes of Out Run, Virtua Racing, and Super Hang-On that kept my attention. But, by the time Forza started out, I'd settled into some early-2000s series that stood out. Burnout was just getting started, pure arcade handing and innovative exploding puzzles. Midtown Madness was going back to the more open checkpointing of something like Carma that later defined Rockstar's racing attempts, amongst others.

Sega GT didn't quite connect for me but the Dreamcast had been where Metropolis Street Racer and San Francisco Rush 2049 took hold. The more relevant of those two to Forza, MSR had also spawned two Xbox sequels under the Project Gotham Racing name before Forza even arrived, and PGR3 was known to be coming for the new console out that year. While not aiming to be realistic, PGR had helped teach me I needed surround-sound for driving games just to hear where the car behind me was before a corner. Those lovely drifting corners that felt a million miles away from the arcade grooved arcs of Mario Kart or Ridge Racer.

The other series that was letting me know the importance of audio positioning was TOCA Race Driver (later named GRID). Two games deep before Forza arrived, this was where I probably first got a serious taste for something less arcade-y. PGR was at least demanding you brake for the corner and plan your trajectory, but the TOCA games pushed that a bit harder and asked that you not sweep the back end out as you did it if you wanted to keep pace. By no means a sim, they did expect a bit more and set those expectations on real-world tracks - something which allows driving games to tap into your memories even between series as you know every corner of a track layout after playing it over several different series.

Finally, I can't end this pre-Forza introduction without talking about RalliSport Challenge. Where Colin McRae Rally had never quite captured me and Sega Rally had been some fun I possibly didn't fully grok at the time, RSC felt like it arrived just in time for me and was everything I wanted from a timed challenge on a set of tracks you needed to learn. Like PGR2, RSC2 leveraged the new Xbox Live system for online and, crucially, leaderboards to compare my times to everyone I knew. I still read lots of references to the series as a high point for rally games and there are a lot of giants in that genre it competes with.

I enjoyed the original Forza well enough but I wasn't throwing tens of hours into the series on the original Xbox. Therefore, I don't actually have particularly strong memories of the first game, possibly in part due to it coming at the very end of the generation. Likely more relevant was all the far more arcade-y racing and driving titles I'd played before this, detailed above.

Forza Motorsport 2 (360, 2007)

This game seems to be seen as potentially a slight low point in the unbroken chain of the initial four numbered titles. Moving to a new platform but without radically pushing forward from the original strong showing. My memories of the game are of a launch window 360 that was dying by the summer of 2007. My online profile doesn't even record that I played this game, because the networking had already died on my 360 before it arrived. Offline only, leaderboards were gone.

But I continued to enjoy the series with the difficulty assists on (effectively arcade-ish mode), but now really taking advantage of that dynamic racing line that allows you to learn a track without being terrible at each corner before you get a feel for the braking point you need for each car. An assist that allows you to drive at least somewhere close to passable on your very first attempt at a track: these are the teaching touches that let me really get into a game. Rather than making the game easier, it removes a stage of forced memorisation from being good at taking each track with each car.

Of course, trying to go back now is rather challenging. The AI instantly feels retro, with their driving a lot closer to being that classic on-rails (and non-reactive) design than later iterations. Just at the very basic level of controls, Forza 2 forces you to unlearn use of the clutch, because there is no manual with clutch option so the manual control arrangement puts the handbrake where most players now expect a clutch button. There are no in-car views to drive from (to perfectly spacialise the audio feedback for surround speakers and give an impression of the car's corners). Quality of life additions like rewind (to reverse a mistake or an AI blindly ploughing into you as it doesn't react to your clear positioning) and a career progression that focuses on providing choices (or even just race competitors that always correspond the car you bring to the track) is also very noticeably absent from the package.

It was later while I was first playing Forza 2 that the console finally gave the final white flag, the Red Ring of Death that got it swapped out for a warranty replacement by Microsoft. Bad memories, even if mainly by association. By the time I was ready to dive back in, the sequel was arriving...

Forza Motorsport 3 (360, 2009)

This where they really got me. This is the start of my phase of easily dropping 100 hours into a Forza game upon release and then going back for more every now and then until the sequel had arrived.

Just as Forza 2 had made the racing line a dynamic indicator to avoid needing to memorise braking points for the standard racing line, this game added the rewind assist. And what an addition that was, even if we'd already been playing games that gave limited access to that feature from Codies the year before. TOCA Race Driver was now without that brand association and called GRID but in 2008 they came out with Flashbacks - a rewind that meant if you messed up a corner then you could go back and try it again. Turn a race-ruining mistake into a second chance to keep going to the finish line. Colin McRae Rally was now called DiRT and also added the same assist, giving Codies two runs at the formula before Turn 10 had a chance to release their attempt.

