The word “downgrade” has become popular lately, with certain areas of the press and many gamers as well, putting every new trailer and reveal of a hyped game under the microscope, looking for elements that could be seen as inferior to their counterparts in earlier reveals.
Of course Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End‘s first gameplay reveal is no exception. It’s a relevant first party exclusive, which makes it a juicy target, and the internet is full of improvised graphics experts calling this or that downgrade.
Fact is that this kind of operation is a rather shameful display of ignorance.
First of all, there’s no example of gameplay that the new reveal can be “downgraded” from. The first trailer was a cutscene, and comparing the visuals of a cutscene to gameplay is completely devoid of logic.
Cutscenes will pretty much always look beetter than gameplay. It doesn’t matter if the same assets (mainly textures and 3D models) are used. When creating cutscenes developers can afford piling on more effects and better shaders.
As a matter of fact, desiring visual parity between cutscenes and gameplay isn’t just pretty ignorant, but also self-defeatist. When cutscenes and gameplay look the same, it doesn’t mean that the developers did an incredible job with gameplay. It means that they didn’t do a very good job with the cutscenes themselves.
Cutscenes not only happen in a tightly controlled scenario, allowing for better optimization, but they normally show less characters, less objects and often a shorter draw distance, since the camera is oftem focused on the characters themselves.
This means that if cutscenes were made to look exactly the same as gameplay, there would be quite a lot of hardware power left completely unused during them, and considering that Uncharted games are strongly based on narrative, leaving all that juice just sitting there would be a clear disservice to those who purchased the game.
Now that we put this out of the way, let’s also address another rather relevant issue with this whole “downgrade ” mumbo jumbo.
Game development is a fluid environment. Developers constantly reassign resources to this or that feature in order to strike the best balance, and at times an effect gets assigned less rendering time or removed completely. When two versions of the same game run on the same machine, those resources don’t go unused, but they’re simply assigned to something else.
Cherry picking on some elements that might have been assigned less resources is extremely misleading, because those resources have probably been put into something else, balancing things out.
For instance, in Uncharted 4‘s gameplay presentation there’s an element that was improved rather massively from the first trailer. In the picture below you can see the frame of the trailer in which we can see the highest draw distance.
You’ll probably notice that it’s pretty short, with a lot of fog in the distance, which reduce the number of elements displayed rather radically.
Now give a look at the three screencaps from the new gameplay presentation below.
The draw distance is massively higher, giving us a rather fetching view of the island Drake is stranded on. The distance fog is also much subtler.
This is a perfect example of resources used in a way that improves visual quality and takes up a sizable amount of hardware resources, which were used elsewhere in the first trailer.
The point is that calling downgrades not only makes absolutely no sense when comparing a cutscene with raw gameplay, but it’s simply out of the league of anyone that isn’t deeply involved in the development of a game. You’d need a full polygon/texel count to even start understanding how the resources shifted from a feature or effect to the other balance out, and whether it’s a “downgrade” or actually an upgrade.
And you’d only scratch the surface, as many upgrades are designed to improve the visuals of a game rather subtly, without necessarily announcing themselves with fanfares every time they appear on the screen.
If you want to know what kind of subtle details have been creates to make Uncharted 4 look stunning, you can check some out here. In the meanwhile, it seems that the game is well positioned to be one of the most beautiful titles of 2015.