Thursday, 4 March 2021

My Present/Presence in Virtual Reality

I did not get to experience the CRT-based early consumer VR hype, because that stuff basically failed to make it to market in any real sense and was at trade shows before my time covering the industry (let alone working somewhere that got sent dev kits). But I did enjoy the early success of consumer stereoscopic 3D gaming. I jumped into both the 1999- (Elsa Revelator) and 2008- nVidia 3D Vision ecosystems (first on a CRT and then on a high refresh rate LCD) and while the second push also came with some 3D movies (as cinema chains tried to find a new reason to spend too much to go to the movies), the main draw for me was always interactive 3D experiences. As long as you kept your head still & tweaked with the 3D settings, you could get an impressively convincing window into a miniature 3D world. Things just feel different when you can use your vergence to focus on different elements in the scene (because things close to you & distant cannot both be in focus at the same time so you have to pick which is double - although this tech does not simulate the soft-focus that reality provides to the out of focus depth) and have successfully trained yourself to disable your accommodation-convergence reflex (current VR has the same limitation but we're on the edge of consumer eye-tracking that could allow renderers to apply depth-of-field based on gaze tracking).

When consumer VR was back in the "maybe this could work at consumer prices" stage of Kickstarting in 2013, I started paying attention. Take a high resolution consumer phone screen, add some lenses, and read from the ok quality gyroscope/accelerometer package that phones also now include, and you're just some better motion tracking away from a real VR setup. Without that tracking, there isn't quite enough precision for rotation and you've got a major issue with drift (which you can see with your phone, if you've ever tried to do something fancy with that sensor package) plus the accelerometers are far short of what you need for sub-mm position tracking (as you'd expect from having to do a double integration from acceleration to velocity to position with no external validation).

In 2014 I got the Oculus Rift DK2 to try out a few projects for myself. This fuses the sensor package readings with an external IR camera looking for IR LEDs on the headset. The low persistence displays (you can't leave the image up until the next frame because the headset will be in motion and this smear can cause huge issues - I believe the good series of blogs on this by Michael Abrash all got purged from the Valve servers at some point last year but Archive.org remembers) offer up to 960x1080 PenTile per eye (half a 1080p screen, assuming the lenses go right up to overlapping views with your eye position in the headset) at a maximum of 75Hz. It's dev hardware, but it was only $350 and kinda works. The real issue for me was the PenTile pixel layout because that was a major thing for OLED phone panels at the time and means for each input pixel you only got two colour elements rather than the three of RGB. To me, while we're often talking about the bandwidth limits of higher refresh rates and 4K displays or the GPU load of calculating each sub-pixel's value, effectively throwing away a full third of the information when it hits the display (because the red and blue channels are half resolution on the actual screen) seems like a waste. It also means that the number of individual dots of light in the headset you're looking at is only twice the pixel count (skewing comparisons with RGB layout panels in other devices). Some early consumer games played on the DK2, although I seriously doubt everything released in the last couple of years would work (even if you can accept the quality limitation) as I don't think the current SDK still supports the very early dev hardware.

In 2016, I got a real consumer VR headset with PlayStation VR. $300 got you Sony's spin on their existing line of personal 3D viewers (which I'd always seen advertised as a way of looking at a movie on a plane in a virtual cinema) and the big upgrade from my DK2 was an RGB OLED layout at the same resolution (so that's 50% more individual points of light from the sub-pixel count increase) and up to 120Hz. The camera used visible not IR light to track things and reused the PS3 motion controllers if you wanted to play something not designed to work with the motion-enabled DualShock 4 (default PS4) controller. The big setback: it was released around the time of the PS4 to PS4 Pro transition and most software was mainly made assuming the rather paltry GPU inside the 2013 PS4 (which, even at release, was not even a particularly high-end customised AMD). An external box added support for virtual 3D audio and 2D pass-through to a TV (some games even made social experiences where the players on TV saw something completely different to the person in PSVR). A lot of games seemed to rely heavily on reprojection to double the effective framerate and the tracking was not great (especially for controllers which were either actual PS3 motion controllers repurposed & never intended for exact tracking or a standard controller that likewise was not originally designed for sub-mm tracking because it was just bringing forward the legacy support from the Sixaxis "we were fighting a haptics patent so couldn't include rumble in the PS3 controller so I guess have some motion sensors" controller).

In the before-pandemic times, I also had access to (but never had at home) the commercial first revision of the Rift and HTC Vive. Both 2016 headsets, both 1080x1200 per eye PenTile OLEDs (two actual panels, not one screen with lenses aiming to almost overlap) at 90Hz. At two and half million sub-pixel elements that's actually a lower dot density than the PSVR (about three million) but the advantage is everything expects a higher resolution and modern PCs can really drive those rendered pixel counts up (even using anti-aliasing) as the GeForce 10 Series was out by 2016. The Vive is interesting because it doesn't use a traditional camera for drift correction or sensor fusion; rotating lasers in base stations provide a moving slice of light for objects to orient & position themselves within (synchronising with a wide IR pulse to know the timing of when in the rotation the laser hit them). For the last year of lockdown, I've had no access to this kit and I'd not really used it for a year before that. So I've basically been PSVR-only and while the exclusives have been good, stuff like Resident Evil 7 sure does seem like it'd be better if it wasn't tied to that console GPU. Both the PC headsets have been superseded by higher spec updates but I've not seen anything of them up to this point.

That is, until a week ago. Thanks to the incredible generosity of someone reaching out and offering to ship me their Valve Index VR kit, I now have a modern PC VR headset at home. The Vive was codeveloped by Valve so they decided to take the lead in 2019 and release their own branded kit. The same base station tracking tech but here paired with a headset that offers 1440x1600 per eye RGB from 80Hz to 144Hz (and a somewhat higher field of view than any of the other kit I've used). The audio uses portable "ultra near-field" speakers, which sounds surprisingly good (considering I normally use in-ear or closed headphones which provide good conduction) and doesn't block out sound from the outside world (otherwise it can feel a bit like you're extremely vulnerable when immersed in the presence of VR). I'm glad I can stand in a quiet room so get all the benefit of off-ear sound (you don't need to simulate the distortion of your ear shape because that process still happens - preventing the sound from feeling like it comes "from inside your head") and it continues to be immersive.