The difference here, compared with Codies' system, was that you weren't limited. Turn 10 let you go wild with racing the perfect lap - if you had the patience, you could drive how you wanted. But it wasn't a clean lap. And this is a small stroke of genius for how this assist worked to give you more time racing on the edge without breaking the leaderboards with your friends. Cut a corner, use another car to change direction, draft for a boost, or rewind and your lap time was flagged as dirty. The leaderboards not only ranked your best laps but also automatically ranked clean laps above dirty ones. Even the slowest clean lap was worth more than a dirty one. You wanted to rewind to avoid disaster and being forced to restart a race but the leaderboards at the end were all about getting that clean lap. They also noted which assists you had on when you got that lap time.

This was the start of my journey into getting the depth of the simulation in the Forza games. The lists of top laps not only strongly encouraged me to worry about cut corners and making that one perfect lap (without using the rewind to fix a mistake) but also showed how all my friends were doing with assists on and off. After a while, I started experimenting with turning down the assists and seeing how the various cars handled without the more arcade edge. By 2010, I realised that with rewinds there to undo mistakes, I could experiment with the cockpit view and started to get a taste for it and the kinetic feel of that view.

Forza Motorsport 4 (360, 2011)

And here, here is where it all really came together. Forza 3 had captured my attention and put me on a path to wanting to know how the game was meant to be played, how the fake cars provided detailed feedback to do more than throw them through a corner and hope for a good exit. The dual games of starting off in the pack and working through the other cars cleanly and quickly before racing the top spot, then driving into the sunset to get those clean laps for the leaderboard comparison at the end. Checking for more optimal paths where the racing line was too conservative or suggested braking where it wasn't required.

The big innovation here that brought the series and how I played it into alignment was Car Clubs. World or even region ranked leaderboards are pointless, I've not got world class reaction times and I'll never be able to compete at that level even if the developer is keeping them completely cheat-free. Friends are where it's at. But I only have so many friends who play driving games and sometimes I'm playing quite early on after release and an empty leaderboard is no good. Forza 4 split the difference and provided a way of joining up with enough people to always have a leaderboard with some competition without it just being anyone. I joined a club with all my friends and got to know a few new names that became my regular competition for the better times.

I started out in 2011 with assists already scaled back somewhat from the end of playing Forza 3 but during my time with Forza 4, I definitely started to push further into the higher classes without going back to the assists to manage all that power. This was all automatics but I was otherwise clean: no ABS, STM or TCS. Using a basic joypad, the steering was on normal because you need to be able to flick the stick to make small adjustments while it damps the input to take that as a small wheel turn too fine to make on a basic thumb stick.

Earlier I noted that by 2005 I knew surround was essential for hearing the engine of the car behind me to know which side it was potentially going to attempt to pass on. By 2011, I had moved to only use cockpit view so started out with Forza 4 that way. And I got much better at using my ears to get a better feel for an assist-free way in which Forza tells you what you need to do. I'd not grasped this so clearly in Forza 3, starting out with assists (even for the slower cars) and an external view. Front speaker for your engine, four surround speakers for each tyre. Each one shouting out information about where the braking or acceleration is going to let go and how likely you are to hold this turn at this speed. Perfect.

Forza Horizon (360, 2012)

This was where Forza started to lose me - not during Horizon but immediately after it. The cadence of the series stepped up to annual releases and jumped to a new platform the next year. This game was great, from the open world to the soundtrack framed around a music event. I played it intensely but five days after the game was released in Europe, I'd completed every event and seen every hidden spot. A few days later I'd polished off all I cared to of the simultaneous online experience, only lacking the Free Roam achievement (as those seemed to be a poor copy of that idea from Burnout Paradise, where I did enjoy them several years earlier).

Horizon showed that the Forza handling model could be extended to allow tyres to touch something other than tarmac without destroying the feel. The assists may have been cranked up a bit and everything made more forgiving but it still felt like a Forza game. Making things more forgiving (the Horizon off-road handling was never aimed at simulating real sports cars on grass or gravel but rather making the game exciting to play) is not surprising when adapting a model that had previously said a tyre that touched off-track instantly lost all traction and two wheels or the underside of the car touching grass or gravel would instantly apply a massive magical braking force to the centre of the vehicle to try and avoid corner-cutting - a magic decelerator you can still find in spots in the latest FM games to avoid off-track cheating. One of the big changes for Horizon's handling seems to be that all vehicles had super-brakes - it takes a moment to get used to it but clearly helped in rapidly dealing with unexpected traffic or track changes. With assists off, Horizon provided a huge range of differently handling vehicles and a great range of courses to throw those cars at without it ever feeling too much like your choice of vehicle was fixed by the event's terrain.

