The smart money says we're nine months away from the reveal of brand-new Xbox hardware, that major advances in visual technology are being held back by the hardware limitations of six-year-old architecture. Gears of War 3 begs to differ. Developed in parallel with the hugely popular Unreal Engine 3 technology, the game looks absolutely remarkable: put it side-by-side with the last game, or even up against Epic's own Bulletstorm, and it's clear that the current gen is still capable of some genuine surprises.
In this feature we'll be showcasing the technical make-up of the new Gears, using screenshots and video to demonstrate why we think this is a landmark achievement for the Xbox 360 platform. In the run-up to the game's launch, Microsoft issued a range of eminently sensible guidelines on what we can and can't show, mostly related to story elements. While we have adhered to these guidelines and omitted all cut-scenes and as much plot-related dialogue as we could, those who wish to remain spoiler-free may wish to duck out of this article until they've played the game.
And what a game it is. What the new release may lack in terms of surprises or innovation, it more than delivers in terms of handing in the most refined, polished Gears experience yet. Almost three years in production, Gears of War 3 has enjoyed a development cycle considerably longer than that of its predecessor: beyond the technical achievement, what really stands out here is the level of polish - the care and attention - that has gone into the final product.
Projects such as the multiplayer beta only came about via the extended window of development Epic had to get this game right. That particular sampler gave us our first taste of the upgraded engine but at that point we only had some idea of the plans Epic had for the all-important campaign. The good news is that in terms of the experience and spectacle of the final game, the development team has more than delivered. The question is, can the technology keep up with the demands placed on it?
Those familiar with our analysis of Unreal Engine 3 games will know that generally speaking, the performance of the technology follows a pretty specific pattern - one that's fairly common to the majority of console games this generation, certainly on the Xbox 360. Frame-rate is capped to 30 frames per second, ensuring a consistent look, with v-sync engaged. However, it's incredibly tough work to keep to a specific rendering budget, so when performance dips, v-sync is disengaged and torn frames crop in.
Performance in Gears of War 2 could be somewhat variable, but remarkably, Unreal Engine 3 has been enormously improved for this sequel and if anything, the overall performance level is even better than it was, only really struggling when a cocktail of post-processing effects are in play. Screen-tear is present and noticeable, but generally not as intrusive as it was in the previous game. Where things remain the same is in the handling of cut-scenes. In most cases, Epic prefers to engage v-sync here consistently, meaning that the engine-driven cinematics can switch between 20FPS and 30FPS, giving a somewhat disjointed look as the narrative switches between cuts.
In terms of technical comparisons with its predecessor, the only compromise we see is that in line with most Unreal Engine 3 titles released recently, there is no noticeable anti-aliasing. Gears of War 2 implemented 2x multi-sample anti-aliasing (MSAA) but the coverage was patchy to say the least, and it's fair to say that the post-processing techniques we see in the sequel do much more than the old, borked MSAA ever did in terms of reducing aliasing issues across the run of play.
Indeed, in our Gears of War 3 beta coverage, we went so far as to say that aliasing wasn't really an issue in the game. Well, on the levels we had to look at there, with the low-contrast colour schemes and blending atmospheric effects, that was definitely the case, but the final game throws out a lot more range and there are plenty of "jaggies" in evidence, especially in the more colourful stages.
This is something of a surprise: NVIDIA's FXAA technology has made its way into several shipping games now and there's even support in recent builds of Unreal Engine 3, so the non-appearance of any form of anti-aliasing in Gears 3 - even one as light on resources as FXAA - is curious. It may simply be the case that performance is finely balanced as it is and Epic couldn't factor in the required 1ms of GPU time. Similarly, it could simply be the case that the artists didn't like the effect on their intricate artwork - at the end of the day, FXAA is essentially an intelligently applied blur.
What the game may lack in terms of anti-aliasing it more than makes up for with a raft of extremely well realised effects. Aside from a general increase in the overall detail level, perhaps the most impactful improvement made to the game concerns the lighting. In previous Gears titles, the effect has always been direct, often overly bright and unnatural, giving a somewhat harsh look to the highly detailed art, with specular elements in particular sticking out somewhat (and adding to aliasing issues in their own way).
Things are different in the new game: the team has utilised the Unreal Lightmass global illumination tech to excellent effect: light and shadow now have real depth and volume and work in combination with UE3 real-time effects such as the god-rays/sun-shafts we saw in the Xbox 360 and PC versions of Bulletstorm released earlier this year.
Will you support the Digital Foundry team?
Digital Foundry specialises in technical analysis of gaming hardware and software, using state-of-the-art capture systems and bespoke software to show you how well games and hardware run, visualising precisely what they're capable of. In order to show you what 4K gaming actually looks like we needed to build our own platform to supply high quality 4K video for offline viewing. So we did.
Our videos are multi-gigabyte files and we've chosen a high quality provider to ensure fast downloads. However, that bandwidth isn't free and so we charge a small monthly subscription fee of $5. We think it's a small price to pay for unlimited access to top-tier quality encodes of our content. Thank you.Support Digital Foundry