The other huge update is the controllers. My limited time with the Vive was using their motion controllers (lot of time with the Rift & PSVR was using traditional wireless gamepads) and the Index controllers are certainly a refinement of that basic idea but rather than holding onto two sub-mm tracked devices, these you tie to your palms and so can entirely let go. The importance of precise tracking can be seen in how you put on the VR kit: with PSVR you need to know where the controller is before you put on the headset; with an Index the controllers need to be switched on but once you put on the headset you can easily walk over to the controllers and put them on using their 3D rendered virtual versions. I'm almost ready for the future where we go into VR by putting gloves on. Yes, you'll never beat the haptics of a real button press or trigger pull but, for a lot of VR experiences, actually having some virtual hands is all you need. This has opened my eyes to where VR gaming isn't just traditional gaming but with fully-immersive environments and extra input from head tracking. With the next generation of devices, gaze tracking should provide even more efficient rendering (only render the highest resolution where you're looking) but also entire new interfaces that are controlled with a look and a hand gesture.

Up next (after maybe a couple more weeks of dipping into all the PC VR experiences I've been missing out on): what are my actual impressions of playing various things?

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Games of the Year 2020

Well last year I tweaked the criteria for my lists and listed a number of games I'd get to that *checks notes* I did not manage to get round to this year (although I did at least get through quite a few games that had built up from lists in previous year - Divinity: Original Sin 2 is currently in progress). Everything outside games has been, for reasons you can guess, a lot to handle so I'm actually thinking of making another slight career change in 2021. Got that plan to eventually build up a co-op still rattling around somewhere. The slow ending of the 30% digital store rip-off may actually meaningfully improve the viability of making small games for a small market. But on to the new games other people have made that I've played and found notable this year.


Best of the Best 2020:


    Final Fantasy VII Remake (part 1)

The most well remembered classic JRPG, completely remade with modern AAA production values, and cut into pieces because making games as big as the original with 2020 costs would be prohibitive. It's a large ask, larger than was required of the total remake of Resident Evil 2 last year, but they seem to have worked out what Final Fantasy VII would look like if you made it today. Which things needed to be retained, which things had to change, and what stuff you could rework and expand because you're free to experiment a bit as slavish devotion to the original would necessarily import the most outdated issues into the reworking. At the start of the year, this was not the remake I expected to be at the top of my list by year end.


Baring a few asset streaming issues that hopefully the eventual PS5 or PC ports will completely fix, this is an incredibly lavish RPG that manages to walk through the initial sections of the 1997 game while showing that some of the offline rendered background from that era are now more than attainable by real-time rendering. But also that the current designers are willing to throw out entire systems (like the old combat mechanics) to build something that feels fresh inside the shell of the classic game. It really gets onto my list by doing the same thing I praised RE2 for: knowing how to merge the best of the original game with enough new to be novel without losing the identity of the game.

    Ori and the Will of the Wisps

I didn't get into Ori and the Blind Forest until a while after release (after the Definitive Edition had been out for a bit). The many escape sequences without checkpoints managed to sour me slightly on the whole thing, while acknowledging that it otherwise worked quite well (even the divisive system of laying your own checkpoints using an energy currency rather than hitting standard console auto-checkpoint areas - almost felt like when PC games have played with limiting quicksave for higher difficulty levels). But after they had fixed some launch performance issues with this sequel, I was ready to jump into this somewhat classic Metroidvania platforming experience and find out what was new.


Luckily this contains lots more of same and far less annoying escape sequences. The innovative checkpointing is out (so no forgetting to checkpoint and losing progress) but the various combat and upgrade systems have been extended in every way imaginable. It's now a lot more of a combat platformer than the first game (which relied upon auto-target shooting rather than a range of weapon styles) with your face buttons remappable to whatever skills you feel are best suited for where you're currently traversing. And the traversal still feels as good as the last game (I would not have persevered through the partial memorisation & cheap kills of those original escape sequences if the movement hadn't felt this good) while the story sorta retreads the same emotional notes the last game did - it mainly still worked for me but whatever they try next needs to change it up narratively or it'll just feel cheap a third time. It's still doing very nice things with making a world mixing 3D elements with lots of deformable 2D layers.

    Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered

I'm not sure I've played the original game this remakes since shortly after it released in 2009. I have maybe replayed the original Modern Warfare since then but I'm not certain of it. Either way, Sony's co-marketing deal for recent Call of Duty titles have also ended up with remakes of the first two Modern Warfare titles coming to PS4 slightly before other devices and in the last two years also included them for any PlayStation Plus users (so anyone with a PS4 who wants to play online with others). After this arrived on PS+ only a few months after first being released, I decided to do a back to back (re)play of the two Modern Warfare games that are the definitive Call of Duty campaigns in my recollection.


While this isn't the sort of total reimagining that I've praised above, there's definitely some production values behind these and it's certainly not just offering up a PC port (higher resolution than consoles at the time could offer) with reworked textures and some higher detail models. This is all new work but based upon the level progression of the original campaigns (the credits seem to list "archive sound" so the original VO is retained but they've done new motion capture so it feels all-new). This is basically a "how you remember it" remake where you go back to look at the original and realise that actually the dynamic modern in-engine cut-scenes you've just played through actually were far more basic in the original game. It feels like the original given 2020 production values.

I did notice that the ground-up rework has (in the same way the Black Mesa remake of HL1 in the HL2 engine fails to capture identical enemy AI) somewhat changed the actual play experience and difficulty. This is a campaign that I did not beat on the highest difficulty in 2009 and I've not become radically better with a controller in the last 11 years of ageing. I still found a few spots of repeatedly reloading a checkpoint until I'd worked out a reliable way to get through a difficulty spike but it wasn't as punishing as the original game - I generally expect the very hardest difficulty in a game to be beyond me, leaving room for those with good reaction times and knowledge of a scenario to still have something to offer some resistance. There is a famous achievement for the very end of the original Modern Warfare on the hardest difficulty (which also slashes how much time you've got to complete that level) and it wasn't easy but this year I managed to get that perfect run in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered. It feels like that same difficulty change continues into this 2020 game, which some may find disappointing.

