In-Depth analysis and comparison, a new start for AnvilNext?
It may have taken a 2-year hiatus but he Assassins are back, far back, as far as they have ever been, Ancient Egypt in fact. The backdrop for our latest entry in the long running Ubisoft monster is now an origin story. Have they used the time well to improve the visual flair and is it a Pharo-nuff (sic) departure from the last outings? Let's dive in to find out.
A journey starts with the first step
It may be an origin story but not everything here is a fresh start. The same Anvil next engine powers this Persian tale across console and PC releases, now with a simultaneous release. Reworked, updated and taking parts from previous games for inspiration, this was crafted by much of the Black Flag team that kicked the generation off and was the last time we saw a resolution gap of 900p on XboxOne and 1080P on PS4, this never returned…until now. We again see a split of resolution between all consoles and the modern caveat of dynamic scaling now a factor. Along with the series TAA methods which have been present in previous entries.
The inspiration from Black flag is also evident in the games visual style, locale and expansion of the world. No longer confined to land but sea faring antics are now (again) possible. Underwater is no longer locked away to certain fixed points or hidden behind a loading section, no sub 500mb console limit to worry about. These sections are treated to a soft blur across the surface distortion and have the engines Bokeh sampled confusion zone along with a light bloom, a regular feature of the engine especially during cutscenes. The way light penetrates the surface and depth is used to create murky areas of green as the algae becomes a conduit for the light bounce, giving these areas a serene and realistic look. The refraction from the surface caustics enhance the look of these areas, making them a huge stride over Black Flag, which itself was great in this regard. The Bokeh DoF can have some light flickering at times, likely due to being missed at points by the Temporal Anti- Aliasing method, but these are the sorts of boosts the higher resolution Pro version helps to resolve greatly. The collection of light and shadow cascades, occlusion casters and depth scattering which includes the same Global Illumination bounce of previous entries and areas achieve an excellent presentation in play.
Fuel for the fire
The engine is slowly becoming the core of many Ubisoft titles from Assassins creed III on wards all the AC titles use it as does Rainbow Six Siege, For Honor and the recent Wildlands among others. It does merge technology from other engines, such as the Dunia Far Cry engine, largely the foliage and creation methods, a consistent and obvious benefit from the Ubisoft stable of development houses. As creating these vast and expansive worlds take time, a great deal of time so many function and features of an engine are designed around improving the workflow as much as the results. Anvil Next support 3DS Max and Zbrush for asset creation to feed into the pipeline in addition to enabling automatic or systematic creation of structures based on artist and designer rules. This drastically cuts down time having to hand author each building, site or section as they can be generated from these rules but still allows the designers/artists to create sections manually as needed, otherwise this workload would be considerably bigger and more expensive.
The same Image based light probe system is, likely, used a core feature of the title, allowing the impressive lighting to be a mixture of baked and dynamic light which gives it that distinct and realistic light bounce. The probes dotted around the world are sampled from the cubemap image and allow the scorched oranges of sunrise or purple tones of sunset and all the variety between. Light seeps into rooms through open doors or windows and bounces and scatters in a very natural and pleasing manner. Unlike Unity that had a fixed time of day (likely running short of time to implement a pleasing blend method) we again see a dynamic passing of time here as we enjoyed in Syndicate. Achieved by blending the baked light sections across multiple times of day with a shift that gives you the full cycle, with these moments being the shortest points as they morph from one section to another, but the results are impressively crafted and convincingly presented. The open Sahara like oasis really benefits from one of the most impressive and versatile lighting models in modern games. The excellent use of colour tones, shading quality, atmospheric scattering, alpha effects, dust plumes, crepuscular sun rays and bloom present one of the most beautiful game worlds and realisation of ancient Egypt we have ever enjoyed. Just walking across the sands, swimming in the pools or riding through the palm treed areas allows you to revel in the detail and unified package on offer here.
The conviction in the games lighting model is only further enhanced by its incredible Physically based material shading system that started life from Unity. But things move on and this game achieves an equally high standard even for a linear single player title this would be impressive, but knowing this is all within huge, systemic and reactive world that shifts, changes and reacts to you is more impressive. Materials surfaces are all emulated using the composite layers of the objects construction, this gives looming statures that mix of dulled, dispersed light across the curvature, while also having a high specular over the Fresnel as the view and light source moves. This mixture of the lighting function gives each surface the relevant light reaction and energy consumption properties we see in our everyday life’s. From the sandy surfaces, terracotta pots, mixed stone building or high reflective pools which also use Screen Space Reflections across all versions, not a common occurrence in open games. The fact that we can seamlessly go from expansive savannas, sandy dunes to small mud huts and ruined temples as we please is something that really should not be taken for granted in itself, but the consistency of the details and objects across these areas and the lighting that accompanies that is a standout feature. The quality is high for any form of title, for the amount and variety here both on dry land and under sea is exemplary, the Montreal Ubisoft team used the time well and have crafted a world with a reactive Eco-system, dense population and stunning vistas to view, this is the most impressive Assassins Creed title now for me on that score and I am sure the team are rightly proud of their achievements.
