The Order 1886 serves as an impressive graphical debut for Ready at Dawn, proving not just their own technical abilities but also an exciting glimpse into the future of the ‘next generation’ of games. Despite the title being rather heavy handed in narration (and forcing the player into a single direction) there’s little doubt that it pushes the graphical boundaries of the Playstation 4 to the limit.
Back in April, 2014 (my, how the time has flown) we tore through Ready at Dawn’s GDC presentation of the technology powering The Order: 1886. It was revealed that at its heart, the title was created to take advantage of both full multi-threading rendering and physically based rendering, using an in-house tile-based forward renderer. Ready at Dawn stated in one of its technical slides at the GDC presentation “Physically based rendering from the start” – and boy, does it show.
Let’s get the resolution out of the way first – the games aspect ratio (or borders, as many call it) is a function of the game rendering at 2:40:1 aspect ratio; thus for all intents and purposes the rendered resolution isn’t 1920×1080, but instead 1920×800 pixels. This reduction in pixel count from a true native 1080P image reduces the workload of the GPU by just over 30 percent – a tangible number. Combined this with the more sedate frame rate target (30FPS) the PS4 is given significantly greater time to process each frame of animation.
With regards to the Anti-Aliasing solution employed by Ready at Dawn, things aren’t quite as cut and dry. Back in February of last year, Andrea Pessnio had stated via Twitter the team were aiming to utilize 4xMSAA, but were still in the midst of finalizing the quality settings. The developer also pointed out that using such a high amount of Multi-Sampling is rather expensive in terms of hardware performance; gobbling up greater amounts of bandwidth than using a full 1080P frame buffer. But, there is certainly some artifacts which aren’t typically present in a multi-sampled image, and would be more at home with a post-process AA solution. This is particularly true on ‘thinner’ objects when viewed at sharper angles. But, it’s hard to be completely accurate in judging the form of AA, this is particularly true because of the amount of DoF (Depth of Field) and other blurring effects which smatter the image.
Speaking of viewing things from extreme angles: you’ll spot objects lacking certain amounts of texturing filtering. We’re not referring to everything, but smaller objects certainly lack some of the quality of others. This is particularly true when viewed from either certain distances or from certain angles. You’ll rarely spot it with the ground, weapons you’re holding or other things which are supposed to be your viewing focal point. Instead, the problems are more likely to be small objects on shelves, or possibly tables and other such objects. On top of this (and for viewers of my let’s play series… plug, plug, plug) you’ll have noted I’d pointed out various visual issues such as the odd case of texture swapping too.
The Order: 1886 Frame Rate – Is it 30FPS Stable?
You can have all the best graphics in the world, but the big question is are the frame rates stable? The Order: 1886 targets 30FPS, providing the GPU (in a perfect world) about 33.3 ms to render each and every frame of animation to your screen. Ignoring the criticism from players when the developers cited that “30 FPS is more cinematic”, does the frame rate hold up, or does it tank?
Well, initial impressions of the game were very favorable, and indeed the first few hours of gameplay we didn’t detect any real drops in frame rate. Even if gas canisters (which are carelessly left in the street, tssk) explode, the frame rate managed to cling to dear life to 30FPS.
But things weren’t quite so rosy when we got a bit further into the experience, particularly when dealing with much larger fire fights, with a lot of fog, multiple light sources and the Thermite Rifle. This weapon (for those who’ve yet to see it) fires pelets of, well, thermite, which is then ignited after the fact. You can stock a lot of the flammable material on screen, and since this has a tendency of igniting other things (such as the aforementioned gas canisters, certain destructible environments and, well, people) things can get mess quite quickly.
The Order: 1886 still generally clings to 30FPS for dear life, but particularly when we go on a roof section, and surrounded by fog, smoke and have a great view of the ensuing battle below, do we see the performance fall from the precious 30FPS mark.
It’s hard to argue that it’s a negative from the game – considering that often we were trying our best to hurt the frame rate. But the problem is because the frame rate of 30FPS is already fairly low, when the frame rate does drop, you can feel it rather noticeably. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as pre-patch AC Unity!
There was only one area of the game that we’d managed to make the frame rate drop, try as we might (and that includes running into trouble like a mad man). So that’s pretty impressive – at least in our opinion.