    Gears Tactics

That lovely Gears 5 engine, tweaked even higher with a PC-first release, and a turn-based tactical combat game between the lavish cut-scenes? Sign me up!


Somehow we're having another year where my personal list contains quite a bit of stuff that looks a lot like a modern Xcom and yet I'm still going to be adamant that I do not like either of those games and the expansions did not fix that for me, despite going back to the mid-'90s X-Com games they are based on and getting a lot out of spending my action points to slowly work through a procedurally generated map of alien terror. The way this game gets over the two-phase move + shoot turns I dislike in XCOM 1 & 2 is making it so you quickly multiply your total moves while also being able to recharge them during a turn. It's basically getting us towards proper action points while pretending to adhere to the modern choice to do away with them.

I'm also unsure how much the actual combat drove me through this game vs enjoying those lavish production values for every cut-scene. It's maybe not exactly as much obvious money on the screen (rendered in real-time) as a numbered Gears of War game but it comes close enough to remind you how little budget Firaxis Games are given to make anything outside mainly functional graphics by 2K (despite a consistent record of making multi-million selling titles).

    Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2

Lotta remastered games getting to the top of the list this year. Almost feels like a theme: the last push for this generation with very mature technology being deployed to work over games that are old enough you'd maybe not really want to dive into the limited visuals today but, at the same time, they still often play really well. In this case, Activision have tried remaking and bringing forward various THPS projects in recent years without enough funding or care and completely failed. But after Toys for Bob remade Spyro and Crash Bandicoot into extremely profitable titles, the classic levels from the first THPS games and enough cash to relicense the vast majority of the classic soundtracks have made it into a game that feels like how you remember those old games did, only today we actually get the sort of framerate consistency you really didn't around the turn of the millennium.


I think I played a ridiculous amount of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 on PC with nothing more than a keyboard (this was far enough back that console games were being designed for digital not analogue inputs so actually you could just get a keyboard out and pray the port had been given more time and money than most to get it working well under Windows 9x). We Europeans then missed out on the Xbox merging of levels from the first two games in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x because by the time the console was out here, it was time for the 3rd full sequel to release.

So here is the first European chance at getting all these iconic levels together in one package, now remastered with a lot of extra content and tweaks (the combo system is completed with the revert from THPS3, although you can disable it to get a pure experience on the original levels) while feeling a lot like those classic games, only without the classic framerate (it's a guaranteed 60 fps here). Now I'm just waiting to see if they add level packs from the 3rd and 4th game to this package or if that's going to be left for a full sequel bundle.

    F1 2020

At a certain point I had to stop just thinking that this annual franchise had never been better and start actually considering it for the end of year lists.


It's not quite what I wanted as this is very much another incremental tweak to the 2019 release that's coming out at the end of a console generation so probably has most of the major rendering tweaks waiting to be shown off in the 2021 release for the new consoles. But this is still an extremely good semi-sim game that this year adds the ability to create your own team and really take charge of making waves in F1. Like the addition of an F2 season to last year's game, it's an incremental change from what they've been doing recently so if you don't upgrade to the latest game you're not missing out on a radically new experience but it does help round out the package and build on top of the great driving engine they've had for a few years that can range from assist-heavy to a very light-touch semi-sim approach where you always need to be on top of the tyres and mix moment to moment precision with race-long strategic choices.


Also Notable 2020:


    Hades

This won the hearts of just about everyone else this year and is from a developer whose previous work I've enjoyed. I played a bit of the early access version when it first became available then gave it another go after the final release but, not helped by it always feeling really laggy on my Intel (iGPU) machine, I never really loved the combat loop (latency wasn't an issue on my nVidia desktop but when I was playing it was mainly on the go). As a roguelike-like, it's always going to be tuned for maximum difficulty but I also just didn't feel like how I lost health was often something I could significantly improve around without major elements of luck (often keyed to random rolls for upgrades etc) or grinding (as there are permanent unlocks you slowly earn currencies towards). Again, none of this is totally unexpected for what they set out to make but I'm not the biggest fan of 2D action games and definitely won't grind much to progress, even if there is a lot of recorded VO to put around shuffled tiles of levels. Maybe one to give another go in 2021.

    Genshin Impact

First off, this is a free to play game with primarily gambling mechanics around the collection of additional RPG characters that make up your party of four. It's an always online open world narrative RPG with matchmade online dungeons you can also tackle solo. You own nothing but that does mean you can completely seamlessly jump between a session on PC or on mobile. But if you feel compelled to collect everything in a game, this is a bad option because the dozens of characters have several tiers of power to unlock and each unlock comes from a rare random roll primarily using the paid currency. So it can't go on the top list, even if I've been having a lot of fun with this without having to pay money.


The core of the game is anime characters (with English or Japanese VO joining the original Chinese) exploring a large vibrant open world full of both repeatable event quests and a solid narrative mainline quest series. Your party of four elementally-aligned characters can be switched between on the fly and this provides some depth to the combat which otherwise restricts inputs to a jump, dodge, attack (fast & charged variant), with special on a timer and super that recharges with attacks (fitting into the limited options for phone controls). The elemental combos really make the combat sing here, along with plenty of abilities that operate even when the party member is swapped out (which is something you'll be doing potentially every few seconds when in intense combat) - it's an intriguing way of giving players most of the versatility of a four character full party & associated health pool without the pure offensive output of a group party with all characters active at once (which is how you do online play). You've also got plenty of modern niceties like zero punishment death, climb-anywhere traversal, gliders, plentiful fast-travel unlocks, and rebuilding a new party composition whenever out of combat. Actually one of the primary things to note about the lavish F2P RPG here is that it's rarely punishing in a way that feels like they're pushing the paid currency. You don't buy around death punishments because there is none.


There's zero friction to entry with the download kept reasonably small to fit mobile storage and lots of quite generous freebies on offer during limited time event and a drip feed of premium currencies that get you most of the way to the end-game without much grind (I got a full double party - only required for the most strenuous activity of a combat arena dungeon - up near level 80 when the cap is 90 and got to an Adventure Rank in the 40s, which is the non-level-based gating to progression). The PlayStation servers use different accounts but play on mobile and PC and it's seamless as they're the same servers and account system (you can also get a native 4K on PC, which the PS4 Pro doesn't quite hit and also has issues holding a stable 30fps there).