The weather system which simulates wind as trees sway and dust blows past the streets or cups your sails as you drift across the water’s surface. Simulation has always been a key striving point for AC games, few character models are so lavished adorned with flowing capes, hoods and other free moving garments. The cloth simulation they implemented from Unity has been refined, we see NPC with clothes that resemble the loose fitted garments of the period. From the main characters flowing tassels, sheathed swords to the carry baskets strapped to the side of boats and NPC’s themselves. Many objects in the world have a sense of weight and physics calculated movement giving them all a far more natural look and solidity in the world. Just standing in the savanna and staring at the sunset as it bounces off the clouds edge with rim lighting as the trees gently sway and bob in the wind, this is happening all the time and I am sure is one of the reasons we have some small performance issues, the CPU and GPU are made to earn their pay here.
Lod and detail comparison from PS4 Vs XboxOne - Slide image to compare
The vast amount of multiplexed code paths, branching systems and batched action paths are huge. NPC’s go about their business with a decent level of autonomy, enemies scout and hunt for you when alerted and even the wildlife reacts to your presence or actions and even themselves. The entire world presents a believable charade that it exists, operates and breathes with or without your appearance, as with many things this could always be improved. NPC count is easily one of the best in open titles, but the mob like levels of Unity are still resigned to Revolutionary France which helps boost performance the most. The shift between animation sets can be jarring and path finding can still be comical at times likewise the enemies view scope and reactions. Movement can also have some small issues, good interaction with bushes and long grass helps ground you in the world, as does being context aware within animations for scenery or changing walking animations. That said the IK system can cause some jumps and random actions that pull you out occasionally, it feels better than previous games in some ways but the same in many others to never seem as big a leap as the visuals. But with such a dynamic construct of options, paths, reactions and more you will always have some seams that show, but they are never a huge issue and feel almost a part of the series itself.
The real-time cinematics are always a high point that demonstrate the incredible animation talent present within the Ubisoft teams is as abundant as the artistic and technical skills. They merge the motion captured scenes well with additional touches that enhance certain scenes. Facial animation is particularly good as you can gather mood and intent from expression alone, the lead is very good balancing the mixture of anger and distance well within the scenes he is given. Yes some parts fall flat and the open ended nature of the games progression does lessen the impact and intent of the story some what, a constant battle in any open ended title such as this. The scenes also ramp up the visual treats to the highest level post effects are used much more with great depth of field, enhanced light and shadow quality and improved shaders on materials which includes the excellent skin materials. The mixture of skin tones, diffused lighting, hair and clothing are of a very high quality. We do get weaker characters that are not as lavished with verts and design as the leads, which includes the animation rigging but this is a minor niggle. You also get to see the shadow quality of the title, not only do we have decent resolution for cascade maps but also the dynamic lights which can include stencil shadows at times are also very good across all platforms. They even have Bokeh shapes in gameplay and cinematics through tree lines that look excellent at all times, but can suffer from the same shimmer as the DoF pass when you move the camera. The detail and quality is high in the game with a great deal of the effects suite used in game, but these staged sections allow the engine to ramp them up to maximum.
2 against 1
Aside the resolution and performance differences between platforms it also shows a split from the Xbox version and the others, we get scenes on the 1 that show a dynamic scaler is used on scenes that would stress the GPU even more, some scenes with greater geometry on display, swaying foliage and alpha effects we drop the filter on XboxOne but this remains on the other 2 machines. This appears to be on a scene basis and may be a specific optimisation tweak or a self-managed scaling system that allows the complete effects portfolio to scale up and down just like the resolution. This resolution dip gives us the slightly wider sprite sampled points showing the approximate 1600x900 resolution these sequences run at on the XboxOne which appears to be that versions ceiling on resolution, maybe not the software limit but the results from my counts never exceed this. I can get count that vary from a low of 1440x810 up to the 900p ceiling with large chunks hitting the mid ground of 1536x864. This gives the One a softer look across all scenes, texture details are smudged more, distant objects are harder to define shimmer and sub pixel interference is slightly higher but is the smallest gap between the PS4 due to the games Temporal AA. This can have some errors on alpha transparency though, with the dithered pattern used to blend the frames being prolonged on the ship's sails which gives a hall of mirrors or trance effect to them. This dithered or jittered pattern can also be seen within the games rendering giving us a softer, fuzzier edge and even saw tooth like artefacts at times, just as I covered in the Syndicate Pro patch earlier this year (likely a test bed for this engines work). Likely not a Checkboard result but more from the jittered rendering methods present in the engine and the HRAA derived temporal solution. It must be stressed that in normal play though these are almost impossible to notice, only paused and zoomed in for analysis can we see them clearly.