Physically Based Lighting and Shadows
The most accurately modeled 3d character in the world won’t look right if they’re placed in a flatly shaded world with no difference in lighting or shadows. It’s not just enough for the lighting and shadows to be ‘realistic’ (say for a candle to cast light) but, for the scene to look realistic, that light must interact correctly with other elements of the environment.
To this end, Ready of Dawn have opted a two fold strategy to produce a more realistic image, but also ‘save’ as much GPU and memory bandwidth as possible. Pre-Computed Lightmaps are just what you might expect – their lighting characteristics are already setup for the object. This means it’s not ‘altered’ on the fly, and is used for static geometry – in other words, bits of the scene which won’t be going anywhere. Because the game doesn’t alter time of day (so, let’s say you were to leave your character on the spot for 12 hours, it won’t suddenly become night time), this is a great option to have an awesome looking scene, but without breaking the performance piggy-bank.
The other is spherical harmonics (is a techniques that can produce realistic shading and shadowing, but with the added bonus of comparatively little overhead) for the more dynamic objects of levels and other elements.
The lighting pipeline is extremely robust, and features CS bins lights, two depth partitions and vertex lighting for particle effects. Vertex lighting is cheap to run, but looks rather flat due to the fact it’s not exactly stellar at calculating other incoming light sources.
Contact Shadows are once again a mixture of both pre-calculated and dynamic. Field Ambient Occlusion is utilized for dynamic elements, and pre-calculated for static entitlements. Reflection Occlusion is also taken into account, which removes unnatural reflections from weapons (the example used in the GDC presentation was a rifle). If a light source shouldn’t be showing on that part of the weapon, say because a part of the weapon (or another object) is blocking the light, then this shader will take that into account and make it more accurate.
Just like in real life, an object can cast multiple shadows based on the number of light sources. An obvious example must be when you’re in the underground tunnels, and you’re either firing your weapon (and in a panic too, since you’re relegated to a simple pistol) or using the various torches. This will create various rays of light (obviously these move depending on player location) and that will dutifully affect the scene and how the lighting and shadows behave within.
Characters, Models, Skin and Hair
As we said during the opening paragraphs (and discussed at further length during the lighting section), the games renderer was built from the ground up with physically based rendering in mind. The game was created with a lot of emphasis placed on the various cinematic sequences in the game (some would argue, too much emphasis, but I digress) and thus realism of the digital actors is a crucial element for achieving this.
Believe it or not, the skin in the game is the most expensive shader. On the fly, The Order: 1886 has the PS4 calculate the depth of the characters skin pores, the angles of the lighting and this allows for the models skin to look eerily human. There are multiple texture lookup per light… and it looks rather beautiful. Unfortunately, the hair isn’t Physicallsed-based (the developers added a 🙁 next to it, for those who’re wondering) and it doesn’t use something like TressFX for the characters locks. It’s not surprising, there has to be give and take, and using TressFX (or an alternative) is expensive.
Textures, such as streets, walls and other such ‘main’ details aren’t just a single texture painted onto a flat surface. Instead, they’re made up of multiple layers and this creates detailed surfaces. So, just like in the real world, you’ve got multiple materials on top of one another. Mud on top of cobble, or water in a metal basin. It’s all very impressive stuff, and it’s little surprise that over 2GB of memory is blown purely on the textures (with a further 600 MiB being gobbled up by character textures – oh and I almost forgot the 250MIB on global textures such as FX and light maps). The teams engine can use up to four layers at a time, derived from the base materials.
For those who’re curious, the environmental art is mapping at 512 pixels per unit (PPU) and the standard environment tiling texture is 1024×1024 pixels.
BRDF (Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function) is used on cloth, and indeed their engine requires 2 BRDF’s in composite. It’s used to create the highlights in the cloth, and is a fairly simple shading technique that’s been about for some time (but obviously with more GPU power, we’ve got the ability to use it more liberally. Nvidia released a PDF about it if you’re curious). Light can also pass through certain fibers of material (as you’d expect from say cotton).
Physics of the Highest Order?
Physics in The Order: 1886 are a mixed bag, with highlights including fantastic cloth physics (so, if you walk through drapes you’ll notice they fold in a fairly realistic manner), but the lows being lack of destructive are damageable environments.