    XCOM: Chimera Squad

This is one of the close-but-no-cigar games for this year. I grabbed it at launch and had a good time... and then almost completely forgot about having played it during the rest of the year. Which rather says how the "friendly cops" narrative didn't stick with me given the geopolitical events this year that could have reminded me of their attempts at making the Xcom universe more light-hearted than previous games.


On the plus side, this was launched at a very attractive discount so early adopters got to take the risk for the sort of price that matches the more limited ambitions on display here. As an Xcom game, one of the best things it does is to remove the terrible sequences of cautious play while you work forward to reveal the map and activate enemy groups. Here each area is far more constrained and you start off with a breaching mechanic that can remove plenty of enemies from the room and also primes you for the mixed turn-based (initiative) rounds that mix up the previous gameplay formula.

    Tell Me Why

As I mentioned when discussing Vampyr, I do hope Dontnod don't end up trapped in a rut as they seem to make interesting games and I'd like to see them making many more. Surely there are some Quantic Dream developers who worked on the (world class) motion capture and animation systems who want to stay in Paris but would like a different boss. Interesting that another team at the studio completed Twin Mirror about the same time (I'm yet to play it but the reviews have not been very positive). This game, heavily advertised by Microsoft, definitely has the legacy of Life is Strange hanging heavily over it.


A trans coming-of-age (into young adult) story with magical realism elements, this is definitely an evolution of the house style and some narrative themes. Unlike the first Life is Strange, this embraces queer text with the assistance of some outside sensitivity readers and provided all of the episodes in rapid succession, having been developed entirely before release. I liked it despite some polarising choices made about how certain elements offered player choice.

    Resident Evil 3

Well, given my praise of Resident Evil 2 and other remakes, this would seem to be a slam dunk. While I don't have much of a history (I have watched it replayed quite recently) with the original, the idea of taking what worked about RE2 or even infusing some of the innovation of Resident Evil 7 into a more open city scenario sounds like it would be a great game.


Unfortunately this fails to fully utilise the excellent engine they've been building to update the 3rd game with the same scale of smart choices that made the last remake work so well. Some sections feel needlessly faithful to the rather limited original that was creaking at the limits of PS1 while others don't seem to know what new direction they're trying to build in.

    Dreams

The ways this sculpting tool and console game development platform manages to empower users to rapidly create so many different things is pretty impressive. Some smart rendering choices have ended up creating a very different look for consoles and I really hope the Media Molecule team are being given plenty of support from Sony to port this and everything created with it to PS5 to give it a long life (and maybe PS5 exclusive increased complexity or features). More people deserve to give this a proper shot and it's a real shame the 2019 public early access into 2020 official release and VR patch have seemed to see media interest wane rather than explode. Creators need curators with big audiences to find and promote their best creations to a wide audience to ensure the ecosystem stays enthused.

    Kentucky Route Zero

Long in development, this finally released the final episode in 2020 along with a console port. I think that's notable but also have remarkably little to say about this indie darling. Something about the intentionally aliased style eats at me, especially with how it scales to different resolutions. There are some interesting choices made in the emerging narrative but this has been picked apart over the years as each episode has been released.


Failed to Play 2020:


Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales - I mentioned this when talking about playing the previous game again but ended up deciding I'd rather wait for PS5 hardware to enjoy the best version of it (especially given how expensive this is compared to a Lost Legacy release, before exchange rate and other price increases made games a lot more expensive domestically).

Control - Sorry Remedy but the last gen version just looks bad to me when I tried to get into it. I'm still waiting on an upgrade to my home PC hardware. As soon as I've got a current GPU with hardware ray tracing acceleration, I've got the Ultimate Edition ready to go.

Noita - This did hit 1.0 this year but I've not really dived into it properly unfortunately.

Teardown - This is still in early access and is quite an interesting rendering choice with a completely destroyable world. Unlike Noita, it's all in 3D. Worth keeping an eye on as it develops.

MS Flight Simulator 2020 - My PC can barely run it, so I will wait until it runs a bit better on modern CPUs (has to be optimisation coming with that VR patch only just out by end of the year) and I've got a beefier GPU to throw at the ridiculous scale of what's being attempted.

Half Life: Alyx - My home VR equipment is getting old (DK2 & PS VR) so not being able to visit friends or offices with something fancy meant I didn't get nearly as much VR in 2020 so this will have to wait.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon - As is quite a theme in these, I never quite get round to Ryu Ga Gotoku games at launch so end up putting them on the end of my annual lists.

Cyberpunk 2077 - Sure sounds like waiting for the long patch and expansion cycle towards a GotY/Enhanced Edition (this team is known for) will pay dividends here vs playing the launch version. I'm up for some open world Deus Ex style gameplay but it seems like there's too much focus on shooting (a lot like how Watch Dogs: Legion sounds like it's not actually the sequel to WD2 that I wanted despite the ludic space being so ready for making guns even less relevant and a push towards Immersive Sim stealth/ghost play) that maybe fan mods will fix. Another game with too much to do and releasing too late in the year for me to have a chance of completing it.

Ghost of Tsushima - This runs at both high resolution quality mode and 60 fps on a PS5 (PS4 Pro makes you pick 1800p sub-30 [but actually mainly 30 fps] or 1080p30 locked) so I'll wait to play this on new hardware, once it becomes easy to get that at home and there is a critical mass of exclusive games to play on it. "1800p and if you're really pushing the visuals maybe accept 30 fps" is something I've associated with my [coming up to 5 years old] GTX 1070 OC and I'm ready to ask for 60 fps again from hardware upgrades.

The Last of Us Part II - I bet this will look even nicer if they do a big PS5 patch or rerelease rather than just a back-compat update. Maybe explore the options for ray traced global illumination and unified lighting/shadow model that their PS4 baked solution attempts to approximate but with a few obvious spots where it breaks when dynamic lights and objects fail to cast the shadows you'd expect.

Watch Dogs: Legion - I'm absolutely waiting for a new PC GPU for this. Ray tracing looks variable (not a big fan of how close the max distance is for rays, either dynamic objects or static, compared to how Spider-Man is dealing with the same problem) but it definitely looks better than without it.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Lotta big games coming out at the end of this year, right? Ubisoft Plus is going to get a lot of use in 2021.

