Wednesday, October 17, 2007

World First? 1080p60 HD Games Capture

Let's make no bones about it, 720p is a lovely HD standard to 'do business' with. Progressive frames and 60 of them per second to boot. I built Digital Foundry HD around this standard because it produces great results and is manageable from a bandwidth perspective - ie in terms of streaming gigs of data across a motherboard and bunging it on a hard disk. It's also uniformly supported as a standard across both next gen consoles and is easy to configure on PC to boot. All good.
Once you enter the realms of 1080 lines, things get iffy. 1080i genuinely works well on most HDTVs, but personally I can't stand it for the provison of HD assets - interlacing knackers any chance of extracting specific shots and it's harder to compress. 1080p solves those problems except bandwidth over 720p more than doubles. This then, is what is officially referred to amongst those in the know as 'a pain in the arse'.
Digital Foundry HD of course supports 1080p - indeed it's probably the only bespoke system you can directly connect to a PS3, 360 or PC to 'get' 1080p. But it is limited in terms of frame rate (typically 15fps max - fine for screens, not for vids).
So today, prompted by a request from Gametrailers, I got to work in making 1080p/30 and 1080p/60 video from DFHD a workable proposition. To my knowledge direct connection to the source and on the fly video capture at this level has never been done before, so achieving this would be a big breakthrough.
Achieve it, I did. There's the odd bit of technical sleight of hand going on (essentially we're capturing 1440x1080 and using anamorphic pixels on the encoding of the final deliverable asset) but crucially, it works and it looks great. And you can check it out yourself by clicking here to download a 1080p/30 capture from the portable DFHD unit, or here for a full-on 1080p/60 video courtesy of the monstrous desktop rendition of the hardware. Unzip and copy onto a decent USB stick and check it out on the Xbox 360's video player - which surprisingly has more horsepower for WMV playback than even some of the most powerful PCs here at Digital Foundry HQ.
The 30fps vid gives some small idea of the clarity of the original CineForm HD capture, but I'm going to have to research more to get 1080p/60 looking great on 360 and PS3 as a final deliverable asset. The 1080p/60 file here is a tantalising taster, but I'm sure I can get closer to the quality of the raw capture.
In the meantime, work continues behind the scenes at Digital Foundry for full raster 1920x1080 60fps capture from any HDMI, DVI or VGA source. Now this truly will be a world first, especially in the creation of assets that can be used nativel on Premiere Pro, Vegas and of course Final Cut Pro. Expect updates in the near future.

PlayStation 3 Ridge Racer 7 in all its majesty. Namco's insane drifting arcade meisterwerks never disappoint, and always provide welcome demo material for HD specialists requiring a 60fps source to muck about with.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Game Over (Yeah!) for Sega Rally

