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Anthem's E3 demo analysed: BioWare takes Frostbite into new territory

A new kind of extreme detail open world.

Anthem's return at E3 2018 was just as spectacular as its debut a year earlier, and last week, Electronic Arts posted a full 20-minute gameplay video of the latest demo - with developer commentary, no less. Presented in full 4K, the firm shared a source quality version of the asset with us, allowing us to take a closer look at the game's Frostbite foundations, and compared to other EA titles using the tech, we're witnessing a use of the engine quite unlike anything else we've seen before. Developer BioWare isn't talking about performance targets, but the sheer intensity in detail, and the integrity of the open world suggests that this will likely be a 30fps game on consoles - and an interesting counterpoint to the 60fps heroics of Battlefront and Battlefield.

And this makes the content of the demo all the more interesting in that you can't help but wonder - what kind of hardware is running it? Will consoles be able to deliver this level of fidelity? EA tells us that it's the PC build running here, controlled with an Xbox pad - hence the standard console button prompts. For the record, the E3 hands-on ran on dual GTX 1080 Ti GPUs, albeit at 60 frames per second at full 4K.

Apart from what looks like a very short pre-rendered cinematic right at the beginning of the presentation, this is indeed full, real-time gameplay. It's running at 2160p, but curiously, the tell-tale stippling on edges associated with checkerboarding is also present, just like the initial reveal at the Microsoft conference shown at E3 2017. This commonality suggests Xbox One X as the actual host platform, but EA double-checked for us and re-confirmed that this is indeed the PC version featured in the capture, which makes the checkerboard-like artefacts a rather odd feature.

Also curious is that some visual effects aren't enabled in the demo footage, but did seem to be enabled in the PC demo we played during E3, so maybe the demo code is tuned to console settings? Regardless, Anthem is delivering some seriously impressive visuals, wonderful art design and some lavish rendering. That starts in the opening cutscene inside the mobile command base: the density of geometry inside the immediate environment is seriously impressive. Characters in particular shine as they showcase lots of additional detail fleshed out with real geometry, to the point where individual buttons are round - actual models rather than textures. It's the same story with the surrounding environment, with even the most insignificant knick-knacks looking fully rounded out. Even the wires and hooks hanging from the ceiling are real 3D geometry. Of course, it is an enclosed and controlled space, but even really superfluous things the team could have easily left as flat textures have a nice 3D roundness to them.

Cover image for YouTube video[4K] Anthem Demo Analysis: A New Direction For BioWare... And Frostbite?
A closer look at the technical attributes of BioWare's highly impressive Anthem gameplay demo.

More of Frostbite's post-processing effects are deployed more lavishly too. Bokeh depth of field is used to highlight foreground detail more effectively, and an impressive number of shadow-casting light sources are used that help to emphasis asset quality, particularly on characters and the quality of their skin rendering. But it's the open world of Anthem in the demo that looks especially impressive.

While large view distances are common in Frostbite games it's the density of the vegetation seen here, the distance at which shadows are rendered and the generally unobtrusive nature of LOD switching that impresses. Pop-in is kept to an absolute minimum here, to the point where it took some serious eye-balling to pick up any kind of foliage draw-in. The colour palette, lighting, camera angles and some genuinely impressive asset management at the engine and art level help to deliver a convincing, contiguous world that minimises the typical artefacts that can compromise immersion.

On top of that, as the Battlefield games have demonstrated, on top of the macro-level world building, the micro-level detail is well taken care of as well. Anthem makes heavy use of displacement-based tessellation on its ground surfaces. Rocks look rounded while other small ground detail looks to be rendered with the same technique, making the terrain appear naturally dense, without the typical flatness you can see in other games that tend to use normal maps and plain textures for the ground terrain.

Vegetation is also top-notch, with densely packed, individual leaves with a waxy Fresnel sheen on light-facing surfaces. All foliage seems to cast shadows well into the distance, making the green parts of the world look connected with the ground instead of just wispily floating over it. The quality and density of the foliage really communicates the old overgrown and abandoned world aesthetic I think the team is going for - I am curious what this will look like on the base consoles though, as they have not had the best track record with vegetation and LOD rendering distances this generation.

Cover image for YouTube videoAnthem Full Gameplay Demo — E3 Best Action Game Winner
The full, unedited 20-minute demo with developer commentary.

Anthem is quite rightly being lauded for its visuals, and it's already an impressive achievement, but based on our E3 playthrough on the PC version, Frostbite may have even more to offer for truly high-end hardware. Screen-space reflections aren't present at all during the demo, for example, but are running in the initial pre-rendered cinematic and did seem to be enabled during our E3 demo hands-on.

Animation with regards to vegetation and foliage is another area where perhaps more could be done - rendering is excellent, but physics-driven interactions in the demo footage are limited to a small amount of 'sway' and the odd moving bush as the mech walks through it. More action-orientated animation - caused by an explosion, for example - looks minimal. Geometry-based water splashes also seem to be limited to one scene in the demo, and curiously absent elsewhere. Our hope is that Anthem scales even further on higher-end hardware and Frostbite certainly has a track record of delivering additional features on PC.

Based on what we're seeing here, Anthem's impact one year on from its initial reveal remains undiminished, and as a late-gen Frostbite title, it's great to see the technology being pushed in new directions, backed by some truly beautiful art design. Yes, it's open world and yes, there are strong hints of Destiny here - but the emphasis on extreme detail, plus the freedom of flight and a unique focus on verticality really sets it apart. It's a remarkable technological statement, to the point where it's just a case now of seeing just how well the visuals we're seeing here will scale across the multiple platforms the game is set to arrive on. With Gamescom next month, we really hope to spend a little more title with the game and fingers are crossed that we'll get to go hands-on with a console build - Xbox One X would do nicely! - to set the stage for the full rollout due in February next year.