Wasteland 3 - Conceptually I really want more Wasteland (I backed 2 when it came to KickStarter) having come to the series via the original '90s Fallout games but once again this seemed like it needed a few patches before being ready and with Game Pass I know it'll be waiting for me next time I subscribe with any enhancements they patch in.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Catch-Up 2: More Not-GotYs

After saying this blog wasn't going anywhere during the unfolding global pandemic, things both accelerated & slowed down to the point where Mastodon posts were about all I had to contribute (about gaming related topics) for a while. Before the year concludes with some 2020 hits (although don't expect anything for new consoles - I'm not getting hardware and, due to movement restrictions, I'm not playing games elsewhere at all right now), it's time to look back at a few more games from the recent past that I've now consumed completely.


Marvel's Spider-Man

So this is now available (with a different face on the post-grad protagonist, which I am not going to find easy to get used to in the almost assured direct narrative sequel in 2-3 years) on PS5 as a remaster (along with the 2020 spin-off Miles Morales game). Which made for the ideal time to go back to the PS4 & also play through all the DLC.

What's there is still absolutely some of the most impressive visuals on the PS4, even without ray-tracing (making some of the buildings into rather unfortunately outdated low res city skyline cubemaps), and a romp of a cape story that keeps the game moving along as you explore the open world activities on offer. It sure has been a while since inFamous First Light gave us something similar (although without the Disney IP to lean on) and the traversal here is just exactly how you want swinging from building to building to feel without trivialising movement (which allows various challenges around racing timers, drones, & other things).

A Plague Tale: Innocence

This just skipped out of contention for being mentioned in my GotY post last year (as I didn't get round to it until the start of 2020). Since then, Asobo Studio have continued to rise in reputation after leading the MS Flight Simulator 2020 project but this 2019 game was a strong announcement of both the state of their internal tech and art teams. Definitely the tier above the indies I mentioned when talking about Observation last year, this verges on AAA without the major publisher (or budget) and is likely to indicate what we'll see outside the big publisher ecosystem in years to come (in genres you may consider to be dormant).

The horror-edged historic setting shows off lush French scenery and mixes the adventuring with a focus on stealth which only occasionally frustrates (something most games find hard to get perfect, especially without resorting to the modern stealth genre option of allowing combat as an entire alternative play style). As you go through the ten hour story campaign, the art never lets off as you move from setting to setting and there's just enough going on in the plot (and between characters) to give it all momentum.

Vampyr

I wanted to put this down somewhere as I'd not said anything about this yet, despite playing bits of it on several platforms since it was released. I really want to like it more than I actually do and it comes down to two issues: I don't think the action holds up very well (something I could look past in Remember Me due to that interesting world and novelty of the memory editing sections) and the character animation tech just isn't where it really needs to be to sell the emotions. The latter being something that Dontnod have been on the edge of for a while now but I'm starting to worry about if they're going to be left behind in this generation change if they're not investing in upgrading their facial animation system, subtle character animation blending, and so on. It's not Mass Effect Andromeda bad but it's not going to hold up well against the expectations driven by the last generation of AAA really refining what's possible. The house art style can only hide so much and here was where I started to find it impossible to ignore (unlike Life is Strange, which managed to totally sell me, despite the rather limited link between character animation & the VO). While Dontnod may be spreading themselves a bit thin and ending up with a bit of a "formulaic subversion" problem (we might talk about more at the end of the year), one thing you can say is none of their games are exactly like most other video games, even when doing a vampire action game.


Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

I've mentioned this in passing on here but haven't actually given it the proper dues of getting a paragraph or two of actual discussion. Spider-Man: Miles Morales has put this back into the conversation because Sony are back with something that seems like it might have started as a significant DLC but turned into a shorter spin-off game. The thing I noticed playing the Lost Legacy recently is its reputation for brevity is more about Uncharted 4 being lengthy. Which means a shorter spin-off is still basically the same length as any of the games in the original trilogy. The difference here being more of a focus on "wide linear" open areas that allow some choice of how things are approached (and environment reuse), while also providing plenty of narrative progression through corridors (showing off the visual splendor of modern AAA assets).

While the Tomb Raider series has slowly been losing me since a high point of the 2013 reboot, the most recent Uncharted is the best the series has ever been for me. I wonder if the switch of protagonists is enough to give the series new life away from the conclusion of the numbered series or if Naughty Dog are going to head in this ludic direction with an entirely new cast and maybe even universe for whatever they're working on right now (beyond Last of Us 2 updates & multiplayer spin-off).

Into the Breach

Since this was so beloved and I'd given it a bit of a go a while back, I thought I'd go back and complete it. Until I realised that the chess puzzle aspect of it (which seems to be influential in a new wave of games in development that use similar deterministic rulesets) is actually something I really need to be in a very specific mindset for. A mood that 2020 has not made forthcoming and without which I just find each mission either infuriating or trivial with nothing in between. Bit of a strange place to be, considering for the last decade my day job has revolved around some of the fiddlier aspects of programming languages. Maybe I need to make more of a division between hobbies and work when dealing with the heightened stress of broader world events.


On my list of things to polish off right now: Divinity: Original Sin II & The Evil Within 2. The latter should be something I just need to put a few evenings into while the former is probably going to be quite a time investment. Not playing the entire Dragon Age saga long but also maybe something that'll end up taking me into 2021. Or maybe the combat will feel too much like a puzzle and I'll drop off it. I feel like there's something to be teased out of how much I didn't enjoy going back to Into the Breach this year but that'll have to wait for another time, once I've collected my thoughts & played through a few more games.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Catch-Up 1: the Not-GotYs

Since last we spoke I've been in somewhat of a holding pattern, expecting to find another meaty topic about next gen to dig into but instead being satiated by micro-blogging about game dev stuff and the state of politics. I suspect that during the not-E3 events next month I'll find something that won't fit into a few 500 char posts on Mastodon. But until then, I was reminded of the tail on my recent GotY posts of the games that get left off those lists (because I didn't manage to play them in their launch year). As many of those games are things I've played by now, I wanted to just quickly give some thoughts on a few I never got back to talking about, however briefly (and which didn't get included in the recent rule changes made to allow ongoing games to be properly given their dues).

