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Tech Analysis: Sunset Overdrive at E3 2014

Digital Foundry goes hands-on with Insomniac's colourful grind-'em-up.

One of the breakout hits of this year's E3, Sunset Overdrive's blend of bandy-legged acrobatics and toonified gunplay drew some of the longest queues of the show. It's just the sort of vibrant exclusive Microsoft needs, but - given Xbox One's performance issues with the similarly effects-heavy Dead Rising 3 - can the console actually deliver this anarchic visual style at a stable frame-rate? As well as analysing Microsoft's E3 conference footage, we go hands-on with the game's show-floor demo to evaluate the state of its current build.

First up, developer Insomniac Games has been very upfront about the technical setup of its platform shooter. Running from an in-house engine, brand development director Rob Schneider admits the game operates at a native 1600x900 with 30fps as its refresh target. With post-processing AA and full-screen motion blur in effect though, the depreciation from a full native 1080p frame-buffer isn't always noticed here in practice - it's still a fine looking game. Even so, long views of Sunset City's skyline lack the clarity seen in similarly post-processed titles, including inFamous: Second Son.

But even with resolution dropped to 900p, performance is a nagging concern during our hands-on with Sunset Overdrive at E3 - a Chaos Squad co-op match involving eight players defending a central point. The Wondertown Land level shown here uses a similar fairground theme as the E3 conference demo, but with effects engulfing the screen far more incessantly during play. As a result of all the rapid rail-grinding and TnTeddy explosions from all sides, the frame-rate is distinctly in the 20-30fps range at most points. Given the arcade-focused approach of the game, this unfortunately adds a huge sense of weight to the controls and makes hops between rails trickier to land.

"Sunset Overdrive's acrobatic moves and effects-heavy weaponry are pure eye-candy, but taxed the Xbox One hardware in the E3 build."

Performance analysis of Sunset Overdrive at Microsoft's E3 conference, revealing a 30fps target is in place. Drops to as low as 22fps are on record here during effects-heavy moments - tallying with our hands-on experience with its multi-player Chaos Squad mode.

Our frame-rate analysis of Microsoft E3 briefing segment shows similar performance issues, but these rarely last for quite the same durations. For the record, our analysis is based on full 60Hz captures taken on-site, derived from an uncompressed source. In short, full direct feed from the game itself - assuming it is in fact a real-time in-game playthrough.

It's worth pointing out that there's some evidence to suggest that the 'live' demo is being mimed to canned footage - a trick often used at E3 to avoid embarrassing technical hiccups. Nevertheless, the footage is transparent about where and when the engine struggles, with frame-rate drops easily detected by our tools. Specifically, the bigger lulls in performance crop up around heavy eruptions of effects, swathes of enemies filling the screen, and also physics-based action - such as the crumbling castle tower towards the end.

At its worst is a drop to 22fps during a combination of all these stress points. Sunset Overdrive also employs a very light adaptive v-sync, allowing the screen to very subtly tear within the top 10 per cent of the screen. Fortunately we count only a handful of genuine torn frames during the entire single-player session - something never visibly detected during our hands-on. It's an interesting technique that can help reduce latency - in a 30fps v-sync game, the developer has 33.3ms to render a frame. If it's running slightly over budget, the next frame will render at 50ms - by flipping the framebuffer late, latency can be decreased and stutter reduced.

Insomniac Games' superb post-process effects can help disguise these frame-rate lurches, but only to an extent. We have full-screen and per-object motion blur on show here, each smoothing over sub-30fps performance during whip-camera motions. From a spectator's perspective, this adds a much-needed filmic note to the game - but with such a varying level of performance, timing and landing jumps remains a challenge with the controller in hand.

"One of the breakout hits of this year's E3, Sunset Overdrive's blend of bandy-legged acrobatics and toonified gunplay drew some of the longest queues of the show."

But at the heart of the game is its massive world crammed with small details - bounce pads, balloon stalls and Ferris wheels that open up traversal options. Each of these interactive, moving parts allows you to stay airborne or remain grinding in a circuit to build up style points - and with no obvious LOD pop-in appearing even at break-neck speeds. The specifics of texture and shadow filtering remains to be seen, but one plus is the use of real-time reflections extending far across the waters, even at a distance.

Other high points are in the post-effects department. There's a taxing chromatic aberration effect when close to heavy explosions, a stylish form of distortion causing edges to split into bands of red, green and blue. Equally, during night stages we have an eye-catching anisotropic lens flare effect - allowing light to bleed horizontally from each light source. All these tricks add hugely to the sense that this is a title designed for new cutting-edge hardware.

Despite the current issues in the performance department, alpha effects remain at full resolution. As we spring between the car bonnets and umbrellas of Sunset City's fairground, plumes of fire and the gunge-like effusions from enemies erupt in clear, unadulterated form. It could be argued that curtailing alpha quality here would alleviate these issues - particularly in less predictable eight-player exchanges. But given the huge emphasis on effects as part of Sunset Overdrive's comic-inspired aesthetic, the overall image quality would arguably suffer too much for it.

All in all, it's a promising initial splash for Insomniac Games' sprightly new Xbox One exclusive. The current performance issues are an obvious concern given the game's demand for careful timing - particularly when jumping between grind points - but the pay-off is a shooter that exudes pyrotechnic visual flair at every turn. Insomniac has no plans to increase rendering resolution, so the return of Kinect GPU resources to game-makers in combination with a concerted push for optimisation could help to even out performance, making Sunset Overdrive very much a game to look out for.

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Thomas Morgan avatar

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.