Horizon had a great day-night cycle and some gorgeous visuals for the location on the 360. To this day, it still stands up surprisingly well and the low resolution of the 360 is offset somewhat by decent anti-aliasing and a soft look that masks how little processing power and texture space there was for those real-time shadows that came from a day-night cycle.

In writing this, I went back to try the DLC I'd missed during that single week of play in 2012 and see how much more was added to the game after I stopped playing. A clever free DLC called the 1000 Club offers a short list of challenges for each vehicle that effectively extends how much you can do in the open world while feeling rewarded. I can now say that I've enjoyed flipping through the handling of at least 146 different vehicles in Horizon in the last few days. All done now with manual clutches, which also gave me a greater appreciation of the range of handling (and even ease at which you can read the actual car's dashboard for information vs using the game's UI or just working purely on audio feedback) for that system. It's a smart addition that would have kept me playing for longer if it had been there at launch.

The main DLC/expansion (beyond the car packs that often feel superfluous) is some rally events and a new off-road handling pack that added a few extra parts for each vehicle to allow the handling required for some nice rally feel. I had a lot of fun here, especially after I turned off the braking line assist that appears to not have been tuned for the new rally parts and offers some pretty questionable advice. One of the really weird things is they made the rally expansion for you to lose (in a game and series otherwise all about you dominating the pack). 50 cars in each event with the need to do reasonably well to progress and unlock all the rally events but never the need to get to the top. Even going for Hard rather than Unbeatable, I was getting comfortably into the sharp end of the global leaderboards (top few percent) while also losing out to the top AIs. Fighting my leaderboard rivals (at the sharp end of my Car Club or from the global pool if I'd already topped that crew) was often easier than coming above the AIs one notch below the highest difficulty. It's a small touch but I found that an interesting choice (you can obviously drop the difficulty if you want some AI times that you'll find it harder to be much slower than on Easy).

Unfortunately, you can also see some of the ways the series was going into paid cheats appearing here. The 1000 Club repeatedly offers to unlock fast-travel anywhere if only you would pay some real-money currency (on top of the game already offering to unlock cars for real cash every time you go to spend your in-game credits - as I noted in 2012) and the Rally expansion tells you that while the events have to be unlocked in order and a points score exists for the final event, that only really matters if you're not prepared to use real money to unlock them all now. The events seemed easy enough to unlock but offering to remove that with cold cash paints the challenging nature of that expansion in a far less favourable light.

Forza Motorsport 5 (XB1, 2013)

Then the Xbox One happened. An underpowered and overpriced system focussed on an American TV customer that got hit doubly hard in Europe due to exchange rate moves. This was more expensive than a launch PlayStation 3 where I live and was clearly an inferior model of PS4 with different exclusives. It wasn't even as if it was a strikingly different silicon design. MS paid AMD to put a cache in rather than a 50% larger GPU and opted for weaker memory bandwidth to guarantee they'd get 8GB from the first plan to enable a larger OS footprint. Forza 5 launched with a severely cut back selection of content compared to the last Motorsport game as they moved to higher fidelity assets. I had a quick poke around on a friend's copy and decided to wait two years for the version packed with more content. They even doubled-down on the paid cheats and broke the progression curve to try and force more players to pay for currency, something I'd noted was starting to fester in the series when Tokens got added to Forza Horizon.

Forza Horizon 2 (360 & XB1, 2014)

This failed to recapture the magic of the first game for me. I wrote at the time "more devoid of life than the original, certainly a weaker sequel" after a few hours of play. I was quite happy to live in the somewhat more arcade-y (especially with those strong brakes) world of DriveClub that year, with dynamic weather and time of day making every race into a dynamic discovery of exactly what the track had to offer.

Forza Motorsport 6: Apex (PC, 2016)

Last year offered up Forza Motorsport 6 (XB1, 2015) with the promise that the progression has been walked back from the almost F2P-inspired design of Forza 5. But the console was still not priced well and I was happy to continue with DriveClub and jump into DiRT Rally.

So here we are today. Forza runs on Windows 10, at least in a free (and currently in beta form) variant to test the waters. This post is already getting rather long so we'll save the review for part two of this series. There are some major issues that come out of this being a stripped down experience. There are some issues which may reflect poorly on the series as it diverged from my personal perspective of achieving a peak in Forza 4 (and the path it didn't take towards perfecting that specific design). But I am now using a manual gearshift and flirting with moving the AI difficulty from Pro to Unbeatable (a tier missing back in Forza 4), so it appears to be back to pushing me to go deeper even with those issues nagging at me.