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

A good capstone on the series, this expandalone contains strong levels (something Dishonored has continually refined with iteration) but the environment reuse does make it somewhat limited (but then you'd maybe expect that from a DLC that this clearly was before sales of Dishonored 2 left Bethesda unwilling to require people own that to buy this).

I find it hard to believe that this story alone would be satisfying (selling it separately did allow me to buy it on a different platform to the base game so I can't fault them for that but after replaying Dishonored 2 & immediately jumping into this, it felt like bundling the two is a smart move). Taken as the final piece in a series, there's a lot to enjoy from how they conclude the threads & flesh out bits of lore. Mechanically, I'm not sure the selection of new abilities is my favourite but that's been a long-standing issue I've felt: the need to keep things somewhat novel & not just replicate the original formula creates a weird space which demands evolving strategies that worked in previous games (which is good) but also makes you pine for the flow you'd achieved by the end of a full game exploring your abilities (which can feel bad but maybe ensures the systems never feel stale).

As an Unseen stealth player, I've never felt like this series compromises those roots for action (although giving plenty of extra space for non-lethal surprise moves). That remains true here but the Contracts (optional mission objectives) do suggest that those wanting to be a ghost can't also engage with that new system completely (as contracts demand murder, something previous games have worked to ensure there is always an alternative to). The removal of an achievement for never killing (it exists only for not killing during any one level) while retaining the one for never being seen indicates developer intent for players to be somewhat more bloody during this campaign. I respect avoiding becoming formulaic even if it's not what I go to in a Thief-like.


What Remains of Edith Finch

I don't think this is as emotive as it thinks it is and that can really hold it back unless you choose to go with it. When it worked for me, it worked extremely well and the section everyone talks about as tying mechanics & narrative perfectly was so anxiety-inducing for me (as someone irrationally paranoid about settings where losing concentration can quickly lead to losing body parts).

It's also a pretty visually lush in the way that several of these Sony-incubated (Santa Monica Studio) developers have been able to achieve (see also Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture). The pushing of well-funded indie into adopting very AAA aesthetics. The Unfinished Swan may have been a visually more interesting experiment but this game works incredibly well. The density & detail of the assets fleshing out the different scenes here provide a lavish presentation that puts you inside the place. When you're playing a game to find the details & understand the story, having that crafted density rather than a rough approximation that is only meant to invoke it matters - I know plenty of indies who dislike that but I don't think it's untrue even if it does somewhat tie budget to what you can do with virtual spaces. Finding affordable ways of doing this stuff (ie doing it fast but well, possibly leveraging a huge database of material info & mesh detailing or assembly tools) is something that'll continue to push the industry forward.

Inside

Did I never mention Inside on here after noting I failed to play it in 2016? Well that's an oversight.

The continuation of the ideas covered in Limbo manages to expand on every facet of the '2.5D platforming with mood and some mechanics' design. It's also a very solid evolution of the visuals and the best dithering you've seen in a game. Seriously, the final result is very appealing and I suspect it'll convert at least some who have previously accepted banding as a limitation into reading up on how to stop it.

Titanfall 2

Just an incredibly solid campaign that provides something new in each level to play with while driving forward a basic story with just enough to hook you into finding out what happens. You and your big robot friend try to save the world. It's a real shame this never got the space to really breathe and so is now stuck in the cult-mainstream area where a lot of people have played it but not quite enough to make a sequel obvious for a hit-driven publisher like EA. Also it feels real good to pop AI heads off using the mouse, all contained within more narrative trappings than the multiplayer-first original game - for those of us who have really moved away from competitive online shooters, the campaign makes for a value that churning through Apex Legends simply doesn't (even at the entry price of free).

Watch Dogs 2

Another game that I found the energy to complete on PC rather than console. Considering the (narrative) slog that the first game was, the radical changes to the tone and subject here refreshed what could have been just another attempted GTA-lite by someone other than Rockstar.

The result is something that feels like it has an identity. Something Saints Row took three games to really nail down and then almost as quickly imploded into itself. Hopefully Watch Dogs: Legion avoids that and I can have some more fun taking selfies & completely avoiding the combat that feels so out of place for an average hacker in over their head. Oh dear, I feel that's not what they're going for with Legion and no fancy procedural story system will save a mediocre shooter that could have been a stealth hacker game with charm.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Next Gen: Feeding the Beast

No one attended GDC due to the global pandemic (I was considering pausing this blog for some months during the crisis but decided having more things to read during world events wasn't a bad thing at the current time) but we still started to get the technical deep dives on the architecture of the new 4K consoles from both Microsoft and Sony. (I will try to avoid just repeating what is said by both architects.)

I will not, sight unseen, be telling you which numbers are slightly bigger and so which console is definitely going to dominate the next five to seven years (plenty of people with much larger readerships seem to have already covered that). I've not been read in on any next gen hardware so nothing I'm about to say is hinting at information not already make public. But the way these specs are being sold is already somewhat interesting, especially as we think about the divergence between a totally open (assuming you've got the billions to buy into patent lockouts on various standards) PC system and the closed box of a console, after a generation where the custom silicon inside each high end console were ultimately less distinctive than in previous generations (even the one where MS asked for a Pentium III on an nForce chipset & a GeForce GPU).

Getting from There to Here

Moving from AMD's tablet CPU cores to a modern Zen2 desktop architecture and a GPU upgrade to stay contemporary with current PC GPUs targeting 4K screens was widely expected and confirmed early on during this generation transition. But you have to feed the beast and for games that often means juggling a huge array of large assets with only a semi-predictable pattern of demand (based on player action). The dual issues are having the time to load the data you need to render in the near future and the processing power to run the logic that decides which assets to prioritise & actually push the commands that move data around (the latter becomes far more pressing as bandwidth increases).

A major theme from both console architects is load times and the potential for radically faster storage now that NVMe SSDs are the expectation (and luckily PCIe is just ticking over to doubled bandwidth, which removes that bottleneck from controllers with a wide pool of flash chips to parallelise over). MS are branding their upgrades the Xbox Velocity Architecture with a new DirectX API (which will also be available on PC) called DirectStorage. Sony have gone into detail about their custom silicon and decisions to enable SSD throughput beyond even the most premium PC tech.