I don't have masses of spare time to devote to gameplay these days (unless I'm being paid for it) but one title I was dying to try out was the brand new Sega Rally, which seems to have attracted some positive press.
Sega Rally was the finest racing game ever made on Saturn, a perfect symbiosis of brilliant track design and an utterly sublime feeling of driving over dirt and gravel. Along with Virtua Fighter 2, it's the zenith of Saturn gaming. Despite the temptation to knock out a basic arcade port, Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his AM3 team completely rewrote the handling system as the original coin-op version (which updated at 60Hz) simply didn’t translate into the 30fps Saturn game well enough – such was the level of dedication in getting the very best rallying experience possible out of the limited console hardware.
Sega Rally has a lot to live up to, and certainly, in terms of its graphics, it's a beautiful game. Realtime deformation on the tracks as you race over them is also extremely impressive and does make a subtle impact on the handling. The amount of content in the game also appears to be very impressive, as is the user interface – clean and easy to navigate with no loading, if somewhat bereft of important information.
It's just a shame that so much is wrong with the game – beginning with the plain and simple fact that it has barely anything in common with its illustrious arcade heritage. There's nothing I've seen so far that makes it a true Sega Rally game, as opposed to say, V-Rally: The Next Generation. More than that, inexplicably, two different handling systems have been included (neither of them feeling right), and the inclusion of bouncy invisible walls trackside feels like a relic from the PS2 generation - and the arbitrary positioning of those 'walls' with little in the way of visual cues is terrible.
Other major irritations could've easily been fixed: no restart option in the pause menu – do I really have to play through every event in a championship if I make an error in the last race? And what's with the car select screen – why no stats on each car? How am I supposed to know which suits my driving style, or why one is better than the other, or why I should really want to get enough points to unlock the next car? And what on Earth does that music sound like?
Gameplay itself is also too difficult to begin with – even on the very first race, which you'd think should ease you into the game. But no, one big prang and you may as well restart (after quitting back to the main menu of course and going through all the options again as there is no restart option).
Fixing all of this stuff wouldn't have been too difficult (invisible walls aside) but the bottom line is that the mindset behind this game is just not quite right. If AM3 were starting out on Sega Rally now with today's console hardware, I can't imagine they'd hand in software like this. While the graphics are undoubtedly superb, the dedication to the player, to the sheer gameplay experience, just isn't there. It's a serviceable enough rally game if you can overcome its shortcomings, but it's not Sega Rally.
Game Over? Alas, 'Yeah!'. I'm off to play PGR4 and The Orange Box.

UPDATE: I'm currently back on Sega Rally having finished Half-Life 2 on 360 as I'm covering this in the next Eurogamer 360 vs PS3 face-off. Progressed through the first wave of rallies and opened up the modified championship. Have lost the will to play on. There is a restart option in the other game modes, but not in championship. Why exactly? There can be only one explanation - it is an artificial way of prolonging the time the player spends in the Championship mode. Handling still doesn't feel good to me and the option of not being able to switch between the two handling models between championship rallies boggles the mind. Different terrain requires different handling - this is what the game is telling me. Yet it won't let you swap between stages. I'm just bewildered as to why a game that has so much attention to detail elsewhere frustrates me so much in terms of the basics.

Most HD games, including Sega Rally Revo, top out at 29.97fps with a 720p resolution. Digital Foundry HD's precision 24-bit mode captures every single byte of pixel info output over HDMI to the point where even v-lock tear issues (shot right) can be easily identified and picked out. Click for full-size images.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Xbox 360 vs PlayStation 3

Earlier this year, Eurogamer's editor, Kristan Reed, gave me an interesting assignment - to start a rolling series of features on the site that would highlight the similarities and differences between the same games running on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.
I guess I was pretty much the default choice, being the only freelance writer around with the kit required to produce the comparison shots that would accompany the feature, so I gave it my best shot. Once published, I have to admit that I was as surprised by the vitriol of the 'talkback'-style comment writers as I was by the success of the feature (which got a huge amount of readers - the main reason I carried on writing them). I was also amused to see links back to the screenshots in various games forums, where 'fanboys' were picking and choosing the shots they wanted to use in order to make PS3 or Xbox 360 look 'bad' compared to the other. Unwittingly I had been drawn into the mighty next generation console war and my work was prime propaganda material.
Hardcore players have always had a close emotional bond with their gaming hardware (something I understood well and indeed shared to a point while editing print titles such as the official Sega Saturn Magazine back in days of yore) and it's pointless arguing, so I just let them get on with it, and continue to produce the pieces as I see fit. I'm far more interested in the games as opposed to arguing the toss over the technology that powers them.
Regardless I still enjoy writing the features and producing the comparison frames like the Spider-Man 3 and The Darkness shots below - a good workout for the 24-bit precision mode of Digital Foundry HD, and a harkening back to the excruciating, borderline pointless levels of effort I inflicted on myself while editing a certain magazine known as MAXIMUM.
Any way, the HDMI outputs of the PS3 and Xbox 360 Elite are used here, with both systems set to full-level RGB (0-255) as opposed to the more limited video systems RGB (16-234). There's a slight gamma difference, but that's down to the consoles in question, not DFHD.

