A reader suggests that the next generation of consoles is more of a leap forward than many think, even if that’s not obvious right now.
There have been a few articles flying around the web about next gen consoles not meeting reader expectations. Historically, each time a new console is released it’s expected to come with an amazing generational leap in graphical quality and, maybe, introduce a new IP or two. So far both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 have failed to deliver on this expectation and have left readers unimpressed, but are these feelings warranted?
One reader suggested that titles like Super Mario 64 and Halo were examples of a launch done right. Super Mario 64 is indeed an all-time classic. But then it was bound to be, it was the first time we ever saw our beloved character in full 3D and it was the first time a console could truly achieve all 3D graphics; are we saying that all the Mario games since were inferior? No, but the novelty has since worn off.
It’s a similar story for Halo, it was the first time we’d ever seen a fast-paced first person shooter paired with exceptional online gameplay on a console. But now games like it are a dime a dozen. The key point is that each time both of these games exploited a massive generational leap in capability, so what’s different about today’s next generation?
Firstly, let’s establish what generational leaps are being claimed.
Ray-tracing is a pretty impressive capability. Up until now all lighting in games has been effectively emulated using black magic; that is, approximations of how light should interact. Ray-tracing actually bounces millions of rays of light from light sources onto objects and all around the room, allowing it to create hotspots, reflect, diffuse, and adjust every time an object moves, exactly how real light works. For the end user, it’s a point of immersion, super-realistic lighting, shadows and reflections previously only seen in CG movies.
Primitive Shaders are a bit more technical but potentially incredibly impactful. In a nutshell, they take work around vertice processing, previously handled by the CPU, and mass-parallelise it on the GPU. This removes the bottlenecks around modifying and transferring large numbers of vertices to the GPU, making it possible to adjust the level of detail (amongst other things) in a model on-the-fly.
This means we can now load 20 million polygon models into a scene and adjust how much detail you see based on your distance and focus on the screen, allowing for almost one triangle per pixel detail at any time. Previously 20 million polygons would have choked up a console. For the end user, this means incredible detail in all parts of a level and the closer you get to something, the more detailed it can look. Imagine the Final Fantasy 7 Remake, where the backdrops of Midgar were actually 3D models instead of pre-rendered images and the flowers in Aries’ garden looked photorealistic as you walked up to them, that’s what primitive shaders make possible.
This is a capability not to be underestimated, as it’ll allow games to deliver many times more effective detail than the last gen at the same number of teraflops (making the idea of teraflops as a measure of performance almost redundant).
3D spatial audio
3D spatial audio is another big feature for user immersion and this isn’t to be underestimated either. Most of us have had a small taste of it when watching Dolby Atmos movies or using the Dolby Atmos speakers on our smartphones. It’s the idea that you feel surrounded by the sound and can tell exactly where a noise is coming from, even if it’s behind you, above or below.
Virtual surround of the past tried to achieve a similar thing, but what makes 3D spacial audio distinct is that it covers all directions and actually renders objects in a scene to adjust for their position, rather than it being baked in; not unlike Creative’s high-end X-Fi sound cards of the past, which were woefully underutilised in the PC world.
Microsoft is supporting 3D spacial Audio through Dolby Atmos and Dolby Atmos headphones/speakers, whilst Sony is going a step further with their own system that even accounts for the shape of your ear for extra realism and features hundreds of sound sources instead of the 32 supported by Dolby Atmos. That’s the difference in hearing each individual pebble in a landslide and having that final touch of realism to the sound.
New haptic feedback and adjustable triggers (PS5 only)
New haptic feedback is a capability only for the PlayStation 5, but it garnered enough developer interest that even EA has gone as far as to add dedicated support in its new Madden and FIFA games, EA who almost never go out of their way for console-specific features. This new haptic feedback uses voice-coils (the inside of a speaker cone), instead of motors and normal actuators, to generate ultra-refined feedback patterns and strengths. This allows impacts as subtle as a player running across the field to be felt, as well as the touch of a foot to a ball during a pass or the heavy impact of a kick.
Again, as with ray-tracing, for the end user this is a point of immersion, you will feel responses to a lot more actions and each will feel very different from before, a bit like controller vibration is always on rather than just the occasional big rumble when something major happens. The adaptive triggers will provide a feeling of resistance, like when pulling back a bow string, pulling a trigger or performing a physically difficult action.
Blazing fast SSDs
Blazing fast SSDs seem simple on the surface, faster loading times, right? But their impact goes beyond this. No more loading times means no more splits in levels or long passageways just to give time for the game to load the next scene – full creative freedom. I mentioned earlier about primitive shaders making more detail in games possible, but that detail comes at a RAM cost, and that cost is probably higher than the RAM of the system, even the 16GB of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. This means level detail needs loading all of the time, non-stop, to keep up, and SSDs make this possible.