It's not just about having a fast connection, you need to be able to drive data to where it needs to go and keep everything catalogued. Sony in particular are definitely focusing on taking the fastest PCIe 4.0 drive they can and pumping it with a silicon implementation of RAD Game Tools' current compression (use less drive space, get even more data into RAM for the SSD bandwidth by expanding it the other end of the connection) and classic DMA silicon (don't waste CPU cycles getting your main processor to direct data around, use dedicated silicon to do it - a trick as old as time) with a few tweaks to the formula (looking forward to hearing more about the GPU cache scrubbers from practical talks after games get released).

PC game designers are going to have to get very clever to match the game experience of these new consoles without having access to all these tricks - expect significant increases in RAM requirements for some AAA ports that will have to use the system RAM as a large cache for data they can stream into the (more limited) unified memory as needed on consoles. Will we see high settings with 4K textures on PC ask for at least 32GB RAM & even 16GB VRAM? I wouldn't say it's not going to happen within 2 years. Those 100-200GB installs are not going away (although Sony did make the salient point that SSDs remove the need to duplicate data to help remove seek times - we can claw some excess back to redirect into even more detailed textures).


What new game experiences? Elevators and slow-opening doors everywhere are not an unconstrained design choice; the length of the walk through the between dimension to fast travel in the recent God of War wasn't required by the no-cuts design decision. It's all about being unable to load enough data for clean fast transitions and even with the much lower quality (smaller) textures of the PS360 generation, you saw a lot of slowly fading in the most detailed textures available (initially associated with the Unreal engine but an issue for many engines that wanted to push RAM limits or just spend less time sitting on a load screen). The plan going forward is to load extremely detailed assets just-in-time via a massive sustained read bandwidth from the SSD, so players never see anything less than the most detailed option close enough to the camera to differentiate. Mesh/Primitive Shaders are also going to help here in making the triangles that make up a scene more dynamic in games that step away from the old static pipeline (think the advertising blurb for Tessellation, only it really works this time for far more scenarios).

This also opens up new possibilities beyond just avoiding load screens or design choices aimed at masking invisible loads in more open level designs (rather than very constrained levels or low/repeating texture scenarios) etc. Things can move faster without causing the dreaded texture quality drop/pop-in. That's not just allowing high speed open world driving games to up the detail of each street or letting Spider-Man swing faster. Each camera cut is a very rapid movement to the new position.

You'll be familiar with inserting pre-rendered video that uses the in-engine assets into otherwise real-time rendered game cut-scenes. It's often very obvious when the PC technology moves forward but the assets are still from an old console release (GTX 760 vs video captured on a 360). There are many reasons for it, like being able to do some offline post-processing (less relevant now real-time shaders are so powerful) or show scenes or animations that you don't need to ship as assets (or hand-tweaked animations that don't fit into the shipped animation rig). A big reason: jump cuts to a different area, ie places for which you don't have assets already loaded into memory unless you've got lots of extra RAM sitting idle, are a right pain - once you start looking for it, it's clear how often directors avoid such cuts, especially multiple of them. Well now you don't have to worry about that issue so expect real-time cut-scenes to start to be a lot more dynamic in cutting between different locations (or different areas within a large scene) in a way far more similar to other media.

Going back to more technical details: to put the PCIe 4.0 four lane SSD connection in context, that's half the massive bandwidth that most PC GPUs have used for the last decade and which textures stream down to the local VRAM - many many times faster than the fastest rotating platter HDDs. For Sony to go beyond that via cutting-edge compression (spending silicon on something better than the current compression typical for GPUs either as texture compression or delta compression) is very exciting and MS are no slouch, they're just not betting everything on it needing to be as bleeding edge.

Doing Something New when You're Here

So we have 16GB of unified fast RAM (with a bit of differentiation from MS with a 10GB very fast block + 6GB slow block mainly eaten by the OS, while Sony have made all of the RAM mid-fast). We're feeding it via extremely nice storage and custom silicon that avoid spending all our CPU cycles on memory transfers or decompression algorithms. What about the actual rendering features?

We know a bit more about the MS side for the GPU, because they also did a point update to DirectX 12 and unified the console and PC APIs for the XSX. The new DX12_2 (Ultimate) will update the feature level (things a GPU has to support) to basically be "almost all the shiny things nVidia have been shouting about from 2018's Turing RTX cards". This is actually a real trick for nVidia, who get to claim leadership of the GPU space while not winning either designs for the new 4K consoles (MS & Sony both seemed happy with AMD plus really wanted to update from x86 to x86 CPUs, something nVidia took piles of money from Intel to agree they cannot offer to customers wanting a custom SoC design).

AMD are making their custom RDNA2-derived GPU for MS to basically boost their feature set up close to where Turing has been for a while. Mesh Shaders (not even calling them Primitive Shaders - the ill-fated Vega tech AMD wanted to fix the old shader pipeline structure) as mentioned above; ray tracing via hardware BVH traversal acceleration (Turing's RT Cores); variable rate shading (shading at rates other than the native pixel count in areas of a scene); and sampler feedback (clever tools for making sure you only need the texture data in RAM that the scene actually needs and no more) - it's all here and what we know of Sony's custom RDNA2 GPU is very similar (they called them Primitive Shaders but who knows as AMD are definitely using something compatible with the common Mesh Shaders plan for both MS and their future PC cards & I don't see why Sony wouldn't have signed up for that considering the first shot at AMD's own Primitive Shaders never got enabled - ultimately they're branding quite similar ideas but I think AMD are sanding away any differences to make it more like Turing rather than nVidia having to pivot at all).

Something I want to focus on here is what neither architects have said is being matched vs Turing & isn't in the DX12_2 feature level: Tensor cores. The (usually low precision) AI inference maths that enables a lot of interesting ideas like computation photography (Google Night Sight), nVidia DLSS (AI upscaling), and much more (often in an offline context); especially relevant for games now we're talking ray tracing: high quality denoising. MS gave the PR talk about their XSX having 97 TOPS of DirectML Int4 performance but if you look into the rapid packed maths blurb then that's almost certainly just saying their normal shader cores can do eight Int4 ops as a SIMD-y alternative to a single FP32 op (same 32-bits of data). This explains why that figure is so much lower than the RTX GPUs, which max out at 455 TOPS (using dedicated silicon).