Comparison images of Spider-Man 3 (720p) and The Darkness (1080p) running on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, losslessly derived from the HDMI ports of each console.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why CineForm Rules Supreme

When I first started to approach other companies in the games industry with a view to licensing the Digital Foundry hardware, typically the only negative responses tended to be...

1. Why do you CineForm HD compression? Nobody else does and we want to use Final Cut Pro.
2. Why use compression at all? We want precision quality (this is a common attitude with games developers, who would fall in love with CineForm if they put it to the test!).

Well let's tackle point two first, with a very simply exercise. Take a look at the image below from an Xbox 360 Gears of War cut-scene. One image was captured completely uncompressed. The other was taken with CineForm HD. We've zoomed in on a specific part of the image and blown it up to 200%. This proves conclusively that while not mathematically lossless, you lose virtually nothing by using CineForm and you gain so much - easy integration with multiple editing systems, relatively tiny file sizes (anything up to 15:1 compression), plus you can capture onto a single 7,200rpm SATA drive. No more need for stupidly expensive SCSI RAID arrays.
Want some more quality tests? Download this ZIP package of shots. Open an uncompressed HDMI image in Photoshop. Zoom in to 300%, 400% - whatever you like. Import the CineForm version of the same image, CTRL-A, CTRL-C and CTRL-V into your uncompressed window. Use CTRL-Z to undo the paste, then again to re-do it - rinse and repeat. Now you're switching between the two images at a stupendously magnified rate. Impressive eh?
It's all the more impressive considering the chosen subject matter. Video games have little in the way of natural blurring (eg camera focused on the foreground, background out of focus) so it's notoriously hard to compress. Secondly, there's the sheer level of detail in games these days - another compression nightmare. And thirdly, two of the three games in the test package run at 1280x720 at 60 frames per second. Every frame is different, making compression even harder. But CineForm copes easily with any eventuality. No other codec I've tested can.
Point one now. Nowadays, CineForm HD is now pretty much the only cross-platform HD codec on the market. Digital Foundry HD AVI captures can be losslessly rewrapped into the Quicktime MOV format (the bitstream is literally identical) and now both PC and Intel Mac owners can use our captures. Sony Vegas, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro - now pretty much all editors can make use of superior HD assets, with Avid the only hold-outs.

Gears of War on Xbox 360, cropped and zoomed in to 200% - uncompressed on the left, CineForm on the right - not that the human eye can really tell the difference. And the really scary thing? This was taken at CineForm quality level 'High'... there are two more settings offering an even better quality match. We simply don't need to use them.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Digital Foundry Moves to Blogspot

Several months ago, the main Digital Foundry website was forced to move at very short notice onto another server. Unfortunately, during the process, the bespoke blog coded for the site became totally non-functional, to the point where I'm surprised existing entries are still able to be read.
I've got plans to make a series of changes to the main site, not to mention launching a new online presence dedicated to Digital Foundry HD hardware - the licensing of which has been very successful.
There's lot of DF-related news to impart, but in the meantime I've spent some time porting over the more interesting of the original blog entries into this new domain.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Wii Update...

The last of the next gen consoles to hit the scene, Nintendo's Wii system provided a few challenges for us when it came to high quality video assets.
The first major issue to confront us was the lack of any unifying EDTV or HDTV standard that all games conform to. The Wii itself does provide a 480p progressive output, but unbelievably not all games actually support it. Furthermore, there is no standard aspect ratio for the hardware either - some games support 16:9, others do not. So while the Xbox 360 and PS3 get by using two different support profiles (720p and 1080p), Wii requires double that: full frame and widescreen 480p calibrations, along with support for interlaced 480i and 576i - two formats I hoped never to work with again.
Still, thanks to some hands-on time with Wii thanks to a German licensee of our hardware, we were able to provide support for every single iteration of the new Nintendo machine's video output. Let's hope that over time, games developers all support 16:9 480p.

Click for full resolution 848x480 screenshot of Wii title Excite Truck, taken with Digital Foundry HD in the preferred 16:9 480p format.