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Elea: Chapter 1 Technical Review


You never get a second chance to make a first impression as the saying goes, is evidently true for many things and video games are no exception, well most of the time. With this true Indie title, which I will cover in a moment, that initial meet and greet can be a somewhat confusing affair. This is a psychological, exploration and puzzle game in the mold of the vanishing of Ethan carter or everyone’s gone to the rapture. This alone sets you up to expect a narrative driven and slow-paced game, the start though is almost a decent into madness with obvious screen glitches, sanity questions with a juxtaposition of flow that has you thinking something is very wrong, but it is all by design.

These moments could see come walk away from the game with a bad view and that would be wrong and a mistake. As once you have passed the starter, the main course in this episodic adventure leaves a much stronger impression. Designed from the ground up inspired by older Science-Fiction tales the team have created a very clear view of the future and embellished it with enough lore and reality to convince. The artistic direction has nods to 2001 at times with bright clinical corridors, grand planetary views and holographic androids dotted around the station. Crafted from scratch in Unreal Engine 4 on PC and Xbox Consoles it highlights the versatility of the engine and ease of use it can bring to smaller teams without big budgets and time, this is really a step back to the C64, ST & Amiga days as the lion’s share of the game has been made by just 2 friends in Bulgaria. I have a further video and article to come nearer the next chapter release where I get into how they created this, what challenges they faced in dual PC/Console development and how UE4 helped them achieve these results with a budget closer to a cheap getaway than large scale game development, time is of course largely the free part in this compared to other studios.

All that said results delivered are strong and have been led with an equally strong design aim. The first thing to consider is the sheer scale, depth of expertise and resources big budget games have, this is not to be linked with those or judged on that level. Instead it is likely as small a team you can get to make a game with the help of a separate publisher that provides much of the logistics, contacts and even developer kits to make console versions. Much like ID started out as a bunch of guys making games using other company’s equipment which I covered back in my ID tech retro story, this is a similar affair of game developers setting up their own development dream. The limitations are hidden well, animation and rigging models is one, something of a skill that is not so easily acquired in conjunction with animation programming that needs to sit alongside this. As such FPS works to keep this to a minimum and the model quality and motion is never given prolonged attention on screen so it never becomes a jarring issue. Many characters are sitting or walking away from you so you hardly have the option to stare. This is intelligent design, always work to your strengths and manage your weakness a great example of this is the original Toy Story minimised human faces throughout.

The variety of locations and detail contained is excellent, asset, materials and lighting are all very good and fitting of an Unreal 4 game. Physically approximate lighting models give a broad range of surface details and blemishes to convince. As does the lighting itself with per pixel managed in sections enabling contrast as lights flicker on or off, strong bloom, electronic glow and neon hues are dotted across this 1st chapter well. All are fully real-time and dynamic which is a requirement for the game and the artistic drive. One of the biggest reasons though is time, you see having real-time lighting improves iteration on the artist as no baking of light maps or GI is needed, instead areas can be built, tested, tweaked very quickly. Enabling lights to turn on, affecting surface details, shadows etc realistically and many light sources also cast shadows, giving you multiple in scenes and is why keeping shadows to minimum is advised on PC unless you have a beefy GPU. It also aids realism with the high gloss surfaces reflections and bounce are a key component to the visual style. All versions support screen-space reflections, SSAO not a common thing on consoles, certainly with the overhead of UE4 it runs well. The gorgeous use of particles and Bokeh sampled confusion zone Depth of field is another element to the visual quality, with it sampling from the depth buffer to shift focus from foreground or background accompanied by those lovely shapes it reminds of Alien Isolation, not a bad thing.

The use of motion blur, chromatic aberration is subtle and even on consoles you can adjust as required but you always need some of the cracking POMB in y opinion. Backing this up, even on the base Xbox is the option to target Performance or Quality, which means resolution setting and then frame-rate. Here you can have increased resolution which the option is then to cap at 30fps OR you can uncap this which then should have the resolution setting to Performance. This sets a dynamic scaling solution in conjunction with the temporal AA running from a base 1280×720 up to 1600×900 in addition some of the effects are reduced such as Screen Space reflection quality, lighting accuracy which can happen on a per scene basis. Being able to talk directly with the team has helped here as I have been granted access to some of the settings they use and how they manage them. It should come as no surprise then that memory management is vital on consoles, more so on the base Xbox model which limits both footprint and bandwidth for each effect, buffer size or scene. With a deferred engine reducing some elements enable them to use the EsRam for more Gbuffers which the much faster scratch pad of ram on die with the APU is reducing the store issue from the much slower DDR3 main unified Ram pool. Just highlighting one of many juggling acts and specific changes developers have to make for Consoles, in contrast the large pools of System and Vram on PC means that many sections of the game and rooms reside in memory with my often talked about streaming problem being far more common place and required for console development, something I will cover in more depth in a future article.

The X is the refined version of this, sporting a dynamic 3840×2160 down to a lowest 1920×1080 output, alongside the same choice of performance or quality, which itself is improved with higher resolution effects on SSR, AO and even texture mip bias enabling higher resolution versions further away from the camera. This sharper image and effects can be noticed of the bat and using a dynamic resolution is still the best use of the hardware combined with the engines excellent TAA makes for an obvious and welcome boost over the base version and close to the PC best. This does push on from here with higher resolution shadow maps, fixed resolutions and other subtle elements that again refine a great looking indie title. Unsurprisingly, above 60fps frame-rates are possible which will be welcomed by those of you with a 120 or 144Hz monitor and it even runs well on budget machines as demonstrated here on my old FX-8350 and GTX750Ti still pushing them frames well. A few tweaks see 1080/60 achieved but Ultra will introduce some judder and a 30fps rate which can be easily solved with more powerful GPU’s as this is not a CPU limited title even on consoles. It uses multi-core well threading the render, logic etc code being something the UE4 engine brings to all developers.

For such a small team, albeit, having worked on some big Ubisoft titles such as Black Flag and his partner Koralsky having worked for Sega, Nintendo and Ubisoft. These ‘brothers in arms’ (hence the studio Kyodai title, brother in Japanese) bring a great deal of experience and thus have a faster understanding of what a game takes to create. The results are excellent, obvious issues can occur from Texture streaming being a little too low for the relevant choice in the menu, the mentioned stuttering and frame-pacing issues at 30fps alongside the varied acting level with some voices clearly being from the amateur variety. All this should and can be forgiven for such a low budget game that still manages to outshine many more expensive projects from asset quality, story and certainly artistic aims and lighting. This is a £6 or £9 game on PC or Xbox that, despite some limitations on development kit access, still support the increased power of the X alongside allowing us, the player to choose between graphical quality or performance. They are busy working on chapter 2 and beyond which will increase the action, pacing and delve more into just what is going on in Elea mind and world. They plan to improve the memory management to better work on the consoles and UE streaming and LOD systems. All this would be an impossible task for 2 developers to achieve only a few years ago is now possible due to the AAA quality engine that is available for free to empower developers, visual scripting design, simple and efficient internal tools to enrich their games without the need to spend millions on developing their own, bespoke engine and that is nothing but a revolution. I am looking forward to playing part 2 and seeing just what it holds.

 

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Michael Thompson

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