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Ride 4: is this really the next level in photo-realism?

The viral video looked incredible, but what about the game?

Is this truly "4 real" as the tagline says? Last week, a video of motorbiking sim Ride 4 went viral - with many millions of Twitter and YouTube views on an upload by YouTuber Joy of Gaming. On the face of it, it's easy to see why, when you consider the beautiful, dynamic, near photo-realistic footage playing out in first-person 'helmet' view. Based on Unreal Engine 4, the combination of the camera, physics, motion blur, lighting and materials all impress - but to what extent does it push back the boundaries or rendering technology. Does the game live up to the hype, or have we seen it all before with DriveClub Bikes?

There are a couple of key points with Ride 4 worth stressing. First of all, it's not a new game - it came out last year and its next-gen patch arrived a little after launch. It's just that the viral video has done a remarkable job in bringing the game to the attention of the audience some time after the fact. Secondly, in terms of the presentation itself, what we're seeing here is a combination of factors that combine to create something magical - and a key aspect of that isn't actually the technology at all, but rather the gaming ability of the player. The truth is that Ride 4 is a brutally hard, unforgiving and occasionally unfair game. Part of that is because of the simulation angle - motorcycles are less forgiving when travelling at speed over uneven ground and this translates to the game. Beyond that, rival bikes can crash into you from behind with the AI occasionally getting a bit overzealous at the starting grid. Some races simply open out with the player being clattered at the green light.

Ride 4 analysed in depth on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, with Tom Morgan and Alex Battaglia assessing the game in the wake of its viral video showcase.

Moving on to Ride 4's technical chops, a key component in portraying realism is movement - and the dynamic replay camera used in the viral video does a brilliant job of depicting speed and momentum. However, it's worth stressing that in-game, Ride 4 presents a much more stable, conventional camera - a must for the sake of comfort and playability, really. While the replay camera could theoretically be used in-game, player might feel disorientation if played too long this way - given the velocity of the camera movement. In the replay, the camera logically shifts and pivots as the bike-rider repositions on the seat for a turn. Every lean adds to the adrenaline as you turn a corner. Also, braking forces the player to 'rise up' to put weight on the rear, more-so than the regular gameplay camera. The camera shakes aggressively, too - there's a connection with the ground and you feel connected with the track. So many driving games get this wrong but it's a key part of the immersion here.

It doesn't end there. Colour grading is also first class. Lighting, materials and post-process grading all help to create life-like results, especially at speed. We first saw this game demoed on a drizzly, overcast circuit (NorthWest 200 in Northern Ireland) passing through a village. At this pace it's hard to see anything uncanny, especially as all level geometry is created through CAD data via laser-scanning the environment, all of which whip by at speed. The action plays out at 60fps (internal resolution seems to resolve typically at 1512p on both PS5 and Series X), which further adds to the immersion - as does the fact that wing mirrors also run at full frame-rate. There are some cool touches beyond this as well, such as animated brake fluid splashing about realistically in the reservoir up front, while the container itself shakes, almost like it's vibrating to the surface, wind and engine rumble. Again, it adds to that feeling of being grounded to the track, connecting the bike to the terrain. The windshield also picks up on oncoming rain. Even the biker's fingers raise and fall with gear changes, albeit with a slightly robotic movement.

The video that started it all - Joy of Gaming's phenomenal Ride 4 replay showcase.

Where Ride 4 isn't quite so successful is more in the incidental details, but the most major issue are the screen-space reflections, which are crying out for RT alternatives. Because reflections can only be rendered from elements on-screen, there are obvious discontinuities, especially visible when turning corners. In regular gameplay, Ride 4 looks much less convincing, in part because of more static camera but also because the stage chosen in the viral video. The upside is it chooses to focus on a duller, overcast, colour graded aesthetic that's easier to capture in current game engines, while also hiding issues with shadows and lighting. The emphasis on specular detail, in its wet roads and slicked tyres, favours today's modern rendering techniques, and glosses over the need to present pixel-perfect lighting across all materials in direct sunlight. As a result, inevitably in other brighter circuits, Ride 4 loses much of its photo-realistic effect - effectively it becomes a game again, albeit a very handsome one.

Of course we've been here before in DriveClub Bikes - a DLC for the PS4 cult classic racer. The question being, how much of an evolution is Ride 4 overall, given the seven year gap between releases? Truth is, for many, it will be difficult to test because the game was delisted back in 2019, along with the Bikes DLC, meaning the only way to access it is if you bought the game already and grabbed the bikes update when it was available. There are obvious similarities between the two however; both incredible material work and phenomenal rain simulation ae present. Clearly though, Ride 4 benefits from running on more powerful hardware, with a 4K target and 60fps, while DriveClub remains stuck at 1080p30. Also, Driveclub suffers for some rather limited bike geometry and poor anisotropic filtering by today's standard - though features similar liquid physics on the brake fluid reservoir. DriveClub's screen-space rain splatter gets a bigger emphasis than Ride 4's too, which might have added to the immersion.

All round, it's been interesting to take a look at Ride 4, for a number of reasons. First of all, it's good to revisit a game that we missed covering back at launch - and the sheer response to Joy of Gaming's YouTube video is as good an excuse as any to go back and take a look at a game that is certainly very impressive, even if its photo-realistic achievements are fairly limited in the context of the overall game. Secondly, it's good to take stock of where we are when assessing the state of the art in graphics rendering - and remember, the latest generation has only just begun, with the full capabilities of new hardware barely tapped into. With that in mind, we can't wait to see what comes next.

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About the Author
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.

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