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Digital Foundry: Hands-on with Uncharted 4 multiplayer

Dissecting the 60fps difference at the Paris Game Show.

The Uncharted series' excellent multiplayer is back, but not the way we left it. For the first time, Uncharted 4 ramps its online play up to 60 frames per second (up from solo mode's 30fps) and having played it extensively at this week's Paris Games Show, the upgrade is tangible. The code on the showfloor was pre-alpha, but even this early on, the 60fps target clearly makes a difference for a mode with a competitive slant - an important part of giving us the tightest controller response possible. It's also fair to say a doubling in refresh means visual priorities are re-ordered here, particularly compared to what we've seen of its gorgeous solo adventure. But from what we've played, is that really a problem?

The Paris build throws us into a detail-rich jungle level, fronted by a sharp cliff edge. It's a staple Uncharted setting, a sprawl of trees, flooded recesses, and twisting pathways - with an ancient ruin at its centre. Each portion is already memorable, but in terms of its core tech, Naughty Dog's choice to move to 1600x900 for multiplayer doesn't hamper its presentation. Paired with the studio's post-process anti-aliasing, it's fair to say the image isn't as sharp as what we've seen of the single-player so far, built from the ground up with a native 1080p. But in attaining its target 60fps, a drop to 900p makes sense as a trade-off in multiplayer.

Indeed, the team's art design still shines through brightly, and this build is likely to improve even further by release. As it is, this jungle map is filled with conifer leaves that bend and flinch around the character's legs, backed by some on-point lighting and effects. The layering of foliage detail is very impressive, and PS4 is clearly pushing this aspect harder than previous Uncharted games - especially in multiplayer. The ground is packed with detail, and elsewhere we see atmospheric effects like trees blowing in the wind, and pollen particles floating in the air. It adds a sense of liveliness to the map, even when the action slows down for a spell.

As with the solo gameplay shown at the PlayStation Experience event in 2014, we again see bounce lighting in use across each surface and plant, suggesting a form of global illumination is in play. Naughty Dog's HDR implementation produces some nice results too, and it often goes hand-in-hand with the full volumetric light shafts that stream from the mountainside. Even when the sun is occluded by objects, these light volumes fill the screen-space realistically.

Just how much can Naughty Dog cram into just 16.7ms of render time? Here's an in-depth video breakdown of the developer's pre-alpha footageWatch on YouTube

Shadow quality isn't its strongest suit however. Though reasonable for a 60fps multiplayer game, there are some obvious cases of dithering across shadow edges, and shadow pop-in is visible beneath plants as we run through thickets. But on the whole, the visual setup still impresses even at this stage. There are even cases of physics-based interaction, meaning chip damage takes effect on ruinous structures. Much like the single-player game, not all forms of cover are safe. We did see some minor glitching with a destructible wall in this pre-alpha, causing the middle portion to break, while its top layer remained suspended mid-air. But again, this is par for course for the multiplayer mode's first ever showing.

Another stage was shown at Sony's Paris presentation - a town area not playable on the show floor. As the camera moves around this map, we see plenty of animated meshes in play across the world again, and level of detail pop-in is also somewhat minimal in this case. Lighting again is a high point, and a view from the window showcases the impact Naughty Dog's lighting model has on atmospheric rendering. Sunlight appears to have real volume, playing across drifting particle effects - and bouncing off foliage and structures as well. Some depth is missing in some shots, hinting at a lack of ambient occlusion as we pass a police car for example, but the potential for this stage is huge.

As for performance, we have two takes on the state of Uncharted 4's multiplayer frame-rate right now. A dramatic cut of action was released by Naughty Dog shortly after the event, showing bombastic in-game footage from cinematic angles. Running this section through our frame-rate analysis tools, the results are interesting, though clearly this sequence would stress the engine more than a regular run of play. The 60fps target isn't hit in this video very often; it strays below the 50fps line, and sometime under 40fps too. But that's not the whole story.

For the single-player game, Naughty Dog remains at 1080p but caps performance to 30fps. Based on this E3 analysis, we're already looking at a hard lock to that target frame-rate.Watch on YouTube

Thankfully, the Uncharted 4 build we played on the show floor at Paris Games Week actually turns in a more consistent 60 frames per second. There are still dips below 50fps in the playable build but it's nowhere near as inconsistent as the pre-release media implies. As a milestone in development, it's interesting to see this video, perhaps showing this multiplayer mode at a much earlier stage. However, already we've seen much smoother results in person - and from the show floor, 60fps is hit most of the time, with occasional dips lower.

Backed by a great use of object motion blur, the results are perceptibly smooth in this jungle level, and give us nothing close to the stuttering play of the video. That said, we experienced one case of a similar drop - an anomaly we couldn't repeat again - giving a sensation of play closer to 45fps. This occurred in a central jungle spot where previously we saw no drops whatsoever, and yet out of the blue it began to stutter quite heavily for a long stretch. It's a symptom of an early build, and otherwise gameplay proved very smooth. The ability to run, roll, and adjust the aiming reticle at a 60Hz refresh makes a world of difference compared to previous Uncharted multiplayer modes. Even in this early form, the promise of sharper, more responsive movement makes sense, especially given this mode's rapid pace.

All of which is to say, Naughty Dog's bid for 60fps multiplayer is convincing so far, but understandably requires further optimisation. The story of Uncharted 4's progression towards a rock-solid lock on 60fps continues this December, when the beta hits. However, what this early taster demonstrates is that the move to 900p is a brave compromise for this, and ultimately a good choice for the multiplayer experience. Crucially the visuals still shine; from the sheer volume of particle effects (including explosions, smoke clouds, and debris) to the lighting model instated across the jungle map. As things stand, Naughty Dog has chosen its trade-off well, radically improving frame-rate while retaining many of the graphical features of the single-player game. It's a fine sample of what to expect in the upcoming beta, and we look forward to bringing you more in-depth coverage there as soon as we can.