It’s been a few months since my last game review and I wanted to write about the last batch of games I’ve been playing and how they use different anti-aliasing and lighting techniques to improve the way they look on screen.
A few months ago I played Doom, the reboot from 2016. It was one of the most praised games that year and I can certainly see its virtues. However, I think gamers in general and PC gamers in particular were blinded by its brilliant technology and performance on different systems and forgot a bit about the somewhat basic game play.
To me, Doom is a solid 8.5 game but it’s far from a GOTY award. It’s fun, it’s replayable and it’s divided in maps that are themselves divided, for the most part, in different arenas were you fight hordes of monsters. This simple concept, coupled with a simple plot, makes it easy to enjoy the game in short gaming sessions, clearing arena after arena. For obsessive-compulsive completionists like me, this division makes the game less addictive, which is arguably a good thing, compared to other games were there’s always a pending secondary quest, a question mark in a map or a new item to get. Doom provides great replay value and a quite difficult ultra nightmare mode with permadeath. I intended to complete the game in that mode but I dropped out despite observing constant progress in my playthroughs because it was going to take too long and I wasn’t enjoying the ride.
How does Doom manage to run so well compared to other games? The underlying technology is fantastic but I’d add it’s not an open-world game, it doesn’t have vegetation or dozens of NPCs to control. Maps are full of small rooms and corridors, and even semi-open spaces are relatively simple. 3D objects in game don’t abuse polygon count. They depend on good textures and other effects to look good. Textures themselves are detailed but not in excess. They’re used wisely. Interactive elements get more detailed textures while ornamental items get simpler ones. In general, it performs well for the same reasons Prey, for example, also performs well.
Doom offers several interesting choices as anti-aliasing options, many of them cheap and effective for that specific game, including several ones with a temporal anti-aliasing (TAA) component. TAA offers the best quality anti-aliasing in modern games, as of the time I’m writing this, if used well. It can be cheap and very effective, but the drawbacks may include ghosting and an excessively blurred image.
I experienced TAA extensively for the first time when I played Fallout 4 some months ago (I reviewed it here). In this game, the ghosting effect of TAA is very noticeable the first time you’re out in the open and move among trees but, still, it’s a small sacrifice to make compared to a screen full of visible “jaggies”. I believe TAA is the best option when playing Fallout 4 despite the ghosting and the increased image blurriness.
In Doom, it may or may not be the best option. The lack of vegetation, trees and its relatively simple geometry means the game doesn’t look bad at all without any temporal component if you don’t mind a few jaggies here and there, but I still recommend you to enable any form of TAA if you can. If you find the image to be too blurry, try to compensate that with the in-game sharpening setting. Ghosting is barely noticeable. It happens when enemies move very quickly right in front of the camera and, ostensibly, when Samuel Hayden appears on screen, around his whole body and, in particular, his fingers and legs. Disabling all temporal components is the only way to see Hayden as it was intended. The ghosting effect around him is so visible I thought it was done on purpose as a weird artistic effect the first time I saw it. Fortunately, both ghosting situations happen once in a blue moon, which is why I still recommend TAA for this game.
Batman: Arkham Knight
I also played Arkham Knight and it’s a good game. Plenty of challenges for a completionist but it’s a bit repetitive. Like I said when I reviewed Arkham Origins, I still think Asylum is the best in the series. Arkham Knight features graphical improvements, a darker plot that brings the game closer to Nolan’s film trilogy, and too many gadgets. The amount of key combinations and types of enemies reaches an overwhelming level and you need to add the Batmobile on top of them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid 8 and its performance problems at launch are mostly moot now thanks to software changes and the arrival of the GeForce 10xx series, which handle the game reasonably well. However, it’s not a game I see myself replaying in the future.
Arkham Knight’s urban environments do not need temporal anti-aliasing that much, which is good because the game doesn’t have that option and still manages to look reasonably good. The game suffers from small performance problems when you enable every graphics option and ride in the Batmobile or glide high above the city, but frame rate drops are not severe.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Finally, a few days ago I finished playing Rise of the Tomb Raider. I liked the game the same way I liked the 2013 reboot, with a score of 8 or 8.5, but other reviewers have been more positive. Some elements have been improved and others have been made worse. The plot, atmosphere and characters are better. Keyboard and mouse controls have received more attention and many game mechanics have been expanded without making them too complicated. On the other hand, completing the game to 100% is now harder and not more fun. The series is starting to join the trend of adding more collectibles and things to find just to make the player spend more time playing without actually being more fun and rewarding. Still, I completed the game to 100%.