Sony have also not talked about any AI cores and it sounds a bit like their extra SIMD/vector units (saying their old Cell SPEs were basically ideal for complex audio processing needed for things like transfer function processing) for virtual 3D audio are going to be how they offer non-shader core acceleration of other computational demands. I spent a decent amount of last year doing work on a project around virtual 3D audio. I'll say this much: what I got working before the company folded made me a believer (using nice stereo headphones) and I used to be adamant that you needed all 5 speakers since way back in the nForce/original Xbox days (when real-time Dolby encoding finally made it easy to pipe 5.1 audio out of games with one TOSlink wire per device + some real-time spacial game audio was getting ok). I'm very glad Sony are leaning heavily on this and also that their foray into VR isn't being completely forgotten. Ray tracing for sound propagation through a level and good virtual 3D with hundreds of localised spacial sources will make for something unlike what we're used to hearing. When this tech works, it really work (and Sony aren't hiding that it doesn't yet always work so we've got to figure it out).

I'm eager to get more details of these system (how much are they holding back for later reveals?) and then to see what people are starting to do with this power. I wish we'd heard about tensor cores, because I think there's something rather interesting about the potential there that we'll possibly not see if only nVidia push them (and slowly cut down the die area they use for a feature if Intel & AMD don't match them). Just because neither consoles have announced it, doesn't mean AMD aren't going to offer that for their (non-custom) RDNA2 PC cards, but inclusion in a console would definitely push adoption & experimentation.

These new systems seem like very smart steps forward, mainly matching new feature for new feature (with a slight difference in focus on just how fast each feature runs) and not being "a PC but fixed platform". Interesting times for cross-platform games and how we do things right without underutilising silicon when it is available.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Sets a Decade in the Making

I've been playing through more RPGs recently (digital game rentals: looking to get people subscribing for a long time so going after quite large games) and having not played a Final Fantasy game in a long time, FF XV sure was something. A game announced in 2006, rebooted with new leadership sometime 2012-2014, and released in 2016 (for consoles; 2018 for Windows where I played it; 2019 Stadia).

However the exact preproduction/production split worked out, you can see from a lot of earlier trailers that the world they released was, in some form, being assembled for quite some time. The gameplay systems you see in trailers exist in the final game but not in the places they are shown & some of the CG footage apparently ended up in a movie rather than the game (which makes where it is cut into the game all the more disjointed). It's not actually the longest of RPG, assuming you don't try and eke out every inch of side-quest content & after-credits end-game. But it's an example of AAA games that seemed to be built first before being rebooted (under a new producer) into the actual final game, taking which pieces they could because after spending $100m on building assets, you can't just throw them away even if you end up making a very different game with them.


This is far from the only time we've seen that pattern. As the sets on which games are placed have become more and more extravagant (chasing the potential returns from matching the over 125 million sales of GTA V, a massive world for both a long campaign & countless multiplayer experiences) then the total you can sink into building them is only going to have grown. At the same time the speed of technical progress has allowed assets created to be viable for a AAA game for longer - something made for a game four years ago is not automatically now useless, even if you've not kept pace with the latest ideas (not even every major release today uses physically based rendering, an asset creation transition already well underway 7 years ago). You can go against the norm and play up a style you're going for rather than keeping pace with expectations because even HL2 (16 years old) has the basics of making something competent - you can even deploy that style at the 11th hour, as the original Borderlands did.

Quite a lot is known about the 2014-2016 era of FF XV's development, as some public progress reports exist to reassure people who originally started waiting for a game called Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006 that this new numbered entry was definitely coming soon. We also have reporting from people inside Bungie on the way those Destiny games have been radically rebuilt for new stories. The way Destiny feels as you walk between info-dump dialogue and wait for timers to count down in levels that seem repurposed from possibly earlier designs is probably not reading too much into what actually happened. We know that Overwatch is a setting originally designed for an MMO that does not exist. Blizzard presumably made a lot of content for that MMO to feel out the design & throwing it all away was not the best option.

Some of how the BioWare process has been documented, making a game that doesn't work until it all comes together in the final months, doesn't sound dissimilar to a process of making assets for a game and world you may not yet understand only to wait for someone to take final charge in the last moments & make a new game out of it. Not to say that this isn't on the edge of how a lot of games have been made over the years but the length of the "preproduction" (a term that seems to mean a million different things but generally just "not literally the entire team was working full-time on the project") and how much of the asset production is being done before the final decision is made on how to use those sets - it's something else (FF XV trailers show significant divergence as late as 2013 but the very different plot & action sections are clearly being done with assets that are there in the final game).

As the next generation comes along with a mainstream target of 4K60 & an upper realm of 120fps, real-time ray tracing for lighting and reflections (using dedicated hardware to accelerate), then we may see asset fidelity continue to slowly tick up but driven by the dynamic rendering options (see ray tracing shader hacks in older games for how the same old assets can look fresh & new with a bit of effort - if you're already making PBR assets then changing your rendering equations to relight your scenes can make a huge generational difference without rebuilding your assets).

It'll be interesting to see what happens for constructing the worlds in which we play vs making the games. It'll be a while before they're capable of being unlinked but we're going in that direction. The CG production world and the game development world are overlapping more and more so why wouldn't you rapidly assemble your world using Quixel etc assets, effectively offloading a lot of your asset pipeline to external libraries. Location scouting is something you can analogise to knowing where to go for the right assets well beyond things like SpeedTree, because larger and larger pools of assets are being assembled so that you may need someone who can know where to go for your virtual set. Sometimes your corporate overlords already also own two petabytes of data that is your starting point. Ubisoft are specialists in creating massive worlds using a lot of teams around the world and their current struggles are more about ensuring each product has a clearer identity from the pasting of a game onto each of those underlying worlds - too few ideas being handed out by a central gameplay brain trust at the top.

We live in interesting times, going forward and looking back at how recent game projects have managed to see the light of day after extremely long and turbulent production cycles.