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.