What do the numbers say?
This is the biggest boost the PS4 offers over the One,now with its new ceiling of 1920x1080 restored we enjoy a sharper image in all sections even if the noise from Depth of field and such are largely unchanged the texture details from specular, normal and decals are cleaner allowing them to stand out more, you can see from my on-screen examples. It also runs a dynamic solution though with a low of 1756x972 found from my tests of longer draw scenes, but it does seem to spend the lions share of its time at the 1080p limit which overall present a sharper game than the MS consoles.
But it is with the Pro we see the biggest boost to image quality, with its new ceiling of 2880x1620, just as the Syndicate patch delivered, we get a considerably cleaner, sharper and more detailed image across the board. Post effects shimmer is dramatically improved here as are the texture details, you can make clear leaps over the asset quality in gameplay and cutscenes, look at the examples on the hair, clothing in the comparison shots above and below and also in the video. We also enjoy a sharper more detailed image in action with lighting bloom, shadow edges and filtering all being much better than the other 2 machines. One other boost is the Ambient Occlusion used, it appears to have a wider coverage of occluded sections which gives more depth to objects, characters and cinematics, another nice boost over the other base models. Aside this though we do not have any other extra features, draw distance seems identical, shadow map cascade distance, NPC count and alpha effects are all a match for its cousins. The dynamic resolution base appears to bottom out at 1440P with a mix of this and the full 1620 counts coming out in tested action and cutscenes, which brings us to our final difference.
All 3 versions target the same 30fps sequence that the 33ms frame-time budget brings, but we do not get an equal level of performance across all 3 and none hit this with a lock. Not a shock for an AC title but we get dips to 25-26 in gameplay on the XboxOne and it can hover around the 27-28 on the PS4. The Pro is the best of the 3 during gameplay, it still dips at times but it achieves the closest metric on that target largely due to its improved CPU clock speed. The water sections are a good example mixing from the tessellated water service and battle sections using the CPU and GPU well, it is better than the other 2 for sure, but the gap is small enough to not be noticed outside this detailed analysis. This does not hold true of the cinematics as we see the XboxOne and Pro perform almost identically around the 23-24 level and the PS4 can be slightly better here, the reason I feel is the cutscenes scale the resolution less aggressively across all so we are seeing the 125%-pixel throughput boost over the PS4’s 1080P quota cause slightly more overhead on that machines GPU. The XboxOne also hovers closer to the 900P level for these tested sections and as these are largely GPU bound we again see the lowest dips. The PS4 is ever so slightly better but in reality, none of them deliver a consistent frame-time here, these are the worse sections of the game by far. Although far from ideal the gameplay is still much better than many other Assassin titles including Unity and Syndicate especially on the Xbox which could dip this low during gameplay on that console so they have refined the experience and later patches which will come around the XboxOne X launch which may improve the performance in the cutscenes (the 1.03 patch has improved performance as predicted)and also add HDR. I will be covering that in detail later this week when my Scorpio edition arrives, but I can tell you from footage released the X IS hitting a native 3840x2160P resolution and, as I said back at the machines announcement, this would be a game that could achieve that target with a dynamic solution so I suspect we will see a lower bound of approximately 1800P on the X machine, be sure to check back next week for more on this and much more besides.
The team have excelled in the results onscreen as this really is a huge stride forward in all areas of scope, image quality, performance and quality that should be applauded. I have not played more than the first 4 hours of the title and I am enjoying it after the gap and the expanse of choices in the paths to take but make no mistake this still feels, play and is a true Assassins Creed title and the time off may have refined large portions of the game but the gameplay, themes and style are well within the safety bounds. If you had grown tired of the formula, and this setting does not entice you, as attractive as this game is, I still doubt you will be swayed back into the creed from the Giza’s here…..I will get my coat....