It is no secret that I prioritize graphics over gameplay. I make no apologies for this. It’s just the way I enjoy games. One need only take a read of my top 5 Skyrims mods to figure that out (hint: they’re all graphics mods). I’m constantly looking for our industry to push technology, to push what is technically possible on consoles and especially on PCs. I crave progress.
It is with this mindset in hand that I look to The Elder Scrolls Online. Let us look at what we know first, for that will give us a good foundation from which to build on. For instance, we know that the game will release in spring 2014, barring any delays. We also know that ZOS wants the game to be able to run on five year old machines. Finally, we know that DirectX 11, the incredibly popular and powerful high-level API from Microsoft, has reached a certain stage of maturity. The next gen consoles will only make DX11 all that more pervasive, much to my great pleasure.
It is with these bits of information that we can begin to mold a level of understanding and expectation regarding the visuals of ESO. Lest we forget, there are many screenshots released by ZOS. Although these screenshots are taken from older builds of the game, it suits our purpose of performing a rudimentary yet satisfactory analysis of the visual fidelity of ESO. With that in mind, let us take a look at the three graphical features I find most compelling from material provided thus far.
God Rays and Post Processing
This is a great image to begin our analysis. There are many things at play here. If you are technically inclined with an eye for visuals, perhaps the most obvious feature on display here are the god rays streaming through the trees towards the right hand side of the image. In most games, god rays are a post-process effect. Meaning, the image is first rendered to a buffer into memory, and then pixel shaders are used to apply filters to that buffered image before outputting the image to the screen.
God rays are all the rage nowadays. This author admits obsessing over them, especially since the ones in Crysis 3 are true volumetric god rays (meaning the god rays are actual “beams” of light with physical properties and not simply a post effect). My obsession aside, god rays allow for a few things. They help sell that fantasy feel as well as adding that extra flourish. They’re quite beautiful…if done correctly.
Depth of Field
This next image provides us with another feature called depth of field. This effect is noticeable towards the right hand side of the image where the buildings are slightly out of focus when compared to the Nord in the foreground. Depth of field is a technique used extensively in film. In fact, it is something your eyes do every single day.
Don’t believe me? Hold out your hand roughly six inches away from you. Look past your hand at something in the distant. You’ll notice your hand blurs out of focus. Now look at your hand. The background should now blur as your focus has shifted to your hand. That’s depth of field. It’s an incredibly cinematic and realistic effect that’s featured prominently in ENB. Of course, some players may not like it. Like a few games out there now, I can see this effect being used when the player talks to an NPC. The talking NPC would be in focus while the background blurs, focusing the player’s attention onto that NPC. It’s pretty effective and is used in many games out there now.
This is a great image to show the effect of ambient occlusion. Of all the “next gen” effects shown in various upcoming titles, ambient occlusion is simultaneously the most subtle, but the most recognizable. This may sound contradictory so it’s perhaps best explained this way. If you don’t have an eye for graphics and technical minutia, you won’t really notice the absence of ambient occlusion in games today. One need only look to the vanilla version of Skyrim. However, as soon as ambient occlusion is added, the entire image looks far more realistic and you get a much greater sense of depth. Once that effect is removed, you will notice.
So, just what exactly is ambient occlusion? In essence, ambient occlusion tries to approximate the realistic behavior of light, especially off of traditionally non-reflective surfaces such as skin. This is especially true in the image above. The Altmer’s face has realistic looking self-shadows because of ambient occlusion. The engine attempts to mimic the realistic behavior of light by taking one pixel and then taking sampling of pixels around it. If it finds an occluder, for example, the ridge of a nose, it will then cast that pixel “darker” than surrounding pixels. In effect, ambient occlusion is a crude approximation of global illumination. This is admittedly a layman’s description of the effect, but you get the idea. If implemented correctly, it’s incredibly stunning.
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And there you have it. I have no doubt there are other graphical flourishes that will reveal themselves in public beta and indeed the final build of the game such as high resolution textures, antialiasing, incidence refraction and the like that are more difficult to discern in static screenshots. So far though, as a graphics purist, I’m quite impressed with the visuals we have been shown so far. ESO looks like it’s taking full advantage of DirectX 11 – and for good reason. Graphics are always something I crave. A game can never look “too good” for me. Pushing the limits of technology is a necessity in our industry. I for one am looking forward to more DX11 goodies from ZOS. You can bet that when the game launches proper, I will be taking an extensive look at the graphics of ESO.
Shadow hide you.