I am not easily impressed by the technical aspects of graphics in computer games, but every few years a game comes along that really blows me away. In 1993 it was Doom, in 1995 it was Descent, in 1996 it was Quake, in 1999 it was Quake 3, in 2004 it was Doom 3 (and Far Cry, but mostly for the AI). In 2008 it was Metal Gear Solid 4.
It may sound harsh to say I’m not impressed by the technology used in games—because many do have great graphics—but since game developers are limited by the hardware currently available on the mass market, they usually can not use the latest rendering techniques right away. They have to wait until the players have the required hardware. Because of this, new visual effects are often seen in white papers and technical demos years before they appear in mainstream games.
Even if a few games do use the latest technology available when released, they will often be alone to do so for a long of time, and the number of players able to take advantage of the new features will be limited. For example, Age of Conan has been developed with DirectX 10 features, but they were not enabled when the game was released. And even when the game is updated, it will only benefit players who are running Windows Vista with the latest graphics hardware.
Maybe I have not been paying attention to the gaming scene the past few years, but Metal Gear Solid 4 caught me totally off guard. I did not expect to see so many advanced rendering techniques in one place at the same time. They were using all the neat tricks I had been waiting for since the introduction of pixel shader 2.0, and they were using them well. I knew the PlayStation 3 was powerful, but the previous games I had played apparently used very little of that power.
I think it’s very exciting that this kind of graphics power is now finally available to mainstream games, because it allows much greater creative flexibility than before. Techniques such as high dynamic range rendering, out of focus blurring, reduced depth of field and full screen filters—previously only possible in movies, photography and pre-rendered animations—can now be used extensively in computer games, taking us one step closer to the interactive movie.
Here’s some of the things I found especially fascinating in Metal Gear Solid 4:
The in-game engine is used for rendering all non-interactive scenes. This improves the feeling of the interactive movie concept by blurring the lines between interactive and non-interactive content. For example, if you decide to put on a mask right before a cutscene, the mask will stay on during the entire scene. Sometimes this rule is broken by the script (i.e. the character will switch to a certain weapon for a specific scene), but it still adds a nice touch to the game.
When you turn the camera around fast, the screen gets blurred, just like it would if you were using a real camera.
When a car drives past the camera in high speed while it’s raining, water drops will hit the camera. In the same way, if you are in the middle of a building falling apart, dust and sand will cover the camera lens. The effect is also used with blood and snow in various scenes around the game. Although some people don’t like this effect—because it breaks the illusion by revealing the presence of a camera—I think it’s rather cool. It gives a sort of documentary, “fly on the wall”, feeling to the scene.
When people talk in cutscenes, the camera shifts focus depending on who’s talking. In fact, this is so common in the movies, many people may not even notice it on a conscious level. However, it does make the scene appear more realistic.
Very good use of high dynamic range rendering and pixel shaders for lighting and other effects. For example, when you encounter a helicopter, a pixel shader is applied to distort the image in the same way heat would affect the air around a real engine.
Impressive texture and model detail. This is especially noticeable during cutscenes, when you can literally read the labels on people’s clothing and see their hair and clothes move as they walk around.
Extensive use of well-known Hollywood movie techniques, such as color tinting, camera shake, panning, zooming, slow motion, selective focus, reduced depth of field and ambient lighting. Some are more subtle than others, and some may even be considered clichés, but I think they add great value to the interactive movie concept.
Realistic physics and animation. It’s as if you’re watching a real-time rendering of a Pixar movie.
None of these things are unique in themselves. In fact, most, if not all, have been seen in games before. What makes Metal Gear Solid 4 stand out is how they use all the techniques in the same game, at the same time! It’s also showing that they spent a lot of time (and money) on directing the game as if it was a movie, with, in my opinion, great success.