It's game engines as art, innit? In a week where Red Dead Redemption proved its sales dominance throughout the summer, with DLC announcements just yesterday, Digital Foundry set about completing its own RDR project: the world created by Rockstar San Diego, displayed via the beauty of time-lapse video.
Although based on the same RAGE engine as GTA IV with plenty of commonalities and parallels, it's clear that Red Dead Redemption stands apart as a distinct technical and artistic achievement in itself: the attention to detail in what is basically a barren wasteland is simply phenomenal, and the scale of the game's vistas is hugely impressive. It's almost as if the draw distance goes on forever: compare and contrast to the pared-back, fog-shrouded GTA IV environments in the far distance.
However, similar to GTA IV, the use of lighting and shadow is key to the overall effect of the game and in this respect, the time-lapse shows just how much care and attention has gone into this. The whole scene is realistically lit from the major light source (the sun) with what looks like two animated 3D layers of clouds backed by a larger, inanimate rotating layer. Lighting seems to filter accurately through each element before bathing the environment realistically.
More than that, an extra level of immersion is lent to the lighting via the use of hazing that increases as you move from foreground to background, and this too is affected by the time of day. The scenes themselves benefit from some really high quality dynamic shadows (in the vista mode we used to get these shots anyway), backed by ambient occlusion baked into the environments.
Water is beautifully brought to life, but again also realistic in that it accurately reflects the surrounding environments plus the overhead cloud layer. The animation itself is pretty basic (perhaps just a couple of normal maps), but the transition into the land is seamless, sealing the deal. The overall sensation is simply breathtaking.
Putting this video together required... patience. A full 24-hour cycle in-game amounts to an hour of real time, but you need to record more than that to ensure you get a full uninterrupted capture of the crucial dawn and sunset periods.
As just one minute of HD capture footage usually weighs in at over 1GB, we opted to capture at just one frame per second, massively reducing the space requirement and requiring so little CPU that the workstation could be used for other things at the same time. 49 shots were taken in total, with 39 making their way into the final edit. These captures were then sped up to run at 120FPS in order to get the accelerated effect seen in the completed video.
Getting a HUD-less, solid, first-person viewpoint is usually a challenge too. Red Dead Redemption made the job easier for us with its in-built "afk" mode. Leave the controller alone for a few minutes and the game pops up a pre-defined vista view. They don't seem to be random, giving the impression that these viewpoints were added, chosen by the creators, as the maps were put together. A lovely assist from the developers then, though the option to choose our own shots would've been helpful!
There's also the sense that this "vista mode" was designed as more than just a throwaway addition, it was a showcase for the engine and for the phenomenal world the Rockstar San Diego team created. View distances are of course immense, but also shadowmap detail in this mode is consistently high, whereas in-game a more dynamic LOD system seems to be in place.
Fine as the final time-lapse video is embedded into this page, the final 720p60 asset sitting on our hard drives is better still. So we've created a master version, encoded into h264 and playable on PS3, Xbox 360 and computer (so long as you have the requisite decoder). And we've mirrored it across the board elsewhere.
Other games in the Digital Foundry time-lapse collection: