Digital Foundry: Hands-on with Far Cry 4

In-depth PS4 tech analysis from E3 2014.

One of E3's big highlights for Digital Foundry - particularly at the Sony booth where demo stations took pride of place - was Far Cry 4. While the hands-on only amounts to a 10-minute appetiser, developer Ubisoft Montreal's open-world Himalayas setting looks every bit as traversable and rife with strategic options as you could hope of the series. But given the series' handling on last-gen hardware, with Far Cry 3 and its predecessor teetering at 20-30fps with tearing, can the PS4 sequel finally deliver a home console experience closer to the franchise's polished PC releases?

Set against the backdrop of a civil war in the Tibetan province of Kyrat, our hands-on session focuses on the tail-end of the gameplay segment shown at Sony's E3 conference. Here, we're tasked with clearing all enemies from an encampment using one of three strategies: stealth by grappling hook, attacking from the skies with the gyrocopter or bombarding the gates using a wild elephant.

We open with a beautiful long view of the territory, with villagers tending fields on the outskirts while three pachyderms pace through a lake. It's a beautiful, massive sprawl enveloped by forests and mountains, sadly off-limits for this demo. Despite this artificial boundary, we're promised by the development team that everything shown of the game at E3 is running on genuine PS4 hardware - no trickery.

Though asked about the technical aspects of the game, it's still too early for the team to commit to a lock on metrics. Resolution remains a moving target, it seems, as it strives to optimise between visual quality and performance on PS4. Nevertheless, based on the in-engine cut-scene shown at Ubisoft's conference - introducing our antagonist Pagan Min - we determine that horizontal resolution is currently in the region of 1792 pixels. Assuming a similar ratio on the vertical, that would translate to the game operating at 1008p.

"Far Cry 4 aims for 30fps, mostly hitting the target with only a few dips in performance even on this unfinished build."

Far Cry 4 gameplay as shown at the Sony E3 conference - running on genuine PS4 hardware. Obviously it's still early days for this showing, though a 30fps target is intended for the final release.

UPDATE 25/6/14 15:19: We now understand that the intro footage we looked at for these initial metrics was taken is from an older build using a less precise anti-aliasing technique and the sub-native analysis is not accurate - many apologies for the confusion. The latest footage seen here has more advanced AA and appears to resolve at full 1080p. This build was also used for the gameplay footage we're analysing above.

Though something of a clich when dissecting the cause and effect of frame-rate drops, the Far Cry 4 engine's biggest stress points inevitably come out during heavy bursts of alpha effects and a mass of on-screen NPCs. Our lowest such recorded dip is during the co-op gyrocopter ride with Hurk, where we hit 20fps during a flyover of the encampment. But this is ultimately a brief and expected drop in performance from an otherwise stable 30fps reading - where the grapple-hooking, car-hijacking and wing-suit gliding that precedes this moment flag few issues.

The eagle-eyed will notice very occasional tearing creeping into the final output too. Far Cry 4 takes a very conservative approach to adaptive v-sync in this sense, where much like Sunset Overdrive on Xbox One, a few frames tear within the top 10 per cent of the screen when needed - something that is typically hidden from view by display overscan. This is a common trick for modern games, allowing the frame-buffer to flip to show a slightly incomplete frame, rather than outright drop it altogether and incur a much more noticeable stutter in motion.

"We're told that everything shown of the game at E3 runs in real-time on PS4 hardware - and the visual returns are hugely encouraging."

From a technical standpoint, this obviously lags behind the PC release of Far Cry 3 running at 60fps, but is still leaps and bound ahead of performance from PS3 and Xbox 360. To cast our minds back to 2012, the last game's open-world jungle foraging was perhaps too much for last-gen hardware. Tearing was a constant issue during gameplay, as were the 20fps dips - but both of these problems are minimised on PS4 to respectable extents. And much like the previous console releases, Ubisoft's press conference intro suggests that, once again, cut-scenes run fully v-synced.

Optimising for any open-world game involves careful streaming of the landscape and its details. Being allowed to free-roam Far Cry 4's world in any direction, the engine has to capably render as much of the landscape at 360 degrees while avoiding obvious pop-in - a feat which is handily achieved here. We catch a faint use of proximity-based LOD scaling, which increases the quality of rock formations and the grass density as we approach. But the range at which any switchover occurs is extremely generous - almost to the point of invisibility - and falls in line with the highest PC settings for environmental detail in Far Cry 3. It's a remarkable high point for the E3 build on show, and one we hope makes it to the final release.

This can be achieved, partly, because the building blocks that comprise Far Cry 4's vast landscapes tend not to push the envelope too wildly when viewed up-close. The game's vistas are gorgeous to behold at a distance, certainly, with real-time world reflections in puddles, and normal mapping sharper than anything we've so far seen from the series on PS3 or 360. However, despite the rich detail seen in the PS4 build, there's a lingering sense that the core world design is still catering for Far Cry 4's cross-generational status. We'll no doubt see tasty embellishments for the PC, Xbox One and PS4 by comparison, but a complete, fully next-gen revision of the engine is something owners of newer consoles will perhaps have to wait for.

"The game's vistas are gorgeous to behold at a distance, certainly, with real-time world reflections in puddles, and normal mapping sharper than anything we've so far seen from the series on PS3 or 360."

But this early snippet of Far Cry 4 remains something to get excited about. Its ambitions are clearly in finding new ways to get the player from A to B, and it's clear that the Himalayan setting is a rich landscape worth exploring. There are only a few frame-rate hitches to report on in this E3 build too, which bodes very well for the final release - especially given the incredible draw distances on show. It may be 30fps in target, but on the PS4 at least, this is a refresh that can be realistically upheld with minimal tearing.

Of course, changes are likely to be made between now and its 18th November release. The key takeaway is that the series' first step on next-gen consoles is looking very sure-footed. As for the resolution situation, what is being achieved so far certainly holds up well from a visual perspective, though we'll have to wait and see whether Ubisoft Montreal can hit a full 1080p frame-buffer on the nose.

Keep track of all the latest Far Cry 4 over at our comprehensive round-up.

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