We went to E3 looking for the software pay-off to the Xbox One X hardware reveal and emerged baffled by the lack of games - specifically, the true 4K titles promised from so much of the marketing. These titles do exist, they are coming, but for now, the only taste we have is the brilliant Forza Motorsport 7. And there's no doubt about it, Turn 10's latest series entry is beautiful on Xbox One X - but does it have the 'highest quality pixels' anybody has ever seen? One year on, Project Scorpio's most infamous meme and its connection to Forza Motorsport can finally be explained.
It starts with the basics - target resolution and frame-rate. Turn 10 always renders natively, it's a key component of the Forza franchise aesthetic. It's a point that Studio Software Architect Chris Tector brought up when Digital Foundry visited the developer at the end of March.
"For us, we've always tried to hit native resolution because we want to have surface valuations happening per pixel, because we have these hard, clean edges," he explained. "Even at 4K we still have a little bit of aliasing, but that's the type of stuff that we get to work on heading into the future... I know there's other techniques and other people will want to use them for their quality decisions but for us, being able to get those little streaks of specular you'll get off the track. These are like pixel level things or sub-pixel levels things you'll kind of miss out on when you get into approximations that aren't running at native resolution."
Tector is the man behind a thousands GIFs - he is indeed the talking head on last year's Project Scorpio reveal video, discussing those now iconic 'uncompressed pixels'. In putting that video together, each participant sat down in turn in front of the camera, and were encouraged just to talk about Scorpio and their experiences of its development. It's fair to say that the subsequent editing robbed his comments of almost all of their context.
"It's what I was getting at when I said 'uncompressed pixels'. Even when you go to a movie at the theatre and it's projected at 4K, it's compressed and it's running at 24 frames a second," he says. "And games - just in general - games at 4K, they're natively rendered, right? They're the cleanest, uncompressed pixels that you can see and they're rendering at 60 frames a second - and the really cool part is that we're doing this for console gamers now. So rather than hoping you can afford a multi-thousand dollar PC that can achieve it, we're going to have people playing at console, native 4K, 60 frames a second. It's going to be awesome."
In effect, Tector is referencing the unique properties of 4K gaming - it's the only medium that can provide the cleanest presentation to an ultra HD screen. UHD Blu-rays, streaming media, even cinema digital projection - they are all based on sources using lossy compression. There is no compromised intermediate with gaming, everything is rendered directly from silicon to pixel. Turn 10 builds its titles around precision assets and the cleanest native rendering it can achieve within hardware constraints. The highest quality pixels? Well, the E3 demo's image quality is on another level.
From our perspective, what's fascinating is that so much has moved on since we saw a quick port of FM6-era technology running on prototype Xbox One X hardware, and as good as it was, you could see that anisotropic filtering wasn't as high as it could have been, while those hard edges did exhibit a touch of aliasing and shimmer in motion.
These artefacts are cleaned up in FM7, and the clarity of the image is quite breathtaking. The visuals pop, and sub-pixel elements - especially noticeable on the player car model and far-off environment detail - resolves with minimal pixel break-up. To get that level of fidelity at native 4K is hugely gratifying from a visual perspective.
But just as impressive is the implementation of full dynamic lighting, allowing for gradual time of day transitions as well as a full-on weather system - all real-time now, as opposed to FM6's baked, static equivalents [UPDATE 17/6/17 2:20pm: we'll need to look at our captures more closely, but transitioning between multiple baked lighting models may be how Turn 10 has achieved this - it's an approach most recently seen in Horizon Zero Dawn]. During our Turn 10 visit, we could see how the developers could tweak lighting and weather on the fly during runtime, as easily as a movie colourist grades footage. The Nurburgring is the host circuit for demonstrating both technologies in the E3 demo, where a grey, overcast day turns into a fierce thunderstorm, before subsiding into a clear skies sunset, the track illuminated by floodlights. Everything we'd want from dynamic weather is here in terms of effects, but also with water accumulation and some beautiful reflections in the puddles - check out the end of the gameplay footage to see this in full effect.
Forza Motorsport 7 isn't the first console game to implement dynamic lighting and weather, of course. Polyphony Digital gave it a shot in its last-gen Gran Turismo titles, while Project Cars features comprehensive support. The difference comes down to performance - just like prior Forza Motorsport titles, FM7's E3 demo delivers a locked 60 frames per second, a state of affairs that should persist across all content in the final game. The developer has the track record there, and we look forward to testing it.
During our visit to Turn 10, Chris Tector thanked us for our performance testing on their titles - they see it as independent confirmation of months and years of work that goes into delivering the smoothest experience possible on a 60Hz display. For us, the solid green line sitting at the top of the frame-rate chart measures and quantifies the look and feel of any absolutely solid gameplay experience, but for Turn 10, it's affirmation that all of the team's efforts have paid off - that the end-user receives the optimal experience they planned for.
Forza Motorsport 7 launches for Xbox One on October 3rd, meaning that we have a long month to wait before we can play the game on the more powerful X model. It's a shame that the standard version of the title wasn't at E3: Turn 10 talked about the overhead left over after a straight port of its code to Xbox One X, and we were looking forward to seeing how those additional resources would be deployed, and just how much of an upgrade the new machine offers over and above the resolution boost. We look forward to checking that out in future - in addition to the obligatory Gran Turismo Sport comparisons too.