Arguably, Sony have gone a step further here with the PlayStation 5. Their SSD is more than twice as fast, it can load data straight into memory accessible by the GPU and it can even let the GPU know it has done this to optimise performance (through cache scrubbing). It even has 16 different priority levels to make sure the most important details are always loaded first or that unexpected data can suddenly push in front of the queue for a smooth experience.
This may not seem like much but it’s the difference between being able to have all of that 16GB working for what you’re looking at right now, to half or more not being used at any one point in time. If you can completely replace your RAM in under two seconds with new data, like the PlayStation 5 can, you can load brand new detail even as your character turns around to look at something new, allowing for incredible polygon and texture detail and variety.
Variable refresh (HDMI 2.1/G-Sync/FreeSync)
Variable refresh isn’t mentioned much, but both new consoles support it. With a TV or monitor that supports it, if your console fails to maintain a smooth 30/60/120fps, rather than tearing or a sudden judder as a frame is missed, the TV itself will just adjust its refresh rate to match. The implications of this feature on console expectations is big, right now there’s a lot of marketing around ‘true 4K at 60fps’ and a big focus on 60fps games, but with this technology, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Developers who can’t hit a solid 60fps can just aim for it and let the TV match any drops, rather than having to cap at 30fps, and the effect of a frame rate drop will be barely noticeable in most instances.
So on paper, there’s perhaps more generational leaps in this generation than any other, this is perhaps the biggest leap since 3D graphics, so why have launch trailers been so underwhelming? There are two reasons; one is time, time to develop and time to catch up; and the other is hands-on demos, a chance to experience new haptic feedback and 3D audio.
The thing to remember with Super Mario 64 and Halo is that in both cases, the generational leaps that made these games possible were already possible on PC many years before. In fact, Halo was originally developed for PC only, before Microsoft purchased Bungie in 2000 and delayed its release.
This time around, the PC isn’t the bleeding edge, the consoles are. Granted, ray-tracing is already available on some high-end nVidia graphics cards, but it’s not widely adopted or fully utilised yet and mesh (primitive) shading was just released on nVidia’s 20xx series for the first time with only limited game engine support. 3D spatial audio, new haptic feedback, and the use of an SSD as a key gaming component to gaming (key in maxing out the value of primitive shaders) are all new.
The simple truth is that it now takes a lot longer to make high-end games and developer tools haven’t caught up yet; the Unreal Engine 5 demo was a prime example of that. The demo showed us the result of ray-tracing in its fully dynamic lighting, the impact of hundreds of spatial audio sounds as pebbles fell down rocks, and the impact of blazing fast SSDs and primitive shaders in epic Hollywood levels of detail and a vast open scene as far as the eye could see. All things that weren’t possible before.
But Unreal Engine 5 is still in development, it won’t be released until next year. We won’t see Unreal Engine 5 games until the end of 2021 at the earliest, as it takes time to make an AAA game. Right now games are just using a beefed-up version of Unreal Engine 4, with the exception of first party games like Horizon Forbidden West, that use its own engine. Likewise, normally there would be a huge buzz from the media around haptic feedback and the realism of the audio after they’d tried a few hands-on demos, building-up belief and excitement in readers, but with the coronavirus that hasn’t happened this time around.
So have consoles shot themselves in the foot by being bleeding edge? At launch, perhaps, but focus on what was shown in the Unreal Engine 5 demo, something that was real and rendered on a real PlayStation 5, and we can rest easy knowing where these consoles will take us in 2021 and 2022. And that’s someplace that will change gaming forever.
Who do I think has made the right decisions and who would I bank on? Sony’s PlayStation 5. Why? We’ve just highlighted how time to develop is a big factor in getting AAA games that fully utilise new features to the market. Sony has chosen an architecture that is simpler and quicker to optimise for than the Xbox Series X (only one speed of RAM, no-fuss data loading from SSD, no optimising for heat or CPU vs. GPU), they’ve had dev kits in first and third party developer hands for much longer and they’ve been working closely with Epic to develop Unreal Engine 5’s new capabilities and to push the industry forward.
Mix in the extra mile they’ve gone to with the SSD, haptics, and audio and they’re ensuring that the PlayStation 5 really will be a generational step forward. Am I fussed about the extra two teraflops of the Xbox Series X? With the impact of primitive shaders on level of detail and variable refresh on frame rates? Not at all, and by the time developers squeeze out those extra two teraflops from the more complex architecture we’ll be at the mid-generation refresh and it won’t matter to those who care, as they’ll be looking to the PS5 Pro or Microsoft equivalent.
By reader Alistair Lowe, MSc MIET
The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.
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