With my GTX 1070 on a 1080p60 monitor the game runs perfectly fine with everything turned up to 11, except when it does not. There are a few places in the game were the frame rate tanks, and sometimes for no obvious reasons. One of the most noticeable places I remember was an underground tunnel with relatively simple geometry where I was able to make it drop to 42 FPS.
The way to fix that is very simple. The first thing to go is VXAO, an ambient occlusion technique. Dropping that to HBAO+ or simply “On” gives back a good amount of frames. In general, ambient occlusion is something that improves the overall look of the image. It’s heavily promoted by NVIDIA but, in my opinion, the difference between its basic forms and the most expensive ones doesn’t have a dramatic impact on image quality. If you have the power to run a game maxed out, be my guest. If you’re trying to find a compromise, ambient occlusion should be one of the first things to go.
To get back more frames you can also tune shadow quality down a notch or two. In Rise of the Tomb raider, the difference between “very high” and “high” is noticeable but not too much, and going down to “high” avoided many frame rate drops for me.
As opposed to ambient occlusion, I personally find shadow quality to have a very perceptible visual impact in most games. Reducing shadow quality normally means shadows look more blocky and weird and, if they move, they tend to do it in leaps instead of smoothly. I distinctly remember playing Max Payne 3 some years ago (that uninterruptible movie with some interactive segments interleaved, if you recall) and it featured a closeup of Max Payne in the main game menus with visible jaggy shadows across his cheek that drove me nuts (why would game developers choose to have that shadow there in such a controlled situation?).
Contrary to both previous games, Rise of the Tomb Raider features lots of vegetation, trees, small details and shiny surfaces, but it doesn’t offer a temporal anti-aliasing option. The result is a picture full of jaggies at times that, no doubt, will bother a few gamers.
In general, recent games tend to include more geometry, vegetation and lighting details that exacerbate every aliasing problem. At the same time, you have more detailed textures and you don’t want to blur them, specially when you’re looking at something close up. This is why, in many recent games, FXAA, the poster child of cheap and effective post-processing anti-aliasing, is a bad option. It’s very cheap but it doesn’t do a very good job and it blurs the image a lot. If you’re playing, let’s say, Fallout 3 (a 2008 title, time flies!), FXAA is an excellent choice. The relatively simple geometry, compared to today’s games, makes FXAA effective at removing jaggies. The lack of detail means textures don’t look blurrier than usual with it.
Moving forward in time, Crysis 3 was one of the first mainstream games to feature SMAA prominently, another form of post-processing anti-aliasing which is very fast on modern cards and improved the situation a bit. It attempted to fix jaggies like FXAA did but without blurring textures. Very cheap but it does cost a bit more than FXAA and is not as easily injected from outside the game (FXAA can be activated, in general, from NVIDIA’s control panel and used to improve the visual aspect of many old games that do not support it directly). SMAA did a good job for many years and was my preferred choice for a long time. I still choose it depending on the game.
These days, omitting a TAA option can be a significant mistake for certain titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider. In contrast, I’ve just started playing Mankind Divided, which offers a TAA option, and graphically it’s quite impressive (except for the way people look, a bit DeusEx-y if you know what I mean). Its developers did make incomprehensible decisions when choosing settings for the predefined quality levels. In my opinion, you should fine-tune most parameters by hand in the game, reading some online guides and experimenting. They also included a very visible option to turn MSAA on without any warnings about performance.
In any case, TAA in Mankind Divided is complemented by a sharpening filter that prevents excessive blurring if you’re inclined to activate it. Granted, the game doesn’t feature much vegetation but it looks remarkably good in any case. Both features complement each other rather well and give you a sharp image mostly free of notable jaggies.
The cost of TAA varies with the specific implementation. In general, it costs more than FXAA and SMAA but is very far from costing as much as other less-effective techniques like MSAA.