Starting out with the positives first – cloth and physics simulation, the various game characters garments will flow about rather realistically. The main character, Galahad, will have his coat flapping about realistically as you dart to cover, and is affected by various weather conditions and other environmental effects. It’s a huge step above the lifeless clothing of the early PS3 era, and serves too add an extra amount of life into the games world.
Foliage, cans and bottles will react to gun fire (or indeed, if you happen to bang your character into them), allowing you to blow the hell of out that vicious looking glass jar should you so desire.
But, there’s certainly a lack of destructible environments, and I certainly expressed disappointment that certain fences, tables and cloth (for example flags) seemed to ignore your weapon fire. It’s a true shame, and while the level of destruction to environments seen in a game such as Red Faction or Just Cause 2 probably would be a bit much for this title, it’s a true shame that you’re unable to cause shop front roofs to cave in, or to knock down a wall with a hail of bullets or a well placed grenade.
Other physics are pretty bang in place, and so far we’ve not noticed any random rag doll physics, and things roll and fall as you’d expect them to in real life.
Slightly off topic of physics – clipping is also pretty good. But we did notice the occasional opps with characters hair. In the below image, Galahad is learing over one of his friends, and you’ll spot the rather obvious area where their hair is clipping into each other, and actually being calculated almost as a single object. It looks rather… well, odd.
Too much Post-Processing?
Motion Blur and Depth of Field are liberally used throughout the game, and indeed there’s been a bit of a debate if Ready at Dawn were heavy handed on their usage. The game can certainly have a ‘softer’ appearance, due to the motion blur affecting virtually every object in the game world (especially character movements), and combined with an at times aggressive DoF, you’ll certainly notice the effect the devs were going for.
If you hard aim (with default controls, that’s L2) you’ll notice certain elements going out of focus, and it can be a little jarring when you first start playing the game. Similarly, blur and DoF is applied with the camera. Fortunately, there’s little shimmering or abnormalities that you typically find with console post-processing thanks to the rather effective Anti-Aliasing method employed in the Order 1886.
The level of Post-Processing certainly is impressive, but it isn’t going for complete realism, instead the developers were obviously using it as another means to convey the filmic look.
The Order: 1886: Tech Tribunal Opinion:
Special mention should also be given to the animation (particularly the lip syncing) and the loading times of the Order. Animation is extremely impressive – not only from the clothing (as we’ve mentioned) but also the characters themselves. Subtle animations such as sneers, frowning, hand gestures and other such gestures serve to make them appear more human. It’s all rather impressive, and it’s clear that the 700MiB of animation data allocated in the PS4’s RAM isn’t going to waste.
Loading times are fairly quick (particularly if we take into account from the title menu), and the game loads rather seamlessly into new areas while cutscenes happen. When loading screens do pop up, you’ll be waiting no more than three to five seconds (typically) for the game to start. Unfortunately, and frustratingly, you’re unable to skip cutscenes. There are obvious parallels between The Order 1886 and Ryse: Son of Rome. Both titles establish a rather lofty visual standard, and similar criticisms can be leveled at both games pacing and cut-scene (or QTE) usage. From the technical stand point, the title is stunning – but clearly the “walled off” nature of the game helps. While an obvious statement, it’s important to note that this isn’t GTA; you cannot go wandering about 19th century London.
You’ll go down a fairly predetermined route, and because of that, the developers are afforded a greater amount of resources. It’s hard to argue with the results from the graphical standpoint – lighting, shadows, character models and the like are extremely impressive. There have been questions raised on websites such as NeoGaf if users would like more games to opt to go in the direction of The Order: 1886’s borders.
As we’ve discussed, the additional 33 percent rendering budget is considerable – and certainly a way to ‘get around’ the PS4 or Xbox One’s mid-range GPU’s. But, if developers were hoping for a “yes, we would” they were sorely disappointed. Most users wouldn’t like that – but in an age were developers strive for ever more impressive visuals, something has to give. Frame-rate, resolution, borders… something.
As I write this, I’m reminded of seeing Ryse on the Xbox One and thinking just how impressive it is – I still think it’s one of the more gorgeous titles available on the machine. It’s arguable that The Order: 1886 does what Ryse did, but better. It nails the filmic experience rather perfectly. The bigger question is – will you enjoy your time with the game? Personally, I liked it more as I spent time with it. Opinions here at RGT on the Order: 1886 are a mixed bag – but I love that thermite gun.